Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 23, 2013

Kerry Misreads Palestinian Unrest

In recent weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry has taken to warning Israel that if it doesn’t give away more of its positions in the peace talks with the Palestinians, it will face a third intifada. Though it is unlikely that any Israeli concessions would be enough to convince Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas that he should risk everything by ending the conflict, Kerry’s threat is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though this may not be his intention, by speaking in this manner Kerry is sending a clear message to the Palestinians that any violence will be considered justified by Washington. The question is, do a string of recent events indicate that the Palestinians are listening to him?

Yesterday, Israelis celebrated the quick wits of a bus driver whose alert reaction saved the lives of his passengers after a bomb was discovered on the vehicle. The terrorist attack failed, but the prospect of a return to bus bombings—this was the first such attempt in over a year—was a reminder that Palestinian terror groups are poised to return to violence. But rather than this constituting an incentive for Israel to bend to Abbas’s demands, the ferment in the territories shows just how unlikely it is that the PA is strong enough to make the decision to make peace or to defend it against opponents.

While the mainstream international press continues to parrot Kerry’s line about the PA being a peace partner, the rumblings in the Palestinian street indicate, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reports, that Abbas’s Fatah Party wants no part of the talks:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may soon have to come up with a new plan to help Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas solve internal problems in ruling his Fatah faction.

The only plan that Kerry has thus far proposed is one that talks about future security arrangements between a Palestinian state and Israel. What Kerry and the State Department are probably unaware of is that Fatah, Israel’s “peace partner,” is in urgent need of a plan to rid it of its internal disputes. What the U.S. seems not to understand is that a weak, divided and discredited Fatah will never be able to sign any agreement with Israel. A series of events over the past few weeks have left many Palestinians wondering if Fatah will ever be able to recover and rehabilitate itself in the aftermath of its defeat by Hamas in the January 2006 parliamentary election. These events have also raised questions as to Abbas’ ability to rein in and control his own loyalists in Fatah. Abbas, it seems, has lost control not only over the Gaza Strip, but also his Fatah faction.

As Abu Toameh notes, the expulsion of a leading activist and member of the Palestinian parliament from Fatah illustrates the false premise at the heart of Kerry’s quest. If Abbas is not able to command the loyalty of his own faction, its difficult to imagine how he could ever sell peace to a Palestinian public that continues to view radical factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad with favor.

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In recent weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry has taken to warning Israel that if it doesn’t give away more of its positions in the peace talks with the Palestinians, it will face a third intifada. Though it is unlikely that any Israeli concessions would be enough to convince Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas that he should risk everything by ending the conflict, Kerry’s threat is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though this may not be his intention, by speaking in this manner Kerry is sending a clear message to the Palestinians that any violence will be considered justified by Washington. The question is, do a string of recent events indicate that the Palestinians are listening to him?

Yesterday, Israelis celebrated the quick wits of a bus driver whose alert reaction saved the lives of his passengers after a bomb was discovered on the vehicle. The terrorist attack failed, but the prospect of a return to bus bombings—this was the first such attempt in over a year—was a reminder that Palestinian terror groups are poised to return to violence. But rather than this constituting an incentive for Israel to bend to Abbas’s demands, the ferment in the territories shows just how unlikely it is that the PA is strong enough to make the decision to make peace or to defend it against opponents.

While the mainstream international press continues to parrot Kerry’s line about the PA being a peace partner, the rumblings in the Palestinian street indicate, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reports, that Abbas’s Fatah Party wants no part of the talks:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may soon have to come up with a new plan to help Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas solve internal problems in ruling his Fatah faction.

The only plan that Kerry has thus far proposed is one that talks about future security arrangements between a Palestinian state and Israel. What Kerry and the State Department are probably unaware of is that Fatah, Israel’s “peace partner,” is in urgent need of a plan to rid it of its internal disputes. What the U.S. seems not to understand is that a weak, divided and discredited Fatah will never be able to sign any agreement with Israel. A series of events over the past few weeks have left many Palestinians wondering if Fatah will ever be able to recover and rehabilitate itself in the aftermath of its defeat by Hamas in the January 2006 parliamentary election. These events have also raised questions as to Abbas’ ability to rein in and control his own loyalists in Fatah. Abbas, it seems, has lost control not only over the Gaza Strip, but also his Fatah faction.

As Abu Toameh notes, the expulsion of a leading activist and member of the Palestinian parliament from Fatah illustrates the false premise at the heart of Kerry’s quest. If Abbas is not able to command the loyalty of his own faction, its difficult to imagine how he could ever sell peace to a Palestinian public that continues to view radical factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad with favor.

The Fatah activist in question is Jamal Abu al Rub, who goes by the charming nickname of “Hitler” among fellow Palestinians. Abu al Rub apparently beat up Arafat ally Jibril Rajoub and paid for it with his Fatah membership card. But apparently many in Fatah, especially in the Jenin area, back “Hitler” and the blowback from the confrontation may not be over.

This development may be unrelated to the recent upsurge in violence in the West Bank against Israelis, rocket firings from Gaza, or the bus attack yesterday that was publicly applauded by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But added together they point to the fact that there is little appetite among Palestinians for any concessions on Abbas’s part that would make peace possible.

Despite Kerry’s focus on what Israel should be giving up in the talks, their success still hinges on Abbas’ giving up Palestinian demands for a “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees and the PA being willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Since Abbas has not indicated any willingness to do either of those things and has repeatedly refused to do the latter in principle, its hard to imagine the talks Kerry has sponsored succeeding.

The prospect of another intifada should rightly worry the United States as well as Israel, but if Kerry is really concerned about nipping it in the bud he is going about it in the wrong way. The only way to ensure that Palestinian violence won’t bubble over into another terrorist offensive in which Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad will compete is to make it clear to Abbas that such a turn of events would be more dangerous for his tenure than the peace he seems to fear so much.

Abbas is giving every indication that he is too weak to make peace, but he is not so weak that he can’t defend his rule against dissidents if it came to it. But instead of pushing him to take decisions that are bound to strengthen Hamas, this is the moment when Kerry should be sending a message to the Palestinians that if they resort to violence, all bets are off. Absent that, and with the U.S. acting as if they will blame Israel rather than Abbas for the all-but-certain failure of the peace initiative, Washington may be setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to an explosion that neither Kerry nor Abbas will be able to control.

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Globalization and Democracy Can Coexist

Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

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Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

Despite the fact that militaries could hardly be called agents of reform, middle classes in many developing nations, both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, often continued to support the armed forces as potential antidotes to popular democracy–democracy that might empower the poor, the religious, and the less educated. In this way, Egyptian liberals’ concerns about the fruits of democracy were not unique. Overall, in fact, an analysis of military coups in developing nations over the past twenty years, conducted by my research associate Daniel Silverman and myself, found that in nearly 50 percent of the cases, drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for the coup or, in polls or prominent media coverage after the coup, expressed their support for the army takeover.

Kurlantzick’s expression “the fruits of democracy” captures well the fear of being, not to put too fine a point on it, looted. Diehl, who uses the term “elite revolt” to characterize the latest round of uprisings, puts it similarly:

So why are they rebelling? Because globalization is not merely an economic story. It is accompanied by the spread of freer and more inclusive elections to dozens of countries where they were previously banned or rigged. That has enabled the rise of populists who cater to globalization’s losers and who promise to crush the old establishment and even out the rewards. In country after country, they’ve succeeded in monopolizing the political system. Hence, the elite revolt.

Diehl offers up Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as a cautionary tale. And while the original framing of the issue puts more onus on the well-to-do (with great power comes great responsibility, and all that), this seems to even things out a bit. It’s understandable that a new middle class would be opposed to empowering the next Hugo Chavez.

So all this seems to suggest that maybe states like China have it all figured out: maybe the combination of democratization and globalization is too powerful for the two events to take place simultaneously. But this argument is missing an ingredient, and it’s one Kurlantzick glances at but doesn’t dwell on: stability. That’s clearest when looking at Russia’s Putin-era backsliding on democracy. Nobody’s wealth is safe without political stability.

But this, to me, is ultimately an argument in favor of globalization and democratization–as long as the term “democratization” means more than just elections, and globalization means more than just money. In April 2012, I quoted the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer discussing the report that perhaps a majority of Chinese millionaires prefer to live in the United States to their home country, and it’s worth re-quoting here:

And yeah, it’s about quality of life. Yeah, it’s about the environment. Yeah, it’s about opportunities for their kids. It’s also about no rule of law in China and worrying about corruption and the sanctity of their assets over the long term. Your assets are okay tomorrow. The United States, we’re over-litigious. China doesn’t have that problem. You don’t have to worry about lawyers in China. You have to worry about someone ripping off your stuff or being forced out of the country or not being heard from again.

In some very real ways, it doesn’t matter how rich China gets if those with all the money will only park it in New York City. The same goes for Russia, though proximity to Europe seems to predispose that money toward London’s banks. But both New York and London are in the West, and both are in democracies (at least until the European Union gets its way). Because even the messiness of democracy–true democracy, with free institutions and the rule of law–provides more long-term stability than the arbitrary governance of autocracy.

Bremmer predicated his quote by saying we have to watch what people do with their money, not rely on what they say. And his point was that the elites in authoritarian countries are trying to protect their assets from their own country’s government–the very government that has enriched them and which speaks in their name. The “elite” can revolt all they want to protect themselves, but even when they successfully grab the reins of power, without the rule of law they still end up looking for a way out.

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More Christmas Lies from Palestinians

It’s a Christmas tradition in Ramallah. Following the same pattern first established by his predecessor Yasir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas uses his annual Christmas holiday message to claim that Jesus was a Palestinian and his group is following in his footsteps. But rather than a piece of harmless pandering to the West or a bizarre excess of holiday spirit, this ridiculous assertion tells us more about the Palestinians’ mindset and the prospects for peace than the optimism Secretary of State John Kerry has been slinging recently.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas greeting Monday, calling Jesus a “Palestinian messenger” and implying that Israel persecutes Christians.

“As we Palestinians strive for our freedom two millennia later,” he wrote in a statement, “we do our best to follow his example. We work with hope, seeking justice, in order to achieve a lasting peace.”

This is a political version of replacement theology in which the Jews were viewed as having been superseded by Christians in their covenant with the Almighty. But this is not merely a matter of faith but an attempt to write the Jews out of their own history. Doing so isn’t just a swipe at the Netanyahu government but an attempt to depict the Palestinians as the true heirs to the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth, and thus depict the six million Jews of Israel as colonial usurpers stealing the heritage of others. The use of this lie isn’t merely offensive, it also illustrates how deeply engrained the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy is in Palestinian culture.

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It’s a Christmas tradition in Ramallah. Following the same pattern first established by his predecessor Yasir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas uses his annual Christmas holiday message to claim that Jesus was a Palestinian and his group is following in his footsteps. But rather than a piece of harmless pandering to the West or a bizarre excess of holiday spirit, this ridiculous assertion tells us more about the Palestinians’ mindset and the prospects for peace than the optimism Secretary of State John Kerry has been slinging recently.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas greeting Monday, calling Jesus a “Palestinian messenger” and implying that Israel persecutes Christians.

“As we Palestinians strive for our freedom two millennia later,” he wrote in a statement, “we do our best to follow his example. We work with hope, seeking justice, in order to achieve a lasting peace.”

This is a political version of replacement theology in which the Jews were viewed as having been superseded by Christians in their covenant with the Almighty. But this is not merely a matter of faith but an attempt to write the Jews out of their own history. Doing so isn’t just a swipe at the Netanyahu government but an attempt to depict the Palestinians as the true heirs to the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth, and thus depict the six million Jews of Israel as colonial usurpers stealing the heritage of others. The use of this lie isn’t merely offensive, it also illustrates how deeply engrained the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy is in Palestinian culture.

However one approaches the narrative about Christianity’s origins, there is no doubt that the historical Jesus was a Jew, not an Arab. The only point of transforming him into a Palestinian Arab is to hijack the history of biblical-era Judaism in order to burnish the myth that current-day Jews have no place in the land of Israel. That this is a transparent and gross falsehood has not prevented this assertion from being a staple of Palestinian propaganda.

Just as false is the other part of Abbas’s message:

Abbas took the occasion to decry Israel’s security policies, saying, “this Christmas Eve, our hearts and prayers will be with the millions who are being denied their right to worship in their homeland.”

“We are thinking of our people in Gaza, trapped under siege, and of those who are prevented from worshiping in Bethlehem,” he said. “Our hearts and prayers are with the people of Al Dbayeh Refugee Camp in Beirut, along with all of our Palestinian refugees — Christians and Muslims uprooted from their hometowns in 1948 and who, since that time, have suffered the vicissitudes of a forced exile.”

The persecution of Christians in the Arab and Muslim world is widespread and has become the subject of increasing concern on the part of Western Christians, such as Britain’s prince of Wales. But the Palestinians have attempted, with the complicity of local Christian authorities desperate to curry favor with the Muslim majority, to deflect responsibility for the way Islamists have marginalized or forced Christians to emigrate from the territories to Israel. Though Christians remain a small minority in Israel, they have full rights even if the Jewish majority is still uncomfortable with the display of Christian symbols, as the Knesset’s reluctance to display a Christmas tree illustrated.

But here again Abbas is playing the rejectionist card by alluding to the descendants of the 1948 refugees that he claims are being prevented from worshipping in “their homeland.” The point of bringing those refugees to Israel isn’t to worship but to attempt to reverse the verdict of history on the events of 1948, another sign that Abbas is too weak to sign a peace deal that would end the conflict, even if he continues to insist that he wants a state along the 1967 lines. Moreover, no one should be fooled into thinking that the Christian Arab minority among Palestinians are equal partners with the Sunni Muslim majority. To them they are nothing more than dhimmi–a protected but unequal minority. For all of the tension between Jews and Arabs, it is only in democratic Israel that Christians have complete religious freedom in the region. The video released by the PLO (that Abbas heads) in which a Christian figure, whether the pope or Jesus, travels the land witnessing supposed Israeli atrocities before smashing through Israel’s security fence is more fodder along these lines.

We can hope that one day Abbas or one of his successors will mean what they say about peace on earth during the Christmas season. We’ll know that they are serious when they stop pretending that Jesus was a Palestinian. Until then, it’s clear that for the Palestinians, Christmas is just another day on the calendar whose purpose is to delegitimize Israel and to deny Jewish history and rights.

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Rolling Our Eyes at Obama

President Obama is now in Hawaii–but before he departed Washington he gifted us a 62-minute press conference.

In the past, I might have been inclined to show point-by-point why many of Mr. Obama’s statements qualified as ludicrous, unfair, misleading or outright false–including the president claiming Syria and Afghanistan as foreign-policy successes; impugning the motives of those who want stronger sanctions against Iran; insisting that the basic structure of his health-care law is working; referring to the sequester cuts his administration originally proposed as being “damaging” and which “created headwinds for our economy”; and declaring that 2014 can be a “breakthrough year for America.”

But in the wake of what Mr. Obama said on Friday, my reaction was more to tune him out, to dismiss him as an increasingly small and marginalized figure, as a man who is playing a game the rest of us are opting out of.

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President Obama is now in Hawaii–but before he departed Washington he gifted us a 62-minute press conference.

In the past, I might have been inclined to show point-by-point why many of Mr. Obama’s statements qualified as ludicrous, unfair, misleading or outright false–including the president claiming Syria and Afghanistan as foreign-policy successes; impugning the motives of those who want stronger sanctions against Iran; insisting that the basic structure of his health-care law is working; referring to the sequester cuts his administration originally proposed as being “damaging” and which “created headwinds for our economy”; and declaring that 2014 can be a “breakthrough year for America.”

But in the wake of what Mr. Obama said on Friday, my reaction was more to tune him out, to dismiss him as an increasingly small and marginalized figure, as a man who is playing a game the rest of us are opting out of.

Think back to the guy in high school–let’s call him Barry–who, when he first meets people, sells himself as something special. He’s gifted with words and makes fairly exorbitant claims about what we can expect of him. And many of his classmates believe him. But over time they observe that he falls consistently short in every arena. He’s academically mediocre, not outstanding; he finishes in the bottom half of the track meets we’re told he’ll excel in; and while he’s in the school play, it’s as a secondary figure. 

Here’s the thing, though: He never stops talking. He’s filled with excuses. He’s constantly reweaving events to make himself look good. He keeps making promises, lovely and extravagant promises, but they’re devalued and emptied of meaning. Barry is just being Barry. Don’t take him seriously. He’s just a talker.

It strikes me that more and more Americans are now viewing the president in a similar fashion. They’ve seen the Obama act for five long years, and it’s become tiresome. We’re on to the verbal tricks, the stale formulations, the endless straw men and unmatched sense of moral superiority. We’ve figured out that the reality has never come close to meeting the expectations and promises. And so words that had a magical effect before now elicit a roll of the eyes. Barry is just being Barry. Don’t take him seriously. He’s just a talker.

For many Americans, that’s where Barack Obama finds himself at the end of his fifth year in office. Can he recover?

The guy in high school never did.

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Haaretz’s Holocaust Revisionism

A new level of vileness has been reached in the pages of Haaretz. It has already published work extremely critical of the State of Israel–even running columnists that support boycotting the state. But regardless of one’s opinions on the Palestinian issue, the paper has now shown that it exists in a world entirely divorced from any Jewish consensus, and cannot claim the title of loyal opposition. It has crossed all prior bounds of decency and published a criticism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, calling it a “myth,” and accusing its heroes of being responsible for the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto. Despite disagreements on diplomatic, territorial, and religious issues, the memory of the Holocaust–its heroes and victims–had been the great unifying porch in post-War Jewish consciousness. Now the Holocaust is fair game too.

The article’s argument is that maybe if the fighters had not been so uppity, if they had not made a fuss–then the Nazis, who had already murdered 500,000 Jews of Warsaw, might have let the remaining 50,000 live. Maybe! It is not a new argument. Rather, the author amazingly resurrects and endorses the arguments of the Judernat, the Jewish collaboration government of the Ghetto. With every new deportation, they urged restrain with increasing urgency–maybe they will let the rest of us live, and if you fight, all the past deportations would be a sacrifice in vain.

There can be no more terrible case of “blaming the victim” than laying any responsibility for the liquidation of the Ghetto at the feet of the fighters.

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A new level of vileness has been reached in the pages of Haaretz. It has already published work extremely critical of the State of Israel–even running columnists that support boycotting the state. But regardless of one’s opinions on the Palestinian issue, the paper has now shown that it exists in a world entirely divorced from any Jewish consensus, and cannot claim the title of loyal opposition. It has crossed all prior bounds of decency and published a criticism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, calling it a “myth,” and accusing its heroes of being responsible for the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto. Despite disagreements on diplomatic, territorial, and religious issues, the memory of the Holocaust–its heroes and victims–had been the great unifying porch in post-War Jewish consciousness. Now the Holocaust is fair game too.

The article’s argument is that maybe if the fighters had not been so uppity, if they had not made a fuss–then the Nazis, who had already murdered 500,000 Jews of Warsaw, might have let the remaining 50,000 live. Maybe! It is not a new argument. Rather, the author amazingly resurrects and endorses the arguments of the Judernat, the Jewish collaboration government of the Ghetto. With every new deportation, they urged restrain with increasing urgency–maybe they will let the rest of us live, and if you fight, all the past deportations would be a sacrifice in vain.

There can be no more terrible case of “blaming the victim” than laying any responsibility for the liquidation of the Ghetto at the feet of the fighters.

It is true, the Jewish “communal leadership”–and the rabbis–opposed the uprising. That is what made it brave. The Judenrat had no right to decide if residents of the Ghetto died in gas chambers or fighting for their freedom.

Of course, Haaretz wants to be “edgy,” “iconoclastic,” and debunk cherished myths. But despite the article’s headline–“The Warsaw Ghetto Myth”– it reveals no myths at all, only a lack of precision where we always knew it existed. It claims that it turns out that not many people participated in the uprising–a well-known fact. Then it attempts to introduce confusion by saying the precise figures are “murky,” and endorses the low-ball estimates based on the recollections of one person. Playing such counting games is vile. No one knows the number of participants, just as no one knows the number of Holocaust victims. And “revising” such vague numbers downward is now the standard canard of Holocaust deniers.

Again, the small numbers do not “debunk” any myths–they reinforce them. This was a small group of young people who bravely risked capture and death by slow torture, in contradiction with the collaborationist leadership that had thus far been wrong about everything.

Ultimately, the article’s target is not really the Holocaust. The author objects to the glorification of the glorified by the Zionist movement in the early years of the state. Perhaps the fighters should have awaited deportation and seen themselves as “sacrifices for peace,” to use the buzzword of the Second Intifada.

No doubt this is why Haaretz has, somewhat oddly for a newspaper, chosen to revisit the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The newspaper has long tried to persuade Jews in Israel that they need no longer fight–they can trust someone to save them. John Kerry is coming to Jerusalem next month with just such a pitch. In order to advance their political agenda, the newspaper does not stop at besmirching one of the proudest pages of our history, nor at aligning themselves with the most shameful, the Judenrat.

The sanctified memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not based on its military significance, its size–or its conformity to the Zionist ethos. Rather, it is the considered, consensus judgment of Jewish history that the fighters were right.

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What Khodorkovsky Knows About Freedom

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, until last week Russia’s most famous political prisoner, gave an interview to a group of Russian-speaking journalists in Berlin over the weekend that showed both why he was such a threat to Vladimir Putin and why he is no longer such a threat. The New York Times has a translation of the interview, and it’s notable for both his clear-eyed understanding of the politics of freedom as well as his personal modesty inflected with a sense of defeat.

The most obvious reason Khodorkovsky was a threat, of course, was money. He was an oligarch in the most important industry–oil–and therefore was in position to test Putin’s autocratic tendencies. Khodorkovsky was emblematic of virtually every aspect of the new Russia: the concentration of wealth thanks to what economist Marshall Goldman has called the “piratization of Russia” after the fall of Communism, the bare-knuckle business world of the Yeltsin years, and the strongman politics of Putin’s reassertion of state power and control.

When Khodorkovsky challenged Putin in the political sphere–virtually unavoidable for an oilman in the era of pipeline politics–Putin made him pay the only way an unreformed KGB thug knows how: he stole everything of Khodorkovsky’s and locked him up on trumped-up convictions after a show trial. Now that Khodorkovsky has been freed as part of Putin’s pre-Olympics public-relations campaign, will Khodorkovsky–once considered the best hope for the opposition, and a far more appealing candidate than the nationalist Aleksei Navalny–rejoin the political sphere? Probably not:

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Mikhail Khodorkovsky, until last week Russia’s most famous political prisoner, gave an interview to a group of Russian-speaking journalists in Berlin over the weekend that showed both why he was such a threat to Vladimir Putin and why he is no longer such a threat. The New York Times has a translation of the interview, and it’s notable for both his clear-eyed understanding of the politics of freedom as well as his personal modesty inflected with a sense of defeat.

The most obvious reason Khodorkovsky was a threat, of course, was money. He was an oligarch in the most important industry–oil–and therefore was in position to test Putin’s autocratic tendencies. Khodorkovsky was emblematic of virtually every aspect of the new Russia: the concentration of wealth thanks to what economist Marshall Goldman has called the “piratization of Russia” after the fall of Communism, the bare-knuckle business world of the Yeltsin years, and the strongman politics of Putin’s reassertion of state power and control.

When Khodorkovsky challenged Putin in the political sphere–virtually unavoidable for an oilman in the era of pipeline politics–Putin made him pay the only way an unreformed KGB thug knows how: he stole everything of Khodorkovsky’s and locked him up on trumped-up convictions after a show trial. Now that Khodorkovsky has been freed as part of Putin’s pre-Olympics public-relations campaign, will Khodorkovsky–once considered the best hope for the opposition, and a far more appealing candidate than the nationalist Aleksei Navalny–rejoin the political sphere? Probably not:

Q: Are you going to be involved in politics?

A: I am not going to be involved in politics as a fight for power. But if we are talking about the fight for liberation of political prisoners, not just the Yukos ones … how can I behave otherwise? I don’t think that even our power would expect me not to do it. Not to do or say anything.

But in the larger sense I have a position which I don’t think was the reason for my arrest, but nevertheless I declared it back in 2002-3. I think the Russian problem is not just the president as a person, the problem is that our citizens in the large majority don’t understand that their fate, they have to be responsible for it themselves. They are so happy to delegate it to, say, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and then they will entrust it to somebody else, and I think that for such a big country as Russia this is the path to a dead end. Which, in a particular fashion, is where we are now.

You have to explain, “Hey, guys, if you want to live in a democratic country, you have to change the system.” I always took the stand that Russia has to be not only really democratic, but a parliamentary system, or — for the start — a parliamentary-presidential situation.

And the problem is not just that the present government doesn’t like this, the current society doesn’t like it. And you have to persuade it.

Putin can breathe a sigh of relief, one supposes, that he will not be opposed by Khodorkovsky, though it’s not as though Khodorkovsky has many options. For now, he probably can’t return to Russia at all, let alone regain the financial clout necessary to have a singular voice in Putin’s Russia. It’s no surprise that Putin won this battle; the deck was, and remains, stacked against his opponents. Khodorkovsky has been left without much of a venue or platform for political activism, even if he’s become an icon of those hoping for a freer Russia.

At the same time, the Russian opposition would do well to take Khodorkovsky’s advice. He understands that Putin is the main obstacle to democracy, but not the only obstacle. He elaborates more on this point later in the interview, and offers a glimpse of just how potent an opposition figure he could be:

Q: Does the opposition in Russia have any future, and who is the main person there?

A: I don’t agree with the very paradigm of the juxtaposition of Putin versus an opposition leader. And the most important person in the opposition, I don’t agree with this paradigm. If you have a most important person in the opposition, as a result you will get another Putin. Maybe not us but our children. Vladimir Vladimirovich is a healthy man. So it could go on for a long time.

I think the opposition will be real when the society will acquire a need for self-governance, to take its fate in its own hands. And there will not be the very main person to whom we entrust our future. But there will be different structures, parties, deputies and so on — those people whom we as citizens and voters will appoint. Or control. They will represent our interests, and when they will stop representing our interests, we will remove them. But not one person.

At present, the perspective of opposition is not very strong, particularly because this request in the society is articulated pretty weakly, although much more strongly than it was 10 years ago.

There is a difference between freedom and self-government. They are intertwined, but they are not the same thing. Freedom is a noble goal, and in 2013 it is long overdue to those who want it. True freedom must be political, however, and not just personal. Without political freedom, there is no way to safeguard any other kind of freedom.

That’s been the lesson of Putin’s Russia. Putin’s grand bargain with the Russian people was that they could have their American movies, their Italian operas, their French wine, their German cars–they just had to stay away from Russian politics. But of course businessmen–like Khodorkovsky–as well as artists, teachers, musicians, and the like ended up in prison. Journalists too, though too often they were simply eliminated.

Khodorkovsky’s advice for Russians who truly want to be free is to replace the system, not just replace Putin. It’s easier said than done, of course. But he is also probably correct that those who invest their hopes in one person are bound for disappointment. And perhaps some jail time.

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Why Do Human Rights Groups Punish Access?

Human-rights groups are an important component of civil society, even if the best-known groups—Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and various United Nations offshoots—corrupt their mission by conflating human rights with politics.

As corrosive a trend among human-rights organizations is their punishment of access. Simply put, the more open a society is to its critics, and the more access it grants outside observers, however tendentious they might be, the more human-rights organizations condemn them relative to societies which engage in large-scale abuse but slam the door to outside observers.

Much has been written about the disproportionate opprobrium reserved for Israel. Back in 2011, Alana Goodman observed:

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Human-rights groups are an important component of civil society, even if the best-known groups—Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and various United Nations offshoots—corrupt their mission by conflating human rights with politics.

As corrosive a trend among human-rights organizations is their punishment of access. Simply put, the more open a society is to its critics, and the more access it grants outside observers, however tendentious they might be, the more human-rights organizations condemn them relative to societies which engage in large-scale abuse but slam the door to outside observers.

Much has been written about the disproportionate opprobrium reserved for Israel. Back in 2011, Alana Goodman observed:

In 2010, HRW published 51 documents on “Israel and the Occupied Territories,” more than on any other country in the Middle East. Compare that to the organization’s research on some of the most notorious human rights abusers — it published only 44 documents on Iran, 34 on Egypt, and 33 on Saudi Arabia.

Not much has changed. So far in 2013, HRW has issued 14 press releases condemning Israel for various policies or abuses, and six press releases condemning the Palestinian Authority or Hamas leadership in Gaza. All five commentaries HRW published bashed Israel, or called on other countries to take a harsher line toward the Jewish state.

Compare that with Jordan (nine press releases, and four commentaries, three of which called for more acceptance of Syrian refugees); Lebanon (nine press releases and two commentaries, both of which focused on Syrian refugees); or Qatar (two press releases and five commentaries). True, there was more focus on Egypt and Syria this past year, but comparing countries with coups and civil wars to the region’s only democracy underscores the point. So too does the fact that criticism of Saudi Arabia has increased as that kingdom has granted human-rights groups more access.

Israel is not the only country penalized by the access it grants outsiders. King Muhammad VI has steadily liberalized Morocco since taking the throne in 1999 after the death of his father, King Hassan II. Since that time, HRW has issued four reports critical of Algerian human-rights abuses (and a fifth critical of Algerian cooperation with the United States), while it has issued three times that number criticizing Morocco. Make no mistake: Algeria has a far worse human-rights record, with a downward trajectory while Morocco has acknowledged past abuses and worked—quite successfully in most cases—to overcome them.

Nor is it just the Middle East where this pattern exists. In the past five years, HRW has issued four reports about Colombia where human rights have steadily improved, but only two about Venezuela, where Venezuela’s socialist leaders have pushed human rights into the gutter. Likewise, over the past five years, HRW has issued one report about Belarus but five about Georgia.

The U.S. State Department is guilty of the same pattern when it writes its annual human-rights reports. Here, there is no better example than the discrepancy in how the State Department treats Morocco, a loyal and increasingly progressive U.S. ally, and the Polisario Front, an autocratic Cold War throwback which imprisons not only Sahrawi tribal members in refugee camps in the Western province of Tindouf, but also Mauritanians and Algerians it has captured in order to swell refugee numbers. The Algerian government and Polisario both have a policy of refusing to allow residents to return home to Morocco, which has welcomed anyone who wants to come (there are very limited family visits, but usually Polisario holds family members hostage to ensure that men and women return to their spouses and children rather than remain in Morocco). While historically, the U.S. Embassy in Rabat handled the Polisario camps, in recent years the U.S. Embassy in Algiers has taken over the responsibility. Herein lays the problem: The U.S. Embassy in Algiers is either unable to visit the camps, or unwilling to antagonize the Algerian government with which it must work for fear of making an issue of the camps. The end result is that the State Department annual human-rights report is hypercritical of Morocco, effectively punishing it for its openness, while giving the Polisario Front effectively a clean pass by omission.

That the lesson governments might take from the practices of both human-rights organizations and the State Department is that the way to a clean bill of health is to restrict access is unfortunate. Human-rights officials might enjoy hanging out more in Casablanca, Rabat, Tel Aviv, Tbilisi, and Bogota rather than spending their time being harassed by police and security services in Minsk, Gaza, Caracas, Algiers or Tindouf, but they are doing themselves and their organizations a disservice by taking the easy way out. Fortunately, countries like Israel, Morocco, Colombia, and Georgia seem committed to doing the right thing regardless of how their critics treat them. Still, that the pattern of punishing access exists is undeniable and should provide pause for the human-rights organizations, for the existence of such a pattern corrupts the end result and gives countries reason to dismiss all reporting as arbitrary and not based on set standards.

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When Democrats Fight About ObamaCare

Today was supposed to be a red-letter day for ObamaCare supporters. December 23 was the deadline for Americans to enroll in the Affordable Care Act so as to be covered by the start of 2014. While the White House has attempted to spin the uptick in enrollment in December as a victory, the disastrous rollout of the scheme as well as the need to postpone enforcement of a number of the mandates the law created an enormous shortfall in the number of Americans signing up for the plan. That’s a big problem for the administration, but one it hopes it can overcome eventually by better marketing (cue the “pajama boy”) to young and healthy consumers who will be exploited in order to fund the program’s benefits to the sick and the poor. But a real warning sign of the political trouble ObamaCare has created for Democrats is being illustrated in deep-blue Maryland.

As Politico reports, problems at the state health exchange created there have been an embarrassment for officials in Annapolis as well as an indication of the general dysfunction of the new health-care rules nationally. But instead of it just being a club for Republicans to beat the president’s party with, it has become an issue for Democrats too. Attorney General Doug Gansler is using the chaos at the Maryland exchange as a campaign issue against Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown in their primary matchup for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Brown is the chair of the state panel on ObamaCare implementation whose efforts Gansler has likened to a Saturday Night Live skit.

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Today was supposed to be a red-letter day for ObamaCare supporters. December 23 was the deadline for Americans to enroll in the Affordable Care Act so as to be covered by the start of 2014. While the White House has attempted to spin the uptick in enrollment in December as a victory, the disastrous rollout of the scheme as well as the need to postpone enforcement of a number of the mandates the law created an enormous shortfall in the number of Americans signing up for the plan. That’s a big problem for the administration, but one it hopes it can overcome eventually by better marketing (cue the “pajama boy”) to young and healthy consumers who will be exploited in order to fund the program’s benefits to the sick and the poor. But a real warning sign of the political trouble ObamaCare has created for Democrats is being illustrated in deep-blue Maryland.

As Politico reports, problems at the state health exchange created there have been an embarrassment for officials in Annapolis as well as an indication of the general dysfunction of the new health-care rules nationally. But instead of it just being a club for Republicans to beat the president’s party with, it has become an issue for Democrats too. Attorney General Doug Gansler is using the chaos at the Maryland exchange as a campaign issue against Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown in their primary matchup for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Brown is the chair of the state panel on ObamaCare implementation whose efforts Gansler has likened to a Saturday Night Live skit.

Observers could dismiss Gansler’s attack as the desperate ploy of a faltering candidate hoping to cripple the frontrunner. But the fact that ObamaCare failures have become a source of friction between Democrats is significant. So long as the president and his cheerleaders in the media could dismiss the focus on the problems and broken promises connected to the legislation, they could hope to ride out the storm and eventually reap the political benefits of the program’s delivery of benefits to the poor. But if the ObamaCare fiasco becomes a talking point for Democratic primary candidates, even if they support the bill in principle, a critical point has been reached.

Gansler was once thought to be the favorite to succeed Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley next year. But the state attorney general was humiliated by the release of a photo showing that he was present at a high school beach party where drinking may have occurred as well as by allegations of misuse of his state trooper detail. With Gansler dropping, Brown has received endorsements from most of his party’s power brokers and is now the likely successor to O’Malley. But the ACA mess is a liability for him:

After vowing to make deep-blue Maryland an ACA success story, Brown – and O’Malley – watched with dismay as the website for the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange floundered, allowing fewer than 4,000 Marylanders to enroll in insurance plans by the end of November. The executive director of the state exchange resigned at the start of December.

It’s not clear that the ObamaCare mess will hurt Brown enough to affect the primary scheduled in June. But the Brown campaign’s response to Gansler’s attacks seems to be straight out of the unsuccessful playbook employed by the White House in recent months against Republicans. Merely hoping that everything will be cleared up in time to save his political bacon is hardly a stirring example of Brown’s leadership or of the prospects that ObamaCare will eventually succeed there, or in any other state.

But the main point to be gleaned from this race is that if ObamaCare has become a point of contention between Democrats, then it’s all but inevitable that it will be a potent issue for Republicans next fall. The health-care bill has never had the support of most Americans and polls show the number of those disapproving of it continues to grow.

The ranks of those citizens who stand to lose coverage or have their health-care costs increase as a result of it are also growing. That creates a large constituency of critics that include many Democrats. That means Gansler won’t be the only Democrat seeking to make political hay out of these problems–and that, in turn, means big trouble in 2014 for the president and his party.

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Turkey’s Corruption Scandal Goes from Bad to Worse

Sometimes, bad things happen to bad people. I wrote here last week regarding the political civil war in Turkey which has erupted between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and followers of Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Many trusted Turkish interlocutors have written to expand on the topic, which has manifested itself as a bribery scandal. Erdoğan, in true banana republic style, reacted initially by seeking to sack the police chiefs overseeing the investigation. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now threatening to classify any information from the bribery scandal as a “state secret,” the publishing of which could be punishable as treason.

Several Turkish journalists and academics point out that the investigation appears to now focus on Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, and one of Erdoğan’s closest aides. Illegality or not, Bağış is one of the AKP’s least-liked figures. AKP colleagues, Turkish journalists, and both American and European diplomats describe him as boorish, arrogant, and a bit of a blowhard. He is also extremely litigious, and has sought to sue Turkish journalists and analysts who have touched on some of his shadier dealings. Now that the arrests have propelled discussion of AKP corruption to the forefront, Hürriyet Daily News discusses the case in a bit more detail. Not surprisingly, it involves several AKP officials seeking to profit off of Iran’s sanctions-busting “Gold-for-Gas” scheme with Turkey:

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Sometimes, bad things happen to bad people. I wrote here last week regarding the political civil war in Turkey which has erupted between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and followers of Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Many trusted Turkish interlocutors have written to expand on the topic, which has manifested itself as a bribery scandal. Erdoğan, in true banana republic style, reacted initially by seeking to sack the police chiefs overseeing the investigation. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now threatening to classify any information from the bribery scandal as a “state secret,” the publishing of which could be punishable as treason.

Several Turkish journalists and academics point out that the investigation appears to now focus on Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, and one of Erdoğan’s closest aides. Illegality or not, Bağış is one of the AKP’s least-liked figures. AKP colleagues, Turkish journalists, and both American and European diplomats describe him as boorish, arrogant, and a bit of a blowhard. He is also extremely litigious, and has sought to sue Turkish journalists and analysts who have touched on some of his shadier dealings. Now that the arrests have propelled discussion of AKP corruption to the forefront, Hürriyet Daily News discusses the case in a bit more detail. Not surprisingly, it involves several AKP officials seeking to profit off of Iran’s sanctions-busting “Gold-for-Gas” scheme with Turkey:

[Economy Minister Zafer] Çağlayan’s son was arrested during a corruption operation on Dec. 17, together with the sons of two other ministers;Environment and Urbanization Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar and Interior Minister Muammer Güler. The leaks, possibly from prosecutor’s office and police, to Turkish media claim that those ministers, plus Turkey’s European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış have been involved in facilitating the “business” of Reza Zarrab in Turkey by taking bribes and abusing their offices. The “business” is to transfer Zarrab’s money from gold trade over Turkey to Iran via the government-controlled Halkbank… the amount of the total bribery is reported in Turkish media to be as high as 142 million Turkish Liras, nearly $70 million….

Not mentioned in the Turkish press is the fact that the Obama administration issued sanctions waivers on Turkey’s business dealings with Iran because it concluded that the Turkish government was approaching the issue in good faith.

The wall of fear now seems to be breaking down. Newspapers journalists who once only whispered the truth about events in Turkey but whose employers would sanitize whatever they put in print, out of fear that the government might jail them or confiscate their newspaper, now publish what amounts to confessions about just how corrupt the AKP has become. Today’s Zaman, the English-language flagship paper of the Gülen movement, for example, wrote:

A foreign businessman who has been working in Turkey for over 10 years told me last week that he was not surprised at all by the allegations of corruption at the highest level. Without close connections in the ruling party and, apparently, big bribes, it was impossible to win any tender in the highly profitable energy sector, he explained.

The allegations of bribery and corruption are also starting to get too close to Erdoğan for his comfort. Supposedly, one element of the scandal is that the prime minister’s son, his wife, his in-laws, and some close friends set up a foundation last year for the “education of youth.” The foundation opened a residence for university students. Now it turns out the Foundation didn’t pay for the dormitory, but rather public money from the Fatih district municipality, which is headed by an AKP mayor now under detention. So what Erdoğan’s family did with the money they claimed was spent on the dormitory is an unanswered question.

The AKP has long claimed to have advanced Turkey’s democracy. If a core of democracy is rule of law, then Turkey now is put to the test.

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