Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 19, 2014

Obama’s Worthless Threats

Oh, my.

According to press reports,

President Barack Obama had condemned the violence in Ukraine, saying that the U.S. holds the government “primarily responsible for ensuring they are handling protesters peacefully” and that “there will be consequences if people step over the line.”

“We expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence,” Obama said after arriving in Mexico for a brief trade summit. “We expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful.”

Have more empty words ever been uttered by an American president?

In the aftermath of Mr. Obama telling the Syrian regime that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” and then doing nothing serious in response to it, the president’s latest threat is probably evoking belly laughs in Kiev.

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Oh, my.

According to press reports,

President Barack Obama had condemned the violence in Ukraine, saying that the U.S. holds the government “primarily responsible for ensuring they are handling protesters peacefully” and that “there will be consequences if people step over the line.”

“We expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence,” Obama said after arriving in Mexico for a brief trade summit. “We expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful.”

Have more empty words ever been uttered by an American president?

In the aftermath of Mr. Obama telling the Syrian regime that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” and then doing nothing serious in response to it, the president’s latest threat is probably evoking belly laughs in Kiev.

It’s clear that around the globe today, the person who is respected and feared and shaping world events is not Mr. Obama, who is seen as an impotent amateur, but the brutal Vladimir Putin, who is reasserting Russian dominance in Ukraine and the Middle East, among other places.

We all know Barack Obama is weak and essentially powerless; he simply makes things worse with his bluster. He’s a pushover, and the entire world–our adversaries and our allies–know it.  

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Free Speech and the Left’s War on AIPAC

The failure of the Senate to pass a bill authorizing additional sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail has emboldened some critics of the pro-Israel community. The inability of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to ensure the bill’s passage despite the support of a bipartisan coalition of 59 members of the U.S. Senate has some of the lobby’s detractors smelling blood even though it was unfair to expect it to prevail in the face of President Obama’s veto threats. Author and columnist Peter Beinart called last month for the administration to boycott the group’s annual conference next month and when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offended his liberal fan base by endorsing the group, the writer was among a host of left-wing celebrities who signed a joint letter warning the mayor that he risked their ire by aligning himself with AIPAC. That letter set off a controversy since two of those who joined with Beinart to denounce AIPAC were prominent Manhattan Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol. When some of their congregants at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun expressed their outrage at having their house of worship implicated in a scurrilous attack on AIPAC, Beinart, who mocked their support of Israeli democracy, in turn denounced them. Now Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former leader of the American Reform movement, has weighed in on the issue in an honorable attempt to try and put this matter in perspective in a Haaretz column and I believe his thoughtful article deserves a response.

According to Yoffie, both sides are well within their rights in this dispute. The rabbis were expressing a legitimate point of view and so were their congregants. While he sides with those who defend AIPAC, he took issue with my assertion that the claim that rabbis who wish to criticize Israel live in fear for their livelihoods is something of a myth. Yoffie believes such pressures exist and should be resisted. He wants all sides of the debate about Israel and AIPAC to speak up candidly for the sake of building a vibrant community where no one should fear to speak up. To a large extent I agree with that formulation. But the problem with the anti-AIPAC campaign as well as much of the efforts on the left to pressure or boycott Israel is that it is, at its heart, an attempt not to promote democratic discussion but to essentially disenfranchise Israeli voters and silence their American friends. That is why I must dispute Rabbi Yoffie’s effort to assign equal virtue to the positions of Beinart and the rabbis as well as to their critics.

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The failure of the Senate to pass a bill authorizing additional sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail has emboldened some critics of the pro-Israel community. The inability of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to ensure the bill’s passage despite the support of a bipartisan coalition of 59 members of the U.S. Senate has some of the lobby’s detractors smelling blood even though it was unfair to expect it to prevail in the face of President Obama’s veto threats. Author and columnist Peter Beinart called last month for the administration to boycott the group’s annual conference next month and when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offended his liberal fan base by endorsing the group, the writer was among a host of left-wing celebrities who signed a joint letter warning the mayor that he risked their ire by aligning himself with AIPAC. That letter set off a controversy since two of those who joined with Beinart to denounce AIPAC were prominent Manhattan Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol. When some of their congregants at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun expressed their outrage at having their house of worship implicated in a scurrilous attack on AIPAC, Beinart, who mocked their support of Israeli democracy, in turn denounced them. Now Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former leader of the American Reform movement, has weighed in on the issue in an honorable attempt to try and put this matter in perspective in a Haaretz column and I believe his thoughtful article deserves a response.

According to Yoffie, both sides are well within their rights in this dispute. The rabbis were expressing a legitimate point of view and so were their congregants. While he sides with those who defend AIPAC, he took issue with my assertion that the claim that rabbis who wish to criticize Israel live in fear for their livelihoods is something of a myth. Yoffie believes such pressures exist and should be resisted. He wants all sides of the debate about Israel and AIPAC to speak up candidly for the sake of building a vibrant community where no one should fear to speak up. To a large extent I agree with that formulation. But the problem with the anti-AIPAC campaign as well as much of the efforts on the left to pressure or boycott Israel is that it is, at its heart, an attempt not to promote democratic discussion but to essentially disenfranchise Israeli voters and silence their American friends. That is why I must dispute Rabbi Yoffie’s effort to assign equal virtue to the positions of Beinart and the rabbis as well as to their critics.

Rabbi Yoffie is right that some liberal rabbis who criticize Israel may worry about offending some of their congregants as do others who are, as he notes, pressured from the left to disassociate themselves from the Jewish state. But my point was not to deny that such rabbis have their critics but to point out that efforts to restrain them are almost universally ineffective, as the continued tenure of the B’nai Jeshurun rabbis illustrates. Moreover, my point was not merely about the way rabbis use their pulpits to undermine Israel but to highlight the fact that, contrary to the myth promoted by the left, such figures, be they clerics or not, are generally richly rewarded by the praise of the secular mainstream media. For a Jew to speak out against Israel and/or AIPAC is to invite praise from a liberal media that is always eager to lionize such critics and to falsely portray them as courageous.

It should also be pointed out that the anti-AIPAC letter signed by Matalon, Sol, and Beinart was not about promoting diversity of views or a debate about the peace process so much as it was an attempt to shun and delegitimize AIPAC and its supporters. Though Rabbi Yoffie believes the signers crossed no “red lines” of offensive conduct, I would insist that by seeking to demonize AIPAC, those letter-writers were reinforcing the offensive and bigoted stereotype about the pro-Israel lobby promoted by those who see it as a conspiratorial group that doesn’t really speak for Jews and manipulates U.S. policy against American interests. No one is saying that AIPAC’s critics don’t have a right to voice their differences with the group, but what they want is not so much to debate it as to destroy it. Much as one would wish to bridge such differences, this is one argument where both sides are not right. One must either defend the right of the pro-Israel community to speak out on behalf of the democratically-elected government of the Jewish state as the BJ congregants have done or one joins with those who wish to isolate and pressure it, whether to save it from itself as Beinart thinks or to destroy it as the open anti-Zionists who signed the anti-AIPAC letter seem to want.

What is at stake here is not a right to speak up against Israel and AIPAC but the ability of the pro-Israel community to survive an all-out attack designed to silence it. As Rabbi Yoffie eloquently states:

I don’t agree with AIPAC on everything, but I agree with them most of the time; and the harsh dismissal of AIPAC by the signatories to the letter troubles me greatly. A Washington without AIPAC would not mean an Israel at peace; it would mean an Israel isolated and vulnerable, lacking the anchor that AIPAC has long provided and without which peace would be impossible.

Freedom of speech is not an issue in a community where dissent against Israel is widespread and generally rewarded with praise while supporters are often dismissed as stooges or hypocrites. Those who would destroy what Yoffie rightly called “Israel’s safety net” are not going to be silenced, but they should be held accountable.

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From Kabul to Kiev

A subtle shift in the way Americans process foreign affairs has become apparent, and it’s one that will likely have far-reaching ramifications. That shift presented itself in two news stories today. The first was Gallup’s report that “For the first time since the U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, Americans are as likely to say U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as to say it was not.” And in fact those who thought it was a mistake had the one-point edge in the poll.

It’s a bit jarring: the desire to be out of Afghanistan is one thing, but Americans saying they wish we never went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban after 9/11 is really something else. It’s not war-weariness; it’s regret.

The other story was the continuing chaos in Ukraine. The death toll from the last two days of clashes in Kiev keeps rising, and the Ukrainian government seems to be losing even more control away from the capital. According to the New York Times, activists in Lviv, for example, claimed to have “taken control of the central government’s main offices in the region, resuming an occupation that had ended last Sunday. [An activist] said they had also raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the Ukrainian security service and several district police stations.”

The crisis in Ukraine is getting far more attention. This is perfectly understandable: central Kiev is ringed by fire and the images, and the action they depict, demand attention. The Arab Spring earned this kind of coverage as well (if not more, at least in Tahrir Square). But the juxtaposition of the two stories is what makes the shift feel more pronounced: the Arab Spring, after all, had direct relevance to the war on terror. Americans today are having a very different conversation about matters of war and peace from the one we’ve been conducting for over a decade.

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A subtle shift in the way Americans process foreign affairs has become apparent, and it’s one that will likely have far-reaching ramifications. That shift presented itself in two news stories today. The first was Gallup’s report that “For the first time since the U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, Americans are as likely to say U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as to say it was not.” And in fact those who thought it was a mistake had the one-point edge in the poll.

It’s a bit jarring: the desire to be out of Afghanistan is one thing, but Americans saying they wish we never went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban after 9/11 is really something else. It’s not war-weariness; it’s regret.

The other story was the continuing chaos in Ukraine. The death toll from the last two days of clashes in Kiev keeps rising, and the Ukrainian government seems to be losing even more control away from the capital. According to the New York Times, activists in Lviv, for example, claimed to have “taken control of the central government’s main offices in the region, resuming an occupation that had ended last Sunday. [An activist] said they had also raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the Ukrainian security service and several district police stations.”

The crisis in Ukraine is getting far more attention. This is perfectly understandable: central Kiev is ringed by fire and the images, and the action they depict, demand attention. The Arab Spring earned this kind of coverage as well (if not more, at least in Tahrir Square). But the juxtaposition of the two stories is what makes the shift feel more pronounced: the Arab Spring, after all, had direct relevance to the war on terror. Americans today are having a very different conversation about matters of war and peace from the one we’ve been conducting for over a decade.

The shift away from wars that are winding down anyway is natural, but the focus on Ukraine should be more than a space-filler or the crisis flavor of the week. Indeed, as the right debates the future of conservative foreign policy after Iraq and Afghanistan, Ukraine (and situations like it) represents an integral part that debate. That fact was not lost on Marco Rubio, considered a 2016 contender, who put out a statement today standing with the Ukrainian opposition and urging sanctions on those involved in government-sponsored violence.

But it would be a shame if the debate on the right ends there. These sorts of events are likely to intrude on a presidential election. That happened in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. John McCain, an experienced foreign-policy candidate with a particular distaste for Vladimir Putin, responded forcefully. Barack Obama, woefully inexperienced and confused by the issue, put out a bland statement urging restraint on both sides. Within a couple of days, Obama had changed his mind and began echoing McCain. The Russia-Georgia war, and the fraught history of the post-Soviet sphere, intruded on the campaign and Obama was completely unprepared.

But it’s not just the possibility of such violent flare-ups surprising the candidates while on the campaign trail. Ukraine represents the kind of conflict that is complicated and nuanced and does not involve an American military component. The Obama administration’s spectacular diplomatic failures should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of clinging to preconceived notions as a substitute for genuine curiosity about the world.

And how conservatives in general view such crises is probably as important now as it’s ever been. At no previous time have the Republican Party’s candidates been so responsive to the grassroots. (The party’s base might think those candidates are still not responsive enough, but that’s a different story.) Part of this has to do with the effect of social media and the breakdown of the GOP’s next-in-linism. Over at the Federalist, Ben Domenech gets at this point with regard to Rand Paul’s prospective candidacy:

Paul can control that aspect of how he presents himself. What he cannot control is the chaos of world events, which may in the intervening time send the Republican Party’s Jacksonians back to their traditional ways. Today protesters are filling the streets in Venezuela; the Iran talks are struggling; the administration’s Syria strategy is proving the clusterfail we all expected; Japan is brandishing the sword; the North Korean human rights debacle is well in evidence; and Ukraine is literally on fire. How the Republican Party’s base reacts to this instability, and to Obama’s meandering foreign policy, remains an open question.

Look how many of those subjects have almost nothing to do with war-weariness or domestic surveillance–the two issues on which Paul leads and which have dominated the foreign-policy conversation. They have to do with building alliances, sending messages, choosing sides, standing consistently on principle, practicing attentive diplomacy, and understanding America’s adversaries.

Essentially, they require a coherent worldview that is absent from the current Democratic administration and which will be applied to a world different enough from the one confronted by the last Republican White House. If conservatives are prepared to have that conversation even while ObamaCare remains a potent issue and the economy trudges along, it will be an illuminating presidential election. If not, it will be a missed opportunity.

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Vote Turnout Tactics Won’t Sell ObamaCare

Despite all the happy talk we’ve been hearing from the Obama administration and their media cheerleaders about the growing number of those enrolled in ObamaCare, they know they’re in trouble. The total number of enrollees is still far below what is needed to make the program pay for itself. With, as I noted here last week, up to 20 percent of those already counted as having signed up failing to pay their premiums and thus still not covered, the shortfall of customers is one of many problems plaguing the president’s signature health care plan.

To recruit more customers, the administration and its allies are pulling out all the stops. Television ads are flooding the airwaves with celebrities attempting to sell the benefits of ObamaCare as if it were soap while veterans of the president’s reelection campaign are literally hitting the bricks, going door to door in targeted neighborhoods trying to find new customers one at a time.

But, as the New York Times makes clear in a piece that was clearly intended to be sympathetic to the effort, marshaling the same resources that produced a massive turnout to vote for Barack Obama may turn out to be a lot easier than persuading Americans to buy ObamaCare:

The hunt for the uninsured in Broward County got underway one recent afternoon when 41 canvassers, armed with electronic maps on Samsung tablets, set off through working-class neighborhoods to peddle the Affordable Care Act door to door. Four hours later, they had made contact with 2,623 residents and signed up exactly 25 people.

Many of their targets, people identified on sophisticated computer lists generated in Washington as unlikely to have health insurance, had moved away. Some were not home. Many said they already had insurance through Medicare, their parents or a job. A few were hostile at the mere mention of President Obama’s health care law.

“We’re going to repeal that,” one man said gruffly as he shut the door in the face of a canvasser, Nancy Morwin, 58, a retired social worker.

While that prediction may be disputed, it’s clear that the full-court press to inflate ObamaCare enrollment may not be enough to either answer questions about its acceptance or to make it possible for the program to survive.

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Despite all the happy talk we’ve been hearing from the Obama administration and their media cheerleaders about the growing number of those enrolled in ObamaCare, they know they’re in trouble. The total number of enrollees is still far below what is needed to make the program pay for itself. With, as I noted here last week, up to 20 percent of those already counted as having signed up failing to pay their premiums and thus still not covered, the shortfall of customers is one of many problems plaguing the president’s signature health care plan.

To recruit more customers, the administration and its allies are pulling out all the stops. Television ads are flooding the airwaves with celebrities attempting to sell the benefits of ObamaCare as if it were soap while veterans of the president’s reelection campaign are literally hitting the bricks, going door to door in targeted neighborhoods trying to find new customers one at a time.

But, as the New York Times makes clear in a piece that was clearly intended to be sympathetic to the effort, marshaling the same resources that produced a massive turnout to vote for Barack Obama may turn out to be a lot easier than persuading Americans to buy ObamaCare:

The hunt for the uninsured in Broward County got underway one recent afternoon when 41 canvassers, armed with electronic maps on Samsung tablets, set off through working-class neighborhoods to peddle the Affordable Care Act door to door. Four hours later, they had made contact with 2,623 residents and signed up exactly 25 people.

Many of their targets, people identified on sophisticated computer lists generated in Washington as unlikely to have health insurance, had moved away. Some were not home. Many said they already had insurance through Medicare, their parents or a job. A few were hostile at the mere mention of President Obama’s health care law.

“We’re going to repeal that,” one man said gruffly as he shut the door in the face of a canvasser, Nancy Morwin, 58, a retired social worker.

While that prediction may be disputed, it’s clear that the full-court press to inflate ObamaCare enrollment may not be enough to either answer questions about its acceptance or to make it possible for the program to survive.

Some of the early efforts to persuade young and presumably healthy “invincibles” to sign up were downright embarrassing. The “Got Insurance” campaign launched by Colorado liberals claimed the program would facilitate sexual hookups and keep them healthy even if they abused alcohol. But while the ads running on sports channels and the Olympics featuring retired basketball stars Magic Johnson and Alonzo Mourning are more tasteful, they seem based on the same premise that the right kind of marketing is all that’s needed to convince Americans that the misnamed Affordable Care Act is something they need or want.

It may be that the slightly less than one percent success rate of the Broward County canvassers portrayed in the Times story might, if replicated throughout the nation, be enough to pump up the program’s enrollment numbers to the point where it will be proclaimed a success. But as the article also illustrated, most if not all of those signed up by the campaign fall into the category of those who are not the ideal ObamaCare recruits. A few people with pre-existing conditions and families with small children were found and enrolled by the Florida canvassers. However, these are patients who will soak up the care rationed out by the scheme. Even more rare were young and healthy customers who are unlikely to need much care and will thus pay for the others with their premiums. But even there, some of those who agreed to be enrolled found that problems with the infamous HealthCare.gov website prevented them from being signed up on the spot.

It can be argued that any government benefit program needs to be marketed to the public. But the massive effort already undertaken on behalf of ObamaCare has done more to highlight the massive public resistance to the law than anything else. At this point, only someone living under a rock or on Mars is unaware of the law or the fact that the administration is desperate to persuade more Americans to avail themselves of the insurance it is selling. Selling ObamaCare door to door the same way encyclopedias or beauty products were marketed in the 1950s and 60s may make sense to the president’s team, but the problem is not so much a matter of sales technique as it is a refusal to understand the public’s unhappiness with the law.

As the results in Broward illustrate, with enough effort it will be possible to find a great many customers who are the likely beneficiaries of ObamaCare. The poor and those with health problems that kept them from being insured don’t need a hard sell to understand they will gain from taking part. But unless the administration can con millions more young and healthy people to buy into it, the entire edifice is doomed to collapse in a sea of red ink that will only be rectified by the kind of massive federal bailout of insurers that the American people were told wouldn’t happen. Neither Magic Johnson nor the Obama reelection turnout effort can sell America on a product it doesn’t want.

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like J Street?

“There is no such thing as an Arab-Israel conflict,” insists Harvard professor Ruth Wisse, “there is an Arab war against Israel, there is an Arab war against the Jewish people’s right to a state.” This is just one of the many foundational truths and insights that are offered in the course of a newly released documentary, The J Street Challenge. The documentary premiered Monday night in Miami to a sell-out audience who also received an introductory presentation with Alan Dershowitz, who himself features in the movie. 

J Street, founded in 2008 marketing itself as a kind of left-wing AIPAC, went out of its way from the beginning to emphasize itself as being staunchly “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” The national leadership of the group has publicly opposed the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement and put itself forward as being a necessary liberal counterpoint to the anti-Zionism of the left as well as a Jewish cheering section for the Obama administration’s efforts to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. Yet, as this documentary highlights, that mask soon began to slip as its idea of what it meant to be pro-Israel began to appear vastly out of sync with what just about everyone else understood by that term. It was no surprise, then, when some of its J Street U campus branches began to drop the “pro-Israel” clause of the organization’s slogan. More telling still has been the push by J Street U to have anti-Israel boycotters included in the “big tent” pro-Israel community. 

The documentary certainly provides a thorough introduction for anyone who has not so far had the misfortune of encountering J Street or its message. Yet this is no standard-form exposé, as much as it certainly does expose a great deal about J Street’s more dubious operations and questionable sources of funding. Rather, The J Street Challenge seeks to go much further than this by making a serious effort to understand what is at the core of “J Street think” and to identify the driving force that makes certain Jews, particularly young liberal Jews, susceptible to the J Street message. In this way the documentary is about so very much more than an increasingly discredited lobby with little influence even with the Obama administration. At its heart the film is concerned with deconstructing the left-liberal attitude to Israel and the Arab-Islamic world.

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“There is no such thing as an Arab-Israel conflict,” insists Harvard professor Ruth Wisse, “there is an Arab war against Israel, there is an Arab war against the Jewish people’s right to a state.” This is just one of the many foundational truths and insights that are offered in the course of a newly released documentary, The J Street Challenge. The documentary premiered Monday night in Miami to a sell-out audience who also received an introductory presentation with Alan Dershowitz, who himself features in the movie. 

J Street, founded in 2008 marketing itself as a kind of left-wing AIPAC, went out of its way from the beginning to emphasize itself as being staunchly “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” The national leadership of the group has publicly opposed the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement and put itself forward as being a necessary liberal counterpoint to the anti-Zionism of the left as well as a Jewish cheering section for the Obama administration’s efforts to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. Yet, as this documentary highlights, that mask soon began to slip as its idea of what it meant to be pro-Israel began to appear vastly out of sync with what just about everyone else understood by that term. It was no surprise, then, when some of its J Street U campus branches began to drop the “pro-Israel” clause of the organization’s slogan. More telling still has been the push by J Street U to have anti-Israel boycotters included in the “big tent” pro-Israel community. 

The documentary certainly provides a thorough introduction for anyone who has not so far had the misfortune of encountering J Street or its message. Yet this is no standard-form exposé, as much as it certainly does expose a great deal about J Street’s more dubious operations and questionable sources of funding. Rather, The J Street Challenge seeks to go much further than this by making a serious effort to understand what is at the core of “J Street think” and to identify the driving force that makes certain Jews, particularly young liberal Jews, susceptible to the J Street message. In this way the documentary is about so very much more than an increasingly discredited lobby with little influence even with the Obama administration. At its heart the film is concerned with deconstructing the left-liberal attitude to Israel and the Arab-Islamic world.

This in-depth exploration of the mindset that has given rise to J Street is undertaken through somewhat of an all-star cast of interviews, which sit alongside archival footage providing a narration outlining the key points of the conflict. In addition to Wisse and Dershowitz, there are also clips and interviews featuring, among others, Shalem Center scholar Daniel Gordis, Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens, Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, CAMERA’s Andrea Levin, Israel Project CEO Josh Block, and Dr. Charles Jacobs, whose organization, Americans for Peace and Tolerance, released the movie.

These interviews are layered with footage of J Street leaders and activists presenting their own views, creating an unfolding conversation between the various parties. Indeed, the documentary recreates for the viewer an accurate representation of the ongoing debate currently taking place between America’s Jewish community and its self-titled liberal Zionist fringe. Although in some instances, J Street claims are simply swatted with clips of Palestinians putting in their own words precisely what they think of peace and reconciliation with Israel.

J Street has long demanded that its views be debated publicly, and early on in the documentary Andrea Levin advocates that J Street should indeed be debated. In this way The J Street Challenge consciously sets out to directly confront J Street’s arguments and to ultimately defeat them on their own terms.

The group’s critics slam the legitimacy of the notion that liberal Jews in America can claim to know what is right for Israel better than Israelis do, taking J Street to task for its efforts to impact policy in Israel by bypassing the Israeli ballot box and instead lobbying for pressure from Washington. Gordis cuts to the heart of the J Street conceit when he points out, “None of us know what’s going to bring peace, none of us know what’s going to get the Palestinian side to make accommodations, the minute you’re absolutely certain that you have a monopoly on wisdom I think you stop listening.” The obsession with ending the conflict by ending the “occupation” is nicely taken down by Wisse, who retorts, “Since that so-called occupation was the consequence of the war against Israel, it cannot retroactively have become its cause.”

As the documentary wears on, exposed to this rather unforgiving dissection, the J Streeters almost begin to appear amusingly tragic. One J Street activist pleads that she supports J Street because she likes “creating good things in the world.” No match for Professor Wisse: “because they are so sensitive, and because they are so good-hearted … and wicked Israel is not as good hearted as I am. The stupidity of this kind of innocence in a world that is so complicated, when you belong to a people with such a tortured history of trying to arrive at the good in the midst of being persecuted and prosecuted falsely over so many centuries, I mean, its almost intolerable.”

What The J Street Challenge certainly exposes is the concerning way in which the J Street message risks having real traction with students. What this documentary does in response is to equip a broad public with the arguments by which to counter the supposedly sophisticated and morally superior arguments of liberals claiming to support Israel, while in reality only ever going out of their way to condemn it.    

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Big Trucks, Obama, and the Rule of Law

In his State of the Union address, President Obama gave the country fair warning when he said he would try to rule by executive action if Congress did not follow his orders. He began to make good on that pledge yesterday by announcing that he would enact new fuel standards for heavy-duty trucks. Along with other new regulations that are being promulgated without benefit of the approval of Congress, the big truck rule is part of the president’s effort to show the world that he is working to save the planet from climate change.

But while energy efficiency and a potential reduction in the amount of oil consumption sound like ideas that everyone can get behind, the problem here is twofold. On the one hand, the imposition of the new regulations will almost certainly raise the costs of these vehicles as well as make them less safe. That’s no problem for large corporations that stand to benefit from “green” subsidies, but is a huge obstacle for small and mid-sized businesses and independent truckers. While Obama continues to insist his green policies are good for business, the new rules raise the prospect of more crony capitalism. Combined with other executive orders that may wind up shutting down hundreds of coal-fired power plants—a potential catastrophe for an industry that is still an important element of the nation’s power grid—Obama’s executive orders present a peril to an economy that is still slowed by a weak recovery.

But just as dangerous is the spectacle of a president exercising untrammeled power without having to worry about constitutional checks and balances. While liberals are delighted about the prospect of the president ignoring Congress and imposing regulations that the legislative branch has repeatedly rejected in order to advance their climate change agenda, the precedent is one that ought to scare both parties and build sympathy for the coming legal and legislative challenges to the president’s dictates.

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama gave the country fair warning when he said he would try to rule by executive action if Congress did not follow his orders. He began to make good on that pledge yesterday by announcing that he would enact new fuel standards for heavy-duty trucks. Along with other new regulations that are being promulgated without benefit of the approval of Congress, the big truck rule is part of the president’s effort to show the world that he is working to save the planet from climate change.

But while energy efficiency and a potential reduction in the amount of oil consumption sound like ideas that everyone can get behind, the problem here is twofold. On the one hand, the imposition of the new regulations will almost certainly raise the costs of these vehicles as well as make them less safe. That’s no problem for large corporations that stand to benefit from “green” subsidies, but is a huge obstacle for small and mid-sized businesses and independent truckers. While Obama continues to insist his green policies are good for business, the new rules raise the prospect of more crony capitalism. Combined with other executive orders that may wind up shutting down hundreds of coal-fired power plants—a potential catastrophe for an industry that is still an important element of the nation’s power grid—Obama’s executive orders present a peril to an economy that is still slowed by a weak recovery.

But just as dangerous is the spectacle of a president exercising untrammeled power without having to worry about constitutional checks and balances. While liberals are delighted about the prospect of the president ignoring Congress and imposing regulations that the legislative branch has repeatedly rejected in order to advance their climate change agenda, the precedent is one that ought to scare both parties and build sympathy for the coming legal and legislative challenges to the president’s dictates.

The ostensible goal of a series of executive orders that are in the works is to reduce carbon emissions and allow the administration to demonstrate to the world that the U.S. is attempting to live by the same rules it is asking developing countries to respect. But given the slim chances that nations like China and India will ever be willing to adopt measures that similarly restrict their growing economies, the gesture tells us more about the desire of liberals to re-engineer the economy than any concrete measure that will actually affect the global climate, even assuming that the science Obama cites to justify his policies is as settled as he claims.

As with every other such measure, big companies that stand to benefit from some aspect of the president’s rules can always be found to back up the administration. But the nexus of crony capitalism and green activism is one that is highly vulnerable to manipulation and possible corruption. The new environmental regulations the president is imposing on the economy without congressional approval are reminiscent of the same desire to pick winners and losers that have led to past problems such as the Solyndra scandals and other green boondoggles.

The president is on firm legal ground when it comes to measures that can be justified as rules on carbon because of the courts granting the Environmental Protection Agency the power to regulate emissions. But the vast scale of what is being contemplated on coal as well as trucks grants the executive branch the kind of power to micromanage the economy that recalls the first days of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal when the courts let him run roughshod over the nation.

But the aggressive push for climate change is about more than Obama’s desire to shape his legacy as the president who would, as he said in his megalomaniacal 2008 boast, slow “the rise of the oceans” and “heal” the planet. What we are now witnessing is an attempt to create an imperial presidency that seeks to govern without Congress at home as opposed to the traditional model in which commanders in chief conduct wars and foreign policy without being held accountable.

It is not enough to claim, as Obama does, that he is working on behalf of a righteous cause and that he is tired of waiting for Congress to do what he believes is the right thing. In a democracy, the people and their elected representatives rule. The president can lead but he must respect the rule of law. That is a principle that this administration appears to be willing to discard along with old trucks and coal. But even if you share Obama’s fears about the climate, his desire to govern as a benevolent despot is one that should concern liberals as well as conservatives. Though Democrats may be under the impression that they will hold the White House forever, the next time a Republican is sitting in the Oval Office, they may recall their enthusiasm for Obama’s unconstitutional behavior with regret.

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Obama’s Priorities v. Those of the American People

President Obama has recently said that the trend of growing inequality is “certainly my highest priority.” He might be interested to know that it’s not the highest priority for the people he was voted to represent.

Not even close.

A new Gallup poll found the 10 most important issues facing the American people to be, in order, (1) unemployment/jobs; (2) economy in general; (3) government; (4) health care; (5) federal budget deficit/federal debt; (6) immigration/illegal aliens; (7) ethical/moral decline; (8) education; (9) lack of money; and (10) poverty/hunger/homelessness. Even among Democrats, income inequality doesn’t rate. Neither, by the way, does raising the minimum wage, climate change, and gun control–three other issues Mr. Obama has made central to his second-term agenda.

So why is the president talking about issues that the public has so little concern about?

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President Obama has recently said that the trend of growing inequality is “certainly my highest priority.” He might be interested to know that it’s not the highest priority for the people he was voted to represent.

Not even close.

A new Gallup poll found the 10 most important issues facing the American people to be, in order, (1) unemployment/jobs; (2) economy in general; (3) government; (4) health care; (5) federal budget deficit/federal debt; (6) immigration/illegal aliens; (7) ethical/moral decline; (8) education; (9) lack of money; and (10) poverty/hunger/homelessness. Even among Democrats, income inequality doesn’t rate. Neither, by the way, does raising the minimum wage, climate change, and gun control–three other issues Mr. Obama has made central to his second-term agenda.

So why is the president talking about issues that the public has so little concern about?

Part of the explanation, I suspect, is that Mr. Obama really believes in his (progressive) agenda and feels more liberated in his second term to pursue it. But I also imagine that the president has very little to say that’s helpful to him or his party about unemployment and jobs, the economy in general, health care, and the debt. So Mr. Obama is turning to other issues, hoping to shift the American people’s focus from what they care about to what he cares about.

This effort is turning out to be a bust. The public is tuning the president out and turning him off. His words are like white noise, and he increasingly looks to be a lame duck–one day impotent, the next day irrelevant, drifting along in a world of his own. 

Mr. Obama seems to think that as a second-term president, he can talk about what he darn well pleases. Maybe. We’ll see what the voters think about that in November, when they get their chance to render their judgment on his second term. 

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The Rising Cost of Kerry’s Peace Charade

Listening to Palestinian officials bemoan the condition of the peace process can be disorienting, given that that they are the ones who have played no small part in sabotaging that very same process. Ahead of Secretary of State Kerry’s meeting with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, an unnamed PA official has been warning that the peace talks are in “real crisis.” The two are due to meet in Paris today, but to suggest that the negotiations are in crisis now would be to falsely imply that they were in a happier state at some previous point.

If they have taken on a particularly unpromising appearance in recent weeks it is because Abbas keeps issuing lists of demands so outlandish as to threaten the entire proceedings, which is precisely what such demands are intended to do. Ironically, despite this, Kerry is seeking a way to have the negotiation period extended for up to another year.

All of this, however, creates a serious headache for Israel. Since the Palestinians are currently saying that they will not remain at the negotiating table unless a framework is agreed upon by the end of April—while themselves saying that they reject Kerry’s current framework—it is likely that Israel will come under further pressure to concede still more. The Israeli press is reporting that as part of the framework the State Department is to request that Israel implement a partial settlement freeze on those Israeli communities in isolated parts of the West Bank.

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Listening to Palestinian officials bemoan the condition of the peace process can be disorienting, given that that they are the ones who have played no small part in sabotaging that very same process. Ahead of Secretary of State Kerry’s meeting with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, an unnamed PA official has been warning that the peace talks are in “real crisis.” The two are due to meet in Paris today, but to suggest that the negotiations are in crisis now would be to falsely imply that they were in a happier state at some previous point.

If they have taken on a particularly unpromising appearance in recent weeks it is because Abbas keeps issuing lists of demands so outlandish as to threaten the entire proceedings, which is precisely what such demands are intended to do. Ironically, despite this, Kerry is seeking a way to have the negotiation period extended for up to another year.

All of this, however, creates a serious headache for Israel. Since the Palestinians are currently saying that they will not remain at the negotiating table unless a framework is agreed upon by the end of April—while themselves saying that they reject Kerry’s current framework—it is likely that Israel will come under further pressure to concede still more. The Israeli press is reporting that as part of the framework the State Department is to request that Israel implement a partial settlement freeze on those Israeli communities in isolated parts of the West Bank.

Some might argue that this demand is not a particularly unreasonable one, although the families living in the communities in question can hardly be expected to see it this way. Yet, this is beside the point. The point is that yet again, the Obama administration is moving to pressure Israel to make real concessions in return for nothing more than the Palestinians continuing to maintain the veneer of participating in the charade of negotiations. And as has now been pointed out by so many, one of the primary beneficiaries of keeping up appearances on the peace front is Kerry himself.

This has become a recurring theme under this administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In what has become a cyclical and self-perpetuating pattern, Israel is pressured by America into making real and difficult concessions in exchange for the Palestinians agreeing to participate in what only ever turn out to have been symbolic negotiations. These negotiations are inevitably restricted to a limited time frame; by the time each round comes to a close Abbas has spent the political capital he managed to extract from the previous Israeli concessions and begins to demand further concessions if he is to keep going through the motions of the peace process.

We saw how in 2009 Obama forced the Israelis to implement a nine-month settlement freeze just to get Abbas to the table. Then Abbas demanded that the freeze be extended to Jerusalem, and indeed it appeared that Israel unofficially capitulated to this too. Yet, only in the closing weeks of that nine-month period did Abbas finally arrive at the negotiating table, and by all accounts once there was only interested in talking about one thing: having the freeze and Israel’s concessions extended further. When it came to the current series of negotiations, this time around Israel refused to put life on hold for the half million of its citizens living over the green line. Instead it was compelled to release Palestinian terrorists, something which understandably caused the Israeli public great anguish, and surely cast doubt on Abbas’s credentials as a man of peace.

Now Abbas is once again threatening to walk. According to Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, hardly someone with a vested interest in derailing the peace process, the Palestinians have blocked all attempts at progress with a string of impossible demands. With Abbas having contributed nothing useful to the conversation, it seems that the State Department is now trying to bribe him into remaining in negotiations by pressuring Israel into making yet more concessions. As with their floundering negotiations with Iran, and indeed Syria, the administration is attempting to appease the unappeasable. Unwilling to take the tough actions necessary to achieve concrete end results, all that Kerry can do is keep up the façade of a process. There is something almost Buddhist in all this; the journey has become the destination. But all the while, it’s America’s allies that are paying an ever-higher price for this administration’s indulgences. 

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The Rawabi Model and Economic Peace

It’s quite an indictment of Western negotiators that good news for Palestinians is bad news for the peace process. Not bad news for peace, mind you: just bad news for the “peace process,” which is designed in such a way as to impede true peace. Nevertheless, Palestinians are at times able to overcome the obstacles to their economic development posed by Mahmoud Abbas, John Kerry, and the Eurocrats in Brussels. And there is no better example of that Palestinian potential than Rawabi.

As the Times of Israel reports, Palestinians are feeling encouraged by the looming completion of Rawabi, a planned Palestinian city north of Ramallah that is “the largest construction project in recorded Palestinian history.” A middle-class development for thousands of Palestinians, Rawabi is a cooperative project of a Palestinian company and Qatari developer that has been in the works for five years. It’s undoubtedly good news. So why is it such an indictment of the peace process?

Because it flies in the face of the principles on which the negotiations have long been based. First of all, the Western left and Palestinian leadership have remained vehemently opposed to what Benjamin Netanyahu refers to as economic peace. It’s the only tactic with a record of success in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so naturally Foggy Bottom hates it and the PA fears it. Economic peace is not intended as a replacement for the political process, but a parallel track that can help the Palestinians while their leadership, enabled by the West, insists on failing them year after year. As the Times of Israel explains:

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It’s quite an indictment of Western negotiators that good news for Palestinians is bad news for the peace process. Not bad news for peace, mind you: just bad news for the “peace process,” which is designed in such a way as to impede true peace. Nevertheless, Palestinians are at times able to overcome the obstacles to their economic development posed by Mahmoud Abbas, John Kerry, and the Eurocrats in Brussels. And there is no better example of that Palestinian potential than Rawabi.

As the Times of Israel reports, Palestinians are feeling encouraged by the looming completion of Rawabi, a planned Palestinian city north of Ramallah that is “the largest construction project in recorded Palestinian history.” A middle-class development for thousands of Palestinians, Rawabi is a cooperative project of a Palestinian company and Qatari developer that has been in the works for five years. It’s undoubtedly good news. So why is it such an indictment of the peace process?

Because it flies in the face of the principles on which the negotiations have long been based. First of all, the Western left and Palestinian leadership have remained vehemently opposed to what Benjamin Netanyahu refers to as economic peace. It’s the only tactic with a record of success in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so naturally Foggy Bottom hates it and the PA fears it. Economic peace is not intended as a replacement for the political process, but a parallel track that can help the Palestinians while their leadership, enabled by the West, insists on failing them year after year. As the Times of Israel explains:

Bashar Al-Masri, managing director of Rawabi, said that though no Israeli companies have been involved in constructing the city, hundreds of Israeli suppliers provide it with raw materials such as cement, sand, electric components and plumbing. He estimated that Israeli businesses benefit from the Rawabi project to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a month. The only political principle Rawabi holds with relation to Israel is no cooperation with businesses in the settlements.

“We buy from whoever gives us the lowest price,” Al-Masri said. “It makes no difference to us if the company is Israeli, Italian or German.”

“We have no choice but to cooperate with Israel and Israelis, but we also want to do so,” he added. “It is a mistake to separate our economy from Israel’s. Projects like this bring our peoples closer together: Israelis come to the site, they are exposed to Palestinians, and they realize there’s no risk in coming here. There is a sense of comfort.”

Related to this is the way Rawabi exposes the moral and logical bankruptcy of the boycott-Israel movement. Some believe BDS should be enforced against any and all Jews in the West Bank as a way to delegitimize the Jews they want evicted from their homes without condemning the Jews who live on what the Western left believes will be the “right” side of a yet-to-be-determined future border. That’s nonsense, of course, and Rawabi’s history demonstrates as much:

These positions have placed Masri — a native of Nablus who spent much of his adult life living in the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia — under fire in his own society. In 2012, the Palestinian National BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) Committee condemned him for normalization with Israel, accusing him of “advancing personal interests and profit making at the expense of Palestinian rights.”

The Palestinian BDSers don’t care about proposed boundaries or other distinctions. They resist any effort to recognize the existence of Jews. If they support boycotting Israeli settlements, it is because they are Israeli, not because they are settlements. And when they talk of “Palestinian rights,” they are, like Oxfam recently with regard to SodaStream, acting as proponents of keeping Palestinians in poverty and removing Palestinians’ free will:

But despite the BDS efforts, the ambitious project is already a huge blessing for the Palestinian economy. Providing 8,000-10,000 jobs in construction, Rawabi is by far the largest private employer in the West Bank. Once complete, the city is expected to employ 3,000-5,000 people in its commercial and cultural center, said Amir Dajani, the project’s deputy managing director.

Rawabi is also a refutation of the traditional peace process because it exposes the extent of the damage done by Palestinian official corruption. The peace process seeks to further enrich and empower the corrupt Palestinian leadership. But Rawabi shows just how much potential there is for Palestinian economic development if the billions in financial aid to the PA were put to good use. Instead of lining politicians’ pockets, they could build cities.

And while the peace process has been stuck in neutral for decades, Rawabi came together in just five years. That means the Palestinians have the talent and work ethic to build gleaming cities in the desert–just as the Jews did when their leaders set out to build a state instead of a kleptocracy. Rawabi encourages us to imagine what is possible if the Palestinians were allowed to reach their potential. The Israelis are cooperating on projects like Rawabi. Everyone else is standing in the Palestinians’ way.

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CBO: Minimum Wage Snake Oil

Which of the following two factors would have the greatest impact on the economy: Raising the wages of less than a million Americans from slightly below the poverty line to slightly above it or putting half a million poor people out of work? The answer to that question may be the deciding factor in determining whether Congress accedes to President Obama’s demand to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.15 from the current figure of $7.50. But then again, it may not. Raising the minimum wage is a popular idea. The president’s catch phrase, that Congress should “give America a raise,” polled well before and after it was used in the State of the Union address. Every discussion of the proposal hinges on conservatives pointing out the potential harm to the economy and to employment in the government intervening in the market in this manner only to have their arguments dismissed by liberals who simply say that economic principles must bow to the public desire to give low wage workers more money.

But now that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has issued a report about the potential impact of the president’s minimum wage hike proposal, it’s no longer possible to ignore the fact that a lot more harm than good will be done if Congress is foolish enough to pass such a bill. The CBO report is being reported as having “mixed results,” and that is true. The report says the wage hike will boost the income of 16.5 million Americans. That is not news. You don’t need an economics degree to understand that giving people more money means they will have more money. However, the increase would be enough to push some 900,000 over the poverty line. That’s the good news for the president in the report. Less helpful to his cause is the fact that it also says that an estimated 500,000 Americans will loose their jobs, just as conservatives have been arguing all along.

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Which of the following two factors would have the greatest impact on the economy: Raising the wages of less than a million Americans from slightly below the poverty line to slightly above it or putting half a million poor people out of work? The answer to that question may be the deciding factor in determining whether Congress accedes to President Obama’s demand to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.15 from the current figure of $7.50. But then again, it may not. Raising the minimum wage is a popular idea. The president’s catch phrase, that Congress should “give America a raise,” polled well before and after it was used in the State of the Union address. Every discussion of the proposal hinges on conservatives pointing out the potential harm to the economy and to employment in the government intervening in the market in this manner only to have their arguments dismissed by liberals who simply say that economic principles must bow to the public desire to give low wage workers more money.

But now that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has issued a report about the potential impact of the president’s minimum wage hike proposal, it’s no longer possible to ignore the fact that a lot more harm than good will be done if Congress is foolish enough to pass such a bill. The CBO report is being reported as having “mixed results,” and that is true. The report says the wage hike will boost the income of 16.5 million Americans. That is not news. You don’t need an economics degree to understand that giving people more money means they will have more money. However, the increase would be enough to push some 900,000 over the poverty line. That’s the good news for the president in the report. Less helpful to his cause is the fact that it also says that an estimated 500,000 Americans will loose their jobs, just as conservatives have been arguing all along.

How do you weigh the impact of these two aspects of a wage hike? It’s actually not all that complex. Nor does it require knowledge of higher calculus. While the increase will marginally help some people, the difference won’t be enough to make much of a difference for them. An extra $3 per hour would be useful to anyone. But the difference between $7.50 or whatever low wage some people are currently earning and the $0.00 they will be receiving when their employers are forced to lay them off because of the increased costs the new law will impose on their businesses will be felt far more both by the newly unemployed and the government that will now have to pay them unemployment benefits. The damage the minimum wage increase will do far outweighs the minimal helps it gives some recipients.

The problem with highlighting the advantages the extra money will give those who will receive the hike is that the jobs affected are still entry-level positions which were never meant to be enough to support a family. While we should not entirely dismiss the help a wage increase gives an individual, the figures are so modest that they are not likely to make that much of a difference. The wage hike will be welcomed but it won’t be enough to change anyone’s life.

Moreover, a large percentage of those who will benefit from the increase are not the working poor or any other kind of disadvantaged group. These are largely made up of teenagers of middle and upper middle class families working at summer or part-time jobs who will be among the biggest winners of the minimum wage proposal. The report points out that a whopping 29 percent of those who will benefit from the president’s largesse are actually members of families earning three times the income deemed to be at poverty level while a further six percent come from families with six times or more the poverty level.

Balanced against the minimal help given the working poor and well-off teenager is the far greater pain of those who will lose their jobs. Sending half a million Americans into the ranks of the unemployed and the grinding poverty that goes with it is bad enough. But doing so will also place intolerable demands on the public purse that will be further drained to pay for the poverty benefits for which these newly unemployed will now be eligible.

What do Democrats say to these facts? Their answer seems to be the traditional liberal practice of sticking their fingers in their ears and saying, “la, la, la.” The administration and people like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are now reduced to claiming that the CBO is wrong and that there will be no impact on employment even if logic and basic economics tells us otherwise.

The minimum wage increase may be popular but, as the CBO points out, it remains economic snake oil. Though succumbing to public sentiment and the president’s demagoguery may seem like the better part of valor, Republicans need to stand their ground and protect the nation and the half million poor Americans at risk from this dangerous proposal.

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