Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 4, 2014

Smearing Religious Freedom’s Defenders

The verdict of national public opinion about what was universally represented as an attempt by Arizona’s legislature to authorize discrimination against gays was overwhelming. Though support for gay marriage is not yet unanimous, Americans don’t like prejudice and think laws that might legitimate bias are, by definition, wrongheaded. By vetoing Arizona’s SB1062 bill, Governor Jan Brewer was simply practicing political common sense and saving both her state (which stood to lose conventions and even an upcoming Super Bowl over the controversy) and the national Republican Party a great deal of grief over what was claimed to be a new version of Jim Crow. The “anti-gay bill” stood to become this year’s version of Todd Akin’s infamous comments about rape and abortion and could have been a millstone around the necks of all conservatives even in a year in which the GOP stands to gain ground across the country.

Fresh off this almost uncontested victory, liberals like The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin are hoping to follow up on their triumph by pivoting from this controversy to ratcheting up anger at the prospect that the Supreme Court will allow religious business owners to claim religious exemptions from the federal government’s demands that they pay for insurance coverage of acts that violate their religious beliefs. What has that got to do with an “anti-gay bill?” And how can liberals hope to mobilize Americans on this issue the way they did on the Arizona bill given the significant public sympathy for the religious freedom protest of companies like the Hobby Lobby chain as well as antipathy for the ObamaCare mandates?

In order to answer that question you would have had to have actually read the Arizona bill, something that few media figures, let alone the general public actually did before lambasting it. As National Review editor Rich Lowry, pointed out in an insightful Politico op-ed published last week, even a cursory glance at the bill yielded nothing to justify the universal condemnation that rained down on it from the mainstream media. But at the heart of that dustup and the one on the ObamaCare Mandate is the same question of religious liberty that got steamrollered in Arizona and is again being attacked in the Hobby Lobby case. The principle being defended here isn’t Jim Crow or any other form of prejudice but the constitutionally protected right to religious freedom.

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The verdict of national public opinion about what was universally represented as an attempt by Arizona’s legislature to authorize discrimination against gays was overwhelming. Though support for gay marriage is not yet unanimous, Americans don’t like prejudice and think laws that might legitimate bias are, by definition, wrongheaded. By vetoing Arizona’s SB1062 bill, Governor Jan Brewer was simply practicing political common sense and saving both her state (which stood to lose conventions and even an upcoming Super Bowl over the controversy) and the national Republican Party a great deal of grief over what was claimed to be a new version of Jim Crow. The “anti-gay bill” stood to become this year’s version of Todd Akin’s infamous comments about rape and abortion and could have been a millstone around the necks of all conservatives even in a year in which the GOP stands to gain ground across the country.

Fresh off this almost uncontested victory, liberals like The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin are hoping to follow up on their triumph by pivoting from this controversy to ratcheting up anger at the prospect that the Supreme Court will allow religious business owners to claim religious exemptions from the federal government’s demands that they pay for insurance coverage of acts that violate their religious beliefs. What has that got to do with an “anti-gay bill?” And how can liberals hope to mobilize Americans on this issue the way they did on the Arizona bill given the significant public sympathy for the religious freedom protest of companies like the Hobby Lobby chain as well as antipathy for the ObamaCare mandates?

In order to answer that question you would have had to have actually read the Arizona bill, something that few media figures, let alone the general public actually did before lambasting it. As National Review editor Rich Lowry, pointed out in an insightful Politico op-ed published last week, even a cursory glance at the bill yielded nothing to justify the universal condemnation that rained down on it from the mainstream media. But at the heart of that dustup and the one on the ObamaCare Mandate is the same question of religious liberty that got steamrollered in Arizona and is again being attacked in the Hobby Lobby case. The principle being defended here isn’t Jim Crow or any other form of prejudice but the constitutionally protected right to religious freedom.

As Lowry pointed out:

It was jarring to read the coverage of the new “anti-gay bill” passed by the Arizona Legislature and then look up the text of the instantly notorious SB 1062. The bill was roughly 998 pages shorter than much of legislation that passes in Washington, so reading it didn’t take much of a commitment. Clocking in at barely two pages, it was easy to scan for disparaging references to homosexuality, for veiled references to homosexuality, for any references to homosexuality at all.

They weren’t there. A headline from The Week declared, “There is nothing Christian about Arizona’s anti-gay bill.” It would be more accurate to say that there was nothing anti-gay about Arizona’s anti-gay bill.

The legislation consisted of minor clarifications of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA], which has been on the books for 15 years and is modeled on the federal act that passed with big bipartisan majorities in the 1990s and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

If you’ll excuse a brief, boring break from the hysteria to dwell on the text of the doomed bill, it stipulated that the word “person” in the law applies to businesses and that the protections of the law apply whether or not the government is directly a party to a proceeding (e.g., a lawsuit brought on anti-discrimination grounds).

The reason that the law was so fiercely denounced was because it opened up the possibility that a business such as florist or a baker could use the state’s version of the federal FRFA in order to back up a refusal to take part in activity that might violate their religious beliefs such as a gay wedding. The legal distinction here is a fine one. No one disputes (or at least no one should) that businesses that are a public accommodation have no right to turn away customers on the basis of their race, religion, beliefs or, their sexual orientation. But commissioning someone to create a floral arrangement or display to celebrate something they oppose is not quite the same thing as merely showing up and asking to buy flowers or bread or to sit at a lunch counter. Where exactly the law comes down on such situations is a matter of debate. You might well argue that such vendors should just accept the business or lose it to competitors. But arguing that their personal beliefs should be ignored when someone demands they participate in events that, however sympathetic, violate their beliefs, is rightly considered a bridge too far for many civil libertarians.

What happened in Arizona was that the growing support for gay marriage was used to delegitimize anyone who sought to carve out some legal space for those disagreed on religious grounds and the affair snowballed into a national furor that drowned out opposing arguments. What Toobin and other liberals would like to see is the same process apply to Hobby Lobby and other religious believers who see the ObamaCare mandate as violating their liberty by painting them as opponents of women’s rights.

The conceit of the liberal argument is to brand as intolerant those who oppose forcing religious institutions or business owners to pay for abortion drugs or contraception for their employees under the mandate. According to Toobin and the administration, those who oppose the Mandate are seeking to impose their religious views on employees and to deny them necessary services. But this is false. No one is preventing anyone from obtaining access to birth control or even an abortion drug. What the owners of Hobby Lobby and the many other plaintiffs in these cases are seeking is to not be involved in the purchase of products and services they oppose. It is the government and its liberal cheerleaders who are seeking to impose their beliefs on religious believers, not the other way around. And, unless the U.S. Supreme Court stops them by ruling in favoring of Hobby Lobby, that is exactly what they will do. One doesn’t have to oppose abortion or contraception to understand that if the government can have its way in this case, no one’s rights are safe.

The problem liberals face in seeking to demonize persons of faith who oppose the ObamaCare Mandate is that, unlike Arizona’s SB1062, the public is already well aware of its intrusive nature and the assault on individual rights it represents. Opponents of RFRA were able to buy the Arizona bill under a mountain of obfuscation, innuendo and disinformation. Liberals should forget about being able to play the same game in defense of a position that seeks to restrict religious freedom for the sake of a vast expansion of government power that a majority of Americans already oppose.

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Dems May Regret More OCare Delays

After dozens of delays of various aspects of ObamaCare, Democrats are still facing a tsunami of voter anger this fall in midterm elections that are looking more and more like a disaster for the president’s party. The administration’s answer to their plight is simple: delay more implementation of the president’s unpopular and misnamed Affordable Care Act.

The Hill is reporting today that the White House is planning on announcing yet another ObamaCare delay:

As early as this week, according to two sources, the White House will announce a new directive allowing insurers to continue offering health plans that do not meet ObamaCare’s minimum coverage requirements. Prolonging the “keep your plan” fix will avoid another wave of health policy cancellations otherwise expected this fall.

The cancellations would have created a firestorm for Democratic candidates in the last, crucial weeks before Election Day. The White House is intent on protecting its allies in the Senate, where Democrats face a battle to keep control of the chamber.

The political motivations for this move are obvious. Prior to the rollout of ObamaCare last fall, Democrats drew a line in the sand on any delay of the president’s signature health care law. Rather than push back the implementation of the legislation a single day, they allowed the government to be shut down for weeks causing untold suffering to the American people. That was a political masterstroke. The mainstream media blamed the GOP for the fiasco since their demands for delaying or defunding the law seen as unreasonable and unrealistic. What a difference a few months makes.

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After dozens of delays of various aspects of ObamaCare, Democrats are still facing a tsunami of voter anger this fall in midterm elections that are looking more and more like a disaster for the president’s party. The administration’s answer to their plight is simple: delay more implementation of the president’s unpopular and misnamed Affordable Care Act.

The Hill is reporting today that the White House is planning on announcing yet another ObamaCare delay:

As early as this week, according to two sources, the White House will announce a new directive allowing insurers to continue offering health plans that do not meet ObamaCare’s minimum coverage requirements. Prolonging the “keep your plan” fix will avoid another wave of health policy cancellations otherwise expected this fall.

The cancellations would have created a firestorm for Democratic candidates in the last, crucial weeks before Election Day. The White House is intent on protecting its allies in the Senate, where Democrats face a battle to keep control of the chamber.

The political motivations for this move are obvious. Prior to the rollout of ObamaCare last fall, Democrats drew a line in the sand on any delay of the president’s signature health care law. Rather than push back the implementation of the legislation a single day, they allowed the government to be shut down for weeks causing untold suffering to the American people. That was a political masterstroke. The mainstream media blamed the GOP for the fiasco since their demands for delaying or defunding the law seen as unreasonable and unrealistic. What a difference a few months makes.

Will Democrats get away with it? Given the unwillingness of the same media that lampooned Republicans for suggesting the same thing only six months ago, they just might. In addition to that, there have been so many delays of the law’s implementation that even those Americans who pay attention to the issue may have lost track of what aspects of the president’s scheme are being enforced.

Liberals may still be pretending that ObamaCare will be popular or that the only problem with its rollout was a glitch-ridden website that was fixed. But in only a few months they have also developed a healthy fear of the consequences of its implementation. Already millions of Americans have lost their insurance coverage or access to their doctors because of the dictates of this new law that branded every policy that did not conform to their arbitrary standards as “junk” insurance. Sticking to that talking point hasn’t been easy for liberal talking heads on television but once more Americans feel ObamaCare’s impact, it will be impossible.

Once the delays are rescinded and the employer mandates are put in place along with the rules for individual policyholders, the results will be far-reaching and serious. At that point, it won’t be possible to deny the fact that the number of Americans who have been hurt by this law may not only equal the total helped but, in fact, may outnumber them.

But Democratic optimism about this underhanded and unconstitutional tactic (since the president does not actually have the power to pick and choose which laws or which parts of laws he will enforce) may be misplaced. The mere fact of so many delays as well as the evidence of the damage already done by the law to so many voters may outweigh any tactical advantages won by the stalling strategy.

Even worse, by putting off so much of the pain until after the 2014 midterm elections, Democrats may be setting themselves up for a really unpleasant time in 2015 and 2016. If the majority of Americans are already unhappy with ObamaCare today, that anger will be even greater next year once more employers and individuals are coping with its costs and hardships. If, as may well happen despite the delays, Republicans win back control of the Senate in addition to keeping the House of Representatives, that will put them in position to do more than delay ObamaCare next year but to send a repeal bill to the president. He will veto it and there’s little chance that the Republicans will overturn it. But with anger about this law rising to new heights just when the country is turning its attention to the 2016 presidential race rather than in 2014, that could create even more problems for Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat who wishes to succeed the president.

At that point, Democrats may look back on this year’s ObamaCare delays and the president’s determination to frontload the benefits and backload the pain with genuine regret.

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No “Special Relationship” Bingo at AIPAC

In anticipation of the AIPAC conference, Yair Rosenberg over at Tablet published a mock bingo card, with all the buzzwords and catch phrases in U.S.-Israeli relations. As you sat listening to the speeches, you could mark your card as each speaker proclaimed Israel a “major strategic ally” or intoned that “no deal is better than a bad deal” (with Iran). In the center square of the card sits this couplet: “Special Relationship.” It’s the most hallowed of all ways to describe U.S.-Israeli ties, dating back John F. Kennedy and Golda Meir. Nothing more reassures Israelis than to hear that phrase, which elevates U.S.-Israel relations to a very select club.

In December, I provided the evidence here at Commentary that John Kerry, as secretary of state, has avoided using the phrase “special relationship” to describe ties with Israel, reserving it exclusively for the United Kingdom. I argued that this constituted a subtle demotion of Israel. Was he saving the magic words for AIPAC?

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In anticipation of the AIPAC conference, Yair Rosenberg over at Tablet published a mock bingo card, with all the buzzwords and catch phrases in U.S.-Israeli relations. As you sat listening to the speeches, you could mark your card as each speaker proclaimed Israel a “major strategic ally” or intoned that “no deal is better than a bad deal” (with Iran). In the center square of the card sits this couplet: “Special Relationship.” It’s the most hallowed of all ways to describe U.S.-Israeli ties, dating back John F. Kennedy and Golda Meir. Nothing more reassures Israelis than to hear that phrase, which elevates U.S.-Israel relations to a very select club.

In December, I provided the evidence here at Commentary that John Kerry, as secretary of state, has avoided using the phrase “special relationship” to describe ties with Israel, reserving it exclusively for the United Kingdom. I argued that this constituted a subtle demotion of Israel. Was he saving the magic words for AIPAC?

Obviously not: he didn’t utter them in his AIPAC speech. Sure, there were all sorts of emotive expressions of support for Israel. But “special relationship?” Kerry seems as reluctant to speak the words, as Mahmoud Abbas is loath to utter “Jewish state.”

I wonder whether even one of the 14,000 Israel supporters in the Washington Convention Center noticed the omission, in the flurry of sweet nothings floated by Kerry. But have no doubt: no words can substitute for “special relationship.” That’s why it stands at the very center of the U.S.-Israeli bingo card. Israelis know it, and you can be sure that John Kerry knows it too.

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Are Markets Right About Ukraine Inaction?

The big news today on the Russian seizure of the Crimea from the Ukraine was that Europeans are feeling a lot calmer about the prospect of conflict. To the extent that the uptick in the markets this reflected relief that Russian President Vladimir Putin had not further escalated the conflict with new military actions aimed at seizing more territory that is a sentiment that is universally shared. But as the days pass since Russian troops took control of the Crimea, those jumping to the conclusion that the West will soon be going back to business as usual with Russia may have a firmer grip on reality than those who assume that all of the exemplary rhetoric coming from both the United States and its European allies about their concern may not be followed up by the sort of economic sanctions that would, as President Obama said, make Putin pay a price for his aggression.

Gauging the intensity level of this crisis is a difficult job in large measure because the assumption that Putin will perform some new outrage in the coming days may be misplaced. While Russia’s planned ballistic missile test and the actions of Russian troops (that Putin is still pretending are not Russian) are scary, the action phase of this crisis may have already passed as far as Moscow is concerned. Having taken control of the Crimea, the big unanswered question for Russia revolves around whether Putin will annex the region (something the Russian Parliament is already considering) or allow his puppets to create a new buffer state there. The only other variable is how robust the Western response to this crime will be. While Ukrainians can certainly take comfort from Secretary of State John Kerry’s much needed visit to Kiev today and the laudable vows of help coming from Washington and European capitals, they may be forgiven for wondering whether Western investors who are betting today against serious sanctions or a disruption of Russia’s oil and gas sales are right.

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The big news today on the Russian seizure of the Crimea from the Ukraine was that Europeans are feeling a lot calmer about the prospect of conflict. To the extent that the uptick in the markets this reflected relief that Russian President Vladimir Putin had not further escalated the conflict with new military actions aimed at seizing more territory that is a sentiment that is universally shared. But as the days pass since Russian troops took control of the Crimea, those jumping to the conclusion that the West will soon be going back to business as usual with Russia may have a firmer grip on reality than those who assume that all of the exemplary rhetoric coming from both the United States and its European allies about their concern may not be followed up by the sort of economic sanctions that would, as President Obama said, make Putin pay a price for his aggression.

Gauging the intensity level of this crisis is a difficult job in large measure because the assumption that Putin will perform some new outrage in the coming days may be misplaced. While Russia’s planned ballistic missile test and the actions of Russian troops (that Putin is still pretending are not Russian) are scary, the action phase of this crisis may have already passed as far as Moscow is concerned. Having taken control of the Crimea, the big unanswered question for Russia revolves around whether Putin will annex the region (something the Russian Parliament is already considering) or allow his puppets to create a new buffer state there. The only other variable is how robust the Western response to this crime will be. While Ukrainians can certainly take comfort from Secretary of State John Kerry’s much needed visit to Kiev today and the laudable vows of help coming from Washington and European capitals, they may be forgiven for wondering whether Western investors who are betting today against serious sanctions or a disruption of Russia’s oil and gas sales are right.

Sanctions levied against Russia and against individual members of the Putin regime are necessary and can’t be put into effect too soon. But the problem with this effort is that everyone knows that there is nothing the West can do now to reverse what has happened and Putin knows it. Since a Western military response against a nuclear power is unthinkable, Russia knows it will never be forced to give back the Crimea even if it has been torn from Ukraine in a blatantly illegal act of aggression.

Moreover, for all of the righteous rhetoric flowing from Western leaders this week, Putin also knows that Europe is unlikely to want to have to kick its Russian oil and gas habit cold turkey. That’s why he dared to invade a sovereign nation secure in the knowledge that he could get away with it.

It goes without saying that the only way to have prevented this from happening was an American foreign policy that was more concerned with restraining Putin than in making nice with him. It cannot be stressed enough former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Kerry bear the lion’s share of blame for this disaster for their comical Russian policy “reset.” President Obama and his media cheering section that openly mocked first Sarah Palin and then Mitt Romney for their focus on the threat from Russia also need to apologize.

But though anger at Putin is running high today, he is counting on it all fading away rather quickly. The Obama administration’s strong suit is “engagement” and diplomacy for its own sake, not principled confrontation. Moreover, if European countries can’t be trusted to stick to sanctions against the Islamist regime in Iran, how can we possibly expect them to hang tough against Russia when the economic stakes involved in any punishment for aggression against Ukraine are so much higher?

Ukraine and all the other independent states — including NATO members in the Baltic and Poland—that stand between Putin and his cherished dream of reassembling the old Tsarist/Soviet empire are looking to Washington, London, Paris and Berlin for stiff economic action against Russia this week. But it’s hard to argue with those who are betting their bankrolls on the proposition that neither Obama nor the Western Europeans intend to disrupt the Russian gravy train for the sake of Ukraine.

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Liars Like Putin Capable of Anything

It’s hard to know what’s more unsettling: to imagine that Vladimir Putin actually believes what he said at a press conference today–or that he doesn’t. Either way, his remarks make clear that the West is dealing with a crafty, ruthless autocrat who isn’t afraid to bend reality to his own will. The only question is whether he secretly knows the difference between his castles in the air and the world inhabited by the rest of us.

His comments were so far-fetched as to be almost comical. Let’s see…

He claimed that the troops who have taken over Crimea were not Russian–merely local self-defense forces that happened to buy some Russian uniforms: “Look at former Soviet republics,” he said. “You can go to a store and buy a uniform. Were these Russian soldiers? No, they’re very well-trained self-defense forces.” (Makes you wonder, if the troops in Ukraine, went shopping for their own uniforms, why they didn’t buy German fatigues or American ones?)

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It’s hard to know what’s more unsettling: to imagine that Vladimir Putin actually believes what he said at a press conference today–or that he doesn’t. Either way, his remarks make clear that the West is dealing with a crafty, ruthless autocrat who isn’t afraid to bend reality to his own will. The only question is whether he secretly knows the difference between his castles in the air and the world inhabited by the rest of us.

His comments were so far-fetched as to be almost comical. Let’s see…

He claimed that the troops who have taken over Crimea were not Russian–merely local self-defense forces that happened to buy some Russian uniforms: “Look at former Soviet republics,” he said. “You can go to a store and buy a uniform. Were these Russian soldiers? No, they’re very well-trained self-defense forces.” (Makes you wonder, if the troops in Ukraine, went shopping for their own uniforms, why they didn’t buy German fatigues or American ones?)

He claimed that the anti-Yanukovych demonstrators in Kiev were all fascists and anti-Semites: “Our major concern is the orgy of nationalists, and extremists and anti-Semites on the streets of Kiev.” (If that’s the case, it’s odd, as Timothy Snyder notes in the New York Review of Books, that it was the Yanukovych regime “rather than its opponents that resorts to anti-Semitism, instructing its riot police that the opposition is led by Jews.”)

He claimed that snipers firing on demonstrators were not Ukrainian security forces but rather “provocateurs from an opposition party.” (So the opposition forces are killing themselves! How crafty.)

He claimed that Russia’s past treaty obligations to respect Ukrainian sovereignty are no longer operative because there is a “new state” in Ukraine. (How convenient, in case the “local self defense forces” currently annexing Crimea to Russia decide to do the same with all of eastern Ukraine.)

And of course for his grand finale he claimed that the whole thing is the fault of America: “They sit there across the pond as if in a lab running all kinds of experiments on the rats,” Putin said. “Why would they do it? No one can explain it.” (If Washington is so powerful it’s a wonder how Moscow managed to take over Crimea so easily.)

For good measure he claimed that Washington was being hypocritical in criticizing Russia’s incursion into Ukraine: “Let’s remember what the U.S. did in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.”

Never mind that Russia actually voted at the UN to authorize the military mission to Afghanistan and abstained from vetoing the one to Libya, or that the U.S.-led operation in Iraq had infinitely more international support than the Russian intervention in Ukraine which is supported by not a single other country.

Presumably Putin says such things to provide some rationale, however flimsy and far-fetched, to his own people to justify his aggression against a neighboring Slavic state. The very bizarreness of his assertions is further cause for alarm, however. A leader who utters one whopping big lie after another with a perfectly straight face–indeed with an air of utter conviction–is capable of anything.

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Netanyahu Doesn’t Take Obama’s Bait

The last time President Obama ambushed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli gave as good as he got. This time he turned the other cheek. The reason for this turnabout by the normally combative prime minister tells us everything we need to know about the relative strength of the positions of these two leaders.

While the assumption on the part of most pundits was that Obama has Netanyahu in a corner, the latter’s reaction to the assault the president launched at him in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg this past weekend shows us this isn’t true. Though Netanyahu had to be infuriated by the president’s single-minded determination to blame Israel for the lack of peace as well as his obtuse praise for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he felt no need to publicly respond to it. Far from feeling threatened by Obama’s tirade, Netanyahu’s decision to ignore the president’s attack shows that he understands the dynamics of both the peace process and U.S. foreign policy actually give him the upper hand over the weak and increasingly out-of-touch lame duck in the White House.

Obama’s decision to give his faithful admirer Goldberg an interview in which he blasted Israel was odd since it came at a time when the Israelis have shown their willingness to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for Middle East peace negotiations and the Palestinians have publicly declared the same document to be unacceptable. More than that, the fact that he chose this particular moment to get in another shot at his least favorite foreign leader just when the world was focused on Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and awaiting an American response to this aggression can only be considered bizarre. Not only did this make his attack on Netanyahu seem both petty and personal, it also guaranteed that the international media that might have otherwise have jumped on the story was distracted elsewhere and diminished its impact. But Netanyahu’s seeming dismissal of this broadside shows that Obama is not in as strong a position vis-à-vis Netanyahu as he thinks.

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The last time President Obama ambushed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli gave as good as he got. This time he turned the other cheek. The reason for this turnabout by the normally combative prime minister tells us everything we need to know about the relative strength of the positions of these two leaders.

While the assumption on the part of most pundits was that Obama has Netanyahu in a corner, the latter’s reaction to the assault the president launched at him in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg this past weekend shows us this isn’t true. Though Netanyahu had to be infuriated by the president’s single-minded determination to blame Israel for the lack of peace as well as his obtuse praise for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he felt no need to publicly respond to it. Far from feeling threatened by Obama’s tirade, Netanyahu’s decision to ignore the president’s attack shows that he understands the dynamics of both the peace process and U.S. foreign policy actually give him the upper hand over the weak and increasingly out-of-touch lame duck in the White House.

Obama’s decision to give his faithful admirer Goldberg an interview in which he blasted Israel was odd since it came at a time when the Israelis have shown their willingness to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for Middle East peace negotiations and the Palestinians have publicly declared the same document to be unacceptable. More than that, the fact that he chose this particular moment to get in another shot at his least favorite foreign leader just when the world was focused on Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and awaiting an American response to this aggression can only be considered bizarre. Not only did this make his attack on Netanyahu seem both petty and personal, it also guaranteed that the international media that might have otherwise have jumped on the story was distracted elsewhere and diminished its impact. But Netanyahu’s seeming dismissal of this broadside shows that Obama is not in as strong a position vis-à-vis Netanyahu as he thinks.

Back in May 2011, Obama chose to give a speech attacking Israel’s stand on the peace process and demanding that it accept the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations just as before Netanyahu arrived in Washington. Obama had picked fights with Israel in 2009 and 2010 over Jerusalem and settlements but this was a direct attack on the prime minister. Netanyahu’s response was just as direct. When he met with Obama in the White House, he launched into a lengthy lecture to the president about Israeli security that made it clear to the president that he would not take the insult lying down. Netanyahu doubled down on that the next day when he received more cheers while addressing a joint meeting of Congress than the president had ever gotten.

But this time, Netanyahu chose to ignore the president’s slights. There were no public or even off-the-record remarks from his party expressing anger. And in his speech to AIPAC today, Netanyahu barely mentioned the president.

Though Israel has been squabbling with the U.S. over the direction of the Iran nuclear talks, Netanyahu broke no new ground on the issue in his speech. He restated his concerns about Tehran continuing uranium enrichment during the nuclear talks. But he did not allude to the fact that the U.S. was letting this happen. While he repeated his vow to do anything necessary to defend Israeli security — a veiled threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities — he kept his disagreements to a minimum and emphasized the joint concerns of the U.S. and Israel.

With regard to the topic on which Obama had been most critical — the peace process with the Palestinians — there was also no allusion to disagreement with Washington. To the contrary, Netanyahu spoke more about his desire for peace; his willingness to continue engaging in talks with the Palestinians and the advantages that peace would bring to Israel and the entire Middle East. Far from harping on the points where he and Obama disagree about the terms of a theoretical agreement, Netanyahu emphasized a key point where the U.S. had accepted Israel’s position: the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, thus signaling their willingness to end the conflict rather than merely pausing it.

While Netanyahu went on to denounce the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against as both immoral and anti-Semitic, the key here was a disinclination to use his speech to engage in a tit-for-tat battle with the administration. Why was that?

Some Obama loyalists may claim that this shows that Netanyahu got the message from the president. It’s likely that Israel’s future participation in Kerry’s talks will be cited by some in this group as evidence that Obama’s spanking of the prime minister worked. But this is nonsense. Given that Israel had already signaled that it will accept Kerry’s framework for more talks, that explanation won’t hold water.

A better reason for Netanyahu’s decision to turn the other cheek is that, unlike the president, the prime minister has been paying attention to the currents currently roiling Palestinian politics and knows that Abbas’ inability to rally his people behind a peace agreement renders any potential U.S.-Israeli arguments moot.

It should be remembered that the net results of the 2011 dustup between the two men was pointless. Despite Obama’s best efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, Abbas still wouldn’t budge enough to even negotiate, let alone agree to peace terms. The same dynamic is unfolding today with Israel reportedly offering massive territorial withdrawals of up to 90 percent of the West Bank in the secret talks with the PA while the Palestinians are still tying themselves up in knots explaining why they can’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state or give up the right of return.

Far from needing to defend himself on the American stage as he felt it important to do in 2011, Netanyahu now understands that forbearance is the best way to respond to Obama’s provocations. Try as he might to put the onus for the lack of peace on the Jewish state, Netanyahu knows it will always be the Palestinians who say “no” to peace, not the Israelis.

Similarly, as much as he must have been itching to directly take on Obama’s appeasement of Tehran, Netanyahu realizes that it is Iran’s lust for a nuclear weapon that will do more to undermine the administration’s negotiating tactics than anything he can say.

By eschewing any desire to pressure the Palestinians to make peace, the president more or less guaranteed that Kerry must ultimately fail. And by knuckling under the Iranians in the interim agreement signed by Kerry last November, President Obama has also embarked on a path that cannot lead him to the achievement of his stated goals in the current round of talks.

Though Obama’s attacks did real damage to Israel’s position, the prime minister is right to refuse to take the bait. Netanyahu cannot have failed to see that, far from offering him the opportunity to effectively pressure the Israelis, the president is floundering in his second term especially on foreign policy. The most effective answer to Obama’s taunts is patience since events will soon overtake the president’s positions on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts, as well as in other debacles around the globe that have popped up because of Obama’s weak leadership. Though the disparity in the relative power of their positions inevitably means Netanyahu must worry about Obama’s barbs, the bottom line here is that it is the president and not the prime minister who is in big trouble.

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Obama’s Journey from Arrogance to Incompetence

In a post last week, I wrote that near the end of his autobiography, the great French journalist and intellectual Raymond Aron, in a chapter on the tenure of Secretary of State Kissinger, wrote, “For a half century, I have limited my freedom of criticism by asking the question; in his place, what would I do?”

Aron’s overall point is that governing is harder than criticizing those attempting to govern and therefore ought to temper a bit one’s denunciations of those in power. This applies to those of us who are critics of President Obama. 

But this, too, needs to be said. When he ran for the presidency, it was Barack Obama who never put limits on his criticisms of others. He spoke as if the problems of the world would disappear with two events: the removal from office of his predecessor and his arrival as president of the United States. Even in a profession not known for attracting modest individuals, Mr. Obama’s arrogance set him apart.

In 2008 his campaign aides referred to him as the “black Jesus.” He told congressional Democrats during the 2008 campaign, “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.” During that campaign, while still a one-term senator, Obama decided he wanted to give a speech in Germany– and he wanted to deliver it at the Brandenburg Gate. 

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In a post last week, I wrote that near the end of his autobiography, the great French journalist and intellectual Raymond Aron, in a chapter on the tenure of Secretary of State Kissinger, wrote, “For a half century, I have limited my freedom of criticism by asking the question; in his place, what would I do?”

Aron’s overall point is that governing is harder than criticizing those attempting to govern and therefore ought to temper a bit one’s denunciations of those in power. This applies to those of us who are critics of President Obama. 

But this, too, needs to be said. When he ran for the presidency, it was Barack Obama who never put limits on his criticisms of others. He spoke as if the problems of the world would disappear with two events: the removal from office of his predecessor and his arrival as president of the United States. Even in a profession not known for attracting modest individuals, Mr. Obama’s arrogance set him apart.

In 2008 his campaign aides referred to him as the “black Jesus.” He told congressional Democrats during the 2008 campaign, “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.” During that campaign, while still a one-term senator, Obama decided he wanted to give a speech in Germany– and he wanted to deliver it at the Brandenburg Gate. 

“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” Mr. Obama told Patrick Gaspard, his political director, at the start of the 2008 campaign, according to The New Yorker. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.” A convention speech wasn’t enough for Mr. Obama; Greek columns needed to be added. During an interview with “60 Minutes,” Obama said, “I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR, and Lincoln.” (The use of the word “possible” is priceless.) Mr. Obama has compared himself to LeBron James; his aides compared him to Michael Jordan. He clearly conceived of himself as a world-historical figure. Nothing, it seemed, was beyond his power. (If you think I’m exaggerating, I’d urge you to watch this 30-second clip from an Obama speech in 2008.)

In foreign policy, Obama would wage a successful war in Afghanistan. He would convince dictators and adversaries why they should bow to his wishes. He would solve decades-long conflicts. American prestige would rise in all corners of the globe. “Instead of retreating from the world,” Obama said, “I will personally lead a new chapter of American engagement.” There would be the “reset” with Russia, the “new beginning” in the Middle East, the end of Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and so much more. Mr. Obama would practice “smart diplomacy.” After all, he understood things the rest of us did not. And if you didn’t accept his view of the world, you weren’t simply mistaken; you were an ideologue, a hyper-partisan, a dullard, perhaps a fool, and/or someone whose thinking belonged to bygone era. Watch the contemptuous way the president dismissed Mitt Romney in a presidential debate on the topic of Russia — despite the fact that events have proven Romney right and Obama wrong.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Our relations with nation after nation – from Afghanistan and Iraq to Russia and China, from Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea to India and Australia, from Honduras to Brazil, from Poland and the Czech Republic to Germany, Great Britain, Canada and more – are worse now than they were when Mr. Obama was sworn in as president in 2009. I’m not asking people to measure Mr. Obama against a standard of perfection; I’m asking them to measure him against his own promises, his own speeches, his own words.

Having been president for more than five years, we can now render some reasonable and informed judgments about Mr. Obama, including this one: he is an amateur on par with Jimmy Carter. And to see the crude and brutish Putin run circles around Obama—on negotiations over nuclear weapons, on granting asylum to Edward Snowden, on convincing Obama to undercut our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic, on establishing ties with Egypt, on strengthening the murderous Syrian regime, and now invading Crimea and threatening the rest of Ukraine—is painful for any American to witness. As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers put it, “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close.” 

Governing is harder than Barack Obama ever imagined. But it isn’t that much harder.

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Obama’s Settlement Construction Lie

Since John Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams and Jonathan Tobin have all written excellent takedowns of the fallacies, outright lies and destructive consequences of President Barack Obama’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg on Sunday, you might think there’s nothing left to say. But there are some additional points that merit consideration, and I’d like to focus on one: settlement construction. Because on this issue, Obama’s “facts” are flat-out wrong – and this particular untruth have some very important implications.

According to Obama, “we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time.” But in reality, as a simple glance at the annual data published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reveals, there has been less settlement construction during Benjamin Netanyahu’s five years as Israeli premier (2009-13) than under any of his recent predecessors.

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Since John Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams and Jonathan Tobin have all written excellent takedowns of the fallacies, outright lies and destructive consequences of President Barack Obama’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg on Sunday, you might think there’s nothing left to say. But there are some additional points that merit consideration, and I’d like to focus on one: settlement construction. Because on this issue, Obama’s “facts” are flat-out wrong – and this particular untruth have some very important implications.

According to Obama, “we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time.” But in reality, as a simple glance at the annual data published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reveals, there has been less settlement construction during Benjamin Netanyahu’s five years as Israeli premier (2009-13) than under any of his recent predecessors.

During those five years, housing starts in the settlements averaged 1,443 a year (all data is from the charts here, here and here plus this news report). That’s less than the 1,702 a year they averaged under Ehud Olmert in 2006-08, who is nevertheless internationally acclaimed as a peacemaker (having made the Palestinians an offer so generous that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice couldn’t believe she was hearing it). It’s also less than the 1,652 per year they averaged under Ariel Sharon in 2001-05, who is similarly lauded internationally as a peacemaker (for having left Gaza); the fact that even Sharon out-built Netanyahu is particularly remarkable, because his term coincided with the second intifada, when demand for housing in the settlements plummeted. And it’s far less than under Ehud Barak, who is also internationally acclaimed as a peacemaker (for his generous offer at Camp David in 2000): One single year under Barak, 2000, produced more housing starts in the settlements (4,683) than the entire first four years of Netanyahu’s term (4,679).

It’s true that settlement construction more than doubled last year; otherwise, Netanyahu’s average would have been even lower. But it doubled from such a low base that the absolute number of housing starts, 2,534, is not only far less than Barak’s record one-year high; it’s only slightly larger than the 1995 total of 2,430 – when the prime minister was Yitzhak Rabin, signatory of the Oslo Accords and patron saint of the peace process. In previous years, housing starts under Netanyahu were only a third to a half of those in 1995.

In short, if settlement construction were really the death blow to the peace process that Obama and his European counterparts like to claim, Netanyahu ought to be their favorite Israeli prime minister ever instead of the most hated, because never has settlement construction been as low as it has under him. The obvious conclusion is that all the talk about settlement construction is just a smokescreen, and what really makes Western leaders loathe Netanyahu is something else entirely: the fact that unlike Rabin, Barak, Sharon and Olmert, he has so far refused to offer the kind of sweeping territorial concessions that, every time they were tried, have resulted in massive waves of anti-Israel terror.

But it doesn’t sound good to say they hate Netanyahu because of his reluctance to endanger the country he was elected to serve. So instead, Western leaders prefer to harp on settlement construction, secure in the knowledge that no journalist will ever bother to check their “facts.”

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