Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 25, 2014

Kerry’s Unacceptable Ceasefire Seeks to Appease Hamas

Reports have emerged that Israel’s security cabinet is unanimously opposed to Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest ceasefire proposals. Much has changed since Israel unilaterally accepted the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire last week, before the discovery of the extent of Hamas’s underground terror tunnels and the massive terrorist attack planned for September. The Egyptian proposals—which had the backing of the Arab League—offered an immediate cessation of the violence without handing Hamas either a public-relations victory or any practical rewards for its latest terror outburst. Kerry’s half-baked plan, as reported, has none of those virtues.

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Reports have emerged that Israel’s security cabinet is unanimously opposed to Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest ceasefire proposals. Much has changed since Israel unilaterally accepted the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire last week, before the discovery of the extent of Hamas’s underground terror tunnels and the massive terrorist attack planned for September. The Egyptian proposals—which had the backing of the Arab League—offered an immediate cessation of the violence without handing Hamas either a public-relations victory or any practical rewards for its latest terror outburst. Kerry’s half-baked plan, as reported, has none of those virtues.

Kerry’s proposals have two glaring flaws. The first is that while they would seek to halt the missiles being fired into Israeli population centers, and likewise Israel would hold its fire, it’s not clear that the plan would allow for Israel to continue to destroy the warren of cross-border terror tunnels that Gazan militants have dug into Israel, some stretching directly beneath Israeli homes. These tunnels represent an immediate and critical threat to the lives and safety of Israelis and it’s inconceivable that Israel be expected to agree to anything that impairs its ability to counteract this breach of its security borders.

The other problematic element of Kerry’s plan is that it seeks to establish a week within which all of Hamas’s demands would be put on the table for negotiation. This just takes us back to where the parties were in the 2012 negotiations when there was also an effort to grant Hamas concessions. There cannot be a situation whereby whenever Hamas wishes to issue fresh demands it does so by instigating successive rounds of rocket warfare against Israel. And besides, several of Hamas’s complaints are against the Egyptians and the closure of the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border.

Hamas is now demanding a total lift of the so-called blockade on the Gaza Strip. But back in 2012 the restrictions on imports—and indeed exports—for Gaza were dramatically eased so as to only prevent materials that could be used by Islamists in their terror activities. For instance, any concrete brought into the strip was supposed to be done under the auspices of United Nations-approved projects. But just as UN facilities have been used for the storing of rockets, we’ve seen how that concrete, supposedly brought in for approved civilian purposes, has in fact been used to create a sprawling network of terror tunnels.

It is vital that Hamas is not rewarded for causing this latest round of violence; the Egyptians no doubt had this at the forefront of their minds when they drew up their proposals. But this seems to be beyond Kerry. President Obama has of course joined the chorus of voices calling for the “underlying issues” in Gaza to be addressed, thus buying into the notion that Hamas’s terrorism is fundamentally driven by a legitimate set of objectives which put the needs of the people of Gaza first. Nothing could be further from the truth and the very notion that Hamas has a set of negotiable demands is delusional. They want to kill Jews and end Israel, and no amount of pandering to “underlying issues” is going to change that.

If nothing else, the fact that the Egyptians came up with a ceasefire that Israel could accept, whereas Kerry has come up with something that Israel appears poised to reject, certainly says something about just how far down the rabbit-hole the Obama administration has gone with its foreign policy.

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Seeking the Welfare of the City

Representative Paul Ryan yesterday released a 73-page plan aimed at reforming anti-poverty programs and increasing social mobility.

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Representative Paul Ryan yesterday released a 73-page plan aimed at reforming anti-poverty programs and increasing social mobility.

The deficit-neutral plan would consolidate nearly a dozen federal anti-poverty programs into a single funding stream for states (called the “Opportunity Grant”); expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to childless workers; streamline federal grant, loan, and work-study programs and give more educational programs access to accreditation (thereby increasing more access to technical careers); revise the mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines while expanding enrollment in rehabilitative programing; and roll back “regressive regulations” that are particularly injurious to low-income people while easing licensing requirements to enter the workforce. Thoughtful analyses of Ryan’s plan can be found here, here, and here.

There are several features of Ryan’s “Expanding Opportunity in America” plan that are worth highlighting. The first is that his core reform requires and rewards work for those states that would opt in. It would do so by expanding one the best features of the 1996 welfare reform bill, in this case implementing work requirements for people receiving non-cash welfare assistance. States would have flexibility in terms of how they spend federal dollars, so long as it’s spent on programs that require work. This is a way for government to promote not simply work over idleness, but the dignity and self-sufficiency that often result from work.

Representative Ryan is also showing Republicans the importance of structural reforms, which are more important even than only cutting spending. (This applied to his Medicare reform proposals as well.) Mr. Ryan is demonstrating through his proposal that he wants to strengthen the social safety net, not undo it. And by supporting EITC, an effective federal program that promotes work and reduces poverty, Ryan is showing an empirical-minded rather than ideological approach to governing. He’s interested in championing what works.

I’m also encouraged by the fact that Ryan proposes reducing corporate welfare (such as subsidies for agriculture and energy). I’ve argued before that Republicans should be visible and persistent critics of corporate welfare–the vast network of subsidies and tax breaks extended by Democratic and Republican administrations alike to wealthy and well-connected corporations–since such benefits undermine free markets and undercut the public’s confidence in American capitalism. “Ending corporate welfare as we know it” is a pretty good mantra for Republicans.

In the wider context of things, Ryan has shown that he is–along with Senators Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and others (including governors and former governors like Jeb Bush)–helping the GOP to be both conservative and constructive. They are able to present not just a governing vision but also a governing agenda–one that is designed to meet the challenges of this moment, this era, this century. This contrasts rather well, I think, with modern liberalism, which is increasingly reactionary and exhausted.

One other thing: Paul Ryan’s effort to combat poverty and increase social mobility is important and impressive because great parties and political movements will care about those in the shadows of society. “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you,” Jeremiah writes, “and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.”

Politics involves many things, including rather mundane and even distasteful ones. But it also involves, at its best and at its highest, seeking the welfare of the city. That is something worthy of our attention and energies, as Paul Ryan and other prominent figures in the conservative movement understand.

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Iran’s Diplomatic Quagmire

The Iranians have been loudly boasting about their role in arming Hamas for its latest war against the Jewish state. And now Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been using his lively Twitter account to call for the West Bank to be armed against Israel, much as Gaza is. Given that this is the man whose regime is responsible for the bulk of the weaponry that is currently being turned on Israelis, it would seem prudent to take such calls seriously. But if nothing else, this latest conflagration in Gaza has provided a wonderful distraction for the Iranians, ensuring that the world’s attention is elsewhere, while its own dubious agenda slips beneath the radar of public consciousness.

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The Iranians have been loudly boasting about their role in arming Hamas for its latest war against the Jewish state. And now Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been using his lively Twitter account to call for the West Bank to be armed against Israel, much as Gaza is. Given that this is the man whose regime is responsible for the bulk of the weaponry that is currently being turned on Israelis, it would seem prudent to take such calls seriously. But if nothing else, this latest conflagration in Gaza has provided a wonderful distraction for the Iranians, ensuring that the world’s attention is elsewhere, while its own dubious agenda slips beneath the radar of public consciousness.

Indeed, last weekend, the date by which Iran and the P5+1 nations were supposed to have reached an agreement on ending Iran’s illegal nuclear enrichment program was extended by another four months, all without much comment or notice. In part the lack of reaction can be attributed to the fact that this turn of events was already widely anticipated. After all, the EU’s foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton was talking about an extension to the talks before the first six months of negotiations had even started. But of course, events in Israel-Gaza have provided the perfect diversion for both the Obama administration and the Iranians to keep these talks going.

Extending the negotiations through to November suits almost everyone–everyone apart from those who are most concerned about the nuclear threat from Iran, that is. For the Obama administration in particular, reaching the July deadline empty-handed would have been a disaster. Obama’s only strategy on Iran’s nuclear program is now to try and talk the Iranians out of going for the bomb. If forced to walk away from the talks now Obama has left himself with no plan B. It seems clear that for this administration, the military option was never really on the table. What’s more, the sanctions regime painstakingly put in place by the international community has already begun to unravel as part of the P5+1 interim arrangements. It is hard to imagine that it would be possible to put the sanctions strategy back together again now, and at this late stage, when Iran is already on the cusp of nuclear breakout, putting sanctions back in place is unlikely to effectively deter the Iranians nor significantly slow them down at all.

After six months of trying to reach an agreement on Iranian nuclear enrichment it seems unlikely that another four months of talks are really going to make any difference. The sides seem about as far apart on the issue of Iran’s centrifuges as they were when talks began. The Iranians were always eager to have the negotiation period extended–hardly surprising, since an extension means further relief from sanctions and all the while Iran can push ahead with expanding its nuclear infrastructure. Under the terms of the interim agreement Iran is obliged to keep its enrichment at a lower level than before and must allow a continuation of the inspections of its facilities. But with Iran having successfully hidden major nuclear sites from Western intelligence in the past, it’s perfectly conceivable that in such a large country, inspectors could miss some of the most crucial areas.

The major sticking point is the issue of the number of centrifuges that the international community will permit Iran to keep. Those in Iran’s immediate firing line—Israel and the Gulf states—would like to see an Iran that has no enrichment capabilities whatsoever. They’ve been told by the Obama administration that that’s “unrealistic.” Of course, it is unrealistic as long as Obama is unwilling to genuinely put all options on the table, but realistic or not, the fact is there are six United Nations Security Council resolutions in place that very clearly prohibit all nuclear enrichment by Iran.

What the powers seem to be haggling over now is how close to the nuclear precipice Iran should be allowed to step. Under such a strategy, whatever happens, the Iranian nuclear dagger is left hovering over the West and its allies; it’s just a question of how high. Watching all of this one can’t help but be reminded of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935. Strict controls had been set on limiting any German military build-up and with the rise of Hitler those controls became all the more warranted. Unwilling to take a concrete stand against the German breaches of international law, the British argument at the time essentially went: better to reach an agreement with the Germans that allowed them some limited rearmament than to have no agreement and for the Germans to simply pursue unlimited rearmament. British officials dismissed French disquiet at all this as being “short sighted.”  Or as you might say in the parlance of  Obama administration; “unrealistic.”

When it comes to a nuclear Iran, the Obama administration doesn’t expect America’s allies, Congress, or the public to swallow this hog whole. But the prolonged negotiation period, discussing just how many centrifuges the mullahs can keep, is a process of softening us up. We’re being fed the hog bit by bit.

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Israeli Ambassadors and the Media War

Israel has long struggled with the PR challenge of fighting terrorist groups like Hamas whose strategy is based on putting their own citizens in harm’s way and counting on a sympathetic (or easily duped) media to play along. But it’s been clear that Israel has made some headway in recent conflicts. An indication of this improvement in the information war is one aspect of Gallup’s latest poll on American attitudes toward the current conflict in Gaza.

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Israel has long struggled with the PR challenge of fighting terrorist groups like Hamas whose strategy is based on putting their own citizens in harm’s way and counting on a sympathetic (or easily duped) media to play along. But it’s been clear that Israel has made some headway in recent conflicts. An indication of this improvement in the information war is one aspect of Gallup’s latest poll on American attitudes toward the current conflict in Gaza.

Of those who are following the news “very closely,” 71 percent say Israel’s actions are justified. Gallup notes: “A majority of Americans interviewed July 22-23 say they are following news of the conflict very (22%) or somewhat (37%) closely. The more closely Americans are following the news about the Middle East situation, the more likely they are to think Israel’s actions are justified.”

Why might that be? Certainly the mainstream media has maintained its traditional bias against Israel, and alternative sources have in many cases been even worse. One explanation, then, for Israel’s support among those who are actually following the conflict could be that Hamas’s conduct is so inhumane and grotesque that even a broadcast slanted against Israel could not rehabilitate Hamas’s genocidal behavior and use of human shields.

Another is that trust in traditional media is falling. This might make consumers of news more careful readers. No one who knows about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would think they are getting the full story from these traditional news organs. That doesn’t mean they won’t read them, but they’ll supplement them with other sources or do their own limited fact checking.

Another explanation has to do with the current Israeli prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu speaks fluent English and has cultivated relationships with American politicians on both sides of the aisle for decades. When a conflict happens, Netanyahu happily goes on the Sunday shows to make Israel’s case. He understands not only English but American politics and society far better than most foreign heads of state or government.

But, crucially, it’s not just Netanyahu. His first ambassador to the U.S. was Michael Oren, a brilliant historian and U.S. citizen who had been teaching at Georgetown before his appointment as ambassador. Oren is also the author of the definitive history of America in the Middle East. He made for an erudite and universally respected advocate for Israel’s strategic and political actions.

Oren has been succeeded in that post by Ron Dermer, who was also born in America and even worked in American politics earlier in his career before becoming an advisor to Netanyahu. Dermer offered a great example of his effectiveness as a spokesman for Israel yesterday on CNN with host Erin Burnett. The Right Scoop has the video, which is well worth watching.

The pattern throughout the interview is of Dermer not only rebutting accusations against Israel but of filling in missing information from previous CNN broadcasts and interviews–all in the four-minute interview. When Burnett admits that information Dermer is providing is relevant for CNN’s viewers, Dermer says:

But Erin I’ve been listening for two hours of reports on CNN. I have seen split-screens, horrible pictures. Horrible pictures that any decent human being would be horrified by, [and] I have not heard a single person say what I just said to you now. And I think that that does a disservice to your viewers to not give them the context they need to make these judgments. Hamas is placing missile batteries in schools, in hospitals, in mosques, and there must be outrage by the world at Hamas to end it.

There’s nothing groundbreaking in the words themselves. But viewers tuning in at home will see an Israeli ambassador not back on his heels meekly explaining how Israel is doing its best or stumbling over his words. And they won’t have to decipher heavily accented English. During the Netanyahu years, when Americans see Israeli representatives they see not just people who could have been their schoolmate in Florida or their professor at Georgetown, but people who, in some cases, actually were their classmates and their teachers. So the familiarity probably adds a dimension to the Gallup results.

And there is also the fact that war is messy, complex, and rarely presents easy answers. It’s one thing to have an instinctive opposition to war and to be horrified, as Dermer concedes, by the images war produces. But when you then drill down and try to get a sense of what the conflict is about and how it all came to pass, you realize that Israel did not choose war over peace or death over life–but that Israel’s enemies did.

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‘Maximum Restraint’

Please listen and watch this. It’s by a folk-rock artist named Peter Himmelman, who writes uncommonly literate and sophisticated songs both for adults and children. This is the first work of popular music in America inspired by the Gaza war, and it will come as a deep (and I expect) extraordinarily heartening surprise to you. And here’s something he just published on the Huffington Post.

Please listen and watch this. It’s by a folk-rock artist named Peter Himmelman, who writes uncommonly literate and sophisticated songs both for adults and children. This is the first work of popular music in America inspired by the Gaza war, and it will come as a deep (and I expect) extraordinarily heartening surprise to you. And here’s something he just published on the Huffington Post.

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Abbas Now Paying the Price of Martyrdom Culture He Nourished

If it weren’t so much his own fault, I’d feel deeply sorry for Mahmoud Abbas right now. A few weeks ago, the Palestinian Authority president was handily beating Hamas in the polls; now, his popularity is at a nadir. A whopping 85 percent of West Bank Palestinians approve of Hamas’s performance during the current fighting with Israel, while only 13 percent approve of Abbas’s performance. His own people have held stormy demonstrations denouncing him as a “traitor”; he was concerned enough to send his wife and grandchildren to Jordan for safety. And what heinous crime did he commit to merit this opprobrium? He urged Hamas to accept an immediate cease-fire in Gaza in order to save Palestinian lives.

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If it weren’t so much his own fault, I’d feel deeply sorry for Mahmoud Abbas right now. A few weeks ago, the Palestinian Authority president was handily beating Hamas in the polls; now, his popularity is at a nadir. A whopping 85 percent of West Bank Palestinians approve of Hamas’s performance during the current fighting with Israel, while only 13 percent approve of Abbas’s performance. His own people have held stormy demonstrations denouncing him as a “traitor”; he was concerned enough to send his wife and grandchildren to Jordan for safety. And what heinous crime did he commit to merit this opprobrium? He urged Hamas to accept an immediate cease-fire in Gaza in order to save Palestinian lives.

In short, Abbas forgot the ironclad rule of Palestinian politics: Taking Israeli lives is always more popular that saving Palestinian lives. The martyrdom culture Palestinian political and religious leaders have nurtured for generations means that even if a war kills far more Palestinians than Israelis, waging it “restores their feeling of human dignity,” as one former PA official said last week. And while Abbas didn’t create this culture, he has not only made no effort to wean his people off it in almost 10 years as PA president; he has actively reinforced it. Day in and day out, he has told his people that those who murder Israelis are the Palestinians’ greatest heroes, the model every Palestinian should strive to emulate.

On May 31, 2012, for instance, he presided over an official state ceremony to honor 91 terrorists whose bodies had just been returned by Israel. Collectively, these terrorists killed over 100 Israeli civilians; many were suicide bombers. As Abbas laid wreaths on their coffins, the secretary-general of his office and the PA-appointed mufti both gave eulogies saying the souls of the deceased were urging other Palestinians to “follow in their path.”

That’s one example out of hundreds; here’s some more from the last few months: In June, Abbas awarded the order of merit to the planner of several deadly suicide bombings, “in appreciation of his role in ‎the struggle and his commitment to ‎defending the Palestinian people.” In May, at a ceremony honoring another man responsible for several deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, Abbas’s representative declared, “Our Martyrs and prisoners will remain the beacon of our magnificent glory … We must be loyal to these heroes in all aspects.” In February, Abbas awarded the Star of Honor to yet another terrorist responsible for numerous attacks on Israeli civilians.

Under his leadership, the PA has named city squares, summer camps, and sports tournaments after terrorists; its official television station has broadcast videos and programs glorifying terrorism; his Fatah party has handed out candy to celebrate terror attacks and exalted terrorists as role models on its Facebook page; and much more.

In every possible way, Abbas has told his people for 10 years that the true heroes, the ones to be emulated, are those who kill Israelis, whatever the cost. And it’s worked so well that now, when he tries to tell them shooting rockets at Israel isn’t worth the price in Palestinian lives, they denounce him as a traitor.

So yesterday, he gave up. After days of trying to prevent Israeli-Palestinian clashes in the West Bank, he let his Fatah party organize a violent demonstration in which some 10,000 Palestinians threw rocks and firebombs at Israeli police guarding the main checkpoint into Jerusalem, thereby producing yet more martyrs for the Palestinian cause: one Palestinian killed and 200 injured, three of them critically. That, after all, is what the Palestinians wanted.

And that’s also why Abbas never has and never will sign a peace agreement with Israel. You can’t sign an agreement ending the conflict when your own people denounce you as a traitor even for trying to arrange a cease-fire. And you can’t persuade your people to accept such an agreement as long as they consider saving Palestinian lives lower priority than taking Israeli ones.

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