Commentary Magazine


Sydney Siege and Monitoring Extremists

In the annals of terrorism, 2014 will be notable for two trends: the rise of ISIS, eclipsing al-Qaeda, and the rise of “lone wolf” terrorists carrying out heinous attacks with little if any help from anyone. The two trends are, in fact, related, because ISIS is now becoming as much an inspiration for violent fanatics as al-Qaeda once was.

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In the annals of terrorism, 2014 will be notable for two trends: the rise of ISIS, eclipsing al-Qaeda, and the rise of “lone wolf” terrorists carrying out heinous attacks with little if any help from anyone. The two trends are, in fact, related, because ISIS is now becoming as much an inspiration for violent fanatics as al-Qaeda once was.

Both trends are evident in Australia which saw a 16-hour siege of a cafe in Sydney carried out by a 50-year-old Iranian immigrant calling himself Man Haron Monis, a self-styled sheikh who has preached an extremist gospel and recently converted from Shiite to Sunni Islam. His own lawyer calls him a “damaged goods individual” who was apparently on bail in two different criminal cases–he is charged “with being an accessory before and after the fact in the murder of his ex-wife, Noleen Hayson Pal, who was stabbed and set on fire” and with “the indecent and sexual assault of a woman in western Sydney.” In yet another case, he “pleaded guilty in 2013 to 12 charges related to the sending of poison-pen letters to the families of Australian servicemen who were killed overseas.”

What a charmer. A marginal, criminal character, Monis was apparently spurred into taking hostages because he was exercised about Australian military actions, in cooperation with the U.S. and other allies, against ISIS.

There is little that anyone can do to anticipate such random attacks but there is more that can be done to monitor known extremists such as Monis. Unfortunately standing in the way is a misconceived reading of the freedom of religion which is a bedrock of any free society.

It’s absolutely true that anyone should have the freedom to practice any religion–as long as it doesn’t involve advocating or carrying out acts of violence. Extremists should not be able to hide in a mosque any more than in a synagogue or church. That is why it is deeply unfortunate that Mayor Bill de Blasio shut down a New York Police Department program that sent plainclothes officers to mosques, among other locations, to look for signs of terrorist plotting.

Shutting down this surveillance is a politically correct gesture that arises from the same mindset that had Australians tweeting “#IllRideWithYou” after the Sydney siege started to make clear they would accept taxi rides from drivers in traditional Muslim garb–as if the real problem that Australia faces is “Islamophobia” rather than Islamist terrorism. But while silly, the Sydney tweet campaign was also a harmless gesture. De Blasio’s actions are far more significant. They make New Yorkers less safe from the kind of lone wolf attack that just hit Sydney.

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Kasich’s Amendment Gimmick and 2016

Up until his impressive reelection as governor of Ohio, there wasn’t much national buzz about John Kasich’s hopes for the presidency in 2016. But the former congressman, investment banker, and Fox News commentator’s strong showing in what is probably the most important battleground state in the country placed him squarely in the middle of a large field of potential GOP candidates and with better credentials for high office than most of the others. Yet the problem facing Kasich if he really wants to win his party’s nomination goes deeper than the same allergy to Wall Street types that hurt Mitt Romney and may yet sink Jeb Bush. It’s that his stands on immigration and Medicaid expansion make him look like just another big-government Republican/RINO to the conservative base. Kasich has an answer to those criticisms: a crusade for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. But though the idea appears designed to make him appear to be a candidate the Tea Party can love as well as the establishment, Republicans would do well to give it a wide berth.

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Up until his impressive reelection as governor of Ohio, there wasn’t much national buzz about John Kasich’s hopes for the presidency in 2016. But the former congressman, investment banker, and Fox News commentator’s strong showing in what is probably the most important battleground state in the country placed him squarely in the middle of a large field of potential GOP candidates and with better credentials for high office than most of the others. Yet the problem facing Kasich if he really wants to win his party’s nomination goes deeper than the same allergy to Wall Street types that hurt Mitt Romney and may yet sink Jeb Bush. It’s that his stands on immigration and Medicaid expansion make him look like just another big-government Republican/RINO to the conservative base. Kasich has an answer to those criticisms: a crusade for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. But though the idea appears designed to make him appear to be a candidate the Tea Party can love as well as the establishment, Republicans would do well to give it a wide berth.

As Politico reports, Kasich is currently touring the country promoting the idea and, of course, also boosting his visibility for those Republicans looking for a successful governor to support for president rather than the unelectable candidates of the right or the establishment favorites embraced by large donors and moderates. If viewed solely in that context, it’s a serviceable gimmick and can also help engender much-needed discussions about taxing and spending, as Kasich says is his purpose. However, on closer examination, the balanced budget amendment idea sounds better in theory than it is in practice.

An amendment would seemingly prevent the kind of bloated deficit spending and the dangerous expansion of debt that rightly enrages conservatives. Its advocates can also point to the example of the states that have such requirements in their constitutions to show that such a scheme can work to prevent the excesses that are harming the economy. But, as anyone who has ever covered a state budget process knows, the requirement to balance the ledgers is just as likely to work against conservative principles as it is to favor them.

One problem is that the requirement to balance the budget can be just as easily employed as an argument to raise taxes as to cut spending. Indeed, for all of the revulsion against new taxes, we know that cutting budget items, especially entitlements, is an uphill climb under the best of circumstances.

Even worse, the notion that a mere statutory requirement can actually prohibit deficit spending is something of a myth. As the states have proved, the process by which their budgets are balanced generally involves sleight of hand tactics and deceptions as much as it does transparency and sober judgments. At best, it is a symbolic measure that could help deter some of the worst practices of contemporary Washington. At worst, it will be a false panacea that will facilitate more of the same congressional hijinks that produce the sort of Christmas tree measures that fiscal conservatives purport to hate. In short, if you didn’t like the recently passed Cromnibus, you won’t think much of life under a balanced budget amendment.

As for Kasich’s 2016 chances, they are, to be fair, as good or as bad as anyone else in a crowded field. However, as Politico notes, he’s more likely to make an impact if any or the entire favored establishment trio of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or Mitt Romney stay out of the race. In the meantime, he can go on peddling his amendment idea and perhaps start some necessary conversations about a future in which Americans will no longer demand a government so big that it can’t stop spending. But no one should mistake his idea for an actual solution that problem.

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Should Obama Care Who Wins Israel’s Knesset Elections?

The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

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The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

Actually, the more interesting question is: Should Obama care who wins? Obviously we know he does care. He hates Netanyahu, and Obama and co-president Valerie Jarrett tend to make policy based on personal grievances and petty grudges rather than on basic rationality. So Obama will care who wins, and perhaps even seek to, yet again, influence the results.

But he shouldn’t care. (Even if he did, he shouldn’t meddle, but the days when Obama could be convinced to respect the sovereignty and democracy of allies are over, if they ever existed.) Bibi Derangement Syndrome has caused American politicos and commentators to do very strange things. For Obama, this has meant downgrading the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war. For commentators, this has meant trying to recruit the corrupt and unpopular Ehud Olmert to return to politics.

So, being that the results of the Western left’s interaction with Israeli politics range from terrible to awful, it would benefit everyone involved if Obama gave up on trying to sabotage Israeli governments. And perhaps one way to convince him of that is to explain very clearly why it would be futile for him to meddle anyway.

That’s not because the left doesn’t have a chance to unseat Bibi; indeed it does (though still a longshot). Rather, it’s because the outcome of a Labor victory is unlikely to fundamentally change anything about the peace process.

Obama’s interest in Israel starts and ends with his attempts to get the Jewish state to give away land so he can boost his own presidential legacy. This is in part why Israelis have never come to trust Obama. He doesn’t know much about Israel, and he doesn’t show any interest in learning. For all his mistakes, this was simply not true of Bill Clinton. It was the opposite of true for George W. Bush, who gave moving speeches in Israel that testified to his love of the country and his deep knowledge and appreciation of its people and its history. Obama’s lack of intellectual curiosity is not limited to Israel, of course, but it certainly applies to it.

And so if his interest in Israel starts and ends with the peace process, his interest in Israeli national elections starts and ends there too. Thus Obama might assume that since Labor is traditionally more supportive of the peace process than Likud, and since Labor has added Tzipi Livni, who was Netanyahu’s peace envoy, to its combined electoral slate, therefore this election presents a stark choice between those Obama can manipulate and those Obama cannot. The reality, however, is more complicated, as reality tends to be.

The Israeli right is still benefiting from the collapse in public confidence in the left’s prosecution of national-security policy. Labor has recovered somewhat, but in recent years economic issues have hovered pretty close to the surface for Israeli voters. If Labor wins the election, it almost certainly won’t be seen as a mandate for giving away land to the Palestinians.

This is not only because Labor has less room to maneuver on this issue than the more security-trusted Likud. It’s also because the peace process is at a low point of the modern era, and it’s there because of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. The Clinton administration made some progress on this front, even if the ultimate failure of the Clinton initiative led to a wave of Palestinian violence. The Bush administration made more genuine progress on this front with the Gaza disengagement and the eventual proffer of a generous peace deal from Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas.

The Obama era has seen the resort to a wave of Palestinian violence but no progress leading up to it. In fact, the two sides have been pushed by Obama and Kerry farther apart than they’ve been in decades. When Obama gets involved in the peace process, there is simply no upside, only downside. If Labor wins, there is no room right now for a renewed peace process, and Obama only has two years left in office anyway.

Additionally, Labor would have to do more than just win the election. They would have to put together a governing coalition, and the math is aligned against them. This also mitigates against the Obama agenda; any coalition Labor could put together would probably have to include Avigdor Lieberman and/or the ultra-Orthodox.

It is doubtful that anything significant will change after the Knesset elections in March. That may be disappointing to Obama, but it also might stop him from once again recklessly meddling in the messy world of Israeli politics.

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Natural Gas Strengthens Israel, But It Won’t End Conflict

Give the New York Times credit. Though much of the rest of the journalistic world has long ago given in-depth coverage to the story of how Israel’s development of natural gas fields is in the process of making it an energy superpower, the so-called newspaper of record eventually got around to it. In a story published today, the Times discusses how the development of the offshore Tamar field and the even larger Leviathan site is making the Jewish state energy independent and putting it in a position to become a major source of gas for neighboring Arab nations and eventually Europe. This is an enormous achievement. But despite the implications of this event, the Times is unfortunately exaggerating one aspect of it. While the gas may make Israel even stronger and solidify its ties with moderate Arab nations, it won’t end the conflict with the Palestinians or the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.

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Give the New York Times credit. Though much of the rest of the journalistic world has long ago given in-depth coverage to the story of how Israel’s development of natural gas fields is in the process of making it an energy superpower, the so-called newspaper of record eventually got around to it. In a story published today, the Times discusses how the development of the offshore Tamar field and the even larger Leviathan site is making the Jewish state energy independent and putting it in a position to become a major source of gas for neighboring Arab nations and eventually Europe. This is an enormous achievement. But despite the implications of this event, the Times is unfortunately exaggerating one aspect of it. While the gas may make Israel even stronger and solidify its ties with moderate Arab nations, it won’t end the conflict with the Palestinians or the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.

The development of the offshore fields turns the old joke about Moses leading the Jewish people to the only country in the region without oil on its head. As Arthur Hermann wrote in the March issue of COMMENTARY, these new sources of energy have the ability to make an already growing and strong Israeli economy even greater. Though there are serious questions about Israel’s ability to, even with the help of foreign investors and contributors like the Texas-based Nobel Energy Company that runs Tamar, properly exploit this bonanza, there are also reasons to be concerned about whether the rising tide of hate for Israel in Europe and elsewhere will interfere with the ability of global investors to help fund the effort.

But even the most gloomy pessimist about Israel’s prospects must concede that the energy boom has the ability to both further energize the Jewish state’s economy and to provide a basis for solid economic partnerships with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority.

But some of the optimists quoted in both the COMMENTARY feature and in the Times need to scale back their expectations with respect to the connection between natural gas and peace. Anyone who thinks the prospect of profitable economic partnerships with Israel will convince Palestinians to give up their fight to destroy it have not been paying attention to the history of the conflict.

From the earliest days of the movement that saw the Jews return to their historic homeland, Zionists have dreamed about economic cooperation providing the magic formula that would persuade the Arabs to accept the new reality. In particular, the pre-state Labor Zionist movement was heavily invested in the notion that the Palestinian working class and agricultural laborers would find a common bond with their fellow workers among the Jews and reject the calls for violence from their leaders who came from the local landowners. But this hope went unfulfilled. Far from seeing the obvious benefits to their livelihood that ought to follow from the work the Zionists did in developing the country, Arabs viewed each new economic achievement or infrastructure developed as a threat. The Arabs may have wanted more prosperity but they valued their conception of national honor—which viewed any thought of Jewish sovereignty over even an inch of the country as an intolerable insult and injury—far more than their pocketbooks or the wellbeing of their families.

That trend continued through the period of the pre-state era past the creation of the Jewish state and to the present day. Indeed, were the welfare of individuals or even of plight of the 1948 refugees and their descendants a national priority, the Palestinians would have long ago given up their futile calls for a right of return that would destroy Israel and instead concentrated their efforts on resettlement and acceptance of peace offers that would give them a state on almost all of the land outside of the 1967 lines they claim.

If economic development meant anything to Palestinian public opinion Israel’s retreat from Gaza would have turned out very differently. Though foreign investors purchased the greenhouses to be left behind by departing Israeli farmers, the structures were all torched within hours of the retreat in an orgy of destruction. Nor would former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have found himself a man without a party or even a constituency when he pushed for good government measures and an end to the official Fatah corruption that blights the West Bank.

The natural gas fields do have an indirect impact on the chances of peace. By making Israel stronger, they give the Jewish state the ability to hold on rather than making rash concessions that will only allow the Palestinians to continue the conflict in the future on even more advantageous terms. The “iron wall” that Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote about in the 1920s when he dissented from Labor’s optimism about peace with the Arabs continues to be the only factor that can persuade Arabs to end the conflict as it did with Egypt and Jordan’s governments though most inhabitants of either country are implacably hostile to Israel.

Friends of Israel should be heartened and its foes discouraged by the development of the gas fields. But so long as Palestinian nationalism remains inextricably tied to the cause of eliminating the Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, they won’t end the conflict. Nor will they make it easier for Europeans who believe the lies about Israel being a colonial, apartheid state to merely do businesses with it rather than aiding those working for its destruction.

Israel must stand up for its right to its land, not merely its right to security or the possibility that it can help supply Europe with an alternative to Arab or Russian energy sources. If it doesn’t all the natural gas in the world won’t stop the international community from seeking to destroy it.

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In Nuke Talks, Obama Still Iran’s Best Asset

For the first time since the Iran nuclear talks were extended for the second time last month, the United States and its allies will meet again with Tehran’s negotiators in Vienna on Wednesday. To listen to public statements from the Obama administration, the allied team will be there to insist on a deal that will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But the same factors that have tilted these negotiations in Iran’s direction throughout the process still seem to be pushing the outcome toward an agreement that will be touted as a desperately needed foreign-policy triumph for the administration. With both the French becoming more vocal about their dissatisfaction with America’s leadership in the talks and the Islamist regime making no secret of their unwillingness to make more concessions, the question facing the negotiators is not so much whether a deal is possible, but whether the U.S. is able to resist the temptation to continue giving ground to the Iranians in order to get a deal at virtually any price.

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For the first time since the Iran nuclear talks were extended for the second time last month, the United States and its allies will meet again with Tehran’s negotiators in Vienna on Wednesday. To listen to public statements from the Obama administration, the allied team will be there to insist on a deal that will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But the same factors that have tilted these negotiations in Iran’s direction throughout the process still seem to be pushing the outcome toward an agreement that will be touted as a desperately needed foreign-policy triumph for the administration. With both the French becoming more vocal about their dissatisfaction with America’s leadership in the talks and the Islamist regime making no secret of their unwillingness to make more concessions, the question facing the negotiators is not so much whether a deal is possible, but whether the U.S. is able to resist the temptation to continue giving ground to the Iranians in order to get a deal at virtually any price.

As the next round of talks begins, observers need to think back to the allies’ position prior to the signing of the interim deal to understand just how far the U.S. has retreated from its current perilous position. In 2012 when he was running for reelection, President Obama vowed during his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney that any deal must end Iran’s nuclear program. The allies were similarly united behind a position that Iran had no right to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel under any circumstances and that its plutonium plant at Arak must be dismantled.

Since then, the U.S. has accepted the notion that Iran has the right to a nuclear program and that its infrastructure will remain largely in place no matter what the terms of an agreement might say. It has also tacitly recognized Iran’s right to enrichment while claiming that the low levels permitted freeze its progress toward a bomb even though everyone knows these restrictions can easily be reversed. The U.S. has also given every indication it will allow Iran to keep its centrifuges as well as showing no sign that it will press Tehran to give up its plutonium option or stop producing ballistic missiles whose only purpose would be to deliver nuclear warheads. Even worse, the administration seems to be giving up any effort to find out just how much progress the Iranians have made toward weaponizing their nuclear project or to force them to admit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to get the answers to this vital question.

Based on the experience of the last year and a half of talking with Obama’s envoys, Iran’s negotiators know they only have to stand their ground and it’s only a matter of time until the Americans give in to their demands one by one until they get terms that will let them become a nuclear threshold power as well as lifting the economic sanctions that continue to cripple Iran’s economy.

That the Iranian people are clamoring for an end to the sanctions is clear. As the New York Times reported on Friday, anticipation of the collapse of the restrictions is the talk of Tehran. The eagerness of their would-be European trading partners is just as vocal. In theory, this desire to reconnect Iran to the global economy ought to give the U.S. the leverage to make the Iranians give up their nuclear ambitions. On top of that, the collapse of the price of oil should have Iran even more desperate and the position of the allies even stronger.

But the Iranians know whom they are dealing with. As has become increasingly clear in the last year in which the talks went into two overtime periods despite administration promises that the talks would be finite in length, President Obama’s goal is not so much to fulfill his campaign promise about the nuclear threat as it is to launch a new détente with the Iran. This is a crucial point since it not only makes him more reluctant to stick to Western demands about nuclear issues but makes it impossible for him to contemplate abandoning the negotiations. That means that the Iranians know the president isn’t even thinking, as he should be, of ratcheting up the economic pressure with tougher sanctions, or of making the Islamists fear the possibility that the U.S. would ever use force to ensure the threat is eliminated.

Under these conditions the chances of the U.S. negotiating a deal that could actually stop Iran from ever getting a bomb are slim and none. Instead, the only question remains how far the Iranians are willing to press the president to bend to their will in order to let him declare a victory and welcome this terrorist-sponsoring regime moving closer to regional hegemony as well as a nuclear weapon.

Rather than the renewed diplomacy being a signal for congressional critics from both parties of the president’s policy to pipe down, the new talks should encourage them to work harder to pass the sanctions the president claims he doesn’t need. Unless they act, the path to appeasement of Iran seems to be clear.

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John Bolton: COMMENTARY Is Repeatedly Ahead of the Crowd

COMMENTARY has played an invaluable role in American political discourse for decades, offering thoughtful analysis on issues rather than sound bites or bumper stickers. Especially when it comes to U.S. foreign and defense policy, COMMENTARY has time and time again been ahead of the crowd, anticipating trends and developments that others react to only after the fact. I can’t imagine not being a COMMENTARY subscriber.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

COMMENTARY has played an invaluable role in American political discourse for decades, offering thoughtful analysis on issues rather than sound bites or bumper stickers. Especially when it comes to U.S. foreign and defense policy, COMMENTARY has time and time again been ahead of the crowd, anticipating trends and developments that others react to only after the fact. I can’t imagine not being a COMMENTARY subscriber.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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Why Do States Choose to Kill Dissidents in Paris?

Over the past couple days, I have been in Brussels to attend and speak at a conference addressing the challenges Turkey and the Kurds pose to the European Union. One speaker, French lawyer Antoine Comte, provided an update into the investigation concerning the murders almost two years ago of Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as well as Kurdish activists Fidan Doğan and Leyla Söylemez, shot dead in their office in Paris. He noted the long history of political assassinations in Paris. In 1965, Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka disappeared in Paris, allegedly killed by the Moroccan security services. And a few years later, Chadian dictator François Tombalbaye apparently had exiled politician Outel Bono killed in Paris. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, the Islamic Republic has assassinated at least 11 dissidents in Paris. Algerian, Syrian, Palestinian, South African, and Basque activists, politicians, and terrorists have all been killed in Paris.

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Over the past couple days, I have been in Brussels to attend and speak at a conference addressing the challenges Turkey and the Kurds pose to the European Union. One speaker, French lawyer Antoine Comte, provided an update into the investigation concerning the murders almost two years ago of Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as well as Kurdish activists Fidan Doğan and Leyla Söylemez, shot dead in their office in Paris. He noted the long history of political assassinations in Paris. In 1965, Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka disappeared in Paris, allegedly killed by the Moroccan security services. And a few years later, Chadian dictator François Tombalbaye apparently had exiled politician Outel Bono killed in Paris. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, the Islamic Republic has assassinated at least 11 dissidents in Paris. Algerian, Syrian, Palestinian, South African, and Basque activists, politicians, and terrorists have all been killed in Paris.

Back to Cansiz, Doğan, and Söylemez: At the time, I speculated the Iran might have been responsible. The preponderance of evidence which has emerged since the murders, however, makes it pretty clear I was wrong, and that Turkey’s security service was to blame. The most damning evidence is a leaked, ten-minute conversation in which the alleged assassin discusses the mission and targets with members of the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), Turkey’s intelligence service. In addition, a leaked MIT document (consistent with MIT paper stock including watermarks) corroborates those who allege MIT complicity. The French daily Le Monde summarizes the allegations.

The French government, however, has gone silent on its investigation and the French Interior Ministry appears to be stopping its investigation so as not to antagonize the Turkish government. After all, should Paris pursue an investigation that might antagonize Ankara, contracts could be at risk. Alas, with France, the same story repeats.

And it will keep repeating—with Paris being ground zero for murders of dissidents and political opposition—until the French government recognizes that putting its own commercial interests above the rule of law makes it not a dream destination for honeymooners but rather a playground for regimes seeking to quiet their oppositions. Rather than deep-six the investigation into the three Kurdish activists, it is long past time for the French government to pursue the investigation quickly and publicly, wherever it may lead and whomever it might implicate.

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Reveling in the Anti-Israel Double Standard

Speaking at the Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic conference on Thursday, Danish Ambassador Jesper Vahr told a stunned audience that Israelis should welcome, and indeed expect, the double standard that Europeans apply to the Jewish state. The ambassador spun it as complimentary for Israel to be held to what he described as a European standard, as opposed to the standard applied to Israel’s neighbors. Of course, the truth is that Israel is held not to a “European” standard, but to an entirely unique one. And while Vahr’s suggestion should be considered deeply offensive for what it says about the European view of Arab countries, more concerning still is that this is not the attitude of anyone who wanted to see Israel survive long in such a region.

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Speaking at the Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic conference on Thursday, Danish Ambassador Jesper Vahr told a stunned audience that Israelis should welcome, and indeed expect, the double standard that Europeans apply to the Jewish state. The ambassador spun it as complimentary for Israel to be held to what he described as a European standard, as opposed to the standard applied to Israel’s neighbors. Of course, the truth is that Israel is held not to a “European” standard, but to an entirely unique one. And while Vahr’s suggestion should be considered deeply offensive for what it says about the European view of Arab countries, more concerning still is that this is not the attitude of anyone who wanted to see Israel survive long in such a region.

During a panel session at the conference, Denmark’s ambassador to Israel argued that when it comes to how Europe judges Israel, “Israel should insist that we discriminate, that we apply double standards, this is because you are one of us.” With regard to how Europe judges neighboring Arab countries, Vahr told Israelis “those are not the standards that you are being judged by. It is not the standards that Israel would want to be judged by.”

The reality is that far from judging Israel by their own standards, Europeans, like the Obama administration, hold Israel to an entirely unique standard. And rather than making allowances for the terrible existential war Israel has found itself trapped in since its birth, Israel is somehow expected to fight this war without causing any harm to civilians or civilian infrastructure on the other side. More than that, Israel often seems to be expected to avoid fighting its enemies altogether. As we saw this summer, the moment that Israel responded to attacks emanating from Gaza, John Kerry joined the foreign ministers of Europe in the clamor to impose an immediate ceasefire before too much damage could be done to Hamas’s terror infrastructure.

Also noticeable this summer was how international news stations maintained round-the-clock updates on the casualty figures for Gaza. Yet when European powers have gone to war in recent years—in Mali, Libya, and Afghanistan—no such 24-hour tally of the dead and injured was kept running at the bottom of every news screen. Similarly, while European politicians speak of ending the Israeli presence in the West Bank as a matter of great urgency, the ongoing Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus (an EU member state) is hardly something European diplomats are frantically engaged in attempting to resolve.

No less unforgivable were Vahr’s insinuations about the Arab world. Human rights are surely something that should be enjoyed universally, presumably by virtue of everyone sharing a certain common humanity. And international law, if it is to have any kind of validity at all, has to be applied to all nations equally. Yet while the ambassador’s comments may well have been a most brazen expression of the bigotry of low expectations, they also end up doing Israel’s enemies a great service.

If people like Jesper Vahr really think as poorly of Israel’s neighbors as they claim, then surely they would grant Israel some allowances when she is forced to confront these neighbors-turned-assailants. By instead holding Israel to an impossible standard, one that she must always necessarily fall short of, while also constantly excusing the most unspeakable crimes of Israel’s adversaries, these aggressors are awarded the appearance of possessing the moral high ground. Worse still, this double standard has practical ramifications for Israel’s ability to survive and prosper.

As already mentioned, this attitude obliges Israel to fight with both arms tied behind her back even while her enemies employ the most barbaric and underhanded tactics, terrorizing Israel’s civilians while hiding among their own civilian population. Furthermore, Europe’s obsessive focus on Israeli shortcomings, while ignoring the infinitely worse crimes of her neighbors, lays the groundwork for Israel being singled out as a pariah state. It is this supposedly complimentary double standard that Vahr speaks of that has persuaded European banks, pension funds, supermarkets, and city councils to implement boycotts of the Jewish state.

It’s puzzling. If European diplomats really think so highly of Israel and so little of her adversaries, then shouldn’t they be doing everything possible to bolster Israel’s standing in the world? But during the panel event Vahr let something else slip. Asked if his position wasn’t actually demeaning to Palestinians the Danish ambassador retorted that Israel was the stronger party, hence the higher standard expected. And here we have the truth about Vahr’s agenda. In the European worldview–shot through with a reflexive leftism–the Palestinians are the weaker party; the downtrodden victims. Israel, however, is the stronger and wealthier party, and so its military advantage must be inhibited so that the two sides are battling on more of a level playing field. The Palestinians aren’t held to the same standard because they are the “vulnerable” party. Israel, on the other hand, is a Western (and indeed Jewish) power, so must be brought down a peg or two.

Given that Israel faces existential threats European countries could hardly imagine, there is a strong case for granting Israel some allowances. At the very least everyone should be held to the same standard. But if Europeans were serious about assisting the survival of a genuinely liberal democracy, or if they cared about the defeat of religious fanatics and tyrannies, then the last thing they would be doing is serving Israel with a disadvantage in the court of world opinion. But then one has to wonder, how much does the question of Israel’s long-term survival really bother the likes Jesper Vahr and his fellow European diplomats?

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Abandoning the Free Syrian Army

So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

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So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

The New York Times has a report on how the police force in Ninevah Province in northern Iraq is not receiving support from the central government in Baghdad or from the U.S. This is a mostly Sunni force in an area where ISIS has been strong–Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to ISIS in June, is located in Ninevah. Retaking, and crucially holding Mosul after retaking it, will require the work of local security forces, but they complain that they are not getting arms or equipment. “We are in a camp like refugees, without work or salaries,” the Times quotes one Iraqi SWAT team member wearing a “U.S. Army” T-shirt saying. “ISIS is our target, but what are we supposed to fight it with?”

Some of these officers fondly remember the days when they did raids alongside American forces, but that is ancient history by now. Today the Obama administration refuses to channel aid directly to Sunnis in either Anbar or Ninevah Province because it insists on working exclusively through the central government–and never mind that the central government is so penetrated by Iranian influence that the minister of interior, who is in charge of the police, is a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-sponsored militia that is inveterately hostile to Sunnis.

This is a self-defeating policy and yet one in which the Obama administration persists, pretending that sending aid to Sunnis directly would undermine Iraqi sovereignty. In truth the Baghdad government already controls considerably less than half the country and it will never regain any more control unless it can mobilize Sunnis to fight ISIS. The U.S. can be a key player in mobilizing Sunnis, as it was in 2007-2008, but only if it is willing to reach out to them directly.

The situation is even worse in Syria. Josh Rogin of Bloomberg reports that Congress has not passed a $300 million appropriation to fund the Free Syrian Army. The money was apparently held up in the House Intelligence Committee because lawmakers are concerned that the Free Syrian Army is not an effective fighting force.

Rogin writes that “Congress’s disenchantment with the Syrian rebels is shared by many officials inside the administration, following the rebels’ losses to Assad, IS and the al-Nusra Front in northern Syrian cities such as Idlib. There is particular frustration that these setbacks resulted in some advanced American weaponry falling into extremist hands. Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.”

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that the U.S. refuses to fund the Free Syrian Army, the weaker it will get–and the more its weakness will be used as an excuse not to support it. This dynamic has been plain for years and it continues. And yet despite our neglect, the Free Syrian Army is still battling, as Rogin notes, to hold onto Aleppo. The U.S. has no choice but to help if we are going to support any alternative in Syria to Sunni jihadists (Al Nusra Front, ISIS) and Shiite jihadists (Hezbollah, Quds Force). But it increasingly looks as if the Obama administration is counting on Bashar Assad–who has murdered some 200,000 of his own people–to fight ISIS.

There is a connecting thread between Syria and Iraq: in both places the Obama administration is tacitly acquiescing to Iranian domination. That is a grave mistake for a whole host of reasons, not the least of them being that the more prominent that Iran appears to be in the anti-ISIS coalition, the more that Sunnis afraid of Shiite domination will flock to ISIS and the Nusra Front for protection.

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Terry Teachout: COMMENTARY As Intellectual Graduate School

COMMENTARY was my graduate school, the place where I learned the intellectual and cultural ropes. Now that I “teach” there myself, I appreciate all the more fully what it meant to me when young, and what it continues to mean to a new generation of readers. No magazine has done more to point the way to those in search of the right directions for America and the world. Nothing makes me prouder than to be a part of its great work.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

COMMENTARY was my graduate school, the place where I learned the intellectual and cultural ropes. Now that I “teach” there myself, I appreciate all the more fully what it meant to me when young, and what it continues to mean to a new generation of readers. No magazine has done more to point the way to those in search of the right directions for America and the world. Nothing makes me prouder than to be a part of its great work.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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What Was Greenpeace Thinking?

It was with a mix of shock and sadness that I read word of the environmentalist organization Greenpeace’s recent stunt at the Nazca Lines in Peru. I had first learned about the Nazca Lines when I was in elementary school, and had always harbored a desire to visit them. Three decades later, I had the opportunity. My wife and I honeymooned in Peru, and on our second day there, we flew over the lines. Alongside a visit to the nearby Ica museum (home to the famous elongated and trepanned skulls), it was a highlight of Peru and part of a trip of a lifetime.

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It was with a mix of shock and sadness that I read word of the environmentalist organization Greenpeace’s recent stunt at the Nazca Lines in Peru. I had first learned about the Nazca Lines when I was in elementary school, and had always harbored a desire to visit them. Three decades later, I had the opportunity. My wife and I honeymooned in Peru, and on our second day there, we flew over the lines. Alongside a visit to the nearby Ica museum (home to the famous elongated and trepanned skulls), it was a highlight of Peru and part of a trip of a lifetime.

That the Nazca Lines were incredibly fragile is Environmentalism 101. The Nazca desert is inordinately dry, and the Nazca plain being largely shielded from wind means that anything that disturbs the desert—a footprint, for example—lasts for centuries if not millennia.

The Argentine, Austrian, Brazilian, Chilean, German, and Italian activists that conducted the stunt broke environmental regulations and permanently damaged a UNESCO site; they should be punished to the full extent of Peruvian law. That they left the area should not end the matter; they videotaped their actions and Greenpeace, if it truly cares about the environment, should cooperate fully, identifying those who perpetrated the crime so that the Peruvians, if necessary, can sue for damages and extradite if possible. Kumi Naidoo, the international executive director, should also make providing restitution a Greenpeace priority. As Greenpeace leader, he sets the tone for the organization. If he was aware of the stunt ahead of time, he is as culpable as those who executed it, and if he was not, then that also reflects poorly on his management. Indeed, he should be personally liable—financially and criminally—for the damage. After all, isn’t the organization he leads at the forefront of the campaign to hold executives from oil companies criminally liable for damage caused by climate change denial?

But, beyond the sheer stupidity of the Greenpeace activists’ actions, a broader question—not addressed by the New York Times or much of the press—was what the purpose of the Greenpeace action was. Certainly, perpetrators said on video that they were motivated by the fight against climate change, but it seems so often that Greenpeace stunts are motivated far more by a desire to promote Greenpeace than do anything for the environment. High-profile Greenpeace publicity stunts are common. Here’s one from Cincinnati, and another from Denmark, and another from Brussels.

Naidoo and other Greenpeace executives cannot plead ignorance, for they embraced and encouraged the behavior that led to the vandalism at Nazca. Here is the Greenpeace International website talking about its protests:

Always we are guided by the principles of non-violence, and our activists have the best possible gear and safety training. We also aren’t above using a little humour to get our point across. But as you read about our protests and direct actions, keep in mind that they all depended on individuals, usually just regular people, who made a personal choice to help save their world….

So, Greenpeace trained the activists whom it later sent to vandalize the UNESCO site. What happened in Peru symbolizes not only the hypocrisy of some in the environmentalism industry, but also exposes international NGOs for what they are. No longer are groups like Greenpeace motivated by a desire to heal the world. Instead, they scam well-meaning donors to fund for plush executive lifestyles, overhead, international travel, and an endless quest for publicity to grease further fundraising. Not all NGOs are the same, but Greenpeace seems, increasingly, like the rule rather than the exception among some of the biggest and best-known organizations.

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Librarians for BDS: When Librarians Burn Books

Much has been written here at COMMENTARY and elsewhere regarding the boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) movement, its hypocrisy, and the anti-Semitic attitudes which too often seem to motivate some of its most vocal supporters.

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Much has been written here at COMMENTARY and elsewhere regarding the boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) movement, its hypocrisy, and the anti-Semitic attitudes which too often seem to motivate some of its most vocal supporters.

That too many academics conflate scholarship with politics, and believe free speech trumps academic rigor is old news. There is nothing wrong nor intimidating about outsiders shining the limelight on professors who abuse their positions or on any scholarly ideas that those scholars put forth. After all, if professors’ research has been conducted with rigor, it will withstand criticism. But if it has not, then it should be subject to ridicule. Only in an Orwellian world is free speech synonymous with affirmation. And only to the immature or unprofessional must speech codes or stacked panels prevent disapproval.

Professors should be judged by their research and their teaching. University librarians should be held to another standard entirely. A university librarian’s purpose is to accumulate books, journals, and archival materials ranging the gambit of the field irrespective of their own personal politics, or the popular political directives of the day. Once they acquire those resources, a librarian should organize and ease access to it.

And yet, with this statement released by Middle Eastern Studies scholars and librarians endorsing the BDS call and seeking the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, librarians at some major universities are effectively embracing the notion that they will filter acquisitions according to their own political predilections. What librarians such as Mastan Ebtehaj at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University; Blair Kuntz at the University of Toronto; Mahmoud Omidsalar at California State University, Los Angeles; and Anais Salamon at McGill University are effectively saying is that they will not consider acquiring, cataloguing, or making available titles published by such Israeli scholarly presses such as Tel Aviv University Press, or the Truman Institute’s press. That may not literally be burning books, but how shameful it is for university librarians to do the figurative equivalent, filtering knowledge by whether or not they agree with the author or, as BDS demands, whether or not they like his or her nationality or that of the scholar’s publishing company. How ironic it is that librarians—those who should dedicate their professional life to protecting access to knowledge—have read so few of the history books they supposedly guard, for if they did, they might not be comfortable with past parallels to their present actions.

And while librarians might justify affixing their signatures to the statement cited above in being true to their political conscience or even free speech, they should recognize that free speech does not trump or excuse professional responsibility, any more than free speech would absolve a doctor who refused to touch an Israeli patient or who, because of their own personal beliefs, decided to treat cancer patients only with crystals and aromatherapy. Librarians should write what they want, sign what they want, and preach what they want. Professional competence and responsibility are not endlessly subjective. If a librarian at California State University—a state institution—for example, declares openly that he will not fulfill his duty, perhaps then the state should not entrust him with such responsibility. Under no circumstance do librarians who ban books embrace free speech.

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A Dishonest Post-Newtown Gun Debate

Two years ago this month, America was transfixed by one of the most horrific domestic tragedies in recent memory. A mad gunman attacked an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and slaughtered 20 children and six adults. The crime motivated President Obama and most of the mainstream media to take up the cause of gun control with fervor unmatched by any other campaign on the issue. But despite the use of the families of the victims to shame opponents of further restrictions on gun sales that treated them as the moral equivalent of murderers, such efforts largely failed, especially at the federal level. That defeat was attributed to the malign influence of the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun lobbies but a new Pew Research Center Poll reveals a very unwelcome truth for liberals: most Americans back gun rights and oppose those who wish to restrict or take them away.

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Two years ago this month, America was transfixed by one of the most horrific domestic tragedies in recent memory. A mad gunman attacked an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and slaughtered 20 children and six adults. The crime motivated President Obama and most of the mainstream media to take up the cause of gun control with fervor unmatched by any other campaign on the issue. But despite the use of the families of the victims to shame opponents of further restrictions on gun sales that treated them as the moral equivalent of murderers, such efforts largely failed, especially at the federal level. That defeat was attributed to the malign influence of the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun lobbies but a new Pew Research Center Poll reveals a very unwelcome truth for liberals: most Americans back gun rights and oppose those who wish to restrict or take them away.

The survey shows that for the first time since they began asking the question 20 years ago, more Americans support gun rights than those who say it is more important to control gun ownership by a 52-46 percent margin. This is a historic shift, made all the more dramatic by the fact that it reversed a 51-45 percent margin on the question that favored more gun control when the question was asked in January 2013.

The reasons why Americans think this way may flummox liberals who think the preservation of the Second Amendment’s Constitutional protections of the right to bear arms are a historical anachronism. The Pew survey reveals that those who believe owning guns makes them safer outnumber those who think they put people’s safety at risk by a whopping 57-38 percent margin.

Drilling down into the numbers provides some interesting insights into national opinion about guns. The number of African-Americans who believe owning a gun makes them safer has nearly doubled in the last two years. Yet in spite of that fact, the partisan divide on the issue remains stark with Republicans supporting gun rights 76-22 percent while Democrats support gun control 69-28 percent.

This should provide significant food for thought for political consultants pondering how the parties should approach the next presidential election. While liberals may have believed that time was on their side in the gun debate it appears that they are losing ground. By the same token, this is a reminder to Republicans that their opportunity lies in exploiting the dislike for such measures among middle and working class voters who care about the right to own a gun and unconvinced by liberals that wish to restrict such rights.

But even more importantly, this survey illustrates just how dishonest most of the discussion about gun rights from the mainstream media has been in recent years. Liberal ideologues in the media and politics have spent so much time trying to demonize the NRA and its supporters that they missed the fact that the group, for all of its flaws and occasional mistakes, remains one of the largest grass-roots organizations in the country. If the NRA’s membership boomed after Newtown it was not because gun nuts were paranoid but because a growing number of Americans understood that the goal of the president and other liberals wasn’t so much common sense gun control as it was to take the first steps towards stripping the right of Americans to bear arms away from them.

There may be a case for measures that might restrict sales of guns under certain circumstances but the poll makes it obvious that more Americans think they are more at risk if government makes it harder to own a gun. When those who advocate such measures in the future attack the NRA in the future, they should do so by arguing that new laws are necessary not because the gun lobby is a nefarious conspiracy promoted by heartless big business. As Pew has proven to us this week, the more they speak that way the farther they are getting from the truth about the American people and their willingness to defend their safety and their rights.

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Human Rights Hypocrisy Charge Doesn’t Fly

Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

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Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

China, North Korea and Iran assert that America’s brutal interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects means that everything the U.S. has said about human rights should be ignored, vindicating them as well as lending credence to calls for prosecutions of those involved. American liberals seem to implicitly agree with them even if they disagree that U.S. behavior lets anyone else off the hook for human rights violations. But charges of U.S. hypocrisy are nothing more than tyranny talking points.

Whatever one may think of the rough treatment meted out to al-Qaeda prisoners, they were terrorists waging a brutal and bloody war against the West and the United States. As terrorists they were not covered by the protections of the Geneva Convention, nor do they have the same rights as citizens accused of crimes in a court of law. The torture may or may not have effective in getting them to give up vital intelligence but to compare even the nastiest things done to them to the actions of countries like China, North Korea and Iran is more than absurd.

Those tortured in those countries are not accused terrorists but ordinary citizens or dissidents striving for freedom or merely caught up in the grips of a state terrorism. When China, North Korea or Iran, or the many other countries that routinely violate human rights torture, the purpose of the activity is to preserve the ability of the state to go on oppressing people. When the CIA did it, it was part of an effort to defend the lives and the freedom of the American people and those elsewhere struggling to fend off al-Qaeda’s efforts to transform the world into an Islamist caliphate.

Do the motives of the torturers not count? Some would argue that torture is itself a crime and cannot be used under any circumstances. Even more, they say that tolerating torture gives the lie to America’s claim to be the defender of freedom. There is a certain moral logic to such a stand and, in the context of ordinary police work it can be argued that torture can never be contemplated by a just society. Yet the situation the U.S. found itself in after 9/11 was not ordinary. It was a war in which the stakes were as high as they have been in any conflict fought by Americans.

Both in the context of that perilous moment after 9/11 and the long war against Islamist terror that is still going on, the claim that keeping America’s hands clean is more important than the goal of crushing al-Qaeda and its successor groups and thereby defending the future of freedom, may be consistent but it is morally unserious. The first obligation of any democracy at war with tyranny is to defeat the enemy, not to avoid embarrassing revelations about interrogations. It is comforting to assert that victory does not require democracies to sully themselves with brutal behavior but such statements are pious hopes or retroactive pronouncements, not realistic analyses of options in the heat of battle.

By contrast, the efforts of tyrannies to oppress their peoples via torture and other human rights violations have no such justification or motive. To claim that there is no moral distinction between freedom defending itself with brutality and tyranny defending itself with similar methods is to construct a philosophical model that has not connection to real life or the necessarily ambiguous dilemmas of war. Nor should anything that was revealed this week about the CIA deter the United State or its allies from criticizing the widespread human rights violations going on around the world. No nation is perfect. But America’s willingness to do whatever it takes to defend the homeland against Islamist murderers does not make it a nation of hypocrites. That is a label best placed on those who cry out for security when under attack but then second-guess and smear as criminals those who successfully defended them.

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Is Romney the GOP’s Best Option for 2016?

The rumors about Mitt Romney considering running for president again have been circulating for months. But a story published by Politico last night makes the discussion seem less of a fantasy on the part of the 2012 Republican nominee’s biggest fans. According to close associates of the former Massachusetts governor quoted in the story by Ben White and Maggie Haberman, Romney is no longer as adamantly opposed to running as he had been in the first year after his traumatic defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. Supposedly, Romney has looked over the field of 2016 GOP hopefuls and isn’t, for some understandable reasons, that impressed. But though buyer’s remorse makes Romney look pretty good now even to those Republicans who didn’t like him, it remains to be seen whether he’s any more electable than he was the last time out.

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The rumors about Mitt Romney considering running for president again have been circulating for months. But a story published by Politico last night makes the discussion seem less of a fantasy on the part of the 2012 Republican nominee’s biggest fans. According to close associates of the former Massachusetts governor quoted in the story by Ben White and Maggie Haberman, Romney is no longer as adamantly opposed to running as he had been in the first year after his traumatic defeat at the hands of Barack Obama. Supposedly, Romney has looked over the field of 2016 GOP hopefuls and isn’t, for some understandable reasons, that impressed. But though buyer’s remorse makes Romney look pretty good now even to those Republicans who didn’t like him, it remains to be seen whether he’s any more electable than he was the last time out.

To anyone who watched the documentary Mitt on Netflix, the notion that Romney would ever run again for president has always seemed far-fetched. Romney and his close-knit family poured their hearts and souls into two runs for the presidency and when he was beaten in 2012, it seemed unthinkable they would put themselves through that kind of torment again. It was also thought unnecessary since the Republicans have a deep bench of potential candidates who deserved their shot at the big prize more than someone who had already tried and failed.

But as Politico pointed out, Romney is looking at the 2016 field not so much from a global perspective about the party as much as he’s wondering who will fit into the niche he filled in the 2012 primaries: the centrist who can rally the party’s establishment and moderate voters to beat down a challenge from right-wingers who can’t win a general election. From that frame of reference, the question seems to be whether Romney is satisfied that either Jeb Bush or Chris Christie is up to the task and, not without cause, he’s not sure about either.

According to Politico, Romney thinks Bush would be taken apart because of his business dealings in the same way he was bashed for his record at Bain Capital. Bush associates say their man isn’t vulnerable and wouldn’t be as shy about pushing back on the charges as Romney was in 2012. But whether or not Bush runs as the proud capitalist that Romney couldn’t or wouldn’t be, there are other reasons to be skeptical about the son and brother of past presidents.

The conservative base distrusted Romney throughout 2011 and 2012, but the candidate never stopped trying to win them over. While Romney was vulnerable on ObamaCare because of the similar Massachusetts law he passed, he actually tacked hard to the right on the one issue that is driving right-wingers crazy this year: immigration. By contrast, Bush, though possessing a strong conservative record, has been making noises about being willing to run against the base rather than to persuade it to back him. Romney knows that isn’t a formula that is likely to get Bush the nomination no matter how many big donors he has on his side.

The other obvious moderate choice is Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor has never completely recovered from Bridgegate but the party’s success in the midterms—especially the elections of GOP governors in part due to his work as head of the Republican Governors Association—put a bit of the shine back on his reputation. But Romney has probably taken a hard look at Christie and concluded, as some other Republicans have done, that his “sit down and shut up” style isn’t likely to stand up under the pressure of a presidential campaign.

If so, it is hardly out of the question that Romney might be thinking it is up to him to be the standard-bearer for moderate Republicans in the next cycle.

In his favor is not only the fact that he has done it before as well as that he would have no trouble raising all the money needed for another presidential run. There is also the buyer’s remorse factor about 2012 that has caused many people who didn’t vote for Romney to acknowledge that they made a mistake. Many of the things that he was widely mocked for advocating—such as concern about Russia—proved prescient.

Just as important in terms of winning the nomination is the fact that conservatives are by no means as hostile to him as they were during the primaries. Romney’s valiant, if ultimately unsuccessful battle against Obama causes many on the right to view him as something of a martyr to the effort to unseat the president.

But before the GOP goes into a collective swoon about the possibility of a third Romney attempt at the presidency, a few other facts also need to be discussed.

The first is that although Romney is bound to have learned from his experiences, his performance as a candidate was less than inspiring. Romney is a good man but he has always lacked the natural political instincts needed for such a formidable task. His gaffes combined with his unwillingness to talk more about who he is as a man or to defend his business career were all fatal mistakes.

Second, the debate between the Jeb Bush and Romney camps about which one would be more vulnerable to attacks on their investment businesses misses the point. Republicans need to be sensitive to the fact that it doesn’t help the cause of the party promoting economic freedom to be represented by plutocrats. The future of the party isn’t on Wall Street but in attracting enough middle- and working-class voters who don’t like the Democrats and their big-government approach to the economy and health care and support the rule of law on issues like immigration. Only such an appeal will offset the Democrats’ growing advantage with minority voters.

Third, the factors that undermined Romney in 2012, including the disaffection of the party’s base to his candidacy, haven’t disappeared. Once he starts running again, the sympathy generated by his loss will dissipate on the right and conservatives will demand to know why running the same guy who lost in 2012 would work any better in 2016.

Contrary to the analysis of the big donors who are longing for another Romney run, there are other possibilities for victory other than him, Bush, or Christie. Rather than dismissing the rest of field as insignificant, the cast of promising Republican governors such as Scott Walker, who could energize Tea Partiers and the establishment and business communities, needs to be given their chance to plot a new GOP approach without any of the baggage that Romney carries around with him.

Just as important as that, Romney’s assumption that he could bulldoze conservative challengers again the way he did in 2012 is also probably mistaken. Ted Cruz won’t be as easily beaten as Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. And Rand Paul can’t be ignored the way Romney did his extremist father Ron when he was running for the nomination.

Romney’s intelligence and decency make him a more plausible president than most other potential Republican candidates. Having run twice, the presidential bug is still inside him and probably always will be. If he does run, he’ll be tough to beat. But he’s far from the shoo-in his friends think he is. Nor is it certain that he would do better in the general election than his respectable loss in 2012.

Those assuming that Romney is the answer to all of the Republicans’ problems are mistaken. So too is any assumption on his part that America is waiting to make amends for its mistake in not electing him president in 2012.

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Karl Rove: COMMENTARY a Rare Venue for Insightful Analysis

In the midst of today’s political rancor, COMMENTARY Magazine provides a rare venue for thoughtful discussion. COMMENTARY’s talented writers provide insightful analysis of foreign affairs, domestic policy, and the politics of the day. COMMENTARY is a treasure not only for conservatives, but for anyone looking for in-depth exploration of the issues that influence America’s public dialogue and shape the nation’s future.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

In the midst of today’s political rancor, COMMENTARY Magazine provides a rare venue for thoughtful discussion. COMMENTARY’s talented writers provide insightful analysis of foreign affairs, domestic policy, and the politics of the day. COMMENTARY is a treasure not only for conservatives, but for anyone looking for in-depth exploration of the issues that influence America’s public dialogue and shape the nation’s future.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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The Mood of America

The Pew Research Center released a new survey that included the following findings:

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The Pew Research Center released a new survey that included the following findings:

Level of Dissatisfaction

  • Just 26 percent are satisfied with national conditions, while 71 percent are dissatisfied.
  • Forty-nine percent say they think 2015 will be a better year than 2014, while 42 percent think it will be worse. The current ratings are more pessimistic than in recent years, as the public generally takes an optimistic view of the year to come.

Top Concerns

  • A third (34 percent) cite an economic issue as the top national problem. (Compared to the start of the year, however, just half as many specifically cite unemployment or joblessness as the top national problem: 20 percent then vs. 10 percent now.) The share expressing dissatisfaction with government or the president, or who cite partisan gridlock or the divisions in the country has increased from 13 percent last January to 18 percent currently. Just 9 percent say foreign or international issues are the country’s top problem, unchanged from January.

Political Polarization

  • More than eight out of 10 Americans surveyed (81 percent) say the country is more politically divided these days than in the past. While that is little changed from two years ago, it is as high a percentage expressing this view as at any point over the past decade.
  • Just 17 percent think the country will be less politically divided five years from now. More than three-quarters (78 percent) say either the country will be about as divided as it is today (41 percent), or more politically divided (36 percent).
  • The public’s expectations for cooperation between leaders in Washington are highly partisan. Fully 66 percent of Democrats think President Obama will cooperate at least a fair amount with Republican leaders in Congress over the next two years, compared with just 19 percent of Republicans who say this.
  • Fully 71 percent say a failure of Republicans and Democrats to work together over the next two years would hurt the nation “a lot” and 16 percent say it will hurt “some.” Yet 66 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents want their leaders to stand up to Obama on issues, even if less gets done, rather than work with him.

Unhappiness with the President

  • Forty-two percent say they approve of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president, while 51 percent disapprove. These ratings are little changed over the past year. Nearly nine in ten Republicans (89 percent) disapprove of Obama’s performance, while views among independents are also more negative than positive (55 percent vs. 39 percent approve). Mr. Obama continues to receive positive ratings from a majority of Democrats (72 percent approve vs. 19 percent disapprove).

Unhappiness with Congress

  • Just 22 percent express a favorable opinion of Congress while 71 have an unfavorable one. Positive views of Congress have remained below 30 percent for more than three years. The current ratings rival the lowest on record (in July 2013), when 21 percent had a favorable opinion while 70 percent an unfavorable one.
  • The favorable ratings for congressional leaders of both parties (John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) are all in the 20s, ranging from a low of 20 percent (Reid) to a high of 27 percent (Pelosi).

Unhappiness with the GOP and the Democratic Party

  • There is no sign of a honeymoon for the Republican Party following its midterm victories: Just 37 percent view the GOP favorably while 57 percent view it unfavorably, little changed over the past year.
  • What has changed is the Democratic Party’s favorable ratings, which are now nearly as low as the GOP’s. Just 41 percent have a favorable impression of the Democratic Party while 54 percent have an unfavorable opinion. That is among the most negative measures of favorability for the Democrats in more than two decades of polling.
  • Today independents’ views of the two parties are about the same. About a third have favorable impressions of either the Republican Party (32 percent) or the Democratic Party (33 percent); in October, more independents viewed the Democratic Party (41 percent) positively than the Republican Party (33 percent).

The mood of the country, then, is unhappy and unsettled. Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the conditions of the nation (especially economically) and unusually pessimistic about the future. The level of political polarization troubles them, even as massive distrust exists between Republicans and Democrats. And there’s across-the-board discontent with our political institutions–the two national parties, Congress, and the president. The Democratic Party has clearly suffered more than the GOP this year, based both on public approval and, especially, based on the outcome of the 2014 midterm elections. But the Republican Party is still -20 in the favorable-unfavorable ratings.

We are in the midst of a prolonged period of alienation between the American people and those who govern them. That isn’t good for a republic, where some degree of trust between the citizenry and its elected leaders is necessary in order to address urgent national problems.

One of the most daunting tasks facing those who run for president in 2016 will be to convince Americans that they understand the scope and dimensions of what’s happening, that they’re genuinely troubled by it, and that they have the skills–temperamentally, philosophically, and politically–to begin to repair the breach and put us on the right path. It is quite a formidable task, yes; but it’s also quite a vital one, too. It’s at moments like this when exceptional leaders need to step up.

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Warren’s Cromnibus Chaos and Hillary’s Nightmare Scenario

It is fitting that “Cromnibus”–the name given to the spending medley passed by the House yesterday to keep the government running–sounds like a Creature from the Bureaucratic Lagoon, because the chaos it unleashed will haunt Hillary Clinton. Populists on both left and right found things to hate in this spending bill, but the most populist energy was unleashed by Democratic-led opposition to a reform of the Dodd-Frank regulatory scheme. That reform has passed Congress overwhelmingly in the past. But that was before Elizabeth Warren brought a level of anti-Wall Street demagoguery to Congress that is not going away.

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It is fitting that “Cromnibus”–the name given to the spending medley passed by the House yesterday to keep the government running–sounds like a Creature from the Bureaucratic Lagoon, because the chaos it unleashed will haunt Hillary Clinton. Populists on both left and right found things to hate in this spending bill, but the most populist energy was unleashed by Democratic-led opposition to a reform of the Dodd-Frank regulatory scheme. That reform has passed Congress overwhelmingly in the past. But that was before Elizabeth Warren brought a level of anti-Wall Street demagoguery to Congress that is not going away.

Ultimately, Cromnibus passed the House, even after Warren whipped up Democratic opposition. But it was close, and it required the intervention of President Obama to prevail upon his party not to shut down the government and make him look like the world’s biggest hypocrite in the process. That Warren could sow such discord in the House from her perch in the Senate shows she’s been modeling her career on that of Ted Cruz, her conservative counterpart across the aisle. Though she is not nearly the rhetorical talent that Cruz is, she mimicked Cruz’s tactics and strategy to such a degree as to leave one with the impression Cruz is her (unwitting) mentor, if not her (unacknowledged) hero.

So Warren was a big winner last night. Republicans were too. The bill passed the GOP-controlled House despite the revolt. But even if it hadn’t passed, the GOP still benefited. They would have put up a clean continuing resolution to fund the government for another month, at which point they would take over the Senate and Democrats’ influence would be greatly weakened in crafting the next omnibus bill.

The big losers from last night are Obama and Hillary. The president, to borrow Bill Clinton’s quote, may still be relevant here, but not very. Obama had to use his office and his influence and his spokesmen and his advisors just to beat back a freshman senator from his own party, and just barely. Democrats, as Dave Weigel notes in an excellent tick-tock on last night’s mess, “proudly told reporters that calls from the White House — especially calls from Citigroup’s Jamie Dimon — did nothing to move them.”

Obama has dragged his party down enough. The midterms were the end of Obama as the leader of the Democratic Party, because even Democrats now understand they can win by separating themselves from Obama’s toxic legacy. And what about Obama’s chosen successor, Hillary Clinton? The Cromnibus chaos was a nightmare for her.

What the Democrats proved last night was that there exists a significant and restive segment of the base. Being Democrats, they still need someone to fall in line behind; unlike the Tea Party, these restive Democrats prefer to take orders from someone. They just would like to take orders from a different brand of statist. Elizabeth Warren is the one they’ve been waiting for.

Warren’s populism is very different from that of the Tea Party. Conservative grassroots value liberty; Warren argues for increasing state power over its citizens and is not above abusing that authority when she has the opportunity. What Warren wants is power concentrated in her hands. What Hillary’s supporters should fear is the possibility that Warren will pursue her quest for power to its logical conclusion and run for president.

She still seems far from making that leap. But ironically what works against Hillary here is not her own age but Warren’s. If Warren passes on running for president in 2016, she is most likely passing on ever running. If Hillary wins two terms, Warren would be 75 for the 2024 election. She’s not running for president at 75. It’s a stretch even to think she’d challenge a sitting Republican president, if that’s who wins in 2016, after that Republican’s first term, though that’s at least a more realistic scenario.

Additionally, the Clintons are infamous for their lust for political revenge. They hold grudges, and that fact is going to help clear the field of prospective candidates who can bide their time. If Warren chooses to challenge Hillary and loses, the Clintons will retaliate. But Warren is not at the beginning of her career (even though she’s a freshman senator); how much does she really have to lose?

There is also another factor: if Warren runs, she is unlikely to lose. Hillary is a terrible candidate who believes in nothing. What Warren proved yesterday is that she can mobilize and inspire support on a large scale, and that there are far more Democrats who prefer Warren’s statism to the creepy there’s-no-such-thing-as-other-people’s-children statism of Hillary.

American leftists are an angry bunch. Elizabeth Warren matches their anger. And they don’t know the issues well enough to know that Warren isn’t telling them the truth–a fact that the Democratic establishment has tried to point out. Hillary doesn’t exemplify anger; she exemplifies entrenched privilege. In 2008, Democratic primary voters chose anger over privilege. The nightmare scenario for Hillary would come to pass if they have the chance to do so again in 2016.

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Can Herzog and Livni Topple Netanyahu?

The agreement between the Israeli Labor Party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to form a joint list for the Knesset has, at least for the moment, seemed to change the dynamic of the election campaign. The first poll taken immediately after the merger shows Labor-Hatnua winning one more seat than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Theoretically that would place Herzog in position to be tapped to lead the next government provided he could put together a coalition of parties. But while this survey has to set the hearts of the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s many critics racing, it is probably a mistake for them to jump to the conclusion that the PM’s days are truly numbered. While the possibility of a genuine alternative to the present government is generating some good numbers for Herzog, the math of Israeli coalition politics and the dynamic of an election in which the notion of two major parties may be revived may cut short his dreams of victory.

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The agreement between the Israeli Labor Party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to form a joint list for the Knesset has, at least for the moment, seemed to change the dynamic of the election campaign. The first poll taken immediately after the merger shows Labor-Hatnua winning one more seat than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Theoretically that would place Herzog in position to be tapped to lead the next government provided he could put together a coalition of parties. But while this survey has to set the hearts of the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s many critics racing, it is probably a mistake for them to jump to the conclusion that the PM’s days are truly numbered. While the possibility of a genuine alternative to the present government is generating some good numbers for Herzog, the math of Israeli coalition politics and the dynamic of an election in which the notion of two major parties may be revived may cut short his dreams of victory.

Prior to the announcement of early elections, Labor seemed to be continuing on its historical arc from once dominant party of government to irrelevant minor party. The first polls indicated Labor would be losing seats. As for Livni’s party, every poll showed it would be wiped out leaving the former foreign minister out of the Knesset. Ever the pragmatic opportunist, Livni drew the correct conclusion from the data and began marketing herself to the other larger parties for a merger. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid wanted her badly but Livni rightly saw that her arrival wouldn’t do much to halt its slide with polls showing it losing close to half of its seats. Nor did Livni feel comfortable sharing a platform with Lapid. Those two big egos were not going to work well together.

Labor was a much better fit in that the mild-mannered Herzog seems more like a team player and that choice would enable Livni to approach the elections by campaigning on her hopes to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians that Netanyahu wouldn’t make. Adding Livni and her followers to the Labor list also provides a jolt of energy to a party led by a man who is well regarded but seems to have the charisma of a soggy potato.

Though Lapid aspires to be the leader of a center bloc that could beat the Likud, Labor-Hatnua also gives the appearance of a real alternative to Netanyahu to Israelis who are understandably tired of the prime minister after six years of him at the top. That factor along with resentment at Netanyahu for pushing for an election that most Israelis think is unnecessary could be the reason for the fact that Herzog and Livni are doing far better as a couple than they would have done separately.

But before Herzog starts trying to piece together a coalition, there are some factors that may ultimately undo his momentary advantage.

The first is the very one that seems to have invigorated Labor. So long as there was no real alternative to Netanyahu as prime minister, it was possible for voters who generally support the parties of the center right or the right to vote for alternatives to Likud. Since it is almost certain that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home will never join a coalition led by the left, voters were free to vote for them rather than Netanyahu’s Likud. It was that factor that led to Likud finishing behind Livni’s Kadima by one seat in the 2009 elections even though the parties of the right combined for more than those of the left leading to Netanyahu becoming prime minister. The same thing diminished Netanyahu’s results in 2013.

But if Israelis are returning to the old paradigm in which Likud and Labor dominate the Knesset, then we should expect the former to start gaining strength at the expense of their potential partners too.

Even more to the point, if the results will hinge on the public’s view of the peace process rather than domestic issues, as was the case the last time Israel voted, that, too, works in Netanyahu’s favor.

Though his foreign critics blame Netanyahu for the ongoing standoff with the Palestinians, most Israelis, including many who are less than thrilled with the prickly prime minister, know that it is the Palestinians who continue to thwart peace, not their own government. An election fought on the idea of more concessions to the Palestinians is not one that will favor those advocating anything that smacks of a duplicating the Gaza experiment in the West Bank. That is especially true after that summer war with Hamas that left most Israelis scrambling for bomb shelters as rockets fired from the terrorist state on their doorsteps rained down on them. Nor is it credible for Livni to offer herself as a real alternative to Netanyahu’s policies since it was she who was negotiating with the Palestinians during the last year.

Equally dubious is the notion that Israelis will reject Netanyahu because they are worried about Israel becoming more isolated under his leadership. Israelis are aware of the fact that it is anti-Semitism, rather than genuine concern for the Palestinians, that motivate European attacks on their government. Nor are they likely to vote for Herzog and Livni because Barack Obama, a president that they rightly believe to be the most hostile American leader to their country in more than a generation, wants them to oust Netanyahu.

With the new Kulanu party led by former Likud Cabinet member Moshe Kahlon entering the contest and other parties rising (Bennett’s Jewish Home) as others fall (Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and Lapid’s Yesh Atid), it’s too early to predict the outcome with any certainty. There is the possibility that Bennett will join with Likud and create a far larger merged entity than Likud-Hatnua. Meanwhile, the theme of “anybody but Bibi” as Netanyahu vies for a fourth term that could lead to him being the longest serving prime minister in the country’s history may be one that will be hard for Likud to overcome. But if the country is moving back to two big parties that will fight it out over the peace process, it’s hard to call Netanyahu anything but still the favorite to prevail in March.

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Another Palestinian Sacrificed to Conflict

The death of Ziad Abu Ein is more than another statistic in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A member of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Cabinet, Abu Ein died after leading a demonstration that sought to break into land claimed by an Israeli settlement. The 55-year-old died in the aftermath of a clash he initiated with soldiers guarding the site. That was bad enough but, as is par for the course in this situation, the team of doctors who performed an autopsy on him split along national lines. A Palestinian doctor says he died from the blows he got from the soldiers. The Israeli doctors say he had heart disease and died from the stress caused by the incident. Predictably, the U.S. is calling for an inquiry into the incident but rather than get caught up in the question of which doctor is telling the truth, the real answer as to what killed Abu Ein is the commitment of his Fatah Party to perpetuating the conflict rather than accepting a compromise that would end it.

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The death of Ziad Abu Ein is more than another statistic in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A member of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Cabinet, Abu Ein died after leading a demonstration that sought to break into land claimed by an Israeli settlement. The 55-year-old died in the aftermath of a clash he initiated with soldiers guarding the site. That was bad enough but, as is par for the course in this situation, the team of doctors who performed an autopsy on him split along national lines. A Palestinian doctor says he died from the blows he got from the soldiers. The Israeli doctors say he had heart disease and died from the stress caused by the incident. Predictably, the U.S. is calling for an inquiry into the incident but rather than get caught up in the question of which doctor is telling the truth, the real answer as to what killed Abu Ein is the commitment of his Fatah Party to perpetuating the conflict rather than accepting a compromise that would end it.

The big picture about the peace process tends to get lost whenever the rights and wrongs of specific incidents become the issue. In this case, the truth is not complicated but is still open to interpretation.

The Palestinian position is that Abu Ein died as result of brutality inflicted on him during the demonstration. Abu Ein and the demonstrators he led into a line of armed soldiers clearly invited a forceful response. Whether he took a blow to the chest or was hit by a tear gas canister, there is no question that those involved in the scrum were likely roughed up. Israeli soldiers may have used too much force or it may be that Abu Ein simply expired because his heart disease made him vulnerable to collapse when he tried to break through a line of armed soldiers.

It should also be remembered that when we speak of him being a Cabinet minister, this was not some bureaucrat in charge of the Palestinian treasury or some other responsible officeholder. He was in fact the Cabinet member in charge of staging provocations against both settlements and checkpoints in the West Bank. A convicted terrorist who took part in a bomb plot that resulted in the murder of two Israeli teenagers, he was eventually released in a prisoner exchange before becoming a PA official. His goal was to create violent confrontations and to generate Palestinian casualties that could be paraded before the world as evidence of Israeli cruelty. The only difference between this and other such violent demonstrations is that Abu Ein was the statistic rather than some anonymous Palestinian.

But no matter what happened when he led the charge into a line of soldiers or what we might think of his job or his background, the real reason for Abu Ein’s death can be attributed to the core ideology of the Palestinian national movement that he served in various violent capacities during his life.

Four times in the last 15 years, the Palestinian Authority Abu Ein served was given a chance to negotiate a peace deal that might have given them independence and statehood. Twice under Yasir Arafat’s leadership they turned offers of sovereignty over almost all of the West Bank, a share of Jerusalem, as well as Gaza down flat. Once Abbas fled the negotiations after receiving an even more generous offer. In the past year, Abbas stonewalled the negotiations and then blew them up so as to prevent getting even close to an agreement.

It is in that context that the discussions about settlements and the behavior of Israeli soldiers must be understood. The PA has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t want peace or a two-state solution. What it wants is to keep the conflict just hot enough to prevent Abbas from being cornered into agreeing to peace but not so hot as to stop the Israelis from protecting him against his Hamas rivals or to force the U.S. and the Europeans from cutting off the flow of cash that allows the PA kleptocracy to exist.

Like the Palestinian children who are encouraged to pick fights with soldiers by flinging gasoline bombs and rocks in the hope the army will fire back, Abu Ein was sacrificed on the altar of the unending Palestinian war against the existence of Israel. Instead of blaming the Israelis, Palestinians need to look inward and ponder the political culture they have created that makes it impossible for their leaders to consider peace on any terms but the destruction of Israel no matter where its borders are drawn. Until that changes, there will never be an end to such confrontations and the inevitable casualties that follow from them.

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