Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ariel Sharon

The Rise and Fall of Tzipi Livni

Early this morning the Times of Israel noted in passing, in a story without so much as a byline and whose main source was a public Facebook posting, one of the underappreciated but potentially most interesting aspects of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal. “Chief Israeli negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni struck a solemn tone on Facebook Wednesday night,” the paper reported, “calling the reconciliation agreement signed between Hamas and Fatah ‘a bad step.’”

It’s not that the Israeli public seems at all interested in Livni’s comments on Mahmoud Abbas’s latest efforts to scuttle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It’s that the public probably doesn’t care, raising questions about the plummeting political career of a once-promising Israeli politician whose party won the most seats in Knesset elections only five years ago. That election nearly made Livni prime minister, an accomplishment that would have given the party she led at the time three consecutive premierships and established her as the rightful heir of Kadima’s creator and first prime minister, Ariel Sharon. (Sharon’s immediate successor, Ehud Olmert, resigned in disgrace.)

Instead of carrying forth this serial political victor, Livni was unable to form a governing coalition, went into opposition, saw her party’s support drop precipitously, and lost a leadership fight to Shaul Mofaz in 2012. She left Kadima to form her own party that won just six seats in the 2013 Knesset elections. She was put in charge of peace negotiations with the Palestinians as her consolation prize from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party she bested in 2009 but which formed the governing coalition instead of her. Her career trajectory has been heading in one direction, so: does she have a future?

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Early this morning the Times of Israel noted in passing, in a story without so much as a byline and whose main source was a public Facebook posting, one of the underappreciated but potentially most interesting aspects of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal. “Chief Israeli negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni struck a solemn tone on Facebook Wednesday night,” the paper reported, “calling the reconciliation agreement signed between Hamas and Fatah ‘a bad step.’”

It’s not that the Israeli public seems at all interested in Livni’s comments on Mahmoud Abbas’s latest efforts to scuttle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It’s that the public probably doesn’t care, raising questions about the plummeting political career of a once-promising Israeli politician whose party won the most seats in Knesset elections only five years ago. That election nearly made Livni prime minister, an accomplishment that would have given the party she led at the time three consecutive premierships and established her as the rightful heir of Kadima’s creator and first prime minister, Ariel Sharon. (Sharon’s immediate successor, Ehud Olmert, resigned in disgrace.)

Instead of carrying forth this serial political victor, Livni was unable to form a governing coalition, went into opposition, saw her party’s support drop precipitously, and lost a leadership fight to Shaul Mofaz in 2012. She left Kadima to form her own party that won just six seats in the 2013 Knesset elections. She was put in charge of peace negotiations with the Palestinians as her consolation prize from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party she bested in 2009 but which formed the governing coalition instead of her. Her career trajectory has been heading in one direction, so: does she have a future?

In Livni’s admittedly limited defense, her fall from grace was not as steep as it seems. The phrase “so close but yet so far” is perfectly applicable to her 2009 electoral victory. Yes, her party won the most seats. But winning the election paradoxically removed none of the obstacles to her premiership. This is one of the quirks of Israeli electoral politics.

It was widely assumed that Livni’s victory by a few seats was due in part to the fact that Israel’s center-right voters–a clear majority–believed Netanyahu was a shoo-in, and thus enough of them shifted their votes to other right-of-center parties to ensure an agreeable governing coalition. The primary beneficiary of this was Avigdor Lieberman, who now had fifteen seats in the Knesset in large part because of the public’s desire to see Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Lieberman was a kingmaker, but his choice of Likud, despite its silver medal, was eminently logical and consistent with the will of the voters. It sounds strange, but Livni may have won the election because of the public’s desire to prevent her from becoming prime minister. When she was unable to form a governing coalition, it seemed almost predetermined.

And this helps us understand Livni’s career a bit better. Why does she lose even when she wins? It’s not because she isn’t well liked; she did, after all, win all those votes and her personality practically shines in comparison to some of Israel’s more, shall we say, prickly politicians. (We like to say that American politics ain’t beanbag, but the Israeli Knesset is an even more rambunctious place than Congress these days.) What’s really been holding Livni back is the durable political consensus that has persisted in Israel.

The country is center-right, willing to make peace but skeptical of Palestinian intentions and clear-eyed about the need to prioritize national security and antiterrorism. It’s also appreciative of the economic benefits from Israel’s two major deregulatory bursts (the latter by Netanyahu personally, both overseen by Likud) and reluctant to allow its populist instincts to give the state back too much power. The politicians who leave this consensus tend to find themselves on the outside of power looking in. The cast of characters may change–witness the rising stars who came out of nowhere in the last election–but the script hasn’t.

Does this leave room for Livni? Yes, it does. But she’s pigeonholed by her attempts to differentiate herself from Netanyahu and his governing coalition. Her only real role is the one she’s got now: “chief negotiator.” That means the impending collapse of peace talks leaves her without much to do. It also doesn’t help that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations continually and predictably fail, meaning anyone in charge racks up the losses without any wins. It’s not a great record to have in politics, but Livni can take heart: given the enthusiasm of the West for this peace process, she’s guaranteed at least to have to the chance to fail again–and probably soon.

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A Tale of Two Letters: Why the Peace Process Went Poof

Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, joined by five other foreign-policy experts from the past, issued an open letter entitled “Stand Firm, John Kerry,” calling for “clarity” on “the critical moral and political issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter castigated Israeli settlements and proposed “halting the diplomatic process” to “help stop this activity.” At “Pressure Points,” Elliott Abrams dismantled the letter, noting that, among other things, it ignored history.  

As it happens, tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of one of the more important items of history the Brzezinski group ignored: the April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Abrams recounts how the letter went through “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and out,” ending with a “headline” that was clear: “There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.” In her  own memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted spending three hours on the letter with Sharon the night before it was issued, and described the agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones, no expanding the boundaries of them, but allowing building within existing settlements, since that would not reduce the land available for a Palestinian state. In his recent biography of Sharon, David Landau writes:

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Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, joined by five other foreign-policy experts from the past, issued an open letter entitled “Stand Firm, John Kerry,” calling for “clarity” on “the critical moral and political issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter castigated Israeli settlements and proposed “halting the diplomatic process” to “help stop this activity.” At “Pressure Points,” Elliott Abrams dismantled the letter, noting that, among other things, it ignored history.  

As it happens, tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of one of the more important items of history the Brzezinski group ignored: the April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Abrams recounts how the letter went through “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and out,” ending with a “headline” that was clear: “There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.” In her  own memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted spending three hours on the letter with Sharon the night before it was issued, and described the agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones, no expanding the boundaries of them, but allowing building within existing settlements, since that would not reduce the land available for a Palestinian state. In his recent biography of Sharon, David Landau writes:

The American-Israeli diplomacy culminated in a hugely significant exchange of letters between Bush and Sharon in April 2004. In his letter, Sharon committed to carry out the [Gaza] disengagement. In his response, President Bush committed to back Israel on two vital issues: the Palestinian refugees would not return en masse to the State of Israel; and – by clear implication – the large settlement blocs on the West Bank, close to the 1967 line, would remain part of Israel in a final status agreement. Sharon regarded the exchange of letters as his most salient achievement as prime minister. He was probably right.

Last year, as Secretary Kerry was in Israel seeking to restart peace negotiations, an Israeli reporter asked him about “a guarantee from the past”–“telling that blocs of settlements can stay.” His question was straightforward: “does [the guarantee] exist?” Kerry responded: “I remember that commitment very well because I was running for president then, and I personally have supported the notion that the situation on the ground has changed.” Indeed, four days after the Bush letter was issued, Kerry was asked directly about it on Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: On Thursday, President Bush … said that Israel can keep part of the land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and asserted the Palestinian refugees cannot go back to their particular homes. Do you support President Bush?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Completely?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

The 2004 Bush letter was not simply a statement of policy; it was a negotiated deal, on which Israel relied in carrying out the Gaza disengagement, dismantling every settlement there and four others in the disputed territories as well. Sharon made the Bush letter part of the formal disengagement plan submitted to the Knesset for its approval. The U.S. Congress also endorsed the letter, in joint resolutions by the Senate (95-3) and House (407-9). The letter was endorsed in unambiguous terms by the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, who in 2013 as secretary of state correctly called it a “commitment.”

The Obama administration, when it took office in 2009, repeatedly refused to answer whether it was bound by the Bush letter. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied there were any “enforceable” understandings with Israel. The day before Palestinian President Abbas met with President Obama, Clinton told the press Obama had been “very clear” with Prime Minister Netanyahu that he “wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions”–and that this had been “communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others.” The same day, Abbas told the Washington Post he would do nothing but watch the Obama administration pressure Netanyahu. The administration eventually got a ten-month construction freeze, which both Clinton and Obama envoy George Mitchell called “unprecedented.” It produced nothing from the Palestinians other than a demand in the tenth month that it be continued.

Now flash forward five years, to Secretary of State Kerry’s April 8, 2014 Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, in which he said “both sides … wound up in positions where things happened that were unhelpful,” but that “when they were about to maybe [resume negotiations], 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem, and poof, that was sort of the moment.” Kerry knew the 700 “settlement units” [sic] were in a longstanding Jewish area in the capital of the Jewish state; that the area will be retained by Israel in any conceivable peace agreement; that Israel had made no commitment to Kerry to stop any construction there; and that Israel was working on an expanded prisoner release when the Palestinians went to the UN.

The peace process went “poof” not because of 700 units in Jerusalem, but because–for the third time in three years–the Palestinians violated the foundational agreement of the process, which obligates them not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations to change the status of the disputed territories. For the third time, the Palestinians went to the UN; for the third time, there was no American response; for the third time, there was no penalty for the violation; and on April 8, there was not even an honest assessment of the situation by the secretary of state.

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The Obama Doctrine of Selective Memory

On June 17, 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something strange. On the topic of a deal struck on settlement construction between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, Clinton said: “In looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.”

It’s important to clarify what is “strange” about this comment. It was a strange thing to say because it is flatly untrue: the agreement most certainly existed, and was put to writing. But it was not strange that Clinton was the one to say it: as Omri Ceren meticulously explained for the magazine in May 2012, the Obama administration’s disastrous policies toward Israel were predicated on ignoring, and at times outright falsifying, history.

Sharon made real strategic concessions to boost the peace process at great political and personal cost because he knew he had America’s support. When Obama came into office, American allies learned the hard way that the White House was no longer bound by such agreements, regardless of the danger it put those allies in. Ukrainian leaders now appear to be running into the same problem.

According to the Budapest memorandum of 1994, Ukraine would give up its nukes in return for the recognition and maintenance of its territorial integrity. That ship has very clearly sailed, since the United States is now asking Vladimir Putin’s Russia to please only take from Ukraine that which they have already pilfered. Putin is considering this request–which is exactly what it is: a request. Thus, Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” does not, at the moment, exist in any meaningful sense.

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On June 17, 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something strange. On the topic of a deal struck on settlement construction between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, Clinton said: “In looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.”

It’s important to clarify what is “strange” about this comment. It was a strange thing to say because it is flatly untrue: the agreement most certainly existed, and was put to writing. But it was not strange that Clinton was the one to say it: as Omri Ceren meticulously explained for the magazine in May 2012, the Obama administration’s disastrous policies toward Israel were predicated on ignoring, and at times outright falsifying, history.

Sharon made real strategic concessions to boost the peace process at great political and personal cost because he knew he had America’s support. When Obama came into office, American allies learned the hard way that the White House was no longer bound by such agreements, regardless of the danger it put those allies in. Ukrainian leaders now appear to be running into the same problem.

According to the Budapest memorandum of 1994, Ukraine would give up its nukes in return for the recognition and maintenance of its territorial integrity. That ship has very clearly sailed, since the United States is now asking Vladimir Putin’s Russia to please only take from Ukraine that which they have already pilfered. Putin is considering this request–which is exactly what it is: a request. Thus, Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” does not, at the moment, exist in any meaningful sense.

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, has taken to the Daily Beast to describe the Budapest memorandum in terms nearly identical to the way the Bush-Sharon letter was described by those who wanted Obama to respect the promises of the White House. When Clinton denied an agreement that plainly existed, she tried to hedge, in part by saying she found no “enforceable” deals. As Elliott Abrams noted in the Wall Street Journal at the time: “How exactly would Israel enforce any agreement against an American decision to renege on it? Take it to the International Court in The Hague?”

Gelb acknowledges that the Budapest deal does not specifically obligate America to use force against Russia to repel its Ukrainian adventure. But Gelb wants the administration to stop insulting the intelligence of the Ukrainians:

The Budapest document makes sense historically only as a quid pro quo agreement resting upon American credibility to act. The United States cannot simply walk away from the plain meaning of the Budapest Memorandum and leave Ukraine in the lurch. And how would this complete washing of U.S. hands affect U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, supposedly a top national priority? Why should any nation forego nukes or give them away like Ukraine, if other nations, and especially the U.S., feel zero responsibility for their defense? It’s not that Washington has to send ground troops or start using its nuclear weapons; it’s just that potential aggressors have to see some potential military cost.

And that’s the consequence of the administration’s penchant for selective memory in foreign affairs that Obama brushed aside when it came to Israel. It’s not about whether Obama would or would not have signed such a deal himself. It’s about whether American promises evaporate every four or eight years.

The obvious rejoinder is that presidential administrations cannot be bound by every political or strategic principle of their predecessors–otherwise why have elections? True, but the question is one of written agreements, “memoranda,” and understandings, especially those offered as the American side of a deal that has been otherwise fulfilled. Sharon pulled out not just of Gaza but also parts of the West Bank and made concessions on security in both territories he was hesitant to offer. He held up his end of the bargain, and Israelis were only asking that the administration hold up Washington’s.

That’s the point Gelb is making on Ukraine, and it’s an important one. He is saying that the United States’ decision on how to respond to Russia’s aggression should not be made in a vacuum. This may bind Obama’s hands a bit, but there is danger in reneging on this agreement. It’s a danger that was mostly ignored when it came to Israel. But now it’s clear that this is a pattern with Obama, and that American promises are suspended on his watch. It’s no surprise that the world is acting accordingly.

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The Folly of “Symmetrical Negotiation”

Ridiculing Tom Friedman’s famous habit of letting his cab drivers determine his column ideas is a popular pastime for foreign-policy commentators. But the truth is those columns are generally more sensible than the ones he comes up with all on his own. Today’s piece is a case in point, and it’s a convincing answer to those who say Friedman’s columns should just be ignored.

Getting the Middle East conflict wrong can be dangerous for those, unlike Friedman, who actually have to live with the consequences. So the following sentence should be printed and framed in the office of every aspiring Western diplomat, because it is about as wrong as you can get:

That is, has Israel become so much more powerful than its neighbors that a symmetrical negotiation is impossible, especially when the Palestinians do not seem willing or able to mount another intifada that might force Israel to withdraw?

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Ridiculing Tom Friedman’s famous habit of letting his cab drivers determine his column ideas is a popular pastime for foreign-policy commentators. But the truth is those columns are generally more sensible than the ones he comes up with all on his own. Today’s piece is a case in point, and it’s a convincing answer to those who say Friedman’s columns should just be ignored.

Getting the Middle East conflict wrong can be dangerous for those, unlike Friedman, who actually have to live with the consequences. So the following sentence should be printed and framed in the office of every aspiring Western diplomat, because it is about as wrong as you can get:

That is, has Israel become so much more powerful than its neighbors that a symmetrical negotiation is impossible, especially when the Palestinians do not seem willing or able to mount another intifada that might force Israel to withdraw?

Let’s take the second part of that sentence first. The idea that only another intifada can save Israel from itself, and thus save the peace process, is grotesque. Secretary of State John Kerry flirted with this assault on logic and morality in his tirade on Israeli TV. This is a form of blackmail: Israel must agree to the terms of Kerry’s peace deal or there will be bombs in cafes again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s not a surprise Friedman would wade into this territory either; once you’ve accepted the Walt-Mearsheimer conspiracy theories of furtive Jewish domination, as Friedman has, you’ll believe anything. But the first part of the sentence in question should not be overshadowed by the wistful phrasing on the intifada. Because it’s a mistake that warrants correcting.

The plain fact, demonstrated by the history of this conflict in every instance, is that the “symmetrical negotiation” Friedman hopes for would bury the chances for peace. Israel’s neighbors made peace with the Jewish state only when they learned once and for all that they could not destroy her militarily, and they could not isolate her, and thus strangle her economically, from the world.

That’s because Israel was always willing to make peace, as is still the case. The Arab states in the neighborhood were not, because they viewed a peace deal as a strategic defeat, a capitulation to the reality that their dream of annihilating the Jews in their midst was untenable. A peace deal was a consolation prize for them.

What enabled the peace between Israel and her neighbors was precisely the absence of “symmetrical negotiation.” In his remembrance of Ariel Sharon’s dealings with the Arab world, Lee Smith opens with the following story:

During Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977, he met Ariel Sharon, the Israeli general credited by his countrymen as one of the heroes of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Sharon’s crossing of the Sinai and his encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army had turned the tables on Sadat’s forces, ensuring a victory that had once been uncertain. “I tried to catch you when you were on our side of the canal,” Sadat told Sharon. And now, replied Sharon, “you have the chance to catch me as a friend.”

Once Sadat had failed enough times to destroy Israel, his relationship with the state changed immediately. He didn’t try to “catch [Sharon] as a friend” first; he tried to kill Sharon first. When that couldn’t be done, friendship could be spoken of.

The development of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel was another aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict that offered more hope for peace. Whether or not individual subscribers to the odious boycott-Israel movement would support Israel’s continued existence, the Palestinian leadership doesn’t see strangling Israel economically as a way to bring the Israelis to the negotiating table. Israel is already at the negotiating table, having yet again made concessions just to get the Palestinians to join them there.

The Palestinians would not see an Israel brought to its knees as an ideal state with which to strike a deal. They would see it as a weakened state on its way to the dustbin of history, to be replaced by a Palestinian state. Similarly, military parity between the Israelis and Palestinians is a foolish goal, because it cannot be brought about except through ways that would convince the Palestinian leadership that a peace deal isn’t necessary or in their interest. It should be an obvious point–one Friedman’s cab driver could have explained to him–but nonetheless bears repeating to counteract the dangerous, though predictable, misinformation of the New York Times op-ed page.

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Burying Unilateralism Along With its Patron

While Israel may have now buried former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it is still far from having buried with him the idea with which Sharon ultimately came to be most strongly associated: unilateralism–the notion that if no partner for peace could be found, then Israel should determine its own fate, draw its own borders, and extricate itself from a conflict it has long wanted no part in. It was ultimately to this end that Sharon broke from the Likud, and indeed the settlement movement that he had long been the patron of, and established Kadima, the party that would give him the representation in Israel’s Knesset that he needed to carry out the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Sharon had been lying in a coma since early 2006, and despite the abject failure of unilateral disengagement from both Gaza and Lebanon, Sharon’s ideas have not lain dormant with him. Having been a territorial maximalist for most of his political life, unilateral withdrawal from territory may prove to be Sharon’s most significant parting gift to Israel and the region.

Today there is no shortage of politicians in Israel who still espouse the virtues of this strategy. Most notable among them is former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who in a sense first pioneered unilateralism with his disengagement from southern Lebanon in 2000. He was still voicing partial support for unilateral disengagement from the West Bank in 2012. And the idea remains particularly popular among many in Israel’s defense and security establishment. Avi Dichter and Ami Ayalon, both former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency continue to champion this policy, as does Omer Bar-Lev, former head of the general Staff Reconnaissance Unit and a Labor Party member of Israel’s parliament.  

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While Israel may have now buried former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it is still far from having buried with him the idea with which Sharon ultimately came to be most strongly associated: unilateralism–the notion that if no partner for peace could be found, then Israel should determine its own fate, draw its own borders, and extricate itself from a conflict it has long wanted no part in. It was ultimately to this end that Sharon broke from the Likud, and indeed the settlement movement that he had long been the patron of, and established Kadima, the party that would give him the representation in Israel’s Knesset that he needed to carry out the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Sharon had been lying in a coma since early 2006, and despite the abject failure of unilateral disengagement from both Gaza and Lebanon, Sharon’s ideas have not lain dormant with him. Having been a territorial maximalist for most of his political life, unilateral withdrawal from territory may prove to be Sharon’s most significant parting gift to Israel and the region.

Today there is no shortage of politicians in Israel who still espouse the virtues of this strategy. Most notable among them is former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who in a sense first pioneered unilateralism with his disengagement from southern Lebanon in 2000. He was still voicing partial support for unilateral disengagement from the West Bank in 2012. And the idea remains particularly popular among many in Israel’s defense and security establishment. Avi Dichter and Ami Ayalon, both former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency continue to champion this policy, as does Omer Bar-Lev, former head of the general Staff Reconnaissance Unit and a Labor Party member of Israel’s parliament.  

Just this weekend Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was outlining the possibility of withdrawal from much of the West Bank in the not-unlikely event that Israel’s latest round of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority produce no tangible results. In his obituary on Sharon, written for CNN, Oren writes, “A growing number Israelis are asking, ‘What happens if the process fails?’ One solution could be a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.” Oren suggests how things could be done differently this time, a sign that unilateralists do indeed recognize where the policy has unraveled in the past. Oren explains, “As in the disengagement from Gaza, the United States would endorse this move, but unlike in Gaza, most Israeli settlements would remain within Israel, and Israeli troops would still patrol strategic borders. Of course, the preferable solution is two states for two peoples. But if that proves unattainable, then Israel can still end the occupation of the Palestinians, preserve its security, and perhaps lay new foundations for peace.”

Unilateralism’s great strength is that it refuses to have any delusions about Palestinian intransigence. It refuses to allow Israel to be indefinitely held hostage by the kind of Palestinian rejectionism that has thus far rendered all attempts at a negotiated peace futile. Instead, the unilateralists advocate simply withdrawing to borders of Israel’s choosing. The problem here, however, is that unilateralism is still buying into some of the most fundamental and mistaken premises of the dovish camp in Israel. That is the belief that the conflict is about territory, and that Israel can trade land for peace by giving the Palestinians an agreed upon allotment of territory. Since the Palestinians have so far failed to outline precisely what amount of territory they would require before ending the conflict, negotiations on land for peace have thus far failed to deliver. 

The unilateralists seek to bypass stalled negotiations through simply handing over territory to the Palestinians without the framework of peace talks, thus creating a de facto two-state solution. Yet this is a mistake. The two-state proposal is itself an Israeli creation and the Palestinians have never come close to unanimously acknowledging it as a preferable end goal. Israel can create a two-state scenario without Palestinian cooperation if it wants, but there’s no reason to think this will do anything to pacify them.

Both with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and with Hamas in Gaza, Israeli unilateral withdrawal was viewed by the Islamists as a retreat and a sign of weakness. Israelis had demanded nothing in return for the territory they abandoned, they had simply fled. Proof enough for the extremists that terror pays and that Israel’s resolve will always break eventually. In this way unilateral disengagement has emboldened Israel’s enemies to step up their war on Israel, which is not territorial in nature, but existential.

Unilateralists are, of course, not simply driven by the desire to extricate Israeli forces from the nightmare of having to police a hostile population. They are also galvanized by serious concerns about demographics and Israel’s international standing. Yet, increasingly it looks as if the fears about the Palestinian demographic time bomb have been drastically exaggerated. Besides, the number of Palestinians in the West Bank has little to do with Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy. Palestinians already have their own separate polity in the form of the Palestinian Authority and they elect their own government, or at least they do as and when that government stands by its obligations to allow them to do so.

Nor does unilateralism do anything significant to lift Israel’s international legitimacy. When Israeli civilians have come under rocket fire from both southern Lebanon and Gaza, not only has the international community not been sympathetic to Israel, when Israel is inevitably forced to responded to these attacks, the degree of condemnation of this self-defense against terror has been chilling. Indeed, the international community still maintains that Israel is occupying Gaza on account of the fact that it controls Gaza’s borders, an absurd position given that Egypt also controls a border with Gaza, one it guards just as tightly.

In the event that Israel withdrew from the majority of the West bank and pulled back to its security barrier, not only could it not expect any international recognition for its borders, but experience suggests that it should expect the West Bank to be turned into the same kind of lawless terror launch pad for Iranian proxies that Gaza and southern Lebanon have already now become.

Sharon may be buried, but unilateralism is still alive and well. In the future Israelis may yet come to deeply regret not having buried this ideology with its most renowned practitioner when they had the chance.  

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What Ariel Sharon Knew

The grudging respect that Ariel Sharon garnered from the Western press after the Gaza disengagement was misleading. They still reviled the Israeli military might he represented and the ideas he never let go of. Consequently, Sharon inspired the kind of praise that was both insincere and couched in so many weaselly qualifications as to make it twice as insulting as the condemnations he was used to. At least the condemnations were honest. His newfound, reluctant admirers couldn’t even look him in the eye. And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

If the Newseum in Washington ever puts together an exhibit of such media behavior, they will surely center it on this masterpiece of the genre, from the Economist. It was published after the Gaza withdrawal was underway, but before Sharon was chased from the Likud Party for it. Lamenting that “the chances of a Labour victory are, alas, fairly negligible,” the magazine focused on Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to vie for the Likud leadership against Sharon, and weighed in on which one was preferable. One imagines the psychological torment the editors withstood in order to choose between Bibi and Arik.

When it came time to hand down its verdict, the Economist offered a pox on both their houses, but slightly less of one on the House of Arik:

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The grudging respect that Ariel Sharon garnered from the Western press after the Gaza disengagement was misleading. They still reviled the Israeli military might he represented and the ideas he never let go of. Consequently, Sharon inspired the kind of praise that was both insincere and couched in so many weaselly qualifications as to make it twice as insulting as the condemnations he was used to. At least the condemnations were honest. His newfound, reluctant admirers couldn’t even look him in the eye. And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

If the Newseum in Washington ever puts together an exhibit of such media behavior, they will surely center it on this masterpiece of the genre, from the Economist. It was published after the Gaza withdrawal was underway, but before Sharon was chased from the Likud Party for it. Lamenting that “the chances of a Labour victory are, alas, fairly negligible,” the magazine focused on Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to vie for the Likud leadership against Sharon, and weighed in on which one was preferable. One imagines the psychological torment the editors withstood in order to choose between Bibi and Arik.

When it came time to hand down its verdict, the Economist offered a pox on both their houses, but slightly less of one on the House of Arik:

This is not because of some fundamental difference of vision or character between the two men. It is because of where each has chosen to take his stand in this contest.

To unseat the prime minister, Bibi has thrown in his lot with the least flexible elements of Likud—the bitter-enders who cling to the nonsensical idea that Israel can remain a Jewish democracy while ruling over millions of Palestinians. If he wins power with their support, he will find it extremely difficult to change position afterwards. Mr Sharon, in contrast, has just shown most dramatically in Gaza that he has the temerity to challenge and defeat this bunch, even if it means betraying those who previously lionised him. If the first Israeli leader to take such a risk is rewarded with the boot, peace with the Palestinians will remain as elusive as ever.

Those last two sentences are ever so revealing. Asks the Economist: Who is courageous? Answer: He who rises up against the Likud. And look how carefully constructed that last sentence is–so hedged and watered down as to be meaningless. And what happened? Arik was not “rewarded with the boot” by the voters (though he had to disengage from Likud). He won the following election by the sheer force of his own name and personality.

He left the most talented Likudniks behind when he formed Kadima. It showed–he was succeeded by Ehud Olmert, who was succeeded in Kadima by Tzipi Livni. Choose Arik over Bibi, the Economist advised, in the name of peace. In other words, the world assured the Israelis, this time is different. This time the disengagement, the withdrawal, will lead to … what exactly? Well the Economist isn’t so bold as to say, because one suspects that deep down the editors, and the highly refined opinion of the international community they represented, knew the truth. And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

The truth was that it would not lead to a change in Palestinian behavior. Israel unilaterally leaving all of Gaza and parts of the West Bank was supposed to be John Cusack holding the boombox blaring In Your Eyes outside the Palestinians’ window. But the Palestinians weren’t interested in Ariel Sharon’s gestures–which Sharon didn’t think of as gestures so much as essential actions that would secure the safety of the state he spent his life defending on the battlefield. And how much less interested must they be in lesser gestures, like settlement freezes or White House invites?

Obituaries and reminiscences of Sharon’s life are not lacking for lessons. But surely one lesson of Sharon’s life is this: the gesture politics that are a mark of the Western left’s decadent narcissism and intellectual boredom are useless in the very conflict they are applied most often. Worse than useless, perhaps–dangerous. John Kerry’s shawarma diplomacy is aimed at getting a piece of paper signed so he can pretend peace is at hand. Sharon never had the luxury of pretending.

And Sharon never needed a piece of paper. He left Gaza without a formal agreement because he understood the difference between peace agreements and peace. The two often have nothing to do with each other. When he felt he needed to do something for Israel’s security–withdrawal, security fence–he did it, because without security there is no peace. (People often think it’s the other way around, but history says otherwise.)

Sharon made mistakes. His judgment was not infallible. What was seemingly infallible was his iron will, for good and for ill. Because Sharon believed in reality. The politicians and journalists hectoring and heckling him from thousands of miles away were living in a fantasy world. They hated him, because he wouldn’t join them there. And he wouldn’t join them there because he believed it was cowardly for a man responsible for the survival of his people to play make-believe when lives were on the line.

And boy, did Arik detest cowards.

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Assessing Sharon’s Complex Legacy

When larger-than-life figures such as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon die, writers struggle to adequately summarize their legacies. But few historic leaders are as as difficult to assess as Sharon, who died yesterday after lingering for eight years in a vegetative state following a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in January 2006. A man born in 1928 whose military and political career reflected the entire history of the State of Israel, there is simply no analogy to be drawn between Sharon and any contemporary American leader. It’s not just that he was, perhaps, the last of those who were part of the Jewish state’s founding generation to pass from the scene. Nor does Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza during his last years in power — making him a belated hero to many on the left and causing him to be reviled by his erstwhile backers on the right — entirely explain why it is so hard to neatly pigeonhole his career.

Love him or hate him, there was never any denying that Sharon was an extraordinary soldier and one of those rightly seen as one of the chief architects of the victories of the Israel Defense Forces during the several wars it was forced to fight to defend the state’s existence in its first decades. Nor could even his sternest critics deny that he was almost as good a politician as he was a military man. By the time illness felled him he bestrode his country’s political scene and, at least for a short time appeared to have permanently altered its balance with the creation of a new centrist party built around his personal reputation and philosophy.

But though the Jewish state’s enemies decry him as a war criminal because they believe Israel has no right to defend itself against those who seek its destruction, the problem with understanding Sharon goes well beyond the usual pro-Zionist/anti-Zionist arguments or even those that divided Israeli politics during his long career. Sharon may have seen himself as consistent in his concerns for his country’s safety, but his behavior and decisions always reflected an impulsive nature that was impatient with hierarchy and the norms of the democratic political process. As such, it is impossible to talk about what he accomplished and what he tried to do without resorting to conditional praise or criticism.

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When larger-than-life figures such as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon die, writers struggle to adequately summarize their legacies. But few historic leaders are as as difficult to assess as Sharon, who died yesterday after lingering for eight years in a vegetative state following a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in January 2006. A man born in 1928 whose military and political career reflected the entire history of the State of Israel, there is simply no analogy to be drawn between Sharon and any contemporary American leader. It’s not just that he was, perhaps, the last of those who were part of the Jewish state’s founding generation to pass from the scene. Nor does Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza during his last years in power — making him a belated hero to many on the left and causing him to be reviled by his erstwhile backers on the right — entirely explain why it is so hard to neatly pigeonhole his career.

Love him or hate him, there was never any denying that Sharon was an extraordinary soldier and one of those rightly seen as one of the chief architects of the victories of the Israel Defense Forces during the several wars it was forced to fight to defend the state’s existence in its first decades. Nor could even his sternest critics deny that he was almost as good a politician as he was a military man. By the time illness felled him he bestrode his country’s political scene and, at least for a short time appeared to have permanently altered its balance with the creation of a new centrist party built around his personal reputation and philosophy.

But though the Jewish state’s enemies decry him as a war criminal because they believe Israel has no right to defend itself against those who seek its destruction, the problem with understanding Sharon goes well beyond the usual pro-Zionist/anti-Zionist arguments or even those that divided Israeli politics during his long career. Sharon may have seen himself as consistent in his concerns for his country’s safety, but his behavior and decisions always reflected an impulsive nature that was impatient with hierarchy and the norms of the democratic political process. As such, it is impossible to talk about what he accomplished and what he tried to do without resorting to conditional praise or criticism.

As Elliott Abrams, who dealt directly with him during the George W. Bush administration, writes here in COMMENTARY, Sharon was a bundle of contradictions that made him fascinating. He played at being the bluff citizen soldier/farmer in the tradition of the Roman hero Cincinnatus, but he was actually something of an intellectual, sensitive to criticism and capable of looking at problems from a variety of points of view. He was capable of complex thinking. The British military historian Peter Young described Sharon’s plan for an assault on an Egyptian position in the Sinai during the Six-Day War as almost impossibly complicated yet brilliant. But his defining characteristic from his earliest days in command to his last days in power appeared to be an indomitable belief in his personal judgment and a determination to ignore other points of view. Sometimes this worked; but not always. And sometimes the cost to others—and to Sharon—was greater than he imagined.

The examples of when his brash resolve was not only right but also inspired are integral to the history of Israel’s early conflicts. His decisive leadership as the head of the country’s first commando unit and its paratroop brigade stemmed the tide of cross-border terrorism that threatened to overwhelm the country in its first decade. Similarly, his exploits during the Six-Day War, his campaign quelling terror in Gaza in the early 1970s and, most memorably, when he led the counter-attack across the Suez Canal against Egyptian forces during the Yom Kippur War that turned the tide of that conflict, showed the benefits of having a general who didn’t always play by the rules. His heroism in this era etched for him a permanent place of honor in Jewish history. The same can be said for his decisive reaction to the second intifada as prime minister when he commanded a counter-attack and ordered the construction of a security fence that effectively defeated the terrorists.

However, that same impulsive nature would sometimes prove disastrous. His decision to ignore orders during the Sinai campaign of 1956 resulted in a deadly ambush of his paratroop brigade at the Mitla Pass. Many of its veterans never forgave him. On a larger scale, this scenario played out again when he turned the limited offensive against Palestinian terrorists in Lebanon that Prime Minister Menachem Begin agreed to in 1982 into a drive to Beirut that embroiled Israel in an ill-conceived attempt to transform Lebanese politics that was bound to fail. That was bad enough, but the alliance with Lebanese Christians also led Sharon to ignore warning signs of trouble and resulted in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians by the Christians that allowed Israel’s critics to claim the entire offensive was a war crime. Time Magazine and others that claimed he was directly responsible for the crimes committed by Lebanese who had suffered their own atrocities at Palestinian hands, in fact libeled Sharon. But Sharon had still blundered and his unwillingness to work cooperatively with colleagues or superiors was, at least in part, to blame.

That same characteristic was at play when he made the decision to try to break the logjam with the Palestinians by making unilateral gestures that would, he hoped, determine Israel’s borders without a peace agreement. In this case, the same “bulldozer” that helped establish settlements throughout the territories used his determination to push through the forced evacuation of 9,000 Jews from Gaza. He put the proposal to a vote of Likud Party members but ignored the negative result. As Abrams notes, he did the same thing again by firing recalcitrant ministers in order to get the Cabinet to approve the scheme. His decision to ignite what Israeli political writers called the “big bang” and destroy the Likud in order to create a new centrist faction called Kadima was a product of the same belief in his own star. He skimmed the leading opportunists of both Likud and Labor together under the same tent and, seemingly, altered the country’s politics forever by promoting a new pragmatism built on the clear failures of both the right and the left.

But though we are being subjected to a chorus of eulogies lamenting that Sharon’s stroke cut short a real chance for peace, the Gaza gambit was as much a flawed big idea as the drive to Beirut. We are now told that the magic force of Sharon’s personality and political popularity would have somehow enabled Israel to set its own borders and then effectively hamstring Palestinian terrorism. But just as unforeseen circumstances proved that Sharon’s strategically brilliant vision for transforming Lebanon from a Palestinian terror bastion into an ally was inherently flawed, so, too, was the notion that the Gaza withdrawal would lead to de facto, if not  de jure, peace. As I wrote last week, the unwillingness of the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn is what is preventing peace, not the lack of a leader of Sharon’s stature. For all of his great qualities and dedication to ensuring Israel’s security, Sharon’s popularity would not have survived the Hamas coup in Gaza and the years of missile strikes that followed. Nor would his plan for unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank have rallied the world behind Israel’s position. Though Sharon believed, as Abrams writes, that he had achieved a lasting victory by getting Bush to back Israel’s position on the settlement blocs, that triumph didn’t survive Bush’s replacement by Barack Obama.

At a time when the Jewish people needed great soldiers, Sharon was exactly that. His leadership qualities and dogged persistence in pursuit of power also inspires our admiration as we study his three-decade run as an Israeli politician. He wanted a secure Israel as well as an end to the conflict with the Arab world and if he did not succeed (and probably could not have even if he had not fallen ill) in the latter endeavor, he deserves credit for trying. But his career also demonstrates that while a lone wolf can sometimes achieve great things, a man who can’t work comfortably within democratic structures or listen to colleagues is also liable to create disasters. Ariel Sharon’s memory should be as a blessing, but his career is a cautionary tale about the inherent limits of his unique style of leadership.

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Ariel Sharon in His Own Words

Lee Smith has a good summary of various reminiscences of Ariel Sharon–“one of the exemplary lives on the 20th century.” To the essential reading about Sharon, one should add David Hazony’s piece at the Jewish Daily Forward, “The Sharon They Loved, the Sharon We Hated,” and Ari Shavit’s lengthy profile published in the January 23, 2006 issue of the New Yorker, just after Sharon’s stroke.

Not all Shavit’s judgments were solid, but his reporting was reliable, because it was based on 20 hours of taped conversation with Sharon over six years, and the article provides a sort of Sharon self-portrait, since it contained extended quotations from the interviews. The answer Sharon gave when Shavit asked him if the conflict with the Palestinians would have an end is worth reading in light of the eight years that followed:

“[T]he problem at the heart of the conflict is that the Arab world does not recognize the Jews’ inherent right to have a Jewish state in the land where the Jewish people began. This is the main problem. This also applies to Egypt, with which we have a cold peace. It also applies to Jordan, with which we have a very close strategic relationship, but this is a relationship between governments, not between peoples. The problem is not 1967. The problem is the profound nonrecognition by the Arab world of Israel’s birthright. This problem will not be solved by an agreement. It will not be solved by a speech. Anyone who promises that it’s possible to end the conflict within a year or two years or three is mistaken. Anyone who promises peace now is blind to the way things are. Even after the disengagement, we will not be able to rest on our laurels. We will not be able to sit under our fig tree and our vine.

“It may be that we will never have peace,” he went on. “And it may be that it will take a great many years to have peace. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk. It’s better to talk than not to talk. It’s important to conduct negotiations. Maybe it’s possible to solve one thing or another. But it has to be understood that the conflict may never be resolved. If it is ever resolved, it will be in a very long process.”

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Lee Smith has a good summary of various reminiscences of Ariel Sharon–“one of the exemplary lives on the 20th century.” To the essential reading about Sharon, one should add David Hazony’s piece at the Jewish Daily Forward, “The Sharon They Loved, the Sharon We Hated,” and Ari Shavit’s lengthy profile published in the January 23, 2006 issue of the New Yorker, just after Sharon’s stroke.

Not all Shavit’s judgments were solid, but his reporting was reliable, because it was based on 20 hours of taped conversation with Sharon over six years, and the article provides a sort of Sharon self-portrait, since it contained extended quotations from the interviews. The answer Sharon gave when Shavit asked him if the conflict with the Palestinians would have an end is worth reading in light of the eight years that followed:

“[T]he problem at the heart of the conflict is that the Arab world does not recognize the Jews’ inherent right to have a Jewish state in the land where the Jewish people began. This is the main problem. This also applies to Egypt, with which we have a cold peace. It also applies to Jordan, with which we have a very close strategic relationship, but this is a relationship between governments, not between peoples. The problem is not 1967. The problem is the profound nonrecognition by the Arab world of Israel’s birthright. This problem will not be solved by an agreement. It will not be solved by a speech. Anyone who promises that it’s possible to end the conflict within a year or two years or three is mistaken. Anyone who promises peace now is blind to the way things are. Even after the disengagement, we will not be able to rest on our laurels. We will not be able to sit under our fig tree and our vine.

“It may be that we will never have peace,” he went on. “And it may be that it will take a great many years to have peace. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk. It’s better to talk than not to talk. It’s important to conduct negotiations. Maybe it’s possible to solve one thing or another. But it has to be understood that the conflict may never be resolved. If it is ever resolved, it will be in a very long process.”

Later in the profile, Sharon told Shavit that what bothered him about the “peaceniks” was “their hatred of the settlers and their excessive faith in the Arabs.” He believed peace depended on Palestinian reforms, not Israeli concessions:

“The greatest danger is in signing some document and believing that as a result we will have peace. This is not going to happen. . . . Instead, we have to build a process that will enable us to ascertain that indeed a change is taking place in the Arab world. It is necessary to teach all the teachers that Israel is a legitimate entity. And it is necessary to replace all the Palestinian textbooks. And this is beyond the elementary demand for the cessation of terror and the cessation of incitement and the implementation of reforms in the security organizations and the implementation of governmental reforms. It is necessary not to omit a single one of these steps. …”

Shavit concluded that if Sharon “has left a legacy, it is the need for time – lots of time – because there is no way to reach peace with one abrupt act.” It is a good lesson for New York Times reporters who think the current prime minister’s insistence on recognition of a Jewish state is an obstacle to peace, or secretaries of state who always think peace is only a peace agreement away. 

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Sharon and the Great Leader Peace Myth

After almost eight years in a vegetative state it appears that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s long struggle for life may be at its end. According to Tel Hashomer Hospital’s spokesman, Sharon’s condition has deteriorated and sources are telling the Israeli press that his organs are failing, leaving little doubt about the ultimate outcome. When the end comes it is to be expected that most of the international press will center their obituaries on the more controversial aspects of his public career. As a military officer, a Cabinet minister, and then prime minister, Sharon was often viewed as a “bulldozer” with few fans outside of those who care about Israel’s security and many detractors, both at home an abroad. They will focus on the debate about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon and the building of Israel’s security fence in the wake of the Palestinian terror offensive known as the Second Intifada so as to besmirch his reputation as well as that of the Jewish state that he spent his life defending.

But as much as Sharon was the bête noire of the Israeli left as well as Israel-bashers in general, he will also be spoken of as an example of a leader who had the credibility and the guts to try to end the conflict with the Palestinians. Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza will be cited repeatedly by Middle East experts like Aaron David Miller not so much for his failure to devise a unilateral solution to the conflict but because it provides a contrast with what Miller and other members of the foreign-policy establishment consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s lackluster leadership. Having exited the scene years ago Sharon has now been elevated in the eyes of many of his country’s friends and critics (such as the National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn) if only because it allows them the opportunity to bash the man who occupies the office he once held. Though they will be right to say that no one on the current Israeli political scene has the mythic status that Sharon attained, the idea that peace might be possible if Sharon or someone like him were in the prime minister’s office is a fallacy.

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After almost eight years in a vegetative state it appears that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s long struggle for life may be at its end. According to Tel Hashomer Hospital’s spokesman, Sharon’s condition has deteriorated and sources are telling the Israeli press that his organs are failing, leaving little doubt about the ultimate outcome. When the end comes it is to be expected that most of the international press will center their obituaries on the more controversial aspects of his public career. As a military officer, a Cabinet minister, and then prime minister, Sharon was often viewed as a “bulldozer” with few fans outside of those who care about Israel’s security and many detractors, both at home an abroad. They will focus on the debate about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon and the building of Israel’s security fence in the wake of the Palestinian terror offensive known as the Second Intifada so as to besmirch his reputation as well as that of the Jewish state that he spent his life defending.

But as much as Sharon was the bête noire of the Israeli left as well as Israel-bashers in general, he will also be spoken of as an example of a leader who had the credibility and the guts to try to end the conflict with the Palestinians. Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza will be cited repeatedly by Middle East experts like Aaron David Miller not so much for his failure to devise a unilateral solution to the conflict but because it provides a contrast with what Miller and other members of the foreign-policy establishment consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s lackluster leadership. Having exited the scene years ago Sharon has now been elevated in the eyes of many of his country’s friends and critics (such as the National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn) if only because it allows them the opportunity to bash the man who occupies the office he once held. Though they will be right to say that no one on the current Israeli political scene has the mythic status that Sharon attained, the idea that peace might be possible if Sharon or someone like him were in the prime minister’s office is a fallacy.

It is true that only someone with the security credentials that Sharon, who was a hero of several Israeli wars, possessed could have pulled off the Gaza withdrawal. Having been reelected in 1983 by running on a platform skewering Labor candidate Amram Mitzna’s proposal for abandoning Gaza, Sharon blew up the Likud Party and rammed the same proposal through the Knesset and implemented it despite the opposition of most of those who had supported him. That took not only guts but also the kind of self-confidence that perhaps only war heroes who have won landslide election victories possess.

Perhaps the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal would have gone better or at least differently had Sharon not fallen ill. Like those who fantasize that the Oslo peace process might not have been such a failure if only Yitzhak Rabin had lived and forced the Palestinians to abide by the accords and rallied Israelis behind the deal, some will spin similarly unlikely, counter-factual scenarios about Sharon. Perhaps he would not have tolerated the Hamas coup in Gaza or not responded to the rain of missile fire that emanated from the Strip after the withdrawal with the same passivity that his successor Ehud Olmert displayed for almost three years before authorizing a counter-attack. But it is just as likely, if not more so, that Sharon would have been boxed in by the same unfortunate circumstances as Olmert. After all, Hamas had been shooting rockets at Israeli settlements in Gaza as well as southern Israel for years before the withdrawal without provoking a significant military response from Sharon’s government.

However, the real lesson to be drawn from this chapter of history is that the lack of great men with the vision to try something new is not what is preventing peace. From 2001 to 2005, Israelis and Palestinians were both governed by larger-than-life figures. Though it is unfair to compare Sharon, an honorable soldier and a veteran of democratic politics, to a terrorist murderer like Yasir Arafat, one must concede that if any leaders had the standing to sell peace to their respective constituencies, it was those two. What was lacking was not someone with the ability to convince Israelis to take risks but a Palestinian partner and a Palestinian people ready to accept the notion of recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. If Israelis are skeptical about Secretary of State John Kerry’s current campaign to get them to again contemplate withdrawing from territory it is not because they lack leaders, a desire for peace, or are devoted to the cause of keeping settlements but because they think repeating Sharon’s Gaza fiasco in the far more strategic West Bank would be madness.

Netanyahu may seem like a small man when compared to Sharon just as Mahmoud Abbas may strike Palestinians as a pygmy when contrasted to Arafat. But what are needed in the Middle East are not great men so much as a sea change in Palestinian culture that will make peace possible. Until that happens, waiting for another Sharon or even another Arafat won’t hasten the end of the conflict.

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The EU Offers Israel a Raw Deal

“The European Union gave a push to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on Monday,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “pledging unprecedented aid to the two sides if they reach agreement on their final status.” The phrase “unprecedented aid” sounds like a great deal for both sides. Israel has repeatedly tried to strike a final-status agreement with the Palestinians at great cost and sacrifice, only to be rebuffed or met with violence every single time. Since Israel obviously already wants peace, this “aid” just sweetens the pot.

The Palestinians, too, might be tempted, since they depend so much on foreign aid. And for the EU as well it appears to have mostly upside: if there’s no deal, they don’t have to spend a dime of the promised aid, and if there is a deal, it would be well worth the cost. So: three (or even two) cheers for the EU? Not exactly. Widening the scope a bit reveals this to be something much closer to what the Journal reported around the Black Friday shopping rush: the deal is much less a bargain than the price tag would have shoppers believe. The Journal noted that companies long ago figured out that if they overinflated the initial price offering they could better lure bargain hunters amid all the competition. As a result:

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“The European Union gave a push to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on Monday,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “pledging unprecedented aid to the two sides if they reach agreement on their final status.” The phrase “unprecedented aid” sounds like a great deal for both sides. Israel has repeatedly tried to strike a final-status agreement with the Palestinians at great cost and sacrifice, only to be rebuffed or met with violence every single time. Since Israel obviously already wants peace, this “aid” just sweetens the pot.

The Palestinians, too, might be tempted, since they depend so much on foreign aid. And for the EU as well it appears to have mostly upside: if there’s no deal, they don’t have to spend a dime of the promised aid, and if there is a deal, it would be well worth the cost. So: three (or even two) cheers for the EU? Not exactly. Widening the scope a bit reveals this to be something much closer to what the Journal reported around the Black Friday shopping rush: the deal is much less a bargain than the price tag would have shoppers believe. The Journal noted that companies long ago figured out that if they overinflated the initial price offering they could better lure bargain hunters amid all the competition. As a result:

In a 2012 presentation, Mr. Johnson, then still Penney’s CEO, said the company was selling fewer than one out of every 500 items at full price. Customers were receiving an average discount of 60%, up from 38% a decade earlier. The twist is they weren’t saving more. In fact, the average price paid by customers stayed about the same over that period. What changed was the initial price, which increased by 33%.

And so it is with the EU’s latest fit of magnanimity, at least with regard to Israel. That’s because the EU has been slowly, but unmistakably, seeking to punish Israel financially for the EU’s policy disagreements with the Israeli government. I wrote about this over the summer, when the EU released new guidelines intended to restrict grant access to Jews who lived in the West Bank or a large part of Jerusalem, the Jews’ eternal capital. The EU had not instituted a full-fledged trade boycott, to be sure. But it’s not clear if that was because EU officials oppose such a morally repugnant policy or because the denial of grants was a way to hurt Jewish Israelis without also damaging European economies. It was no less discriminatory, in other words; just unprincipled.

The EU’s behavior also gives tacit approval to more bigoted forms of boycotts on a continent with rising anti-Semitism. So when the EU says it can offer a major infusion of financial aid to Israel if it signs on the dotted line, it is not only proclaiming its belief that Israel can be bought but also to some degree offsetting the damage it is already trying to do to Israel’s economy. Perhaps in Brussels an offer of unprecedented financial aid is indistinguishable from a shakedown, but Israeli officials can tell the difference.

With regard to aid to the Palestinians, it might end up being more expensive for the EU than officials expect. The Oslo era saw Yitzhak Rabin sign a deal with Yasser Arafat, followed by Benjamin Netanyahu doing the same, followed by Ehud Barak making a generous offer to Arafat, followed by Ariel Sharon unilaterally disengaging from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, followed by Ehud Olmert offering Mahmoud Abbas the store, followed by Netanyahu accepting in principle the two-state solution and suggesting even that dividing Jerusalem would be on the table, and then willing to release terrorist murderers just to begin negotiations.

In other words, if you want a peace deal, talk to Ramallah; Jerusalem’s door is always open. So financial aid to the Palestinian Authority is a start–or, rather, a continuation, since they already receive such aid (which Israel fully supports). But all those years of rejection and/or violence in return for Israeli offers of peace should tell the Eurocrats something about the ability to induce the Palestinians to make peace. Each Palestinian rejection was followed by an eventual Israeli offer more generous than the last. The Palestinians have learned that all they have to do is keep saying no and eventually they’ll get whatever they want.

So the EU can offer generous financial aid. The Palestinians in all likelihood will reject the terms, but they won’t forget the EU offered them in the first place. The next time the EU wants to get involved, the offer will be sweeter, and after the Palestinians reject that one the next offer will be sweeter still. By that time, the EU’s financial action against Israel will have increased as well. The EU has begun rolling a snowball downhill. Good luck stopping it.

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Samantha Power’s World View

Straight news reporting often produces humorous understatement. The reporting on President Obama’s new nominee to serve as ambassador to the United Nations–a position Obama had earlier made a Cabinet-level post–and her controversial past statements certainly resulted in such understatement. One example was the Times of Israel’s write-up of the nomination, which began: “A decade-old video of Samantha Power calling for the US to shift Israeli military aid to Ramallah and to deploy forces to protect Palestinians from IDF troops may prove a hurdle in the UN envoy nominee’s confirmation process.”

It is fair to say that calling for the U.S. to impose a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by installing a U.S.-led military occupation of Israel is a controversial thing to say–not to mention uncommonly stupid, even in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which produces a tremendous amount of stupidity from Israel’s antagonists. Some will defend Power by saying she gave this quote back in 2002. That is not a defense, because that was when Israel was defending itself from the Palestinian terror campaign of the second intifada and Power was suggesting the introduction of the U.S. military on the side of the terror masters. But the quote is actually worse than it seems, and here it is in full:

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Straight news reporting often produces humorous understatement. The reporting on President Obama’s new nominee to serve as ambassador to the United Nations–a position Obama had earlier made a Cabinet-level post–and her controversial past statements certainly resulted in such understatement. One example was the Times of Israel’s write-up of the nomination, which began: “A decade-old video of Samantha Power calling for the US to shift Israeli military aid to Ramallah and to deploy forces to protect Palestinians from IDF troops may prove a hurdle in the UN envoy nominee’s confirmation process.”

It is fair to say that calling for the U.S. to impose a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by installing a U.S.-led military occupation of Israel is a controversial thing to say–not to mention uncommonly stupid, even in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which produces a tremendous amount of stupidity from Israel’s antagonists. Some will defend Power by saying she gave this quote back in 2002. That is not a defense, because that was when Israel was defending itself from the Palestinian terror campaign of the second intifada and Power was suggesting the introduction of the U.S. military on the side of the terror masters. But the quote is actually worse than it seems, and here it is in full:

I actually think in the Palestine-Israeli situation there’s an abundance of information and what we don’t need is some kind of early warning mechanism. What we need is a willingness to actually put something on the line in helping the situation. And putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import. It may more crucially mean sacrificing, or investing I think more than sacrificing, really billions of dollars not in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine; investing billions of dollars it would probably take also to support I think what will have to be a mammoth protection force, not of the old, you know, Srebrenica kind or the Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence.

Because it seems to me at this stage–and this is true of actual genocides as well, and not just major human rights abuses which we’re seeing there–but you have to go in as if you’re serious. You have to put something on the line. And unfortunately imposition of a solution on unwilling parties is dreadful, it’s a terrible thing to do, it’s fundamentally undemocratic. But sadly, we don’t just have a democracy here either, we have a liberal democracy. There are certain sets of principles that guide our policy–or they’re meant to anyway. And there, it’s essential that the same set of principles becomes the benchmark, rather than a deference to people who are fundamentally, politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people. And by that I mean what Tom Friedman has called “Sharafat.”

I mean, I do think in that sense that both political leaders have been dreadfully irresponsible, and unfortunately it does require external intervention which–very much like the Rwanda scenario, that thought experiment, if we had intervened early–any intervention is going to come under fierce criticism, but we have to think about lesser evils, especially when the human stakes are becoming ever more pronounced.

You should watch the video to see her snide laughter when she speaks of ignoring Jewish voters. But even with just this transcript, it’s difficult to decide what’s the worst of it. Is it her casual comparison of the IDF’s anti-terror campaign to the violence that led to Srebrenica or the Rwandan genocide? Is it her dismissal of the moral question surrounding admittedly “fundamentally undemocratic” actions as irrelevant because “liberal democracy” requires the invasion of allies with whom we disagree? Is it her endorsement of Tom Friedman’s moral equivalence between Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon?

It’s really a tough call, because it’s all so astoundingly ignorant and malicious. What is clear, however, is that such a person should not be anywhere near the levers of power–so of course then-Senator Barack Obama, with his scant knowledge of foreign affairs and his ideological rigidity, hired Power to advise him on foreign policy during the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election. She was dropped from the campaign for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster,” but that was always going to be temporary for someone whose intellect, such as it is, attracts such admiration from our president.

That was far from the only controversial statement Power has made, of course. The Washington Free Beacon has compiled its list of Power’s greatest hits, but the most relevant one, aside from the call to invade Israel, was her call for a public reckoning of the American behavior that has caused anti-Americanism around the world and a public apology tour (sound familiar?). Though I suppose the risk of appointing Power to be our ambassador to the United Nations is limited, at least, by the fact that her ideas about America are already so prevalent there. At worst, she’ll simply be redundant.

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The Most Important Paragraph of Obama’s Entire Israel Trip

Yesterday, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received two significant mentions in the press. The first was from President Obama, who quoted Sharon in his speech to Israeli youth. “If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all,” Obama said in Sharon’s name, telling the crowd to make peace with the Palestinians and warning against the quest for a Greater Israel. Quoting Sharon was a wise choice to express this sentiment. It isn’t just American presidents, Obama was saying, who believe in the necessity of the two-state solution; King Arik–once the architect of a sovereign Greater Israel–said so too.

But the other instance of Sharon’s name cropping up again yesterday was far less laudatory of the man still in a coma. The Times of Israel posted a video released by the Palestinians in Gaza, in which Palestinian women, under the proud, smiling gaze of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, used Sharon’s face as target practice on a public shooting range. This is relevant to Obama’s speech as well. The address, which was well written and well delivered, had passages everyone could agree with. But no paragraph was more observant or insightful than when Obama said this:

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Yesterday, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received two significant mentions in the press. The first was from President Obama, who quoted Sharon in his speech to Israeli youth. “If we insist on fulfilling the dream in its entirety, we are liable to lose it all,” Obama said in Sharon’s name, telling the crowd to make peace with the Palestinians and warning against the quest for a Greater Israel. Quoting Sharon was a wise choice to express this sentiment. It isn’t just American presidents, Obama was saying, who believe in the necessity of the two-state solution; King Arik–once the architect of a sovereign Greater Israel–said so too.

But the other instance of Sharon’s name cropping up again yesterday was far less laudatory of the man still in a coma. The Times of Israel posted a video released by the Palestinians in Gaza, in which Palestinian women, under the proud, smiling gaze of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, used Sharon’s face as target practice on a public shooting range. This is relevant to Obama’s speech as well. The address, which was well written and well delivered, had passages everyone could agree with. But no paragraph was more observant or insightful than when Obama said this:

This truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab World. I recognize that with the uncertainty in the region – people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics –it is tempting to turn inward. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve for peace. As more governments respond to popular will, the days when Israel could seek peace with a handful of autocratic leaders are over. Peace must be made among peoples, not just governments. No one step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin, while sidelining extremists who thrive on conflict and division.

I am not going to claim here that the president reads COMMENTARY, but I’m satisfied with rhetoric coming from Obama that even raises the possibility. Because this paragraph is something we have echoed here, repeatedly, in the wake of the Arab Spring. I don’t know if Obama fully appreciates, understands, or accepts the implications of that quote. But that quote is the key to understanding the challenge of Arab-Israeli peace and the failed legacy that Mahmoud Abbas is preparing to leave behind him.

The Arab Spring has changed the calculus for any peace negotiations. The mirage of stability has given way to the reality and realization of the populist power of the Arab street. Signing a treaty with an unpopular, undemocratic, unaccountable, and unrepresentative autocrat is, in the new Middle East, something close to worthless. And that is precisely why those who say that Israel must seize the opportunity to strike a deal with Abbas are missing the point. This crowd, which had the loudest voice in Ben Birnbaum’s piece on Abbas, says two things about the man: he is the best Palestinian partner for peace Israel has ever had, and he is the best Palestinian partner for peace Israel is likely to ever have. The first half of that statement is utterly meaningless. But the second contains the key to the conflict.

If Mahmoud Abbas, who rules the Palestinian people (at least in the West Bank) and represents Palestinian society to the international community (at least on paper), will be succeeded by more hateful and less peaceful Palestinian leaders in any plausible scenario, then he has presided over the seeding and sowing of that hatred. If the Palestinian people are ever to make peace with Israel, then the state-sponsored anti-Semitism has to stop. The incitement to violence has to stop. The state-sponsored celebration of murderers has to stop. The denial of Jewish history and connection to the land has to stop. Abbas rules over a vast bureaucracy that energetically poisons the minds of Palestinian children with a hatred that destroys everything it touches.

What will a future with such a generation look like? It will look like the Palestinian women in Gaza shooting bullets at the picture of a Jewish leader in a coma. That picture, you’ll note, is attached to one corner of a giant Jewish Star of David. The women may be shooting at Sharon (and the others pictured there), but the more important, and indelible, image is of them shooting at the representation of the Jewish people.

Abbas has shown that he has no desire to sign a peace deal with Israel. But even if he did, what would it accomplish? Obama is right: true peace must be made between the people. The lack of such a peace will be Abbas’s most distinct, and unforgivable, legacy.

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Israel’s Next Defense Minister

In 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were locked in an internal battle for the leadership of the Labor party and the Israeli premiership, Rabin reached out for an unlikely endorsement. “A declaration of support from Arik matters more than one from anyone else,” Rabin told the journalist Uri Dan, referring to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Dan relayed the request to Sharon, and Sharon agreed; he got up from his meeting with Dan, went over to a phone booth in the hotel lobby, and began calling journalists to tell them.

The endorsement made headlines, and Rabin became prime minister. Though that incident took place soon after the Yom Kippur War and years before Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a cultural aspect to this story that remains relevant in 2013. To most of the world the there isn’t much difference between a “peacemaker” and a “peacenik”; to Israelis there is a Grand Canyon between them. And although the political parties are reversed, this distinction goes a long way to explaining the seeming indispensability of Ehud Barak to the man that took over the Likud after Sharon left it: Benjamin Netanyahu.

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In 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were locked in an internal battle for the leadership of the Labor party and the Israeli premiership, Rabin reached out for an unlikely endorsement. “A declaration of support from Arik matters more than one from anyone else,” Rabin told the journalist Uri Dan, referring to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Dan relayed the request to Sharon, and Sharon agreed; he got up from his meeting with Dan, went over to a phone booth in the hotel lobby, and began calling journalists to tell them.

The endorsement made headlines, and Rabin became prime minister. Though that incident took place soon after the Yom Kippur War and years before Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a cultural aspect to this story that remains relevant in 2013. To most of the world the there isn’t much difference between a “peacemaker” and a “peacenik”; to Israelis there is a Grand Canyon between them. And although the political parties are reversed, this distinction goes a long way to explaining the seeming indispensability of Ehud Barak to the man that took over the Likud after Sharon left it: Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Netanyahu earned the opportunity to form a governing coalition after the 2009 Israeli Knesset elections, he offered the major party leaders he vanquished an opportunity to join an expansive coalition, headed by his Likud. But it was universally understood that Netanyahu desperately wanted as his defense minister Barak, one of Israel’s most highly decorated soldiers and Netanyahu’s former commander in the elite unit known as Sayeret Matkal. Barak, at the time, was running the Labor party. Though Likud had a stronger reputation among foreign policy hawks than Labor, Netanyahu wanted–in addition to the appearance of bipartisanship–Barak’s stamp of approval for his own administration’s foreign policy. It would–as Sharon’s endorsement had done for Rabin four decades earlier–do much to put the public’s mind at ease.

Barak joined the coalition, but the party used that decision as the final straw to expel its leader (Barak technically “left” Labor, but the divorce was a long time coming). Barak took a few Laborites with him and formed a minor party. That party has disappeared, as did Barak’s chance to win a Knesset seat in this month’s elections. So he “retired” from political life. If Netanyahu’s party wins the elections, it would surprise exactly no one if Netanyahu reappoints Barak to be his defense minister–Barak wouldn’t have to own a Knesset seat to take the position–coaxing the supposedly reluctant old bull out of retirement to once again serve his country. (One can easily imagine how this will play out in the mind of the famously haughty Barak. The people need you, Hudi; how can you say no?)

One of the reasons Israelis expect this coming charade is because there are very few people, if any, who could provide the both the cross-party credibility and the public’s trust to serve as defense minister at a time when resolution of the Iranian threat one way or another seems right around the corner. But perhaps there is one obstacle, however remote, to this scenario. Times of Israel editor David Horovitz writes today that when blending his party with Likud, Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman believed he could have his choice of plum portfolios if and when he is legally permitted to return to the government (it could be within months–but there is an outside chance it could be years). Horovitz writes:

Publicly, this least diplomatic of politicians had assured the electorate that he liked being foreign minister just fine, and would probably stay at the ministry after the elections as well. Privately, it was apparently vouchsafed to certain privileged journalists, he actually had his sights on the powerful Finance Ministry job. However, it has also been quite credibly suggested to me, Liberman didn’t want Finance and didn’t want Foreign. He intended to take the post of defense minister.

We should know immediately after the election where Lieberman intends to end up; as Horovitz writes, if Netanyahu, when doling out portfolios, keeps any of the important ones for himself, it may be a strong clue he’s safeguarding it for Lieberman. Additionally, Barak is no placeholder. If he’s offered the defense ministry and takes it, that’s exactly where he’ll stay.

Just because Lieberman wants the defense ministry doesn’t mean he’ll get it. Netanyahu presumably understands that giving that job to Lieberman would be the exact opposite of appointing Barak to the defense ministry. Rather than reaching across the isle, it would be viewed as a sop to those to Netanyahu’s right. And rather than the defense ministry being guided by a trusted hand, it would be run by an unpredictable and brusque politician a decade and a half younger than Barak. That age difference, however, is also why Lieberman can afford to be patient and not push for the defense portfolio. A savvy politician, Lieberman is more likely to bide his time than challenge Barak and Netanyahu. But the alternative will only increase the hopes of many Israelis–not to mention Western leaders–that Barak’s “retirement” is just for show.

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Which Israeli Party is Dangerous?

Polls don’t show former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s new political party having much of an impact on the Israeli electorate, but she is enjoying some success in attracting veteran politicians to her banner. Seven members of the Kadima party that she led in the last elections have jumped over to the Movement, as her party is dubbed. More importantly, she has attracted Amram Mitzna, a former leader of the Labor Party to run with Livni. Mitzna, who led Labor in the 2003 election against Ariel Sharon’s Likud, is likely to be named to the number two slot under Livni. In announcing his decision, Mitzna denounced the administration of Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “failed government” and said the right-wing tilt of the Likud Knesset list made it “dangerous.”

But Mitzna, who was highly regarded for his service as a general in the Israeli army and as mayor of Haifa, is hardly in a position to say the ideas of his opponents are dangerous. Mitzna is, after all, one of the original advocates of one of the worst decisions in the country’s history: the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that led to the creation of a Hamas terrorist state on Israel’s doorstep.

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Polls don’t show former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s new political party having much of an impact on the Israeli electorate, but she is enjoying some success in attracting veteran politicians to her banner. Seven members of the Kadima party that she led in the last elections have jumped over to the Movement, as her party is dubbed. More importantly, she has attracted Amram Mitzna, a former leader of the Labor Party to run with Livni. Mitzna, who led Labor in the 2003 election against Ariel Sharon’s Likud, is likely to be named to the number two slot under Livni. In announcing his decision, Mitzna denounced the administration of Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “failed government” and said the right-wing tilt of the Likud Knesset list made it “dangerous.”

But Mitzna, who was highly regarded for his service as a general in the Israeli army and as mayor of Haifa, is hardly in a position to say the ideas of his opponents are dangerous. Mitzna is, after all, one of the original advocates of one of the worst decisions in the country’s history: the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that led to the creation of a Hamas terrorist state on Israel’s doorstep.

Mitzna, whose reputation for honesty and thoughtfulness enabled him to shoot quickly to the top of Labor after his retirement from the army, led the party off the electoral cliff in 2003 by campaigning on a platform that pledged to try to jump-start the peace process via a unilateral retreat from the Gaza Strip. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon scoffed at the notion and called it dangerous. The Israeli people agreed. The Likud doubled its number of Knesset members in that election from 19 to 38. Mitzna’s Labor went in the opposite direction, going down from 26 to 19 and Mitzna was quickly replaced as the party’s leader.

In retrospect, that election seems like something of a dirty trick played on the Israeli people. Although Israelis completely rejected Mitzna’s idea, in a shocking turnaround, Sharon decided to implement it anyway. In the process, Sharon split his party in an attempt to fundamentally alter Israeli politics. The leading opportunists of both Likud (like Livni and Ehud Olmert) and Labor followed Sharon to Kadima and a majority of the Knesset that won their seats in an election that hinged on rejection of Mitzna’s idea voted to put it into action.

Some may argue that what followed wasn’t inevitable. Perhaps with better decisions on the part of the Palestinians as well as Sharon and Olmert who succeeded him in January 2006, Gaza might not have slipped into the chaos of Hamas rule. But that is merely counter-factual speculation. What happened is that a weak Palestinian Authority and a weak Israeli government watched meekly as Gaza was transformed into a terrorist state from which thousands of missiles have been fired at southern Israel, necessitating two IDF offensives that attempted to reduce the threat.

But no matter how you look at it, the idea of a unilateral retreat from Gaza must be considered a disaster for the country. It not only did not advance the peace process nor gain Israel credit for wanting peace, it set in motion a train of events that has led to two wars and gave Hamas, an Islamist group that is implacably committed to Israel’s destruction, a base from which it can challenge Fatah for control of the West Bank.

The lion’s share of the blame for Gaza must belong to Sharon, Olmert, Livni and the rest of the government that chose this perilous path. But Mitzna deserves a portion of it too. The Likud may have its share of hotheads in the next Knesset, but whatever you can say about them, none of them have a disaster as bad as Gaza on their resume. Seen in that light, it’s hard to argue that the current Likud — whose membership rejected Sharon’s plan — is the dangerous party in Israeli politics.

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Gaza Withdrawal’s Lesson: A Caveat

Jonathan follows Bret Stephens and Max Boot in reviewing the debate over the Gaza disengagement back in 2005, when Israel withdrew civilians and military personnel from the Strip. “But unlike Bret and Max,” Jonathan writes, “I don’t feel obligated to offer any mea culpas about my position on the withdrawal.” After all, to his credit he presciently anticipated that Israel would not receive the benefits from the disengagement that its advocates predicted.

“So why didn’t those reservations compel me to take a stand against Sharon?” he continues. “It was because the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel.” This, Jonathan says, is why the “Diaspora kibitzers who are now saying, ‘I told you so,’ are still missing the key point about that debate,” since “decisions about settlements, borders, Jerusalem and the territories must be made by those elected by the Israeli people, not by American Jewish wiseacres, be they of the left- or the right-wing persuasion.” Read More

Jonathan follows Bret Stephens and Max Boot in reviewing the debate over the Gaza disengagement back in 2005, when Israel withdrew civilians and military personnel from the Strip. “But unlike Bret and Max,” Jonathan writes, “I don’t feel obligated to offer any mea culpas about my position on the withdrawal.” After all, to his credit he presciently anticipated that Israel would not receive the benefits from the disengagement that its advocates predicted.

“So why didn’t those reservations compel me to take a stand against Sharon?” he continues. “It was because the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel.” This, Jonathan says, is why the “Diaspora kibitzers who are now saying, ‘I told you so,’ are still missing the key point about that debate,” since “decisions about settlements, borders, Jerusalem and the territories must be made by those elected by the Israeli people, not by American Jewish wiseacres, be they of the left- or the right-wing persuasion.”

In so writing, Jonathan retains the position long occupied by Jewish conservatives outside of Israel, who prefer to leave Israeli policy to the Israelis and focus instead on defending the Jewish state from its indefatigable liberal critics, Jewish and gentile. This is an admirable position, but one that nonetheless may need revision and certainly deserves more debate among its adherents. That, though, is for another post.

Regarding the disengagement in particular, one might raise a caveat to Jonathan’s analysis. In a general sense, he is of course correct: “the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel.” But the disengagement was implemented by a party (Likud) which had just been elected on a platform opposing the (actually even more modest) disengagement plan of its opponent, Amram Mitzna’s Labor. Having been reelected prime minister, Likud’s leader, Ariel Sharon, apparently changed his mind and took his own more ambitious disengagement plan to his party for ratification. He lost, leaving him and several defectors from both the Likud and Labor to form a new party, Kadima, instead, in order to pursue the policy.

Now, this was of course entirely legal and simply the outcome of political maneuvering within an unimpeachably democratic system (even though conceptually it is a little bizarre that members of a party who are elected not as individual representatives but specifically as members of that party’s list can nonetheless secede from that party during a parliamentary term–and even more so the prime minister). However, given Sharon’s history as a longstanding advocate of the Israeli presence in the territories, it is not incomparable to, say, a President Rick Santorum reversing himself upon assuming office and signing gay marriage into law.

To call the disengagement democratic, therefore, is certainly not inaccurate, and Jonathan is by no means wrong to do so. And yet it still misses part of what so angered its opponents at the time and since.

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Gaza Withdrawal’s Lesson? Preserve Israel’s Right to Self-Determination

Like the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens and our own Max Boot, I, too, have been thinking a lot lately about the seven-year-old debate about whether Israel was wise to withdraw from Gaza. Both Bret and Max are of course right when they say that, looking back on it now, it is clear that the decision was a colossal blunder. Despite the assurances of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and many of the country’s military leaders, Israel’s security was compromised by the decision. It led directly to the creation of a Hamas terror state whose existence may not ever be undone. Just as troubling, Israel did not receive one bit of credit from the international community, let alone its foes, for removing every soldier and settler from the area. Bret summed it up nicely when he wrote:

Put simply, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.

But unlike Bret and Max, I don’t feel obligated to offer any mea culpas about my position on the withdrawal. While I supported the move, it was not because I didn’t have doubts about whether the army was right about it being easier to fight Hamas outside Gaza rather than inside it. Nor was I under any illusions about Israel reaping any public relations benefits from the scheme. To the contrary, I was quite sure that, as was the case with previous territorial surrenders, it would merely increase the appetite of Israel’s enemies for more. So why didn’t those reservations compel me to take a stand against Sharon? It was because the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel. Indeed, I believe the defense of that principle — that Israel’s people must be accorded the right to make their own decisions about their fate — is a far more important duty for us today than the need to second-guess the decision of a leader and a government that has long since faded from the country’s political scene.

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Like the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens and our own Max Boot, I, too, have been thinking a lot lately about the seven-year-old debate about whether Israel was wise to withdraw from Gaza. Both Bret and Max are of course right when they say that, looking back on it now, it is clear that the decision was a colossal blunder. Despite the assurances of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and many of the country’s military leaders, Israel’s security was compromised by the decision. It led directly to the creation of a Hamas terror state whose existence may not ever be undone. Just as troubling, Israel did not receive one bit of credit from the international community, let alone its foes, for removing every soldier and settler from the area. Bret summed it up nicely when he wrote:

Put simply, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.

But unlike Bret and Max, I don’t feel obligated to offer any mea culpas about my position on the withdrawal. While I supported the move, it was not because I didn’t have doubts about whether the army was right about it being easier to fight Hamas outside Gaza rather than inside it. Nor was I under any illusions about Israel reaping any public relations benefits from the scheme. To the contrary, I was quite sure that, as was the case with previous territorial surrenders, it would merely increase the appetite of Israel’s enemies for more. So why didn’t those reservations compel me to take a stand against Sharon? It was because the decision to withdraw was the decision of the democratically elected government of the state of Israel. Indeed, I believe the defense of that principle — that Israel’s people must be accorded the right to make their own decisions about their fate — is a far more important duty for us today than the need to second-guess the decision of a leader and a government that has long since faded from the country’s political scene.

Opponents of the withdrawal have, understandably, never stopped reminding those of us who backed Ariel Sharon’s decision that it turned out to be every bit the fiasco they thought it would be and more. The talking points Israel gained by pulling out of Gaza provide more proof that the Palestinians haven’t any interest in peace, but it’s doubtful this changed the mind of a single critic of the country. But those Diaspora kibitzers who are now saying, “I told you so,” are still missing the key point about that debate.

It may be that Israel’s prime minister was dead wrong (counter-factual arguments that history would have been different had Sharon not been felled by a stroke months after the withdrawal are unpersuasive) and the majority of Israelis who backed him were equally mistaken. But, right or wrong, it was their decision to make and the Israelis are the ones who have had to live with the consequences.

Looking ahead to the next round of peace processing and pressure on Israel after the current fighting in Gaza is concluded, what friends of Israel have to keep in mind is not so much the rehashing of Sharon’s blunder but preserving the right of the Jewish state to go on deciding its own destiny.

The conceit of most of the country’s left-wing critics is that Israel must be saved from itself. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Israelis have drawn the proper conclusions from the last 20 years of peace processing (including the Gaza withdrawal) and decided that there will be no more repetitions of the mistakes committed at Oslo or Gaza. This sensible decision frustrates Israel’s critics so much that even those who consider themselves friends of the country believe their judgment should supersede that of the Jewish state’s electorate.

But just as was the case of those Americans who opposed the Gaza withdrawal or the Oslo Accords, such a stand is simply inadmissible. Decisions about settlements, borders, Jerusalem and the territories must be made by those elected by the Israeli people, not by American Jewish wiseacres, be they of the left- or the right-wing persuasion.

No matter how strong the faith of Zion’s critics that the country is heading down the road to destruction, nothing should shake us in our conviction that no foreign power or foreign community has the right to dictate to Israel’s people. That is a principle that applies whether it is a matter of Israelis mistakenly making concessions that have come back to haunt them or, as is the case now, wisely refusing to take steps that would endanger their security.

Seven years after the Gaza withdrawal, it is useful to examine the mistakes that were made by Sharon. But the abiding lesson of that episode for us today is that, right or wrong, Israel must be allowed to make its own decisions.

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The Fall of Obama’s Favorite Israeli

For the past three years, figures in America’s foreign policy establishment as well as media kibbitzers who knew little about Israel had a constant refrain: Tzipi Livni, the glamorous head of the Kadmia Party, should replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s election in February 2009, the Obama administration openly plotted to topple the new leader and replace him with Livni, whom they viewed as more pliable on the Palestinian issue. Once that ploy failed as President Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu only strengthened him at home, Netanyahu’s American critics could only sit back and wait patiently until Livni defeated him on her own. But the wait is going to be a lot longer than many in Washington thought.

Last night, Livni lost her perch as opposition leader as the members of her rapidly shrinking party rejected her in favor of former General Shaul Mofaz in a primary to determine who will top the party’s list in  the next election that is currently scheduled for October 2013. That Livni, who was feted abroad and was prominently placed on lists of the world’s most important women, was defeated at all will come as a shock to her foreign admirers. But this was no ordinary defeat. The lady who only a couple of weeks ago was lauded as Israel’s “voice of reason” in a fawning piece by John Avlon in the Daily Beast, was slaughtered by Mofaz, 62-38 percent. The question now is whether Americans who were under the delusion that Livni represented a viable alternative to Netanyahu’s popular government will get the message.

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For the past three years, figures in America’s foreign policy establishment as well as media kibbitzers who knew little about Israel had a constant refrain: Tzipi Livni, the glamorous head of the Kadmia Party, should replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s election in February 2009, the Obama administration openly plotted to topple the new leader and replace him with Livni, whom they viewed as more pliable on the Palestinian issue. Once that ploy failed as President Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu only strengthened him at home, Netanyahu’s American critics could only sit back and wait patiently until Livni defeated him on her own. But the wait is going to be a lot longer than many in Washington thought.

Last night, Livni lost her perch as opposition leader as the members of her rapidly shrinking party rejected her in favor of former General Shaul Mofaz in a primary to determine who will top the party’s list in  the next election that is currently scheduled for October 2013. That Livni, who was feted abroad and was prominently placed on lists of the world’s most important women, was defeated at all will come as a shock to her foreign admirers. But this was no ordinary defeat. The lady who only a couple of weeks ago was lauded as Israel’s “voice of reason” in a fawning piece by John Avlon in the Daily Beast, was slaughtered by Mofaz, 62-38 percent. The question now is whether Americans who were under the delusion that Livni represented a viable alternative to Netanyahu’s popular government will get the message.

The Kadima that Mofaz will lead into the next election is vastly diminished from the juggernaut formed by Ariel Sharon when he left Likud in the wake of the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Sharon skimmed the biggest opportunists in Labor and Likud to create what many imagined to be the first viable centrist political grouping in the country’s history. But after its bigger-than-life leader was removed from the scene by a stroke, Kadima was seen to be an empty shell whose only purpose was to find government posts for its leading personalities. Ehud Olmert led it to an election victory in 2006 in the immediate aftermath of Sharon’s illness but was soon proved to be hopelessly over his head.

Livni served as his foreign minister and hoped to replace him after the disastrous Lebanon war but was outmaneuvered by Olmert. That was an early sign she had no capacity for leadership. She got her chance to run for prime minister in 2009. As a fresh face with no corruption charges currently pending against her, Livni ran a good campaign and enabled Kadima to win the most seats. However Netanyahu’s coalition of center-right parties far eclipsed its total. But rather than serve under another rival, she made the fatal mistake of leading Kadima into the opposition. The problem was that Livni and Kadima lacked any coherent vision of a different approach to Israel’s problems. Though Americans who disliked Netanyahu saw her as the pro-peace alternative, Israelis were aware her views on the issues were almost indistinguishable from those of the Likud leader. Her only real disagreement with him was based in her conviction that she ought to be Israel’s prime minister, a point on which few of her countrymen, even the members of her own party, agreed.

Some Israeli pundits think the selection of Mofaz is a blow to Netanyahu, as he was obviously relishing a chance to trounce her at the polls. But the former general will be another disappointment to American Bibi-haters. The gruff former military man won’t win the hearts of Westerners longing for a weak Israeli leader. He will try to carve out a position slightly to the left of Netanyahu, but Israelis understand the Palestinians have no interest in negotiating a two-state solution under any terms they can live with. Though he may prevent Kadima from collapsing at the next ballot, the party is facing stiff competition from a newly revived Labor and another new centrist party led by Yair Lapid. Polls show that none have a ghost’s chance of beating Netanyahu and Likud.

Livni will, no doubt, have a successful career ahead of her speaking to liberal American Jewish groups for large speaking fees much as her former boss Olmert got cheers at the J Street conference last week that the former PM, who is a pariah in Israel, could never hope to get at home. But the lesson here is that Israelis who are more popular in Washington than in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are not to be taken seriously.

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Barak Pulls a Sharon

As Evelyn has noted, and in a move that surprised nobody except members of his own party, Ehud Barak today took a page from Ariel Sharon’s playbook, splitting from the ideologically founded movement he was leading to create a new centrist political party. Along with four other Labor members, the new party — it still doesn’t have a name — will remain committed to the current government, while in all likelihood the remaining members of Labor will, sooner or later, leave the coalition.

Before we dismiss the new party as yet another soon-forgotten splinter in Israeli politics, it’s worth considering the electoral reality Ehud Barak currently faces. When Sharon broke from Likud in 2005, he founded Kadima as a new centrist faction that would approve the disengagement from Gaza. Although he was joined by a few Labor icons like Shimon Peres and Chaim Ramon, many people saw in Kadima an incoherent collection of mostly moderate right-wingers and a few from the left. After Sharon’s stroke-induced departure from politics in early 2006, most people thought the party wouldn’t survive the next election.

They were wrong. Two leaders later, Kadima’s 28 seats is the largest single faction in the Knesset. This despite having few ranking members with serious governing experience, and despite the disgrace of its second leader, Ehud Olmert, and its finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, on corruption charges.

Why has Kadima survived? The answer should give pause to those who think Ehud Barak is on his last legs as an Israeli politician. For despite being essentially a Likud spin-off, Kadima has survived on the strength of a fairly large base of voters who traditionally saw themselves on the left — not the peace-process left of Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, but rather the enlightened, heavily Ashkenazic, traditionally social-leaning yet nationalist left of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. These are the voters who turned to Kadima in droves after the intifada made security more pressing, and more plausible, than peace — people who could never vote Likud for cultural reasons, even if they embraced most of its principles.

Nobody stands to lose more votes to Barak’s new party than Kadima. For if disaffected Laborites turned to Kadima as the closest expression of their political will, they may find a far more congenial home in the new party. As former IDF chief of staff and current defense minister, Barak suddenly embodies the pro-security, classic-Labor stance that neither the more dovish, pro-business, still-in-Labor types nor Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, can hope to offer. To emphasize this, he’s taken with him a top former IDF general, Matan Vilnai. And he’s declared that his party “will follow David Ben-Gurion’s legacy.”

Much of how this turns out depends on the kind of people Barak can pull together around himself before the next election. If former-Labor people in Kadima start defecting to his new party, Israeli politics may see a major shift on the center-left. Barak’s personality has historically made it hard to keep the loyalty of those around him. But the field is open for him. Stay tuned.

As Evelyn has noted, and in a move that surprised nobody except members of his own party, Ehud Barak today took a page from Ariel Sharon’s playbook, splitting from the ideologically founded movement he was leading to create a new centrist political party. Along with four other Labor members, the new party — it still doesn’t have a name — will remain committed to the current government, while in all likelihood the remaining members of Labor will, sooner or later, leave the coalition.

Before we dismiss the new party as yet another soon-forgotten splinter in Israeli politics, it’s worth considering the electoral reality Ehud Barak currently faces. When Sharon broke from Likud in 2005, he founded Kadima as a new centrist faction that would approve the disengagement from Gaza. Although he was joined by a few Labor icons like Shimon Peres and Chaim Ramon, many people saw in Kadima an incoherent collection of mostly moderate right-wingers and a few from the left. After Sharon’s stroke-induced departure from politics in early 2006, most people thought the party wouldn’t survive the next election.

They were wrong. Two leaders later, Kadima’s 28 seats is the largest single faction in the Knesset. This despite having few ranking members with serious governing experience, and despite the disgrace of its second leader, Ehud Olmert, and its finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, on corruption charges.

Why has Kadima survived? The answer should give pause to those who think Ehud Barak is on his last legs as an Israeli politician. For despite being essentially a Likud spin-off, Kadima has survived on the strength of a fairly large base of voters who traditionally saw themselves on the left — not the peace-process left of Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, but rather the enlightened, heavily Ashkenazic, traditionally social-leaning yet nationalist left of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. These are the voters who turned to Kadima in droves after the intifada made security more pressing, and more plausible, than peace — people who could never vote Likud for cultural reasons, even if they embraced most of its principles.

Nobody stands to lose more votes to Barak’s new party than Kadima. For if disaffected Laborites turned to Kadima as the closest expression of their political will, they may find a far more congenial home in the new party. As former IDF chief of staff and current defense minister, Barak suddenly embodies the pro-security, classic-Labor stance that neither the more dovish, pro-business, still-in-Labor types nor Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, can hope to offer. To emphasize this, he’s taken with him a top former IDF general, Matan Vilnai. And he’s declared that his party “will follow David Ben-Gurion’s legacy.”

Much of how this turns out depends on the kind of people Barak can pull together around himself before the next election. If former-Labor people in Kadima start defecting to his new party, Israeli politics may see a major shift on the center-left. Barak’s personality has historically made it hard to keep the loyalty of those around him. But the field is open for him. Stay tuned.

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SPJ Executive Committee Recommends Renaming Helen Thomas Award

Yesterday, the Society of Professional Journalists’ executive committee voted in favor of renaming the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement. But the decision isn’t yet binding — it still has to be approved by the full board of directors, which will vote on it within the next 10 days:

The recommendation issued Jan. 8 by the national journalists’ group, based on anti-Zionist remarks made by Thomas, will be sent to its board of directors within 10 days. The award will still be given, but without Thomas’ name.

“While we support Helen Thomas’ right to speak her opinion, we condemn her statements in December as offensive and inappropriate,” the executive committee said in making its recommendation.

On Dec. 2, in a speech to an Arab-American group in Dearborn, Mich., Thomas, 90, said that Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street “are owned by the Zionists.”  The remarks raised fresh concerns about the sincerity of an apology for her remarks last summer to a video blogger that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland, Germany and the United States.

The executive committee’s decision doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Other institutions have already removed Thomas’s name from awards, so the SPJ can follow suit while avoiding too much controversy. On the other hand, if the organization had voted to keep the name on the award, there’s no way it would have been able to get past this incident quietly. The SPJ executive committee said this pretty unambiguously in its press release:

During robust debate on Saturday, the committee considered positions from those supporting Thomas’ right to free speech and those who considered her remarks unbecoming of an honor given by SPJ. The committee decided while both positions have merit, the best way to return the focus to SPJ’s important work would be to distance itself from the controversy now overshadowing this award.

“Let’s work on what unites us rather than what divides us,” Limor said.

This is an understandable position, and I assume the board of directors will vote in favor of the executive committee’s recommendation.

Of course, Thomas’s new employer doesn’t seem to share the SPJ’s aversion to controversy. The former White House correspondent was recently hired as a columnist by the Falls Church News-Press — an alternative-weekly paper in Northern Virginia — and the editor Nick Benton has vigorously defended his decision. Read More

Yesterday, the Society of Professional Journalists’ executive committee voted in favor of renaming the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement. But the decision isn’t yet binding — it still has to be approved by the full board of directors, which will vote on it within the next 10 days:

The recommendation issued Jan. 8 by the national journalists’ group, based on anti-Zionist remarks made by Thomas, will be sent to its board of directors within 10 days. The award will still be given, but without Thomas’ name.

“While we support Helen Thomas’ right to speak her opinion, we condemn her statements in December as offensive and inappropriate,” the executive committee said in making its recommendation.

On Dec. 2, in a speech to an Arab-American group in Dearborn, Mich., Thomas, 90, said that Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street “are owned by the Zionists.”  The remarks raised fresh concerns about the sincerity of an apology for her remarks last summer to a video blogger that Jews “should get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland, Germany and the United States.

The executive committee’s decision doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Other institutions have already removed Thomas’s name from awards, so the SPJ can follow suit while avoiding too much controversy. On the other hand, if the organization had voted to keep the name on the award, there’s no way it would have been able to get past this incident quietly. The SPJ executive committee said this pretty unambiguously in its press release:

During robust debate on Saturday, the committee considered positions from those supporting Thomas’ right to free speech and those who considered her remarks unbecoming of an honor given by SPJ. The committee decided while both positions have merit, the best way to return the focus to SPJ’s important work would be to distance itself from the controversy now overshadowing this award.

“Let’s work on what unites us rather than what divides us,” Limor said.

This is an understandable position, and I assume the board of directors will vote in favor of the executive committee’s recommendation.

Of course, Thomas’s new employer doesn’t seem to share the SPJ’s aversion to controversy. The former White House correspondent was recently hired as a columnist by the Falls Church News-Press — an alternative-weekly paper in Northern Virginia — and the editor Nick Benton has vigorously defended his decision.

“I’ve had no less than eight hours of personal one-on-one conversations with her since that happened,” Benton told the Washington Post. “She’s not bigoted or racist or anti-Semitic. She has her differences about foreign policy but you’re allowed that.”

According to the Post, Benton has been criticized by Jewish leaders in the past for publishing views that some believed bordered on anti-Semitism. “In 2004, his paper touched nerves with an editorial that some Jewish leaders complained suggested a Jewish cabal controlling U.S. foreign policy,” reported the Post.

The Post is likely referring to a 2004 column written by Benton, in which he endorsed the re-election bid of Rep. Jim Moran, who was running against “the well-financed campaign of a political neophyte, Alexandria attorney Andy Rosenberg.” Benton wrote that the election had become “about a cabal of powerful Washington, D.C., based interests backing the Bush administration’s support for rightwing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s handling of the Middle East conflict trying to upend an outspoken and powerful Democratic opponent.”

It’s not exactly like telling Israeli Jews to go back to Germany, but with those editorial leanings, it sounds like Thomas will feel very much at home at the paper.

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Fake Palestinian Diplomacy No Substitute for Actual Negotiations

The notion that the chief obstacle to peace in the Middle East is an Israeli unwillingness to make the sacrifices necessary for an agreement (settlements and Jerusalem) is a familiar theme in mainstream media coverage of the conflict. As such, today’s New York Times article about a luncheon hosted by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah for a group of largely left-wing Israeli parliamentarians and politicians serves to illustrate this theme in which the Israeli government can be portrayed as being in denial about having a peace partner. But the piece, which allowed Abbas to narrate the course of diplomacy over the past two years without any contradiction, simply swallowed the Palestinians’ dog and pony show whole.

While Abbas loves to talk about talking with Israel when presented with Western or left-wing Israeli audiences, such as the members of the marginal Geneva Initiative, who were provided with a kosher lunch in Ramallah yesterday, his attitude toward actual negotiations with the State of Israel is very different. He responded to then prime minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem with a flat refusal. Since then, he has continued to invent excuses for not talking, such as his current specious demand for Israel to halt building in the West Bank prior to the commencement of new talks.

Times correspondent Isabel Kershner claims that “the overall point of Sunday’s dialogue was supposed to be less of recrimination and more of the possibility of peace based on a two-state solution, which would see the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside Israel.” But it isn’t recriminations or a lack of familiarity with each other that prevents Israeli and Palestinian negotiators from talking or even coming up with a deal. After more than 17 years of talks between Israel and the PA and its predecessor the PLO, they know each other only too well. The problem is that any deal, no matter how generous its terms or where Israel’s borders would be drawn, would pose a deadly threat to Abbas’s regime. The culture of Palestinian politics is such that any accord that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state or forced the descendants of the 1948 Palestinian refugees to be settled someplace other than Israel would enable Hamas to topple Abbas.

Thus, instead of actually talking with Israel’s government, all Abbas can do is stage events that allow him to pretend that he wants to sign a deal when it is actually the last thing in the world he wants to do. The Palestinians know this. So do most Israelis and, as recent developments have shown, even the Obama administration seems to have caught on.

So how does Abbas get away with this? While one can criticize the media for treating a fake story as if it were significant, the main culprit here is the willingness of the Israeli left to be Abbas’s accomplices. Kershner quotes Amram Mitzna, a former general who was buried in a landslide when he ran for prime minister against Ariel Sharon in 2003, as testifying to Abbas’s credibility. Mitzna ought to know better, but like other figures on Israel’s left, he is sufficiently bitter about his total marginalization in his country’s politics (due to his credulousness about Palestinian intentions) that he is prepared to play along with Abbas. For the Israeli left, the object of this game is not so much lost hopes of peace as it is the delegitimization of Israel’s government.

If the Palestinians can ever bring themselves to sign a deal on virtually any terms, they will find that most Israelis will embrace them. But since there is no deal, no matter how injurious its terms would be to Israel’s security or rights, that they will sign, all we are liable to get from Abbas are more photo-ops, such as this ridiculous show.

The notion that the chief obstacle to peace in the Middle East is an Israeli unwillingness to make the sacrifices necessary for an agreement (settlements and Jerusalem) is a familiar theme in mainstream media coverage of the conflict. As such, today’s New York Times article about a luncheon hosted by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah for a group of largely left-wing Israeli parliamentarians and politicians serves to illustrate this theme in which the Israeli government can be portrayed as being in denial about having a peace partner. But the piece, which allowed Abbas to narrate the course of diplomacy over the past two years without any contradiction, simply swallowed the Palestinians’ dog and pony show whole.

While Abbas loves to talk about talking with Israel when presented with Western or left-wing Israeli audiences, such as the members of the marginal Geneva Initiative, who were provided with a kosher lunch in Ramallah yesterday, his attitude toward actual negotiations with the State of Israel is very different. He responded to then prime minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem with a flat refusal. Since then, he has continued to invent excuses for not talking, such as his current specious demand for Israel to halt building in the West Bank prior to the commencement of new talks.

Times correspondent Isabel Kershner claims that “the overall point of Sunday’s dialogue was supposed to be less of recrimination and more of the possibility of peace based on a two-state solution, which would see the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside Israel.” But it isn’t recriminations or a lack of familiarity with each other that prevents Israeli and Palestinian negotiators from talking or even coming up with a deal. After more than 17 years of talks between Israel and the PA and its predecessor the PLO, they know each other only too well. The problem is that any deal, no matter how generous its terms or where Israel’s borders would be drawn, would pose a deadly threat to Abbas’s regime. The culture of Palestinian politics is such that any accord that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state or forced the descendants of the 1948 Palestinian refugees to be settled someplace other than Israel would enable Hamas to topple Abbas.

Thus, instead of actually talking with Israel’s government, all Abbas can do is stage events that allow him to pretend that he wants to sign a deal when it is actually the last thing in the world he wants to do. The Palestinians know this. So do most Israelis and, as recent developments have shown, even the Obama administration seems to have caught on.

So how does Abbas get away with this? While one can criticize the media for treating a fake story as if it were significant, the main culprit here is the willingness of the Israeli left to be Abbas’s accomplices. Kershner quotes Amram Mitzna, a former general who was buried in a landslide when he ran for prime minister against Ariel Sharon in 2003, as testifying to Abbas’s credibility. Mitzna ought to know better, but like other figures on Israel’s left, he is sufficiently bitter about his total marginalization in his country’s politics (due to his credulousness about Palestinian intentions) that he is prepared to play along with Abbas. For the Israeli left, the object of this game is not so much lost hopes of peace as it is the delegitimization of Israel’s government.

If the Palestinians can ever bring themselves to sign a deal on virtually any terms, they will find that most Israelis will embrace them. But since there is no deal, no matter how injurious its terms would be to Israel’s security or rights, that they will sign, all we are liable to get from Abbas are more photo-ops, such as this ridiculous show.

Read Less




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