Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barack Obama

Israel, Bipartisanship, and the Blame Game

How should pro-Israel Democrats respond to the fact that support for Israel in their party is dropping? That question has renewed relevance with the latest polls showing increasing disapproval of Israel within the Democratic Party. Last week’s Gallup poll showed that Democrats do not think Israel’s actions in Gaza are justified by a 47-31 percent tally. And this week’s Pew poll shows that, astoundingly, Democrats are about evenly divided over whether Israel or Hamas is most responsible for the current violence. (Both polls show Republicans broadly support Israel.)

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How should pro-Israel Democrats respond to the fact that support for Israel in their party is dropping? That question has renewed relevance with the latest polls showing increasing disapproval of Israel within the Democratic Party. Last week’s Gallup poll showed that Democrats do not think Israel’s actions in Gaza are justified by a 47-31 percent tally. And this week’s Pew poll shows that, astoundingly, Democrats are about evenly divided over whether Israel or Hamas is most responsible for the current violence. (Both polls show Republicans broadly support Israel.)

It’s a trend that has been on the march for some time. For a while liberals denied there was rising disenchantment with Israel on the left, but that became impossible after the Democrats’ 2012 presidential nominating convention, when the party’s delegates loudly booed at and resoundingly voted down adding pro-Israel language to the Democratic Party platform (the language was added over their objections, though it was quite a scene). At that point, a new strategy was needed, since everyone was well aware the Democrats’ traditional support for Israel was in danger of collapsing.

The new strategy has two main elements. The first is to rule out debate on the issue. When you hear Democrats accusing Republicans of using Israel as a political football, you can be sure the left has said or done something objectionable. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf tried that tack again today. In trying to deflect criticism of her boss, Harf said, according to the AP’s Matt Lee, that “Many members of Congress, I think, like to use Israel as a political issue to try to divide the country.” Translation: when the Democrats are in the process of damaging Israel, supporting Israel becomes an unacceptable partisan play.

The other side to this strategy is to then use this supposed partisanship (defending Israel when the Democrats refuse to do so) to justify the Democrats’ turn away from Israel. The latest example of this comes from Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall. He concedes the point that having an American native like Ron Dermer as Israel’s ambassador can help communicate Israel’s positions clearly and navigate American politics. But Marshall is troubled by this as well because Dermer has a Republican background:

It should go without saying that the Israel-US alliance becomes more brittle as it becomes more clearly identified with a single US political party. And perhaps more than that, as it becomes more clearly identified with the ties between Netanyahu and US Republicans.

Marshall says, correctly, that it hurts the alliance to have support for Israel as an identifiable characteristic of only one political party. What he doesn’t say is that his party is the one increasingly setting aside that alliance. He hints, instead, that by associating with Republicans Netanyahu is the one who made that choice.

In essence, this line of thinking holds that the Israeli government can only get so much support from Republicans before Democrats will walk away. Marshall is not the first to discuss the situation in such terms. On the eve of the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, in making his case for Obama, wrote the following:

Republicans have had a good deal of success turning Israel into a partisan issue, mainly by misrepresenting President Obama’s record (but also helped by certain Obama missteps), and if they continue to press their case, many Democrats will find supporting Israel distasteful — they will lump supporters of Israel in the same category they reserve for climate-change-denying anti-choice Obamacare haters. This would be very dangerous for Israel.

Yes, it would be very dangerous for Israel. But it’s also a profound condemnation, even if unintentional, of Goldberg’s fellow liberals. If they will find voluble support for Israel, which in this case includes criticism of Barack Obama for what they perceive to be his weakening of the alliance, to be enough to convince them not to support Israel, then they are not supporters of Israel: they are leftist partisans.

If they really do support Israel, they would be able to continue supporting Israel even though conservatives get as (or more) animated about their support for Israel as on other important conservative issues. That should go without saying, but it apparently does not. A bipartisan consensus in support of Israel is what is best for both the United States and Israel, which is why that consensus has endured for decades now. And for it to be bipartisan, Democrats will have to get over their distaste for sharing a coalition with Republicans.

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Russia’s Treaty Violation Is Old News; Only Obama’s Interest Is New

Western reaction to Vladimir Putin’s continued provocations in Ukraine and general contempt for basic human rights has toughened in recent weeks, and took another step forward today. But they also have the effect of highlighting just how far Western leaders went to appease Putin and cover for his thuggish behavior.

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Western reaction to Vladimir Putin’s continued provocations in Ukraine and general contempt for basic human rights has toughened in recent weeks, and took another step forward today. But they also have the effect of highlighting just how far Western leaders went to appease Putin and cover for his thuggish behavior.

The efforts to punish Putin have been both rhetorical and financial. On the latter, sanctions have been instituted and more were added today, with the EU and U.S. willing to get more serious about confronting the Russian leader and President Obama making an afternoon statement today to accompany the announcement of sanctions. With regard to the rhetoric, however, the West’s record is a bit mixed.

I talked about one aspect of this last week: British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to allow a full investigation into the assassination of Putin critic (and British citizen) Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. The British government had claimed in part that it wasn’t comfortable with a full inquest because of the state secrets that would have to be exposed to the investigators for an honest accounting to be taken. But the fact that Britain is apparently no longer concerned about that suggests Cameron’s initial hesitation was more about not angering Putin and upsetting UK-Russia relations.

Few will ask “why now?” when the result is what they think is just. Better late than never has been the prevailing reaction. But in truth countries that so baldly offered misdirection on such matters when the truth was inconvenient should at least have to answer for it.

The same is true with regard to the other American escalation of Putin’s reprimand. The New York Times reports:

The United States has concluded that Russia violated a landmark arms control treaty by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile, according to senior American officials, a finding that was conveyed by President Obama to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in a letter on Monday.

It is the most serious allegation of an arms control treaty violation that the Obama administration has leveled against Russia and adds another dispute to a relationship already burdened by tensions over the Kremlin’s support for separatists in Ukraine and its decision to grant asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.

But is this new? No, not really:

Russia first began testing the cruise missiles as early as 2008, according to American officials, and the Obama administration concluded by the end of 2011 that they were a compliance concern. In May 2013, Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s senior arms control official, first raised the possibility of a violation with Russian officials.

The New York Times reported in January that American officials had informed the NATO allies that Russia had tested a ground-launched cruise missile, raising serious concerns about Russia’s compliance with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or I.N.F. Treaty as it is commonly called. The State Department said at the time that the issue was under review and that the Obama administration was not yet ready to formally declare it to be a treaty violation.

So what happened? The Obama administration decided to care:

In recent months, however, the issue has been taken up by top-level officials, including a meeting early this month of the Principals’ Committee, a cabinet-level body that includes Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, the defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of state and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Senior officials said the president’s most senior advisers unanimously agreed that the test was a serious violation, and the allegation will be made public soon in the State Department’s annual report on international compliance with arms control agreements.

You would think it would be important enough to look into earlier. But the president has not, until Putin humiliated him one too many times on the world stage, been interested in seeing Putin for what he is. In today’s press conference, Obama was asked if this is a new Cold War. His response: “This is not a new Cold War.” Instead, it is “a very specific issue related to Russia’s unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path.”

Well, it’s one specific issue. But it’s part of a larger picture. And the violation of the missile treaty is another “specific issue.” When you start to piece together all the “specific issues” the West has with Putin’s Russia, they really add up. New Cold War or not, there’s obviously a serious and deteriorating and adversarial relationship between the U.S. and Russia, and the public could be forgiven for wondering why the president appears to have been the last to know.

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Hillary’s Gracious Words About Bush

Hillary Clinton has done what Barack Obama rarely does: Show class, especially toward Mr. Obama’s predecessor. According to Secretary Clinton:

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Hillary Clinton has done what Barack Obama rarely does: Show class, especially toward Mr. Obama’s predecessor. According to Secretary Clinton:

let’s not forget the trend lines. George W. Bush is very popular in Sub-Saharan Africa. Why? Because of the president’s emergency program for AIDS relief. Whether you agree or disagree with a lot of what else he did — and I disagree with a lot of it — I am proud to be an American when I go to Sub-Saharan Africa and people say, “I want to thank President Bush and the United States for helping us fight HIV/AIDS.”

I understand that this kind of thing doesn’t foreshadow a new, irenic and unified moment in American politics. But in a nation where the partisan divisions are growing, where nearly 70 percent of those surveyed believe America is more divided than it was four years ago, it’s a nice gesture. The kind of thing, come to think of it, that Barack Obama promised to do when he said he’d put an end to the type of politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.”

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Romney Beats Obama and 2016

Republicans are chortling this week over a new CNN poll that shows that if a new presidential election were to be held today, Mitt Romney would beat Barack Obama by a 53 to 44 percent margin. Democrats dismiss this as merely the normal second-term blues while the GOP sees it as buyer’s remorse that bodes well for the midterms. Both may be right, but either party would be foolish to mortgage their futures on these results.

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Republicans are chortling this week over a new CNN poll that shows that if a new presidential election were to be held today, Mitt Romney would beat Barack Obama by a 53 to 44 percent margin. Democrats dismiss this as merely the normal second-term blues while the GOP sees it as buyer’s remorse that bodes well for the midterms. Both may be right, but either party would be foolish to mortgage their futures on these results.

This is not the first poll to show a reversal of the last presidential election. In November 2013, an ABC News/Washington Post poll reported that Romney was favored by a 49-45 percent margin. The further decline of the president’s popularity in the new poll demonstrates just how far we’ve come from November 2012 when Obama won by a clear 51-47 margin that, thanks to a series of close victories in almost every swing state, translated into a 332-206 Electoral College landslide.

Obama thought he could be the exception to the iron rule of the presidency that dictates that virtually every occupant of the Oval Office will rue the day he won reelection. But neither his historic status as our first African-American president nor his decision to swing hard to the left on policy issues and to distract the public by harping on income inequality and the minimum wage helped him avoid an inevitable slide into lame duck status.

Try as they might to minimize the shift in the polls, Democrats can’t pretend that this is anything other than a decisive negative verdict from the public about the course of Obama’s second term. Over the course of the last 19 months, a rash of scandals (IRS, Benghazi, spying on the press and the VA) have undermined the credibility of the government. The ObamaCare rollout illustrated the incompetence of the president’s team and, despite the White House’s touchdown dances, set the stage for even more trouble in the future once the unpopular individual and employer mandates begin to be enforced. The crisis at our southern border was in no small measure the result of Obama’s miscalculated attempts to promote immigration reform. A host of foreign-policy disasters involving Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Hamas terrorists in Gaza was exacerbated by the ineptitude of the president’s new foreign/defense policy team of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. All these have undermined America’s prestige abroad and sapped confidence in Obama’s ability to govern or effectively promote America’s values and interests.

The president also believed that he could survive scandals and setbacks because of the unpopularity of his congressional opponents. But not even a disastrous government shutdown orchestrated by Tea Party stalwarts or the fumbling of golden opportunities to break open the scandal stories by overly partisan grandstanding House committees was enough to preserve the popularity of a president who is now widely seen as having run out of steam and ideas.

All this bodes ill for a Democratic Party that already had the odds stacked against it in the 2014 midterm elections. While it doesn’t appear that Republicans are able to leverage any single issue into the focus for a genuine wave election in the way that anger about ObamaCare lifted the GOP in 2010, the only truly national issue in 2014 appears to be discontent with Obama. Indeed, without the ability to claim their opponents will do the president’s will, the Republicans’ increasingly good chances of winning control of the Senate would be diminished.

But anyone on the right who thinks buyer’s remorse about Obama, which is perhaps also enhanced by a rethinking of the way the Democrats smeared Romney—a flawed politician who is also one of the finest men in contemporary American public life—means the Republicans have the edge heading into 2016 are not thinking straight. And that’s not just because the same CNN poll shows Romney trailing Hillary Clinton, the likely 2016 Democratic nominee, by an even greater margin (55-42) than his 2012 loss to Obama.

In the 21 months since the last presidential election, Republicans have exploited Obama’s failures but they have yet to address the chronic demographic problems that undermined them in 2012. It should be remembered that most conservatives spent that year serenely confident that Obama was certain to be defeated. But the ability of Democrats to mobilize minorities and unmarried women to turn out in unprecedented numbers doomed Romney even though the president failed to make a good case for reelection. Part of that is rightly attributed to Obama’s personal popularity and his historic status. Indeed, the best thing the GOP has going for it in 2016 is that Obama won’t be on the ballot again. But none of that helps Republicans win all the battleground states they lost in 2012 if they are unable to get a greater share of those demographic groups that shunned them the last time around.

There are no simple answers to that problem. Merely passing an immigration reform bill that gives illegal immigrants a path to citizenship won’t do it, especially since the debacle on the Rio Grande shows the perils of attempting to legislate that without first securing the border. Nor can Republicans win single women by abandoning their principles on social issues. Similarly, the GOP needs to be wary of advice from liberal pundits calling for them to disassociate from their own conservative and Tea Party base even if some of their ideas—like Sarah Palin’s talk about impeaching Obama—should be ignored.

The solution to the problem does involve going back to some of the issues raised in COMMENTARY by Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson in March 2013 when they spoke of “saving” the party with new thinking that understood that merely channeling the politics of the 1980s would not work. It also involves listening more to people like Romney running mate Paul Ryan who continues to chart a reformist course that embraces a message of economic growth and a recognition that the GOP must reach out to working class Americans, not just Wall Street.

The recognition by a majority of Americans that two terms of Obama was a dreadful mistake is a good start for Republicans. But in and of itself it won’t help any Republican beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 unless the party does the hard work of rebuilding that all parties must do after they’ve been out of power.

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When It Comes to Israel, Liberals Can’t Handle the Truth

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Charlie Rose and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal that’s noteworthy:

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Here is an excerpt from an interview with Charlie Rose and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal that’s noteworthy:

ROSE: I think I just heard you say — and this — we will close on this — you believe in the coexistence of peoples, and, therefore, you believe in the coexistence of Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East?

MESHAAL (through translator): I can’t coexist with occupation.

ROSE: Without occupation, you can coexist?

MESHAAL (through translator): I’m ready to coexist with the Jews, with the Christians and with the Arabs and non-Arabs and with those who agree with my ideas and those who disagree with them. However, I do not coexist with the occupiers, with the settlers, and those who…

ROSE: It’s one thing to say you want to coexist with the Jews. It’s another thing you want to coexist with the state of Israel. Do you want to coexist with the state of Israel? Do you want to represent — do you want to recognize Israel as a Jewish state?

MESHAAL (through translator): No. I said I do not want to live with a state of occupiers. I do coexist with other…

ROSE: I’m assuming they’re no longer occupiers. At that point, do you want to coexist and recognize their right to exist, as they would recognize your right to exist?

MESHAAL (through translator): When we have a Palestinian state, then the Palestinian state will decide on its policies. But you cannot actually ask me about the future. I answered you. But Palestinian people can have their say when they have their own state without occupation. In natural situations, they can decide policy vis-a-vis others.

So there you have it. The leader of Hamas says, point blank, it does not want a two-state solution. Yet scores of liberal commentators continue to make arguments like this: “We have to get a solution. And it has to be a two-state solution. And it has to be basically encouraged, if not imposed, I think, from without.”

This is an example of what social scientists call “motivated reasoning.” It refers to when people hold to a false belief despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In this instance, the Hamas charter and the Hamas leader don’t accept Israel’s right to exist. And yet liberals don’t seem to care. They appear to be content to live in world made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust. A world of make believe. And so in the context of Israel’s war with Hamas, they continue to revert to arguments that simply don’t apply–for example, arguing that Israel needs to “end the occupation” despite the fact that Israel completely withdrew from Gaza nearly a decade ago.

Israel, on the other hand, has to live and survive in reality. Israelis know the nature of the enemy they face–implacable, committed, ruthless, malevolent. Given all this, and given that Israel itself is a nation of extraordinary moral and political achievements, you might think that the United States government would be fully supportive of the Jewish state in its war against Hamas. But you would be wrong.

The Obama administration is racheting up pressure on Israel. Hamas’s war on Israel, combined with its eagerness to have innocent Palestinians die as human shields in order to advance its propaganda campaign, is pushing America (under Obama) not toward Israel but away from her. Mr. Obama and the left perceive themselves as reality based and their critics as fantasy based. It’s a conceit without merit. And in no case is it more evident than in the left’s stance toward Hamas and Israel.

This is a case where reality and all the arguments, including all the moral arguments, align on one side; and yet Obama and the left are on the other.

They live in a fantasy world. In this instance, doing so has diabolic consequences.

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New Dem Strategy: Say the Word “Impeachment” Over and Over

A recurring theme of the Obama administration and the upcoming election to succeed him is the continuing relevance of Bill Clinton and his presidency. Obama and the GOP fought over welfare reform, which Clinton signed. The president (and now Hillary Clinton) disavowed the religious freedom protections signed into law enthusiastically by Bill Clinton. On free trade, taxes, and gay marriage the Clinton presidency has been in the room.

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A recurring theme of the Obama administration and the upcoming election to succeed him is the continuing relevance of Bill Clinton and his presidency. Obama and the GOP fought over welfare reform, which Clinton signed. The president (and now Hillary Clinton) disavowed the religious freedom protections signed into law enthusiastically by Bill Clinton. On free trade, taxes, and gay marriage the Clinton presidency has been in the room.

The comparisons became particularly specific when the two sides threatened, and then went through with, a government shutdown. The parallel was invoked: Clinton is perceived to have won the battle for public opinion over the 1995 shutdown, when the president sparred with Newt Gingrich and a reenergized conservative faction in the House. Now a similar comparison is cropping up again: impeachment.

Although Republican congressional leaders are not remotely taking the idea of impeachment seriously, this issue has the very same plot twist as the debate over the government shutdown. Because history declared Clinton the victor in 1995, top Democrats in the Obama era actually wanted the shutdown, convinced it would play to their political advantage. Republican leaders were unenthusiastic about shutting down the government precisely because they agreed. (There was even a “hot stove” theory as to why Speaker Boehner eventually let it proceed: the backlash would teach the conservative supporters of the shutdown–some of whom had presidential aspirations–a lesson they’d remember.)

That’s the backdrop to Rich Lowry’s headline-question at NRO today: “Does Obama WANT to Get Impeached?” The answer, I think, was revealed during a bizarre back-and-forth at White House press secretary Josh Earnest’s briefing on Friday. Earnest was sent to the podium to convey the Looney Tunes notion that the GOP leadership was considering impeachment. Because this is flatly and demonstrably false, Earnest was challenged on his assertion.

“I think that there are senior members of the Republican political party or certainly prominent voices in the Republican Party who are calling for exactly that,” Earnest said. The reporters were slightly confused by an obviously untrue charge coming from the president’s chief spokesman. There ensued an argument that has to be seen to be believed. Via the White House transcript:

Q    And who is that?  Sarah Palin is one.

MR. EARNEST:  She mentioned it.  Somebody mentioned earlier that –

Q    She would be a prominent voice in the Republican political –

Q    Anybody in the Republican leadership seriously talking about that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think Sarah Palin considers herself to be a leader –

Q    Hang on, Jon, it’s my question.

Q    Sorry.  (Laughter.)

Q    There’s been a lot of fundraising emails from the Democratic Party with the word “impeachment” in it.  This sounds like a fundraising ploy, a political ploy, not a real thing.  You don’t really think the President is going to be impeached, do you?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I think that there are some Republicans, including some Republicans who are running for office, hoping they can get into office so that they can impeach the President.  That is apparently a view that they hold, because it’s one that they have repeatedly expressed publicly.

I think what’s really important –

Q    Is the White House Counsel’s Office looking at this?  Are you studying the possibility of being impeached?

MR. EARNEST:  Here’s the thing that I think is important about this.  And again, we’re coming up on a pivotal week.  Next week will be the last week that Congress is in session before Labor Day.  There are at least two items of business that members of Congress themselves have identified as important priorities.

The mention of the Democratic Party fundraising emails about impeachment hits the nail on the head. As the world burns, and as his secretary of state piles on the firewood, the president spends his time at fundraisers. Each issue can be measured not according to bedrock principles but by its monetary value with regard to raising campaign funds.

That’s how we get the White House’s “war on women” and the left acting as though the Religious Freedom Restoration Act permits–nay, requires, if the GOP has its way–the Talibanization of American life. The president’s grand vision for reelection boiled down to Big Bird and birth control. Big Bird seems to be out of the woods, so now it’s almost exclusively birth control, though this requires the left to simply make stuff up, since the truth is not offensive enough to rile the Democratic base.

And that’s how we get a fundraising scheme designed by Democrats pushing the idea of impeachment with Republicans pushing back against the idea. It would otherwise seem strange, no doubt, to see the president and his spokesmen gleefully push the idea of impeachment with Republicans trying to talk Democrats down from that ledge. Which is where we are now in this farcical saga of presidential self-pity.

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Obama: Intervening to Save Hamas?

So the president called the Israeli prime minister today and, in that phone call, called for an “immediate ceasefire” with Hamas—and he said he wanted that ceasefire to work toward “ strengthening the Palestinian Authority.” It’s very possible everything the president said was disingenuous; he knows Israel isn’t going to accept an immediate ceasefire, in part because Hamas won’t either and in part because the latest Channel 10 poll says an astounding 89 percent of Israelis want the war to continue. So he gets to be for something nice without having to deal with the consequences of its actually happening.

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So the president called the Israeli prime minister today and, in that phone call, called for an “immediate ceasefire” with Hamas—and he said he wanted that ceasefire to work toward “ strengthening the Palestinian Authority.” It’s very possible everything the president said was disingenuous; he knows Israel isn’t going to accept an immediate ceasefire, in part because Hamas won’t either and in part because the latest Channel 10 poll says an astounding 89 percent of Israelis want the war to continue. So he gets to be for something nice without having to deal with the consequences of its actually happening.

For if it did happen, it would be a disaster for the United States—America would be pulling Hamas’s chestnuts out of the fire and implicitly accepting the legitimacy of the use of terror against civilian populations as a bargaining tool in international negotiations.

But it’s also very possible the president isn’t being disingenuous. In which case he has really crossed a—do I dare—red line here no other American leader ever has. Obama doesn’t like the pictures he’s seeing, he doesn’t like Bibi, he doesn’t like the fact that even Israel’s liberals are in a belligerent frame of mind after weeks of missile attacks against population centers, he isn’t running for reelection, he doesn’t care about donors or Jewish voters, he believes in his heart of hearts that the root cause of regional instability is Israel’s gains in the 1967 war, and in service of all these feelings and beliefs, he’s decided Israel is in the wrong and that Hamas needs to be saved from Israel’s might. In which case, he is personally intervening against an American ally with a legitimately elected and deeply fractious coalition government on behalf of a terrorist organization.

I report. You decide.

 

 

 

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A Revolution Betrayed

Talk about humiliations.

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Talk about humiliations.

In 2011 U.S. forces, acting with NATO allies, helped Libyans to overthrow the dictatorial regime of Moammar Gaddafi.

On Saturday, the situation in Libya had gotten so bad that the State Department felt compelled to evacuate all of the U.S. Embassy staff from Tripoli. The decision was probably a prudent one, given that rival militias have in recent days wrecked much of Tripoli’s airport with their internecine fighting. But the fact that Tripoli is becoming Mogadishu-on-the-Mediterranean is a pretty damning indictment of the Obama administration’s approach to the country.

Obama was willing, largely for humanitarian not strategic reasons, to have the U.S. take part as one ally of many in an anti-Gaddafi coalition. This was called by one of his own aides “leading from behind.” But Obama was not willing to lead from behind or from anywhere else when it came to providing aid to the new government of Libya to gain control of its own territory. No peacekeepers, no trainers, no nothing. So intent was he on avoiding “another Iraq” that, ironically, he actually repeated the mistake of Iraq, which was overthrowing a dictator in the Middle East without having a plan to replace him.

The result of this neglect was already paid by U.S. Ambassador Christopher Steven and three other Americans killed in a terrorist attack in Benghazi in 2012. Now the cost is being paid by Libyans in general who are seeing their revolution betrayed. Instead of freedom, they have anarchy. And the Obama administration has yet another object lesson in what happens when America retreats from the Middle East in particular and the world in general.

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Iran’s Diplomatic Quagmire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will the Russian Army March into Ukraine?

It scarcely seems possible, but the situation in Ukraine keeps getting worse.

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It scarcely seems possible, but the situation in Ukraine keeps getting worse.

First Vladimir Putin let loose his “little green men”–a collection of Russian intelligence agents and military personnel along with a sprinkling of locals–to stir up a separatist rebellion in Crimea. Then after a bogus referendum held under Russian guns, he brazenly annexed Crimea, as flagrant a violation of international law as it is possible to imagine. Next he instigated another faux rebellion in eastern Ukraine led by Russian citizens, many of them current or former Russian military and intelligence personnel.

The pro-Russian rebels managed to carve out a quasi-independent region in eastern Ukraine where there is a substantial Russian-speaking population even if previous public opinion polls had indicated little support for breaking away from Ukraine. When the elected government in Kiev began to fight back against the rebels with some success, Putin provided them with heavier weapons including the sophisticated Buk or SA-11 air-defense system which brought down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, killing some 300 people on board.

Instead of apologizing for this war crime committed by his stooges, Putin has spun elaborate fantasies about how the Malaysian aircraft was really brought down by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft battery or fighter aircraft, even though U.S. intelligence and every other reputable observer has provided ample evidence that the foul deed was committed by a missile fired from the territory controlled by Russian separatists. Then the Russian rebels had the gall to deny international investigators access to the crash site and to actually loot the belongings of the innocent victims.

Far from chastened in the aftermath of the Malaysian Airlines tragedy, Putin is actually escalating his aggression. On Wednesday two Ukrainian fighter aircraft were shot down over their own airspace, with Kiev alleging that the shots came from the Russian side of the border. The State Department reports that in recent days artillery in Russia has been pounding Ukrainian positions and that Russia is now supplying the rebels with heavier weapons including tanks and rocket launchers. Speculation is rife that Putin may order the Russian army into Ukraine or that, at the very least, his proxies will stage a major offensive.

It is simply incredible that this is happening in the Europe of 2014–the land of the euro and the Eurovision song contest, of espresso and Bordeaux, of long vacations and short work weeks. Wasn’t Europe supposedly entering an era beyond power politics and certainly beyond war?

Recent events sound like something out of the 1930s, the dark years when brazen predators picked off countries at will: Czechoslovakia, Austria, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), China all fell while the League of Nations and the “international community” stood by, helpless and hapless, paralyzed, not knowing what to do. Putin is no Hitler or Tojo or Mussolini, but there are echoes of these outrageous events in his reckless disregard for the norms of international conduct.

What is even more incredible is that the democracies of the West, which together are infinitely richer and stronger than Russia, cannot muster the will to do anything to stop Putin’s offensive. Germany doesn’t want to lose access to Russian natural gas. France doesn’t want to lose the revenues from selling Russia two amphibious assault ships. Britain doesn’t want to lose the ability to attract Russian money to the City of London. And the U.S.? Well, President Obama appears to be too busy attending fundraisers to formulate a coherent response to Putin’s villainy.

I am normally an optimist–a half-glass-full kind of guy. But faced with the evil let loose from the Kremlin–and the cowardice with which it has been met in the West–it is hard not to despair for the future of Ukraine, of Europe, of the United States, and indeed the world. Perhaps I am being melodramatic but I am simply being driven to despair by the events of recent months.

It is hard to watch the international system disintegrate into chaos–not only in Ukraine but also in Iraq and Syria–while ordinary Americans and Europeans heedlessly enjoy the dog days of summer. It is hard not to think of another summer 100 years ago when illusions were shattered by the roar of guns. Today, however, the guns are roaring and the illusions of the West remain firmly intact.

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Israel and the Burden of Being Right

Generally when someone says they “hate to say I told you so,” it’s fair to doubt they really hate saying it. But in Israel’s case it’s believable. The current conflict with Gaza is proving Israel correct about its various claims with regard to Hamas, and the result is the treacherous urban warfare the world is currently witnessing.

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Generally when someone says they “hate to say I told you so,” it’s fair to doubt they really hate saying it. But in Israel’s case it’s believable. The current conflict with Gaza is proving Israel correct about its various claims with regard to Hamas, and the result is the treacherous urban warfare the world is currently witnessing.

As Evelyn Gordon wrote earlier, the vast tunnel networks prove Israel was right about letting in dual-use items that Hamas would only appropriate for its terror war against Israeli civilians. The West should, in fact, be embarrassed by its enabling of those tunnels: pressuring Israel to let in those materials was the international community’s way of using Israeli civilians as guinea pigs in a grand experiment. They didn’t believe Israeli predictions, and wanted the premises tested. Now they have been, and innocents are paying the price.

While we’re on the topic of dangerously boneheaded diplomatic fumbles by the Obama administration, the FAA ban on flights to Israel’s major international airport–conspicuously imposed not when the rockets started flying but when John Kerry needed leverage to box Israel into a cease-fire–proved another point. The grotesque body-counters among the press like to treat rockets from Gaza as barely more than fireworks which do not lead (because of Israeli and American technological genius) to a comparable number of fatalities.

But the FAA ban is the Obama administration’s way of inadvertently admitting otherwise: rockets from Gaza are such a threat, according to the Obama administration’s actions, that Tel Aviv should be treated as more dangerous for commercial flight than countless other locations that would give anything for a safety record even resembling that of Ben-Gurion. Thus, the possibility that rockets will escape Iron Dome is sufficient to treat them as the act of war they are intended to be. Israel was right about the need to stop and deter the rockets, not least because of America’s reaction to them.

The tunnels and the rockets are Hamas’s primary threat to those living inside Israel, and they also shine a light on another of Israel’s verified claims: Hamas’s practice of turning civilians and their property into instruments of war. As I wrote on Tuesday, journalists have witnessed Hamas fighters using a hospital as a command center and moving rockets into mosques. And Hamas is using UN schools to store weaponry as well.

But reporters have also opened a window into why there’s not as much coverage of the use of human shields as one would think. Yesterday, a Wall Street Journal photographer tweeted an image of a Hamas official at Shifa hospital and wrote: “You have to wonder w the shelling how patients at Shifa hospital feel as Hamas uses it as a safe place to see media.” He then deleted the tweet. At the Jerusalem Post, Lahav Harkov offers a window into the threats journalists are getting on social media for recording Hamas actions:

On Wednesday, Peter Stefanovic of Australia’s Channel Nine News tweeted: “Hamas rockets just launched over our hotel from a site about two hundred metres away. So a missile launch site is basically next door.”

An account called @ThisIsGaza said this was Stefanovic’s fourth time “passing and fabricating information to Israel… from GAZA” and threatened to sue him.

Another account, @longitude0 wrote: “You are a cretin. Are you working for the IDF” and “in WWII spies got shot.”

Financial Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief John Reed reported seeing “two rockets fired toward Israel from near al-Shifa hospital, even as more bombing victims were brought in.”

Shifa, in Gaza City, is the main medical facility in the Strip.

In response, @Saritah_91 tweeted: “We’ll hold you responsible if Israel uses your tweet to bomb the hospital & then justify it.”

The Hamas supporters are making use of the term “informant,” treating the media as their allies (I can’t imagine why) who then betray the cause when they report what they see. There has also been an interesting desire on the part of journalists to obfuscate the implications of their own reporting. For example, in an article detailing Hamas’s brazen use of human shields, New York Times reporters Anne Barnard and Jodi Rudoren write:

Nothing is ever so clear in the complex and often brutal calculus of urban warfare. There is no evidence that Hamas and other militants force civilians to stay in areas that are under attack — the legal definition of a human shield under international law. But it is indisputable that Gaza militants operate in civilian areas, draw return fire to civilian structures, and on some level benefit in the diplomatic arena from the rising casualties.

Hamas is using civilians as human shields, but let’s not jump to any conclusions. Barnard and Rudoren don’t cite their source for international law, but here is the plain text of the Geneva Conventions:

The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.

But even by the Barnard/Rudoren account, it’s pretty clear that Hamas, in turning civilian areas into military targets and then prohibiting civilians from using the reinforced bunkers under those areas to which Hamasniks then retreat when the counterattack arrives, is using civilians as human shields.

Again, Israel said all this–and has said it for some time. But there’s not much consolation in being right about these claims, because it means Hamas’s sacrificial use of Palestinian civilians and the group’s genocidal war against the Jewish state continues.

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How the West Helped Hamas Build Its War Machine

Yesterday, I wrote about one important way in which the West helps Hamas. Clearly, there are also many others, including media coverage that encourages Hamas’s use of human shields (as Alan Dershowitz explains here) or even parrots outright Hamas lies (as Noah Pollak explains here). But Monday’s Jerusalem Post editorial highlighted one important form of assistance to Hamas that has received far too little attention despite contributing greatly to Gaza’s current misery: the West’s relentless pressure on Israel to stop restricting imports of “dual-use” items into Gaza.

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Yesterday, I wrote about one important way in which the West helps Hamas. Clearly, there are also many others, including media coverage that encourages Hamas’s use of human shields (as Alan Dershowitz explains here) or even parrots outright Hamas lies (as Noah Pollak explains here). But Monday’s Jerusalem Post editorial highlighted one important form of assistance to Hamas that has received far too little attention despite contributing greatly to Gaza’s current misery: the West’s relentless pressure on Israel to stop restricting imports of “dual-use” items into Gaza.

For years, human-rights groups, diplomats, pundits, and other opinion leaders demanded an end to the “siege” of Gaza, and eventually, they succeeded. President Barack Obama deserves special mention here; it was he who, after Israel’s botched raid on a flotilla to Gaza in 2010, twisted Israel’s arm into drastically easing its import controls. The pressure increased again after Egypt tightened its own blockade of Gaza last year, leading Israel to remove all remaining restrictions on construction materials like cement and iron.

Most of those who pressed Israel on this issue sincerely wanted to improve Palestinian lives: Eliminating import restrictions, they argued, would let Gaza residents build homes and businesses, improve the economy, and generally contribute to Palestinian wellbeing. So they blithely dismissed Israel’s warnings that these materials would actually be used not to help ordinary Palestinians, but to build Hamas’s terror infrastructure.

We now know Israel’s warnings were 100 percent correct. As Jonathan Tobin has already noted, Hamas built a vast warren of underground bunkers to protect its rockets and its own personnel. It also built dozens of cross-border tunnels dedicated solely to launching attacks inside Israel; the IDF has so far located 28–each of which runs for miles, deep underground, requiring hundreds of tons of cement and millions of dollars to build–and doesn’t think it has found them all. Yet Hamas built no hospitals, schools, power plants, or even bomb shelters to serve the general population; where such institutions exist, they were built either by Israel (when it controlled Gaza) or the international community.

Hamas built much of its underground warren with materials smuggled in from Egypt. But Israel’s lifting of restrictions last year undoubtedly helped. And even before that, Israel allowed huge quantities of dual-use products to be imported for projects supervised by the UN, Western governments, or international aid agencies, who were supposed to ensure that Hamas didn’t use them for its terrorist infrastructure. Given the sheer size of the tunnel network, it now seems likely that Hamas siphoned off some of this material, too–just as it has repeatedly stored rockets in UNRWA schools despite that organization’s stated objections.

Had Hamas not been able to build these tunnels, Israeli ground troops wouldn’t be in Gaza trying to destroy them. And had Israeli troops not been in Gaza, the hundreds of Palestinians wounded or killed in the Hamas-Israel crossfire would be unharmed, while the hundreds of homes damaged or destroyed in the fighting, or in the demolition of tunnels that run right under them, would still be standing.

In other words, in its well-meaning effort to improve Palestinian lives by demanding that Israel end its import restrictions, the international community helped Hamas build a massive terrorist infrastructure that has now brought death and destruction down on Gaza. I wonder whether all the Palestinians who have lost their loved ones or their homes think those extra tons of imported cement were worth the price.

I also wonder whether the West will learn the lessons for next time. Hamas is demanding that any cease-fire include a complete removal of all Israeli and Egyptian import restrictions and the end of Israel’s naval blockade. Pressuring Israel to comply with this demand would be a mistake. For not only would it show Hamas that launching rockets at Israel is an effective way of securing political gains, it would also facilitate its efforts to rebuild its war machine for the next round.

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Britain’s Latest Rebuke to Putin Is Personal

When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

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When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

But then nothing happened, and for some reason Obama went back out Monday and gave another, quite similar statement, imploring Vladimir Putin to cooperate. It was unclear why the president saw fit to give a second statement at all if not to announce new punitive action toward Russia. We already knew he (correctly) blamed Putin; repeating it without action only calls attention to the lack of action.

Which is what makes today’s announcement by Britain’s government at first welcome, but also a bit puzzling. The Wall Street Journal reports that European countries have tightened sanctions on Russia, but Britain is going a step farther: the British government has ordered a full investigation into the 2006 poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, presumably by Russian agents:

Litvinenko’s excruciating death and Russia’s refusal to extradite the chief suspect, a career Russian security officer, plunged relations between London and the Kremlin to a post-Cold War low from which they have yet to fully recover.

Last July the government refused to open an inquiry, which promises to go further than the initial inquest by looking into who was to blame, with Mrs. May saying international relations had been a factor in the decision. But in February the High Court ordered the Home Secretary to review her decision following a challenge by Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the former agent of Russia’s FSB agency.

The British government had thus far opposed the kind of formal inquiry that would include classified information. Prime Minister David Cameron says the timing of the decision is purely coincidental, of course.

Litvinenko was a critic of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. Putin ran the FSB before becoming Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister and then president. Litvinenko’s criticism of Putin was about more than just corruption, however. He alleged that Putin was behind the series of domestic apartment bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen terrorists and used, in part, as a casus belli for the Second Chechen War. Putin’s direction of that war probably sealed his victory as president in 2000, so the accusation undercuts Putin’s legitimacy and suggests his entire public career was a lie–meaning Putin was never anything more than a fraud and a terrorist.

People who said such things about Putin tended to have reduced life expectancy. In November 2006, a month after investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, Litvinenko was poisoned using the radioactive substance polonium-210 in London. The trail of evidence led to another former Russian KGB agent, who Putin refuses to extradite. In an effort to stay on Putin’s good side, Cameron has not pressed the issue, but now appears to have had a change of heart. Opening the files for a thorough investigation, however, was never without some risk, as the New York Times explains:

Plans to hold an inquest led by a senior judge, Sir Robert Owen, were dropped after the British Foreign Office invoked national security interests to prevent the inquest from even considering whether Moscow had played a part in the killing or whether British intelligence could have prevented it.

The judge said last year that the restrictions made it impossible to hold a “fair and fearless” inquest, and he urged the establishment of a public inquiry that would be empowered to hold closed-door sessions about possible involvement by the Kremlin or MI6, the British overseas intelligence agency. Ms. Litvinenko has said her husband was a paid agent of MI6 at the time he was killed. He and his family had been granted British citizenship weeks before his death.

It’s doubtful Cameron would be unaware of the sealed intel or that he would embarrass the UK just to take a jab at Putin. So it seems as though Cameron was, indeed, waiting for the right time to play this card.

Which raises the following question. If and when this inquest concludes that Moscow was behind this egregious violation of British sovereignty and security, what would Cameron do? Litvinenko was a British citizen, murdered on British soil, presumably at the direction of the Kremlin. If that’s confirmed, people will expect more than pointing fingers. Western leaders’ habit of honestly and openly blaming Putin for his misdeeds is halfway there. It’s the other half–the actions that follow the words–that people get tired of waiting for.

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Why Is Aeroflot Still Flying?

The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

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The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

While this is ongoing, Aeroflot—Russia’s national airline—is still flying over American and European airspace. Perhaps if President Obama and European leaders really wanted to make Vladimir Putin understand how unacceptable it was to down this aircraft, it is time for U.S. and European officials to deny Aeroflot overflight rights. When Russia comes clean and Putin makes amends for the Russian militia’s actions, perhaps there can be some discussion about allowing Russian airliners to again traverse European and American airspace.

Now certainly Putin will bluster and bloviate—he does that all the time—and he may also lash out at American and European carriers. But I suspect a lot more travelers want to leave Russia than enter it. The children of Russian elite often study in the West, and their families like to visit them. And, in August, Russians–like many in Europe–like to take vacations down to the Mediterranean or Algarve, if not to Disneyland. If they have to choose Sochi instead for the next year or two, so be it.

Putin plays hardball, while Obama waves his wiffle ball bat. While Obama sees international relations as a platform upon which to compromise, Putin sees it as a zero-sum game where he wins and the weak lose. Perhaps it’s time that the White House and State Department to stop treating leverage as a dirty word, and actually start to wield it.

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An Academic’s Admirable Intellectual Independence

I wanted to alert people to recent congressional testimony by George Washington University Professor Jonathan Turley. The subject was the lawsuit by Speaker John Boehner to check President Obama’s repeated violations of the separation of powers. “The president’s pledge to effectively govern alone is alarming,” according to Turley, “and what is most alarming is his ability to fulfill that pledge.”

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I wanted to alert people to recent congressional testimony by George Washington University Professor Jonathan Turley. The subject was the lawsuit by Speaker John Boehner to check President Obama’s repeated violations of the separation of powers. “The president’s pledge to effectively govern alone is alarming,” according to Turley, “and what is most alarming is his ability to fulfill that pledge.”

I want to focus on Professor Turley’s testimony for two reasons. The first has to do with the merits of his argument, which he believes reflects the vision of the founders. The push-and-pull between Congress and the presidency goes back to the very beginning of the republic, but according to Turley we have reached a “tipping point.” Even if one doesn’t fully agree with him, Turley’s case is worth considering, particularly given how well-stated it is.

The second reason I wanted to highlight what Professor Turley said is because he demonstrates impressive intellectual independence. In the course of his testimony, Professor Turley says quite forthrightly that he voted for Barack Obama in the past and he’s sympathetic to what the president is trying to achieve with the Affordable Care Act. Which is to say, Turley is a political liberal.

No matter. The George Washington University law professor is able to separate his political leanings from his analysis of the situation. He is able to argue “against interest.” His principles have deeper roots than his political/partisan views.

Professor Turley is obviously a serious-minded scholar; he’s also a civilized, irenic one. We all struggle with “confirmation bias” and “motivated reasoning”; with keeping our political biases from clouding our intellectual judgments. These days that’s truer of academics, I imagine, than most others. Which is why Jonathan Turley’s example is an estimable one. Watch his testimony and see if you agree.

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Smash the Regulatory State from Within

The rise of the regulatory state is not something conservatives need to make peace with, nor should they accept the role that unaccountable bureaucrats are increasingly playing in American governance. But they should also understand that working within that system while working to dismantle aspects of it are not mutually exclusive activities.

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The rise of the regulatory state is not something conservatives need to make peace with, nor should they accept the role that unaccountable bureaucrats are increasingly playing in American governance. But they should also understand that working within that system while working to dismantle aspects of it are not mutually exclusive activities.

With all the talk of reform conservatism, this is a more limited variant of the ambitious reform efforts gaining momentum. There are two categories of such reform, and the abuse-of-power scandals proliferating throughout the Obama administration’s bureaucratic power agencies make it all the more necessary to realize the opportunity they present to conservatives seeking to protect the public from big government.

The first has to do with regulations, and Texas presents a good example. Because so much of the Obama-era Democratic regulations are poorly thought-out and destructive, it’s easy to get the impression that when the government regulates something, it will do so in a deeply stupid way. But it doesn’t have to.

In April 2010, the Washington Post ran an interesting article investigating the following question: Why did Texas escape the real-estate bust? As the Post explained:

Texas’s 3.1 million mortgage borrowers are a breed of their own among big states with big cities. Fewer than 6 percent of them are in or near foreclosure, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association; the national average is nearly 10 percent. …

Texan subprime borrowers do especially well compared with their counterparts elsewhere. The foreclosure rate among subprime borrowers in Texas, at less than 19 percent, is the lowest of any state except Alaska.

Part of the answer seemed to be restrictions on refinancing and home-equity lending:

A cash-out refinance is a mortgage taken out for a higher balance than the one on an existing loan, net of fees. Across the nation, cash-outs became ubiquitous during the mortgage boom, as skyrocketing house prices made it possible for homeowners, even those with bad credit, to use their home equity like an ATM. But not in Texas. There, cash-outs and home-equity loans cannot total more than 80 percent of a home’s appraised value. There’s a 12-day cooling-off period after an application, during which the borrower can pull out. And when a borrower refinances a mortgage, it’s illegal to get even a dollar back. Texas really means it: All these protections, and more, are in the state constitution. The Texas restrictions on mortgage borrowing date from the first days of statehood in 1845, when the constitution banned home loans.

It turns out such restrictions went a long way toward preventing homeowners from taking out the kind of loans and refinancing that increased the chances of default when the bubble burst, protecting many in Texas from suffering the same fate. It’s the kind of “smart” regulation that not only benefits the private sector but also can prevent future “dumb” regulations: the less prone to such crises states (and especially the federal government) are, the less demand there will be for the kind of “do-something” regulatory pile-ons and bailouts that follow those crises.

Texas is also, of course, a testament to the benefits of limited regulations in other areas of ownership and private property. Another part of the state’s insulation from the real-estate bubble was, as Wendell Cox explained, “the state’s liberal, market oriented land use policies. This served to help keep the price of land low while profligate lending increased demand.” Overregulated housing markets inflated prices and restricted supply. Texas got the balance just right.

So there’s “smart” regulations vs. “dumb” regulations. But the other category of this kind of reform has to do with the bureaucracy. Especially in the Obama era, policy is being made more and more by unelected bureaucrats. As the IRS scandal (and others) showed, the power and insulation from the public eye is a dangerous combination.

Conservatives have generally approached this by concentrating on the need to eliminate either bureaucratic agencies or the powers of those agencies. They should also, however, keep in mind that as long as those agencies exist, personnel is policy. Perhaps no one on the right has internalized this message more than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In a piece for National Review last year (still paywalled, alas), Daniel Foster wrote about McConnell’s attitude toward staffing decisions made by each party. When bureaucratic commission openings must be filled, it generally falls to the leadership. That means President Obama for the Democrats and McConnell for the Republicans. The Democrats still tend to view such job appointments as patronage positions. But McConnell has rejected the cronyism in favor of competence:

To translate his instincts into names, he brought in GOP veteran Dan Schneider. To look at Schneider’s government rap sheet — stints at the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Labor Department — you’d think he was a die-cast liberal. But when I spoke with him for this story, he said he likes to think of himself as a loyal conservative sent behind enemy lines “to monitor the radicals.”

Schneider came onto McConnell’s radar via the senator’s wife, Elaine Chao. When George W. Bush appointed Chao to head his Department of Labor, Schneider became her first White House liaison, and she gave him free rein to find conservatives to fill more than 200 slots inside the department. He impressed, and, after the Obama transition, migrated into McConnell’s office, where he oversees a sort of national conservative talent search with the title “Policy Advisor and Counsel for Nominations.”

Schneider operates according to a set of five criteria for screening potential nominees first developed by E. Pendleton “Pen” James, Ronald Reagan’s director of personnel management. First, were the nominees competent in the subject matter? Second, were they philosophically compatible with Senator McConnell? Third, did they possess high character and integrity? Fourth, were they tough? Fifth, were they team players?

The result, two or three hundred appointees later, is measurable.

Of course the ultimate aim for such bureaucracies should be to get rid of them or limit their power–something McConnell also engages in, as when he spearheaded the challenge to Obama’s unconstitutional recess appointments, which resulted recently in a unanimous Supreme Court rejection of Obama’s power grab.

But conservatives can fight those fights while engaging in limited reform from within the regulatory state. They don’t have to cede ground just because they wish that ground didn’t exist.

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Russia’s Provocation Demands Tougher Action

President Obama appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to deliver remarks on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. His statement included some strong and appropriate words of condemnation, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” But of course being Barack Obama–the dispassionate academic par excellence–he delivered even this expression of displeasure with all the emotion he might have put into reading a grocery list.

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President Obama appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to deliver remarks on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. His statement included some strong and appropriate words of condemnation, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” But of course being Barack Obama–the dispassionate academic par excellence–he delivered even this expression of displeasure with all the emotion he might have put into reading a grocery list.

The potential impact of his statement was further dissipated by the fact that he said repeatedly that “our immediate focus will be on recovering those who were lost, investigating exactly what happened, and putting forward the facts.” As if this were the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 which vanished without a trace. Actually we know with a high degree of certainty what happened with flight 17: As even Obama conceded, it was shot down by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine with the help of the Russian state. As he noted, “we have confidence in saying that that shot was taken within a territory that is controlled by the Russian separatists.” Moreover, he said, “a group of separatists can’t shoot down military transport planes or, they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training. And that is coming from Russia.”

But still he refused to draw the obvious conclusion: that Russia is ultimately responsible for a war crime–the shooting down of flight 17 as well as broader aggression against Ukraine. Instead, he tried to make it appear as if there is blame all around: “Russia, these separatists, and Ukraine all have the capacity to put an end to the fighting.” That’s like blaming both Hamas and Israel equally for the fighting now going on in Gaza–an act of moral myopia that fails to recognize the culpability of an aggressor (Russia, Hamas) and the responsibility of a nation under attack (Ukraine, Israel) to respond with all due force to defend itself.

Failing to pin the responsibility on Russia as squarely as he should have done, Obama naturally failed to lay out a clear response to Russia’s aggression. He ruled out the possibility of providing any military help to Ukraine to defend itself: “We don’t see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic States, giving them reassurances that we are prepared to do whatever is required to meet our alliance obligations.” In short, no military equipment and no advisers for Ukraine. Let them eat MREs!

He didn’t even call for “sectoral” sanctions (for example, freezing all Russian financial institutions out of the U.S. and imposing secondary sanctions on foreign firms that do business with Russia, as we’ve done with Iran)–steps that could really hurt the Russian economy. Instead he expressed satisfaction with the very limited and ineffectual sanctions announced so far: “We feel confident that at this point the sanctions that we’ve put in place are imposing a cost on Russia … I think Treasury, in consultation with our European partners, have done a good job so far on that issue.”

Really? Obama thinks the sanctions have been good so far? Admittedly a new round of measures was just announced this week so it’s too early to judge their impact, but there is no sign of Russia backing off its illegal and brazen aggression. Indeed just today Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander, released a video appearing to show a Russian Grad rocket launcher shelling Ukrainian territory.

It is wishful thinking to imagine that the shooting down of flight 17 will, by itself, cause Russia to end its attacks on Ukrainian territory. To force Russia to back off will require a massive effort on the part of the West. Admittedly Obama’s statement on Friday was only an initial stab at a response; tougher measures may be coming. But his words give little confidence that the type of massive response needed to force Russia into retreating will ever occur.

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Downing of Plane Shows West Cannot Ignore Russia-Ukraine Escalation

On September 1, 1983, Soviet fighter aircraft shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 which had inadvertently entered Soviet airspace on its way from Anchorage to Seoul. All 269 people on board were killed. President Reagan swiftly condemned “this crime against humanity,” which only redoubled his desire to bring down the “evil empire” (as he had called the Soviet Union earlier that year).

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On September 1, 1983, Soviet fighter aircraft shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 which had inadvertently entered Soviet airspace on its way from Anchorage to Seoul. All 269 people on board were killed. President Reagan swiftly condemned “this crime against humanity,” which only redoubled his desire to bring down the “evil empire” (as he had called the Soviet Union earlier that year).

We can only hope for similar moral clarity today from the U.S. and Europe in the aftermath of the equally outrageous shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine with 295 people on board including more than 20 American citizens. The exact circumstances remain murky, but there is a strong circumstantial case, based on what we already know, that this was the work of pro-Russian separatist rebels who had been provided by the Kremlin with an advanced Buk anti-aircraft missile system. As Julia Ioffe of the New Republic notes, “there are now screenshots floating around the Russian-language internet from what seems to be the Facebook page of Igor Strelkov, a rebel leader in eastern Ukraine, showing plumes of smoke and bragging about shooting down a Ukrainian military Antonov plane shortly before MaH 17 fell. ‘Don’t fly in our skies,’ he reportedly wrote. If that’s true, it would seem rebels downed the jetliner, having mistaken it for a Ukrainian military jet.”

Certainly it would not be surprising to see the rebels, or their Russian sponsors, shooting down suspected Ukrainian aircraft. In fact, just before the Malaysian airliner went down, the Ukrainian government had accused a Russian fighter plane of shooting down one of its own fighters in Ukrainian airspace on Wednesday. Just a few days before that, Ukraine accused Russian rebels of shooting down a Ukrainian transport aircraft.

This is becoming rather too regular an occurrence to be ignored. The deaths of all those innocent passengers and crew aboard the Malaysian aircraft, who were in no way party to this conflict, makes it impossible for the West to look away from Russian aggression or for Russia to escape culpability. Even if the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft was accidental and not ordered by the Kremlin, as seems likely, Vladimir Putin is nevertheless ultimately responsible. If you hand a bazooka to a hyperactive teenager and he destroys your neighbor’s house, the person providing the weapon is just as culpable as the one firing it.

And there is no doubt that anti-aircraft missiles, along with tanks and other advanced weaponry, have been provided to pro-Russian separatists, many of them Russian citizens and even members of the Russian intelligence and military services, by the Russian state. You don’t pick up an anti-aircraft missile at your local military surplus store the way you might an AK-47.

The question now is what we–meaning we in the West–are going to do about this outrageous act of villainy. John McCain said that if Russian involvement is proved, there will be “hell to pay.” I certainly hope so. What would this “hell” consist of?

No one is contemplating the use of Western military force against Russia or even Russian separatists in Ukraine, but certainly there is much that the U.S. and its European allies could do to provide military equipment and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to enable them to defeat Putin’s minions–something that we have been afraid to do until now for fear of triggering Russian escalation. As if shooting down civilian aircraft isn’t escalation enough.

There is also a need, as I have written before, to station substantial numbers of American ground forces in frontline NATO states including Poland and the Baltics to make clear that they will stand up to Russian aggression if directed their way. Seeing U.S. troops on his doorstep is pretty much the last thing Putin wants, and that’s precisely why we should do so. In addition the U.S. needs to end its ill-considered military drawdown and rebuild our strength to confront our enemies as Ronald Reagan did.

Finally the U.S. and Europe need to beef up their limited slate of sanctions against Russia. Just yesterday President Obama announced fresh sanctions against several Russian financial institutions and oil and gas producers which are, inter alia, being barred from the U.S. market. This stops well short of the “sectoral” sanctions on the Russian financial and energy sectors that President Obama had previously threatened, and the European Union pusillanimously refused to go even that far. The EU only promised to block future loans for projects in Russia by European development banks. Perhaps now the EU will get off its knees and join the U.S. in truly broad sanctions that will do real damage to the Russian economy.

Oh and perhaps now the French government will consider not delivering to Russia two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that will considerably enhance Moscow’s ability to terrorize its neighbors.

I say “perhaps” advisedly because this is what should happen–but probably won’t. Even now there will be voices of detente cautioning that we don’t want to “isolate” or “corner” Russia. But if the murder of 295 innocents is not enough for the West to finally stand up to Russia’s barely disguised aggression in Ukraine, it is hard to know what it will take.

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Iran Negotiations: the Neverending Story

The Associated Press is reporting what has to vie for the least shocking bit of news this week: Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to extend the nuclear diplomacy with Iran beyond the deadline. The real news here–though again, not terribly surprisingly–is that the two sides are, according to the AP, getting ready to stop talking before the deadline actually hits. The talks have apparently become somewhat pointless at the current juncture:

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The Associated Press is reporting what has to vie for the least shocking bit of news this week: Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to extend the nuclear diplomacy with Iran beyond the deadline. The real news here–though again, not terribly surprisingly–is that the two sides are, according to the AP, getting ready to stop talking before the deadline actually hits. The talks have apparently become somewhat pointless at the current juncture:

Both sides had been prepared to talk until Sunday, the informal deadline for the negotiations. But two diplomats have told The Associated Press the talks will probably wind down Friday, because the differences won’t be bridged by Sunday.

The diplomats demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge confidential information. One said the two sides opposed going on until the final hours of the informal deadline because they felt that would give the impression they were desperate for a solution.

Two things we learn from that excerpt. One, the two sides are so far apart that they have no hope of meeting the deadline. Two, they don’t want to “give the impression” they’re desperate for a deal because, let’s face it, this process is pretty much just for show–hence the two sides being so far apart as to make continued talks meaningless in the near term.

Why might that be? We know, from Kerry’s past experience letting the Iranians run circles around him, that the American side would like some kind of deal–something that kicks the can down the road but produces a piece of paper the Obama White House can pretend solves a problem. But going by the administration’s talking points, the Iranians should want a deal far more. After all, despite President Obama’s best efforts, the Congress has instituted some sanctions, though Obama has worked assiduously to delay them or water them down.

Well, about those sanctions. Eli Lake has some bad news:

As U.S. and allied negotiators try to hammer out a nuclear deal with Iran this week in Vienna, they will have less economic leverage on their Iranian counterparts than they had a year ago.

That is the conclusion of a new study from Roubini Global Economics and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, two groups that have analyzed Iran’s economy—and the international sanctions imposed on the country’s banks, oil exports and leading regime figures.

Their report concludes that in the last year as the United States and other Western countries have begun to ease some of the sanctions on Iran as an inducement to negotiate an end to the country’s nuclear weapons program, the Iranian economy has begun to recover.

The recovery of Iran’s economy is a good thing for the Iranian people, who suffered a currency in free-fall, staggering inflation and a contraction of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. But at the same time, the economic sanctions that President Obama has credited with forcing Iran to begin these negotiations have appeared to lose their bite, according to the study that is scheduled to be released Monday.

The administration has made this mistake elsewhere. When Kerry decided he wanted to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he found a Palestinian leadership hesitant to even come to the table. In order to get negotiations started, Kerry pressured the Israeli government to make concessions, which included releasing terrorist murderers.

Everyone not born yesterday understood what would come next: the Palestinians would accept the concessions, come to the table, and with the deadline approaching find some pretext to walk away, pocketing the concessions without giving anything up and without coming close to a deal. When the talks collapsed, there was a high degree of probability that a Palestinian faction would instigate violence. And that’s exactly what happened.

The idea of “preconditions for negotiations,” in whatever form, is usually counterproductive. There are always exceptions, of course. But generally speaking anyone who needs concessions to even come to the negotiating table doesn’t really want to be at the negotiating table. In the case of Iran, unless their leadership feels squeezed economically time will be on their side.

Obama and Kerry had leverage: economic sanctions. They used up much of that leverage just to get the Iranians to the table, and now the Iranian leadership wants to run out the clock. Thanks to the weakening of the sanctions, and the lack of stronger sanctions to begin with, they’re in a position to do so. And Kerry seems prepared to play along.

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The ‘Unsustainable Status Quo’ and Gaza

Speaking yesterday at the White House Iftar dinner yesterday, President Obama reiterated his support for a peace agreement that would end what he called the “unsustainable status quo” between Israel and the Palestinians. But while his support for peace is appropriate, his inability to connect the dots between the fighting in Gaza and his hopes demonstrates anew the administration’s tone-deaf approach to the Middle East.

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Speaking yesterday at the White House Iftar dinner yesterday, President Obama reiterated his support for a peace agreement that would end what he called the “unsustainable status quo” between Israel and the Palestinians. But while his support for peace is appropriate, his inability to connect the dots between the fighting in Gaza and his hopes demonstrates anew the administration’s tone-deaf approach to the Middle East.

The president deserves credit for making it clear that the United States supports Israel’s right to self-defense against what he rightly termed “inexcusable attacks” by Hamas rockets from Gaza. That he did so at a dinner for American Muslims is doubly welcome. But it is discouraging to see that the administration’s mindset about Middle East diplomacy is unaffected by events on the ground.

President Obama is right in the sense that resolving the situation requires more than just a cease-fire. But the knee-jerk impulse to try to revive talks between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority as a response to the crisis reflects a profound lack of understanding about why peace has eluded the region up until now.

Israelis rightly think that any cease-fire with Hamas must do something more than simply allow the terrorist group to remain in place ruling Gaza as an independent state in all but name with a rocket arsenal that can be employed any time the Islamists feel like starting another round of fighting. But the president appears uninterested in either diplomacy or support for action that would oust Hamas or strip it of its weapons. Instead, he is focused on another attempt to forge an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority.

The PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas preferred to conclude a unity agreement with Hamas this spring instead of sticking to peace negotiations with Israel. But that didn’t impact Obama’s glowing view of Abbas or cause him to cut aid to the PA even though the law requires him to cease the flow of U.S. taxpayer dollars to any entity in cahoots with terrorists. Rather than Abbas influencing Hamas to embrace peace as the Americans hoped, he has become a helpless bystander as his partners dragged the region back into war via terrorism and rocket fire aimed at Israel’s cities.

That should have signaled to the U.S. that its faith in Abbas as a reliable partner for peace with Israel was misplaced. But the flare-up of Hamas terror in the form of the kidnapping of three Jewish teenagers last month and the subsequent barrage of hundreds of rockets on Israeli citizens should do more than spur U.S. efforts to broker a cease-fire or to revive peace talks. Hamas’s ability to revert to violence any time it wants is doing grave damage to support for a two-state solution inside Israel. If a cease-fire leaves them in place, it could kill it altogether.

Most Israelis, including many who support Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, support a two-state solution in principle as the best way out of the conflict. But, unlike most Americans, they have been paying attention to recent events and what they portend for a deal that would require Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, something that it already tried in Gaza. While the assumption is that a pact with Abbas creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank, and presumably a share of Jerusalem, would include security guarantees, the Palestinians are not interested in any diminishment of their future sovereignty and Israelis have good reason not to trust that the U.S. would vigorously enforce any deal.

More to the point, as Hamas continually reminds us, the conflict is about the “occupation.” But when Palestinians use that word, they are referring to Israel within its June 1967 borders, not the West Bank or Gaza, which isn’t occupied anyway.

What the Israelis have learned is that when they withdraw from territory, it becomes a base for terror and there’s little they can do about it even if they are prepared to use massive military force. The world doesn’t permit Israel to seek to oust Hamas or to go in and take out their rocket launchers and it would treat an independent West Bank in the same way. The only problem is that a terror state in the West Bank would be far more dangerous for Israel than even Gaza is today. As Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Friday, a withdrawal, with or without U.S. security guarantees that would probably be meaningless, would create 20 Gazas on their eastern border.

Thus, the invocation of the phrase about an “unsustainable status quo” is likely to ring hollow in Israeli ears. They don’t like the status quo but they also know that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected an end to the conflict or recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Unless he is prepared to back action that would rid the region of Hamas and its allies, the president’s anodyne hopes for peace are meaningless. Replacing an admittedly unsustainable status quo with a new reality that would be even more dangerous is not an option for Israel and would do little good for Palestinians, who would suffer from the carnage that their leaders create. So long as the Islamists are allowed to launch rockets at Israel any time they like, the two-state solution is a pipe dream.

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