Commentary Magazine


Topic: Benjamin Netanyahu

No UN Palestinian Veto? Obama’s Tempted.

This week push may come to shove on the long-simmering feud between President Obama and the Israeli government. With the Palestinians pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution that would unilaterally recognize their independence in the territory won by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the administration must decide whether it is truly in its interests to facilitate an end run around the peace process it has sponsored by refusing to veto the measure just to demonstrate its pique at Prime Minister Netanyahu and or undermine his chances for reelection in the March elections. But while the stakes here are high for both Israel, whose isolation could be greatly increased by passage of such a resolution, and Netanyahu, the danger to Obama’s foreign policy and U.S. interests from such a vote is high as well. Just as important, the notion that passage of this resolution has anything to do with promoting peace is farcical.

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This week push may come to shove on the long-simmering feud between President Obama and the Israeli government. With the Palestinians pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution that would unilaterally recognize their independence in the territory won by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the administration must decide whether it is truly in its interests to facilitate an end run around the peace process it has sponsored by refusing to veto the measure just to demonstrate its pique at Prime Minister Netanyahu and or undermine his chances for reelection in the March elections. But while the stakes here are high for both Israel, whose isolation could be greatly increased by passage of such a resolution, and Netanyahu, the danger to Obama’s foreign policy and U.S. interests from such a vote is high as well. Just as important, the notion that passage of this resolution has anything to do with promoting peace is farcical.

The Palestinian Authority’s motives for seeking to gain a Security Council vote on recognition of their independence are clear. They claim that the peace negotiations promoted by the U.S. over the years has not brought them closer to their declared goal of gaining a state and that only by having the international community force its hand will Israel ever be willing to retreat to the 1967 lines and let Palestinians enjoy sovereignty and self-determination. That is the argument behind the decisions of several European parliaments to adopt resolutions endorsing Palestinian statehood.

But it must be understood that this campaign is about avoiding a negotiated end to the conflict, not finding a shortcut to one. The Palestinians have, after all, been offered statehood in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank, and a share of Jerusalem three times by the Israelis in 2000, 2001, and 2008. Even Netanyahu’s government arrived at the negotiations sponsored by Secretary of State Kerry in the last year prepared to offer another two-state solution with a prominent advocate of this plan, Tzipi Livni, as their negotiator. But PA leader Mahmoud Abbas blew up those talks just as he fled the table in 2008 when Ehud Olmert offered him virtually everything he had asked for. The obstacle wasn’t Israeli settlements or intransigence, but the fact that Abbas knows it would be political suicide for him to sign any deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one, no matter where its borders were drawn.

What the Palestinians want, in other words, is a way to avoid negotiations that would obligate them in one form or another to end the conflict with Israel as the price of their independence. The problem with negotiations isn’t that the Israelis, even Netanyahu, have been intransigent, but that no matter how much Obama and Kerry tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, a solution must in the end require them to make peace. The UN resolution they want would merely obligate the Israelis to retreat from more territory without any assurances that what happened when they gave up every inch of Gaza in 2005—the creation of a terrorist Hamas state—would not happen again in the more strategic and larger West Bank.

Obama would savor the embarrassment this would cause Netanyahu, whose chances for reelection might be damaged by an open breach with the United States and the country’s increased isolation as the world demanded it give up land without offering it peace. But this would also mean the effective end of a major portion of the president’s foreign-policy focus: the achievement of a Middle East peace agreement. It would also mark the end of U.S. influence over either side to the confrontation as both Israelis and Palestinians would no longer need or have any desire to gravitate to the U.S.

The surge in Palestinian violence and the growing support for their statehood among European governments may cause Obama to feel more pressure to go along with Western European allies. Just as important, he may be dismayed by the thought that another veto that backs up a negotiated path to Palestinian statehood will be interpreted by Israelis as proving that Netanyahu has, contrary to his critics, not destroyed the alliance. The irony that a decision by the prime minister’s bitter American enemy would help undermine arguments for Netanyahu’s replacement has to worry Obama. But he should also be worried by the blowback from a failure to order a veto.

The president’s hard-core left-wing supporters might defend such a decision but it would be widely condemned by most Democrats, who will rightly see it as a cynical betrayal of principle motivated more by personal grudges than the national interest. It might also backfire in Israel since voters there would be entitled to say the non-veto was proof of Obama’s irremediable hostility to the Jewish state and might motivate many to back Netanyahu so as to demonstrate their unwillingness to be intimidated into accepting measures that would undermine their security and rights.

The optimal scenario for Obama is to avoid any vote on Palestinian independence in the Security Council that would destroy the peace process. But if he is in this difficult position, it’s largely the fault of his own efforts. After spending the last few years bending over backwards trying to demonstrate daylight between the positions of Israel and the United States, the Palestinians have come to believe that sooner or later the president will hand them the diplomatic victory they long for without being forced to pay any price for it. Doing so will be as much a blow to U.S. interests as it will be to Israel, but it’s hard to blame either the Palestinians or the Europeans for thinking that this time, Obama will really betray the Israelis simply in order to harm Netanyahu. If he does, it will mark a new low for an administration that has already turned undermining allies into an art form.

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Should Obama Care Who Wins Israel’s Knesset Elections?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Herzog and Livni Topple Netanyahu?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shuffling the Deck Won’t Topple Netanyahu

The announcement this week of early elections for Israel may have been, at least in part, precipitated by polls showing that the results of a new vote would great strengthen the hand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But after six years of Netanyahu at the top of the heap, not unsurprisingly, there is a lot of “anybody but Bibi” talk ricocheting around the Internet that posits that the Israeli public is ready for a change in leaders even if there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative to him or a willingness to reject his policies on the peace process. Equally unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of volunteers to be the PM’s replacement and opposition figures as well as coalition rivals are negotiating furiously with each other for new alignments that might somehow magically unseat Netanyahu. But while a lot can happen in the three months until the election, neither the boredom with Bibi or any combination of new elections slates seems likely to produce a formula in which he is not sworn in for a fourth term sometime next Spring.

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The announcement this week of early elections for Israel may have been, at least in part, precipitated by polls showing that the results of a new vote would great strengthen the hand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But after six years of Netanyahu at the top of the heap, not unsurprisingly, there is a lot of “anybody but Bibi” talk ricocheting around the Internet that posits that the Israeli public is ready for a change in leaders even if there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative to him or a willingness to reject his policies on the peace process. Equally unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of volunteers to be the PM’s replacement and opposition figures as well as coalition rivals are negotiating furiously with each other for new alignments that might somehow magically unseat Netanyahu. But while a lot can happen in the three months until the election, neither the boredom with Bibi or any combination of new elections slates seems likely to produce a formula in which he is not sworn in for a fourth term sometime next Spring.

Most of Netanyahu’s foreign critics are blowing smoke when they claim that the Israeli people are about to reject him because they are dissatisfied with his inability to make peace with the Palestinians. After 20 years of failed attempts to trade land for peace and the growing volume of terror attacks fueled by incitement by the country’s so-called partner, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, only a minority of Israelis have the least faith in the prospects of peace. But as is the case in any democracy, a feeling of exhaustion with Netanyahu after three terms as PM and a desire for a change is to be expected.

Indeed, the less than satisfactory results of last summer’s war with Hamas, a sluggish economy and justified dismay at the way the prime minister turned a pointless dispute with his fractious coalition allies into a move to entirely unnecessary elections ought to form a rationale for his ouster. But as even his most bitter enemies on the left concede, there is no one on either side of the left-right divide who strikes anyone as a likely replacement.

The Knesset’s vote to dissolve was quickly followed by intense negotiations on the part of the various parties to set up informal or formal alliances. On the one hand Netanyahu seems to have struck a bargain with his chief rival on the right, Naphtali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party in which the two would run separately but work together after the vote to set up a government. Other members of the recent government, including Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beytenu and Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid may also work together in conjunction with the real wild card of the vote: Moshe Kahlon, the former Likud Cabinet member who is starting his own populist party. At the same time, Tzipi Livni of Hatnua is shopping for a new electoral home (her fourth in the last decade after stints in Likud, Kadima and her current roost) in either Labor or Yesh Atid since the chances of her splinter group getting back into the Knesset on its own steam are not great.

This is all fascinating stuff for Zionist political junkies but the bottom line here remains the fact that no matter how you reshuffle the political deck in Israel, you still come up with the same amount of cards on both the left, the right and the center. The stock and likely haul of Knesset seats for Lapid, Lieberman and Livni are all declining. Lapid may lose as many as half his seats. The Likud will likely gain seats from its current total (in the last election it split seats with Lieberman’s party and wound up with a smaller total than it could have gotten on its own) while Bennett’s party looks to gain even more. Kahlon’s new entity will likely pick off Lapid and Livni’s losses and may eat into Likud’s gains as Kahlon tries to position himself as being “a little right of center.” Anything can happen in 90 days of campaigning but the net result of all the maneuvering and politicking is probably going to be an overall gain for the right-wing parties and stasis among the centrists.

Even more important, and deeply discouraging for Netanyahu’s foreign detractors is that the parties of the Israeli left show no signs of being able to profit from the ennui and dissatisfaction with the prime minister. Labor head Yitzhak Herzog is well liked but, at least to date, considered something of a political cipher. The once dominant Labor Party appears headed at the moment to a loss of seats rather than gaining. Meretz, its ally to the left is not doing well either.

That, along with the expected gains for the right, stems from the fact that security issues are more important this time than in the last vote when domestic concerns about the economy made Lapid the star of the election. All of which brings us back to where we started in discussing the unrealistic hopes of those who believe Israel needs to be saved from itself. The overwhelming majority of Israeli voters do not want a government that will bow to pressure from an American president that they have good reason not to trust or a European community they regard as being influenced by a rising tide of global anti-Semitism.

The campaign will be difficult for Netanyahu and he won’t have an easy time negotiating a new coalition agreement even if the current trends hold and the parties of the right have a governing majority even before adding religious or centrist parties to the mix. But the reshuffle of the deck that we are currently witnessing doesn’t seem to be likely to prevent a fourth term for the prime minister. President Obama and his J Street friends may be praying for an “anybody but Bibi” result next March. But the old political axiom that says you can’t beat somebody with nobody would appear to trump those hopes.

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New Israeli Elections Highlight Obama’s Missed Opportunities

Yesterday it was announced that new Israeli Knesset elections will be held in March. That means today there were rumors, and tomorrow there will be rumors, and so on and so forth until March, of various electoral strategies and party slate maneuverings that could change everything or nothing at all. Today’s rumor started the great Season of Speculation off with a bang: Gideon Sa’ar, Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently-resigned second in command, is reportedly considering challenging Bibi for the Likud leadership in the party’s early-January primary.

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Yesterday it was announced that new Israeli Knesset elections will be held in March. That means today there were rumors, and tomorrow there will be rumors, and so on and so forth until March, of various electoral strategies and party slate maneuverings that could change everything or nothing at all. Today’s rumor started the great Season of Speculation off with a bang: Gideon Sa’ar, Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently-resigned second in command, is reportedly considering challenging Bibi for the Likud leadership in the party’s early-January primary.

There are also rumors that Tzipi Livni, in need of a life raft, will join Labor to bring along enough seats to top a stagnant Likud. Livni has also been acting as though she’s angling for a combined slate with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which was the great centrist hope and therefore, like all great centrist hopes before it, has been fading precipitously since its debut election. Could Livni be some sort of kingmaker for a centrist party? Could she–would she–turn heel on her pedigree and help crown Labor? Will Elijah the Prophet appear from the mists and announce a joint slate with Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi? Hey, it’s the Season of Speculation; anything’s possible.

Americans often find Israeli politics perplexing, and this goes double for the American members of the press. Early elections, and the silly season they inspire, are a fixture of Israeli democracy. Americans are used to a de facto two-party system. But for Israelis looking for an alternative there always seems to be another option or two or ten. So it’s easy for a foreign observer to get caught up in the endless possibilities, even if those possibilities rarely transform into reality.

But the belief in the wide-open character of Israeli leadership at any moment has been a huge mistake for the Obama administration. That’s because the Israeli electorate tends to care less about which specific party has how many seats and more about the general shape of the government.

The key moment that established this pattern in recent years was, not coincidentally, the beginning of the second Netanyahu era. I’ve referred to it before: the 2009 elections saw Israeli voters give Livni’s party one more seat in the Knesset than Bibi’s. But she had no one to form a government with because her potential coalition partners were rightists who didn’t want her at the head of the government. She won the popular vote because Israelis assumed Netanyahu had it in the bag and voted instead for other parties to Bibi’s right to ensure the shape of the ruling coalition would be a center-right government. And that’s what they got.

The Obama White House learned precisely the wrong lesson from it. They saw what looked like the two-party system of old–Labor and Likud hovering over the polity, with only minor satellites rotating in orbit around them. But the fact that Labor wasn’t involved–that this time it was Likud vs. a splinter faction–should have told them something. They thought Livni was a genuine rival to Netanyahu, and that she was an alternative waiting in the wings. Livni supported the peace process so Washington desperately wanted to believe she was personally more popular than she really was.

Fast-forward almost six years. Livni had six seats in the dissolved Knesset, with polls showing her getting as few as four in the next elections. It wasn’t Livni that was popular in Kadima (a party she left anyway to found Hatnua); it was the remnant of Ariel Sharon’s popularity. The delusions of the Obama White House required completely ignoring the will and intent of the Israeli people. And so it has been six years of missed opportunities.

The Sa’ar rumors illustrate that perfectly. Sa’ar has been at odds with Netanyahu, but he also didn’t believe he could beat Bibi in a primary. When he abruptly announced his retirement from the Knesset in September (but not until he could help Ruby Rivlin win the presidency–a not-insignificant footnote), it was not to start his own party. The broad speculation was that he would wait Bibi out and then return to reclaim the Likud.

Sa’ar was one of the few who could afford to do so. The other Likud bigwigs are around Netanyahu’s age (65); Sa’ar is 47. It’s possible he now believes he has a chance to beat Netanyahu in a primary, though. This prospect is being taken seriously. While Sa’ar is still the underdog, such an upset is not totally unthinkable.

And what would the fallout be? Well, you’d have a transfer of power from Likud to … Likud. This is what Obama never understood about Bibi: the most likely alternatives have been Lieberman, then briefly Bennett, now possibly Sa’ar. Of those three, Sa’ar is the furthest left, yet he is no squish. Obama wants Shimon Peres (the one Israeli he might actually like) and Tzipi Livni (the one Israeli he believes he can control).

It’s always possible the left will make a comeback, and it might be sooner than anyone thinks. Who knows. But six years of delusional American policy toward Israel have revolved around trying to undermine a prime minister who has been in office this entire time, and who heads a democratically elected coalition that has been trying to pull him right, almost completely unsuccessfully. It turns out that all this time, the Obama White House had an ally in the Prime Minister’s Office, if only they would have been willing to admit it.

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Obama’s Threats Won’t Hurt Netanyahu

Few savvy observers took Secretary of State John Kerry at his word earlier this week when he piously proclaimed that the United States had no thought of attempting to intervene in Israel’s elections. The animus bordering on hatred felt by President Obama’s inner circle toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not exactly a secret. But it didn’t take long for a leak to an Israeli newspaper that is among the PM’s most rabid foes to dispel any doubts about the administration’s hopes that it could somehow derail his bid for a fourth term. The report from Barak Ravid, Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent that the White House held a meeting whose purpose was to plan possible future sanctions against Israel to punish it for continuing to build homes for Jews in Jerusalem and West Bank settlement blocs, is a shot fired over Netanyahu’s bow. But the real question here is not so much Obama’s desire to see the prime minister defeated, as it is why anyone in the administration thinks this gambit will succeed now after the same tactics have failed repeatedly before.

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Few savvy observers took Secretary of State John Kerry at his word earlier this week when he piously proclaimed that the United States had no thought of attempting to intervene in Israel’s elections. The animus bordering on hatred felt by President Obama’s inner circle toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not exactly a secret. But it didn’t take long for a leak to an Israeli newspaper that is among the PM’s most rabid foes to dispel any doubts about the administration’s hopes that it could somehow derail his bid for a fourth term. The report from Barak Ravid, Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent that the White House held a meeting whose purpose was to plan possible future sanctions against Israel to punish it for continuing to build homes for Jews in Jerusalem and West Bank settlement blocs, is a shot fired over Netanyahu’s bow. But the real question here is not so much Obama’s desire to see the prime minister defeated, as it is why anyone in the administration thinks this gambit will succeed now after the same tactics have failed repeatedly before.

The Haaretz report makes it clear that the administration is looking ahead to another two years of escalating confrontation with Israel. The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly demonstrated its lack of interest in negotiating, let alone signing a peace agreement that would end the conflict. Nor do the construction of homes for Jews in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem or even in the settlement blocs that everyone (including President Obama) knows would remain inside Israel if peace were ever achieved constitute any sort of obstacle to a two-state solution. But the administration still clings to the illusion that the problem is Netanyahu and settlements rather than a Palestinian political culture that makes peace impossible and PA head Mahmoud Abbas’s incitement to violence. That means it is entirely possible that, as Ravid breathlessly predicts, the administration will no longer make do with bitter denunciations of Israeli actions in the future but will, instead adopt measures intended to punish the Jewish state. That might take the form of refraining from vetoing anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations Security Council or other actions intended to downgrade or undermine the alliance between the two countries.

But the notion that picking yet another fight with Netanyahu will hurt his chances of reelection tells us more about the administration’s continued inability to understand Israel than anything else. After all, President Obama has repeatedly tried to do this throughout his first six years in office. But every time the U.S. attempted to use Jewish building in Jerusalem to attack Netanyahu, the only result was that the prime minister’s political standing at home increased. Though the PM is under attack right now from both foes on the left and a crowded field of rivals on the right, there seems little reason to believe that his policies on Jerusalem or even on negotiations with the Palestinians has rendered him vulnerable. All the polls agree that Israeli voters appear poised to elect a Knesset that is even further skewed to the right than the existing government that was lambasted by American critics for being not interested in concessions to the Palestinians.

As even Ravid notes in the conclusion to his piece, Netanyahu always gains when he can portray himself as standing up to foreign pressure on security issues. The reason for that is that, unlike the Obama administration and Israel’s liberal critics abroad, the Israeli voting public has been paying attention to what the Palestinians have said and done during the last 20 years of peace processing. Israel has tried to trade land for peace and gotten more terror and no peace. At the present moment it is inconceivable that any Israeli government of any stripe would withdraw from the West Bank in order to make way for what could be an even larger and more dangerous version of the Hamas terror state that currently exists in Gaza.

It is true that the decimated Israeli left and their liberal American supporters such as the J Street lobby believe that the Jewish state must be saved from itself by heavy-handed U.S. intervention. Indeed, it is only by international pressure designed to thwart the verdict of Israeli democracy that their misguided agenda might be implemented. But it boggles the mind as to how anyone, either in Israel or the U.S., would think that the Israeli voting public would regard efforts to thwart their judgment in this manner as a good reason to vote against Netanyahu. Indeed, the commitment of the U.S. to a policy of heavy-handed pressure is the best argument for Netanyahu continuing in office since he is the country’s only major political figure with the experience and the tenacity to stand up to such treatment from the country’s sole superpower ally.

The three months between now and the election constitute a political eternity and Netanyahu cannot take his victory for granted even if the polls indicate he is the only possible choice for prime minister. But if Obama and his friends at Haaretz imagine such leaks will lead to Netanyahu’s downfall, it’s clear they have learned nothing from the past six years of such efforts.

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Why the U.S. Can’t Influence Israel’s Vote

The reaction from Washington to Israel’s decision to move to new elections in March was fairly circumspect. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the U.S. had no intention of trying to influence an “internal matter” and reaffirmed support for its ally, though he also said he hoped the next government would be one that could negotiate a peace accord with the Palestinians. But the subtext was obvious. As former peace processor Aaron David Miller wrote today in Foreign Policy, “thoughts of a new prime minister are now dancing in the heads” of President Obama and Kerry. The early vote gives the administration’s ceaseless quest to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from office one last chance. Yet with Netanyahu on track to emerge even stronger from the election that he is today, it might be time for Obama and Kerry to re-examine their argument with Jerusalem. The fact that they seem incapable of doing so speaks volumes about how out of touch Washington is from the realities of the Middle East.

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The reaction from Washington to Israel’s decision to move to new elections in March was fairly circumspect. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the U.S. had no intention of trying to influence an “internal matter” and reaffirmed support for its ally, though he also said he hoped the next government would be one that could negotiate a peace accord with the Palestinians. But the subtext was obvious. As former peace processor Aaron David Miller wrote today in Foreign Policy, “thoughts of a new prime minister are now dancing in the heads” of President Obama and Kerry. The early vote gives the administration’s ceaseless quest to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from office one last chance. Yet with Netanyahu on track to emerge even stronger from the election that he is today, it might be time for Obama and Kerry to re-examine their argument with Jerusalem. The fact that they seem incapable of doing so speaks volumes about how out of touch Washington is from the realities of the Middle East.

From the moment that Netanyahu took office only weeks after Obama’s inauguration, the administration has been seeking the Israeli’s downfall. In his first months, Obama seemed to harbor hopes that Tzipi Livni might supplant him. But that idea flopped as Netanyahu outmaneuvered the former Kadima Party leader and gained strength every time Obama picked fights with the Israeli government on issues like Jerusalem where the prime minister represented the Israeli consensus. After a pause for a Jewish charm offensive designed to enhance Obama’s reelection prospects, the feud was back in force in the last year as he and Kerry chose to wrongly blame Netanyahu for the failure off their futile attempt to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.

As Miller writes, American governments have intervened in Israeli politics before in 1992 and 1996 when they openly supported Labor Party efforts to defeat the Likud. But Miller cautions against trying again in no small measure because the only possible alternative to Netanyahu might be the Jewish Home Party’s Naftali Bennett, who is very much to the right of the prime minister. While I think Netanyahu doesn’t have to worry about Bennett supplanting him for the moment, his point is well taken. As I wrote on both Monday and Tuesday of this week about the move to new elections, the balance of Israeli politics has dramatically shifted to the right and the next Knesset is likely to be one in which left-wing parties favored by the administration will be weaker.

This is a source of great frustration for the president who lamented in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly about Israelis no longer being willing to do the hard work to make peace. But in saying that, he didn’t examine fully why it was that Israelis felt that way. Israelis want peace more than ever especially in the aftermath of another conflict with Hamas that saw much of the country’s population spending the summer dashing to and from bomb shelters as thousands of rockets rained down on their heads.

But what they have noticed and what the administration and liberal American critics of Netanyahu are determined to ignore is the fact that the Palestinians have consistently rejected peace offers from Israel. Even their so-called moderate leader is unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and incites hatred and violence against Israel. With no peace partner in sight, Israelis rightly understand that the best they can hope for is an attempt to manage the conflict, not to solve it.

Unlike his predecessors and Kerry, Netanyahu isn’t driven to create a legacy by negotiating a peace accord. He knows that making more concessions to the Palestinians will lead, as did all the attempts by his predecessors to make peace, to more violence and suffering, not peace. Unlike the administration, Netanyahu grasps the fact that peace won’t be possible until the Palestinians undergo a sea change in their political culture that will enable them to give up their dreams of Israel’s destruction. That is why his party and its right-wing allies/rivals are likely to emerge victorious in March. Indeed, the latest polls show that the right led by Netanyahu will gain enough votes for a Knesset majority even without seeking a coalition with centrist or religious parties.

Yet for the U.S. the disillusionment of the Israeli electorate with the discredited peace process remains inexplicable or a function of what liberals claim is a drift toward extremism in the Jewish state. But instead of attempting to force Israel to make more dangerous concessions to a peace partner that doesn’t want peace, Washington should be signaling the Palestinians that if they truly do want independence, they are going to have lose their delusions about Israel’s impermanence. They must stop lauding PA leader Mahmoud Abbas as hero for peace even though he has become a primary obstacle to its achievement.

If the U.S. does stay out of the Israeli campaign it will not be because Obama and Kerry respect Israeli democracy—they do not—or oppose interventions of this sort. It will because the administration understands that Israelis hold their premise about the conflict to be utter bunk. But instead of resenting this, as both Obama and Kerry obviously do, they should be wondering what it is that the people of Israel know about the situation that they can’t grasp.

But if there is anything we’ve learned in the past six years about this president and his administration, it is that it is not overly fond of admitting mistakes or rethinking cherished, if failed, ideologies about the world. While Israelis rightly care about their essential alliance with the United States and don’t personally love Netanyahu, they know better than to trust Obama’s judgment rather than their own lying eyes.

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No “Legacy” Is Asset for Netanyahu

By firing two of his coalition partners from his Cabinet today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set in motion a chain of events that will likely result in new elections next March. Since polls show that both Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni would be badly weakened by a new vote and Netanyahu strengthened, the move seems likely to result in a more stable coalition. But though even his critics must give him credit for outsmarting Lapid and Livni, the end of this government is likely to engender a new round of Netanyahu-bashing in both the Israeli and the foreign press. The prime minister is good at politics, they will argue, but the decision to press forward with what most Israelis rightly consider unnecessary elections shows that he has accomplished nothing but political survival and lacks a legacy, such as a peace treaty with the Palestinians, to justify his long stay at the top. But while the critics will be right when they say Israel didn’t need another election, they’re wrong about Netanyahu’s legacy. As he heads toward his fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu is showing that what his country needs is a competent leader not someone in search of a dubious place in history.

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By firing two of his coalition partners from his Cabinet today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set in motion a chain of events that will likely result in new elections next March. Since polls show that both Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni would be badly weakened by a new vote and Netanyahu strengthened, the move seems likely to result in a more stable coalition. But though even his critics must give him credit for outsmarting Lapid and Livni, the end of this government is likely to engender a new round of Netanyahu-bashing in both the Israeli and the foreign press. The prime minister is good at politics, they will argue, but the decision to press forward with what most Israelis rightly consider unnecessary elections shows that he has accomplished nothing but political survival and lacks a legacy, such as a peace treaty with the Palestinians, to justify his long stay at the top. But while the critics will be right when they say Israel didn’t need another election, they’re wrong about Netanyahu’s legacy. As he heads toward his fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu is showing that what his country needs is a competent leader not someone in search of a dubious place in history.

As the Times of Israel reported, in speaking to his nation today, Netanyahu justified his decision to oust Lapid and Livni from office by saying:

“I believe that you, the citizens of Israel, deserve a new, better, more stable government, a broad-based government that can govern,” he said.

And in order to give Israelis that “unified and strong” government, Netanyahu said, “one needs a strong ruling party.”

That means more votes for Likud in order to assure the prime minister of a stronger base within the next coalition. With the parties of the left still marginalized by the aftermath of the Oslo disasters, Netanyahu is effectively competing only against his rivals/allies on, as he put it, on the “right” and the “center right.” Those parties will, if the polls are correct, have between them nearly a majority of the Knesset even before they seek coalition partners from either the religious parties or what remains of the centrists that were just ousted by Netanyahu.

As even those least enamored of Netanyahu must concede he has no credible rivals for the post of prime minister, either among his partners or the opposition. But what Netanyahu’s domestic and foreign critics don’t understand about his dominance of Israeli politics is that it is precisely his eschewing of a vainglorious try for a historic legacy that has earned him the confidence of his people.

This is in marked contrast to every other prime minister since Yitzhak Shamir left office in 1992. Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert all took stabs at unraveling the Gordian knot of Middle East peace with peace initiatives. But every one of these efforts, whether it was the Oslo Accords of Rabin and Peres, Barak’s Camp David offer of 2000, Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal, or the third offer of statehood to the Palestinians put forward at Annapolis, Maryland by Olmert, all failed spectacularly. Even worse, each of these efforts weakened Israel’s position for future negotiations while leading to more bloodshed and violence, rather than less.

President Obama and his foreign-policy team consider Netanyahu a cowardly failure (or a “chickensh*t” as he was famously labeled by anonymous senior administration officials) because he won’t match the follies of his predecessors and risk the country’s security with a new territorial withdrawal that could result in the creation of another terror state on Israel’s doorstep. But the people of Israel understand that Netanyahu’s willingness to say no to Obama is all that stands between them and another fiasco like Sharon’s Gaza gambit.

Netanyahu may never do anything that will earn him the applause of his liberal American critics that would be labeled a “legacy” even if it did nothing to achieve a lasting peace. That long-sought goal must await not another bold Israeli but a sea change in Palestinian political culture that will allow their leaders to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

But what Israeli voters value is his ability to stand up to his country’s friends as well as its foes and to avoid more such bold disasters. If he has a legacy it will have to rest on the fact that he presided over a period of unprecedented economic strength and an avoidance of the kind of mistakes that men who hunger for the applause of an amorphous posterity can’t seem to resist. What Netanyahu’s predecessors proved is that the last thing a nation under siege needs is a leader more concerned with legacy than the safety of its citizens. As Israelis prepare to elect him prime minister for a fourth time, his lack of such foolish ambitions is an obvious qualification, not a drawback.

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Can Israel’s Critics Listen to Its People?

With relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coalition ally Yair Lapid at a nadir, it appears that the current Israeli government will soon be dissolved and the Jewish state will be heading back to the polls only two years after electing the current Knesset. Many Israelis are understandably annoyed at what they rightly perceive as a parliamentary crisis that is more about perceptions than substance. Nor is the prospect of Netanyahu being forced to face his people again riling most of his foreign critics. But rather than merely yawning over the prospect of another vote or buying into the distortions being published about the issue that helped sink the coalition, those inclined to take a dim view of Netanyahu should take a good look at the polls and draw some conclusions about the facts of Israeli political life even if they don’t jibe with liberal conventional wisdom about the country.

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With relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coalition ally Yair Lapid at a nadir, it appears that the current Israeli government will soon be dissolved and the Jewish state will be heading back to the polls only two years after electing the current Knesset. Many Israelis are understandably annoyed at what they rightly perceive as a parliamentary crisis that is more about perceptions than substance. Nor is the prospect of Netanyahu being forced to face his people again riling most of his foreign critics. But rather than merely yawning over the prospect of another vote or buying into the distortions being published about the issue that helped sink the coalition, those inclined to take a dim view of Netanyahu should take a good look at the polls and draw some conclusions about the facts of Israeli political life even if they don’t jibe with liberal conventional wisdom about the country.

Netanyahu’s apparent decision to force Lapid to accept a humiliating defeat in the Cabinet or accept new elections is, among other things, another illustration of the former journalist not being quite ready for prime time when he parachuted into Israeli politics. Though the charismatic leader of the Yesh Atid Party was the big winner in the last vote, his decision to join the government and become finance minister was a classic rookie error. Lapid’s reputation as a fresh new voice hasn’t survived the ordeal of government responsibilities. Netanyahu has run circles around him in parliamentary maneuvering and Lapid’s pointless opposition to a largely symbolic compromise bill proclaiming Israel to be a Jewish state has put him at a disadvantage both within the Cabinet and with the Israeli electorate. Polls show Yesh Atid likely to lose almost half its strength in a new election and no one, even his most bitter opponents, has the slightest doubt that Netanyahu will still be prime minister when the next Knesset is eventually sworn in.

But the most salient point to be gleaned from this bickering has nothing to do with the substance of that bill or even the way Lapid’s impending fall from grace demonstrates the apparently ironclad rule of Israeli politics that dictates that new centrist parties are doomed to decline after doing well the first time out. Instead, the most important lesson here is that the next election will likely illustrate the same truth about Israeli politics that the last two votes confirmed: the dominance of Israel’s right-wing parties.

If the polls are vindicated by the results, all a new election would achieve would be to reshuffle the deck in the Knesset to make the next government a bit more right wing. Yesh Atid’s mandates may go to a new center-right party led by former Likud cabinet minister Moshe Kahlon that would become a new focus of concern about the economy and social justice while not likely to disagree much with Netanyahu on the peace process or the Palestinians. Tzipi Livni, the former main challenger to Netanyahu but lately his sometime ally will also find herself diminished and will almost certainly have to join with some other party to stay relevant. Meanwhile one of Netanyahu’s main antagonists on the right, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party will likely gain seats and, in conjunction with Avigdor Lieberman and the Likud (which will also gain by running on its won without Lieberman) form a huge right-wing block around which other parties will have to join.

What’s missing from this discussion is the complete absence of a credible alternative to Netanyahu who might represent the views of liberal critics of the prime minister who think Israel needs to be saved from itself. That’s not just because no one thinks Yaakov Herzog, the leader of the Labor Party, is ready to be prime minister, but rather to the fact that the combined strength of the Israeli left—even if anti-Zionist Arab parties are added to their number—makes them non-competitive.

Despite the never-ending critiques of J Street or the Obama administration, the overwhelming majority of Israelis continue to reject the parties that espouse such views.

Like the last election, the next one in Israel will likely be fought on domestic issues rather than the traditional arguments about war and peace despite the last summer’s war in Gaza, stalled talks with the Palestinians, or the Iranian nuclear threat. Though Americans, including many Jews, find it hard to believe, there is actually a strong consensus in Israel that peace talks with the Palestinians are pointless and that territorial withdrawals in the West Bank would be suicidal.

That’s why, no matter how all the small and medium sized parties sort themselves out in a vote, Netanyahu will be reelected with ease. Those Americans who think that Netanyahu is leading Israel in the wrong direction are entitled to their opinion. But they should ponder whether the people of Israel—the ones whose lives are at risk in this conflict—know more about what is good for their country than J Street.

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Abbas’s Nazi-Zionist Conspiracy Theory and the Western Dupes Who Avert Their Eyes

A decade after his death, Yasser Arafat’s legacy is still with us. He perfected the art of saying one thing in English to manipulate the Clinton administration and another in Arabic to reassure the Palestinians that his promises to Clinton were lies he assumed the president was too inattentive to figure out. Arafat may be gone, but the torch has been passed, and Mahmoud Abbas has learned well from his mentor.

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A decade after his death, Yasser Arafat’s legacy is still with us. He perfected the art of saying one thing in English to manipulate the Clinton administration and another in Arabic to reassure the Palestinians that his promises to Clinton were lies he assumed the president was too inattentive to figure out. Arafat may be gone, but the torch has been passed, and Mahmoud Abbas has learned well from his mentor.

The latest evidence of this is Ronen Bergman’s in-depth report today on Abbas’s career as an intellectual fraud. Bergman writes:

The Palestinian Authority’s new media division is putting considerable effort it seems into the construction and maintenance of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’official website. The site is user-friendly and includes information on the familiar parts of Abbas’ resume — from his childhood in Safed to the president’s office in Ramallah. The site details Abbas’ political journey as a Palestinian leader, without forgetting to include all of the awards and citations he has received along the way.

Far from hiding Abbas’s extremism, Bergman reports, the site “glorifies Abbas’ work” and even presents him as a “philosopher with a unique perspective on history, and an important intellectual.” Among the works listed are Abbas’s books, which can be read on the site–in Arabic.

One such book is The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism, based on Abbas’s infamous 1982 paper calling basic facts of the Holocaust into question. The book’s central idea is that Zionist leaders saw the Holocaust as beneficial to their cause and worthy of their cooperation, so they struck up an alliance with the Nazis to facilitate the extermination of the Jewish people. A taste:

In this book, Abbas wonders, among other things, “How can one believe that the Zionist movement, which set out to protect a nation, would later become the reason for its destruction? History teaches us about (the Emperor) Nero who torched Rome. But Nero was mad, and his madness rids him of the responsibility to his actions. History also teaches us about leaders who betrayed their people and their country and sold them out to their enemies. But these leaders are isolated. They alone carry the responsibility for their actions. But when a large national public movement conspires against its ‘people,’ well that is embarrassing…

“An Arab proverb says: ‘If a dispute arises between thieves, the theft is discovered.’ This is what happened with the Zionist movement. When ‘Labor’ (Mapai) was in power in the State of Israel, it refused to include the revisionists and those started exposing facts and blowing away the smoke screen of lies. We cannot fail to mention that many of the Zionist movement’s people during the war were amazed of the results of the cooperation between the Zionists and the Nazis, and the massive amount of victims struck them with terror… To this one must add that many documents from the Third Reich had reached many hands, which allowed us to present these documents that illustrate the nature of the relations and cooperation between the Nazis and the Zionist movement.”

Bergman goes into some detail on Abbas’s intellectual development, and his article is worth reading in full. He also points out that Abbas has rejected accusations of Holocaust denial over the years, and yet “The fact the books were recently reprinted with funding from the Palestinian Authority and are recommended on the PA president’s official website, negates the claims made by Abbas and his associates several times that this is just a thesis paper released over 30 years ago.” Bergman also notes that Abbas’s denial of his Holocaust denial has been far more muted in Arab media than to Western audiences.

The fact of the matter is that Abbas is proud of his “achievements” in anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering. The West treats him as though he is something he is not, in large part because they, and the Western media they rely on, don’t read or speak Arabic and don’t really know who Abbas is, despite treating him as a man of peace. (As the State Department still does.)

It also feeds into the anti-Netanyahu obsession of many Western journalists who seem forced to paint Abbas as some sort of moderate in order to build a more damning case against Netanyahu or to blame him for the lack of peace. When Abbas recently put out a statement slamming Israeli proponents of equal prayer rights on the Temple Mount, he disguised it as a call for calm. This prompted Jeffrey Goldberg, one of Bibi’s consistent hecklers, to tweet the following: “Abbas, labeled by Netanyahu gov’t as a Holocaust-denying fanatic, endorses Bibi’s call for calm in Jerusalem.”

Yikes. Not only did that misread Abbas’s message, but it implied that Netanyahu was somehow mistaken to treat Abbas as “a Holocaust-denying fanatic.” As Bergman’s report makes clear, such Western proponents of Abbas’s supposed moderation have a tremendous amount of egg on their face when someone actually makes the effort to read Abbas’s public pronouncements of his own beliefs. Abbas is indeed who his critics say he is. And he wants everyone to know it.

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Netanyahu Chooses the Lesser of Two Evils

Some observers were a bit surprised by the relieved tone with which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the news that the Iran nuclear talks were being extended for another seven months. While most skeptics of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran were rightly angry about the decision to send the talks into a second overtime period, Netanyahu played it cool saying that “no agreement was preferable than a bad agreement.” After months of heightened tension between Israel and the United States, in the willingness of the prime minister to opt for a low-key approach to this crucial issue Netanyahu is clearly opting to avoid another open breach with the U.S. But the question hanging over this is why the Israelis have chosen to downplay what everyone knows is a disagreement that is threatening to tear the U.S.-Israel alliance apart and what he hopes will happen in the next few months while Iran continues to run out the clock on the West.

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Some observers were a bit surprised by the relieved tone with which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the news that the Iran nuclear talks were being extended for another seven months. While most skeptics of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran were rightly angry about the decision to send the talks into a second overtime period, Netanyahu played it cool saying that “no agreement was preferable than a bad agreement.” After months of heightened tension between Israel and the United States, in the willingness of the prime minister to opt for a low-key approach to this crucial issue Netanyahu is clearly opting to avoid another open breach with the U.S. But the question hanging over this is why the Israelis have chosen to downplay what everyone knows is a disagreement that is threatening to tear the U.S.-Israel alliance apart and what he hopes will happen in the next few months while Iran continues to run out the clock on the West.

Despite not criticizing the extension, Netanyahu made it clear that he is appalled by the direction in which the talks are heading. Had the Iranians accepted the West’s current offer, “the deal would’ve left Iran with the ability to enrich uranium for an atomic bomb while removing the sanctions.” He believes the only deal with Iran that makes sense is one that “will dismantle Iran’s capacity to make atom bombs,” a formula he takes to mean no uranium enrichment of any kind rather than the compromise put forward by Secretary of State John Kerry which would for all intents and purposes allow them to become a nuclear threshold state.

Seen from that perspective, the Israeli relief about the continuation of the talks seems misplaced. If Netanyahu doesn’t like the deal Kerry put on the table over the past weekend that Iran rejected, he should expect to be even less pleased with subsequent offers that the West will make in order to entice Iran to finally sign even a weak nuclear agreement that will give President Obama the sham foreign-policy success that he so badly needs.

Indeed, as Dennis Ross, the longtime State Department peace processor and subsequently a special advisor to the Obama administration on Iran and the Persian Gulf said today, Iran has showed no flexibility in the nuclear talks. The history of the last two years of discussions that led up to the interim deal signed last November (which relaxed sanctions and gave tacit recognition to Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium in exchange for measures that did little to halt the Islamist regime’s nuclear progress) and the subsequent standoff in the current talks has been marked by a steady Western retreat from its positions. Throughout this period, the U.S. has shown “flexibility” rather than standing up for its principle and as a result has thrown away the considerable economic and political leverage it had over Tehran.

There’s little question that any negotiations in the seven more months that have been added to the yearlong quest for a final agreement are likely to yield even more concessions. Indeed, why should the Iranians who have stood their ground throughout this process, demanding and getting a steady stream of Western retreats on issues such as enrichment, the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate, and the future of its stockpile of nuclear fuel, and allowed other issues such as the need to divulge the extent of its nuclear military research, the future of its plutonium plant at Arak, its ballistic missile program, and support for international terrorism to be kept off the agenda of the negotiations?

So what possible good can come out of the delay?

One obvious possibility is that Iran is so now so confident in their ability to string Obama, Kerry, and company along that they will never sign any deal. In one sense that would be a disaster since it would mean the West had wasted two more years on futile negotiations while Iran got even closer to realizing its nuclear goal. However, another failure to get Iran to sign would force the president to come face to face with the fact that his policies had failed and drop his push for appeasement in the hope of creating a new détente with Iran.

Clearly, Obama would not abandon his hopes for a rapprochement with Iran without a struggle. But it remains possible that Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will never agree to any deal no matter how favorable it might be for his country. If so, that sets the stage for the imposition of the sort of tough sanctions—amounting to an economic embargo on Iran and the halting of all oil sales—that could bring the country to its knees.

But for that to happen, it will be necessary for Congress to ignore Obama and Kerry’s pleas and enact the next round of sanctions now in order to have them in place and ready when the negotiations fail. By piping down now, Netanyahu is rightly adding weight to the bipartisan majority in Congress in favor of increasing the economic restrictions on doing business with Iran. Moreover, by not publicly opposing the administration’s decision, the Israelis are making it clear to both Congress and the American public that their goal is not the use of force but rather an effort to recreate the strong position the West held over Iran before Kerry folded during the interim talks last year. Another pointless spat with Obama would be a needless distraction that would undermine support for sanctions.

A choice between a “terrible” agreement and a postponement that also seems to play into Tehran’s hands is not one anyone outside of Iran should relish. Yet a lot can happen in seven months. Though there is a very real possibility that the next round will yield more concessions and an even weaker deal, the chance exists that a combination of Iranian rejectionism and congressional action will create a turnabout that will force the U.S. to stop appeasing the Islamist regime and return to a policy based on strength and common sense. If so, Netanyahu’s decision to choose the lesser of two evils and keep his powder dry this week will turn out to be a smart move he won’t regret.

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Defending the Right to a Jewish State

The debate currently roiling Israel’s Cabinet over proposals to pass a law ensuring that it is a “Jewish state” is being roundly denounced by many of the country’s friends as well as its critics. The U.S. government responded in a high-handed manner to the discussion by demanding that Israel protect the rights of non-Jewish Israelis. The Anti-Defamation League says it is well meaning but unnecessary and some of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition allies are threatening to break up the government and send the country to new elections because of their disagreement with it. But as much as one can argue that Israel won’t be any more or less a Jewish state whether or not any such bill passes the Knesset, critics of the measure should understand that the demand for this measure is not frivolous. Those criticizing it are largely missing the point.

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The debate currently roiling Israel’s Cabinet over proposals to pass a law ensuring that it is a “Jewish state” is being roundly denounced by many of the country’s friends as well as its critics. The U.S. government responded in a high-handed manner to the discussion by demanding that Israel protect the rights of non-Jewish Israelis. The Anti-Defamation League says it is well meaning but unnecessary and some of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition allies are threatening to break up the government and send the country to new elections because of their disagreement with it. But as much as one can argue that Israel won’t be any more or less a Jewish state whether or not any such bill passes the Knesset, critics of the measure should understand that the demand for this measure is not frivolous. Those criticizing it are largely missing the point.

As Haviv Rettig Gur explained in an excellent Times of Israel article, the claims by both sides in the argument are largely unfounded. Israel is already a Jewish state, albeit one in which the rights of every citizen to equal treatment under the law are guaranteed. Nor is it true, as Netanyahu’s unhappy coalition partners Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid charged, that the proposed drafts approved by the Cabinet would elevate the Jewish state concept over that of the democratic nature of that state.

What it would do is to incorporate into the country’s basic laws, which serve as an informal and entirely insufficient constitution, a basic truth about its founding that could actually serve as an important counter-balance to the proposed Palestinian state that peace negotiators seek to create alongside Israel. Though that state will be primarily racial and exclusive—Jews will not be welcomed or allowed to live there, let alone have equality under the law—but where Israel’s flag flies, democracy will prevail even as the rights of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland will be protected. Indeed, as Gur notes in his piece, the origins of the bills under discussion can be traced to efforts to make peace palatable to Israelis, not the fevered imaginations of right-wingers bent on excluding or expelling Arabs.

As Gur writes in reference to the charge that the Cabinet approved an extreme bill that undermined democracy:

But the cabinet decision on which the ministers voted did not “pass” the right-wing bills, as much of the Israeli media reported. It actually voted to subsume them, and thus de facto to replace them, with a larger government bill based on the prime minister’s 14 principles. And in principle 2-D of the decision, one reads, “The State of Israel is a democratic state, established on the foundations of liberty, justice and peace envisioned by the prophets of Israel, and which fulfills the personal rights of all its citizens, under law.”

There is no hedging, no distinction between what Israel simply “is” and what its “form of government” might be.

That said the critics have a point when they say this feeds into the anti-Zionist narrative being increasingly heard in the international media that seeks to falsely brand Israel as an “apartheid” or racist state. If even Israeli Cabinet members are capable of the sort of hyperbole that would brand it as a threat to democracy, you don’t have to have much imagination to realize what anti-Semitic foes of the country will make of it. Seen in that light, the push for the bill can be seen as, at best unnecessary, and at worst a needless provocation that could do harm.

But even if we factor into our thinking the danger posed by these libels, it does Israel no harm to remind the world that it has no intention of giving up its basic identity. Israel has not only a right but a duty to make it clear that as much as it is a democracy, it is also the “nation state of the Jewish people” whose rights must be protected as vigorously as those of any other people or country.

For far too long, those who have spoken up for Israel in international or media forums have downplayed the question of the rights of the Jews in the conflict and instead spoke only of the nation’s security needs. But when placed against Palestinian claims of their rights to the same country—when Hamas talks about resistance to the “occupation” they are referring to Israel within its pre-1967 borders—such talk inevitably seems inadequate. Friends of Israel are right to seek to promote the idea of a nation state for the Jews not so much because Israel’s laws need to be altered but because Zionism is itself under attack and must be vigorously defended.

Lastly, those who consider this some kind of colossal blunder on the part of Netanyahu don’t understand what is going on here. If Livni and Lapid blow up the government and force new elections, it is likely that both of them will lose ground while Netanyahu—who has no viable rival for the role of prime minister—is likely to emerge even stronger in a Knesset where the right-wing parties may be even more dominant and so-called moderates are marginalized.

Livni and Lapid would do well to lower the rhetoric and back down if they want to avoid going into an election having repudiated a measure that is, in the context of a country that is already a Jewish state, an anodyne proposal.

Israel won’t be any more Jewish or less democratic no matter whether or not this bill eventually becomes one of the country’s basic laws. But those casually weighing in on this debate from afar need to understand that at a time when the legitimacy of a Jewish state is increasingly under attack, Israelis are within their rights to make it clear they won’t give up this right.

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Kerry Calls Out Palestinian Incitement; Will Anything Change?

Many aspects of this morning’s barbaric terrorist attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, in which armed Palestinians murdered four Jews, are quite similar to past attacks. Americans were among the victims, for example; the Palestinians celebrated the killing of innocent Jews, encouraging their children to grow up and do the same; and the media–CNN especially, but also Canada’s CBC and others–covered the attack in ways that made them indistinguishable from Palestinian government-run propaganda outlets. But one thing was different: a heartening and truly revealing statement from Secretary of State John Kerry.

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Many aspects of this morning’s barbaric terrorist attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, in which armed Palestinians murdered four Jews, are quite similar to past attacks. Americans were among the victims, for example; the Palestinians celebrated the killing of innocent Jews, encouraging their children to grow up and do the same; and the media–CNN especially, but also Canada’s CBC and others–covered the attack in ways that made them indistinguishable from Palestinian government-run propaganda outlets. But one thing was different: a heartening and truly revealing statement from Secretary of State John Kerry.

Kerry has been, up to this point, playing an undeniably dangerous and counterproductive role in the peace process. He has used the negotiations as a vanity project, not a serious attempt to solve an intractable problem. But the worst part of Kerry’s destructive bumbling has been the State Department’s refusal to hold PA head Mahmoud Abbas accountable for his steady incitement of terror.

There is no question that Abbas’s incitement is partially responsible for the recent spate of terror attacks in Israel’s capital. And yet the State Department took Abbas’s side each time it had the chance, defending him as a man of peace. As I wrote in late October, spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked about Abbas’s incitement and here is what she said:

MS. PSAKI: I don’t think that’s – as you know, President Abbas has renounced violence and consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution that allows for two states. I don’t have any other analysis for you to offer.

When you excuse the murder of innocents, you get more murder of innocents. And that’s exactly what happened, and what continued to happen, as Kerry’s State Department and the Obama White House sought to pick childish fights with Benjamin Netanyahu instead of acting like adults or playing a constructive role in the conflict.

There was never any doubt that Obama and Kerry’s behavior would encourage more bloodshed. Yet something has apparently changed:

Kerry telephoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to offer condolences following the gruesome killing spree by Palestinian assailants at a Jerusalem synagogue, while other world leaders also expressed horror at the attack.

Kerry, in London for talks on Iran and the Middle East, called the assault an “act of pure terror and senseless brutality” and called on the Palestinian leadership to condemn it “in the most powerful terms.”

Police said two attackers from East Jerusalem entered the synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood shortly after 7 a.m. and began attacking worshipers at morning prayers with a gun, a meat cleaver, and an ax. Both terrorists were killed by police.

Kerry blamed the attack on Palestinian calls for “days of rage” and said Palestinian leaders must take serious steps to refrain from such incitement.

So who’s right–old Kerry or new Kerry? Clearly, new Kerry is a vast upgrade. But there are two disquieting characteristics of this transformation that will temper enthusiasm for the secretary of state’s newfound moral compass.

The first is that Jews can be forgiven for thinking that the world sees them as sacrificial pawns. Today’s victims are of course not the first deaths in the Palestinians’ latest not-quite-intifada. And they were not the first Americans killed either. And they were not the first victims of Abbas’s incitement or his directive to take action against Jews in Jerusalem. The sad fact is that the world regards a certain amount of Jewish blood as the cost of doing business–not worth getting all worked up about.

The word for that is “expendable.” And that’s what the families of victims and those who survived previous attacks understand all too well: their loved ones were expendable to the international community and, most painfully, to the government of the United States of America. A line has now been crossed, apparently, and the Jews under attack are no longer considered expendable. But it’s unfortunate that the line was there to begin with.

The second disquieting facet of this is the age-old question: What now? That is, now that Kerry has admitted the role Palestinian incitement plays in Palestinian terror, what will he do about it? The answer is almost certainly: Nothing. The U.S. government is not going to defund the Palestinian Authority; Netanyahu has in the past fought for continued funding of the PA on the premise that Abbas must be propped up. Israel is doing its part by keeping the IDF in the West Bank; the U.S. does its part by keeping up the flow of cash.

Abbas condemned today’s attack, so perhaps Kerry’s new posture is at least keeping up the appearance of peace all around. And appearances can help. But incitement is not just about public statements from Abbas promoting violence–though he has been making such statements throughout the recent terror campaign. It’s about a system of education and Palestinian media that incites and demonizes Jews. Until the U.S. and the broader international community finds a way to crack down on this government-run culture of demonization, peace will remain farther than Kerry or his European counterparts like to pretend.

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Kerry Lets Abbas Off the Hook Again

After a summit held in Jordan with its King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced himself satisfied that the dispute over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is on its way to being resolved. After hearing from both the Israelis and the Jordanians as well as meeting separately with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry admonished the parties to make good on their pledges to take “concrete steps” to ease tensions. Let’s hope Kerry is right that the worst is over in this latest episode and that a series of murders of Jews will prove to be a passing incident rather than a new intifada. But by giving Abbas a pass for his material role in inciting the violence, Kerry once again proved tone deaf to the reality of the conflict and the reason why his peace initiative failed.

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After a summit held in Jordan with its King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced himself satisfied that the dispute over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is on its way to being resolved. After hearing from both the Israelis and the Jordanians as well as meeting separately with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry admonished the parties to make good on their pledges to take “concrete steps” to ease tensions. Let’s hope Kerry is right that the worst is over in this latest episode and that a series of murders of Jews will prove to be a passing incident rather than a new intifada. But by giving Abbas a pass for his material role in inciting the violence, Kerry once again proved tone deaf to the reality of the conflict and the reason why his peace initiative failed.

The problem with Kerry’s evenhanded approach to the dispute disregards what actually happened. Israel has maintained the status quo on the Temple Mount in which Muslim religious authorities have complete control of the ancient site and Jews are allowed to visit but forbidden to pray. Some Jews have urged this be changed to give them the right to worship there too but the Netanyahu government, following in the footsteps of all its predecessors, has blocked this effort.

But that hasn’t satisfied the PA which has used this issue as a way to compete with Hamas in the battle for Palestinian public opinion. Rather than seeking to promote calm, Abbas deliberately ratcheted up tensions in recent month as he called on his people to do everything necessary to prevent Jews from “contaminating” the Temple Mount with their presence. When one Palestinian attempted to murder an activist who advocated Jewish prayer there, Abbas praised him as a “martyr” and said he went straight to heaven after being shot by police. Though many, including the New York Times, have tried to put forward the idea that the growing violence constitutes a “leaderless” intifada, the truth is, the unrest and violence is the direct result of two decades of PA incitement via its official media and schools. Abbas’s statements as well as the daily drumbeat of incitement from the PA media has created an atmosphere of religious war in which Muslims think the Jews are going to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount. The result has been entirely predictable in the form of a rash of “lone wolf” terror attacks on Jews — applauded by both Hamas and Fatah — that have taken several lives.

This is, of course, straight out of the traditional playbook of Palestinian nationalism having been first employed by Haj Amin el-Husseini, the pre-World War Two mufti of Jerusalem and Nazi ally, who helped incite several pogroms against Jews. As it was then, the point of the manufactured furor is not to push back against mythical Jewish attacks on Muslim rights or the mosques but to deny any rights — either historical or political — for Jews in Jerusalem or anywhere else in the country. As with the rest of a conflict that the PA could have ended several times in the last 15 years had it accepted Israeli peace offers of independence, pouring oil on this fire is a function of Palestinian resistance to the idea of any Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem or Israel, not a dispute that can be solved by good faith negotiations.

In playing the Temple Mount card, Abbas is walking a fine line between an attempt to boost his stock vis-à-vis Hamas and suicide since it is Israel that protects him against Hamas. Jordan, which has been forced by Abbas’s antics to condemn Israel as well, is similarly dependant on support for Israel, but can’t be seen to be against Palestinian terror if it is perceived as a “defense” of Arab rights.

But while we hope that this chapter is coming to a close, Kerry’s complacent pox on both your houses approach to Israel and the PA is only encouraging more Palestinian intransigence and violence. What was needed here was a direct U.S. condemnation of Abbas’s egregious incitement that led to bloodshed. But in its absence the likelihood grows that Abbas will continue to court disaster in his effort to boost his waning political clout in the West Bank. Kerry and President Obama’s continued effort to portray Abbas as a force for peace while flinging insults at Netanyahu is a formula for more unrest as well as an attack on the U.S.-Israel alliance.

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Will Obama Abandon Israel at the UN? Abbas Wants to Find Out

If you want an indication of how Middle East governments are adjusting their calculus according to the Obama administration’s decision to loudly distance itself from Israel, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s deliberations over his UN strategy is a good place to start. Abbas is planning to ask for a vote requiring Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines at the United Nations Security Council. But he’s unsure about the timing, and President Obama’s flagging support for Israel is one reason why.

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If you want an indication of how Middle East governments are adjusting their calculus according to the Obama administration’s decision to loudly distance itself from Israel, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s deliberations over his UN strategy is a good place to start. Abbas is planning to ask for a vote requiring Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines at the United Nations Security Council. But he’s unsure about the timing, and President Obama’s flagging support for Israel is one reason why.

As Raphael Ahren discusses today at the Times of Israel, the current makeup of the Security Council’s rotating members–the supporting cast to the five permanent members–is not as amenable to Palestinian demands as next year’s roster will be. But then there’s the Obama factor. It would seem prudent for Abbas to wait, since he needs nine votes out of fifteen. But he also knows that if he gets those nine votes, the measure will be subject to the veto power of the permanent members of the council. That really means the United States, in this context. And the Palestinians think this might be their best window to get the U.S. to abandon Israel at the UNSC:

Relations between the White House and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are famously strained, and Barack Obama, now entering the last stretch of his presidency and no longer tied to electoral considerations, could decide to turn his back on Jerusalem.

The US might be reluctant to isolate itself internationally by stymieing a move supported by a large majority of states in the United Nations, including the entire Arab world, especially as Washington seeks allies in its fight against the Islamic State terrorist group.

Despite this being a low ebb in recent years in the U.S.-Israel relationship, I highly doubt Obama will consider sitting on his hands for such a vote at the Security Council, for several reasons. First, though he obviously doesn’t think much of the Israelis, it’s not clear his opinion of the Jewish state has sunk so low as to officially have the U.S. abandon Israel at the UN in favor of the Palestinians.

Second, even if his dislike of Israel has sunk to that level, he probably would still veto the resolution. Obama has indisputably downgraded the U.S.-Israel relationship, most clearly by changing protocol so as to put distance between the two militaries during the last war and by withholding weapons transfers to Israel during wartime. He’s also encouraged a bizarre series of name-calling outbursts aimed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which have displayed this administration’s trademark grade-school intellect and overwhelming ignorance of world affairs. But the president tends to take out his anger on Israel in ways that he can always pretend are really just personal spats with Netanyahu.

Obama’s position is that he doesn’t mind being seen as hating Bibi, as long as he can retain plausible deniability that he also dislikes the Israelis who keep electing Bibi. Thus, blessing the Palestinian UN gambit would take away that plausible deniability. Keep in mind stopping the weapons transfer was not something the administration intended to make a public show of; it’s just that while the other mainstream outlets have become Obama’s press shop, the Wall Street Journal is still doing real journalism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they revealed the breach. Abandoning Israel at the UN Security Council would be a very public acknowledgement that Obama’s obsession with picking fights with Netanyahu is not really about Netanyahu at all.

A third reason Obama would still veto such a resolution is that there are domestic political constraints on his behavior toward Israel. (You’re probably thinking: This is Obama being constrained? Indeed, it’s not a pretty sight.) The Democratic Party has lost the battle to try to convince Americans that Obama is with them on Israel. But they would like not to be saddled with Obama’s reputation. They want to nominate Hillary Clinton, who does not have a great record on Israel but anything’s better than what she’d be replacing. The more Obama attacks Israel needlessly, the more complicated the Democrats’ sales job becomes.

That seems to factor into Abbas’s calculations:

After the midterm elections and the Republican takeover of the Senate earlier this month, Obama is unlikely to get much work done domestically and may want to focus on foreign policy issues that could shape his legacy. Besides a nuclear agreement with Iran, the White House might also want to promote Middle East peace and pressure Israel through a pro-Palestinian resolution at the UN.

The sooner Obama does that the more distance Democrats can try to put between his abandonment of Israel and their reputation rehabilitation efforts. Still, Obama must know that if he allows the vote to go through (if it passes), he will be effectively ceding the peace process entirely to unilateral actions. The United States will become at that moment totally irrelevant to how the process proceeds.

It will either finally kill the peace process once and for all, in which case that would be Obama’s legacy, or it will lead to Israelis and Palestinians abandoning the process and going their own way without mediation, in which case Obama would get no credit for any positive results. Obama may like kicking dirt at Israel, but he probably still likes the spotlight even more.

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Who’s Really Silencing Whom in Israel?

There’s been a lot written recently about how Israel’s “right-wing” government is “silencing” the leftist opposition. So it’s worth noting that for all the talk of the silenced left, the only media outlet Israel’s parliament has actually tried to silence–repeatedly–just happens to be the only major Hebrew-language media organ representing the center-right, as well as the only one that enthusiastically supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And the votes that allowed the latest version of this undemocratic legislation to pass its preliminary Knesset reading today came not from the “anti-democratic” right, but primarily from Israel’s self-proclaimed champions of democracy on the left.

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There’s been a lot written recently about how Israel’s “right-wing” government is “silencing” the leftist opposition. So it’s worth noting that for all the talk of the silenced left, the only media outlet Israel’s parliament has actually tried to silence–repeatedly–just happens to be the only major Hebrew-language media organ representing the center-right, as well as the only one that enthusiastically supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And the votes that allowed the latest version of this undemocratic legislation to pass its preliminary Knesset reading today came not from the “anti-democratic” right, but primarily from Israel’s self-proclaimed champions of democracy on the left.

To be clear, the bill won’t become law. Like other undemocratic bills proposed by irresponsible Knesset members in recent years, it will be quietly killed in committee by wiser heads after having gotten its sponsors the media attention they craved. But nobody on the “anti-democratic” right has ever tried to pass legislation shutting down left-wing papers like Haaretz or Yedioth Ahronoth; only on the “democratic” left is silencing newspapers you don’t like considered acceptable behavior.

The bill to shutter Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom is just a particularly crude example of a broader problem: The Israeli left is all too fond of trying to silence others. And the false claim that it is really the one being silenced is one of its favorite tactics for doing so: After all, an “anti-democratic” government doesn’t deserve to have its views heard by the international community.

Noah Efron, himself a self-proclaimed leftist, dissected the absurdity of the left’s silencing claim in a thoughtful Haaretz piece in September. Left-wing newspapers and websites still publish, left-wing academics still lecture, left-wing NGOs still disseminate material, left-wing activists still demonstrate, and the specific individuals who were allegedly silenced actually “received hours of airtime and hundreds of column inches,” he wrote.

“We haven’t been silenced. We’ve just failed to make our case,” Efron concluded. “The answer is not to convince readers of the New York Times that Israel is no longer a democracy. The answer is to accept that Israel is a democracy, and that democracy demands that we speak to our fellow citizens … that we persuade them rather than dismiss them.”

But the claim of silencing isn’t just an excuse for left-wing failures; it’s also an effective tactic for ensuring that the non-left won’t be heard. The Israel Hayom bill is instructive because it exposes this desire to silence others, something the left usually tries to conceal.

The first attempt to shutter the paper was an unsubtle bill making it illegal for non-Israelis to own Israeli newspapers–a restriction chosen because it applied to one paper only. Its hypocrisy was underscored by the fact that the left evinced no objection whatsoever when another American tycoon rescued the left-wing Channel 10 television by becoming its majority shareholder.

The current bill, which aims to destroy Israel Hayom’s business model, is equally unsubtle. It would outlaw freebie papers–but only if they’re successful. Freebies that don’t compete with the mainstream media are fine, but any freebie that becomes one of the four highest-circulation papers would have to start charging at least 70 percent of what the cheapest of the other three charges. Needless to say, only one Israeli freebie makes the top four.

Leftists justify this undemocratic bill by claiming Israel Hayom isn’t a real paper, but a Netanyahu mouthpiece. Personally, I agree that the paper’s coverage of Netanyahu is excessively fawning–but not more so than, say, Haaretz’s coverage of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas or the New York Times’s coverage of Barack Obama. So should the Knesset ban Haaretz, too? Indeed, Haaretz and Yedioth unabashedly use their editorial freedom to support left-wing politicians; somehow, only editorial support for a center-right politician is illegitimate.

It’s also worth noting that on issues other than Netanyahu, Israel Hayom’s veteran journalists–most of whom previously reported for left-wing media outlets–actually provide interesting coverage of issues the other major media outlets prefer to ignore, like Palestinian groups’ deliberate instigation of the recent rioting in Jerusalem or the growing integrationist trend among Israel’s Christian Arabs.

This, I suspect, is the real reason why leftists loathe it. But admitting that they’d rather deprive the public of information that calls their political program into question wouldn’t sound any better than admitting they’ve failed to convince a majority of Israelis of this program’s wisdom. Much better to dismiss Israel Hayom as a mere propaganda organ and try to shut it down–all while loudly proclaiming that they are really the ones being silenced.

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Obama, Abbas, and ‘Contaminating’ Jews

In a follow-up to his now infamous column in which he quoted “senior administration officials” hurling vulgar insults at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg echoed the Obama foreign-policy team in praising Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as “the best interlocutor Israel is going to have” in the pursuit of peace. Though he acknowledged the Palestinian had “flaws,” the onus for the lack of progress toward peace was placed squarely on Israel, which was urged to take measures to appease Abbas. Given that Abbas’s “flaws” had already demonstrated his utter lack of interest in making peace, Goldberg’s incendiary pieces told us more about Obama’s animus for Israel than the state of the peace process. But Abbas’s most recent bouts of incitement toward violence place those who have vouched for him in a difficult spot and make their current silence about his activities all the more reprehensible.

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In a follow-up to his now infamous column in which he quoted “senior administration officials” hurling vulgar insults at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg echoed the Obama foreign-policy team in praising Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as “the best interlocutor Israel is going to have” in the pursuit of peace. Though he acknowledged the Palestinian had “flaws,” the onus for the lack of progress toward peace was placed squarely on Israel, which was urged to take measures to appease Abbas. Given that Abbas’s “flaws” had already demonstrated his utter lack of interest in making peace, Goldberg’s incendiary pieces told us more about Obama’s animus for Israel than the state of the peace process. But Abbas’s most recent bouts of incitement toward violence place those who have vouched for him in a difficult spot and make their current silence about his activities all the more reprehensible.

Abbas helped launch the latest round of Palestinian violence by urging his people to resist Jews who venture onto the Temple Mount by all means. Those means turned out to be murder and when the PA head praised a slain terrorist who had attempted to murder a Jewish activist as a “martyr” who was heading straight to heaven, it showed just how far he was willing to go to capitalize on traditional memes of Palestinian hatred for Jews. Today, in the wake of more fatal car attacks and stabbings of Jews, Abbas doubled down on the hate. Referring to the attempts by some Jews to gain the right to pray on what it the holiest site in Judaism, Abbas was reported as saying the following in the Times of Israel:

“Keep the settlers and the extremists away from Al-Aqsa and our holy places,” Abbas demanded. “We will not allow our holy places to be contaminated. Keep them away from us and we will stay away from them, but if they enter al-Aqsa, [we] will protect al-Aqsa and the church and the entire country,” he said. It was unclear what church Abbas was referring to.

It should be acknowledged that Abbas is locked in a fierce competition with Hamas for support from Palestinians and by diving even deeper into the barrel of ancient libels, he is, by his own lights, merely pandering to domestic opinion. But the green light he is giving to random violence by Palestinians is unmistakable. The question is when will his Washington cheering section recognize that they have invested heavily in a figure that is counting on their support insulating him against any consequences for his actions?

On its face, Abbas would seem to be the last person who would want a third intifada since he stands to lose the most by an open breach with an Israeli security apparatus that is his only guarantee of survival against Hamas. Nor can he afford to alienate the Americans or the European Union since both provide him with the cash he needs to irrigate the corrupt kleptocracy that he presides over in the West Bank.

That ought to give both Israel and the West some leverage in moderating his language even if it has never been enough to cause him to be willing to defy Palestinian public opinion and negotiate a peace deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn.

That is why the silence of the West about Abbas is so frustrating for Israel. For months, the Obama administration has been lauding the PA head as a courageous man of peace while badmouthing Netanyahu as an obstacle to it in both on and off the record statements. Thus it is no surprise that Abbas believes he has virtual carte blanche from his donors and political sponsors to go as far as he wants when it comes to inciting violence.

The problem here is that while the White House and State Department can often be relied upon to issue statements urging both sides to show restraint and condemning violence of all kinds, they generally have no problem being specific when it comes to Israel and Netanyahu. But even if we leave aside the unfair nature of most of the criticisms of the Israeli, they find it difficult, if not impossible to turn the same critical gaze at Abbas.

Let’s concede that even if Abbas were to have held his tongue and sought to calm tensions over Jerusalem, there is no guarantee that no violence would have occurred. But by seeking to outpace Hamas when it comes to fanning the flames about the mosques on the Temple Mount, Abbas has made a material contribution to Middle East violence. And he is doing it on the American taxpayer’s dime.

It should also be stated that some inflammatory voices on the Israeli right have contributed to the problem. As unfair as the status quo on the Temple Mount might be to Jews, overturning it right now would be the sort of thing that will get a lot of people killed. But it should be pointed out that instead of feeding and/or profiting from anger over this issue, Netanyahu and his government have tried to prevent violence, not encourage it, but keep getting slammed by Western critics for not altogether conceding Jewish rights throughout Jerusalem.

The issue here isn’t so much who gets to pray on the Temple Mount since there is no chance of the status quo being altered. Rather it is whether the West thinks it is OK for the recipient of their largesse to refer to Jews as “contaminators” of their own capital city. Such language isn’t merely pandering to Palestinian opinion; it is a sign that Abbas is part of the problem of violence and hate, not its potential solution.

For years, the same people hammering Netanyahu and excusing Abbas now were the ones urging a similar policy toward Yasir Arafat and his blatant incitement toward hate. Those who did so bore a degree of responsibility for the violence that ensued when Arafat blew up the peace process with a bloody second intifada. The same judgment will apply to the president and his cheerleaders as they stand by and watch Abbas play the same card.

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Dream of Rivals: Why Bibi’s Still On Top

Two terrorist attacks today in Israel have already claimed one life–that of a young woman–and left a soldier in critical condition, in addition to the others less seriously wounded in the attacks. The incidents extend the spasm of violence by Palestinians who have flirted with igniting a full-blown intifada, though the security fence and other precautions have thus far prevented a comparable terror campaign. They also put the spotlight on the Israeli leadership, highlighting an interesting political phenomenon.

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Two terrorist attacks today in Israel have already claimed one life–that of a young woman–and left a soldier in critical condition, in addition to the others less seriously wounded in the attacks. The incidents extend the spasm of violence by Palestinians who have flirted with igniting a full-blown intifada, though the security fence and other precautions have thus far prevented a comparable terror campaign. They also put the spotlight on the Israeli leadership, highlighting an interesting political phenomenon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has studiously, if not always successfully, attempted to avoid scenarios that could be destabilizing to Israeli politics, knowing as he does that governing coalitions are almost always more fragile than they look and that one perceived failure could bring them down. The Palestinians have, of course, not always played along. Case in point: Netanyahu is far more hesitant to go to war than most of his predecessors; this past summer, Hamas made avoiding a ground war impossible.

Netanyahu’s government survived the Gaza war, and now must deal with terror from within–a far greater challenge than calling on the IDF to win a ground war in Palestinian territory. Additionally, Netanyahu continues to deal with fluctuating Israeli public opinion polls and the fact that in the new reality of Israel’s fragmented party politics, rival parties are seemingly perpetually in striking distance. On top of all this, Netanyahu tends to get under the skin of even those who would agree with him politically, and has no natural ideological base since he’s much more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.

So why is Netanyahu still standing, and why do the latest Knesset polls show him in the lead once again if new elections were to be held? There are two answers. The first is the underappreciated maturity of Israeli democracy. Bibi may not be well liked personally, and the political scene may feature a constant casting-about for alternatives, but in the end Israeli voters are still keeping their priorities straight by refusing to turn national elections into pure popularity contests.

Security crises often turn into political crises. But the prevalence of security concerns and the failure of the Palestinians to produce a serious peace partner have kept the Israeli electorate fairly steady. Having oriented their national government with security concerns in mind, a desire for a reorientation isn’t likely to produce one: to whom would they turn?

That question leads to the second reason for the Netanyahu government’s relative stability. The Israeli electorate has, as I’ve written in the past, achieved a kind of ideological equilibrium–and it’s one that leaves the left mostly out of the loop. Once upon a time, when the Israeli left was viewed as less naïve and fanciful than its current iteration (Ehud Barak was, after all, leader of the Labor Party just four years ago, though the marriage was by then an unhappy one), you could imagine a swing of the pendulum from right to left and back again in Knesset elections. That’s not the case today.

So where would the pendulum swing, then? In the Times of Israel, editor David Horovitz writes that for those who have really had it with Bibi, desperate times are calling for desperate measures:

So who is this alternative to Netanyahu, considered by at least some in the middle ground of Israeli politics?

Step forward Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s minister of foreign affairs and the head of the Yisrael Beytenu coalition faction.

Horovitz notes, with record-obliterating understatement, that Lieberman (whose surname is often transliterated in Israel without the first “e”) “is not a man usually highlighted as the embodiment of Israeli political moderation.” No kidding. He continues:

And yet there are those among the coalition’s unhappy centrists who see Liberman as a pragmatist — at least relative to Netanyahu; as someone who would initiate policy rather than defensively respond, as Netanyahu is deemed by his critics to do; and as the possible key piece of a future coalition jigsaw built around Yesh Atid (19 seats), Labor (15), Hatnua (6) and Kadima (2).

As a consequence of various comings and goings in what was the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu slate in the 2013 elections, Liberman’s party now holds 13 seats in the Knesset. If you add in Meretz (six seats), and/or one or both of the ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas with its 11 seats, and United Torah Judaism 7), the arithmetic starts to look interesting.

OK, I’ll take the bait. I did, after all, write an essay in COMMENTARY three summers ago explaining how the Knesset math made Lieberman a force to be reckoned with and a perennial kingmaker with his eye on the ultimate prize. But what do the numbers say? Here’s the latest Knesset Channel poll. It finds Likud with 22 seats (up from 19), Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi with 18 (up from 12), Labor at 15, Yesh Atid at nine, Meretz at nine, and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu at … seven seats.

An outlier? Does not appear to be. More like a trend. Here’s the NRG poll from six days earlier. It found Likud with 21, Bennett with 17, Labor with 15, and Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu with nine each.

That raises a different question: Is Netanyahu vulnerable from within Likud? The answer there seems to be no as well. Had there been a real chance to unseat Netanyahu as Likud leader, current Israeli President Ruby Rivlin would have been more likely to stay and challenge Bibi. The presidency is a ceremonial role. The premiership is where the power is. And don’t forget that Lieberman himself recently split from Likud.

The palace intrigue in Jerusalem has become noticeably unintriguing of late. That’s because the Israeli electorate has more or less arranged their Knesset representation to manage a status quo that hasn’t changed much either. Bibi is always instinctively looking over his shoulder. But it’s doubtful that when he does, he sees Avigdor Lieberman.

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Is the Post-Abbas Mideast Already Here?

Hamas celebrated an act of suicide terrorism in Jerusalem today that mirrored both late October’s attack at a Jerusalem light rail stop and another attack later today in the West Bank. It is not suicide bombing, but more like a form of Islamist suicide by cop. Terrorists are driving cars into civilians–a tool of attack not new to the conflict but which is currently happening with some regularity–and in the first two attacks the terrorist killed a civilian and the terrorist was also killed, in each case by Israeli police arriving at the scene to stop more violence. In this afternoon’s attack, the third in the last two weeks, the driver of the vehicle sped away.

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Hamas celebrated an act of suicide terrorism in Jerusalem today that mirrored both late October’s attack at a Jerusalem light rail stop and another attack later today in the West Bank. It is not suicide bombing, but more like a form of Islamist suicide by cop. Terrorists are driving cars into civilians–a tool of attack not new to the conflict but which is currently happening with some regularity–and in the first two attacks the terrorist killed a civilian and the terrorist was also killed, in each case by Israeli police arriving at the scene to stop more violence. In this afternoon’s attack, the third in the last two weeks, the driver of the vehicle sped away.

Hamas and other Palestinian “resistance” groups have not, apparently, abandoned suicide terrorism after all and are now engaged in a renewed campaign. This type of violence is, of course, reminiscent of the second intifada, which is why it has Jerusalem on edge. The Palestinians have responded to each attack by rioting, so they are basically in a consistent state of violent agitation.

There is something more concerning about this latest round of Palestinian violence, however. Though it is perpetrated in some cases by members of Hamas, it has a spontaneous quality to it, and the riots in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem are keeping the atmosphere that engenders it going seemingly around the clock. And as much as it is reminiscent of past such campaigns of violence, there is indeed something a bit different about this one: it is heralding the arrival of the post-Abbas Palestinian polity.

Now it’s true that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is not only still present and accounted for but is also helping to spark the violence by calling for resistance against Jewish civilians in Jerusalem. But Abbas is not leading; he’s merely following in the path of those who started the party without him. Abbas was famously opposed to Yasser Arafat’s decision to launch the second intifada, and he surely knows that chaos and disorder and Hamas-fueled anarchy only undermine his own power. But he can’t stand around with his hands in his pockets either, because support for spilling Jewish blood drives Palestinian popular opinion.

If Abbas survives this current attempted intifada–and make no mistake, Abbas is in the crosshairs of Hamas’s terror campaigns as well–it will be nominally and, in fact, quite pathetically. And the current disorder is precisely why Israel has been protecting Abbas and helping him hold power: Abbas is no partner for peace, but he is the least-bad option available. A powerless, irrelevant, or deposed Abbas means these terror campaigns of Iran’s Palestinian proxies are all that remains of concerted Palestinian strategy.

Concern over a post-Abbas Middle East is becoming more common. Last month, the Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur wrote a typically incisive essay on the state of play between Israel and the Arab world, noting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–often one to embrace ideas that seem absurd only to soon solidify into conventional wisdom–was preparing for this eventuality. Last year Jonathan Schanzer explained, quite rightly, that it was time for Abbas to name a successor to ensure continuity in the peace process.

But what if the more dangerous scenario is not an absent Abbas but an irrelevant one? That’s what seems to be playing out right now. It’s possible that an Abbas-led PA is a leaderless PA. There is no old guard and no new blood, but something in between that leaves the Palestinian polity not yet in league with the Islamist fanatics of Hamas in a fluid, precarious state on the precipice.

And so we have the vicious yet cartoonish spectacle of the Palestinian president effectively joining a Palestinian intifada that started without him. Arafat wanted an intifada, and he got one. Abbas didn’t, and for a time was able to prevent it. Does Abbas want an intifada now? He can’t possibly be that stupid. But it doesn’t appear to matter.

Just what is Abbas actually doing, as leader of the PA? Getting the Palestinians closer to a peace deal? Certainly not; he walked away from it (more than once). Preventing Hamas from setting the terms of the debate? Hardly. Keeping a lid on an angry Palestinian polity inclined to violence? Not anymore. Abbas may or may not get swept away by a new uprising. It’s ironic that what could save him from such a fate is the fact that, increasingly, it might not even be worth the trouble.

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Susan Rice, Sheldon Adelson, and Obama’s Paranoia About Israel

The Obama administration has followed up its incoherent “chickens–t” ramblings with yet another very strange, deeply disturbed comment being reported by another reliable leftist opinion writer. This one is less colorful than the third-grade creativity displayed in the leak to Jeffrey Goldberg, the administration’s pawn-to-queen-four opening when the president wants to pick a fight with the Jewish state. Less colorful–but perhaps more significant, at least as a window into the paranoia that pervades the Obama White House.

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The Obama administration has followed up its incoherent “chickens–t” ramblings with yet another very strange, deeply disturbed comment being reported by another reliable leftist opinion writer. This one is less colorful than the third-grade creativity displayed in the leak to Jeffrey Goldberg, the administration’s pawn-to-queen-four opening when the president wants to pick a fight with the Jewish state. Less colorful–but perhaps more significant, at least as a window into the paranoia that pervades the Obama White House.

Haaretz’s Barak Ravid over the weekend wrote another opinion piece that can be filed under “Bibi Derangement Syndrome makes people do funny things.” It’s all complete speculation, right down to the headline, which leaves the impression that the paper’s editor should probably spend less time defending his cartoonist’s 9/11 conspiracist artwork and more time, well, editing. But there’s a nugget in the column that rewards the reader who somehow gets beyond the embarrassing headline and lede, which sound as though Netanyahu appeared to Ravid in a dream and confessed his innermost thoughts.

After mentioning Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Ravid writes:

Speaking of Dermer and Adelson, a few months ago U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice met with the leader of one of the major American Jewish organizations. When the latter asked Rice why she hadn’t met with Dermer[,] Rice responded, with her characteristic sarcasm, “He never asked to meet me.”

“Besides, I understood that he’s too busy traveling to Sheldon Adelson’s events in Las Vegas.”

This, it should be noted, was not a case of the administration giving a quote to Ravid, the way they did with Goldberg. But it’s interesting that this quote appears here. If Susan Rice said what she’s quoted here as saying, the Obama White House has completely lost it. This is especially true because while Obama has surrounded himself with mostly dim bulbs, Rice is actually whipsmart and tough as nails. And while Obama has generally hired those with a less-than-sterling opinion of Israel–including the Cabinet member Samantha Power, who entertained the idea of the U.S. invading Israel to impose a peace deal–Rice is not known to harbor any real Obama-esque contempt for Israel.

In other words, Rice was the last best hope for those who believed that somehow a sane Israel policy might yet emerge from this administration. The paranoia that strikes deep in this administration toward Republicans and pro-Israel Jewish groups was not thought to be shared by the one levelheaded thinker left in the Obama administration. Now we know that’s also false–at least if this story is to be believed (and, we should mention, it has yet to be confirmed by a non-Haaretz outlet).

Ravid continued:

Rice was referring to Dermer’s exceptional attendance as guest of honor at a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in March. That event served to prove to Obama’s aides that despite the “new leaf” Dermer had promised when he arrived in Washington only a few months earlier, he continued to dabble in American domestic politics as a sympathizer with the red, Republican side.

This is, of course, completely insane. Yair Rosenberg pointed out that Netanyahu’s previous ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, as the National Jewish Democratic Council boasted on its website, hosted at his home “Jewish community leaders, Democratic Party officials and others … at a dinner in honor of DNC Chairman Governor Tim Kaine” while Oren was still ambassador.

By Ravid’s logic–and the Obama administration’s, if the term “logic” can be used so generously–Netanyahu has chosen to actively politic on the side of the Democrats. He hasn’t, just as he hasn’t done so for the Republicans. Perhaps everyone suffering from Bibi Derangement Syndrome needs to just lie down for a while, away from Twitter.

Additionally, this story comports with what Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev wrote back in August, and which I quoted in September: “a very senior Washington figure recently told an Israeli counterpart that each step or statement made by Netanyahu is a-priori examined by the White House to see if it helps the Republicans or if Sheldon Adelson might be behind it.”

The Obama administration sees enemies everywhere, and sees its fiercest enemy as Republicans–Americans who sternly disagree with the embattled president. It helps explain why exceedingly strange gibberish emanates from the president and his advisors whenever the subject of Israel comes up. But until now, it seemed as though Susan Rice was immune to the Bibi Derangement Syndrome that had spread throughout the White House. If Israel has lost Susan Rice too because of her own obsession with Sheldon Adelson, the reality check for which this administration is long overdue is unlikely to ever arrive.

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