Commentary Magazine


Topic: Benjamin Netanyahu

Martin Indyk’s Appalling Answers

Ambassador Martin Indyk’s address last week to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, castigating Israel for “rampant settlement activity,” featured assertions that, as Elliott Abrams and Tom Wilson have noted, were simply wrong. Settlement activity was not rampant, and almost all of it was in areas Israel would retain under any peace agreement. Indyk nevertheless made it clear he subscribes to the “poof” theory of peace-process failure.  

Even more troubling than Indyk’s prepared remarks, however, were his unscripted replies in the Q & A session. By pre-arrangement, he took only three questions–all from the Institute’s executive director, Robert Satloff. In response to the first, about settlements, Indyk said he had no idea what Satloff was talking about. In response to the second, about Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, Indyk misstated the year Israel first raised the issue–by 14 years. In response to the third, about the U.S. role in the process, Indyk acknowledged that Mahmoud Abbas was “quite content to sit back and enjoy the show” of Israeli-American disharmony, but Indyk said it was a “puzzle” to figure out “what happened” after that. 

I think I can help here. I know what Satloff was talking about; I know when recognition of a Jewish state was first raised; and I have a theory about Abbas that might solve the mystery that puzzled Indyk. 

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Ambassador Martin Indyk’s address last week to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, castigating Israel for “rampant settlement activity,” featured assertions that, as Elliott Abrams and Tom Wilson have noted, were simply wrong. Settlement activity was not rampant, and almost all of it was in areas Israel would retain under any peace agreement. Indyk nevertheless made it clear he subscribes to the “poof” theory of peace-process failure.  

Even more troubling than Indyk’s prepared remarks, however, were his unscripted replies in the Q & A session. By pre-arrangement, he took only three questions–all from the Institute’s executive director, Robert Satloff. In response to the first, about settlements, Indyk said he had no idea what Satloff was talking about. In response to the second, about Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, Indyk misstated the year Israel first raised the issue–by 14 years. In response to the third, about the U.S. role in the process, Indyk acknowledged that Mahmoud Abbas was “quite content to sit back and enjoy the show” of Israeli-American disharmony, but Indyk said it was a “puzzle” to figure out “what happened” after that. 

I think I can help here. I know what Satloff was talking about; I know when recognition of a Jewish state was first raised; and I have a theory about Abbas that might solve the mystery that puzzled Indyk. 

In his first question, Satloff noted that an “unnamed American diplomat” (reliably reported to have been Martin Indyk) told the Israeli media that settlements were the reason talks ended, but Satloff informed Indyk that others took a different view, believing Prime Minister Netanyahu, far from authorizing “rampant” settlement activity, in fact limited it, but had failed to “take public credit for how little there was,” lest he isolate the Israeli right. Indyk replied: 

I’ve not heard of this second account — it doesn’t make any sense to me — and I honestly don’t understand what it means. Maybe someone else can explain it to me.  

Allow me. When Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, he sought to correct what he saw as the main error in his first term (1996-99): governing from a narrow political base. In his second term, he formed as wide a coalition as possible to negotiate peace. Ron Dermer, currently Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., described Netanyahu’s approach in 2009. The approach gave Netanyahu support across the Israeli political spectrum, so he could explore a different path to peace than those that had failed. He supported the principle that Jews could build anywhere in their capital or in the disputed territories, while in practice significantly limited actual building. Indyk’s ungracious (not to say undiplomatic) response to Satloff’s question demonstrates that Indyk was oblivious to this.   

In his reply to Satloff’s second question, on the Palestinian refusal to discuss recognition of a Jewish state, Indyk seemed to accept Abbas’s assertion this was “a new requirement.” Just two months earlier, though, Ambassador Dennis Ross stated unequivocally that it was first raised in 2000, and he had pointed words for those who pretend otherwise: 

When I hear it said that this is the first time this issue has been raised – the people who say that think that no one knows history… When we were at Camp David [in 2000], this issue was raised. 

The Palestinians still refuse to recognize a Jewish state 14 years later. Credulous journalists may report the issue as a last-minute obstacle, but one would not have expected the current U.S. peace envoy to permit such disinformation to stand.   

Replying to Satloff’s third question, musing on the mystery of Abbas’s withdrawal from serious negotiations after he observed the American-Israeli split, Indyk seemed oblivious to the fact that this was precisely the strategy Abbas announced in 2009 in the Washington Post: that he planned to do “nothing” in the peace process but watch the Obama administration pressure Netanyahu on settlements. This year, Abbas resorted yet again to the pretext of settlements as a reason to abandon negotiations.  

Abbas bet that an American administration that conducts its foreign policy like a troupe of innocents abroad would once again blame Israel. Indyk’s appalling performance last week demonstrated it was a good bet.

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Aid Can’t Buy Israel’s Silence on Iran Deal

National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

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National Security Advisor Susan Rice was in Israel this week to brief Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the latest developments in the nuclear talks with Iran. In doing so Rice, who was accompanied by top U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, said all the right things about the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the nuclear threat from Iran. Rice assured Netanyahu that the U.S. was committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and also touted the value of the American aid flowing to Israel. As the Times of Israel reported:

Rice said that the new deal “will take our total investment in Iron Dome, which has saved countless of Israeli lives, to nearly $900 million, a sign of our continued commitment to Israel’s security.”

“Every American dollar spent on Israel’s security is an investment in protecting the many interests that our nations share. Whether that’s preventing rockets from terrorizing the Israeli people, defending against the growing ballistic missile threat in the region, or advancing our commitment to defend freedom and democracy,” she went on.

Rice is right about that, since the money spent on bolstering its ally’s defense capabilities enhances U.S. security interests. But as welcome as those words may be, they aren’t enough to allay Israeli concerns about the nuclear talks with Iran that resume next week. As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu emerged from a session with Rice repeating his concerns that the U.S. is being dragged into a “bad deal” with Iran. While the Western press discounts virtually anything the Israeli leader said on this topic, the plain fact remains that the impetus from both the Obama administration and its European allies that virtually all informed observers think will result in the deal they have been seeking will be one in which Iran is allowed to keep its centrifuges and go on enriching uranium. So long as that is true, Iran will remain weeks or, at best, months away from a nuclear weapon. Under these circumstances, Americans need to realize that the damage the negotiations with Iran are doing to Israel’s security cannot be erased by even the most generous grants from Washington.

The Rice visit encapsulated what has become a familiar Obama tactic to deal with the Israelis. The administration pressures Israel on the peace process with the Palestinians, sandbags them with selective and misleading leaks about those talks (as Martin Indyk did after the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative) and conducts negotiations with Iran that are clearly headed toward a deal that will leave Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure intact, a state of affairs that allows the Jewish state’s very existence to be subject to the ability of Washington to enforce an agreement with Iran that may be unenforceable. And after all that, the Israelis are supposed to cheer Obama and express gratitude because the administration has maintained the alliance and poured more money into vital projects like Iron Dome.

It should be understood that this weapons system is a key part of Israel’s defense strategy in dealing with the independent Palestinian state in all but name ruled by Hamas in Gaza. The strengthening of the security alliance with Israel merely maintains what other presidents began, but nevertheless Obama deserves credit for increasing the amounts spent on these projects.

When viewed in this context it is easy to understand why some Israelis are beginning to question the value of the massive aid that is given to them by the U.S. As Caroline Glick wrote in the Jerusalem Post last week when discussing the views of an isolationist like Senator Rand Paul who opposes all foreign aid including that given to Israel, while the help from the U.S. is important, it undercuts the country’s “strategic independence.”

Given the importance of weapons like Iron Dome that have only been made possible by American assistance, I’m not prepared to go as far as joining her in endorsing Paul’s anti-aid position. Israel still cannot afford to be cut off from U.S. military help if it is to maintain its qualitative edge over any combination of actual or potential foes. But neither should we accept Rice’s nice words about the U.S. “investment” as adequate compensation for the underhanded way in which Indyk has sandbagged Netanyahu, let alone the coming betrayal on Iran.

The administration seems to operate on the assumption that keeping the aid dollars flowing to Jerusalem covers a multitude of its sins even to the point of making up for an American push for détente with the vicious anti-Semitic and potentially genocidal regime in Tehran. But though he is wisely doing everything to not rise to Obama’s bait and to keep the daylight between Israel and the United States to a minimum, Netanyahu has to know that a tipping point may soon be coming in the balance between American aid and diplomatic treachery with Iran. It’s not clear what, if anything, Netanyahu will believe Israel is capable of doing in response to a “bad deal” with Iran up to and including a strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities before it is too late to stop their drive to a bomb. But whatever his decision might be, no one in Washington should labor under the illusion that Israeli acquiescence to an Iran deal can be bought with an anti-missile system even if some cash is thrown in on the side.

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A Postmortem of Inept U.S. Diplomacy

Secretary of State John Kerry’s disastrous attempt to bring peace to the Middle East is not going quietly into the night after its collapse in the last month. Kerry made clear his own prejudices, as well as his misunderstanding about the reality of the conflict, when he told the Trilateral Commission that Israel would become an “apartheid state” if it failed to make peace. Though Kerry had to offer a non-apology apology in which he regretted his choice of words, the slur illustrated his own animus for the Jewish state’s positions. It also was fuel to the fire for the campaign of hatred that is bolstered by such canards. But not satisfied with that shot fired over the bow of the Netanyahu government, the administration doubled down on the “Israel is to blame” argument with an interview given by anonymous “senior American officials” with Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea available here on YNet.com in English.

There is nothing terribly surprising with the postmortem on the talks, the source for which (if you believe Haaretz) is believed to be Kerry’s envoy Martin Indyk. Indyk, who is resigning his post as U.S. negotiator and going back to his Washington sinecure at the Brookings Institution, has a long history of bad blood with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu dating back to his controversial tenure as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the 1990s. But rather than merely file this away as another example of the poisonous personal politics that can intrude into diplomacy, a close yet critical reading of the interview reveals more about why the Obama administration’s peace efforts failed than anything about what the Israelis have done. Like the public statements made by both President Obama and Secretary Kerry in which they praised Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas while trashing Netanyahu, the U.S. has repeated the Clinton administration’s mistake in whitewashing Yasir Arafat in the 1990s. In doing so, they have effectively made the already slim chances for peace even more unlikely.

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Secretary of State John Kerry’s disastrous attempt to bring peace to the Middle East is not going quietly into the night after its collapse in the last month. Kerry made clear his own prejudices, as well as his misunderstanding about the reality of the conflict, when he told the Trilateral Commission that Israel would become an “apartheid state” if it failed to make peace. Though Kerry had to offer a non-apology apology in which he regretted his choice of words, the slur illustrated his own animus for the Jewish state’s positions. It also was fuel to the fire for the campaign of hatred that is bolstered by such canards. But not satisfied with that shot fired over the bow of the Netanyahu government, the administration doubled down on the “Israel is to blame” argument with an interview given by anonymous “senior American officials” with Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea available here on YNet.com in English.

There is nothing terribly surprising with the postmortem on the talks, the source for which (if you believe Haaretz) is believed to be Kerry’s envoy Martin Indyk. Indyk, who is resigning his post as U.S. negotiator and going back to his Washington sinecure at the Brookings Institution, has a long history of bad blood with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu dating back to his controversial tenure as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the 1990s. But rather than merely file this away as another example of the poisonous personal politics that can intrude into diplomacy, a close yet critical reading of the interview reveals more about why the Obama administration’s peace efforts failed than anything about what the Israelis have done. Like the public statements made by both President Obama and Secretary Kerry in which they praised Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas while trashing Netanyahu, the U.S. has repeated the Clinton administration’s mistake in whitewashing Yasir Arafat in the 1990s. In doing so, they have effectively made the already slim chances for peace even more unlikely.

The details of Indyk’s complaints about Israel aren’t terribly persuasive. Though he attempts to portray Netanyahu as intransigent, even his interviewer is forced to point out that even the prime minister’s rival Tzipi Livni, whom Indyk praises extravagantly as a “heroine,” admitted that in fact it was Netanyahu who had moved off of his previous positions on a possible agreement while Abbas had not moved an inch.

Indyk counters that by trashing Israel’s entirely reasonable demands for security guarantees that would ensure that West Bank territory it gave up would not turn into another version of Gaza after Ariel Sharon’s disastrous 2005 retreat. He also claims that Abbas made great concessions in agreeing to a deal in which Israel would keep Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and 80 percent of West Bank settlements. But having agreed to terms that roughly match what Netanyahu is believed to have offered, Abbas walked away from the talks rather than negotiate their implementation. That isn’t peacemaking. It’s obstruction that allowed him to avoid taking responsibility for making a peace that he fears his people don’t want.

Indyk also tells us a great deal about administration cluelessness when he admits he didn’t understand why Abbas refused to even discuss recognizing Israel as a Jewish state even when the Israelis were preparing versions of a statement that would at the same time recognize “Palestine” as the nation state of Palestinian Arabs.

“We couldn’t understand why it bothered him so much,” the anonymous U.S. official said. Really? Saying those two symbolic words—“Jewish state”—would have gone a long way to convincing the Israeli public that Abbas was sincere about wanting to end the conflict for all time. His refusal signaled that the PA and its new partner Hamas want no part of any treaty that signals the end of their century-old war against Zionism. If Indyk and Kerry didn’t understand the significance of this issue, they are not only demonstrating their unwillingness to hold the Palestinians accountable, they are also showing an alarming lack of diplomatic skill.

Finally, Indyk’s focus on Israel’s diplomatic offenses during the process is also important. Indyk can’t let go of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s criticism of Kerry as a man in search of a Nobel Peace Prize, terming it a “great insult.” But it had nothing to do with the negotiations and might well have been a sign that the leading right-winger in the Cabinet was alarmed at how much Netanyahu was conceding in the talks.

Lastly, Indyk falls back on the same settlements excuse that Israel’s critics always cite as proof that the Jewish state is obstructing peace. But the focus on how many “settlements” were being built during the talks is a red herring because almost all of the “settlements”—which are actually merely new houses being built in existing communities and not new towns—were being built in exactly the places Abbas supposedly had conceded would stay in Israel. In other words, the building had no impact on the peace terms. For Indyk to specifically blame the announcement that several hundred new apartments would be built in the Gilo section of Jerusalem as the straw that broke the camel’s back of peace is absurd. Gilo, a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in the capital, would remain inside of Israel even if peace were reached. How, then, could a few more apartments in a place that would never be surrendered by Israel serve as an acceptable rationale for a Palestinian walkout, as Indyk indicates?

The answer to that question is that the Americans are so invested in Abbas’s shaky credibility as a peacemaker that they were prepared to swallow any excuse from him. The truth is Abbas never had any genuine interest in peace and fled the talks the first chance he got. He indicated that lack of interest by going back to the United Nations in an end run around the talks and sealed it by making a deal with Hamas rather than Israel. But all Indyk can do is blame Netanyahu. The interview tells us all we need to know about how inept American diplomacy has become.

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Kerry’s Regime-Change Fantasy

Despite the attention received by yesterday’s scoop from the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin, in which we learned that Secretary of State John Kerry raised the specter of Israeli apartheid, it probably deserves a bit more. That’s because there was more to Kerry’s comments than the apartheid claim, and they demonstrate the extent of Kerry’s ignorance on Middle Eastern politics. As Rogin notes:

It wasn’t the only controversial comment on the Middle East that Kerry made during his remarks to the Trilateral Commission, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast. Kerry also repeated his warning that a failure of Middle East peace talks could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens. He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible. He lashed out against Israeli settlement-building. And Kerry said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders share the blame for the current impasse in the talks.

The key part in that parade of nonsense is: “He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible.” The most harmful effect of such comments is not that they insult Israeli and Palestinian leaders–they do, but Kerry doesn’t care, and they’re all adults anyway and can roll with the punches. The real danger here is that Kerry is revealing that he doesn’t know anything about Israeli or Palestinian politics if he thinks that “regime change,” so to speak, on either side might get him closer to his Nobel Prize.

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Despite the attention received by yesterday’s scoop from the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin, in which we learned that Secretary of State John Kerry raised the specter of Israeli apartheid, it probably deserves a bit more. That’s because there was more to Kerry’s comments than the apartheid claim, and they demonstrate the extent of Kerry’s ignorance on Middle Eastern politics. As Rogin notes:

It wasn’t the only controversial comment on the Middle East that Kerry made during his remarks to the Trilateral Commission, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast. Kerry also repeated his warning that a failure of Middle East peace talks could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens. He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible. He lashed out against Israeli settlement-building. And Kerry said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders share the blame for the current impasse in the talks.

The key part in that parade of nonsense is: “He suggested that a change in either the Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make achieving a peace deal more feasible.” The most harmful effect of such comments is not that they insult Israeli and Palestinian leaders–they do, but Kerry doesn’t care, and they’re all adults anyway and can roll with the punches. The real danger here is that Kerry is revealing that he doesn’t know anything about Israeli or Palestinian politics if he thinks that “regime change,” so to speak, on either side might get him closer to his Nobel Prize.

On the Israeli side, the idea of helping to collapse Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition to get more obedient peaceniks in office is an ongoing farce during the Obama presidency. Even the president’s staunch defenders noticed quite early on that he was intent on spending energy and political capital trying to compel change in the Israeli coalition so he could get what he wanted. (This is the same administration that legitimized Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “election” “victory” in Iran.)

Barack Obama’s irrational hatred of Netanyahu was mirrored by the left in general, so he didn’t get quite the pushback such a scheme deserved. Putting aside the moral implications of destabilizing an ally in order to control it, the Obama administration should have learned by now that it would fail anyway. There has been an election since Obama’s early Mideast foibles, and that election produced a governing coalition that reflected precisely what I talked about last week: There is a broad political consensus in Israel, especially regarding the peace process, and Israeli democracy, however imperfect, tends to keep that consensus in office.

What the Obama administration wants for Israel is not what the Israeli people want for their country. The beauty of democracy is that this can be expressed at the ballot box for all to see. Kerry, then, has no excuse. We all know he’s wrong about Israeli politics, and thanks to regular parliamentary elections there’s no hiding it. Kerry, for obvious reasons, did not have much credibility on this issue to begin with; he would be foolish to bury whatever’s left of it with such pronouncements.

He is no less wrong about the Palestinians, but for different reasons. I can understand any frustration he might have with Mahmoud Abbas. The PA leader demanded pricey preconditions even to participate in talks, and then abandoned them to run into the arms of Hamas. Though it should have been obvious from the beginning that Abbas was not going to make peace and that he was playing Kerry, it probably still stings.

But who, exactly, does Kerry think is waiting in the wings to replace Abbas? Palestinian society is shot-through with hatred for Jews and anti-Semitic propaganda, and the high-profile alternative to Abbas’s crew has always been the more extreme Hamas. Additionally, Salam Fayyad’s exit from the PA government proved that the Palestinian Authority couldn’t even tolerate a reformer whose hands they had already tied. The mere presence of a man with liberalizing ideas was enough for the antibodies to attack the infection.

The Fayyad fiasco shows something else: it’s not true that there aren’t Palestinian moderates or Palestinians who want peace (or would at least prefer it to their leaders’ bombs-and-poverty governance). But they do not appear to be in the majority and, even more significantly, they do not reside in a democracy. Abbas governs by suffocating authoritarianism. There is simply no institutional structure to empower moderates.

This is one reason Fayyad’s departure was so deeply mourned in the West. Even when stymied by his rivals, Fayyad accomplished something modest by simply existing within the Palestinian bureaucracy. Though he couldn’t put his ideas into practice, he could infuse the internal debate with them and perhaps even hire likeminded staffers who, in the future, would be nearer the levers of power and greater in number. It might have been a long shot, but it was something.

As the American aid to the PA and Israeli military cooperation with it demonstrates, the alternatives to Abbas currently are unthinkable as peace partners and almost uniformly more enamored of violence. Abbas is no hero, but if Kerry thinks a change in Palestinian leadership would benefit his quest for peace, he’s even more confused than he appears.

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Obama Deserves Blame for Talks Collapse

When speaking at a press conference in South Korea today about the collapse of the Middle East peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State Kerry, President Obama adopted a tone of sorrowful resignation about the intransigence of both sides:

“As far as the Middle East is concerned, this is a problem that’s been going on for 60, 70, 80 years.  We didn’t anticipate that we were going to solve it during the course of a six or nine-month negotiation.  … What we haven’t seen is, frankly, the kind of political will to actually make tough decisions.  And that’s been true on both sides. And the fact that most recently President Abbas took the unhelpful step of rejoining talks with Hamas is just one of a series of choices that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have made that are not conducive to trying to resolve this crisis. … Folks can posture; folks can cling to maximalist positions; but realistically, there’s one door, and that is the two parties getting together and making some very difficult political compromises in order to secure the future of both Israelis and Palestinians for future generations.”

In doing so, the president not only deflected blame from Kerry and the administration but also refused to frankly acknowledge that it has been the Palestinian Authority who torpedoed the talks both by violating their agreements and going to the United Nations for recognition but also by concluding an alliance with the Hamas terrorists which the U.S. has always acknowledged to be incompatible with the peace process.

But the blame doesn’t only belong to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas. Were he truly being honest about the events of the past several months, the president would have to acknowledge that the series of events that led up the current debacle has been set in motion in no small measure by himself. When the history of the fool’s errand that Kerry has wasted so much of the last year on is written, Obama must bear much of the responsibility for the mixed signals sent to the region that encouraged Abbas to think he would be let off the hook for delivering what amounts to a fourth Palestinian “no” to Israeli offers of statehood and peace.

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When speaking at a press conference in South Korea today about the collapse of the Middle East peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State Kerry, President Obama adopted a tone of sorrowful resignation about the intransigence of both sides:

“As far as the Middle East is concerned, this is a problem that’s been going on for 60, 70, 80 years.  We didn’t anticipate that we were going to solve it during the course of a six or nine-month negotiation.  … What we haven’t seen is, frankly, the kind of political will to actually make tough decisions.  And that’s been true on both sides. And the fact that most recently President Abbas took the unhelpful step of rejoining talks with Hamas is just one of a series of choices that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have made that are not conducive to trying to resolve this crisis. … Folks can posture; folks can cling to maximalist positions; but realistically, there’s one door, and that is the two parties getting together and making some very difficult political compromises in order to secure the future of both Israelis and Palestinians for future generations.”

In doing so, the president not only deflected blame from Kerry and the administration but also refused to frankly acknowledge that it has been the Palestinian Authority who torpedoed the talks both by violating their agreements and going to the United Nations for recognition but also by concluding an alliance with the Hamas terrorists which the U.S. has always acknowledged to be incompatible with the peace process.

But the blame doesn’t only belong to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas. Were he truly being honest about the events of the past several months, the president would have to acknowledge that the series of events that led up the current debacle has been set in motion in no small measure by himself. When the history of the fool’s errand that Kerry has wasted so much of the last year on is written, Obama must bear much of the responsibility for the mixed signals sent to the region that encouraged Abbas to think he would be let off the hook for delivering what amounts to a fourth Palestinian “no” to Israeli offers of statehood and peace.

Throughout the period of negotiations Obama has concentrated all of his criticisms and all public criticism on Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu. In interviews and public statements, he has continually warned Israel that it must make concessions and take risks for peace. He bolstered the conventional wisdom accepted by most of the international media and the U.S. foreign-policy establishment that Israel had not done the necessary soul searching or come to the conclusion that it must embrace peace rather than maximal territorial demands. In doing so, he acted as if the history of the last 20 years, during which Israel has made far-reaching territorial concessions, empowered the Palestinian Authority, and withdrawn completely from Gaza, never happened. American promises given to past Israeli prime ministers about support for Israel’s claims to settlement blocs and Jerusalem were treated as irrelevant. The three Palestinian refusals of Israeli peace offers in 2000, 2001, and 2008, including an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem, were thrown down the memory hole. Despite his embrace of a two-state solution and another offer of statehood made during the recent talks, Netanyahu was depicted as intransigent.

At the same time, Obama spoke of Abbas as a strong champion of peace even when the PA leader was embracing the released terrorist murderers that the U.S. had pressured Israel into releasing as a bribe for the Palestinians to return to the talks. The Palestinians never budged during the talks. Nor were they willing, even in principle, to drop their demands for a “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees or to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Yet, even as he was continually bashing Netanyahu, Abbas got off scot-free. And when Abbas fled the negotiations that he had never wanted to be part of by going to the U.N., Kerry inexplicably blamed it all on an Israeli building project in a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem that no one—not even the Palestinians—expects Israel to give up even in the event of peace.

Tilting the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction may have been intended to weaken Netanyahu and empower Abbas to make peace. But it had the opposite effect. Perhaps Obama and Kerry thought Abbas—now serving in the 10th year of a five-year presidential term and under pressure from Hamas—was too fragile to withstand pressure to make peace. But by giving him a pass, they sent a clear signal that not even a unity deal with Hamas would result in severe consequences for the PA.

It’s entirely possible, if not probable, that not even tough pressure on Abbas to do what had to be done to make peace would have worked. Palestinian political culture is still predicated on a vision of national identity that is inextricably linked to the cause of Israel’s elimination. But the U.S. didn’t even try to push Abbas while hammering Netanyahu. When given the chance to make it clear to Abbas that his choice was between peace and complete isolation, the president punted. The result is—assuming the unity pact doesn’t collapse—a new PA that is bound to Hamas’s rejectionism that will also strengthen the most radical elements in Fatah. Rather than taking bows for a gallant effort, the administration ought to be admitting that it has taken a bad situation and made it worse.

It is no surprise that the peace process failed since the conditions that would have made it possible were not present. But any slim hopes for a deal were destroyed by Obama’s obsession with battering Israel and his delusions about the Palestinians.

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The Rise and Fall of Tzipi Livni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prisoner Releases Undermine Peace Process

Those seeking to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians might conclude that adding more terrorists into the equation is unlikely to help matters. That much stands to reason for most people. Unfortunately, this simple truth seems to be lost on Secretary of State John Kerry and his assistant in the negotiations, Martin Indyk. They are currently putting pressure on the Israelis to release the next installment of prisoners being demanded by the Palestinians. Supposedly this will help advance the two sides along the path to peace. Caught up in the ludicrous process of negotiating about negotiating, Kerry and Indyk might benefit from taking a step back and asking themselves what kind of partner for peace demands the release of terrorists. Terrorists belong in prison, and no one interested in a just and secure settlement between the two sides would for a moment think otherwise. Yet Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t simply demand the release of these murderers; once they are released these individuals and their families are rewarded with fanfare and sizable cash payments.

Astonishingly, the Israeli government has already surrendered to pressure from the Obama administration and reluctantly capitulated to these outrageous demands. As David Horovitz recently wrote, in jeopardizing its most basic obligation to uphold the safety of its citizenry, Prime Minister Netanyahu undermines the legitimacy of his government. Up until now that government had continued to support Netanyahu in his policy of American-imposed appeasement of the Palestinians. However, following the recent terrorist attack on an Israeli family visiting Hebron for the Passover holiday, many of Netanyahu’s Cabinet members have insisted they will not go along with this policy any further until Abbas issues a full public condemnation.

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Those seeking to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians might conclude that adding more terrorists into the equation is unlikely to help matters. That much stands to reason for most people. Unfortunately, this simple truth seems to be lost on Secretary of State John Kerry and his assistant in the negotiations, Martin Indyk. They are currently putting pressure on the Israelis to release the next installment of prisoners being demanded by the Palestinians. Supposedly this will help advance the two sides along the path to peace. Caught up in the ludicrous process of negotiating about negotiating, Kerry and Indyk might benefit from taking a step back and asking themselves what kind of partner for peace demands the release of terrorists. Terrorists belong in prison, and no one interested in a just and secure settlement between the two sides would for a moment think otherwise. Yet Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t simply demand the release of these murderers; once they are released these individuals and their families are rewarded with fanfare and sizable cash payments.

Astonishingly, the Israeli government has already surrendered to pressure from the Obama administration and reluctantly capitulated to these outrageous demands. As David Horovitz recently wrote, in jeopardizing its most basic obligation to uphold the safety of its citizenry, Prime Minister Netanyahu undermines the legitimacy of his government. Up until now that government had continued to support Netanyahu in his policy of American-imposed appeasement of the Palestinians. However, following the recent terrorist attack on an Israeli family visiting Hebron for the Passover holiday, many of Netanyahu’s Cabinet members have insisted they will not go along with this policy any further until Abbas issues a full public condemnation.

No one who is both honest and informed about the Palestinians will be at all surprised to learn that Abbas has failed to supply any kind of meaningful condemnation of this murderous attack. The best that the Palestinian president could muster were some words against the attack offered behind closed doors to a group of Israeli politicians visiting Ramallah earlier in the week. Yet Abbas steadfastly refused to come outside and publicly condemn the attacks to the waiting press. The Palestinians have presented Kerry with so many moments when he should have stepped away. This disgraceful refusal to fully condemn the cold-blooded murder of a father of five in front of his family should be the moment when Kerry’s underlying sense of decency kicks in and he washes his hands of Abbas. Yet he can’t and he won’t. He can’t bring himself to walk away from what many have long suspected of being a vanity project.

The Palestinian Authority’s incitement to terror through public pageants and its media network, as well as the financial backing it awards terrorists and Abbas’s shameless refusal to publicly condemn the murder of Israeli civilians, should all be enough to convince Kerry and his team that these are not people they should be mixed-up with. Instead, it seems that American officials are joining with the Palestinian Authority in pressuring for the release of more terrorists. If the last nine months of talks had shown any sign of progress at all, that would be one thing. But all the latest round of negotiations revealed was the full extent of Palestinian intransigence and unreasonableness. If Kerry and Indyk were to be honest with themselves, could they really still maintain that they are doing all this for the good of the two parties that they claim they want to help? And is there any way that it could be argued that weakening Israel and emboldening the Palestinians is at all in America’s interests?

Abbas’s latest affront has been too much for many of Netanyahu’s coalition partners as well as for some of his own ministers. It now seems, at least for the moment, that even if he wants to Netanyahu has no way of pursuing this prisoner release further without breaking up his government just for the sake of humoring Kerry’s “peace process” misadventure. 

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Why Netanyahu Won’t “Go Big”

It turns out the Middle East peace process isn’t quite dead yet. According to the State Department, the “gaps are narrowing” in the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that are still taking place despite the fact that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas formally scuttled the negotiations last week by restarting his futile efforts to gain recognition for Palestinian statehood via the United Nations. Combined with a statement made by Abbas to an Arabic newspaper that he would be willing to keep talking after the expiration of the April deadline provided they were conducted according to his dictates, Secretary of State John Kerry’s brave talk about his initiative still having a chance of success looks a little less silly today.

Nevertheless, given that the Palestinians haven’t really budged an inch on any substantive issue since the talks re-started last year and that Kerry blamed Israel for what happened last week in a statement as bizarre (“poof”) as it was mendacious, it’s hard to see why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be inclined to play along with this farce any longer. Having already demonstrated that they are only interested in forcing Israel to pay for their presence at the table with concessions like the release of terrorist murderers or building freezes in the West Bank or even Jerusalem, it’s clear that Israel has little to gain from more such negotiations. But if the Palestinians do keep talking after April, there’s no doubt that the Israelis will be there too, even if it means bribing Abbas by freeing more murderers. The reason for this will not be because Netanyahu is weak or that the process has an actual chance of success. It will be due to the fact that the prime minister understands that Israel must never walk away from negotiations no matter how futile they are. Moreover, the futility of these efforts is precisely why he knows that his government must not, despite Kerry’s smears, be the one that breaks up the party.

Some Israeli right-wingers fear that Netanyahu will soon break under American pressure and embrace territorial withdrawals while perhaps not even getting a symbolic promise that this means the end of the conflict from Abbas. They’re not the only ones. Faithful Obama administration cheerleader Jeffrey Goldberg writes today in his latest column that the only reason Kerry is persisting in his efforts is because he thinks Netanyahu will do just that and, like Ariel Sharon before him, blow up his Likud Party and transform Israeli politics to get peace. But the problem with this scenario is the one point that even Goldberg concedes is the weak point in Kerry’s efforts: Abbas. The Palestinian has no intention of signing a peace deal under any circumstances.

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It turns out the Middle East peace process isn’t quite dead yet. According to the State Department, the “gaps are narrowing” in the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that are still taking place despite the fact that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas formally scuttled the negotiations last week by restarting his futile efforts to gain recognition for Palestinian statehood via the United Nations. Combined with a statement made by Abbas to an Arabic newspaper that he would be willing to keep talking after the expiration of the April deadline provided they were conducted according to his dictates, Secretary of State John Kerry’s brave talk about his initiative still having a chance of success looks a little less silly today.

Nevertheless, given that the Palestinians haven’t really budged an inch on any substantive issue since the talks re-started last year and that Kerry blamed Israel for what happened last week in a statement as bizarre (“poof”) as it was mendacious, it’s hard to see why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be inclined to play along with this farce any longer. Having already demonstrated that they are only interested in forcing Israel to pay for their presence at the table with concessions like the release of terrorist murderers or building freezes in the West Bank or even Jerusalem, it’s clear that Israel has little to gain from more such negotiations. But if the Palestinians do keep talking after April, there’s no doubt that the Israelis will be there too, even if it means bribing Abbas by freeing more murderers. The reason for this will not be because Netanyahu is weak or that the process has an actual chance of success. It will be due to the fact that the prime minister understands that Israel must never walk away from negotiations no matter how futile they are. Moreover, the futility of these efforts is precisely why he knows that his government must not, despite Kerry’s smears, be the one that breaks up the party.

Some Israeli right-wingers fear that Netanyahu will soon break under American pressure and embrace territorial withdrawals while perhaps not even getting a symbolic promise that this means the end of the conflict from Abbas. They’re not the only ones. Faithful Obama administration cheerleader Jeffrey Goldberg writes today in his latest column that the only reason Kerry is persisting in his efforts is because he thinks Netanyahu will do just that and, like Ariel Sharon before him, blow up his Likud Party and transform Israeli politics to get peace. But the problem with this scenario is the one point that even Goldberg concedes is the weak point in Kerry’s efforts: Abbas. The Palestinian has no intention of signing a peace deal under any circumstances.

If Netanyahu is, despite everything, going to keep showing up every time the Americans beckon, it isn’t because he is now suddenly willing to “go big” and make peace happen. Though his offer was not quite as generous (or should we say foolhardy) as the ones authored by his predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, he has still put a two-state solution offering Abbas almost all of the West Bank for an independent state. But the notion that peace depends on the person whom Goldberg derides as “this man of inaction” to “risk his political career for a final deal” is laughable. Indeed, by writing these words, Goldberg has more or less forfeited his status as an expert on the Middle East in favor of the title of faithful court stenographer to Kerry.

Before these talks started, wiser heads than Kerry warned the secretary that with the Palestinians divided between the Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza, Abbas was in no position to make peace. Everything that has happened since then has only confirmed that obvious fact as Abbas has stonewalled during the talks and seized on the first available pretext to flee them.

No prisoner release or settlement freeze will entice Abbas to say the two little words—“Jewish state”—that would indicate he was willing to end rather than pause the conflict with Israel. Nor is there anything that Netanyahu can conceivably do or say that would cause this aging, petty tyrant to risk his life merely to create a Palestinian state. Even nailing himself to the cross of settlement destruction—to use the inapt metaphor that Goldberg says is preferred by Vice President Biden—won’t get Abbas to make peace, and Netanyahu knows it. Though President Obama and Kerry laud Abbas as a man of peace, his unwillingness to speak of an end of the conflict indicates that he is no more willing to compromise and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn than Arafat was.

That leaves Netanyahu with the unpleasant task of managing a conflict that can’t be solved by peace or war. That means showing up for peace talks but having no illusions about it being a fool’s errand. In doing so he may appear to Kerry and his friend Goldberg as a mere “mayor of Israel.” Netanyahu may be a prickly customer who inspires animus in most of his American interlocutors, but he is not stupid. Destroying the Likud to impress Kerry may sound like vision to Goldberg but Netanyahu remembers what happened when Ariel Sharon tried the same thing less than a decade ago before his Gaza withdrawal fiasco. The prime minister has no intention of sacrificing himself just to give Abbas one more chance to prove he can’t or won’t make peace. Anyone, in Israel or the United States, who thinks he will is underestimating both his intelligence and his political acumen.

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Israel Has Few Options With Palestinians

The Palestinian Authority has thumbed its nose at both Israel and the peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry. By making it clear that it won’t back a U.S. framework for continued negotiations or to agree to any of the mainly symbolic measures that would indicate they are willing to end the conflict with Israel, it’s clear PA leader Mahmoud Abbas seized on the first flimsy pretext for walking out on the talks that came along. The fact that he has been rewarded for this intransigence with a mendacious statement from Kerry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that turned the truth on its head and placed the blame for the collapse of his initiative on Israel will only make it even less likely that Abbas will be more amenable in the future. That leaves both the U.S. and the parties with the dilemma of what to do next.

Abbas is happily returning to the Palestinians’ pointless campaign for more recognition from the United Nations and its constituent organizations. That won’t do a thing for the Palestinian people either in terms of their desire for independence or their crying need for a better government both in the Fatah-run West Bank and in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Kerry is pondering how to find an excuse for a continuation of his fool’s errand in the Middle East.  Common sense as well as the interests of the Obama administration would indicate that putting the entire enterprise on hold is both the better part of valor and an opportunity to devote his department to more important foreign policy problems.

But it is Israel that is in the most delicate position of the three parts to this love/hate triangle. They would like to put pressure on the Palestinians to get back to the table and to do something to make it clear to Kerry that he won’t get away with scapegoating the Jewish state. But options for doing either of those things are neither palatable nor in the country’s best interests.

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The Palestinian Authority has thumbed its nose at both Israel and the peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry. By making it clear that it won’t back a U.S. framework for continued negotiations or to agree to any of the mainly symbolic measures that would indicate they are willing to end the conflict with Israel, it’s clear PA leader Mahmoud Abbas seized on the first flimsy pretext for walking out on the talks that came along. The fact that he has been rewarded for this intransigence with a mendacious statement from Kerry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that turned the truth on its head and placed the blame for the collapse of his initiative on Israel will only make it even less likely that Abbas will be more amenable in the future. That leaves both the U.S. and the parties with the dilemma of what to do next.

Abbas is happily returning to the Palestinians’ pointless campaign for more recognition from the United Nations and its constituent organizations. That won’t do a thing for the Palestinian people either in terms of their desire for independence or their crying need for a better government both in the Fatah-run West Bank and in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Kerry is pondering how to find an excuse for a continuation of his fool’s errand in the Middle East.  Common sense as well as the interests of the Obama administration would indicate that putting the entire enterprise on hold is both the better part of valor and an opportunity to devote his department to more important foreign policy problems.

But it is Israel that is in the most delicate position of the three parts to this love/hate triangle. They would like to put pressure on the Palestinians to get back to the table and to do something to make it clear to Kerry that he won’t get away with scapegoating the Jewish state. But options for doing either of those things are neither palatable nor in the country’s best interests.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government are rightly outraged by Kerry’s offhand swipe at them yesterday when he claimed that the announcement of a housing project in a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem was the reason the talks collapsed. Not only did that have nothing to do with the Palestinian decision to bug out of the process, it was also false to claim that Israel had ever promised not to build in its capital, let alone in established areas that no one questions would stay in the Jewish state even in the event of a peace treaty. But there is little the Israelis can do to make their displeasure with the Americans felt that would not harm an alliance that is essential to its security. While Netanyahu has proved in the past that attacks on his policy of defending the unity of the capital only serve to strengthen him, venting anger at Kerry won’t accomplish anything. As with past insults delivered by President Obama, Netanyahu knows all too well that keeping his powder dry is the best, indeed, only option.

But Israel does have substantial leverage over the Palestinians. The PA depends on Israel for all sorts of revenue as well as on cooperation to keep their ramshackle government and the shoddy services it provides its people from collapse. Even more important, cooperation between the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus does more than deter terrorism against the Jewish state. It also ensures the personal survival of Abbas and his Fatah faction against potential trouble from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. If Israel really pulled the plug on the PA — rather than just taking symbolic steps such as Netanyahu’s order to end meetings between Israeli officials and their Palestinian counterparts, the Fatah apparatus would collapse.

While that sounds good to Israelis who dream of formal annexation of the West Bank in a one state solution that would exclude any Palestinian self-government, that is the last thing Netanyahu wants. The PA foments terrorism and incites hatred of Jews and Israel in its official media. People who have made it clear they won’t make peace with Israel under virtually any circumstances — as Abbas proved in 2008 when he fled talks with Ehud Olmert rather than accept independence — run it. But at this point it is also a necessary evil that Netanyahu understands that he must tolerate.

Without the PA, the task of maintaining Israel’s security would be even tougher. Nor is anyone in Jerusalem seriously interested in returning to the pre-Oslo status quo where the Israelis directly administered the West Bank. Netanyahu can make his displeasure with the PA felt for its UN gambit. But there are limits to how far he can go in punishing them that have nothing to do with American pressure.

Netanyahu would be foolish to go on releasing terrorist murderers to bribe Abbas to come back to the negotiations. Nor should he be asked to make any other unilateral concessions merely for the sake of talks that Abbas does not wish to advance no matter what he was offered. But this is perhaps the moment for him to return to a theme he has sounded in the past about helping make the West Bank more livable via economic development. Now that he has rid himself of the reform-minded Salam Fayyad as his prime minister, Abbas no longer has to pretend he cares much about good government. But it is on this point that he is most vulnerable. Managing the conflict rather than solving it remains the only short-term solution to either side. If Kerry wanted to do something constructive rather than promote a process that is fueled more by his ego than any reasonable prospects of success, that’s what he’d be emphasizing. But in the absence of such a change of heart, Israel has little choice but to sit tight and await the next move by both Kerry and Abbas.

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Abbas Bets on Kerry’s Desperation

The Palestinians have had a fairly willing enabler in John Kerry so far, but if today’s New York Times report is right, they may have finally overplayed their hand. According to the Times, both sides have asked Martin Indyk to extend the talks, which were on the verge of disintegration after the Palestinians walked away. But the Palestinians are now saying they can be lured back to the table … for a price.

Apparently the Palestinians will resume negotiations on the principle that the negotiations never actually ended as long as the Israelis are made to act as though the talks crumbled and the resumption is actually a new round starting from scratch. Here’s the logic, such as it is:

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The Palestinians have had a fairly willing enabler in John Kerry so far, but if today’s New York Times report is right, they may have finally overplayed their hand. According to the Times, both sides have asked Martin Indyk to extend the talks, which were on the verge of disintegration after the Palestinians walked away. But the Palestinians are now saying they can be lured back to the table … for a price.

Apparently the Palestinians will resume negotiations on the principle that the negotiations never actually ended as long as the Israelis are made to act as though the talks crumbled and the resumption is actually a new round starting from scratch. Here’s the logic, such as it is:

Mr. Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel would take its own “unilateral steps” in response to the Palestinians’ move last week to join 15 international treaties and conventions and reiterated that a Palestinian state could be created “only through direct negotiations, not through empty statements and not by unilateral moves.”

The Palestinians said they took the contentious step only because Israel reneged on a promise to release a group of long-serving prisoners by the end of March, breaking its own commitment as part of the negotiations.

So that’s step one: the pretext. The Palestinians say they took their unilateral steps because Israel didn’t release all the murderers it was supposed to. Those unilateral steps consisted of pushing applications to join various international conventions. According to this logic, if Israel releases the rest of those terrorists, the talks should resume. Except:

Muhammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian official who resigned as a negotiator in the midst of the current talks, said on Monday that Mr. Abbas’s application to join the international entities was “irreversible” and represented a “paradigm shift” in which Palestinians would pursue other options in parallel with bilateral negotiations. But he, too, suggested that there could yet be a way out of the crisis.

“We are keeping the door open for any serious talks,” he said at a briefing in Ramallah. “We have time between today and the 29th of April. If the Israeli side is serious, we are ready for that.”

So there’s no going back. But there is a way to salvage the talks, according to the Palestinians. More concessions from Israel, with no concurrent Palestinian concessions, will bring them back to the table:

Mr. Shtayyeh rejected Israel’s demand that the applications to the entities be withdrawn and said Palestinians want to separate the issues of the release of the promised fourth batch of prisoners from that of extending the timetable for the talks. He said extending negotiations would require either a freeze on construction in West Bank settlements or the Israeli presentation of a map outlining the future borders of the promised two states.

So the two sides are to treat the negotiations as if they are beginning anew, not continuing the previous round of talks? Not exactly:

“The release of prisoners is part of an agreement, and no compromise can be accepted,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a close aide to Mr. Abbas and an officer of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said Sunday on the Voice of Palestine radio station.

Even if you are sympathetic to the Palestinian side in this argument, this is plainly transparent. If the Palestinians believe Israel must release the rest of the terrorists for talks to continue, then that should theoretically be the only requirement for Abbas to pretend to negotiate again. It would be appropriate for Abbas to then take back the unilateral action he claims he took in response to Israel’s action (or perceived inaction, as it were), since even he associates the two.

He doesn’t want to do that. He wants to exact a price for this delay. If you’re still with him so far, he gets the original prisoner release in order to return to negotiations plus a penalty of sorts against Israel for the delay by applying to join the international agencies and conventions. That should be it, right? Nope–Abbas wants another precondition, such as a settlement freeze, as though the process were starting from the beginning or Israel wouldn’t release the rest of the terrorists, when in fact he acts as though both were true.

What’s the argument in favor of a round of concessions as preconditions in addition to releasing the terrorists? Abbas is playing Kerry. He assumes that Kerry is sufficiently desperate for negotiations that he’ll lean on Netanyahu to give Abbas whatever he wants. In all likelihood, the Israeli Cabinet (except for Tzipi Livni) will get tired of this game, which suits Abbas just fine, since he doesn’t seem to want an actual peace deal but rather a disaster he can blame on the Israelis. The question is whether Kerry–or any representative of the Obama administration–can ever get tired of scapegoating Netanyahu.

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Friends, Enemies, and Columnists

Among the lowest forms of political punditry is the meme by which a writer demonizes a political opponent by identifying them as allies of a known evil. So when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls casino mogul Sheldon Adelson “Iran’s Best Friend,” it tells us a lot, but none of it has much to do with the controversial billionaire donor to conservative and Jewish causes.

Such a column is one more indication that Friedman has definitively run out of steam in his decades-long run as one of the Times’s op-ed writers. Since assuming his current perch he has shoveled out an unending stream of mainstream liberal conventional wisdom on a variety of topics not limited to his supposed expertise in foreign affairs, but with a particular interest in depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a latter-day Attila the Hun. Regardless of what you think about Netanyahu, Friedman’s efforts to treat those who support the Jewish state as morally equivalent to those who wish to destroy it is a tired cliché. So, too, is the idea that anyone who supports Netanyahu is doing, albeit unwittingly, the bidding of Iran’s Islamist leadership. Like his deservedly mocked columns in which he used anonymous, and no doubt mythical, cabdrivers, to serve as mouthpieces for his own views, this sort of apposition is predictable and not so much ineptly argued, as not argued at all. Friedman simply assumes that the Times’s readership will make the connection between a leading GOP donor and evil without the heavy lifting of actually proving why Adelson’s insistence that would-be Republican candidates refrain from calling the West Bank “occupied” rather than disputed qualifies.

But the definitive proof that this was just the latest example of Friedman mailing it in rather than wading into a topic and making a coherent argument came from his own newspaper today in the form of a column from Shmuel Rosner, who now writes opinions for its online edition from Israel. In it, Rosner relates the dispute about Adelson’s attempt to acquire the Makor Rishon newspaper to add to a collection that already includes Israel Hayom, the Jewish state’s most-read daily. As Rosner writes, some people are up in arms about the acquisition, but they are exactly the types that Friedman most despises: supporters of the settler movement. Economics Minister Naftali Bennett and others to the right of the prime minister fear that Makor Rishon will become, like Israel Hayom, a strong supporter of Netanyahu rather than a critic. While Bennett’s risible and futile attempt to handicap Adelson’s papers with legislation intended to lower their circulation need not trouble American readers much, what they can glean from this account is that the settlers fear Adelson will use his bully pulpits to back a peace agreement in the event Netanyahu ever signs one. Rosner’s concern is that Adelson may be about to “silence the Israeli right.” Thus, even though I believe Rosner is wrong about there being a danger that anyone in Israel will be silenced, Friedman’s absurd hyperbole about Adelson is not only lazy but also inaccurate.

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Among the lowest forms of political punditry is the meme by which a writer demonizes a political opponent by identifying them as allies of a known evil. So when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls casino mogul Sheldon Adelson “Iran’s Best Friend,” it tells us a lot, but none of it has much to do with the controversial billionaire donor to conservative and Jewish causes.

Such a column is one more indication that Friedman has definitively run out of steam in his decades-long run as one of the Times’s op-ed writers. Since assuming his current perch he has shoveled out an unending stream of mainstream liberal conventional wisdom on a variety of topics not limited to his supposed expertise in foreign affairs, but with a particular interest in depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a latter-day Attila the Hun. Regardless of what you think about Netanyahu, Friedman’s efforts to treat those who support the Jewish state as morally equivalent to those who wish to destroy it is a tired cliché. So, too, is the idea that anyone who supports Netanyahu is doing, albeit unwittingly, the bidding of Iran’s Islamist leadership. Like his deservedly mocked columns in which he used anonymous, and no doubt mythical, cabdrivers, to serve as mouthpieces for his own views, this sort of apposition is predictable and not so much ineptly argued, as not argued at all. Friedman simply assumes that the Times’s readership will make the connection between a leading GOP donor and evil without the heavy lifting of actually proving why Adelson’s insistence that would-be Republican candidates refrain from calling the West Bank “occupied” rather than disputed qualifies.

But the definitive proof that this was just the latest example of Friedman mailing it in rather than wading into a topic and making a coherent argument came from his own newspaper today in the form of a column from Shmuel Rosner, who now writes opinions for its online edition from Israel. In it, Rosner relates the dispute about Adelson’s attempt to acquire the Makor Rishon newspaper to add to a collection that already includes Israel Hayom, the Jewish state’s most-read daily. As Rosner writes, some people are up in arms about the acquisition, but they are exactly the types that Friedman most despises: supporters of the settler movement. Economics Minister Naftali Bennett and others to the right of the prime minister fear that Makor Rishon will become, like Israel Hayom, a strong supporter of Netanyahu rather than a critic. While Bennett’s risible and futile attempt to handicap Adelson’s papers with legislation intended to lower their circulation need not trouble American readers much, what they can glean from this account is that the settlers fear Adelson will use his bully pulpits to back a peace agreement in the event Netanyahu ever signs one. Rosner’s concern is that Adelson may be about to “silence the Israeli right.” Thus, even though I believe Rosner is wrong about there being a danger that anyone in Israel will be silenced, Friedman’s absurd hyperbole about Adelson is not only lazy but also inaccurate.

Like the Israeli left that our Tom Wilson rightly depicted as being stuck in an Oslo time warp, Friedman’s problem is that his predictions of Israeli doom have proved as foolish as his best-selling effort to convince us that technology would trump religion, prejudice, and nationalism in the Arab world. He gives away the game when he concedes, “I don’t know if Israel has a Palestinian partner for a secure withdrawal from the West Bank, or ever will.” He then follows this snippet of realism by claiming that Israel must find a way to get out of the West Bank, peace partner or not. But the reason why the overwhelming majority of Israelis have rejected another willy-nilly withdrawal regardless of consequences is that they have no interest in repeating what happened in Gaza in 2005 when Ariel Sharon did just that.

Friedman has a history of trying to delegitimize supporters of Israel. As I wrote here in 2011, his efforts to depict the ovations that Netanyahu received that year from Congress as being “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” reinforced a central myth of anti-Semitism about Jews and money. To use the same logic employed by Friedman today against Adelson, one could say that by doing so, the columnist was showing himself to be an ally of Hitler’s spiritual descendants. But Friedman’s umbrage at his critics then has not tempered his subsequent writings using the same sort of invective.

The problem here is not just that writer’s hypocrisy and his lack of intellectual integrity. The much-heralded exchange between Adelson and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie about what to call the West Bank was merely an attempt to level the rhetorical playing field on which the Israelis and the Palestinians are located. In doing so, the man whom Friedman denounces as “crude” was actually showing a greater grasp of nuance than the columnist who poses as a Middle East expert.

Israel’s friends in this country have every right to speak up and ask potential candidates to speak clearly about the Middle East, especially when so many, like Christie, clearly have no real grasp of foreign policy or the details of the conflict with the Palestinians. In a political landscape filled with foreign-policy blind men, a one-eyed pundit like Friedman likes to play the king. Having reflexively denounced Netanyahu and all those who support him as enemies of peace for so long, the decision of the Palestinians to walk out of the negotiations—a stance that is, for all intents and purposes, a fourth “no” to peace in the last 15 years—Friedman refuses to draw conclusions from events that have contradicted his past positions. Nor does he recognize any distinctions between those who back Israel’s democratically-elected government and a settler movement that is horrified by Netanyahu’s embrace of the two-state solution. In writing in this manner, Friedman tells us nothing about who is a friend or an enemy of Israel, but a lot about his own lack of intellectual rigor.

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The Retrograde Israeli Left

Listening to Israel’s “progressives” you might think it was still 1994, as if two decades of failed peace efforts, Palestinian intransigence, and unrelenting incitement and terrorism had simply never happened. They speak as if they’re still living in some heyday of the Oslo peace accords. Naturally, it is the role of the political opposition in any democracy to find fault with the actions of governing political rivals, but what Israel’s left-wing politicians are saying goes far beyond normal critique of government policy despite the fact that, although they would never admit it, the current government’s strategy for peace talks is not fundamentally different from what they themselves propose.

On Monday Israel’s parliament convened from its recess for a session on the peace talks, as had been called for by 25 Knesset members, only 15 of whom bothered to show up. But perhaps those who stayed away were the wiser; in reality this supposedly urgent session was little more than a shameless opportunity for opposition politicians to capitalize on the failure of the latest round of peace talks. Pouring scorn on Prime Minister Netanyahu, left-wing party leaders called for everything from new elections to a breakup of the coalition and the formation of a new government. Political ambitions aside, what these individuals really displayed was a total unwillingness to recognize any of what has been happening in the last few months–really, the last few decades. Israel’s left is stuck in a time warp and whereas the right is increasingly looking to formulate new alternatives, the backward-looking left appears utterly unable to adapt to current realities.

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Listening to Israel’s “progressives” you might think it was still 1994, as if two decades of failed peace efforts, Palestinian intransigence, and unrelenting incitement and terrorism had simply never happened. They speak as if they’re still living in some heyday of the Oslo peace accords. Naturally, it is the role of the political opposition in any democracy to find fault with the actions of governing political rivals, but what Israel’s left-wing politicians are saying goes far beyond normal critique of government policy despite the fact that, although they would never admit it, the current government’s strategy for peace talks is not fundamentally different from what they themselves propose.

On Monday Israel’s parliament convened from its recess for a session on the peace talks, as had been called for by 25 Knesset members, only 15 of whom bothered to show up. But perhaps those who stayed away were the wiser; in reality this supposedly urgent session was little more than a shameless opportunity for opposition politicians to capitalize on the failure of the latest round of peace talks. Pouring scorn on Prime Minister Netanyahu, left-wing party leaders called for everything from new elections to a breakup of the coalition and the formation of a new government. Political ambitions aside, what these individuals really displayed was a total unwillingness to recognize any of what has been happening in the last few months–really, the last few decades. Israel’s left is stuck in a time warp and whereas the right is increasingly looking to formulate new alternatives, the backward-looking left appears utterly unable to adapt to current realities.

The reading of the failure of negotiations offered by Labor leader Isaac Herzog was hardly convincing. It essentially amounts to: Abbas is no picnic, but that’s beside the point because Netanyahu is infinitely worse. Apparently ignoring the fact that Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is now without any democratic mandate, not to mention the way in which he already rejected the remarkably generous offers of Olmert’s Kadima government in 2008, Herzog announced before the Knesset, “Abu Mazen is a tough and infuriating partner and sometimes very exasperating, and can even be depressing, (but) he is our partner and there is no point at all in wishing otherwise.” Yet of Netanyahu Herzog had this to say: “We are on the edge of a volcano and the public does not understand the severity of the situation, and all of the blame is on a prime minister who is incapable of doing anything. The entire process has collapsed because as far as Netanyahu is concerned there is no place for taking real steps for peace.”

What these “real steps” are remains unclear, but presumably the offer of another 400 security prisoners going free and a partial settlement freeze doesn’t really cut it for those in the business of taking “real steps for peace.” Of course to admit otherwise would be to concede that Abbas is anything but the partner that Herzog insists he is. It is certainly remarkable that Herzog could claim, with a straight face, that “all of the blame” lies with Netanyahu. This desperate need to excuse the Palestinians, no matter how ridiculous, was also the order of the day for Labor MK Eitan Cabel who, during the same debate, declared “I’m not defending the Palestinians, but it’s amazing how people act like they’re shocked that the Palestinians have demands. Isn’t that the meaning of negotiations?” The Palestinian demand that Israel agree to all the final outcomes of the negotiations before they even got underway may seem a little unreasonable to some, yet, if this line of saying “yes the Palestinians don’t act like they want peace but…” was ever convincing then it certainly ceased to be so quite some time ago.  

These were the same delusions being pushed by Meretz. MK Tamar Zandberg was particularly critical of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, rubbishing the government’s efforts and asserting, “If we needed a negotiating process for them to accept the destructive thesis that there is no partner only so that they could stay in a coalition that undermines it, then thanks but no thanks. If you can’t do it then let’s break up the coalition and choose someone who can do the work.” Meretz’s leader Zahava Gal-On similarly singled out the centrist party leaders for propping up this supposedly anti-peace coalition, claiming that “this government does not really want to reach an accord” and referred to Livni and Lapid as “fig leaves which grant legitimacy to pointless negotiations.”

In her suggestion that these negotiations have been pointless, many Israelis will agree with the Meretz leader, only for quite different reasons. They know that if Abbas was ever serious about these talks it was only ever as a means for extracting as many concessions from Israel as possible. There are also many Israelis who, contrary to the statements above, doubt that the Palestinians are capable of being partners for peace and as such, figures on the right are starting to float new proposals for unilateral ways out of this impasse. The left, stuck in the past, has nothing new to offer, just more of the same. 

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The Peace Process Blame Game

It was to be expected that the Obama administration would seek to cast blame yesterday for the apparent collapse of the Middle East peace process championed by Secretary of State John Kerry on both Israel and the Palestinians. White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said the president was disappointed with the “unhelpful, unilateral actions both parties have taken in recent days.” He added that “tit for tat” actions were counterproductive but that despite ominous signs, the U.S. administration still believed diplomacy had a chance.

Like the talk about a “cycle of violence” every time a terrorist attack on an Israeli target provokes a response, the decision by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to torpedo Kerry’s proposal to keep the talks going beyond April is being interpreted as being as much Israel’s fault as that of the Palestinians. Kerry, who is not giving up so easily, issued his own statement challenging both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to lead their peoples to peace. Though he has taken on the task of trying to cut the Gordian knot of Middle East peace as a personal crusade, in his comments after Abbas’s actions, Kerry returned to the familiar theme that the U.S. couldn’t want peace more than two parties to the conflict.

But while even-handedly casting blame for the apparent failure of Kerry’s initiative enables the U.S. to continue to try to cajole the Palestinians to keep talking, this effort speaks volumes about the inherent problems in the process. It may be true that, as Kerry claimed, “The fight right now, the disagreement between them, is not over the fundamental substance of a final status agreement. It is over the process that would get you there and what you need to do in order to be able to continue to negotiate.” But the unwillingness of the Palestinians to get from point A to point B in order to achieve statehood tells us much more about the daunting nature of the task Kerry has assumed than the “tit for tat” narrative being circulated by the Americans.

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It was to be expected that the Obama administration would seek to cast blame yesterday for the apparent collapse of the Middle East peace process championed by Secretary of State John Kerry on both Israel and the Palestinians. White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said the president was disappointed with the “unhelpful, unilateral actions both parties have taken in recent days.” He added that “tit for tat” actions were counterproductive but that despite ominous signs, the U.S. administration still believed diplomacy had a chance.

Like the talk about a “cycle of violence” every time a terrorist attack on an Israeli target provokes a response, the decision by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to torpedo Kerry’s proposal to keep the talks going beyond April is being interpreted as being as much Israel’s fault as that of the Palestinians. Kerry, who is not giving up so easily, issued his own statement challenging both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to lead their peoples to peace. Though he has taken on the task of trying to cut the Gordian knot of Middle East peace as a personal crusade, in his comments after Abbas’s actions, Kerry returned to the familiar theme that the U.S. couldn’t want peace more than two parties to the conflict.

But while even-handedly casting blame for the apparent failure of Kerry’s initiative enables the U.S. to continue to try to cajole the Palestinians to keep talking, this effort speaks volumes about the inherent problems in the process. It may be true that, as Kerry claimed, “The fight right now, the disagreement between them, is not over the fundamental substance of a final status agreement. It is over the process that would get you there and what you need to do in order to be able to continue to negotiate.” But the unwillingness of the Palestinians to get from point A to point B in order to achieve statehood tells us much more about the daunting nature of the task Kerry has assumed than the “tit for tat” narrative being circulated by the Americans.

As David Horovitz writes in the Times of Israel today, the crisis revolves around the doubts about Abbas’s willingness to make peace under any circumstances:

The Palestinians have a weak president who, while no duplicitous, terror-fostering Arafat, never confronted the narrative bequeathed by his unlamented predecessor, to the effect that the Jews have no sovereign legitimacy in this part of the world.

Every account of the talks that have been going on the past several months agrees that while the Israelis have put proposals on the table about statehood that, while not exactly what the Palestinians wanted, were at least measures that would give them statehood and independence. But the Palestinians haven’t budged an inch on their demands or on their refusal to make symbolic gestures that would make it clear they intended to end the conflict.

While the Israelis have indicated a willingness to keep talking, Abbas has seized upon the first available pretext to abandon the negotiations to resume his efforts to gain further recognition from the United Nations, even though that will do nothing for his people and does little harm to the Israelis.

But Netanyahu is being blamed for balking at releasing another batch of terrorist murderers (including many Israeli citizens) without some assurance that the Palestinians would keep negotiating. An announcement of a housing project in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo (a 40-plus-year-old “settlement”) was also seen as provocative even though both sides know that such an area would remain part of Israel in any peace agreement. Above all, Netanyahu is being castigated for having asked Abbas to acknowledge their acceptance of Israel being the nation state of the Jewish people just as the putative Palestinian state is that of the Palestinian Arabs.

But none of that gainsays the fact that Netanyahu’s government has indicated it will accept a Palestinian state and will compromise on territory in order to make it happen. In return, the Palestinians are still willing to do nothing to indicate that this would cause them to give up their century-long war on Zionism. If Netanyahu erred, it was in his initial decision to release more than 100 terrorist murderers (who were subsequently honored by Abbas) in the first place without gaining something from the Palestinians. Having been bribed by Kerry to come back to the table, Abbas thinks the whole point of the process is to give the Palestinians what they want without making them do anything in exchange for these concessions.

As Horovitz writes:

At the heart of the impasse, however, lies a fundamental asymmetry: Israeli Jews have come to believe that their own best interests, and specifically the imperative to retain a Jewish and democratic Israel, require an accommodation with the Palestinians. There is no comparable imperative on the Palestinian side — not, that is, so long as much of the international community persists in indicating to the Palestinians that they will be able to achieve full independence and sovereignty without the inconvenience of coming to terms with Israel.

It may be convenient to blame both sides. But there is little doubt that the process is failing for the same reason that it failed in 2000, 2001, and 2008 (when Abbas fled the table rather than be forced to answer Ehud Olmert’s offer of statehood). Neither the Palestinian leadership nor their people seem as interested in ending the conflict as the Israelis.

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Abbas Fled Talks the First Chance He Got

Though nothing is permanent in the Middle East peace process, for the moment it appears that the Palestinians have finally found a way to scuttle the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry. Though Kerry had brokered an unlikely last-minute compromise that would have ensured the release of another batch of terrorist murderers that the Palestinian Authority had demanded, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas wasn’t buying it. Today, he signed papers indicating the PA’s request to join 15 international agencies, a clear violation of their Oslo obligations and commitments made to the United States. This was a signal that Abbas wouldn’t keep negotiating in spite of Kerry’s efforts to give them what they wanted. As a result, Kerry has canceled his planned trip back to the region, leaving, at least for the moment, the impression that the talks are at an end.

If the Palestinians continue to refuse to keep talking, it will mean that the deal Kerry had cooked up to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agreement to release one more batch of terrorists including Israeli citizens and then another larger group of prisoners not convicted of violent crimes, will have been for nothing. That deal would have been a poor bargain for Israel in that it would have meant making real concessions — releasing Israeli Arabs convicted of terrorist murders as well as a promise of a limited freeze on building in the West Bank — in exchange for a man who might well be free on parole in 2015 anyway. The irony of having someone like Pollard who, though his crime was grave and did real damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship, acted in what he thought was Israel’s interest, being traded for people with Jewish blood on their hands, was so great that reportedly even the spy opposed it.

But the main conclusion to draw from these events isn’t about the Israeli desire to see Pollard freed after 28 years in prison but about Abbas’ desire to evade the peace process. What has happened isn’t so much a negotiation that went wrong, as it is the PA leader seizing the first opportunity that came his way to flee peace negotiations that he never wanted to join in the first place.

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Though nothing is permanent in the Middle East peace process, for the moment it appears that the Palestinians have finally found a way to scuttle the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry. Though Kerry had brokered an unlikely last-minute compromise that would have ensured the release of another batch of terrorist murderers that the Palestinian Authority had demanded, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas wasn’t buying it. Today, he signed papers indicating the PA’s request to join 15 international agencies, a clear violation of their Oslo obligations and commitments made to the United States. This was a signal that Abbas wouldn’t keep negotiating in spite of Kerry’s efforts to give them what they wanted. As a result, Kerry has canceled his planned trip back to the region, leaving, at least for the moment, the impression that the talks are at an end.

If the Palestinians continue to refuse to keep talking, it will mean that the deal Kerry had cooked up to free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agreement to release one more batch of terrorists including Israeli citizens and then another larger group of prisoners not convicted of violent crimes, will have been for nothing. That deal would have been a poor bargain for Israel in that it would have meant making real concessions — releasing Israeli Arabs convicted of terrorist murders as well as a promise of a limited freeze on building in the West Bank — in exchange for a man who might well be free on parole in 2015 anyway. The irony of having someone like Pollard who, though his crime was grave and did real damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship, acted in what he thought was Israel’s interest, being traded for people with Jewish blood on their hands, was so great that reportedly even the spy opposed it.

But the main conclusion to draw from these events isn’t about the Israeli desire to see Pollard freed after 28 years in prison but about Abbas’ desire to evade the peace process. What has happened isn’t so much a negotiation that went wrong, as it is the PA leader seizing the first opportunity that came his way to flee peace negotiations that he never wanted to join in the first place.

 It should be remembered that getting Abbas to rejoin peace talks after boycotting them for most of the last five years was no easy task. Rather than talk without preconditions, the Palestinians had to be bribed with the release of four batches of terrorist killers. Though, as it is now clear, he did little in the talks other than to continually say no to any measures that would indicate the Palestinians were finally willing to end the conflict with Israel, he was continually praised and petted by both Kerry and President Obama for his commitment to peace. While the two continued to berate Israel as the obstacle to peace, it was always Abbas who was proving those who said last year that the Palestinians weren’t ready for peace right He refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn even in exchange for statehood and independence. Nor would he budge on the “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants. Even when Netanyahu unhappily agreed to Kerry’s framework for future talks that was rooted in the 1967 borders, Abbas still said no.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that once the initial period of talks was about to expire, Abbas had no interest in continuing the negotiations even on terms that tilted the diplomatic playing field in his direction.

Why?

The answer is the same one that was apparent to just about everyone except Kerry last year before the process recommenced. With the Palestinians divided between Abbas’ fief in the West Bank and the Hamas-run independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza, Abbas had no room to maneuver to make peace even if he were truly willing to do so. Negotiating an agreement, even one that would give the Palestinians pretty much everything they want in terms of statehood in the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem, isn’t in his interest because signing such an agreement is far more dangerous than being blamed for scuttling the peace talks. The safer thing for Abbas is to seize any pretext to flee the talks and claim he’s seeking Palestinian independence via the UN, a futile gesture that will do nothing for his people.

While Abbas and his apologists claim he has done Kerry and Israel a big favor by sitting at the table with them the last several months and gotten nothing for it, the Palestinians have the most to gain from the process the secretary has promoted. Without it, there is no path to independence or economic stability for them. But since abandoning the talks allows Abbas to avoid having to sell a deal that ends the conflict to a Palestinian people that has been taught to view their national identity as inseparable from the struggle against Zionism, he prefers it to negotiations.

Were Abbas truly interested in peace, he could sit back and wait for Kerry to keep spinning deals that traded tangible Israeli concessions for continued talks. Instead, he has done what he did in 2008 when he fled the table to avoid having to say no to Ehud Olmert’s peace offer. While this isn’t the last chapter of Kerry’s efforts, those who are quick to blame Israel for everything should take note of Abbas’ behavior and draw the appropriate conclusions. 

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Another Netanyahu Rival Eliminated

Today brought another piece of bad news for Israelis and Americans who have been desperately searching for someone, anyone, to pose a credible challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The plea bargain agreed to by a top aide to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to put a bow on the case that state prosecutors have been trying to build against him for years. Shula Zaken, who ran Olmert’s office when he was mayor of Jerusalem as well as prime minister, has reportedly agreed to tell all about his corrupt dealings, both in the Holyland affair, which is currently being tried, and on other charges, including those on which the former PM had either drawn a slap on the wrist or been acquitted. Even worse than detailing the way he diverted money illegally into his own accounts, Zaken allegedly has a tape of Olmert pressuring her to clam up about his crimes in exchange for money that will undoubtedly lead to an obstruction of justice charge.

This is hardly good news for Israelis who have already seen a president sent to jail for rape (Moshe Katsav) and a leading candidate for that largely symbolic office (Silvan Shalom, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet), disqualified by similar charges just this month. But aside from the dismal spectacle of someone who is protected by the Shin Bet much in the way former U.S. presidents are guarded by the Secret Service being hauled off to jail, Olmert’s fate also makes it just a little more difficult to imagine anyone mounting an effective challenge to Netanyahu in 2017 when he will be up for reelection.

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Today brought another piece of bad news for Israelis and Americans who have been desperately searching for someone, anyone, to pose a credible challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The plea bargain agreed to by a top aide to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to put a bow on the case that state prosecutors have been trying to build against him for years. Shula Zaken, who ran Olmert’s office when he was mayor of Jerusalem as well as prime minister, has reportedly agreed to tell all about his corrupt dealings, both in the Holyland affair, which is currently being tried, and on other charges, including those on which the former PM had either drawn a slap on the wrist or been acquitted. Even worse than detailing the way he diverted money illegally into his own accounts, Zaken allegedly has a tape of Olmert pressuring her to clam up about his crimes in exchange for money that will undoubtedly lead to an obstruction of justice charge.

This is hardly good news for Israelis who have already seen a president sent to jail for rape (Moshe Katsav) and a leading candidate for that largely symbolic office (Silvan Shalom, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet), disqualified by similar charges just this month. But aside from the dismal spectacle of someone who is protected by the Shin Bet much in the way former U.S. presidents are guarded by the Secret Service being hauled off to jail, Olmert’s fate also makes it just a little more difficult to imagine anyone mounting an effective challenge to Netanyahu in 2017 when he will be up for reelection.

I have always been skeptical about the notion that Olmert had any chance to return to the prime minister’s office or even a leading role in the Knesset. Even if you assumed, as many Israelis did, that state prosecutors would never be able to secure a conviction on any of the many corruption charges lodged against Olmert, the main problem he faced was the public’s memory of his inglorious record as prime minister.

Like most of the leading opportunists of both the Likud and Labor who joined the late Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party in 2005, Olmert thought it was a ticket to office. But few Israelis were thinking that the creation of the centrist group (formed to back Sharon’s disastrous Gaza withdrawal plan) would lead to Olmert’s becoming prime minister. But that’s what happened when Sharon was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage in January 2006. Olmert won the election that followed on the basis of Sharon’s memory. But within months the outbreak of a war with Hezbollah along Israel’s northern border exposed him as unready for power.

His weak leadership contributed to the disastrous outcome of that conflict as well as the worsening of the situation along the border with Gaza as Gilad Shalit’s kidnapping and the ceaseless bombardment of southern Israel by Hamas missiles showed. In the waning months of his three-year administration (he chose not to seek reelection because of the pending corruption cases against him) Olmert redeemed his reputation somewhat by ordering the Cast Lead offensive into Gaza to stop the rockets. He also gained applause in the U.S. and among Israeli left-wingers by making a peace offer to the Palestinians of independence and statehood that exceeded even the ones made by Ehud Barak to Yasir Arafat. But Mahmoud Abbas fled the negotiations rather than give him an answer.

Nevertheless, Olmert was deeply unpopular for almost his entire term in office. At one point his favorability ratings were actually in the single digits and overlapped with the pollsters’ margin of error, opening up the possibility that almost no one in the country approved of his job performance. Nevertheless, Olmert’s ability to escape punishment on the first charges on which he was tried led some to believe he could mount a comeback. With none of the heads of Israel’s various parties other than Netanyahu thought to be ready for the post of prime minister, Olmert’s experience made him a possibility to lead a center-left coalition against the Likud leader. Frequent speaking engagements where liberal American Jews applauded him for his criticisms of Netanyahu convinced some that he had a political future as a peace candidate.

That’s all over now. Left-wing critics of Netanyahu must hope that one of the PM’s rivals, such as Labor Party head Isaac Herzog, will emerge as a genuine competitor in the next three years. But whatever happens in the coming months and years—and Israeli politics will remain deeply influenced by the refusal of the Palestinians to make peace—Netanyahu needn’t worry about Olmert anymore.  

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Pollard for Murderers? A Bad Deal

Over the last 20 years, the name of Jonathan Pollard has hovered around the margins of the Middle East peace process. Almost every time the United States wanted to push the Israelis to make concessions that were unpalatable, some have suggested that the Jewish state might be enticed to swallow one bitter pill or another by the release of the former U.S. Navy analyst. Pollard, who has been imprisoned in the United States since 1985 for spying for the Jewish state, is a sore point for many Israelis as well as some Americans who believe, not incorrectly, that his sentence of life in prison was disproportionate to the crime and far more draconian than anyone else ever convicted of espionage for a U.S. ally. So it is hardly surprising that now that the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are imploding once again, talk of releasing Pollard has returned as well.

As it always does, the prospect of Pollard’s release will tempt the Israelis. Though what Pollard did was a crime and did great damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to American Jewry, Israelis rightly feel that he was sacrificed and left to rot in prison by their political leadership at the time of his actions (a troika that included the late Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir as well as Shimon Peres, who is currently serving as Israel’s president). But as much as Prime Minister Netanyahu may wish to secure Pollard’s release (something that he tried to do in negotiations with President Clinton in 1998), he shouldn’t take the bait. The odds are, Washington is bluffing about letting Pollard go. But even if President Obama is willing to take the heat from the U.S. security establishment and spring Pollard, Netanyahu should not trade the freedom of a score of Arab terrorist murderers (some of whom are Israeli citizens rather than residents of the West Bank) for Pollard.

The current impasse revolves around the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to agree to the framework for ongoing peace talks suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry because it mentions that peace means recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and would commit the Palestinians to ending the conflict. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas wants no part of such a deal and, as has clearly always been his intention, would prefer to end any talks that might put him in the position of refusing a two-state solution preferred by Israel but which he has neither the will nor the ability to get his people to accept. But with the PA walking out of talks, Netanyahu sees no reason to follow through on the last batch of Arab prisoners whose release was part of the ransom offered to Abbas last year as the price for returning to the peace table after years of boycotting them.

Abbas has already seen that his intransigence won’t cause either President Obama or much of the Western media to blame him for the collapse of the talks. He thinks he is in the catbird seat and can make further demands on the Israelis in the form of the release of Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti (serving five life sentences for murders of Israeli civilians during the second intifada) and a settlement freeze in order to keep talking secure in the knowledge that the West will blame Israel no matter what he does. So in order to get Netanyahu, who has reluctantly agreed to Kerry’s framework that Abbas rejected, to keep paying, the Americans will have to come up with some form of pressure or gimmick. Though I doubt that President Obama is prepared to do battle with the U.S. intelligence community (which has an irrational obsession with keeping Pollard in prison until he dies) to make good on such an offer, the mere suggestion of the idea may be enough to keep the Israelis from walking away in frustration from the process.

But this is a bad deal for Israel on many levels.

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Over the last 20 years, the name of Jonathan Pollard has hovered around the margins of the Middle East peace process. Almost every time the United States wanted to push the Israelis to make concessions that were unpalatable, some have suggested that the Jewish state might be enticed to swallow one bitter pill or another by the release of the former U.S. Navy analyst. Pollard, who has been imprisoned in the United States since 1985 for spying for the Jewish state, is a sore point for many Israelis as well as some Americans who believe, not incorrectly, that his sentence of life in prison was disproportionate to the crime and far more draconian than anyone else ever convicted of espionage for a U.S. ally. So it is hardly surprising that now that the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are imploding once again, talk of releasing Pollard has returned as well.

As it always does, the prospect of Pollard’s release will tempt the Israelis. Though what Pollard did was a crime and did great damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to American Jewry, Israelis rightly feel that he was sacrificed and left to rot in prison by their political leadership at the time of his actions (a troika that included the late Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir as well as Shimon Peres, who is currently serving as Israel’s president). But as much as Prime Minister Netanyahu may wish to secure Pollard’s release (something that he tried to do in negotiations with President Clinton in 1998), he shouldn’t take the bait. The odds are, Washington is bluffing about letting Pollard go. But even if President Obama is willing to take the heat from the U.S. security establishment and spring Pollard, Netanyahu should not trade the freedom of a score of Arab terrorist murderers (some of whom are Israeli citizens rather than residents of the West Bank) for Pollard.

The current impasse revolves around the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to agree to the framework for ongoing peace talks suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry because it mentions that peace means recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and would commit the Palestinians to ending the conflict. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas wants no part of such a deal and, as has clearly always been his intention, would prefer to end any talks that might put him in the position of refusing a two-state solution preferred by Israel but which he has neither the will nor the ability to get his people to accept. But with the PA walking out of talks, Netanyahu sees no reason to follow through on the last batch of Arab prisoners whose release was part of the ransom offered to Abbas last year as the price for returning to the peace table after years of boycotting them.

Abbas has already seen that his intransigence won’t cause either President Obama or much of the Western media to blame him for the collapse of the talks. He thinks he is in the catbird seat and can make further demands on the Israelis in the form of the release of Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti (serving five life sentences for murders of Israeli civilians during the second intifada) and a settlement freeze in order to keep talking secure in the knowledge that the West will blame Israel no matter what he does. So in order to get Netanyahu, who has reluctantly agreed to Kerry’s framework that Abbas rejected, to keep paying, the Americans will have to come up with some form of pressure or gimmick. Though I doubt that President Obama is prepared to do battle with the U.S. intelligence community (which has an irrational obsession with keeping Pollard in prison until he dies) to make good on such an offer, the mere suggestion of the idea may be enough to keep the Israelis from walking away in frustration from the process.

But this is a bad deal for Israel on many levels.

As I wrote on the 25th anniversary of his imprisonment, Pollard’s case is a mixed bag for supporters of Israel. As much as his sentence was an injustice, he is no hero and did grave harm. Moreover, the prospect that someone who committed espionage in the belief that he was helping Israel would gain his release in exchange for the freedom of those who indiscriminately shed Jewish blood is more than an irony; it’s an outrage that even the spy should reject.

Having already released scores of Arab murderers, who have been subsequently honored and embraced by Abbas, there is little incentive for Netanyahu to keep letting them out if the Palestinians are not going to commit to peace talks whose purpose is an end to the conflict. If he is going to be blamed for the collapse of Kerry’s initiative no matter what he does, it would be a mistake to start making further concessions that will come back to haunt him later. The problem with injecting Pollard into peace talks is that it is the sort of American concession for which Israel will pay a disproportionate price with little prospect of receiving what it wants. That’s what happened the last time he offered to make territorial concessions in exchange for Pollard’s freedom. In the end, the Palestinians got the land, and Israel got neither Pollard nor peace.

If the Palestinians want something from Israel they should be prepared to pay for it by demonstrating their willingness to end the conflict and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. In essence a trade for Pollard now would be a substitute for getting the Palestinians to make those assurances. However much they may want Pollard, making such a swap would be against the long-term prospects of both Israel’s security and peace.

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Blaming Israel Despite the Facts

The facts are no obstacle for those who are determined to stick to their narrative about Israel not wanting peace. With Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process on the brink of failure, the New Republic’s John Judis has trotted out the familiar themes about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu being the one to blame. Judis goes on at length about Netanyahu’s perfidy but toward the end of the piece, he is forced to let drop an important nugget of information. When asked by Kerry to keep negotiating on the basis of the framework he has crafted to try and give both sides something to work with, Abbas said no. As Judis writes:

Kerry proposed that the two sides agree to the framework with reservations—a tactic that had doomed the Quartet’s framework proposal—but Abbas was not ready to agree to the proposal even with reservations.

Let’s get this straight. Kerry has been lionized by the left for attempting to revive the talks in spite of the fact that the division among the Palestinians (Hamas in Gaza and Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank) made it unlikely that Abbas could or would say yes to peace terms that he had turned down in 2008 and that his predecessor Yasir Arafat had rejected in 2000 and 2001. But when the secretary put forward a framework that was hardly to Netanyahu’s liking because of its reliance on the 1967 borders, he said yes and Abbas said no even with the proviso that an acceptance would not commit the Palestinian Authority to its terms. And yet even though Abbas’s decision makes a fourth historic no to peace terms from the Palestinians in the last 15 years, Judis still thinks the collapse of the talks is Israel’s fault.

How is that possible? Judis doesn’t even bother defending this preposterous proposition directly since his work is so lazy that he writes as if all his readers will naturally assume that nothing that actually happened leading up to Abbas’s no must as a matter of course be Israel’s fault. But the flimsy case he does build against Israel tells us more about his own well-documented prejudices about the key issue that led to Abbas’s decision—recognition of Israel as a Jewish state—than it does about Netanyahu.

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The facts are no obstacle for those who are determined to stick to their narrative about Israel not wanting peace. With Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process on the brink of failure, the New Republic’s John Judis has trotted out the familiar themes about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu being the one to blame. Judis goes on at length about Netanyahu’s perfidy but toward the end of the piece, he is forced to let drop an important nugget of information. When asked by Kerry to keep negotiating on the basis of the framework he has crafted to try and give both sides something to work with, Abbas said no. As Judis writes:

Kerry proposed that the two sides agree to the framework with reservations—a tactic that had doomed the Quartet’s framework proposal—but Abbas was not ready to agree to the proposal even with reservations.

Let’s get this straight. Kerry has been lionized by the left for attempting to revive the talks in spite of the fact that the division among the Palestinians (Hamas in Gaza and Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank) made it unlikely that Abbas could or would say yes to peace terms that he had turned down in 2008 and that his predecessor Yasir Arafat had rejected in 2000 and 2001. But when the secretary put forward a framework that was hardly to Netanyahu’s liking because of its reliance on the 1967 borders, he said yes and Abbas said no even with the proviso that an acceptance would not commit the Palestinian Authority to its terms. And yet even though Abbas’s decision makes a fourth historic no to peace terms from the Palestinians in the last 15 years, Judis still thinks the collapse of the talks is Israel’s fault.

How is that possible? Judis doesn’t even bother defending this preposterous proposition directly since his work is so lazy that he writes as if all his readers will naturally assume that nothing that actually happened leading up to Abbas’s no must as a matter of course be Israel’s fault. But the flimsy case he does build against Israel tells us more about his own well-documented prejudices about the key issue that led to Abbas’s decision—recognition of Israel as a Jewish state—than it does about Netanyahu.

This is, after all, the same author who wrote Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, a book dedicated to the proposition that the problems of the Middle East stem from the decision to create a Jewish state in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine–putting himself on record as believing that Israel should never have been born and that American support for the concept was a mistake imposed upon the nation by Jewish lobbying and political considerations. You would think that someone who studied that period would understand the centrality of the concept of the Jewish state both to the inception and the theoretical conclusion of the conflict. But Judis sticks to the anti-Israel talking points of the day and says this demand—rightly accepted by the United States despite some of Kerry’s later comments—that the Palestinians accept that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people is designed to throw a monkey wrench into the talks.

As Rick Richman noted, Dennis Ross confirms that the Jewish state issue was part of the negotiations during the Clinton administration. How could it have been avoided since the whole point is that its acceptance signifies that the Palestinians are giving up their century-long struggle against Zionism? Judis also brings up settlement construction as a deal breaker but neglects to note that almost all the houses slated for construction are to be built in the settlement blocs and neighborhoods in Jerusalem that will be part of Israel in any agreement. Complaints about them are both disingenuous and distractions from the Palestinian refusal to accept terms that signify an end to the conflict. Abbas told President Obama on his visit to Washington earlier this month that he would not agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, give up the “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants, or accept that any agreement means the end of the conflict. What’s more, even though he won’t keep negotiating, he expects Israel to release more terrorist murderers from its jails (the ransom he exacted from Kerry and Netanyahu as the price for his return to the talks last year) and now also wants the release of Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader serving five life-in-prison sentences for murders of civilians carried out at his behest during the second intifada and a settlement freeze to keep him at the table.

And yet Judis still says, “blame should almost certainly be assigned to Netanyahu and the Israelis.” It’s illogical, but if you enter a discussion of this topic believing Israel has no right to exist in the first place, it’s easy to see why you would think there’s nothing wrong with Palestinian intransigence. The problem is not so much Judis’s specious arguments as the pretense that he actually cares about who is to blame for preventing an outcome—a two-state solution—that he disdains.

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Obama Needs Israel to Rattle Its Saber

The Obama administration may be acting as if its rift with Russia won’t affect the attempt to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. It can hope against hope that Russia will forget its quarrel with the Americans and maintain solidarity with the U.S. and the European Union in the Iran talks and continue as if nothing has changed. But there’s little doubt that the open hostility between Washington and Moscow has reduced the already slim chances for a satisfactory P5+1 agreement with Iran. Since the diplomatic option that the president has defended so vigorously in recent months depends entirely on Russian cooperation including the enforcement of sanctions that Putin never really supported, the aftermath of the Crimea conflict has left the administration with little diplomatic leverage.

If so, where does that leave Israel?

The obvious answer to that question is that it is left in a highly precarious situation. Even if one discounts the possibility that Iran would use a bomb to make good on its genocidal threats against the Jewish state, Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability would transform the strategic balance in the region in a manner that would drastically affect Israel’s security. That means Israel must either learn to live with a nuclear Iran or ponder the possibility of striking the Islamist regime on its own. While it’s not clear whether Iran or anyone else takes this seriously, Jerusalem is nonetheless acting as if they should. So should President Obama.

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The Obama administration may be acting as if its rift with Russia won’t affect the attempt to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. It can hope against hope that Russia will forget its quarrel with the Americans and maintain solidarity with the U.S. and the European Union in the Iran talks and continue as if nothing has changed. But there’s little doubt that the open hostility between Washington and Moscow has reduced the already slim chances for a satisfactory P5+1 agreement with Iran. Since the diplomatic option that the president has defended so vigorously in recent months depends entirely on Russian cooperation including the enforcement of sanctions that Putin never really supported, the aftermath of the Crimea conflict has left the administration with little diplomatic leverage.

If so, where does that leave Israel?

The obvious answer to that question is that it is left in a highly precarious situation. Even if one discounts the possibility that Iran would use a bomb to make good on its genocidal threats against the Jewish state, Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability would transform the strategic balance in the region in a manner that would drastically affect Israel’s security. That means Israel must either learn to live with a nuclear Iran or ponder the possibility of striking the Islamist regime on its own. While it’s not clear whether Iran or anyone else takes this seriously, Jerusalem is nonetheless acting as if they should. So should President Obama.

As Haaretz reported today,

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon have ordered the army to continue preparing for a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities at a cost of at least 10 billion shekels ($2.89 billion) this year, despite the talks between Iran and the West, according to recent statements by senior military officers.

Three Knesset members who were present at Knesset joint committee hearings on Israel Defense Forces plans that were held in January and February say they learned during the hearings that 10 billion shekels to 12 billion shekels of the defense budget would be allocated this year for preparations for a strike on Iran, approximately the same amount that was allocated in 2013.

The leaking of this information this week makes it clear that Netanyahu would like both the Iranians and his American ally to think that he is still actively considering a unilateral strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities. The same interpretation might be put on statements from Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who boasted yesterday that the IDF has the ability to carry out military operations anywhere on the globe, including Iran.

Opposition to a solo Israeli attack on Iran has been stiff within the country’s military and security establishment. This reluctance has been rooted not so much in a belief that Israel was incapable of dealing Iran a devastating blow but that the blowback from such an operation might be almost as bad as the scenario that it would be intended to avert. Even assuming Israeli forces could make enough sorties into Iranian airspace to knock out Tehran’s nuclear facilities without unacceptable losses, it might set off a regional conflict. Iran’s Hezbollah allies on Israel’s northern border and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the south in Gaza might launch their own strikes at Israeli cities and embroil the country in a costly three-front war.

Just as important, many Israeli security officials have always felt that dealing with Iran was primarily America’s responsibility. If push came to shove, the far more numerous American air and naval forces in the region would also be in a much better position to do the job. Moreover, they also know that if it did act on its own, Israel risks deepening its diplomatic isolation and creating more problems with the Obama administration.

But if, thanks to Russia, America’s diplomatic option to stop Iran is no longer viable and few take seriously the notion that President Obama would use force against Tehran under any circumstances, that would put Netanyahu in a position where he might think the IDF was the last and perhaps only hope of preventing an Iranian bomb.

While Netanyahu has said he won’t be deterred from acting by American diplomacy, anyone who thinks he will order an attack on Iran while the P5+1 talks are ongoing is not thinking clearly. An Israeli attack under those circumstances would create a quarrel with Washington that the prime minister rightly wishes to avoid at all costs. Force only becomes a possibility once those talks are seen to have failed and even then both Obama and the Iranians may think the Israelis wouldn’t dare act on their own. Only time will tell if they are right.

Nevertheless, Obama should be encouraging Netanyahu to rattle his saber as loudly and as much as possible. With Russia determined to thwart any U.S. foreign-policy initiative, the only possible hope for a P5+1 deal is for Iran to believe that the alternative is an Israeli attack that, however costly, would inflict a decisive blow to their nuclear ambitions.

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Israel Can Make Ultimatums Too

As is his custom, Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas has been making declarations and ultimatums, issuing threats about what unilateral actions the PA will take should Palestinian demands not be met. With the time frame for the current round of U.S.-sponsored negotiations about to expire, it appears that Abbas is working hard to create a climate in which the Palestinians will be able to exit talks confident in the knowledge that Israel will be made to take the blame. With both the European Union and the Obama administration already pushing a version of events that sets Israel up as the fall guy in the event the Palestinians walk, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s main concern is fast becoming how best to deflect the accusations once they start raining down. But if the Israelis simply attempt to avoid being blamed, then they risk either being forced into making a never-ending series of concessions, or otherwise putting themselves in a position of weakness. If the Israelis cannot find a way to set the agenda surrounding these negotiations then they will lose, and then they’ll be blamed.

Returning from his visit to Washington, Abbas declared that he will not “capitulate.” Presumably this is a reference to the pressure he is under to say that he accepts Israel as a Jewish state–in line with Secretary Kerry’s overarching peace framework. Yet Abbas also said cryptically, “We carried the deposit, and we are guarding the deposit.” This perhaps refers to the make-or-break issues that the Palestinians are insisting they will not compromise on. This ought to be enough to convince anyone that chances for peace really rest on the attitude of the Palestinians. Yet, Abbas is also maneuvering matters so as to blame the Israelis when his side backs out of Kerry’s process. Most critical of all is the question of whether Israel will release more Palestinian terrorists and whether or not the Palestinians will continue to pursue statehood through international bodies.

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As is his custom, Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas has been making declarations and ultimatums, issuing threats about what unilateral actions the PA will take should Palestinian demands not be met. With the time frame for the current round of U.S.-sponsored negotiations about to expire, it appears that Abbas is working hard to create a climate in which the Palestinians will be able to exit talks confident in the knowledge that Israel will be made to take the blame. With both the European Union and the Obama administration already pushing a version of events that sets Israel up as the fall guy in the event the Palestinians walk, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s main concern is fast becoming how best to deflect the accusations once they start raining down. But if the Israelis simply attempt to avoid being blamed, then they risk either being forced into making a never-ending series of concessions, or otherwise putting themselves in a position of weakness. If the Israelis cannot find a way to set the agenda surrounding these negotiations then they will lose, and then they’ll be blamed.

Returning from his visit to Washington, Abbas declared that he will not “capitulate.” Presumably this is a reference to the pressure he is under to say that he accepts Israel as a Jewish state–in line with Secretary Kerry’s overarching peace framework. Yet Abbas also said cryptically, “We carried the deposit, and we are guarding the deposit.” This perhaps refers to the make-or-break issues that the Palestinians are insisting they will not compromise on. This ought to be enough to convince anyone that chances for peace really rest on the attitude of the Palestinians. Yet, Abbas is also maneuvering matters so as to blame the Israelis when his side backs out of Kerry’s process. Most critical of all is the question of whether Israel will release more Palestinian terrorists and whether or not the Palestinians will continue to pursue statehood through international bodies.

To get the current round of negotiations going Israel was essentially forced into purchasing the Palestinian presence at the negotiating table by agreeing to release 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists. These releases were to be made in installments so as to ensure that the Palestinians didn’t simply take this costly concession and run. The final installment is due shortly. However, the Palestinians are now saying that if we get to April without a framework having been agreed upon, then they will discontinue their involvement in the talks anyway.

A growing number of Israelis, including Cabinet ministers, are asking why Israel should make this painful and dangerous concession if the Palestinians won’t even agree to continue with the very peace talks for which these releases are being made. In response to the suggestion that the prisoner release won’t be completed without further assurances that talks will carry on, Abbas is now threatening that if the prisoner release is not forthcoming then the PA will resume its efforts to achieve statehood unilaterally at the United Nations, in direct contravention of the Oslo peace agreements.

In all of this Abbas is essentially acting as a self-fulfilling prophet. He is constructing a series of trajectories all of which lead to the same outcome: pursuing statehood at the UN. The only thing that would prevent this would seem to be Abbas agreeing to extend the negotiation period, but he has already pledged he won’t do that. So whether Israel releases the prisoners or not, it seems clear that Abbas will not agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, meaning he won’t signup to the framework, meaning he won’t extend negotiations, meaning he will go to the UN. Given that the only person who has the final say in any of this is Abbas, it’s strange to think that Israel will likely take the blame.

Indeed, it increasingly appears that no matter what Israel does, much of the international community, and particularly the Obama administration, will castigate Israel. The EU ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen has made no secret of this and Brussels is only holding off on implementing a divestment policy for as long as negotiations continue. Secretary Kerry has made thinly veiled threats about the boycotts and isolation that await Israel should talks fail, implying that this is only to be expected if Israel won’t surrender to pressure.

In the now infamous Bloomberg interview from earlier this month, Obama painted Netanyahu as a hardened obstructionist, responsible for jeopardizing Israel’s entire future. Condescendingly Obama asked what alternative Netanyahu had to offer. Well, perhaps Israel should start reminding observers that it does have an alternative, and its not one that the Palestinians, Obama, or the Europeans are going to like very much.

In January, former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren wrote about reviving Ariel Sharon’s plan for unilateral withdrawal/unilateral annexation. Large and growing numbers of Israeli parliamentarians are advocating that if talks fail Israel should take the initiative and begin by applying full Israeli sovereignty to the strategically important West Bank settlement blocs.

Netanyahu need not embrace this policy himself. But it wouldn’t hurt to remind those it concerns that there are forces gathering in Israel that are prepared to do this. Obama implies the negotiations are some huge favor to Israel, Abbas acts as if being part of talks to create the Palestinians a state is some terrible sacrifice. Israel needs to avoid the kind of weakness that would make it possible for it to be blamed by projecting its strength. Warning Abbas and Obama about the prospect of Israeli ultimatums would be one way of doing this.     

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Why Is Yaalon Not Playing By the Rules?

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is not playing by the rules. Members of the Israeli Cabinet are not supposed to be publicly telling the truth about American foreign-policy failures. But while it is to be expected that minor officials will mouth off on occasion about heavy-handed U.S. attempts to prop up the Palestinians or pressure the Jewish state into concessions, the man who is in charge of the Israeli defense establishment is supposed to understand that candor about the Obama administration interferes with his primary duties, which involve close security coordination with Washington.

Yaalon first pushed the envelope on U.S.-Israeli relations back in January when he had the bad manners to talk about Secretary of State John Kerry’s “messianic” obsession with Middle East peace that seemed divorced from the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians. But when he disparaged the U.S. as too “weak” to deal with Iran and that Israel was going to be forced to act on its own, that was too much for the Americans. A “senior American official” responded with what Haaretz termed a “blistering personal attack” in which Yaalon’s commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship was questioned.

What’s going on here? Why is Yaalon, previously known primarily as more of a defense intellectual than a firebrand, twisting the U.S. tiger’s tail in this manner? Is it part of a strategy cooked up by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu aimed at showing the Americans that Israel won’t be intimidated by pressure tactics? Or does it have to do with Yaalon’s political ambitions? And do Yaalon’s doubts about America’s trustworthiness reflect mainstream Israeli thinking on the subject?

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Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is not playing by the rules. Members of the Israeli Cabinet are not supposed to be publicly telling the truth about American foreign-policy failures. But while it is to be expected that minor officials will mouth off on occasion about heavy-handed U.S. attempts to prop up the Palestinians or pressure the Jewish state into concessions, the man who is in charge of the Israeli defense establishment is supposed to understand that candor about the Obama administration interferes with his primary duties, which involve close security coordination with Washington.

Yaalon first pushed the envelope on U.S.-Israeli relations back in January when he had the bad manners to talk about Secretary of State John Kerry’s “messianic” obsession with Middle East peace that seemed divorced from the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians. But when he disparaged the U.S. as too “weak” to deal with Iran and that Israel was going to be forced to act on its own, that was too much for the Americans. A “senior American official” responded with what Haaretz termed a “blistering personal attack” in which Yaalon’s commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship was questioned.

What’s going on here? Why is Yaalon, previously known primarily as more of a defense intellectual than a firebrand, twisting the U.S. tiger’s tail in this manner? Is it part of a strategy cooked up by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu aimed at showing the Americans that Israel won’t be intimidated by pressure tactics? Or does it have to do with Yaalon’s political ambitions? And do Yaalon’s doubts about America’s trustworthiness reflect mainstream Israeli thinking on the subject?

Those who assume the defense minister’s impolitic comments are part of a clever coordinated strategy in which Yaalon is playing bad cop to Netanyahu’s good cop with the Americans are probably wrong. Israeli politics is rarely that neat and tidy. Netanyahu has rightly come to the conclusion that no good will come from publicly challenging the U.S. on the peace process at the moment. It’s even more far-fetched to think the prime minister would have approved of a senior colleague’s decision to dissect the disastrous mistakes the U.S. has made in other conflicts such as the current crisis over Russian aggression against Ukraine, especially coming from the man who must work closely with the U.S. defense establishment. Yaalon was forced to walk back his personal attack on Kerry in January. It’s likely that he will need to do the same with his even more pointed blast at the Americans.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Yaalon’s views as extreme. The defense minister is not alone in thinking that the Obama administration’s retreats in the Middle East and weakness in dealing with Russia have undermined Israel’s security. American failures in Syria and Ukraine undermine faith in America’s ability to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The question is not whether Yaalon was right about doubts about the U.S. but whether this is something the defense minister should be saying in public rather than in private.

The answer to that question is obviously not. Though, as Yaalon rightly notes, U.S. security cooperation to Israel is mutually beneficial rather than a gift, it still ill behooves the top defense official of an American ally to behave in this manner.

This kind of display does strengthen Yaalon’s support among the Likud party faithful and other right-wing members of Netanyahu’s coalition. Were Netanyahu to step down or to decide not to run for reelection in 2017, it would make a lot of sense for Yaalon to be trying to shore up his right flank in a campaign for prime minister. But Yaalon is not likely to succeed Netanyahu. The prime minister is, after all, only one year older than his defense minister. Though Netanyahu is not that popular among a Likud membership that has grown even more right-wing in recent years, Yaalon is a typical former general whose political skills don’t match those of his boss. Nor is it likely that Netanyahu would split the party as Ariel Sharon did in 2005 leaving Yaalon with a chance to lead its rump.

Yaalon’s frustration with the U.S. is understandable. He may also be worried about whether the prime minister will buckle under American pressure. But he wouldn’t be the first former general to be outmaneuvered by Netanyahu. If he keeps popping off in this manner, he may discover that this kind of truth telling isn’t as politically useful as he thinks.

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