Commentary Magazine


Topic: John Kerry

Netanyahu Chooses the Lesser of Two Evils

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what possible good can come out of the delay?

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

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

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

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

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How Big of a Problem Is Susan Rice?

Chuck Hagel’s unceremonious dismissal as secretary of defense has refocused attention, once again, on the insularity of President Obama’s inner circle, its suspicion of outside voices, and its distaste for dissent. But it has changed in one way: this time, the concerns about secrecy, enforced groupthink, and high school clique behavior don’t center on Valerie Jarrett. Instead, the name that keeps surfacing is that of National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

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Chuck Hagel’s unceremonious dismissal as secretary of defense has refocused attention, once again, on the insularity of President Obama’s inner circle, its suspicion of outside voices, and its distaste for dissent. But it has changed in one way: this time, the concerns about secrecy, enforced groupthink, and high school clique behavior don’t center on Valerie Jarrett. Instead, the name that keeps surfacing is that of National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

It’s true that this isn’t the first time we’re hearing of the toxic atmosphere and mismanagement at Rice’s National Security Council. But it’s striking how clearly the battle lines appear to be drawn in the steady stream of bitter leaks aimed at Hagel, designed to kick him while he’s down. The cruelty with which the Obama insiders are behaving right now is unsettling, to be sure. But more relevant to the formation of national-security policy is the question of whether Susan Rice’s incompetence and pride are playing a role in the constant stream of Obama foreign-policy failures.

About two weeks ago, Foreign Policy magazine CEO David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, previewed his new book on American foreign policy in the age of Obama by sitting for an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Rothkopf has written a book on the history of the NSC, so Goldberg asked him about the NSC under Susan Rice. His opinion was pretty brutal.

Goldberg and Rothkopf discussed the mixed record of national security advisors over the last few decades, and Rothkopf summed it up this way: “If there are lessons to be drawn from this track record, they include the fact that it’s harder to be the first national security advisor of a president with little foreign-policy experience and, in the end, more broadly, the national security advisor is really only ever as good as his or her president enables him or her to be.”

That sounded like he was letting Rice off the hook a bit, but he returned to the topic to dispel any such impression. In fact, Obama and Rice seemed to reinforce each other’s weaknesses:

If Obama had any material management or foreign-policy experience prior to coming in to office or if he had the character of our stronger leaders on these issues—notably a more strategic than tactical orientation, more trust in his team, less risk aversion, etc.—she would be better off, as would we all. But his flaws are compounded by a system that lets him pick and empower those around him. So, if he chooses to surround himself with a small team of “true believers” who won’t challenge him as all leaders need to be challenged, if he picks campaign staffers that maintain campaign mode, if he over-empowers political advisors at the expense of those with national-security experience, that takes his weaknesses and multiplies them by those of the team around him.

And whatever Susan Rice’s many strengths are, she is ill-suited for the job she has. She is not seen as an honest broker. She has big gaps in her international experience and understanding—Asia. She is needlessly combative and has alienated key members of her staff, the cabinet, and overseas leaders. She is also not strategic and is reactive like her boss. So whereas the system does have the capability of offsetting the weaknesses of a president, if he is surrounded by strong advisors to whom he listens and who he empowers to do their jobs, it can also reinforce and exacerbate those weaknesses—as it is doing now.

And indeed, while Hagel was no superstar, Rice crops up in each account of his ouster. Politico reports that “Hagel’s main gripe, according to people close to him, was what he viewed as a disorganized National Security Council run by Ricea criticism shared by [White House chief of staff Denis] McDonough, according to a senior administration official.” Politico also points out that in this respect, Hagel was no outlier; his predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, shared this concern.

And according to the New York Times: “White House officials also expressed annoyance over a sharply critical two-page memo that Mr. Hagel sent to Ms. Rice last month, in which he warned that the administration’s Syria policy was in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad. Senior officials complained that Mr. Hagel had never made such a case in internal debates, suggesting that he was trying to position himself for history on a crucial issue as he was talking to Mr. Obama about leaving his job.”

It’s debatable what the worst part of that is. That the White House was bothered enough by one critical memo for it to appear in a story on the secretary of defense’s dismissal? That the secretary of defense and the national security advisor are communicating this through memos? That White House officials thought Hagel put his thoughts in writing out of borderline-disloyalty and the hope of abandoning a sinking ship?

I was among those singing Rice’s praises as a whipsmart advisor and a tough-as-nails negotiator, at least in the context of her candidacy to be secretary of state. Yet it’s become clear she feeds on conflict. It’s possible that instinct would be more beneficial were she at State and dealing with those shoving John Kerry around on the world stage. But Chuck Hagel is not Sergei Lavrov, and Rice’s conflation of all adversaries, personal and political, is tearing the White House’s national-security team apart.

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Congress Must Rescue Administration Held Hostage by Iran

This morning’s announcement that the West has formally agreed to extend its nuclear talks with Iran for another seven months confirms something that we already knew about Obama administration attitudes on the issue: it is far more afraid of disrupting any chance for détente with the Islamist regime than in sticking to its principles or its promises about halting the threat posed by Tehran’s program. But while sending the talks into a second overtime period allows Iran to keep moving ahead with its nuclear program and lets Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiators to relax a bit, this decision should wake up Congress. The failure of the administration to escape the trap that it has set for itself by letting the next stage of the talks drag on endlessly should re-energize the existing bipartisan coalition in favor of toughening sanctions on Iran to get back to work and pass a new bill.

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This morning’s announcement that the West has formally agreed to extend its nuclear talks with Iran for another seven months confirms something that we already knew about Obama administration attitudes on the issue: it is far more afraid of disrupting any chance for détente with the Islamist regime than in sticking to its principles or its promises about halting the threat posed by Tehran’s program. But while sending the talks into a second overtime period allows Iran to keep moving ahead with its nuclear program and lets Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiators to relax a bit, this decision should wake up Congress. The failure of the administration to escape the trap that it has set for itself by letting the next stage of the talks drag on endlessly should re-energize the existing bipartisan coalition in favor of toughening sanctions on Iran to get back to work and pass a new bill.

It should be remembered that a year ago in the aftermath of the signing of a weak interim deal with Iran, the administration successfully fended off efforts to increase sanctions on the Islamist regime by claiming that doing so would disrupt the negotiations. President Obama and Kerry both promised that the next round of talks would have a limited time frame that would prevent Iran from continuing the same game that it has played with the West for the last decade.

Tehran has been trying to run out the clock on the nuclear issue since George W. Bush’s first term in the White House. It has easily exploited two administrations’ efforts at engagement and diplomacy during this time frame and has gotten far closer to its goal of a bomb as a result. Even more importantly, with each round of negotiations it has forced Obama and America’s allies to retreat on its demands. Last year its tough stance forced Kerry to give up and ultimately agree to tacit Western acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium.

In the last year, it has also successfully gotten the U.S. to retreat on issues such as the number of centrifuges it is allowed to operate and the future of its stockpile of nuclear fuel, and kept other issues such as the need to divulge the extent of its nuclear military research, the future of its plutonium plant at Arak, its ballistic missile program, and support for international terrorism off the agenda. Proposed Western concessions have grown to the point of the absurd, such as the suggestion about disconnecting the pipes between the centrifuges. At the same time Iran has also stonewalled the International Atomic Energy Agency on demands for more inspections and transparency.

After last year’s interim deal was signed, the administration easily fended off congressional efforts to toughen sanctions by saying they weren’t needed to strengthen the hands of Western negotiators and openly talked of the danger of demonstrating ill will toward Tehran that would scuttle the talks. The president and his foreign-policy team also labeled skeptics about this deal and advocates of more sanctions as warmongers.

But a year later it’s clear that the skeptics were right and everything the administration promised about the next round of talks was either mistaken or an outright lie. Though Kerry claimed that the interim deal had achieved its goal of halting Iran’s progress, the truth is that nothing it accomplished can be easily reversed. In exchange for dubious progress, the U.S. sacrificed its considerable economic leverage in the form of loosening sanctions. Iran now believes with good reason that it can end the sanctions without giving up its nuclear ambition.

By turning the promised six months of talks to pressure Iran into a year plus seven months, the president and Kerry have broken their word to Congress and played right into the hands of the ayatollahs. It’s possible that seven more months of ineffectual pressure on Iran will yield another weak deal that will ensure it will soon become a threshold nuclear power while at the same time allowing Obama to announce a much-needed foreign-policy success and the fulfillment of his campaign pledges on the issue. But given the promises that were made about the previous two deadlines, what confidence can anyone have in America’s willingness to draw conclusions about the talks if Iran doesn’t yield?

Even if we are operating under the dubious assumption that any deal reached under these circumstances could be enforced or achieve its goal, the failure of the president to enforce the current deadline telegraphs to Iran that it needn’t worry about any other threats from the West. If the U.S. wouldn’t feel empowered to push Iran hard now with oil prices in decline and the current sanctions (which Obama opposed in the first place) having some impact on the regime’s economy, why would anyone in Tehran take seriously the idea that there will be consequences if they don’t make concessions or sign even another weak deal? Though Kerry talked about building trust with Iran, the only thing that can be trusted about this process is that the Islamists have played him and his boss for fools.

That is why Congress must step in now and immediately revive the bipartisan bill proposed by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Republican Senator Mark Kirk that would tighten the noose around Iran’s still-lucrative oil trade. Just as the current sanctions that Obama and Kerry brag about were forced upon them, the only way this administration will negotiate a viable deal with Iran is to tie its hands by passing a new sanctions bill.

It should also be pointed out that the alternative to Kerry’s appeasement of Iran is not the use of force. Tougher sanctions that will return the situation to the point where it was last year before Kerry caved on the interim deal provide the only chance to stop Iran by means short of war.

It may be that outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will block a sanctions bill in the lame duck session just as he did last year despite the support of an overwhelming majority of members from both parties. But if he does thwart action, the new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican majorities in both houses should act quickly to pass a bill that will impose real penalties on Iran.

The commitment of Obama and Kerry to détente with Iran has made them, in effect, hostages of the Islamist regime in these talks. The only way they can be rescued from their own folly is action by Congress.

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Deadlines, Red Lines, Whatever

As I’ve said before, Barack Obama’s not a closer. He’s a prolonger. So, instead of a deal on Iranian nukes, the administration is pushing to extend the deadline for negotiations with Tehran by seven months. What never ends, never ends badly.

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As I’ve said before, Barack Obama’s not a closer. He’s a prolonger. So, instead of a deal on Iranian nukes, the administration is pushing to extend the deadline for negotiations with Tehran by seven months. What never ends, never ends badly.

Why no deal? In the Wall Street Journal, Jay Solomon and Laurence Norman report: “The major stumbling blocks to an agreement remain the future capacity of Iran to produce nuclear fuel and the pace at which Western sanctions will be removed, according to U.S., European and Iranian officials.”

Not really. If you buy into this whole thing as a genuine potential breakthrough in American-Iran relations, then, sure, those are the problems. But if you’re skeptical of a country that prays for your death while negotiations are underway, the snag is the Iranian regime itself, a regime that exists to get a nuclear bomb and challenge the West.

To the extent that Obama’s Iran outreach has got us talking seriously about the technicalities of “future capacity” and the pace of sanctions removal, this non-deal has already achieved something dangerous and depressing: it’s redefined a suicidal exterminationist theocracy as a stubborn but persuadable power. But there’s no evidence of persuasion. According to reports, the U.S. was willing to let Iran slide on (a) revealing its past illicit weapons work, (b) thoroughly dismantling enrichment facilities, and (c) permanently abiding by the conditions proposed. It was a deal like Bill Cosby’s Ph.D. is a Ph.D. And still, the mullahs said no.

The sad part, then, is that we’re lucky there was no deal. Better farce than tragedy. We’d be luckier still if we had an administration that took our enemies at their word. For now, however, we hang our hopes on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Not that he’ll come around, but that his fanaticism will continue to blind him to our weakness.

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Pro-Palestinian, Pro-Peace, and Fading Fast

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the two-state solution in particular, is more than just a strategy. To some, as Aaron David Miller and others have written, it is a religion in itself. To others, such as Arab states in the Middle East, it is an excuse. To still others, like UNRWA, it is a self-enrichment scheme designed to perpetuate the conflict. But to nearly everyone, it is, at its most basic level, a market–for ideas, for products, for influence. And as some organizations are finding out now, the bungling of the peace process, such as that done by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, is bad for business.

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The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the two-state solution in particular, is more than just a strategy. To some, as Aaron David Miller and others have written, it is a religion in itself. To others, such as Arab states in the Middle East, it is an excuse. To still others, like UNRWA, it is a self-enrichment scheme designed to perpetuate the conflict. But to nearly everyone, it is, at its most basic level, a market–for ideas, for products, for influence. And as some organizations are finding out now, the bungling of the peace process, such as that done by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, is bad for business.

BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray documents the travails of one such group: the American Task Force on Palestine. It was founded in 2003, she notes, to advocate for Palestinian statehood among policymakers. It was self-consciously moderate, attracting political figures (like then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) to its events and associating itself with Palestinian figures like former prime minister Salam Fayyad, a moderate technocrat who hoped to crack down on corruption and bad governance and was driven out of Palestinian politics for his efforts.

Though the group wasn’t awash in money, things were going fairly well for a while, Gray writes. Indeed, though Gray doesn’t go into the political developments in the U.S. during ATFP’s rise, they are significant. George W. Bush publicly pushed for the creation of a Palestinian state early on in his presidency, giving renewed momentum to the idea of two states for two peoples. The Bush administration’s progress included giving Ariel Sharon the support he needed (later rescinded by Barack Obama in a damaging blow to hopes for peace) to withdraw from the entire Gaza Strip and set the stage for even more territorial concessions. By the end of the Bush administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was presenting a map and a generous offer of a deal to Mahmoud Abbas.

That’s when the backsliding began, as Abbas walked away from the offer without making a counteroffer. Then Obama came to office and began to dismantle the progress all sides had worked to achieve. Obama and Kerry, the arsonists of the ongoing blaze in Israel and the Palestinian territories, pushed the two sides farther apart, alienated everyone involved, and sided against not just Israel but also the Palestinian Authority whenever Hamas’s interests were at stake. The process, not exactly on the brink of success to begin with, collapsed.

So what happens to groups like the American Task Force on Palestine when the process is at a low ebb? Gray explains:

But things changed for ATFP this year. This summer’s war between Israel and Hamas and the breakdown of U.S.-mediated peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians aiming to broker a two-state solution, which is core to ATFP’s mission, have proven to be a toxic combination to the nonprofit. The group has decided to cancel its annual gala this year, which usually brings in half of its annual fundraising. And its founder says it will have to cut staff and office space. ATFP’s situation is a casualty of a larger shift: The hope for a two-state solution, which is official U.S. policy and regarded by the establishment as the only legitimate way to end the conflict, is running out of steam, causing a major existential crisis for some of those most dedicated to it.

There’s more than mere symbolism in what this says about the peace process. On a practical level, it shows that relying on the two-state solution as your raison d’être is a poor business model. The American government can afford for John Kerry to toss a match onto the Mideast tinderbox and walk away; private organizations, not so much.

On a political level, it shows the damage for a pro-Palestinian organization to align itself with moderate elements. With regard to the Palestinian polity, this means people like Fayyad, who represented a genuine desire for positive change and the willingness to do the hard work of state building. He was the only one, unfortunately.

It would be one thing if Fayyad had been forced to make only incremental change slowly so as not to rock the boat too much. Instead the system treated him like a virus, seeking to neutralize and then expel him. Which is exactly what happened. When moderate elements are not even tolerated, there’s not much room for a two-state solution or its supporters.

And domestically, it also says much about the hate and intolerance of the Palestinians’ Western supporters. Here’s Gray talking to ATFP’s president on what it’s like to be seen as a collaborator with the enemy merely for talking to Jews:

“That is part of the problem with raising money,” Asali said. “The mere fact that we talk to the Israelis publicly, here and in Israel, and to the Jewish organized and non-organized community has presented a major obstacle in our communication with our community.”

“We are for dealing with the establishment that deals with Palestine and Israel,” he said. “Which means by necessity that at least half of it would be Jewish or Israeli.”

Precisely. You can’t have a negotiating process leading to a two-state solution if you won’t deal with one side. Which raises the unfortunate fact: a great many of the Palestinians’ supporters and allies don’t actually want a two-state solution. They are not invested in real peace or ending the conflict; they are invested in ending Israel.

It’s tempting to say “with friends like these…” but that misses the point. The Palestinians’ supporters are not unintentionally undermining them with their hate. They are taking their cues from the Palestinian government. Those who support the Palestinians but also want peace and a two-state solution are few in number, and dwindling still.

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Kerry Calls Out Palestinian Incitement; Will Anything Change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kerry Lets Abbas Off the Hook Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Finds Support … Among Islamic Republic Loyalists

The Democrats took a shellacking in the most recent elections, giving Republicans their most substantial majority since just after World War II and, if the as-yet undecided cases end up with Republican victories, the Republican majority could be the largest since the 1920s. And while most elections are decided solely on domestic and economic issues, the current election was slightly different, as unease about President Obama’s foreign policy, his crisis management, and the stature of the United States on the world stage swayed some voters to vote for the Republicans.

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The Democrats took a shellacking in the most recent elections, giving Republicans their most substantial majority since just after World War II and, if the as-yet undecided cases end up with Republican victories, the Republican majority could be the largest since the 1920s. And while most elections are decided solely on domestic and economic issues, the current election was slightly different, as unease about President Obama’s foreign policy, his crisis management, and the stature of the United States on the world stage swayed some voters to vote for the Republicans.

Many Democrats take the threat of a nuclear Iran seriously. In 2011, Senate Republicans and Democrats joined together to pass tougher sanctions on Iran by a vote of 100-0, over White House objections. But ever since President Obama made his telephone call to President Rouhani and began negotiating with the Islamic Republic in earnest, the White House has succeeded in bringing congressional Democrats in line, against the better judgment of many of them. Well, as the Democratic leadership post-election doubles down on Obama’s foreign policy and their partisan proxies actually argue that a bad deal would be better than no deal and that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry should therefore be followed blindly regardless of what they concede, Senator Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi can take solace in the fact that they have found new supporters … inside the Islamic Republic.

Mardom Salari, an Iranian daily supportive of Rouhani, editorialized that the Iranian government should reach at least a temporary agreement with President Obama and his team of negotiators, in order to keep Democrats in power:

If at this sensitive time that may decide our future we are not able to agree on that paradigm and structure, tomorrow may be too late and we may not be able to raise the issue [of an agreement] again, because radicalism and extremism are not the traits that have only manifested themselves in the region in the form of some extremist groups… [but] they have also affected some powerful parties in major countries.

Should the Democrats lose in 2016, the paper warned:

…We will be faced with warmongers who see democracy only through the lenses of their weapons and who regard power and fighting as the only standard of justice and democracy. Therefore, in view of this situation, now that the world and people everywhere have replaced the discourse of talks for conflict, inside the country too we should adopt the policy of idealistic realism and in this way we should safeguard national interest and seek our benefits in the forthcoming talks.

The rhetoric is cartoonish nonsense of course, but the meaning is clear: Come to an agreement or else have to face those in the United States who are not pushovers. The whole thing is reminiscent of the Iranian government’s realization after humiliating President Jimmy Carter during the hostage crisis that it would face a very different America once Ronald Reagan won the White House.

Perhaps it’s time the Congress disappoints the Iranian government even if the White House will not, and let Tehran know they dragged their feet for six years too long, and that they cannot forever count on American naivete, weakness, and impotence.

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Negotiating with Iran or Just One Faction?

In 1998, against the backdrop of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations,” there was great optimism about the potential for a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations among many of the same circles that express it now. And then, just as now, some in the U.S. business community wanted to rush into the Iranian market, figuring all that was left for some sort of grand rapprochement was to dot the i’s and cross the t’s in any sort of diplomatic agreement. It was against this backdrop that a group of American businessmen, traveling at the invitation of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, flew to Tehran in order to combine meetings with tourism.

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In 1998, against the backdrop of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations,” there was great optimism about the potential for a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations among many of the same circles that express it now. And then, just as now, some in the U.S. business community wanted to rush into the Iranian market, figuring all that was left for some sort of grand rapprochement was to dot the i’s and cross the t’s in any sort of diplomatic agreement. It was against this backdrop that a group of American businessmen, traveling at the invitation of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, flew to Tehran in order to combine meetings with tourism.

Their trip did not go as planned. Escorted around in a minibus, all seemed well until they were set upon by a group of stone and iron bar wielding vigilantes who attacked the group. They cut their trip short and went home. I discussed the now forgotten incident in my first monograph about the history of Iranian vigilantism, but suffice it to say, those who attacked the Americans had official sanction to do so while those who invited the Americans also had official sanction to do so. The problem with the Iranian system, as always, was the multiple power centers, and so there can be often contradictory official sanctions.

That Iran has overlapping and competing power centers is well understood, both in Iran and in the West. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei keeps power in large part by balancing those power centers off each other. Having multiple power centers provides other advantages for Tehran: Those who are unwise enough to actually invest in Iran quickly learn that there is no practical adherence to commercial law. If a contract is signed to provide oil at a fixed price, for example, and the price of oil rises, Iranian partners will simply discover that the contract is invalid because a previously irrelevant body had not signed off on it.

President Obama may believe his administration’s diplomacy is on firm ground. After all, he spoke directly on the telephone with President Rouhani, and he sent letters to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who spoke about “heroic flexibility.” But Rouhani represents only one faction, and Obama and Kerry misinterpreted Khamenei’s rhetoric.

Even if a deal is struck, Obama will have essentially negotiated it with only one faction. Just as after the Reagan-era “Arms for Hostages” diplomacy (which saw Mehdi Hashemi’s faction attack America despite National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane’s “agreement” with Hashemi Rafsanjani) and with the Khatami-era “Dialogue of Civilizations” approach (which saw hardliners associated with the Basij and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) attack American interests), and just as in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, in which Ambassador Ryan Crocker and National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad negotiated a non-interference agreement with Iranian diplomats (only to see it ignored and flouted by the IRGC), so too should the United States recognize that a deal struck with Rouhani and Iran’s Foreign Ministry will be meaningless to the IRGC and perhaps the supreme leader.

Naïve diplomats can blame the violations of agreements on rogues or spoilers and insist Tehran can be trusted. But they would be wrong. Iranian leaders encourage competing power circles to lash out or go rogue in order to achieve undiplomatic aims, while consciously cultivating plausible deniability. At the very least, other Iranian factions are going to seek their own deal, raising the price of any agreement. To strike a deal and expect peace and tranquility would be like to pay off one mafia family in 1930s Chicago (or 2014 Chicago) when two or three other mafia families operate in the same location.

Here are the facts:

  • The Obama team is essentially negotiating with the Iranian Foreign Ministry in a process blessed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
  • Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has not yet signed on. His “Heroic Flexibility” comments referred to tactics, not substance. His so-called nuclear fatwa is not written down and has never been published, and President Obama and his top advisors have never seen it. They have simply put hope ahead of reality. Khamenei has already issued “red lines” that make a deal to resolve the situation impossible; unlike Obama, Khamenei treats red lines as more than rhetorical flourish.
  • The IRGC would have command, control, and custody over any military applications of Iran’s nuclear program. It has repeatedly condemned the nuclear diplomacy and has indicated that it will not abide by it.

So, in short, even if Obama and Kerry reach an agreement, they will essentially only be reaching it with one faction among many, and perhaps the weakest faction at that. It’s Diplomacy 101 not to negotiate an agreement with interlocutors who cannot deliver, but it seems increasingly that this is what Obama and Kerry insist on doing. At the very least, the price of Iranian compliance is going to be far higher than Obama and Kerry expect, and at the very worst, Iran’s willingness to talk is simply an asymmetric warfare strategy to cause the West to let its guard down while it continues with its efforts to achieve its ideological and regional goals.

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Obama’s Dangerous Race for an Iran Deal

With only two weeks to go before the deadline for the end of the current round of nuclear talks with Iran, the Obama administration has been conducting what can only be considered a full-court press aimed at producing a deal before November 24. This is in marked contrast to the relaxed attitude toward the previous deadline for the talks that passed in June and was extended to the fall. It also seems to contradict the behavior of Washington’s European negotiating partners who seemed to be reconciling themselves to yet another extension in the familiar pattern of stalling that has always characterized Iran’s conduct of the negotiations. But though the latest talks in Oman ended without agreement, the flurry of diplomatic action raises the question of whether President Obama believes he needs to get a deal done now before Republicans take control of the Senate in January.

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With only two weeks to go before the deadline for the end of the current round of nuclear talks with Iran, the Obama administration has been conducting what can only be considered a full-court press aimed at producing a deal before November 24. This is in marked contrast to the relaxed attitude toward the previous deadline for the talks that passed in June and was extended to the fall. It also seems to contradict the behavior of Washington’s European negotiating partners who seemed to be reconciling themselves to yet another extension in the familiar pattern of stalling that has always characterized Iran’s conduct of the negotiations. But though the latest talks in Oman ended without agreement, the flurry of diplomatic action raises the question of whether President Obama believes he needs to get a deal done now before Republicans take control of the Senate in January.

The end of the talks in Oman without an accord is likely not a sign that the deadline won’t be met. The Iranians are past masters of the art of wearing down their Western interlocutors. A year ago, the Iranians’ tough tactics resulted in Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to sign onto a deal that tacitly endorsed the Islamist regime’s “right” to enrich uranium and keep their nuclear infrastructure. Now they are similarly hammering Kerry in sessions where he continues to demand that Tehran accept what President Obama referred to yesterday as “verifiable lock-tight assurances that they can’t develop a nuclear weapon.” But since Iran has no intention of giving such assurances, they believe Kerry will, as he has before, decide that Western demands are just too difficult to achieve and accept far less in order to produce a deal.

But while the deadlines were originally sold to the U.S. public as evidence that the administration was serious about stopping Iran, the potential for a cutoff in the talks seems to be affecting Obama and Kerry far more than it is the Iranians. With sanctions already having been loosened and Europeans clamoring for an end to all restrictions on doing business with the regime, Tehran seems unmoved by the prospect of an end to the negotiations. By contrast, the administration seems genuinely fearful that November 24 will pass without diplomatic success.

Selling the U.S. public and Congress on yet another extension would be embarrassing but, given Obama’s success in squelching past criticisms of his Iran policy, would not be that much of a stretch. So long as he could pretend that the Iranians were negotiating in good faith, skeptics could be put down as warmongers who oppose diplomacy. But instead of slouching toward another round of seemingly endless negotiations, the Obama foreign-policy team is acting as if the deadline matters this time.

It is theoretically possible that this means the president intends to treat an Iranian refusal to sign as the signal for ratcheting up pressure on Tehran. Tightening rather than loosening of sanctions might recover some of the ground the president has lost in the last year. But few in Washington or anywhere else think this is likely. Years of on-and-off secret talks with the Iranians, including the recent revelations of the president’s correspondence with Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, show that Obama’s goal centers more on détente with the regime, not halting its nuclear project.

That leads to the inevitable conclusion that the motivation for the diplomatic frenzy is not so much fear of having to get tough with Iran as it is fear that a Republican-controlled Congress will prevent the implementation of another weak deal. There’s little doubt that without outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid to help the president stall advocates of tougher sanctions, Congress will pass a new bill that will hold the administration and Tehran accountable. A deal that allows Iran to become a threshold nuclear power—something that seems almost certain given the administration’s habit of accepting Tehran’s no’s as final and then moving on to the next concession—will set off a major battle in the Senate even if Obama does try to evade the constitutional requirement of submitting it to the Senate for a vote.

But the president’s fear of having to present such a dubious deal to the public seems to be inspiring him to present a weaker, not a tougher position to Iran. The Iranians know this and are standing their ground in the expectation that rather than walking away from the table, Obama will accept another bad deal in order to get it all done before McConnell is running the Senate.

But rather than treating this as a partisan matter, both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress should be alarmed at the prospect of the president holding a fire sale of vital American interests merely to avoid having to carry on his appeasement of Iran while being held accountable by a GOP-run Senate. No matter what terms the president presents to the public, there seems little chance that any of them can be enforced in the absence of more United Nations inspections of Iranian facilities, which are still being denied by the ayatollahs or an end to ongoing cheating on the interim agreement. Nor should either party be comforted by the idea that the president will be relying on the trustworthiness of his pen pal Khamenei at the same time the latter is tweeting out a steady barrage of anti-Semitic and genocidal threats toward Israel.

If there is anything more dangerous than a deliberate campaign of engagement with Iran, it is the current race to a deal that can’t be verified and won’t put an end to the regime’s nuclear ambitions. This should be a signal for responsible members of both parties that it is time to pass the tougher sanctions that Obama successfully defeated last winter.

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Lessons on Iran from the Fall of the Berlin Wall

This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I grew up against the backdrop of the Cold War. Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet premier for the first decade of my life. His 1982 funeral was represented the dour pageantry of the Soviet Union to which we had become accustomed. I was in the sixth grade when a Soviet pilot shot down Korean Air 007. In hindsight we learned that it was perhaps the closest the United States and Soviet Union had come to nuclear war in my lifetime. And, as a voracious reader, I grew up reading Cold War thrillers such as Fail Safe, Seven Days in May, On the Beach, and later The Charm School, and I also remember the debates in school about whether or not it was appropriate for kids my age to see The Day After when it first appeared on television. Walking around Northeast Philadelphia where I grew up, many buildings still housed these signs which somewhere along the years thankfully disappeared.

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This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I grew up against the backdrop of the Cold War. Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet premier for the first decade of my life. His 1982 funeral was represented the dour pageantry of the Soviet Union to which we had become accustomed. I was in the sixth grade when a Soviet pilot shot down Korean Air 007. In hindsight we learned that it was perhaps the closest the United States and Soviet Union had come to nuclear war in my lifetime. And, as a voracious reader, I grew up reading Cold War thrillers such as Fail Safe, Seven Days in May, On the Beach, and later The Charm School, and I also remember the debates in school about whether or not it was appropriate for kids my age to see The Day After when it first appeared on television. Walking around Northeast Philadelphia where I grew up, many buildings still housed these signs which somewhere along the years thankfully disappeared.

When I had my bar mitzvah back in 1984, like many of my peers, I was “twinned” with a Soviet Jew my age and encouraged to write to him. I quickly received a note back asking me not to write anymore because his family feared for their safety. Teachers and peers, meanwhile, would regularly go and protest Ronald Reagan’s “warmongering” and military build-up in Western Europe. Against the backdrop of all this, there were many who downplayed the importance of freedom even as it was denied to so many. The Soviet Union would be a permanent fixture of our world and that we just had to bargain with what was there rather than what we’d like to see. Cuba might be a dictatorship, but couldn’t we just applaud its health-care system? Maybe the United States was at fault in Nicaragua and the people truly wanted to be in the Communist orbit.

Then Berlin happened. It was my senior year in high school, and what a heady time it was, coming just months after the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Despite what diplomats, teachers, professors, and news anchors told us, perhaps people really did want to be free. It’s hard to argue with hundreds of thousands clamoring to escape the prison in which their leaders had put them. Whereas many so-called sophisticated Americans had mocked Ronald Reagan for his “evil empire” remarks, those escaping from Soviet tutelage described his moral clarity as a shot of adrenalin to those seeking freedom and individual liberty.

How unfortunate it is, then, that history must repeat, that somehow those in power and those entrusted with American diplomacy have come to once again embrace moral equivalency and shirk moral clarity. We need look no further than Iran. Whereas many U.S. presidents have reached their hand out to the Iranian people, President Obama was the first to substitute a direct outreach to Iranians with instead the legitimization of the Islamic Republic, the regime which so oppresses them.

Part of this might be ignorance of his advisors. When one looks at the histories and explanations of the Islamic Revolution published in English, so many of these were commissioned against the backdrop of revolution by publishers who wanted an answer to how so many in the West were taken by surprise by the Islamic Revolution. The most popular of the resulting books—and those still used in universities—for example, Nikki Keddie’s Roots of Revolution and Ervand Abrahamian’s Iran Between Two Revolutions, treated the Islamic Revolution as the natural apex of Iranian political evolution. It might not have looked it at the time, but such a conclusion was nonsense. The Islamic Revolution was just as much an anomaly, one made possible by a confluence of events ranging from the shah’s cancer, Carter’s bungling, Khomeini’s exile from Iraq, and pure dumb luck on Khomeini’s part. It does a tremendous disservice to the Iranian people to treat the theocracy and regime imposed upon them by Ayatollah Khomeini as a permanent part of the Iranian political landscape.

The outreach Obama initiated led the president to downplay rather than offer moral support to the 2009 uprising inside Iran. Then, in order to grease his outreach, he offered Iran more than $7 billion in sanctions relief at a time when, thanks in part to sanctions, Iran’s economy was fast contracting. And that was even before the price of oil dropped precipitously, well below the level necessary to support the budget which Iranian leaders calculated.

Ronald Reagan ended the Soviet Union by forcing it to bankrupt itself. Obama was offered the same opportunity with a state just as hostile to the United States and chose to throw it a life raft. As we near a quarter century from the Berlin Wall’s fall, we should not kid ourselves by believing that it is somehow sophisticated diplomacy to preserve our adversaries or downplay the aspirations for freedom which peoples chafing under dictatorship hold. It is a lesson Obama and Kerry should consider as they work to cement their legacy on the backs of ordinary Iranians.

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Desperation Not a Good Negotiating Position

Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to the Sultanate of Oman this weekend, where he will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and his European Union counterpart, Catherine Ashton.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to the Sultanate of Oman this weekend, where he will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and his European Union counterpart, Catherine Ashton.

Kerry’s meeting comes against the backdrop of an extraordinary interview he gave to the press from Paris:

“I want to get this done,” Kerry said during a series of meetings in which the Iranian negotiations figured prominently. “And we are driving toward the finish with a view of trying to get it done.” Kerry said Iran is entitled to develop its nuclear program for civilian, not military, use. “They have a right to a peaceful program but not a track to a bomb,” Kerry said. “We believe it is pretty easy to prove to the world that a plan is peaceful.”

The Iranians have a right to a peaceful program? Well, the Islamic Republic’s politicians have made that their mantra. But then, they conducted nuclear-weapons research at least until 2003, and stonewalled the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which, in 2005, found Iran formally in non-compliance with its Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement. This, in turn, led to the United Nations Security Council taking up the Iran file, and in turn this led to at least six UN Security Council Resolutions which found that Iran did not have a right to a peaceful program given its previous violations.

It’s all well and good for Iranian negotiators to talk about the rights bestowed by the NPT, but they fail to acknowledge their violations voided those rights. For many activists and diplomats, the talks are a fiction meant to preserve the NPT rather than the means to resolve the nuclear impasse. In this, the world sees the same nod and wink that it saw in the lead-up to the Agreed Framework with North Korea two decades ago. That Iranian negotiators hold North Korea up as a model to emulate should set off alarm bells.

Back to Kerry: He is absolutely wrong to suggest that Iran has any right to a peaceful program. The only reason why he might utter such a mantra is because he and the administration he serves have become so unilateral that they are prepared to waive not only American sanctions but several unanimous or near-unanimous Security Council resolutions.

That he believes Iran’s program is peaceful beggars belief, for it ignores that peaceful programs are not built under mountains or in secret. It ignores that if Iran’s goal is indigenous energy security, the Islamic Republic doesn’t possess enough uranium to fuel eight civilian reactors for more than 15 years. And it ignores that if Iran’s goal was merely energy security, it could have rebuilt its refinery capability and pipeline network to power itself for more than a century at a fraction of its nuclear investment. It ignores the fact that the nuclear fatwa which Obama found so convincing apparently does not exist. Nor does he pay attention to President Rouhani’s history of deception and statements which suggest extreme insincerity.

Kerry is right that there is no reason for Iran not to reach an agreement by the November 24 deadline. There was, indeed, no reason for Iran not to reach an agreement with the IAEA in 2005, or with the international community upon receiving its first sanction. All Iran had to do was come clean about its past and comply with its international commitments.

The fact of the matter is that the more Obama and Kerry project desperation for a deal—and Kerry’s statement with regard to November 24 reflects that desperation—the more likely it is that Iran will retrench itself, as Supreme Leader Khamenei recently did with his declaration of redlines.

Let us hope that Kerry remembers that the purpose of the Iran talks was to address issues of Iran’s dishonesty and non-compliance with its agreements, not to paper over them. Just as with North Korea, a bad deal is far worse than no deal at all. Securing a legacy for Obama or being the center of international attention for a day or two is not worth the price to U.S. national security.

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White House Ignores Khamenei Response to Letters

The always excellent Jay Solomon and Carol Lee have a scoop in the Wall Street Journal regarding the latest letter which President Obama has sent to Supreme Leader Khamenei.

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The always excellent Jay Solomon and Carol Lee have a scoop in the Wall Street Journal regarding the latest letter which President Obama has sent to Supreme Leader Khamenei.

While we can debate the wisdom of this correspondence–and I think Obama is being extremely naïve–at least he seems to recognize that it is the supreme leader who makes decisions and not the Iranian president, no matter how smiley that president might be.

What struck me, however, was this statement in Solomon and Lee’s report:

Mr. Khamenei never directly responded to the overtures, according to U.S. officials. And Iran’s security forces cracked down hard that year on nationwide protests that challenged the re-election of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Actually, Khamenei did respond. On the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy, he said this, in a mocking tone which is even more apparent in the Persian version of this speech:

The new US President made some beautiful comments. He also repeatedly asked us in writing and orally to turn a new page and help him change the present situation. He asked us to cooperate with him to solve global issues. He went as far as that.

Now, Khamenei continued to say he gave Obama a chance, but Obama didn’t come around. Khamenei then gloated about the strength of the Islamic Republic, a perception which Obama’s groveling tone has bolstered:

I wonder why they do not learn a lesson from what has happened. I do not understand why they are not prepared to get to know our nation. Do they not know that this nation is the one that resisted and brought the two superpowers – that is, the Soviet Union and America – to their knees? When there were two superpowers in the world, they were opposed to one another in almost all areas except in their enmity towards the Islamic Republic. This enmity was the only thing these two superpowers had in common. Why do you not learn your lesson? Today you are not even as powerful as you used to be. The Islamic Republic is several times more powerful today than those days, and yet you are speaking with the same tone? That is arrogance – talking to a nation arrogantly and using threats to get what they want. They threaten us. And our nation says it will resist.

Khamenei then warned the United States not to put its hope in reformers, as Obama seems keen to do:

Just because a handful of naïve or malevolent individuals have confronted the Islamic Republic does not mean that they can roll out the red carpet for Americans in our country. These individuals either had ulterior motives or had naively misunderstood the events without having very bad intentions – I do not want to be judgmental about their malevolence. Americans should know that the nation is resisting firmly.

The point of this is not to criticize the Wall Street Journal report which only relates what Obama administration officials said. But it is symptomatic of the problems of Obama administration diplomacy with Iran: Simply put, Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry imagine sincerity where none exists and ignore any response that is not too their liking. Rather than acknowledge that Khamenei responded with a message Obama did not like, the White House and State Department would rather put the response down the memory hole, all the better to keep the process alive. The reality is this, however: No really does mean no.

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Frat-House Statecraft and U.S.-Iran Détente

The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

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The silliness of President Mom Jeans calling an Israeli special forces veteran “chickens–t” was what first dominated the reactions of the Obama administration’s frat-house taunts directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But the larger strategic impact of the insult, as passed through what Matthew Continetti has termed the “secretarial” press, this time via Jeffrey Goldberg, soon became apparent. And it has now been confirmed by a major story in the Wall Street Journal.

It was easy at first to miss anything but the string of insults directed from Obama to Netanyahu, including the casual accusation of autism. (It’s arguable whether this represented a new low for the president, who has a habit of demonstrating his grade school playground vocabulary.) But once the initial shock at the further degrading of American statecraft under Obama wore off, it was easy to see the real purpose of the story. The Obama administration wanted to brag through its stenographer that the president had protected the Iranian nuclear program from Israel:

I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”

If Iran goes nuclear, those words will be the perfect description of the Obama administration’s fecklessness: “Now it’s too late.” Too late, that is, for our allies like Israel and the Gulf states to protect themselves from the consequences of the Obama administration’s Mideast policies–which principally affect Israel and the Gulf states. But “fecklessness” may not be the right word. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the president has been effective after all:

The Obama administration and Iran, engaged in direct nuclear negotiations and facing a common threat from Islamic State militants, have moved into an effective state of détente over the past year, according to senior U.S. and Arab officials.

The shift could drastically alter the balance of power in the region, and risks alienating key U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates who are central to the coalition fighting Islamic State. Sunni Arab leaders view the threat posed by Shiite Iran as equal to or greater than that posed by the Sunni radical group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Israel contends the U.S. has weakened the terms of its negotiations with Iran and played down Tehran’s destabilizing role in the region.

The Obama administration, then, has been carrying out its preferred policy: aligning with Iran in the Middle East. Now, this isn’t exactly surprising, since the administration has more or less telegraphed its pitches. Obama has also long been a doormat for the world’s tyrants, so adding Iran to the list that already includes states like Russia and Turkey adds a certain cohesiveness to White House policy.

Obama’s infamous and towering ignorance of world affairs, especially in the Middle East, has always made this latest faceplant somewhat predictable. The Looney-Tunes outburst at Netanyahu was not, but it teaches us two important things about Obama.

First, those who wanted to support Obama but had no real case for him in 2008 went with the idea that he had a “presidential temperament.” Those folks now look quite foolish–though that’s nothing new. Obama has a temperament ill suited for any activity not readily found on frat row.

The second lesson is that the president’s foreign policy is not abandonment of allies–that would be an improvement. It is, instead, full of tactics and strategies that, often unintentionally but no less destructively, put a thumb on the scale against them. For example, from the Journal piece:

The Obama administration also has markedly softened its confrontational stance toward Iran’s most important nonstate allies, the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese militant and political organization, Hezbollah. American diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, negotiated with Hamas leaders through Turkish and Qatari intermediaries during cease-fire talks in July that were aimed at ending the Palestinian group’s rocket attacks on Israel, according to senior U.S. officials.

The Iranian proxy terrorist groups on Israel’s border will have a freer hand. It helps explain why the administration served up a ceasefire proposal crafted by Hamas’s patrons, which outraged not only Israel but also Egypt. Protecting Hezbollah will further enable that group to make life hell for Israel’s north (and perhaps not only Israel’s north) when they next feel like it.

But strengthening Hezbollah will not only imperil Israel’s security. It will also put Europe in greater danger and U.S. interests as well. It’s a dim-witted policy, in other words, no matter what you think of Israel. And the general détente with Iran is, as the Journal points out, an insult to our Gulf allies as well as damaging to the fight against ISIS. The president’s policies put our allies at the mercy of their enemies. That he’s taunting them too only makes it clear that the policies are being instituted precisely how he envisioned them.

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Peace-Processing, Web-Scrubbing, and the Supreme Court

Next Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument again in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, on the constitutionality of the law allowing Jerusalem-born Americans to have “Israel” as their place of birth in their passports, if they so request. The administration argues the Constitution’s “Reception Clause” (which provides the president “shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers”) gives the president sole authority over whether Americans born in the city that has been Israel’s capital since 1950 can have “Israel” in their passports. Kerry’s brief–in its opening paragraph–asserts that any action that “would signal, symbolically or concretely,” that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as within Israel would “critically compromise” the American ability to “further the peace process.” It would, apparently, make the process go “poof.”

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Next Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument again in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, on the constitutionality of the law allowing Jerusalem-born Americans to have “Israel” as their place of birth in their passports, if they so request. The administration argues the Constitution’s “Reception Clause” (which provides the president “shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers”) gives the president sole authority over whether Americans born in the city that has been Israel’s capital since 1950 can have “Israel” in their passports. Kerry’s brief–in its opening paragraph–asserts that any action that “would signal, symbolically or concretely,” that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as within Israel would “critically compromise” the American ability to “further the peace process.” It would, apparently, make the process go “poof.”

It is the same argument Hillary Clinton made in her own Supreme Court brief, back when the case was titled Zivotofsky v. Clinton. But if this is a serious argument, an urgent message needs to be dispatched to the White House Web-Scrubbers. Again.

Those familiar with this case–now in its 11th year–will recall that when it first came before the Court in 2011, the White House website, inconveniently for the administration’s central argument, featured pictures of Vice President Biden’s 2010 visit to–as each caption read–“Jerusalem, Israel.” The New York Sun first reported this anomaly in an August 4, 2011 article entitled, “Jerusalem Case at Supreme Court May Pit White House Web Site Against the President.” Three business days later–and two hours after the Weekly Standard published a screenshot of one of the pictures–the White House removed the word “Israel” from every caption. Then the administration scrubbed references to “Jerusalem, Israel” on other federal websites, and even went so far as to alter documents prepared by the Bush administration.

Now that the case is back before the Court, I checked again and found that as recently as three months ago, the White House issued a press release referring to “Jerusalem, Israel.” Entitled “President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts,” it listed nominees the president said would bring “a wealth of experience” to his administration–including one whose experience, the press release stated, included work in … “Jerusalem, Israel.” The amicus brief of the Zionist Organization of America points to numerous other references to “Jerusalem, Israel” currently on the websites of the Defense Department, Treasury Department, Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies.

If the administration genuinely believes that printing “Israel” in the U.S. passport of an American born in western Jerusalem jeopardizes a peace process currently deader than Generalissimo Franco, perhaps the president should appoint a Web-Scrubbing Czar–someone who can coordinate web-scrubbing throughout his administration. It would avoid the spectacle of an administration repeatedly making an argument repeatedly contradicted by its own websites.

And once again I ask: why is President Obama making a federal case out of this? He could do what President Clinton did when Congress passed a law giving Americans born in Taiwan the right to put “Taiwan,” rather than “China,” on their passports. Clinton implemented the law while issuing a statement that it did not change American policy that the United States recognizes only one China. Why not allow Zivotofsky to have “Israel” in his passport while announcing it does not change American policy that Jerusalem is a final status issue to be negotiated by the parties?

Such a resolution would conclude the case without a constitutional clash with Congress, and without a change in the administration’s foreign policy; it would avoid the necessity of a Supreme Court decision on an issue of first impression; it would terminate a decade of increasingly pointless refusals to implement a duly enacted law; and it will not–I think I can assure the administration on this–compromise the U.S. ability to advance the peace process. Indeed what has plagued that process for the past six years has been a U.S. administration so focused on one-sided demands on Israel that it fights all the way to the Supreme Court to avoid putting “Israel” in a Jerusalem-born American’s passport, scrubbing federal websites and altering official documents in its attempt to prevail.

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Obama, Not Bibi, Created U.S.-Israel Crisis

Since Barack Obama became president, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has been a reliable indicator of administration opinion about foreign-policy issues. Like some other journalists who can be counted on to support the president, he has been the recipient of some juicy leaks, especially when the White House wants to trash Israel’s government. But Goldberg and his “senior administration sources” reached a new low today when he published a piece in which those anonymous figures labeled Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a “chickenshit” and a “coward.” The remarks are clearly not so much a warning to the Israelis to stop complaining about the U.S. push for appeasement of a nuclear Iran and the administration’s clueless approach to the conflict with the Palestinians. Rather the story is, as Goldberg rightly characterizes it, a genuine crisis in the relationship. That much is plain but where Goldberg and the talkative administration members are wrong is their belief that this is all Netanyahu’s fault. Their attacks on him are not only plainly false but are motivated by a desire to find an excuse that will be used to justify a drastic turn in U.S. foreign policy against Israel.

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Since Barack Obama became president, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has been a reliable indicator of administration opinion about foreign-policy issues. Like some other journalists who can be counted on to support the president, he has been the recipient of some juicy leaks, especially when the White House wants to trash Israel’s government. But Goldberg and his “senior administration sources” reached a new low today when he published a piece in which those anonymous figures labeled Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a “chickenshit” and a “coward.” The remarks are clearly not so much a warning to the Israelis to stop complaining about the U.S. push for appeasement of a nuclear Iran and the administration’s clueless approach to the conflict with the Palestinians. Rather the story is, as Goldberg rightly characterizes it, a genuine crisis in the relationship. That much is plain but where Goldberg and the talkative administration members are wrong is their belief that this is all Netanyahu’s fault. Their attacks on him are not only plainly false but are motivated by a desire to find an excuse that will be used to justify a drastic turn in U.S. foreign policy against Israel.

The administration critique of Netanyahu as a coward stems from its disgust with his failure to make peace with the Palestinians as well as their impatience with his criticisms of their zeal for a deal with Iran even if it means allowing the Islamist regime to become a threshold nuclear power. But this is about more than policy. The prickly Netanyahu is well known to be a tough guy to like personally even if you are one of his allies. But President Obama and his foreign-policy team aren’t just annoyed by the prime minister. They’ve come to view him as public enemy No. 1, using language about him and giving assessments of his policies that are far harsher than they have ever used against even avowed enemies of the United States, let alone one of its closest allies.

So rather than merely chide him for caution they call him a coward and taunt him for being reluctant to make war on Hamas and even to launch a strike on Iran. They don’t merely castigate him as a small-time politician without vision; they accuse him of putting his political survival above the interests of his nation.

It’s quite an indictment but once you get beyond the personal dislike of the individual on the part of the president, Secretary of State Kerry, and any other “senior officials” that speak without attribution on the subject of Israel’s prime minister, all you have is a thin veil of invective covering up six years of Obama administration failures in the Middle East that have the region more dangerous for both Israel and the United States. For all of his personal failings, it is not Netanyahu—a man who actually served as a combat soldier under fire in his country’s most elite commando unit—who is a coward or a small-minded failure. It is Obama and Kerry who have fecklessly sabotaged a special relationship, an act whose consequences have already led to disaster and bloodshed and may yet bring worse in their final two years of power.

It was, after all, Obama (and in the last two years, Kerry) who has spent his time in office picking pointless fights with Israel over issues like settlements and Jerusalem. They were pointless not because there aren’t genuine disagreements between the two countries on the ideal terms for peace. But rather because the Palestinians have never, despite the administration’s best efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their favor, seized the chance for peace. No matter how much Obama praises Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and slights Netanyahu, the former has never been willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. They also chose to launch a peace process in spite of the fact that the Palestinians remain divided between Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas-ruled Gaza, a situation that makes it impossible for the PA to make peace even if it wanted to do so. The result of their heedless push for negotiations that were bound to fail was another round of violence this summer and the possibility of another terrorist intifada in the West Bank.

On Iran, it has not been Netanyahu’s bluffing about a strike that is the problem but Obama’s policies. Despite good rhetoric about stopping Tehran’s push for a nuke, the president has pursued a policy of appeasement that caused it to discard its significant military and economic leverage and accept a weak interim deal that began the process of unraveling the international sanctions that represented the best chance for a solution without the use of force.

Even faithful Obama supporter Goldberg understands that it would be madness for Israel to withdraw from more territory and replicate the Gaza terror experiment in the West Bank. He also worries that the administration is making a “weak” Iran deal even though he may be the only person on the planet who actually thinks Obama would use force to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

So why is the administration so angry with Netanyahu? It can’t be because Netanyahu is preventing peace with the Palestinians. After the failure of Kerry’s fool’s errand negotiations and the Hamas missile war on Israel, not even Obama can think peace is at hand. Nor does he really think Netanyahu can stop him from appeasing Iran if Tehran is willing to sign even a weak deal.

The real reason to target Netanyahu is that it is easier to scapegoat the Israelis than to own up to the administration’s mistakes. Rather than usher in a new era of good feelings with the Arab world in keeping with his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama has been the author of policies that have left an already messy Middle East far more dangerous. Rather than ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his decision to withdraw U.S. troops and to dither over the crisis in Syria led to more conflict and the rise of ISIS. Instead of ending the Iranian nuclear threat, Obama is on the road to enabling it. And rather than manage an Israeli-Palestinian standoff that no serious person thought was on the verge of resolution, Obama made things worse with his and Kerry’s hubristic initiatives and constant bickering with Israel.

Despite the administration’s insults, it is not Netanyahu who is weak. He has shown great courage and good judgment in defending his country’s interests even as Obama has encouraged the Palestinians to believe they can hold out for even more unrealistic terms while denying Israel the ammunition it needed to fight Hamas terrorists. While we don’t know whether, as Goldberg believes, it is too late for Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, it is Obama that Iran considers weak as it plays U.S. negotiators for suckers in the firm belief that the U.S. is a paper tiger that is not to be feared any longer.

If there is a crisis, it is one that was created by Obama’s failures and inability to grasp that his ideological prejudices were out of touch with Middle East realities.

The next two years may well see, as Goldberg ominously predicts, even more actions by the administration to downgrade the alliance with Israel. But the blame for this will belong to a president who has never been comfortable with Israel and who has, at every conceivable opportunity, sought conflict with it even though doing so did not advance U.S. interests or the cause of peace. No insult directed at Netanyahu, no matter how crude or pointless, can cover up the president’s record of failure.

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Something Is Rotten at Foggy Bottom

After the Wall Street Journal broke the news that President Obama reined in the U.S.-Israel military partnership while Israel was at war, it could not be plausibly denied that Obama has sought to downgrade the special relationship. But the story was alarming not only because of the lengths Obama was willing to go to tie Israel’s hands but also because it showed the president was chipping away at the rest of the U.S. government’s ability to pick up the slack when Obama tried to hamper Israel’s ability to defend itself.

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After the Wall Street Journal broke the news that President Obama reined in the U.S.-Israel military partnership while Israel was at war, it could not be plausibly denied that Obama has sought to downgrade the special relationship. But the story was alarming not only because of the lengths Obama was willing to go to tie Israel’s hands but also because it showed the president was chipping away at the rest of the U.S. government’s ability to pick up the slack when Obama tried to hamper Israel’s ability to defend itself.

That has always been the silver lining, and it’s always annoyed much of the American left: other American governmental institutions, such as Congress and the military, are consistently pro-Israel and can thus keep the relationship strong when a president tries to weaken it. And it’s also why it should be of great concern now that another American governmental institution that is usually far less pro-Israel is becoming, under Secretary of State John Kerry, even more antagonistic toward Jerusalem than usual: the U.S. State Department.

Much has been made about the unimaginably incompetent and incoherent management of Foggy Bottom’s communications under spokeswomen Marie Harf and Jen Psaki. But it’s too easy–and not totally accurate–to dismiss Harf and Psaki as misplaced campaign attack hacks. They are out of place at State, but they are there for a reason. And the culture of the diplomatic corps more broadly also resembles the same spiteful ignorance routinely displayed by the president and his secretary of state. The latest example is the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem’s memo to employees referring to Wednesday’s terror attack, in which a Palestinian murdered a Jewish baby, as a “traffic incident.”

After that terror attack, Harf had initially told both sides to exercise restraint. At yesterday’s briefing, Jen Psaki was asked about one of the major sources of gasoline being poured on this fire: the incitement to violence coming from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Here is the exchange:

QUESTION: I’m not making any relation, but there’s been some concern over the last week or two about comments by President Abbas that believe to have incurred incitement. And are you concerned about that? You haven’t really spoken out about that. Do you in any way feel that this is inciting Palestinians to take actions into their own hands?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Elise, one, I mean, we obviously believe that the act last night warrants condemnation evidence (sic) by the statement we released last night. I’m not going to characterize the comments made or not made by President – Prime Minister Netanyahu or the response from President Abbas.

QUESTION: Well, if you haven’t really received a condemnation from President Abbas, then don’t you think you should offer one?

MS. PSAKI: I think our view of it is clear by – evidenced by our statement last night. I would point you to him on any comments that they would like to make.

QUESTION: But what about his comments, like, over the past – I mean, there has just been several comments that people have remarked about that seem to be incurring incitement. Is that not concerning?

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

That’s right, all Psaki would say is that Abbas “has renounced violence and consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution”–an obviously false statement–along with the strident insistence that she doesn’t “have any other analysis for you to offer.”

It’s worth pointing out that in the very same press briefing Psaki confirmed that the victim of the Palestinian terror attack in Jerusalem was an American citizen. So even Americans not totally inclined to defend Israel from terrorism would, theoretically, be fairly embarrassed by Psaki’s pusillanimous, kowtowing claptrap.

The degree to which this administration will go to avenge perceived slights would make a middle-schooler uncomfortable. While Psaki has nothing to say about deadly anti-Semitic incitement from Abbas even when it’s followed by the murder of an American baby, the State Department reserves its outrage for Israeli officials who disagree on the record with Kerry.

And sometimes the administration goes further. Not only did officials hit back at Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon for criticizing Kerry during the peace negotiations, but they’ve continued to hold a grudge. Yaalon, in Washington to meet with Chuck Hagel, was reportedly denied permission to meet with Kerry, Vice President Biden, or Susan Rice:

On the diplomatic front, Ya’alon met with the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, the only other key official to sit down with the Israeli defense minister aside from Hagel. But he received little respite from the sour reception, as Power emphasized her grievance with settlement construction beyond the Green Line.

They didn’t want him meeting with most of the important officials, but they were happy to have Samantha Power yell at him. The choice of Samantha Power, rather than someone with real influence or broad knowledge of the Middle East and world affairs, is telling. But it’s not altogether out of the ordinary.

The Obama administration’s public temper tantrums are at this point a regular feature of the president’s second term. That they’re directed at allies is becoming commonplace but still disturbing. That the State Department seems to prioritize retribution against Israel over holding those who kill American citizens accountable unfortunately encapsulates American diplomacy in the age of Obama and Kerry.

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“It’s the Ideology, Stupid.”

Seeking to unseat President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to remind Clinton campaign workers that they should focus on the economy as the key to defeating Bush, whose popularity in March 1991 peaked at more than 90 percent.

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Seeking to unseat President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to remind Clinton campaign workers that they should focus on the economy as the key to defeating Bush, whose popularity in March 1991 peaked at more than 90 percent.

Well, given Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent quip that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict motivated ISIS recruits, perhaps it’s about time to revise that slogan to “It’s the Ideology, Stupid.” Now, I don’t mean to actually call John Kerry stupid. Just as someone needs to be valedictorian of the summer school class, Kerry might just as well be considered the valedictorian of the Obama administration. If his competition is Chuck Hagel or Joe Biden or possibly even President Obama himself, Kerry might as well be a shining star.

But the notion Kerry embraces that terrorism is motivated by grievance rather than ideology is politically correct nonsense. One of the biggest academic proponents of this argument has been University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape. In recent years, he has doubled down on the argument that grievance rather than ideology (let alone religious ideology) motivates terror. The problem is that, as Martin Kramer has exposed, Pape shamelessly massaged and cherry picked his statistics to support a thesis which flies in the face of evidence. No wonder that Pape apparently worked with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group which apologizes for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and has been an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorism finance trial, in order to inflate his book sales. But, then again, let’s not condemn Pape for hiding such things: His career has been built on obfuscating motives.

The simple fact is that reality flies in the face of Kerry’s assertion and Pape’s theories. First off, let’s not forget that even the United States intelligence community recognized the threat posed by Islamist radicalism in the years before the partition of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel, nor does the radicalism of those attacking women and minorities in the suburbs of Paris, or targeting homosexuals on the streets of London, have anything to do with Israel.

Secondly, the most oft-cited grievances—poverty and lack of education—have no statistical link to terror. Suicide bombers tend not to be those with the least opportunities; rather, they tend to be those from educated, middle-class backgrounds. In the Gaza Strip, Pakistan, Turkey, and elsewhere, recruitment occurs in the schools. Nor do we see a rash of terrorists and murders arising from the ten poorest countries on earth. With tongue in cheek, if the United States were to base its counterterrorism policy solely on statistics, then its counterterrorism policy would seek to increase poverty and decrease education. At least we can be grateful, however, that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hasn’t simply classified ISIS as perpetrators of “workplace violence.”

Thankfully, Katie Gorka through the Council on Global Security has now published a new white paper entitled, “The Flawed Science Behind America’s Counter-Terrorism Policy,” in which she provides both historical context to the cost of focusing on grievance as the motivator of terrorism and demonstrates how ignoring Islamist ideology costs lives. The whole report is worth reading. Obama and Kerry may be too set in their ways and more inclined to make excuses that question progressive doctrines, but let us hope that those who seek to take their place after the next election will read Gorka’s work. The cost of not doing so and continuing to tilt at politically correct windmills will be paid in lives.

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Muslims Fight for ISIS But Not Palestine

For anyone who thinks the lack of a Palestinian state is a primary cause of Muslim grievance, the flood of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq in recent years poses a real problem. After all, none of the jihadi groups in those countries are fighting against Israel or for the Palestinians; indeed, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out yesterday, ISIS ranks “liberating Jerusalem” way down on its list of goals and “did not even bother to comment” on this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Yet while ISIS and its ilk have attracted thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, the number of foreigners who have joined the Palestinian fight against Israel is near zero.

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For anyone who thinks the lack of a Palestinian state is a primary cause of Muslim grievance, the flood of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq in recent years poses a real problem. After all, none of the jihadi groups in those countries are fighting against Israel or for the Palestinians; indeed, as journalist Khaled Abu Toameh pointed out yesterday, ISIS ranks “liberating Jerusalem” way down on its list of goals and “did not even bother to comment” on this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Yet while ISIS and its ilk have attracted thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, the number of foreigners who have joined the Palestinian fight against Israel is near zero.

This certainly isn’t a problem of access. The thousands of Western Muslims now fighting in Iraq and Syria could easily and legally have reached the West Bank via either Israel or Jordan; so could those from Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. They simply never cared enough to do so.

And until last year, when Egypt cracked down on the cross-border smuggling tunnels, Gaza was accessible even to nationals of Muslim countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel: They could enter Egypt legally and cross to Gaza via the tunnels. Hamas would surely have welcomed reinforcements, but they never cared enough to come.

In short, no matter how often Westerners like Secretary of State John Kerry say the Palestinian issue is a major source of the “street anger and agitation … humiliation and denial and absence of dignity” that helps jihadi groups recruit foreign Muslims, Muslims themselves are saying the opposite with their feet: There are causes they are willing to travel across the world to fight and die for, including the dream of an Islamic caliphate and the sectarian Sunni fight against Shi’ite- and Alawite-dominated governments in Iraq and Syria. But “Palestine” isn’t one of them.

The foreign fighters flocking to Iraq and Syria also undermine another common canard: that Israel is a “racist” or “apartheid” state. After all, a “racist, apartheid state” by definition subjects its minorities to far more “humiliation and denial and absence of dignity” than non-racist, non-apartheid Europe does, so if Israel were really such a state, one would expect its Arab citizens to head the pack of foreign recruits to ISIS and company.

Yet in fact, as journalist Yossi Melman noted yesterday, only about 30 of Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens have gone to fight for ISIS, a “much, much smaller” percentage than the “hundreds of French or British Muslims” who have done so. Based on his figures, a mere 0.002% of Israel’s Arab population is fighting abroad. Exact numbers for either the size of European countries’ Muslim populations or the number of fighters they have in Iraq and Syria are hard to find, but based on estimates gleaned from various press reports, my own rough calculation is that the proportion of British and French Muslims fighting abroad is at least three or four times higher.

And this isn’t because Israeli Arabs are flocking to the Palestinian fight instead: Few Israeli Arabs get involved in Palestinian terror, either.

This data reinforces a point I’ve made many times before: While Jewish-Arab relations in Israel aren’t perfect, overall, Israeli Arabs are reasonably well integrated and steadily becoming more so. Thus few have any desire to go off and join a glorious jihad.

The John Kerrys of the world rarely let facts disturb their theories. But for anyone who does care about facts, the foreign fighters flocking to Iraq and Syria offer a good clue as to what issues really inflame the Muslim world. And neither Israel nor the Palestinians are high on the list.

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The Issue is Kerry’s Incompetence, Not Israeli Manners

On Friday, the U.S. State Department rejected criticisms from Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett that Secretary of State John Kerry had sought to blame the rise of ISIS on Israel. Spokesperson Marie Harf said Kerry’s remarks a day earlier were “taken out of context” for “political reasons” by Bennett and other Israelis who cried foul. That in turn set off criticisms of Bennett by his Cabinet colleague and rival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said the Jewish Home Party leader should keep his mouth shut about the United States. But while most observers seemed to focus on the Israeli political dimension of the controversy or the chances that the spat would worsen the already shaky relations between Israel and the U.S., what escaped notice was the fact that in claiming that the failure to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians was helping ISIS, Kerry was actually contradicting President Obama.

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On Friday, the U.S. State Department rejected criticisms from Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett that Secretary of State John Kerry had sought to blame the rise of ISIS on Israel. Spokesperson Marie Harf said Kerry’s remarks a day earlier were “taken out of context” for “political reasons” by Bennett and other Israelis who cried foul. That in turn set off criticisms of Bennett by his Cabinet colleague and rival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said the Jewish Home Party leader should keep his mouth shut about the United States. But while most observers seemed to focus on the Israeli political dimension of the controversy or the chances that the spat would worsen the already shaky relations between Israel and the U.S., what escaped notice was the fact that in claiming that the failure to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians was helping ISIS, Kerry was actually contradicting President Obama.

On September 24, in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, Obama said the following:

Leadership will also be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace. The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long; it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home. And the violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace.

Leaving aside Obama’s willingness to blame Israel for not working for peace when, in fact, all they are reacting to is the consistent refusal of their supposed Palestinian peace partners to accept repeated offers of independence and peace, this statement represented genuine progress in the president’s thinking. Obama had in the past repeatedly embraced the notion that ending the Arab-Israeli conflict would solve all the problems in the region but the rise of ISIS had sobered him up a bit. The willingness of many Arab regimes to make common cause with Israel against both ISIS and radical Islamists such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood illustrated the obvious fact that conflict within the Arab world is a function of the division among Muslims, not discontent about Israel’s existence or the failure of peace negotiations.

This was a remarkable departure for a president who had spoken of Western and Israeli guilt for Muslim grievances in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, seemingly having finally woken up to the fact that no amount of apologizing or engagement will make radical Islam go away. But for some reason Kerry is still sticking to the old playbook in which Israelis can be scapegoated for the existence of bloody conflicts in which Jews play no part.

Kerry was, no doubt, playing to his audience of Muslims when he told a State Department ceremony honoring the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha that resentment about the Arab-Israeli conflict was fueling recruitment for ISIS. Since Kerry has consistently and wrongly blamed Israel for the collapse of his peace initiative, it didn’t take much imagination to see that what he was doing was blaming the Jewish state for the fact that ISIS terrorists have overrun much of Syria and Iraq while beheading Westerners. But while the Arab leaders he cited may pay lip service to anti-Israel sentiment by referencing the alleged “humiliation and denial and lack of human dignity” suffered by the Palestinians, ISIS’s popularity is based on promoting hatred of all Westerners and non-Muslims, not just Israelis. Which is to say that Bennett wasn’t off target or taking things out of context when he said, “When a British Muslim decapitates a British Christian, there will always be someone to blame the Jew.”

Yet while Obama called on Muslims to unite against ISIS and to recognize their responsibility to combat radical Islamists, Kerry is still using the same tired clichés about Israel and the Palestinians that even many Arabs are shelving and then looking to pick a fight with Israelis over their umbrage about his lack of perspective.

Israel’s government is probably better off not making much of an issue about Kerry’s latest vile assertion, but there should be no illusions about the attitudes his comments illustrated. If even after the outbreak of a war in Syria in which Muslims have slaughtered Muslims without a mention of Israelis Kerry is capable of sticking to the notion that the grievances of Palestinians who have repeatedly refused to make peace is the reason for ISIS, then his intellectual bankruptcy could not be more obvious.

The point here isn’t that Kerry is foolishly picking quarrels with Israel but that he has demonstrated his unfitness for office at a time when the United States is once again engaging in a conflict with a dangerous Islamist foe. President Obama has allowed Kerry to embark on a futile effort to revive the dead-in-the-water peace process thinking that there would be few consequences for another failure. But Kerry’s incapacity to focus on the ISIS threat presents a bigger problem for the president. If he is truly serious about building a coalition against ISIS, the president needs to stop letting his administration pick pointless fights with Israel. Kerry needs to be fired.

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