Commentary Magazine


Topic: John Kerry

Ukrainians Get the Gaza Connection; Why Doesn’t the West?

Much of the world appears to view the current fighting in eastern Ukraine as totally unconnected to the fighting in Gaza. And since the Ukrainian government is desperately seeking support from both Europe and the Obama administration, neither of which is enamored of Israel’s Gaza operation, one could have forgiven Ukrainian officials for seeking to nurture this illusion. Instead, they have repeatedly gone out of their way to dispel it.

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Much of the world appears to view the current fighting in eastern Ukraine as totally unconnected to the fighting in Gaza. And since the Ukrainian government is desperately seeking support from both Europe and the Obama administration, neither of which is enamored of Israel’s Gaza operation, one could have forgiven Ukrainian officials for seeking to nurture this illusion. Instead, they have repeatedly gone out of their way to dispel it.

Three weeks ago, Andriy Parubiy, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, compared eastern Ukraine’s situation to what Israel faces and warned that terrorists would likely adopt similar tactics in other countries if the West didn’t take a firm stance against them.

“We, of course, studied the experience of both Croatia and Israel, but here a lot of new features are added,” Parubiy said. “And, if Russia sees that this experience is successful, this experience can very easily be used in any Baltic countries, and even in Belarus and Kazakhstan.”

Yesterday, Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Henadii Nadolenko made both the comparison and the warning even more explicit in an op-ed in Haaretz. Unambiguously titled “Ukraine and Israel: Together in fighting terrorism,” it declared, “We, the representatives of Ukraine, have, together with the people of the State of Israel, personally felt the totality of the threat posed to civilians by the criminal activities of the terrorists.”

After enumerating the losses both countries have suffered, Nadolenko continued, “I am convinced that the huge loss of civilian and military life might have been avoided had the activities of terrorist organizations had been condemned by the international community.” Then, citing the recent downing of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine, he drove the point home:

I would like to emphasize once again that the crime, which killed 298 innocent civilians from around the world, is another confirmation of the fact that today’s terrorism is not constrained by borders…

In this regard, once again I would like to appeal to the thinking and caring people of the world to demonstrate their support for these peoples, who came upon a fight with an evil that threatens the security of everyone, regardless of nationality or place of residence.

I believe that the countries that are faced with terrorism and who try to fight this evil should support each other, and should join their efforts in order to draw the world’s attention to our cause. We must begin to receive real help and support from international organizations in order to combat this threat.

Clearly, Nadolenko understands what too many European and American officials seem to have missed: The West’s fine shades of distinction–under which some terrorist groups, like al-Qaeda, are utterly shunned; others, like Hamas, are denounced but deemed to have “legitimate grievances that must be addressed”; while still others are positively feted, like Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah, whose Gaza branch boasts of its contribution to the rocket fire at Israel–are meaningless. All terrorists are equally enemies of the civilized world, and all of them learn from each other’s tactics. Thus if the West rewards a given tactic in one location, terrorists in other countries will soon replicate it.

For Hamas, launching rockets at Israel has so far paid handsome dividends: No less a personage than U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged that if it ceases its fire, he will personally see to it that all its economic demands are met–including opening the border crossings, paying Hamas employees’ salaries, “ensuring the social and economic livelihood” of Gaza residents and providing “major humanitarian assistance”–while not insisting that it forfeit any of its military capabilities (all Kerry offered Israel was a vague promise to “address all security issues”).

Kerry clearly hasn’t grasped that if targeting Israeli civilians with rockets pays economic and diplomatic dividends for Hamas, this will encourage other terrorists worldwide to adopt similar tactics. Nadolenko and his fellow Ukrainians, in contrast, understand this very well. The question is whether anyone in the West is listening to them.

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Kerry’s Unacceptable Ceasefire Seeks to Appease Hamas

Reports have emerged that Israel’s security cabinet is unanimously opposed to Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest ceasefire proposals. Much has changed since Israel unilaterally accepted the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire last week, before the discovery of the extent of Hamas’s underground terror tunnels and the massive terrorist attack planned for September. The Egyptian proposals—which had the backing of the Arab League—offered an immediate cessation of the violence without handing Hamas either a public-relations victory or any practical rewards for its latest terror outburst. Kerry’s half-baked plan, as reported, has none of those virtues.

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Reports have emerged that Israel’s security cabinet is unanimously opposed to Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest ceasefire proposals. Much has changed since Israel unilaterally accepted the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire last week, before the discovery of the extent of Hamas’s underground terror tunnels and the massive terrorist attack planned for September. The Egyptian proposals—which had the backing of the Arab League—offered an immediate cessation of the violence without handing Hamas either a public-relations victory or any practical rewards for its latest terror outburst. Kerry’s half-baked plan, as reported, has none of those virtues.

Kerry’s proposals have two glaring flaws. The first is that while they would seek to halt the missiles being fired into Israeli population centers, and likewise Israel would hold its fire, it’s not clear that the plan would allow for Israel to continue to destroy the warren of cross-border terror tunnels that Gazan militants have dug into Israel, some stretching directly beneath Israeli homes. These tunnels represent an immediate and critical threat to the lives and safety of Israelis and it’s inconceivable that Israel be expected to agree to anything that impairs its ability to counteract this breach of its security borders.

The other problematic element of Kerry’s plan is that it seeks to establish a week within which all of Hamas’s demands would be put on the table for negotiation. This just takes us back to where the parties were in the 2012 negotiations when there was also an effort to grant Hamas concessions. There cannot be a situation whereby whenever Hamas wishes to issue fresh demands it does so by instigating successive rounds of rocket warfare against Israel. And besides, several of Hamas’s complaints are against the Egyptians and the closure of the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border.

Hamas is now demanding a total lift of the so-called blockade on the Gaza Strip. But back in 2012 the restrictions on imports—and indeed exports—for Gaza were dramatically eased so as to only prevent materials that could be used by Islamists in their terror activities. For instance, any concrete brought into the strip was supposed to be done under the auspices of United Nations-approved projects. But just as UN facilities have been used for the storing of rockets, we’ve seen how that concrete, supposedly brought in for approved civilian purposes, has in fact been used to create a sprawling network of terror tunnels.

It is vital that Hamas is not rewarded for causing this latest round of violence; the Egyptians no doubt had this at the forefront of their minds when they drew up their proposals. But this seems to be beyond Kerry. President Obama has of course joined the chorus of voices calling for the “underlying issues” in Gaza to be addressed, thus buying into the notion that Hamas’s terrorism is fundamentally driven by a legitimate set of objectives which put the needs of the people of Gaza first. Nothing could be further from the truth and the very notion that Hamas has a set of negotiable demands is delusional. They want to kill Jews and end Israel, and no amount of pandering to “underlying issues” is going to change that.

If nothing else, the fact that the Egyptians came up with a ceasefire that Israel could accept, whereas Kerry has come up with something that Israel appears poised to reject, certainly says something about just how far down the rabbit-hole the Obama administration has gone with its foreign policy.

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Israel and the Burden of Being Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Israel, the FAA, and International Isolation

For years, peace processors and pundits have threatened that to stop its “growing international isolation,” Israel must make “painful concessions” and withdraw from territory. The “growing isolation” was always a myth. Israel’s trade with Europe has grown constantly in recent years, even as it developed new markets and ties in Asia. Tourism has reached record levels almost every year, as has the number of Israelis traveling abroad. Except to those sensitive to the movements of postmodern dance troupes, the international isolation was a chimera.

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For years, peace processors and pundits have threatened that to stop its “growing international isolation,” Israel must make “painful concessions” and withdraw from territory. The “growing isolation” was always a myth. Israel’s trade with Europe has grown constantly in recent years, even as it developed new markets and ties in Asia. Tourism has reached record levels almost every year, as has the number of Israelis traveling abroad. Except to those sensitive to the movements of postmodern dance troupes, the international isolation was a chimera.

Now, however, international isolation has truly arrived–not from holding territory, but from leaving it. With the suspension of American and European flights to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, rockets from Gaza yielded what peace processors said settlement construction would. The flight suspension by all major airlines is a major–even if temporary–economic, diplomatic, and psychological setback for Israel. It finds itself, for the moment, in same position as Iraq, Libya, and Somalia.

The subtext here is that Israel has a sword at its neck: face a private-sector no-fly zone or agree to a cease-fire that lets Hamas keep its rockets, and thus close Ben Gurion Airport again at the time of its choosing. It is a lose-lose proposition.

Yes, Israel faces international isolation–as a consequence of its attempts to avoid international isolation. Of course, nuanced thinkers are already explaining why this should not prejudice further, massive territorial withdraws from the hills immediately overlooking Ben Gurion Airport and the coastal plain.

Everyone is jittery from the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine, they will say. If so, Hamas has succeeded in turning Israel into Donetsk. Moreover, the timing of the FAA’s absurd and unjustified warning seems to have more to do with Kerry’s visit to the region to impose a cease-fire on Israel. Until his administration’s flight ban, that effort seemed entirely futile.

The West Bank is vastly larger and closer to central Israel than Gaza. What Hamas could do periodically and with great difficulty will be a daily occurrence. Israel would be able to survive, but with a sword at its neck, and on terms constantly dictated by the Palestinians, and whoever is ultimately in charge of the FAA.

Indeed, the decision-making behind the FAA ban demands investigation. Ben Gurion remains an extremely safe airport. The FAA had many various measures short of a flight ban, like warnings, that it could have imposed. The FAA only warns airlines about flying to Afghanistan; it does not ban them. And the FAA move comes the day after a general State Department warning about Israel–though far more people were killed in Chicago on Fourth of July weekend than in the Jewish state since the start of the Gaza campaign.

Whatever the intent, the administration has cornered Israel in a booby-trapped tunnel, with Hamas on one side, and economic perdition on the other.

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Lessons from the Failed Peace Process

There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s deeply reported and engagingly written investigation into the failure of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first is that, if the reporting is accurate, there is no longer any doubt that it was the Palestinian side that blew up the talks. They attempted to kill the process twice, but the first time the Israeli negotiators, led by Tzipi Livni, rescued the talks. The second time, the Palestinians ensured nothing could be done to save the process.

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There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s deeply reported and engagingly written investigation into the failure of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first is that, if the reporting is accurate, there is no longer any doubt that it was the Palestinian side that blew up the talks. They attempted to kill the process twice, but the first time the Israeli negotiators, led by Tzipi Livni, rescued the talks. The second time, the Palestinians ensured nothing could be done to save the process.

The second conclusion is that the way the Palestinians, led by Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, blew up the talks bodes ill for any future peace process:

Over the next three weeks, with April 29 approaching, Indyk would meet nine times with Livni, Molho, Erekat, and Faraj in a bid to salvage the peace talks. He was determined to get everything in writing this time. No more misunderstandings. And by April 23, the sides seemed close to an extension agreement. Indyk drove to Ben Gurion Airport that day to pick up his wife, and while at the baggage claim, he got a call from Livni. She’d heard that the Palestinians had just done something to ruin all the progress they had made. Indyk immediately phoned Erekat, who said he wasn’t aware of the development, but would investigate. Back at the U.S. consulate, the Kerry team was combing over the details of the emerging deal, with the secretary calling periodically to check in. Soon, the news penetrated their office, too. Weeks earlier, they had been surprised by the timing of Abu Mazen’s U.N. ceremony, but not by the act. The Palestinians had put them on notice. But as the American officials huddled around a desktop computer, hungry for actual details about this rumor they were hearing, they couldn’t believe the headline that now flashed across the screen: FATAH, HAMAS END YEARS OF DIVISON, AGREE TO UNITY GOVERNMENT. The next day, the Israeli Cabinet had voted to suspend the talks. John Kerry’s peace process was over.

It’s one thing to threaten action, set a deadline, and then carry it out. That is essentially what the Palestinians did with their UN gambit. But the idea that the process could just end on a Palestinian whim can poison the well (or whatever’s left of it).

That’s because for the Palestinians, once the process begins it’s in the hands of Abbas, Erekat, and some high-level members of Abbas’s cabinet. That is not the case for Israel. As the report details, the day the Palestinians signed their applications to the UN agencies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was holding meetings throughout the day in his office seeking to reassure skeptics in his coalition without alienating Livni and the peace processors to their left. Additionally, he had to deal with the constant threat of rebellion from Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing party that held the third-most seats in the governing coalition.

The unity deal between Hamas and Fatah was an unmitigated disaster for the peace process. It was more than just a setback: it raised the possibility that any Israeli leader who risked his government for a peace process would get a more terroristic Palestinian government than he or she started with and would have imminent war looming. The Palestinians are willing to pull the plug without warning. That’s a lesson their Israeli and American counterparts will learn.

And it is related to the third conclusion to be drawn from the essay. The authors relate a conversation between Kerry and Netanyahu in which Netanyahu raises the issue of Palestinian incitement. Eventually, the following exchange occurs:

Kerry pressed on: “When I fought in Vietnam, I used to look at the faces of the local population and the looks they gave us. I’ll never forget it. It gave me clarity that we saw the situation in completely different ways.”

“This isn’t Vietnam!” Netanyahu shouted. “No one understands Israel but Israel.”

That comment may paint Netanyahu as defensive, but in fact he’s right–and the essay demonstrates that convincingly. Kerry and his negotiating team, as well as the Palestinian leadership, consistently misread the Israeli political scene and Netanyahu’s reaction to it. Autocrats don’t seem to understand democratic politics, and Kerry’s team exhibited no real grasp of what it takes to form a consensus and keep a government intact in Israel.

The reporters themselves even got tripped up by Israeli politics and leaned heavily on trite and completely inaccurate narratives. At one point in the article, they refer to Netanyahu as “a right-wing ideologue”–an absurdly reductionist and patently false claim. If Netanyahu, the famous dealmaker and pragmatist who elicits much Israeli wariness precisely because he is not an ideologue, can be classified as such, then everybody and nobody is an “ideologue.”

Elsewhere in the piece we are told, indefensibly, that “Tea Party types were continuing their slow-motion takeover of the Likud.” This is a common, but no less justifiable, trope. It is a sign either that the writer can only understand politics through shallow American analogies or that the writer assumes that to be true of the reader. Or both, I suppose. Whatever the reason, the “Tea Party” contention is obviously untrue, and those who offer it with regard to Israeli politics are doing their readers a considerable disservice.

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Will Kerry Hand Hamas a Victory?

Four days into Israel’s ground operations in Gaza casualties are rising on both sides, but the only ones who seems to be cracking under the pressure are President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. While Hamas remains confident that it can bank on international support and Israel’s government seems determined not to kick the can down the road any further with respect to the ongoing threat from the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, the administration may be panicking and about to make yet another mistake that will sow the seeds for more suffering in the future.

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Four days into Israel’s ground operations in Gaza casualties are rising on both sides, but the only ones who seems to be cracking under the pressure are President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. While Hamas remains confident that it can bank on international support and Israel’s government seems determined not to kick the can down the road any further with respect to the ongoing threat from the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, the administration may be panicking and about to make yet another mistake that will sow the seeds for more suffering in the future.

Secretary Kerry’s hot-mic moment when he sarcastically mocked Israeli efforts to destroy part of Hamas’s underground tunnel complex in Shejaiya was a telling moment in the conflict. Once back live on the air, Kerry reiterated support for Israel’s right to self-defense. But the comments, along with President Obama’s statement of “serious concern” about the casualties from the operation against the Hamas fortress, was the backdrop for the decision to send the secretary of state back to Cairo today to work on a cease-fire. While in principle that seems like the right thing to do at a moment when the conflict is heating up, it is difficult to escape the impression that Kerry’s mission is more an opportunity for an unforced error by Washington–one that will allow Hamas to emerge from the fray with a victory–than a mission of mercy.

Hamas was correct in its estimation that provoking a ground invasion would produce Palestinian casualties that fueled the fire of anti-Israel sentiment across the globe. Armed with the backing of Qatar, Turkey, and radical Islamists across the region as well as bolstered by the sympathy of international opinion that can always be counted on to damn any Israeli measure of self-defense even when the Jewish state is being assailed by rockets and tunnel infiltrations, Hamas believes it can simply stand its ground. The longer the bloody battle to disarm the Islamist terror movement that rules Gaza goes on, the more Palestinian human shields will die. That, in turn, will raise the pressure on Egypt to open up its border with Gaza and end the political and economic isolation that has hampered the terror group since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo last year.

However, Hamas may have, for once, underestimated the resolve of both Israel’s government and its people. Prime Minister Netanyahu was slow to order the ground operation despite being given ample reason to send in troops once Hamas started launching hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities. He also gave Hamas ample opportunities to stand down and accept cease-fires that the Islamists consistently rejected. But once the die was cast, the prime minister seems to be serious about not repeating the mistakes his country made in the recent past whereby it gave Hamas the impression that there was nothing it could do that would be enough to prompt a decision to take out the group’s terror infrastructure. The methodical offensive appears to be doing serious damage to Hamas’s capacity to inflict terror on Israel. If it is allowed to continue, there is a chance that Israel will finally land a lethal blow against the group that is the real obstacle to peace in the region.

Just as important as Netanyahu’s resolve is the reaction of Israel’s people to the crisis. It is likely that Hamas believed Israelis too fearful of paying the high price in blood–both in terms of its own soldiers and Palestinians–to significantly impact the strategic equation along the Gaza border. But so far, despite the frayed nerves of people tired of having to run for bomb shelters and horrified by the loss of life in the fighting, support for the government appears to be strong. A visit to Israel’s southern region showed me that despite the best efforts of Hamas, life is going on even in the areas that have been most affected. Moreover, the faces of the busloads of Israeli reservists who are being shipped into the area of the border showed that the country’s citizen soldiers remain committed to doing what must be done to ensure their country’s safety. If Hamas thought Netanyahu was too politically weak to make hard decisions or that Israelis would turn on him and succumb to foreign pressure, it may have made a crucial mistake.

But that resolve is not shared by Israel’s American ally. Though nothing would do more to pave the way for a renewed peace process with the Palestinians that both Obama and Kerry have ceaselessly advocated than the weakening or the elimination of Hamas, neither man appears to have the intestinal fortitude to unwaveringly back an operation that would do just that. For months Washington has been sending mixed messages to the region that have encouraged the Islamists to believe the U.S.-Israel alliance was weakening as blame for the collapse of Kerry’s negotiations was placed solely on Israel despite the fact that it was the Palestinian Authority’s decision to embrace Hamas that finally ended that fool’s errand. Moreover, by constantly carping about Israel’s counter-attacks after Hamas launched the current war, the administration has encouraged the terrorists to believe that the U.S. won’t let them be defeated.

Thus Kerry’s decision to fly to Cairo to work on a cease-fire is exactly the news that Hamas wanted to hear. They have already made it clear they don’t care how many Palestinians die in the conflict they provoked so long as the end result grants them the political concessions from Egypt that will further their cause. They know that if the U.S. was not prepared to pressure the Egyptian government to throw Hamas a bone or to force Israel to stop operations aimed at eliminating their rocket arsenal and blowing up their underground fortresses, there was no reason for Kerry to come to the region. A cease-fire that would grant Hamas no political victories didn’t require the personal presence of the secretary in Cairo. But by bending to the usual hypocritical international outcry against any Israeli attempt to take out the terror nest on their border, the administration is signalling that it won’t let Netanyahu take out Hamas or allow Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to stand his ground about sealing his country’s border against infiltration from an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood he deposed.

Were Obama and Kerry prepared to show the kind of resolve that Netanyahu and Sisi have exhibited it would be very bad news indeed for Hamas and its foreign cheerleaders that continue to nurture delusions about Israel’s destruction. Instead, the U.S. appears to be as clueless as ever about the stakes involved in this fight and cracking under the pressure generated by the Palestinians sacrificed by Hamas on the altar of their jihadist mission. If so, the price paid by both Israelis and Palestinians in the future will be considerable.

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Hamas and the New Middle East

The spiraling conflict between Israel and Hamas may be part of an unfortunately regular pattern, but the recent events were also an indication of the new Middle East. That was clear earlier this week when Haaretz’s Barak Ravid published the tick-tock of how the attempts to strike a truce collapsed. Secretary of State John Kerry was getting ready to pick up nuclear diplomacy with his Iranian interlocutors in Vienna when he offered to take a temporary diversion to the Middle East. But, each for their own reasons, “Egyptians and Israelis both politely rejected that offer, telling Kerry they are already in direct contact and didn’t need American mediation.”

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The spiraling conflict between Israel and Hamas may be part of an unfortunately regular pattern, but the recent events were also an indication of the new Middle East. That was clear earlier this week when Haaretz’s Barak Ravid published the tick-tock of how the attempts to strike a truce collapsed. Secretary of State John Kerry was getting ready to pick up nuclear diplomacy with his Iranian interlocutors in Vienna when he offered to take a temporary diversion to the Middle East. But, each for their own reasons, “Egyptians and Israelis both politely rejected that offer, telling Kerry they are already in direct contact and didn’t need American mediation.”

According to Ravid, the Israelis expected a visit from Kerry to be interpreted as pressure on Israel, a lesson probably learned from Kerry’s time as secretary of state thus far. The Egyptians, on the other hand, wanted to prove they could still play the role of mediator. But while that certainly could be true, it seems incomplete. The Egyptians, apparently, excluded Hamas from early deliberations to craft the truce. Whether the Egyptian leadership truly wanted a truce or not, it’s clear they were most concerned that the truce not undermine the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas or the Israeli leadership in favor of Hamas. As Avi Issacharoff writes in the Times of Israel:

Hamas wants this in order to bring an end to the blockade on Gaza, open the Rafah Border Crossing, and in many ways to ensure its own survival.

On Tuesday morning, many people in Israel raised an eyebrow at Hamas’s rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire. But if we examine the crisis from the prism of Egypt-Hamas relations, we can see things differently.

Cairo offered the organization the same language it rejected from the outset: quiet for quiet. But for Hamas, the big problem was the way the Egyptian ceasefire was presented: At the same time that Razi Hamid, Hamas representative in Gaza, received the Egyptian document, the initiative was already being published in the Egyptian media.

This was a humiliation for Hamas, since no one thought to consult with its leadership. And still, as even senior Hamas officials admit, there is no other mediator in the region. Just like real estate agents who have a monopoly on a certain area, Egypt has a monopoly on Israel-Hamas relations.

At the very least, the Egyptian leadership does not seem to be in any rush to see Hamas given any breathing space. And neither does Abbas, whose leverage over Hamas has become all the more important in light of the recent unity deal between Hamas and Fatah.

Abbas, arguably, had the most to lose in the continued Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. Hamas was able to essentially shut down the country, sending Israelis fleeing to bomb shelters and disrupting air travel and Israel’s economic activity and productivity. This is where Hamas’s relative weakness works to its advantage among its own people. Israel may have superior firepower, and both Israel and Fatah may have the United States in their corner, but Hamas can bring life to a (temporary) standstill in Israel at a moment’s notice. They can make the argument that Abbas’s cooperation with Israel and his participation in the peace talks has done nothing to bring about the ostensible goal of an independent Palestine.

Hamas doesn’t care about that, having made clear its objective has nothing to do with a two-state solution but with a genocidal war against the Jewish state. As such, its ability to disrupt and sabotage any attempts at a peaceful solution are crucial to its own raison d’être. By the same token, then, any weakening of Hamas helps both Abbas and any prospects, however remote, for a negotiated solution.

So while Egypt’s “failure” to step in and constructively play the role of mediator has been lamented, the priorities of the new regime in Cairo are actually geared much more toward those of the West. The defeat of Hamas, its diplomatic isolation, and the depletion of its terrorist capabilities are not just beneficial to Israel but also to Egypt, the Palestinian Authority structure in the West Bank, and America and its allies’ desire to limit Iranian influence in the region.

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Iran Negotiations: the Neverending Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Close Call, and a Warning, in Afghanistan

New details are emerging on the election crisis in Afghanistan and they are pretty harrowing. The New York Times, for example, is reporting that followers of Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate who apparently finished second in the second rounding of voting, were so upset about supposed voter fraud that they “were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace.” The Times goes on to note that “local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them.”

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New details are emerging on the election crisis in Afghanistan and they are pretty harrowing. The New York Times, for example, is reporting that followers of Abdullah Abdullah, the presidential candidate who apparently finished second in the second rounding of voting, were so upset about supposed voter fraud that they “were preparing to take over the centers of government in at least three provinces, and on his word to march on and occupy the presidential palace.” The Times goes on to note that “local mujahedeen commanders were urging action against the palace, expressing confidence that the Afghan security forces, including those guarding President Hamid Karzai, would not fire on them.”

If this had happened, it would have been a catastrophe of the first order. If Abdullah’s followers had resorted to force, it would have reignited the civil war that wrecked the country in the 1990s and provided an opening for the Taliban to seize power. Western aid would have been cut off and Afghanistan would have been on its own.

This dire outcome was only narrowly avoided by a timely phone call from President Obama to Abdullah and by Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparent success in defusing the crisis by negotiating a compromise that calls for all of the ballots to be recounted and for whoever loses the election to assume a new post as “chief executive” (i.e., prime minister) of the government led by the winning presidential candidate. The UN’s top representative in Kabul called it “not just a top-notch diplomatic achievement [but] close to a miracle.”

But the only reason that miracle occurred is that, with 30,000 troops still in Afghanistan and a commitment to keep 10,000 more after this year, the U.S. retains significant leverage to influence Afghan politics.

Imagine if this crisis had happened not in this presidential election but in the next one–in 2019. This is not much of a stretch since both this presidential election and the previous one, in 2009, were marred by accusations of fraud that threatened the foundation of Afghanistan’s fragile democracy. We can hope that no such crisis will occur next time around, but the reality is that the odds of such an imbroglio are high. Stable institutions in a country like Afghanistan, which has been wracked by nonstop conflict since 1979, take decades, not years, to develop.

It is, therefore, deeply unfortunate, and highly irresponsible, that President Obama has unilaterally pledged to give up America’s leverage in Afghanistan by removing our remaining troops by 2017. If he carries out this plan, and if it is not reversed by his successor (which will be hard to do: it’s always easier to maintain a troop commitment than to start a new one), the U.S. will have essentially no leverage on the conduct and aftermath of the 2019 election. In fact the U.S. would be consigning itself to the kind of spectator role it has assumed in Iraq since the pullout of U.S. troops at the end of 2011–and we know how that’s turned out.

It is imperative that Obama correct his blunder in pledging to remove troops by 2017. He should immediately announce that, should Afghanistan’s feuding politicos work out their difference and set up a government with widespread legitimacy that desired U.S. troops to continue serving in their country after 2017, he would accede to their request–or at least allow his successor to make the call. If the president doesn’t do that, he will be casting Afghanistan’s future into serious doubt.

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Kerry’s False Iran Talks Narrative

Who are the obstacles to a new nuclear deal between the West and Iran? According to the New York Times, it’s the extremists on both sides: Iranian mullahs and members of Congress, both of whom are said to want the negotiations to fail. But the problem here is that both the newspaper and the anonymous U.S. officials who were the sources for the piece assume the object of the exercise is a deal of any sort. Their American critics have a different goal: stopping Iran from getting a bomb.

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Who are the obstacles to a new nuclear deal between the West and Iran? According to the New York Times, it’s the extremists on both sides: Iranian mullahs and members of Congress, both of whom are said to want the negotiations to fail. But the problem here is that both the newspaper and the anonymous U.S. officials who were the sources for the piece assume the object of the exercise is a deal of any sort. Their American critics have a different goal: stopping Iran from getting a bomb.

The Times article advances the administration’s agenda in which it has sought to portray critics of the Iran talks as warmongers determined to thwart progress in the same way that hard-line ayatollahs might. But the facile analogy tells us more about Kerry’s mindset than anything else. Like Cold War-era liberals who urged the U.S. not to be too tough on Moscow, lest the real hardliners in the Kremlin get the best of the liberal Communists, the assumption that there is any real support in Tehran for reconciliation or willingness to give up their nuclear quest is probably a pointless diversion. Contrary to the Times, the recent statements of Iran’s supreme leader–in which he stated that his country intends to increase the number of centrifuges enriching uranium, not reduce them–did not so much blindside his envoys as it made clear that the belief that they would accommodate Western demands was always a delusion. The supposed leader of the Iranian moderates, President Hassan Rouhani, is a loyal servant of Ayatollah Khamenei and helped deceive the West in the past. Whatever issues divide the Iranians, they are united in an effort to bluff the Obama administration into giving them another diplomatic victory.

On the other hand, the members of the House and the Senate that have warned the White House that they will oppose any deal that leaves Iran with a nuclear capability are not the problem. There is no difference between the stated positions of Democrat Robert Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and President Obama. Both have said they will not settle for an agreement that will allow Iran to get a bomb. Menendez and the broad bipartisan majority of both Houses of Congress have put on record their opposition to a weak deal that would leave Iran’s infrastructure in place with no credible guarantees to stop them from resuming their nuclear quest. But the motivation for the congressional critiques is not opposition to diplomacy per se so much as their understanding that administration diplomats have succumbed before to their zeal for a deal and may yet again.

At the heart of this dynamic is not the meme of extremists on both sides opposing compromise but the direction that the negotiations have taken. Kerry threw away the West’s formidable economic and military leverage over Iran last fall and signed an interim nuclear deal that tacitly recognized its right to enrich uranium and loosened sanctions in exchange for concessions that could be easily reversed. The Iranians had every expectation that this pattern would be repeated in the current round of talks and have understandably refused to back down and agree to anything that would really limit their ability to go nuclear.

This places Kerry in a bind. The administration desperately needs an agreement because neither President Obama nor America’s European allies have any appetite for continuing the existing sanctions on Iran’s economy, let alone toughening them (as Congress would like to do) in order to bring Tehran to its knees. Having started the process of unraveling support for sanctions last fall, getting the international community to agree to a genuine boycott of Iranian oil may be beyond the capacity of this administration.

That’s what Iran is counting on as it plays out the clock on the talks denying they will give Kerry any extra time during which he can somehow craft a deal. That leaves the U.S. vulnerable to a nuclear shakedown in which an agreement that would place no real obstacles in Iran’s place might be presented to the American people as proof that Obama kept his word to stop Iran. While most Americans are hazy about the details of these talks, they should not be deceived into thinking this is an issue on which reasonable people can split the difference. An agreement that allows Iran to keep its nuclear program (something that the president specifically vowed not to let happen) and gives it access to its nuclear stockpile with only a brief “break out” period standing between the ayatollahs and the bomb is not a compromise. It is a Western surrender that will put nuclear weapons within reach of the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism.

As time winds down toward the moment when another Kerry cave-in becomes the only way a deal gets done, it is imperative that Congress sends a clear message that it will never pass any bill lifting sanctions on Iran unless the negotiations produce an accord that is something more than a Western fig leaf covering Iran’s nuclear ambition.

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U.S. Objective Should Be to Disarm Hamas

The United States has been a largely helpless spectator as the fighting between Israel and Hamas has continued this week. But rather than merely calling for restraint or trying to cajole Egypt into resuming its traditional role as broker between the two parties, Washington should be attempting to get at the heart of the problem: forcing the terrorists in Gaza to disarm.

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The United States has been a largely helpless spectator as the fighting between Israel and Hamas has continued this week. But rather than merely calling for restraint or trying to cajole Egypt into resuming its traditional role as broker between the two parties, Washington should be attempting to get at the heart of the problem: forcing the terrorists in Gaza to disarm.

Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly on his way to Cairo to persuade the military government there to play a more active role in diplomacy. However, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi takes almost as dim a view of the Obama administration as he does of Hamas, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood that he has been suppressing.

Sisi’s cooperation is crucial to ending the fighting quickly since in addition to demanding the release of terrorists by Israel, the Islamists want the border crossings from Gaza into Egypt opened. They also would like the Egyptians to facilitate the transfer of cash from Qatar and other foreign backers of Hamas. If Kerry’s message to Egypt is for Cairo to bend to Hamas’s wishes, it’s not clear whether Sisi will listen. But as much as Sisi accommodating Hamas in some way may seem the easy way out, it is doubtful that the Egyptian is so foolish as to think a rapprochement with Hamas will do his country or the cause of regional stability much good in the long run. Nor should Kerry be advocating such a policy.

The problem here is not whether Kerry helps construct another temporary fix that will merely set the region up for another round of rocket terrorism from Hamas the next time it wants to extract concessions from Israel or Egypt. Rather, the most constructive position that the U.S. could take would be for it to offer extensive help for Gaza but only if Hamas gets out of the terror business.

Just as the U.S. sought, with European and ultimately Russian assistance, for the Assad regime in Syria to be forced to give up its chemical weapons, so, too, now Washington should be working hard to force Hamas to give up its rocket arsenal.

To be sure, that may be something of a pipe dream. Hamas is at its very core a terrorist organization committed to violence and to use any tactics to achieve its goal of destroying Israel. But it must be understood that as much as the current conflict is driven by Hamas’s intransigent refusal to end the war on the Jewish state, its ability to go on fighting that war has been enabled by past decisions by the U.S. and Egypt to tolerate its hold on Gaza and to allow a status quo in which the Islamist group was allowed to not only stay in power but also to amass the arms with which it could seek to threaten the peace of the region.

Though Hamas is routinely depicted as being under terrible economic and military pressure, as Avi Isacharoff writes in the Times of Israel, it is quite content with its current position. Hamas’s leaders and their weapons stockpile are safe and sound in their bunkers and tunnels deep under Gaza’s civilian population centers. Their firing of rockets at Israel has boosted their popularity among a Palestinian people that is still fixated on their hatred of Jews and Zionism. And the rising toll of Palestinian civilians killed as the result of Israeli efforts to suppress the rocket fire has led to more sympathy for Hamas. Nor are they particularly daunted by the prospect of an Israeli ground operation in Gaza since they think it is unlikely to capture their key strongholds and bunkers and will only make Israel’s international position even more untenable and cause casualties on both sides to spike.

Thus, Hamas may feel like it can go on shooting at Israel indefinitely until Egypt or Israel gives up and makes a concession that will enable Hamas to declare victory, something that would also give it more leverage over their erstwhile Fatah partners in the Palestinian government. So while a cease-fire would be the best thing for civilians on both sides, it would be a catastrophe were the U.S. to be working toward a deal that would grant Hamas such a triumph.

As historian and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren wrote yesterday on CNN.com, the U.S. objective should be a deal that will call for Israel to lift its maritime blockade of Gaza and a massive infusion of foreign aid in exchange for the surrender of all of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and the return of control of the strip to the Palestinian Authority.

Without the demilitarization of Gaza and the end of its status as an independent Palestinian state in all but name—but one ruled by Islamist tyrants—there is no chance for peace for Gaza or the West Bank in the foreseeable future. Kerry, who devoted much of the last year to a futile and actually counter-productive round of peace talks that set in motion the series of events that led to the current fighting, must try and see beyond the immediate problems and realize that if the parties are not to be doomed to endless repetitions of this drama, the status quo in Gaza must be upended. If, instead, he signs on to yet another cease-fire proposal that will leave Hamas and its rockets in place, it will mean more than a guarantee of more fighting in the future. It will also ensure that any future peace efforts will be just as pointless as the ones Kerry just conducted. Rather than pressuring Egypt to help Hamas, Kerry should be marshaling international opinion behind a solution that will disarm the terrorists and give peace a chance.

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Kerry’s Afghanistan Breakthrough

It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

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It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

This is probably a bluff, but it’s a dangerous one because it threatens to reopen the deep fissures that fractured Afghanistan in the 1990s when Abdullah’s Northern Alliance, composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities, fought a vicious civil war against the Taliban, whose ranks were (and are) made up of Pashtuns from the south and east. Ghani, who according to preliminary results won 56 percent of the vote, compared to Abdullah’s 44 percent, isn’t backing down either. He sees himself as the rightful next president of Afghanistan.

Enter Kerry. He flew into Kabul and in 12 hours of nonstop talks managed to get Abdullah and Ghani, both closeted in separate rooms of the U.S. Embassy along with their advisers, to agree on an internationally supervised procedure to audit all 8 million votes cast–a suspiciously high number, given that only 7 million or so voted in the first round of balloting.

If the process goes off as planned, and if it results in the seating of a government that is seen as legitimate (both admittedly big ifs), Kerry will have achieved a major diplomatic victory–one that could prevent Afghanistan from sliding back into chaos. It will in fact be only his latest triumph in Afghanistan where he has had more luck than most American officials, even when he was still only a senator, in dealing with the difficult Hamid Karzai.

Why does Kerry seem more successful in Afghanistan than elsewhere–for example, in the Middle East, where he devoted so much energy to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” only to see another round of fighting break out between Israel and Hamas? Or in Ukraine where he has had little luck in getting the Russians to end their aggression by proxy?

The answers are pretty obvious but bear repeating. In Afghanistan Kerry has two advantages that he does not enjoy when negotiating with Iran or the Palestinian Authority or Russia: He has overwhelming American military force at his back and he has the luxury of dealing with actors who may have some differences but fundamentally share similar goals and outlooks.

Although their numbers are much reduced (and will fall further by the end of the year) the U.S. military still has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, backed up by ample air power, making them the most formidable military force in the country. That gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.

Moreover, while Abdullah and Ghani bitterly disagree about which of them should be president, they are both widely seen as technocrats who want a democratic, Western-oriented, non-Taliban future for the country. That makes it possible, if not easy, for them to bridge their differences in the same way that union and corporate negotiators can do if led along by a skillful mediator.

Alas few if any of those preconditions exist elsewhere in the world, which makes it all the more mysterious that Kerry wants to expend so much energy on what are almost sure to be fruitless negotiations with adversaries who have no reason to reach agreement. He would be better advised to focus his efforts on mediating other disputes between relatively reasonable rivals, e.g., South Korea and Japan, rather than wasting his breathe trying to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear program or the Palestinians to give up their dream of eradicating the Jewish state.

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Kerry’s Blunders Bode Ill For Iran Talks

While Israel is focused right now on dealing with a Hamas missile barrage that has continued for three days, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon cannot be entirely forgotten. But if Israelis are concerned about the mixed messages their American ally has been sending to the Palestinians, they have to be even more worried about what the U.S. might do in the talks with Tehran.

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While Israel is focused right now on dealing with a Hamas missile barrage that has continued for three days, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon cannot be entirely forgotten. But if Israelis are concerned about the mixed messages their American ally has been sending to the Palestinians, they have to be even more worried about what the U.S. might do in the talks with Tehran.

As the Wall Street Journal reported today, the P5+1 process is currently stalemated with a July 20 deadline looming over the negotiators. Iran and the West appear to be far apart on issues such as Tehran’s “right” to enrich uranium and the number of centrifuges it would be allowed to keep in the future, the future of its plutonium nuclear plant as well as its mountainside Fordow plant where enrichment activities continue. That list doesn’t even include issues such as Iran’s secret military research facilities that have not been visited by United Nations inspectors or its ballistic missile program that might provide the ayatollahs with a delivery system for a bomb.

Going into the final weeks of talks (though the negotiations can always be extended by both sides), the Iranians have been sounding confident about their ability to stick to their existing positions that would guarantee them the ability to build a bomb despite Western concerns.

The Obama administration gave up much of its leverage over Iran last fall when it decided to loosen sanctions in an interim agreement that granted implicit recognition of Iran’s right to both enrichment and a formidable nuclear infrastructure. The Iranians were required to convert their stockpile of nuclear fuel to a state that couldn’t be used for a bomb. But that could be quickly reversed if the Islamist regime decided to attempt a “break out” to a weapon. Indeed, after beginning the process of unraveling the sanctions that had taken years to put in place, the U.S. position on the Iranian threat has been reduced to one that attempts to lengthen the breakout period rather than forcing Tehran to give up its enrichment or, as President Obama pledged in 2012, the end of its nuclear program.

Iran’s confidence also has to be boosted by the announcement that the P5+1 foreign ministers, a group that includes Secretary of State John Kerry, will be joining the talks in Vienna this week. That’s an ominous development since the weak interim agreement was only reached after Kerry parachuted into those talks in November.

Kerry’s presence is worrisome because he explained the U.S. retreat last fall as being motivated by his belief that even the weak deal he signed was better than no deal at all. To those who wondered why he had accepted Iran’s insistence on keeping its nuclear infrastructure, he merely replied that sticking to America’s demands was impossible. With Iran’s leaders insisting that they will never accept a major reduction in the number of centrifuges available to them, it’s hard to believe that Kerry will hold the line on that issue after his previous retreat.

Kerry’s blunders in the talks between Israel and the Palestinians should also raise alarms for those wondering how he will manage the Iranians in the coming weeks. Throughout that process, Kerry not only disregarded Israel’s security requirements but also continually backed down from demands made on the Palestinians, even those that were purely symbolic such as their need to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Kerry was also heedless of the consequences of his all-but-certain failure. The current violence can be directly traced not only to his foolish initiative but his decision not to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for its decision to ally itself with Hamas rather than making peace with Israel.

At a time when, as Forbes’ Business Insider reports, European governments are already gutting sanctions on Iran even before the talks are concluded, Tehran heads into the final days of negotiations feeling it has the wind at its back. Just as Kerry helped set the stage for the revival of Hamas and a new round of violence, his zeal for a deal with Iran may lead to even more serious disasters in the negotiations that are about to unfold.

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John Kerry’s War

Being a pessimist means that having your predictions come true rarely brings much joy. That’s the situation I and many other Israelis and Palestinians are in right now–all those who warned that John Kerry’s insistence on restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks would likely spark a new round of Palestinian-Israeli violence, but were drowned out by those who insist that talking never does any harm. It’s already too late to spare Israelis and Palestinians the bloody consequences of Kerry’s hubris. But it’s important to understand why such initiatives so frequently result in bloodshed, so that future secretaries of state can avoid a recurrence.

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Being a pessimist means that having your predictions come true rarely brings much joy. That’s the situation I and many other Israelis and Palestinians are in right now–all those who warned that John Kerry’s insistence on restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks would likely spark a new round of Palestinian-Israeli violence, but were drowned out by those who insist that talking never does any harm. It’s already too late to spare Israelis and Palestinians the bloody consequences of Kerry’s hubris. But it’s important to understand why such initiatives so frequently result in bloodshed, so that future secretaries of state can avoid a recurrence.

First, as repeated efforts over the last 14 years have shown, Palestinians and Israelis aren’t ready to make a deal. Serious efforts were made at the Camp David talks in 2000, the Taba talks in 2001, the Livni-Qureia talks in 2007-08, the Olmert-Abbas talks in 2008, and, most recently, Kerry’s talks, but all failed because the gaps between the parties couldn’t be bridged. As Shmuel Rosner noted in a perceptive New York Times op-ed in May, that’s because many issues Westerners don’t much care about, and therefore imagine are easy to compromise on, are actually very important to the parties involved and thus impossible to compromise on. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon, and until it does, negotiations will never bring peace.

But failed peace talks inevitably make violence more likely, for two main reasons. First, they force both sides to focus on their most passionate disagreements–the so-called “core issues” that go to the heart of both Israeli and Palestinian identity–rather than on less emotional issues. On more mundane issues, Israel and the Palestinian Authority can sometimes agree–as they did on a series of economic cooperation projects last June, before Kerry’s peace talks gummed up the works. But even if they don’t, it’s hard for people on either side to get too upset when their governments squabble over, say, sewage treatment. In contrast, people on both sides do get upset when their governments argue over, say, the “right of return,” because that’s an issue where both sides view the other’s narrative as negating their own existence.

Second, failed peace talks always result in both sides feeling that they’ve lost or conceded something important without receiving a suitable quid pro quo. Palestinians, for instance, were outraged when Kerry reportedly backed Israel’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state, while Israelis were outraged by Kerry’s subsequent U-turn on the issue. Thus both sides ended up feeling as if their positions on this issue were undermined during the talks. The same goes for the Jordan Valley, where both Israelis and Palestinians felt Kerry’s proposals didn’t meet their respective needs, but now fear these proposals will serve as the starting point for additional concessions next time.

Added to this were the “gestures” Kerry demanded of both sides: that Israel free dozens of vicious killers and the PA temporarily refrain from joining international organizations. Though the price Kerry demanded of Israel was incomparably greater, neither side wanted to pay its assigned share. So when the talks collapsed, both felt they had made a sacrifice for nothing.

In short, failed peace talks exacerbate Israeli-Palestinian tensions rather than calming them. And when tensions rise, so does the likelihood of violence. That’s true in any situation, but doubly so for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because terrorist groups like Hamas are always happy to throw a match into a barrel of explosives. The unsurprising result is that spasms of violence, like the second intifada and the current war, have frequently followed failed peace talks.

So if Washington truly wants to avoid Israeli-Palestinian violence, the best thing it could do is stop trying to force both sides into talks that are doomed to fail. For contrary to the accepted wisdom, which holds that “political negotiations” are the best way to forestall violence, they’re actually the best way to make violence more likely.

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The Talking Secretary of State

Secretary of State John Kerry works hard, that’s for sure. He seems to spend more hours in the air—shuttling backwards and forwards between D.C. and the troubled parts of the world—than he does on the ground. One round of talks is rapidly followed by another. Keeping up to date with the issues of the day and the demands of the myriad diplomats that Secretary Kerry has to deal with is no doubt an impressive feat. There is just one small catch. At best, the most that Kerry ever has to show for his pains is an extension in the talks. Meanwhile the situation on the ground grows invariably worse.

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Secretary of State John Kerry works hard, that’s for sure. He seems to spend more hours in the air—shuttling backwards and forwards between D.C. and the troubled parts of the world—than he does on the ground. One round of talks is rapidly followed by another. Keeping up to date with the issues of the day and the demands of the myriad diplomats that Secretary Kerry has to deal with is no doubt an impressive feat. There is just one small catch. At best, the most that Kerry ever has to show for his pains is an extension in the talks. Meanwhile the situation on the ground grows invariably worse.

Most recently Kerry has been doing the rounds in Iraq and Egypt—two countries beset by turmoil and the strife stirred up by Islamic fanaticism. In neither case does the Obama administration have the faintest idea as to what to do and in both cases mixed signals and a complete weakness of resolve from Washington has only exacerbated existing problems. Particularly abysmal were Kerry’s ventures in Iraq. There he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday to discuss the possibility of the formation of a national unity government that would bring more Sunnis into his cabinet, although—given that Maliki’s pro-Shia factionalism has in no small part contributed to driving Iraq to its present position, teetering on the edge of a cataclysm—perhaps a resignation would be more in order.

Kerry should have had some leverage here. Mr. Maliki no longer controls most of his own country. The Kurds have significantly increased the chunk of Iraq that they control while ISIS have captured huge swaths of the northwest and are steadily moving toward Baghdad where at one point it looked as if Maliki would soon find himself under siege. Only a few days ago the Iraqi government was pleading for American assistance, but given that the Obama administration is unlikely to offer any more than its beloved drones, and that Iran is now stepping up its offers of support, Maliki suddenly finds that he is not so beholden to Kerry’s demands after all. Unsurprisingly then, Kerry and his requests were promptly dismissed.

On Sunday Kerry had been in Egypt, and in return for the significant financial and military aid that the U.S. is providing Egypt’s military government with, Kerry was to ask the generals if they wouldn’t mind laying off on the human-rights abuses a bit. The Egyptians took about as much notice of Kerry as the Iraqis. By Monday Kerry had his answer when Egyptian courts sentenced three foreign journalists to prison, with the government refusing to bow to outside pressure to intervene.

And this pattern of simply ignoring American begging has been repeated throughout the region, and indeed the world at large. Kerry’s strategy of talking has failed to yield results with the Assad regime in Syria, with the Israelis and Palestinians in the course of those ill-fated negotiations (that against all advice Kerry insisted upon wasting so much time, energy, and air miles on), with Putin over the Crimea, and now with Iran and the negotiations over its illegal nuclear enrichment program. There has been much talk of these latest negotiations being extended, although by all accounts a draft of an agreement with the Iranians is now being pieced together. But many are convinced that the deal will be a bad one and Iran’s neighbors are getting nervous. So they should be: Russia is currently in talks with the Iranians about assisting with the construction of a vast network of nuclear reactors.

Obama and his government washed-up at the White House with all kinds of grandiose ideas about the efficacy of soft power. Influence, it has been said, is simply so much more interesting than power. Well, the Middle East is certainly looking more interesting than it has in a long time, just not in a good way. The truth is that time and again America—the world’s only hyperpower when Obama took office—now has almost no influence at all, even over parties as weak as the Palestinian Authority. But then that’s the thing about soft power, in the end it is just soft. Kerry talks and talks, and initiates one round of fruitless negotiations after another. Yet those he is talking to are quite right in their assessment that they need only nod and smile politely and then not listen to a word the secretary of state has to say. When America is too timid to back up its words with any concrete actions, who needs to worry about what the United States thinks about anything anymore?

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Sacrificing the Kurds to Save a Narrative

Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

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Should the Kurds of Iraq forgo their aspirations for independence so the Obama administration can save face through the end of the president’s term? Though he didn’t word it quite that way, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish leaders in Erbil yesterday to pitch that scenario.

As Iraq continues to come apart, the Kurds are presented with an opportunity to realize genuine self-rule. That would mean Iraq would truly dissolve on Obama’s watch. The administration doesn’t want to deal with those optics, hence Kerry’s attempt to talk the Kurds into self-sacrifice:

In advance of Kerry’s arrival from Amman, Jordan, Barzani signaled yesterday that the “time is here” for the Kurds, a minority of 6.5 million, to decide on independence instead of what’s now a semi-autonomous state within Iraq. As fighting rages between extremists and Iraqi forces, the Kurds are in a position to be deal makers in political talks for a new government. …

A decision to go forward with independence would affect not only the future of about 17 percent of Iraq’s population of 33 million, but also whether the nation of Iraq dissolves into a loose federation or disappears. Either outcome would be a tectonic shift in regional politics with implications for neighbors Turkey, Iran and Syria, which also have Kurdish minorities.

The U.S. has said it wants Iraq to maintain its territorial integrity and seek a peaceful outcome through a new government that respects the interests of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The Obama administration would strongly oppose Kurdish independence now as “another nail in the coffin of the Baghdad government,” said Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow in Washington at the Century Foundation and a former U.S. diplomat.

This is typical of the Obama administration. It pulls American influence back from an area of interest, which leaves a vacuum the administration then expects allies in the region–those left behind by Obama–to step into in order to mitigate the damage. Obama also takes allies for granted, acting as though they’ll never really be needed and then when they are, the president expects them to fall in line. And most of all, it trades away the freedom of others so Obama can uphold the illusion of stability.

It’s also characteristic of Obama in one more way: having almost no grasp of history–especially of the Middle East–he can’t learn from it, and instead gets policies flat wrong. He would do well to read Matti Friedman’s incisive piece in Mosaic this week. Friedman kicked off the discussion earlier in the month with an essay on Israel’s Mizrachim, a category broadly comprising Jews from Arab lands. Mosaic then, as per its custom, published a couple of learned responses. Friedman has followed up with a response of his own.

He begins by discussing how the advance of ISIS and similar fanatical groups throughout the Middle East is having a brutal effect on ethnic and religious minorities. They are virtually unprotected, and as such have no real influence on the events around them. “One of the biggest stories in the region in the past century—the disappearance of the old cosmopolitan mosaic that always found a way to exist under Islam but no longer can—has now picked up speed to an extent that would have been hard to imagine even two or three years ago,” Friedman writes. “Soon these communities will all be gone, and one of the great cultural losses of our times will be complete.”

He then explains that the story of the Jews–and specifically Middle Eastern Jews–holds a lesson for the region’s other minorities:

When one looks at the recently exiled Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, Christians, and others, the Jews displaced by Muslims from their ancestral homes beginning in the mid-20th century begin to look more and more like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. This is a role that Jews have often played in different parts of the world.

Are you an ethnic or religious minority that wishes to survive in the Middle East? You had better have a piece of land in which you are the majority, and the power to defend it. This is the lesson of the Kurds, as has been vividly brought home this past month, and it is the lesson of Israel.

And of course if you want that piece of land to call your own and the power to defend it, you’ll need some powerful allies. When the British Mandate expired and Israel declared its independence, the realist fans of stability around Harry Truman wanted idealism, fairness, and moral courage sidelined to avoid disrupting the status quo. Truman would have none of it, and recognized Israel immediately. Now the Kurds face a similar–though certainly not identical–situation.

It’s also possible the Kurdish elite aren’t as enthusiastic about independence as they appear–that such talk is intended to boost the concessions they can wring from the U.S. for staying in Iraq. But they have probably learned the historical lesson Friedman writes about and the fact that they might never have a better chance to strike out on their own. If that’s the case, Kerry is asking quite a lot of them in seeking to save a narrative at the expense of Kurdish national aspirations.

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Too Late for Obama to Get Right with Egypt

If there has been one thing that has been consistent about the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt, it has been bad timing. The latest shift in the U.S. attitude toward Cairo came yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting with the country’s leaders that the U.S. was ready to repair its relations with the military government that has ruled the country since last summer’s coup. Read More

If there has been one thing that has been consistent about the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt, it has been bad timing. The latest shift in the U.S. attitude toward Cairo came yesterday when Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting with the country’s leaders that the U.S. was ready to repair its relations with the military government that has ruled the country since last summer’s coup. Given that the regime led by President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi is clearly ensconced in power and seems to have the support of most of its people, this decision is a good idea even if it comes far too late to do much to actually do the U.S. much good. President Obama’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood government that Sisi overthrew was a mistake that was compounded by Washington’s futile efforts to head off the coup and then impose cuts in aid to Egypt’s military. These measures did nothing to make the military respect human rights or increase support for democracy in Egypt. But they did convince most Egyptians that the U.S. was out of touch with their desire to end the ill-fated experiment with an Islamist government. But by making this belated statement on the eve of the Cairo government’s sentencing of journalists for assisting the Brotherhood, Kerry lost whatever little leverage or standing he might have had in pushing Sisi not to go overboard in his campaign against the Brotherhood. Bad timing has been the hallmark of the administration’s path to its current dilemma. Obama stuck too long with the old regime led by Hosni Mubarak to suit most Egyptians who were ready for change during the 2011 Arab Spring protests that swept the country. But by pushing hard for Mubarak’s ouster after being on his side for so long convinced no one of America’s good intentions. But once Mubarak was out, the president shifted his ground and began working to pave the way for a Muslim Brotherhood-led regime against the wishes of the country’s military that hoped to avert that outcome. Washington was ruthless in threatening dire consequences against the army when it tried to stop the Brotherhood from winning Egypt’s first election and then seemed to support the Islamists once they were firmly in power. When a year of Mohamed Morsi’s government convinced tens of millions of Egyptians to take to the streets in the summer of 2013 to urge the Brotherhood’s ouster, Obama again waited too long to recognize this reality. He was seen as seeking to stop the mass movement aimed at averting the country’s slide into unchecked Islamist tyranny. When the U.S. punished the military government that overthrew Morsi to popular acclaim, that ended any chance of regaining American influence in the world’s most populous Arab nation. Sisi’s government’s ruthless suppression of the Brotherhood makes sense to Egyptians who understand that they must choose between the military and the Islamists. Sisi is right to regard the Brotherhood as a deadly foe that must be crushed now if Egypt is not going to have to face more violence in the future. But it hardly enhances the image of the U.S. as a friend to freedom everywhere for Obama to have finally given in on this point just as Sisi was imprisoning journalists and sentencing large numbers of Brotherhood members to death. Second guessing any president is easy, but the plain fact is that this administration has managed to mess up even those decisions that were correct. At this point, President Obama has alienated virtually everyone in Egypt. Sisi’s government has the power to help influence the Palestinians to reject Hamas as well as providing an anchor for regional stability if it survives, as it probably will, the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to take back power. Though the U.S. retains the leverage that its large annual aid to the country gives it, there is little chance anyone in Cairo takes Obama’s admonitions seriously, even when he is right. Egypt is far from being the only foreign-policy disaster that can be laid at the feet of this president. The collapse in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, throwing away its leverage to stop Iran’s nuclear threat, abandoning Syria and then backing away from efforts to punish the Assad regime in Syria, and a foolish “reset” of relations with Russia that led to more aggression from Moscow loom larger than Obama’s streak of bad timing in Egypt. But, like those other examples, Egypt has highlighted the president’s inability to make a decision and his poor choices when he does make up his mind. Having first articulated his flawed vision of a new Middle East policy in a 2009 speech in Cairo, it is both ironic and fitting that Egypt is also a reminder of just how amateurish this administration’s approach to foreign policy has always been.

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The Consequences of Appeasing Hamas

Yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry rightly condemned the kidnapping of three Israeli teens by what both the U.S. and Israel believe to be Hamas terrorists. But Kerry’s willingness to reiterate standing U.S. policy that classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization rings false. After deciding in the last month that U.S. aid would continue to flow to the Palestinian Authority despite the fact that it is now run by a Fatah-Hamas coalition, the Obama administration cannot pretend that it is an innocent bystander as the Islamist rulers of Gaza revert to what even Kerry pointed out was a history of kidnapping.

By deciding to buy into the fiction that Hamas could be co-opted by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and help him unify the Palestinian people behind a push for peace, the U.S. didn’t just make a colossal error of judgment. In doing so, the administration abandoned a decades-long principled stand against the Islamist group that may not be resurrected even after this latest atrocity. Washington cannot be said to be directly responsible for Hamas’s decision to revert to terrorism even though the U.S. seemed to be saying that it could be trusted to behave. But the kidnapping illustrates once again what happens when terrorists are appeased. As such, the Obama administration must shoulder some of the responsibility for the violence that followed their seal of approval for Hamas’s presence in the Palestinian government.

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Yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry rightly condemned the kidnapping of three Israeli teens by what both the U.S. and Israel believe to be Hamas terrorists. But Kerry’s willingness to reiterate standing U.S. policy that classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization rings false. After deciding in the last month that U.S. aid would continue to flow to the Palestinian Authority despite the fact that it is now run by a Fatah-Hamas coalition, the Obama administration cannot pretend that it is an innocent bystander as the Islamist rulers of Gaza revert to what even Kerry pointed out was a history of kidnapping.

By deciding to buy into the fiction that Hamas could be co-opted by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and help him unify the Palestinian people behind a push for peace, the U.S. didn’t just make a colossal error of judgment. In doing so, the administration abandoned a decades-long principled stand against the Islamist group that may not be resurrected even after this latest atrocity. Washington cannot be said to be directly responsible for Hamas’s decision to revert to terrorism even though the U.S. seemed to be saying that it could be trusted to behave. But the kidnapping illustrates once again what happens when terrorists are appeased. As such, the Obama administration must shoulder some of the responsibility for the violence that followed their seal of approval for Hamas’s presence in the Palestinian government.

As I noted earlier, despite the decision of Abbas to embrace Hamas rather than Israel, the U.S. has chosen to treat that choice as an acceptable one. The conceit behind this policy was the notion that Hamas was too broke to pose much of a threat to Abbas’s Fatah faction and that its incorporation into the PA would strengthen the man they continued to call a peace partner, despite his lack of interest in negotiating with Israel. Tension between the two factions continued to simmer and may now overflow as Israel pressures Abbas to cooperate in the search for the kidnapped Israeli kids. But this spring the U.S. position toward both the PA and Hamas had become one that amounted to one in which Washington was resolutely determined to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil about the new Palestinian regime.

This faith in Abbas was partly the result of Obama’s unwillingness to look clearly at a man who has been determined to avoid signing a peace treaty at all costs since he succeeded Yasir Arafat in 2005. But it was also, at least in part, the function of the administration’s innate hostility to Abbas’s Israeli counterpart Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president’s preference for the veteran terrorist associate now serving the 10th year of a five-year term of office over the man whose three election victories represent the will of Israeli democracy is no secret. But Obama’s antipathy for the prime minister has morphed in the past six years from a quirk to a clear liability for U.S. policymakers. It has blinded Washington to the reality of Palestinian politics, especially after Kerry’s initiative was torpedoed by Abbas’s end run around the U.S. talks by going back to the United Nations as well as by the pact with Hamas.

U.S. policymakers may chalk up the attempt to bolster Abbas even after his Hamas pact as just another well-intentioned effort that was doomed to failure by the intransigence of both sides in the conflict. But the decision to give a Hamas government Washington’s seal of approval may have more far-reaching consequences than the State Department realizes.

Though the kidnapping of the Israeli teens has a lot more to do with Hamas’s long-range plans to supplant Fatah in the West Bank than with U.S. policy, it did not escape their notice, nor that of anyone else, that in doing so the Americans had abandoned a core principle of peacemaking. If Hamas’s continued refusal to abandon its genocidal charter or to cease terrorism didn’t render any government it was part of ineligible for U.S. aid, is there anything the Palestinians can do that would motivate Washington to cut them off?

In this context, Kerry’s condemnation of the kidnapping means nothing more than Abbas’s belated decision to repudiate it. Unless the United States follows up this statement with a demand that Abbas throw Hamas out of his government, Palestinians may be forgiven for thinking that Kerry’s statement was a meaningless bow in the direction of Israel and its friends. The consequences of appeasing Hamas may be measured not only in the decision of the group to up the ante in the West Bank with a spectacular terror operation but in the end of any U.S. influence over the PA. Obama and Kerry may not have intended for their decision to treat Hamas as just another Palestinian political party to be a green light for more terrorism. But, like it or not, that’s exactly what has happened. The only question now is whether it is too late for the administration to walk this terrible error back.

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Does Obama Believe He Is Irrelevant?

I agree with Andrew McCarthy over at National Review that George W. Bush deserves some of the blame for the cascade of events in which Iraq now finds itself. Bush thought by agreeing to a drawdown and withdrawal of combat troops, he would be doing the gentlemanly thing and would allow his successor a fresh start. Alas, it is always a mistake to try to force international problems to conform to the American political calendar, and that is exactly what Bush did.

But those on the left who circulate talking points absolving President Barack Obama of any responsibility for what has happened in Iraq, and those who those who propagate them, seem to suggest that Obama and his national security team are irrelevant. Iraq’s fate was decided in 2003, they imply, and Obama bears no responsibility for what has occurred since he won the presidency. That is wrong: While the world does not revolve around Washington, American decisions can and do matter as does the choice of inaction.

Obama has at least been principled in his objection to the Iraq war. Unlike Secretary of State John Kerry or his predecessor in Foggy Bottom, Hillary Clinton, Obama was not for it before he was against it. But his disdain for George W. Bush’s decision to use force to oust Saddam Hussein trumped any desire to reach the best possible outcome. He was cynical: By refusing to take yes for an answer in retaining any U.S. forces in training or support capacities in Iraq (the Iraqi government was willing to grant immunity, but the White House demand to have the Iraqi parliament ratify that was both unnecessary and a bridge too far) Obama condemned Iraq to greater bloodshed. For Obama, it was a political calculation: He would fulfill his campaign pledge to withdraw from the “bad war” completely. If Iraq fell apart, he could blame Bush. And if it managed to hold together, he could claim credit for having the foresight to leave. In effect, he was willing to gamble a country of great geopolitical interest and a state in which the United States had invested heavily in blood and treasure for cynical political motives. He treated Iraqis like pawns, and forfeited the responsibility to make decisions which could nudge Iraq toward a more stable, pro-Western outcome.

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I agree with Andrew McCarthy over at National Review that George W. Bush deserves some of the blame for the cascade of events in which Iraq now finds itself. Bush thought by agreeing to a drawdown and withdrawal of combat troops, he would be doing the gentlemanly thing and would allow his successor a fresh start. Alas, it is always a mistake to try to force international problems to conform to the American political calendar, and that is exactly what Bush did.

But those on the left who circulate talking points absolving President Barack Obama of any responsibility for what has happened in Iraq, and those who those who propagate them, seem to suggest that Obama and his national security team are irrelevant. Iraq’s fate was decided in 2003, they imply, and Obama bears no responsibility for what has occurred since he won the presidency. That is wrong: While the world does not revolve around Washington, American decisions can and do matter as does the choice of inaction.

Obama has at least been principled in his objection to the Iraq war. Unlike Secretary of State John Kerry or his predecessor in Foggy Bottom, Hillary Clinton, Obama was not for it before he was against it. But his disdain for George W. Bush’s decision to use force to oust Saddam Hussein trumped any desire to reach the best possible outcome. He was cynical: By refusing to take yes for an answer in retaining any U.S. forces in training or support capacities in Iraq (the Iraqi government was willing to grant immunity, but the White House demand to have the Iraqi parliament ratify that was both unnecessary and a bridge too far) Obama condemned Iraq to greater bloodshed. For Obama, it was a political calculation: He would fulfill his campaign pledge to withdraw from the “bad war” completely. If Iraq fell apart, he could blame Bush. And if it managed to hold together, he could claim credit for having the foresight to leave. In effect, he was willing to gamble a country of great geopolitical interest and a state in which the United States had invested heavily in blood and treasure for cynical political motives. He treated Iraqis like pawns, and forfeited the responsibility to make decisions which could nudge Iraq toward a more stable, pro-Western outcome.

Working in the Pentagon between September 2002 and April 2004, I was involved (admittedly, at a pretty low level) in many policy debates. A few I came out on the winning side. Most—including with regard to the longer term occupation of Iraq—the team on which I served lost. But taking the cards we were dealt and seeking the best possible outcome given that new hand was a guiding principle. Unfortunately, Obama stopped engaging the moment he entered the White House because of a 2003 decision with which he disagreed. Leadership is not claiming the buck stopped ten years ago; leadership is about making decisions and taking responsibility for them now.

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Obama’s International Legacy: Fait Accompli

President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

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President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

With United States power in retreat and with populists and dictators across the globe concluding that they can act with impunity, never has the danger been so real, not only in the current crisis spots but in Taiwan, the Falkland Islands, the Baltics, and other lands aggressors and dictators crave. All that matters in the new world order is brute strength and the will to use it. The most intractable diplomatic problems will no longer be solved by diplomacy, but rather by unilateralism. Of course, some critics might say unilateralism is simply what America engaged in for decades. That’s more propaganda than reality but, even if so, moral equivalency is a disease. America believed it acted for good; China and Russia clearly do not–their motivations are purely cynical.

One of the most surprising things I encountered when researching my recent study on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups was that, while the military spends more time in the classroom or the training ground going over its mistakes in order to learn from them, the State Department has never really conducted a full lessons-learned review with the diplomats who actually drive policy. Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was doing the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Unfortunately, that seems to apply to the State Department, not only in the current administration but in the last ten or so.

It would be wrong to blame all chaos on Obama. He may have ceded the ground, but ultimately it is the dictators who are to blame. Nevertheless, perhaps it is time for President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other top administration officials to sit back and consider the state of the world and what the United States might have done differently at key inflection points in order to prevent the current situation. Only then can the United States learn from its mistakes and seek to salvage what is left.

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