Commentary Magazine


Topic: John Kerry

“Solving” Israel to Solve the Conflict

With the Israeli-Palestinian talks at an impasse, now would be the time for some fresh thinking on how to move forward. Two pieces have appeared in recent days offering advice on what could be done to make progress. Both are written in a highly skeptical tone about the probability of success, yet both essentially offer the same suggested remedy. Although they come at it from slightly different angles, when it comes down to it what they both propose is a pretty simple formula: more pressure on Israel. And while these writers may temper their arguments with a certain pessimism toward the process, they still tap into a more commonly held notion about Israeli concessions being the gateway to harmony in the region.

Writing for the Nation, Bob Dreyfuss argues that the United States must first posit its own detailed outline of what a final agreement should look like. Then what will be needed is an almighty amount of pressure to be brought against rejectionist Israel and, in all probability, the bringing down of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “ultra-right” coalition. The other piece that comes to mind here is one by Aaron David Miller that appeared in the New Republic under the title Five Lessons That Could Save John Kerry’s Peace-Process Efforts. Miller served as an advisor to Secretary of State James Baker, and so perhaps unsurprisingly Miller recommends applying Baker’s approach. If it were possible to summarize the Baker doctrine on peace in the Middle East, it might be: the application of unrelenting and non-negotiable pressure on Israel. Miller paints this strategy as having been some unprecedented example of how to operate with success. While U.S.-Israel relations became more strained during that period than they have ever been under Obama, it is not clear what Baker and Miller actually achieved for all their trouble.

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With the Israeli-Palestinian talks at an impasse, now would be the time for some fresh thinking on how to move forward. Two pieces have appeared in recent days offering advice on what could be done to make progress. Both are written in a highly skeptical tone about the probability of success, yet both essentially offer the same suggested remedy. Although they come at it from slightly different angles, when it comes down to it what they both propose is a pretty simple formula: more pressure on Israel. And while these writers may temper their arguments with a certain pessimism toward the process, they still tap into a more commonly held notion about Israeli concessions being the gateway to harmony in the region.

Writing for the Nation, Bob Dreyfuss argues that the United States must first posit its own detailed outline of what a final agreement should look like. Then what will be needed is an almighty amount of pressure to be brought against rejectionist Israel and, in all probability, the bringing down of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “ultra-right” coalition. The other piece that comes to mind here is one by Aaron David Miller that appeared in the New Republic under the title Five Lessons That Could Save John Kerry’s Peace-Process Efforts. Miller served as an advisor to Secretary of State James Baker, and so perhaps unsurprisingly Miller recommends applying Baker’s approach. If it were possible to summarize the Baker doctrine on peace in the Middle East, it might be: the application of unrelenting and non-negotiable pressure on Israel. Miller paints this strategy as having been some unprecedented example of how to operate with success. While U.S.-Israel relations became more strained during that period than they have ever been under Obama, it is not clear what Baker and Miller actually achieved for all their trouble.

Both of these pieces are only able to pursue their line of argument by refusing to acknowledge the full reality of recent events. The line that Israel is impossibly intransigent has simply become enshrined as a doctrine unalterable by real events. Dreyfuss’s recounting of the collapse of the latest talks is an all but unrecognizable version of reality. He protests that Netanyahu breached his commitments by expanding settlements and refused to release the last group of prisoners. But settlements were never subject to the concessions the Palestinians were bribed with before they would consent to their participation in talks. In any case, the last round of prisoners would have been released like all the others had the Palestinians not announced that they were about to leave talks regardless of how many additional terrorists Israel offered to let lose.  

In Dreufuss’s view pressure on the Israeli side is warranted because Palestinian leader Abbas is essentially powerless. Yet if that’s true then it might legitimately be asked whether Abbas really has the ability to give Israelis any reliable assurances of peace in return for concessions that greatly weaken Israel’s security if those assurances aren’t guaranteed. Indeed, in both the case of Miller and Dreyfuss’s article, one wonders why, if the deal on offer is really evenhanded and promises an end to the conflict, would the Israelis need so much pressuring?

Miller’s piece acknowledges that under present circumstances there is little to be gained from pressuring either side. Yet Miller seems convinced that in the event that there was an opening for peace, it would be the Israelis that would need to be forced into it and he expresses his concern that this administration hasn’t got what it takes to get tough with Israel. Not like in the good old days of Baker when the U.S. would withhold loan guarantees needed to help absorb Jews from the former Soviet Union as punishment for Prime Minister Shamir not agreeing to the additional demand of freezing construction in Jerusalem as well as the West Bank. All that any of this achieved was the spectacle of the Madrid conference, which pandered to Arab demands for an international conference from which to condemn Zionism.

Perhaps it would be claimed that Madrid somehow opened the way toward the Oslo accords, but since neither side considers that to have been an overwhelming success, it’s not clear why we should celebrate Baker’s conference. Indeed, a more concrete result of the Baker diplomacy was the move to frame Israel as the problem and thus assault its underlying legitimacy. This is the assumption that both of these pieces rest on; that to solve the conflict you must first solve Israel.

Dreyfuss has a couple of telling things to say about such a solution. As well as claiming that everyone knows what that solution will look like he also claims that “Israel holds all the high cards.” The arguments put forward by Dreyfuss and Miller are really the logical conclusion of believing that this is a territorial conflict, in which case by holding the territory Israel does hold all the high cards, and so, Israel is the problem for blocking peace by retaining territory. As such, Israel will remain vilified until it can make the case that this conflict has never been about two states, but rather the destruction of one state: the Jewish state.  

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Hagel and Dempsey vs. the Straw Men

The Wall Street Journal has a story today on the division in the administration over greater intervention in Syria. The internal divide, we are told, pits Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who want to do more to train and arm the Syrian opposition and possibly support them with air strikes, against Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argue, in essence, for inaction.

The most significant sentence in the article? “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.” That, in fact, is the nub of the problem. The fact that the Pentagon is opposed to intervention isn’t terribly surprising–the Pentagon has either been opposed to, or skeptical of, just about every foreign military intervention since Vietnam with the exception of Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11. And sometimes more caution has been warranted–something, alas, that Pentagon leaders, both civilian and military, lost sight of during the planning for the Iraq invasion. But at other times–e.g., the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s–the Pentagon has been overly cautious and civilian leaders were right to override military objections.

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The Wall Street Journal has a story today on the division in the administration over greater intervention in Syria. The internal divide, we are told, pits Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who want to do more to train and arm the Syrian opposition and possibly support them with air strikes, against Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argue, in essence, for inaction.

The most significant sentence in the article? “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.” That, in fact, is the nub of the problem. The fact that the Pentagon is opposed to intervention isn’t terribly surprising–the Pentagon has either been opposed to, or skeptical of, just about every foreign military intervention since Vietnam with the exception of Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11. And sometimes more caution has been warranted–something, alas, that Pentagon leaders, both civilian and military, lost sight of during the planning for the Iraq invasion. But at other times–e.g., the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s–the Pentagon has been overly cautious and civilian leaders were right to override military objections.

But that’s only possible when you have leadership from the president. In this case you don’t. Which is why the Defense Department has been able to get away with shoddy arguments such as this one: “If it weren’t for the chairman, you would be right back in Iraq or Afghanistan,” a senior defense official told the Journal. Huh? Is anyone–anyone–proposing sending 100,000-plus ground troops to Syria? Or any ground troops at all? Not that I’ve heard. This is a totally bogus argument but one that no doubt resonates with a president who won office in no small part on the strength of his opposition to the conflict in Iraq.

What the cautious leadership of the Pentagon is losing sight of is a point that has been made to me by a number of active-duty military officers: namely, that there is not only danger but a great opportunity in Syria. We have the potential to do great damage Hezbollah, the Quds Force, and al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, three of the most potent anti-American terrorist organizations in the world. The Free Syrian Army is eager to fight all three groups if we would only provide them the arms and training to do so. If the U.S. were to use its airpower, that would truly provide an opportunity to wreak havoc among our enemies while running scant risks ourselves: Syrian air defense could be quickly disabled and as long as we don’t put troops on the ground (aside from a few Special Operators and intelligence operatives) we would be unlikely to suffer any casualties.

But that is a course of action that would require more boldness and decisiveness than we have seen from the Oval Office at any time since the Osama bin Laden raid nearly three years ago.

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What Is Standing in Putin’s Way in Eastern Ukraine?

Uh oh. Here we go again. Fresh off swallowing Crimea, Vladimir Putin may well be yearning not for peace but for another piece of Ukraine. At least that’s the concern raised by carefully orchestrated pro-Russian demonstrations in Donetsk and other cities in the eastern part of Ukraine where, before Russian TV cameras, the Russian minority is demanding Anschluss with the Motherland. 

John Kerry was quick to note, no doubt accurately, that these events are hardly spontaneous given the recent arrest of Russian intelligence agents in Ukraine. It is not hard to imagine a scenario unfolding whereby, once again repeating his favorite excuse for aggression–protecting Russian minority rights–Putin will send the Russian army rolling across the frontier. It would certainly not be a difficult military operation to carry out, given that the Russian forces are already mobilized ostensibly to carry out “exercises” and given the lack of military capacity in the Ukrainian army to oppose such an incursion.

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Uh oh. Here we go again. Fresh off swallowing Crimea, Vladimir Putin may well be yearning not for peace but for another piece of Ukraine. At least that’s the concern raised by carefully orchestrated pro-Russian demonstrations in Donetsk and other cities in the eastern part of Ukraine where, before Russian TV cameras, the Russian minority is demanding Anschluss with the Motherland. 

John Kerry was quick to note, no doubt accurately, that these events are hardly spontaneous given the recent arrest of Russian intelligence agents in Ukraine. It is not hard to imagine a scenario unfolding whereby, once again repeating his favorite excuse for aggression–protecting Russian minority rights–Putin will send the Russian army rolling across the frontier. It would certainly not be a difficult military operation to carry out, given that the Russian forces are already mobilized ostensibly to carry out “exercises” and given the lack of military capacity in the Ukrainian army to oppose such an incursion.

What, one wonders, is standing in the way of another semi-covert invasion followed by outright annexation? The only real obstacle would seem to be any concerns Putin might have about the consequences of such aggression. Kerry, after all, has warned the Russian president he will face “further costs” for such a move. But given the fact that the costs to Russia of annexing Crimea have been minimal–and given the complete loss of American credibility post-Syria when it comes to drawing “red lines” for dictators–one must conclude that it is only Putin’s self-restraint that is preventing a further expansion of the Russian Empire. And given Putin’s track record, both at home and abroad, of grabbing as much power as possible for himself, betting on his goodwill is not a very good guarantee of Ukraine’s continued territorial integrity.

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Abbas Bets on Kerry’s Desperation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reality Check? Kerry’s Is Long Overdue

Secretary of State John Kerry’s reaction to the collapse of his Middle East peace initiative was entirely predictable. Eschewing any responsibility for having personally stage-managed this fiasco, he told the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority in a statement that they needed to understand that he had better things to do if they weren’t willing to play ball. As the New York Times reported:

“There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward,” said Mr. Kerry, who added it was “reality check time.”

He’s right about that, but if there is anyone involved with this mess that needs a reality check, it’s Kerry.

The secretary ignored the advice of wiser foreign-policy analysts who cautioned that there was no reason to believe there was a chance of forging a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He then plunged head first into the process convinced that he could succeed where all others had failed, all the while warning the Israelis that they would face violence and boycotts if they didn’t do as he asked. But while both Kerry and President Obama continued to praise PA leader Mahmoud Abbas as a peacemaker, it was he who always had his eye on the exit sign from the talks.

Abbas seized on the first pretext he could find to flee the negotiations and now Kerry is left looking foolish. But the problem here is not whether Kerry might be better employed dealing with more urgent U.S. foreign-policy issues like the Russian attack on the Ukraine, the Iran nuclear talks, or even the human-rights catastrophe in Syria than in wasting more time trying to coax the Palestinians back to the table. It’s whether Kerry’s grasp of reality is so tenuous that rather than backing away from a no-win situation, he decides to double down and try to shove a U.S. peace plan down Israel’s throat.

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Secretary of State John Kerry’s reaction to the collapse of his Middle East peace initiative was entirely predictable. Eschewing any responsibility for having personally stage-managed this fiasco, he told the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority in a statement that they needed to understand that he had better things to do if they weren’t willing to play ball. As the New York Times reported:

“There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward,” said Mr. Kerry, who added it was “reality check time.”

He’s right about that, but if there is anyone involved with this mess that needs a reality check, it’s Kerry.

The secretary ignored the advice of wiser foreign-policy analysts who cautioned that there was no reason to believe there was a chance of forging a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He then plunged head first into the process convinced that he could succeed where all others had failed, all the while warning the Israelis that they would face violence and boycotts if they didn’t do as he asked. But while both Kerry and President Obama continued to praise PA leader Mahmoud Abbas as a peacemaker, it was he who always had his eye on the exit sign from the talks.

Abbas seized on the first pretext he could find to flee the negotiations and now Kerry is left looking foolish. But the problem here is not whether Kerry might be better employed dealing with more urgent U.S. foreign-policy issues like the Russian attack on the Ukraine, the Iran nuclear talks, or even the human-rights catastrophe in Syria than in wasting more time trying to coax the Palestinians back to the table. It’s whether Kerry’s grasp of reality is so tenuous that rather than backing away from a no-win situation, he decides to double down and try to shove a U.S. peace plan down Israel’s throat.

Kerry knows that throughout this process, it has been Israel who has been forced to pay for the talks with concessions. That was true before the talks began when it was pressured into promising to release more than 100 terrorist murderers to bribe Abbas to come back to the table. It was also true during the negotiations when Israel showed itself again to be willing to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank to create an independent Palestinian state while the Palestinians stonewalled.

It’s hard to believe Kerry is truly offended that the Israelis have been unwilling to release the last batch of murderers without some assurance from the Palestinians that they will keep talking after April or that he views this sensible decision as being somehow comparable to Abbas’s walkout and decision to go back to his quixotic effort to gain more recognition for his non-state from the United Nations. Abbas’s refusal to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state—a measure that indicates he is willing to end the conflict rather than merely pause it—as Kerry asked should have alerted the secretary to the fact that the Palestinians simply aren’t interested in an agreement.

This is the moment for a reality check in which Kerry finally grasps that the division between Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza is too great to allow the former to sign a peace treaty that will recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. But instead of pulling back from the process and realizing that all he has done is to take a stable, if unsatisfactory situation and increased the chances that it could blow up, there is now a very real possibility that he will make things even worse by trying to impose an American plan on the parties.

Such a plan would almost certainly involve territorial concessions for the Jewish state that go beyond previous offers including a more drastic (and unworkable) partition of Jerusalem. It may also leave out some of the elements that Kerry included in the peace framework that the Israelis accepted and the Palestinians rejected. These include security guarantees and the symbolic though important provisions that would commit the Palestinians to ending the conflict. But Kerry needs to realize that no matter what a U.S. plan says, Abbas hasn’t the will or the ability to sign a peace agreement.

The secretary has two choices. He can pull back from the talks and instead seek to manage the conflict and give the Palestinians incentives to work on developing better governance, infrastructure, and a free-market economy—things that former PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad tried and failed to create thanks to lack of support from Abbas and Fatah. Or he can dive even deeper into the abyss and make another explosion of violence even more likely by setting up an even bigger diplomatic failure with a U.S. plan that is certain to crash and burn.

If he doesn’t understand that the first of those two is the only rational alternative for the U.S. at this point, then perhaps it is President Obama who needs to impose a “reality check” on the State Department.

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UN Bodies Double-Edged Sword for Palestinians

Speaking on Thursday night, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would rather “become a martyr” than withdraw the applications that the Palestinians have submitted to 15 international treaties and conventions, as Israel has insisted he must do. Not one to pass up the opportunity for melodrama, Abbas’s pronouncement will hardly cause any shockwaves, but if he continues with this reckless policy of joining international bodies then Abbas may well find himself hoisted by his own petard. While legal experts are divided about the practical ramifications of these latest moves, there are certain international organizations that, were the PA to join them, would likely render Abbas open prosecution himself.

The events surrounding this latest Palestinian action–that likely symbolize the final blow to the latest round of talks–have already been pored over in detail, and no doubt will continue to be contested and fought over a great deal more. The simple chronology is that on Tuesday, shortly before Abbas was to meet with Secretary Kerry and while Israel was awaiting a response from Abbas to its ludicrously generous offer to release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners and partially freeze settlements in return for extending peace talks, Abbas had the PA submit requests to join 15 international conventions and treaties. This, it should be recalled, is despite the fact that the PA is obligated to refrain from such actions while talks continue through to the end of April, although strictly speaking the Oslo accords prohibit such actions in any event.

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Speaking on Thursday night, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would rather “become a martyr” than withdraw the applications that the Palestinians have submitted to 15 international treaties and conventions, as Israel has insisted he must do. Not one to pass up the opportunity for melodrama, Abbas’s pronouncement will hardly cause any shockwaves, but if he continues with this reckless policy of joining international bodies then Abbas may well find himself hoisted by his own petard. While legal experts are divided about the practical ramifications of these latest moves, there are certain international organizations that, were the PA to join them, would likely render Abbas open prosecution himself.

The events surrounding this latest Palestinian action–that likely symbolize the final blow to the latest round of talks–have already been pored over in detail, and no doubt will continue to be contested and fought over a great deal more. The simple chronology is that on Tuesday, shortly before Abbas was to meet with Secretary Kerry and while Israel was awaiting a response from Abbas to its ludicrously generous offer to release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners and partially freeze settlements in return for extending peace talks, Abbas had the PA submit requests to join 15 international conventions and treaties. This, it should be recalled, is despite the fact that the PA is obligated to refrain from such actions while talks continue through to the end of April, although strictly speaking the Oslo accords prohibit such actions in any event.

It is unclear whether the Palestinians ever directly responded to the initial Israeli offer, but instead they issued a counter-set of demands for agreeing to continue with negotiations. That list of demands essentially amounts to an itinerary of all the things that one would presume would be covered during the talks themselves. In other words, Abbas is demanding that Israel flatly agree to meet all his requirements on borders, Jerusalem, security, etc., prior to talks being resumed, at which point there would of course be nothing left to discuss. It hardly passes for what most would understand by the term “negotiation.” And if Israel doesn’t submit to all of this then apparently the Palestinians will plow ahead with their strategy of joining UN bodies.

There is, however, significant disagreement about just how damaging these moves could really be for Israel. So far it appears that in this latest round of applications the Palestinians have restricted their requests to joining treaties and conventions rather than actual UN organizations. Among the 15 they requested to join on Tuesday are the Fourth Geneva Conventions, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, the Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It has been suggested that the move toward joining the Hague Convention may be part of preparation to try and prosecute Israel over construction in Jewish communities over the 1949 armistice lines, which would include any building throughout most of Jerusalem. Other observers, such as professor Robbie Sabel of the Hebrew University, have claimed that since Israel is already bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention, it will not make any difference whether the Palestinian Authority were also to become a member.   

Predictably, Amnesty International has welcomed these moves and condemned Israel for the threats that Cabinet ministers have made about sanctioning the Palestinian Authority for its breach of its obligations. Indeed, Amnesty International is even urging the Palestinians to go further, encouraging the PA to also submit requests to join both the International Criminal Court and the Rome Statute. Yet there is good reason why the Palestinians have not already attempted this. While the statement by Amnesty International was naturally gleeful about the prospect of opening the way to bringing charges against Israel for its presence and activities in the West Bank, the statement further noted that such a move would also allow for holding the Palestinian Authority to account for its “alleged” violations. Of course, one can’t help but come away from Amnesty’s statement with the impression that Israel’s “abuses” are presumed genuine; the Palestinian Authority’s are merely “alleged,” with the statement referring to how this move would “spur the Palestinian Authority into bolstering its commitment to upholding the rights of all people.” Well, that’s certainly one commitment that if ever made, could surely do with some bolstering.

The PA’s human-rights violations against other Palestinians may not be well publicized but they are no secret either. Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has even spoken of pursuing the PA at the ICC for its sponsorship of terrorism. That is certainly a reminder that in the event that the Palestinians were ever to join these more significant bodies, we need not assume that attempts at prosecution would be all in one direction. And it is for that very reason that Abbas will no doubt be far more cautious about applying to join the international organizations that actually carry the most significant clout. In the meantime the diplomatic war of words, threats, and counter-threats goes on. We are pretty much back to where we were before Kerry’s embarrassingly ill-conceived process began: negotiating about negotiating. 

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The Peace Process Blame Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Horovitz writes:

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

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

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Kerry’s Hubris Leads to a Great Fall

It was just a couple of months ago that Secretary of State John Kerry was being lauded as, in the words of CNN, “a surprise success.” He was hailed by the chattering classes as having exceeded Hillary Clinton’s record by showing daring instead of her instinctive caution. After all, hadn’t he managed to preside over a nuclear deal with Iran, saved President Obama’s face by negotiating a good deal with Russia about Syrian chemical weapons, and made progress on a withdrawal agreement in Afghanistan? Most of all, his audacious decision to restart Middle East peace talks when everyone was warning him it was a fool’s errand was seen as having great promise. As the Atlantic gushed, “It’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.”

But that was then. Today, Kerry is being rightly lambasted by the left, right, and center for his idiotic decision to introduce the issue of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard’s release into the Middle East peace negotiations. The collapse of those talks and Kerry’s frantic and desperate Hail Mary pass merely to keep the sides talking after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to scuttle the effort illustrates the secretary’s flawed strategy and lack of a coherent backup plan. But the Middle East is not the only place where Kerry’s supposedly inspired leadership has failed. Kerry ignored and then mishandled unrest in Egypt and alienated allies across the Middle East. The special relationship that Kerry had cultivated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (according to the Times the two had bonded over their love of ice hockey) has also not only proved useless in getting the Russians to do what they promised in Syria but has led to further humiliations for the U.S. as the Putin regime overran Crimea and threatened the rest of the Ukraine. Kerry’s dependence on the Russians is also likely to lead to more failure on the Iranian nuclear front since Moscow is even less inclined than it already was to pressure Tehran to sign an agreement that can be represented as a victory for U.S. diplomacy.

A generous evaluation of Kerry’s actions might merely ascribe this to a string of bad luck. But luck has nothing to do with it. The common thread between these various diplomatic dead-ends isn’t that small-minded and recalcitrant foreign leaders thwarted Kerry’s bold initiatives. It’s that in all these situations, Kerry believed the force of his personality and his tenacity was equal to the task of solving problems that had flummoxed all of his predecessors. Aaron David Miller perceptively wrote last fall at a moment when Kerry’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise, “Rarely have I encountered anyone — let alone a secretary of state — who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else’s.” It was this hubris that has led to his current humiliation.

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It was just a couple of months ago that Secretary of State John Kerry was being lauded as, in the words of CNN, “a surprise success.” He was hailed by the chattering classes as having exceeded Hillary Clinton’s record by showing daring instead of her instinctive caution. After all, hadn’t he managed to preside over a nuclear deal with Iran, saved President Obama’s face by negotiating a good deal with Russia about Syrian chemical weapons, and made progress on a withdrawal agreement in Afghanistan? Most of all, his audacious decision to restart Middle East peace talks when everyone was warning him it was a fool’s errand was seen as having great promise. As the Atlantic gushed, “It’s looking more and more possible that when the history of early-21st-century diplomacy gets written, it will be Kerry who is credited with making the State Department relevant again.”

But that was then. Today, Kerry is being rightly lambasted by the left, right, and center for his idiotic decision to introduce the issue of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard’s release into the Middle East peace negotiations. The collapse of those talks and Kerry’s frantic and desperate Hail Mary pass merely to keep the sides talking after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to scuttle the effort illustrates the secretary’s flawed strategy and lack of a coherent backup plan. But the Middle East is not the only place where Kerry’s supposedly inspired leadership has failed. Kerry ignored and then mishandled unrest in Egypt and alienated allies across the Middle East. The special relationship that Kerry had cultivated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (according to the Times the two had bonded over their love of ice hockey) has also not only proved useless in getting the Russians to do what they promised in Syria but has led to further humiliations for the U.S. as the Putin regime overran Crimea and threatened the rest of the Ukraine. Kerry’s dependence on the Russians is also likely to lead to more failure on the Iranian nuclear front since Moscow is even less inclined than it already was to pressure Tehran to sign an agreement that can be represented as a victory for U.S. diplomacy.

A generous evaluation of Kerry’s actions might merely ascribe this to a string of bad luck. But luck has nothing to do with it. The common thread between these various diplomatic dead-ends isn’t that small-minded and recalcitrant foreign leaders thwarted Kerry’s bold initiatives. It’s that in all these situations, Kerry believed the force of his personality and his tenacity was equal to the task of solving problems that had flummoxed all of his predecessors. Aaron David Miller perceptively wrote last fall at a moment when Kerry’s fortunes seemed to be on the rise, “Rarely have I encountered anyone — let alone a secretary of state — who seemed more self-confident about his own point of view and not all that interested in somebody else’s.” It was this hubris that has led to his current humiliation.

In a rare example of agreement between the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, both ridiculed Kerry’s use of Pollard as a pathetic Hail Mary pass to revive the peace negotiations that had been scuttled by Abbas. Though the two papers came at the issue from different perspectives—the Journal correctly thought it was wrong to trade a spy for the terrorist murderers Abbas wanted Israel to free while the Times thought that the gesture would advance the negotiations—they spoke for just about everybody inside and outside the U.S. foreign-policy establishment in declaring the Pollard gambit to be a sign of desperation on the part of the secretary.

The problem here isn’t just that including Pollard in the talks was wrong-headed and unlikely to yield positive results. It’s that Kerry is so invested in trying to prop up a process that never had a chance of success that he’s willing to gamble with America’s credibility. While he proved able to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, Kerry’s naïve miscalculation about Abbas being willing or able to make peace has led to the current stalemate. Even worse, Kerry’s desperation has emboldened Abbas to keep asking for more and more with no sign that he will ever risk signing a deal that will end the conflict. The talk about Pollard is significant not just because it’s a bad idea but because it reflects American weakness rather than boldness.

But while Kerry’s self-image is sufficiently grandiose to insulate him against criticisms, those who will pay the price for his failures will not be so fortunate. The Ukrainians know they cannot count on the U.S., and by raising expectations that were inevitably dashed the secretary has increased the chances of violence in the wake of his Middle East fiasco. Nor will those who may eventually be faced with the reality of an Iranian bomb remember him kindly. Not long ago liberal pundits were singing his praises. Now he should consider himself lucky if he is not soon considered a consensus choice for the title of the worst secretary of state in recent memory.

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Twelve Questions About the “Peace Process”

In today’s New York Times, a letter from Dov Bruce Krulwich in Beit Shemesh, Israel, asks two questions about the possible release of Jonathan Pollard to encourage Israel to release Palestinian murderers to convince the Palestinians to discuss a Palestinian state, even though the Palestinians “refuse even to agree that the end game involves two states for two peoples”:

Shouldn’t a people who have never had a state be the ones making goodwill gestures to continue a process that will benefit them the most?

Why weren’t the previous good-will gestures, not to mention all the good-will gestures in the past 20 years, enough to expect the Palestinians to take a step themselves?

Those questions lead to some of my own:

In today’s New York Times, a letter from Dov Bruce Krulwich in Beit Shemesh, Israel, asks two questions about the possible release of Jonathan Pollard to encourage Israel to release Palestinian murderers to convince the Palestinians to discuss a Palestinian state, even though the Palestinians “refuse even to agree that the end game involves two states for two peoples”:

Shouldn’t a people who have never had a state be the ones making goodwill gestures to continue a process that will benefit them the most?

Why weren’t the previous good-will gestures, not to mention all the good-will gestures in the past 20 years, enough to expect the Palestinians to take a step themselves?

Those questions lead to some of my own:

  • Why do people have to be paid–in the form of cash, prisoners, freezes, etc.–to convince them to show up to negotiate a state for themselves?
  • Why do people who have signed a formal agreement, obligating themselves not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations to change the status of the disputed territories, have to be paid to convince them to adhere to their agreement?
  • Why are people who have already been offered (and rejected) a state three times in the last decade–with each offer covering substantially all of the disputed territories and a capital in Jerusalem–entitled to a fourth offer?
  • Why is a putative Palestinian state, ruled half by a terrorist group and half by a “president” currently in the 10th year of his four-year term, with the two groups unable to live side by side in peace with each other (much less Israel), ready to be a state–even assuming agreement could be reached on its borders or any other issue?
  • Why is U.S. foreign policy–with the Arab world in a state of chaos ranging from Libya to Egypt to Syria to Lebanon–fixated on trying to establish another already-failed state right next to Israel?

Which brings one again to the two questions posed by Dennis Ross last month in the course of summarizing the Israeli position in the current impasse:

[I]f you [the Palestinians] believe in two states, why is it that Israel being the nation-state of the Jewish people is something that you can’t accept?

Why is it that self-determination for the Jewish people in a part of historic Palestine is something that you [the Palestinians] can’t embrace?

As the American secretary of state reduces his goal from (a) reaching a peace agreement to (b) reaching a “framework” for an agreement to (c) simply keeping the Palestinian “president” at the negotiating table for six months, to be purchased by more Israeli pre-negotiation concessions, the pertinent questions include those that Elliott Abrams asked yesterday:

Where does it stop? What are the limiting principles? …What will [the secretary of state] want next year [from Israel] when Abbas threatens to leave the table again?

The history of the “peace process” is now several stages past tragedy and farce. The side that supposedly wants a state won’t discuss one without compensation to do so; won’t accept a state as an end-of-claims solution but only as a stage in a continuing attempt to “return” to the other one; won’t agree that “two states for two peoples” is the goal of the process, much less explicitly recognize a Jewish state; can’t even hold an election, much less manage a stable state; ignores obligations under its prior agreement with Israel while asking Israel to believe it would abide by a new one; has already demonstrated three times in less than a decade it will not accept the “Everyone [Supposedly] Knows” peace plan; and does not even have a “president” legally in office, able to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinian groups, much less enforce any agreement he might reach.

Meanwhile, the U.S. leans on Israel, because a Palestinian state remains the central goal of an American foreign policy that long ago lost sight of the fact that–under the above circumstances–a Palestinian state would not be a “solution” to anything.

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Abbas Fled Talks the First Chance He Got

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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Kerry’s Neglect of India Comes With a Price

With so many pressing problems to deal with—North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China, to name just four—Secretary of State John Kerry appears set to continue dedicating precious time and resources to resolving the unresolvable: namely the Israeli-Palestinian dispute which is no closer to a “solution” today than at any time in the past 60+ years. His latest gambit is to offer the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to Israel in the expectation that Israel will reciprocate by releasing a bunch of Palestinian terrorists from Israeli prisons and freezing development in the West Bank to curry favor with the Palestinian Authority. All of this frenetic maneuvering, mind you, is designed not to achieve a breakthrough—everyone knows that won’t happen—but simply to keep the Palestinians and Israelis talking and talking and talking.

What is Kerry neglecting with his odd focus on Israelis and Palestinians? Well start with one of the biggest potential diplomatic opportunities for the United States: to incorporate India, a fellow democracy menaced by Islamist extremists, into a closer partnership with Washington. George W. Bush made dramatic progress in wooing India but now the relationship seems to be going backward. As the New York Times notes,  “The United States and India have found themselves on opposite sides of the world’s most important diplomatic issues, from the crisis in Ukraine, in which India came to Russia’s defense, to a long-awaited vote to investigate Sri Lanka’s government for atrocities committed at the end of its civil war (India abstained). Even critical military coordination over the reduction of troops in nearby Afghanistan has suffered.”

Instead of working together, the U.S. and India are squabbling over diplomatic privileges following the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York on charges of underpaying a housekeeper.

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With so many pressing problems to deal with—North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China, to name just four—Secretary of State John Kerry appears set to continue dedicating precious time and resources to resolving the unresolvable: namely the Israeli-Palestinian dispute which is no closer to a “solution” today than at any time in the past 60+ years. His latest gambit is to offer the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to Israel in the expectation that Israel will reciprocate by releasing a bunch of Palestinian terrorists from Israeli prisons and freezing development in the West Bank to curry favor with the Palestinian Authority. All of this frenetic maneuvering, mind you, is designed not to achieve a breakthrough—everyone knows that won’t happen—but simply to keep the Palestinians and Israelis talking and talking and talking.

What is Kerry neglecting with his odd focus on Israelis and Palestinians? Well start with one of the biggest potential diplomatic opportunities for the United States: to incorporate India, a fellow democracy menaced by Islamist extremists, into a closer partnership with Washington. George W. Bush made dramatic progress in wooing India but now the relationship seems to be going backward. As the New York Times notes,  “The United States and India have found themselves on opposite sides of the world’s most important diplomatic issues, from the crisis in Ukraine, in which India came to Russia’s defense, to a long-awaited vote to investigate Sri Lanka’s government for atrocities committed at the end of its civil war (India abstained). Even critical military coordination over the reduction of troops in nearby Afghanistan has suffered.”

Instead of working together, the U.S. and India are squabbling over diplomatic privileges following the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York on charges of underpaying a housekeeper.

This is not all America’s fault, to be sure, but lack of high-level attention in Washington and numerous missteps by the State Department—including the U.S. Ambassador in New Delhi, Nancy Powell, who has mercifully just announced her departure–have certainly exacerbated the situation. The Times quotes a senior Indian diplomat complaining: “There is a feeling that no one in this administration is a champion of the India-U.S. relationship.”

Perhaps that’s because our Secretary of State–who could be nurturing this relationship, working to bring allies such as Japan and South Korea closer, or paying attention to myriad other issues–has instead chosen to waste time on the fantasy of a final peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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Kerry’s “Last Chance” Diplomacy Implodes

Secretary of State John Kerry is back in Israel today attempting to breath life into the peace talks that he initiated last year. With the Palestinians refusing to accept the framework for further talks the secretary tried to broker, and the Israelis seeing little purpose in releasing more Palestinian terrorist murderers to bribe Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas if the PA won’t keep negotiating, the whole scheme is on the brink of collapse. Thus, Kerry is working furiously to try and come up with a way to entice the Israelis to give Abbas what he wants in terms of either more prisoner releases or a settlement freeze.

The latest idea on the table, which has now been publicly confirmed by U.S. officials speaking off the record, is for the U.S. to hand convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to the Israelis in exchange for the last batch of terrorists already scheduled for release from Israeli jails as well as a further group to be let go after that. Presumably this latest batch of terrorist prisoners would be enough to bribe Abbas to keep talking even though he has already signaled that he isn’t that interested in the discussions, especially if they require him to agree to measures that herald an end to the conflict with Israel. As I wrote last week, the idea of trading Pollard for murderers is a bad deal for Israel. If Prime Minister Netanyahu is to keep making concessions to Abbas then he should expect something of substance in return from the Palestinians that would bring peace closer. Doing so for the sake of Pollard makes no sense for anyone.

But the real problem here isn’t the unbalanced nature of such a deal that is not likely to be carried out anyway. Rather, it is the sense of hysteria that has been invested in the latest iteration of the Middle East peace process. Having decided to try to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed, Kerry did so by claiming that it was the region’s last chance for peace even though there was no reason to believe the conflict was in danger of re-igniting or there were reasonable prospects for success. But now that he appears to be failing, his frequent predictions of doom have become self-fulfilling prophecies.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is back in Israel today attempting to breath life into the peace talks that he initiated last year. With the Palestinians refusing to accept the framework for further talks the secretary tried to broker, and the Israelis seeing little purpose in releasing more Palestinian terrorist murderers to bribe Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas if the PA won’t keep negotiating, the whole scheme is on the brink of collapse. Thus, Kerry is working furiously to try and come up with a way to entice the Israelis to give Abbas what he wants in terms of either more prisoner releases or a settlement freeze.

The latest idea on the table, which has now been publicly confirmed by U.S. officials speaking off the record, is for the U.S. to hand convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to the Israelis in exchange for the last batch of terrorists already scheduled for release from Israeli jails as well as a further group to be let go after that. Presumably this latest batch of terrorist prisoners would be enough to bribe Abbas to keep talking even though he has already signaled that he isn’t that interested in the discussions, especially if they require him to agree to measures that herald an end to the conflict with Israel. As I wrote last week, the idea of trading Pollard for murderers is a bad deal for Israel. If Prime Minister Netanyahu is to keep making concessions to Abbas then he should expect something of substance in return from the Palestinians that would bring peace closer. Doing so for the sake of Pollard makes no sense for anyone.

But the real problem here isn’t the unbalanced nature of such a deal that is not likely to be carried out anyway. Rather, it is the sense of hysteria that has been invested in the latest iteration of the Middle East peace process. Having decided to try to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed, Kerry did so by claiming that it was the region’s last chance for peace even though there was no reason to believe the conflict was in danger of re-igniting or there were reasonable prospects for success. But now that he appears to be failing, his frequent predictions of doom have become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The secretary invested time, energy, and the prestige of the United States on a negotiation that few thought had a chance because he was convinced there was no alternative and that a failure to advance a peace process that has been stuck in neutral ever since the Palestinians rejected the third Israeli offer of independence and statehood would lead to disaster. But as Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl aptly noted today, prior to the start of Kerry’s talks, “Israel and the Palestinian territories” were “an island of tranquility in a blood-drenched Middle East.” If the Palestinians preferred meaningless symbolic victories at the United Nations to statehood, such folly was rooted in Abbas’s belief that his people were not ready to give up their century-long war to destroy Israel.

Though Netanyahu has reluctantly agreed to a framework that is based on the 1967 lines, the Palestinians are still not ready to give up their “right of return” for the 1948 refugees and their descendants or to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, thereby signaling an end to the conflict. But by raising the stakes in the conflict and repeatedly warning the Israelis that they would suffer violence in the form of a third intifada and increased boycott efforts if they did not agree to peace, Kerry has raised the stakes for the Palestinians. In a foolish repeat of earlier mistakes made by the Obama administration, the Palestinian leadership is being put in a position of having to match Kerry’s warnings with provocative actions of their own. And since a resolution of these disputes is beyond Abbas’s power or will to achieve, the collapse of Kerry’s diplomacy may spiral out of control.

Continually crying that this is the “last chance” for peace is not only inaccurate—diplomats have been saying the same thing for decades and have always been wrong, since peace will come the day the Palestinians give up their illusions about re-writing history and not one day sooner—it is also the sort of sentiment that rationalizes the actions of extremists who don’t want peace on any terms. 

It is true that many Israelis worry about the long-term consequences of the current impasse which leaves the West Bank in limbo while Hamas-ruled Gaza functions as the independent Palestinian state in all but name. But as Diehl says, the alternative to Kerry’s apocalyptic warnings was an embrace of the reality of a conflict that couldn’t be solved but might be managed. Measures aimed at giving the Palestinians a bigger stake in an improved economy and better governance wouldn’t have cut the Gordian knot of Middle East peace but would have provided Abbas and his Fatah Party a reason to keep a lid on the territories as well as more of an incentive to think about preparing the way for eventual peace. Instead, Kerry has brought Abbas to the brink where he feels he has no alternative but to give the back of his hand to a negotiation that he never wanted to be part of in the first place. If violence in the form of a third intifada (perhaps funded in part by Iran via aid to Islamic Jihad or Hamas) follows, then it should be remembered that it was Kerry who set a potentially tragic series of events in motion.

What the secretary is learning is that as bad as a situation seems, it can only be made worse by hubris and naïveté, qualities Kerry possesses in abundance. Whether or not he manages to bribe either the Israelis or the Palestinians to keep talking in the coming days, the most important point to be gleaned from this chapter is that stoking fear in order to build support for peace isn’t merely counter-productive. It’s a recipe for disaster.

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Could the Peace Process Be Destroying Israel’s Legitimacy?

In the world of hasbara–Israel advocacy–it is commonly suggested that the best way to make Israel’s case is by emphasizing that Israel wants peace: pointing to Israel’s willingness to negotiate, its withdrawals from territory, its evacuation of settlements, its prisoner releases, the settlement freezes, the moves to help establish and strengthen the Palestinian Authority. It’s true that Israel has done all of these things, but how is Israel’s standing in the world doing? Have peace talks and the surrender of territory done anything to placate those who only ever respond to these moves by calling for still more Israeli concessions? The hard truth is that today, in many circles, Israel’s legitimacy is in a worse place than it’s ever been. Israel negotiates and concedes, yet the movement to boycott and demonize Israel has only grown increasingly strident.

Israel has been locked down in the latest round of negotiations for months now. To make these talks happen Israel was first compelled to consent to the release of 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists. In the past Israel has been forced to freeze Jewish communities in the West Bank and even projects in Jerusalem. In both cases these concessions were to no avail. President Obama and Secretary Kerry regularly threaten Israel that should this current round of allegedly last-chance negotiations fail, Israel will be cast asunder to meet its fate in a cold world of boycotts and diplomatic isolation. Concessions and goodwill from Israel are rarely cause for praise from Western allies, they have simply come to be expected. 

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In the world of hasbara–Israel advocacy–it is commonly suggested that the best way to make Israel’s case is by emphasizing that Israel wants peace: pointing to Israel’s willingness to negotiate, its withdrawals from territory, its evacuation of settlements, its prisoner releases, the settlement freezes, the moves to help establish and strengthen the Palestinian Authority. It’s true that Israel has done all of these things, but how is Israel’s standing in the world doing? Have peace talks and the surrender of territory done anything to placate those who only ever respond to these moves by calling for still more Israeli concessions? The hard truth is that today, in many circles, Israel’s legitimacy is in a worse place than it’s ever been. Israel negotiates and concedes, yet the movement to boycott and demonize Israel has only grown increasingly strident.

Israel has been locked down in the latest round of negotiations for months now. To make these talks happen Israel was first compelled to consent to the release of 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists. In the past Israel has been forced to freeze Jewish communities in the West Bank and even projects in Jerusalem. In both cases these concessions were to no avail. President Obama and Secretary Kerry regularly threaten Israel that should this current round of allegedly last-chance negotiations fail, Israel will be cast asunder to meet its fate in a cold world of boycotts and diplomatic isolation. Concessions and goodwill from Israel are rarely cause for praise from Western allies, they have simply come to be expected. 

The boycott threat that Obama and Kerry try to use to panic Israel into doing whatever they instruct is really a case in point. Israel doesn’t await a wave of calls for boycotts if these talks fail; it faces them now. If anything, while this past round of Israeli concessions and negotiations have dragged on, the call for the boycott of Israel has only become louder. Across Europe and on American campuses, the campaign for boycotts is becoming frenetic. Oxfam’s attack on Scarlett Johansson and SodaStream made the headlines but there have been many cases that didn’t. In Europe a Dutch pension fund and several Scandinavian banks have already divested from Israel, while on both sides of the Atlantic the student campaign for boycotts has become particularly ugly. As Jonathan Tobin wrote about yesterday, the BDS campaign has even come to propagate racist hate speech. During a boycott vote only last night at King’s College, London, Jewish students were first hectored and reduced to tears, then mocked and taunted by BDS students.

At the very least, the fact that all of this goes on while Israel is in negotiations to try and end its presence in the West Bank should convince us that this has nothing to do with the “occupation.” Omar Barghouti, one of the leading founders of BDS, has been unequivocal in saying that the creation of two states would not end calls for boycotts. Yet if it is true that none of this is about creating a Palestinian state but rather opposing a Jewish one, then where does this leave notions about land for peace? Indeed, it would seem that on this point the boycotters are consistent with the Palestinians’ own refusal to let go of the desire to end Israel, even if it prevents them from getting a state themselves.

In a hard-hitting follow-up piece for Mosaic, Yoav Sorek tells us that since the beginning of the Oslo peace process, when Israel reneged on its pledge to itself not recognize or negotiate with the terrorist PLO, the net result has not only been unprecedented waves of carnage and violence, but the onset of deep self-doubt about Israel’s own national legitimacy. By promoting the idea that the conflict is a territorial one, Israel at once legitimized the PLO and undermined its own legitimacy before the world, as well as to itself. Accepting the land-for-peace equation meant that Israel was now saying it was the problem, not Arab annihilationism toward the Jewish state, but rather its occupation of “Palestinian land.”  

Israel has placed itself in the dock by endorsing land-for-peace. By promoting this idea Israel accepts that its activities over the 1949 armistice lines are illegitimate if not illegal. For the international community, land for peace means that Israel withdraws from territory and gets peace in return. By that logic the absence of peace is on account of the presence of Israelis in occupied land. Israel knows that it can’t hand over territory to those who will only use it to advance warfare against its people. So Israel is forced to say one thing and do another; the debate becomes fixated on whether or not the Palestinians are really a partner for peace and the Israelis just appear dishonest. Nor does Israel get any praise for the withdrawals it makes for, as Evelyn Gordon has argued previously, by denying its claim to the land Israel earns the status of a thief only partially returning what never belonged to her.  

Sorek suggests that asserting to the world Israel’s legal rights in the West Bank is the only viable option left. Once Israel establishes that it has the land by right, only then can it effectively confront Arab rejectionism, which negotiations and land withdrawals actually spur on. It would seem that if Israel cannot tolerate the status quo then it must either unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank or otherwise annex it. But it’s quite possible that further withdrawals might actually damage Israel’s legitimacy more than annexation would. 

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Victory Is the Only Legitimacy Assad Needs

Consumers of news are well aware that the old saw “if it bleeds, it leads” comes with an unstated qualification: it depends who else is bleeding. This isn’t the only variable, but it’s a potent one. And so the current age of global instability–the Arab Spring, European protest movements, etc.–has meant that no matter how much Syria bleeds, it rarely leads. While the conflict has not experienced any major transformations recently, the lack of interest in Syria compared to, say, Egypt or Ukraine or the perennial newsmakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories means it’s possible, even likely, we’ll miss subtle shifts.

And Syria has undergone such a shift. The New York Times reports that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, believes Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. This isn’t breaking news. But it’s a significant story because it’s not breaking news. We’ve written here over the last year or so that Assad’s survival has gone from unlikely to tenuous to probable, culminating in the Russian-brokered deal to pretend to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal which (as the Times notes) did more to solidify Assad’s hold on power than virtually any other development there since the beginning of the uprising.

Assad’s survival, then, has become the new conventional wisdom, ushering Syria into an era of status quo chaos. The Times adds that this story appears in today’s print edition of the paper on page A10. Assad’s survival means Syria will continue to bleed, but won’t come close to leading.

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Consumers of news are well aware that the old saw “if it bleeds, it leads” comes with an unstated qualification: it depends who else is bleeding. This isn’t the only variable, but it’s a potent one. And so the current age of global instability–the Arab Spring, European protest movements, etc.–has meant that no matter how much Syria bleeds, it rarely leads. While the conflict has not experienced any major transformations recently, the lack of interest in Syria compared to, say, Egypt or Ukraine or the perennial newsmakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories means it’s possible, even likely, we’ll miss subtle shifts.

And Syria has undergone such a shift. The New York Times reports that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, believes Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. This isn’t breaking news. But it’s a significant story because it’s not breaking news. We’ve written here over the last year or so that Assad’s survival has gone from unlikely to tenuous to probable, culminating in the Russian-brokered deal to pretend to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal which (as the Times notes) did more to solidify Assad’s hold on power than virtually any other development there since the beginning of the uprising.

Assad’s survival, then, has become the new conventional wisdom, ushering Syria into an era of status quo chaos. The Times adds that this story appears in today’s print edition of the paper on page A10. Assad’s survival means Syria will continue to bleed, but won’t come close to leading.

The Times mentions that Ford’s “assessment was starkly different from one the Obama administration presented as recently as last year, when it insisted that Mr. Assad’s days were numbered and that he was losing a battle of attrition with the moderate opposition.” Syria was always a prime example of the president’s belief that he could make something so by simply saying it. Obama declared Assad’s days to be numbered; what else could possibly have been needed?

The Times asks Ford why Assad is now expected to stay in power–that is, why Assad might have won. Here’s his response:

Mr. Ford said there were three reasons Mr. Assad had been able to hang on to power. First, Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition had been unable to assure the Alawite minority that it would not be threatened by Mr. Assad’s overthrow. “First and foremost,” Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition “has been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime, first and foremost the Alawite community.” Mr. Assad himself is an Alawite.

Another factor that has helped Mr. Assad’s prospects has been “Iranian and Russian financing and huge amounts of arms coming from both Russia and Iran.” Tehran’s decision to encourage Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Iraqi Shiite fighters to join the fray has also provided the Syrian government with badly needed manpower, Mr. Ford said.

The third factor is that the Assad government has had a “certain unity and coherence, which is lacking on the opposition side,” he said.

Mr. Ford appeared to hold out little hope that diplomacy could resolve the crisis anytime soon. He said the Syrian government was not interested in negotiating the establishment of a transitional administration that could govern the country if Mr. Assad yielded power. Nor, he added, has the United States had any serious negotiations over the Syria crisis with Tehran.

In other words, Assad had received significant help from his backers, while the Obama administration has neither given such help to Assad’s opposition nor seriously engaged in diplomacy with Assad’s benefactors. Of course, the window for significant material support to the rebels has probably closed, and been closed for some time. At the outset of the uprising, there seemed to be an opportunity to try and pick winners and losers among the rebel groups. The ever-contemplative Obama just had to think about it for a while, say, several years.

It’s not just Ford or U.S. intelligence officials who admit the odds in favor of Assad’s continued reign. Wherever there is a foreign-policy crisis, you are likely to find an insipid and dismissive quote from this nation’s chief diplomat, the blundering John Kerry. And Syria is no different. Here is Kerry’s acknowledgement of the current state of the conflict:

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to recognize Mr. Assad’s tenacity on the battlefield in remarks to a group of university students.

“Whether they win, don’t win, they can’t regain legitimacy,” said Mr. Kerry, who argued that the Syrian leader would face armed opposition as long as he sought to hold power.

The most charitable explanation is that Kerry simply doesn’t understand how offensive and callous his statements are to the many, many, many victims and their families of this incredibly bloody civil war. Is that their consolation prize from the leader of the free world? The Obama administration may not lift a finger to stem the barbarous mass murder they are subjected to, but rest assured the president has resolutely extracted from Assad his international legitimacy.

What the president and his embarrassing secretary of state don’t say is that such legitimacy may not be theirs to bestow anyway. Victors tend to accrue legitimacy in the real world. And Assad is on pace to claim a costly, but no less real, victory.

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Kerry’s Diplomatic Double Standards

So, Secretary of State John Kerry is deeply upset and insulted that Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, criticized U.S. strategy and suggested that the United States is exuding weakness. One would think the former senator from Massachusetts would have a thicker skin, and might also consider if there was something to Yaalon’s remarks, however undiplomatic they might have been. Never mind, however. What is truly revealing is how Kerry acts in other circumstances when officials from other countries make similar statements castigating U.S. policy.

Here, for example, is Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, speaking earlier this month: “America no longer creates events in the region; rather it is the Muslims who create events and the Americans are forced to be another actor in decline, although not a dominant player. Meanwhile, the Americans have lost operational power against Syria today and this is a great proof for Muslims.” Kerry’s reaction? Crickets. Obama’s reaction? Nada. And, lest this be seen as an exception rather than the rule, here is an excerpt (and my analysis) of a statement from Tehran that went even further last month. And where is Kerry every time Iranian leaders encourage chants of “Death to America” after Friday prayers in central Tehran?

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So, Secretary of State John Kerry is deeply upset and insulted that Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, criticized U.S. strategy and suggested that the United States is exuding weakness. One would think the former senator from Massachusetts would have a thicker skin, and might also consider if there was something to Yaalon’s remarks, however undiplomatic they might have been. Never mind, however. What is truly revealing is how Kerry acts in other circumstances when officials from other countries make similar statements castigating U.S. policy.

Here, for example, is Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, speaking earlier this month: “America no longer creates events in the region; rather it is the Muslims who create events and the Americans are forced to be another actor in decline, although not a dominant player. Meanwhile, the Americans have lost operational power against Syria today and this is a great proof for Muslims.” Kerry’s reaction? Crickets. Obama’s reaction? Nada. And, lest this be seen as an exception rather than the rule, here is an excerpt (and my analysis) of a statement from Tehran that went even further last month. And where is Kerry every time Iranian leaders encourage chants of “Death to America” after Friday prayers in central Tehran?

The Obama administration’s heightened sensitivity to criticism doesn’t apply to the Palestinian Authority either. Kerry remains silent when his much-heralded partner in peace talks not only rejects American positions but also lionizes terrorists and murderers, hardly an attitude that advances U.S. interests in the region.

Bashing allies isn’t going to bring respect back to the United States on the world stage, nor is forcing allies to genuflect. Diplomatic temper tantrums aren’t going to imbue Kerry with an aura of competence that his policies and actions haven’t managed to achieve. Sometimes, tough words from friends are necessary, even with the moral inversion that currently underpins Obama and Kerry’s words and actions.

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Obama’s World of Make Believe

For anyone who has observed Barack Obama over the years, it’s obvious that a fundamental part of his self-identity involves seeing himself, and having others see him, as pragmatic rather than ideological, reality-based, driven by reason instead of bias.

This has never actually been true. Mr. Obama is, in fact, unusually dogmatic, blind to counter-evidence, and mostly unable to adjust his views to the way things are. So when his worldview collides with reality, he often can’t adjust. He instead creates his own make believe world.

We’ve seen it time and time again with the Affordable Care Act. (Earlier this month the president declared ObamaCare “is working the way it should.” He may be the only person in America who believes such a thing.) We’ve also seen this in Mr. Obama’s dealings with Vladimir Putin, who with lightning speed has seized Crimea, threatens Ukraine, and whose top officials are now openly mocking the president (including with tweets ending with smiley faces). Yet President Obama insists that Putin is acting “out of weakness, not out of strength” in attempting to take control of Crimea. This is an effort to seek comfort by engaging in an almost clinical level of delusion. And it’s not isolated to Mr. Obama.

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For anyone who has observed Barack Obama over the years, it’s obvious that a fundamental part of his self-identity involves seeing himself, and having others see him, as pragmatic rather than ideological, reality-based, driven by reason instead of bias.

This has never actually been true. Mr. Obama is, in fact, unusually dogmatic, blind to counter-evidence, and mostly unable to adjust his views to the way things are. So when his worldview collides with reality, he often can’t adjust. He instead creates his own make believe world.

We’ve seen it time and time again with the Affordable Care Act. (Earlier this month the president declared ObamaCare “is working the way it should.” He may be the only person in America who believes such a thing.) We’ve also seen this in Mr. Obama’s dealings with Vladimir Putin, who with lightning speed has seized Crimea, threatens Ukraine, and whose top officials are now openly mocking the president (including with tweets ending with smiley faces). Yet President Obama insists that Putin is acting “out of weakness, not out of strength” in attempting to take control of Crimea. This is an effort to seek comfort by engaging in an almost clinical level of delusion. And it’s not isolated to Mr. Obama.

As Russia began its aggression against Crimea, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” Except that Russia did exactly that. Earlier this week Mr. Kerry said Putin’s speech announcing the Crimean annexation “just didn’t jibe with reality.” But the reality is that Crimea is once again part of Russia.

The president puts in place sanctions that are so farcically weak that it would have been better to remain silent and done nothing rather than huff and puff and do as little as he has. (In response to the announcement of sanctions, the Russian stock market actually rose.)

Mr. Putin, meanwhile, is in the process of restoring the Russian empire. He is besting Mr. Obama at every turn, from arms control agreements to Crimea and Ukraine to Syria, Egypt, and Iran. Russia has established a major presence in the Middle East for the first time since the 1970s. Early in his presidency President Obama canceled a missile defense agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic–and got nothing in return from Putin. Our adversaries are emboldened; our allies are afraid. Confidence in America is collapsing. 

Yet the president seems clueless to all this; his failures don’t seem to compute with him. Even Jimmy Carter eventually understood the errors of his ways and adjusted his dealings with the Soviet Union. Mr. Obama remains off in his own world.

In psychiatry, there’s a condition known as dissociative disorder. It’s considered to be a coping mechanism, when the person literally dissociates himself from a situation or experience too traumatic to integrate with his conscious self. A person escapes reality in ways that are unhealthy.

That pretty well sums up the Obama foreign policy. He cannot understand how someone as brutish, crude, aggressive and chauvinistic as Vladimir Putin is acting as he is. The fact that in the process Mr. Obama is being humiliated is simply too much for him to bear. And so he’s created a fantasy world where disengagement translates into influence and we’re strong and Putin is weak.  

For Barack Obama, the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.

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Another Such Isolation and We Are Undone

Secretary of State Kerry held a town hall yesterday, delivering remarks to students on “Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign” and then taking questions. The last question came from a woman named “Yulia,” a University of Georgia student originally from Kiev in Ukraine. She was disturbed by the rise in Putin’s approval ratings and the inability to inform the Russian public of the facts relating to Ukraine: 

QUESTION: … Given [Putin’s] policy in Ukraine, that’s frankly a little bit terrifying. And the fact that I heard the other day a statistic that only about 11 percent of Russians have regular access to the internet also makes it difficult for us to give them any other kind of message besides what they’re hearing from the likes of Dmitry Kiselev and (inaudible) and the kind of just nasty propaganda that’s being told about us.   

SECRETARY KERRY: … you’re right; [Putin's] approval ratings have gone up significantly. They’re at 70 percent or something. Everybody’s feeling great about flexing their muscles about this, quote, “achievement,” as they put it. But in the end, I think it’s going to be very costly if they continue to go down that kind of a road. Because it will wind up – I mean, the vote in the United Nations on a resolution the other day about this was 13 in favor of the resolution; one abstention, China; and one no, Russia. I call that isolation. [Emphasis added].  

I call it an un-adopted UN resolution. In UN parlance, the “no” from Russia was a “veto.” 

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Secretary of State Kerry held a town hall yesterday, delivering remarks to students on “Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign” and then taking questions. The last question came from a woman named “Yulia,” a University of Georgia student originally from Kiev in Ukraine. She was disturbed by the rise in Putin’s approval ratings and the inability to inform the Russian public of the facts relating to Ukraine: 

QUESTION: … Given [Putin’s] policy in Ukraine, that’s frankly a little bit terrifying. And the fact that I heard the other day a statistic that only about 11 percent of Russians have regular access to the internet also makes it difficult for us to give them any other kind of message besides what they’re hearing from the likes of Dmitry Kiselev and (inaudible) and the kind of just nasty propaganda that’s being told about us.   

SECRETARY KERRY: … you’re right; [Putin's] approval ratings have gone up significantly. They’re at 70 percent or something. Everybody’s feeling great about flexing their muscles about this, quote, “achievement,” as they put it. But in the end, I think it’s going to be very costly if they continue to go down that kind of a road. Because it will wind up – I mean, the vote in the United Nations on a resolution the other day about this was 13 in favor of the resolution; one abstention, China; and one no, Russia. I call that isolation. [Emphasis added].  

I call it an un-adopted UN resolution. In UN parlance, the “no” from Russia was a “veto.” 

The Obama administration prides itself on “isolating” U.S. adversaries. (1) North Korea: last year, after its third nuclear test, following a ballistic missile launch two months before, President Obama issued a written statement calling it “a highly provocative act” that violated numerous UN resolutions and agreements and threatened U.S. and international security, declaring North Korea “increasingly isolated.” (2) Syria: during the third 2012 presidential debate, Obama declared: “What we’ve done is organize the international community, saying Assad has to go. We’ve mobilized sanctions against that government. We have made sure that they are isolated.” (3) Iran: Obama declared at a 2012 press conference, “When I came into office, Iran was unified, on the move, had made substantial progress on its nuclear program … [currently] Iran is politically isolated.”

Now Russia joins the list: it is supposedly isolated because of an un-adopted UN resolution. 

They are laughing at the American president in North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Russia (literally in the latter case): do not cross President Obama, or he might “isolate” you. Meanwhile, the nuclear tests, ICBM launches, civilian massacres (using only conventional weapons), centrifuge whirrings, and cross-border military moves go on, undeterred by past or prospective Obama “isolations.”

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Obama Setting Israel Up to Take the Blame

Yesterday’s meeting between President Obama and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas brought no surprises. In contrast to the frosty reception that greeted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks ago, Abbas basked in Obama’s praise. In his public remarks the president also chose to emphasize those elements of the U.S.-sponsored framework for Middle East peace that conform to some of the Palestinians’ demands, such as a state along the 1967 borders with mutually agreed territorial swaps. But though the president also said that the Palestinians needed to take risks for peace, there was none of the heavy-handed pressure or criticism of Abbas that Netanyahu received. Nor was there even a mention of the need for Abbas to say the two little words that would guarantee a surge of Israeli support for concessions to the Palestinians: “Jewish state.”

Abbas didn’t miss the significance of that omission, which was foreshadowed by Secretary of State Kerry’s complaint last week about the necessity of making the Palestinians make a statement signaling the end of their war to destroy Israel. As the New York Times noted in a story published today, the president seems to be at pains to “right the balance” in the negotiations. Apparently, the White House has come to the conclusion that Secretary Kerry’s efforts to revive the peace process have been too focused on measures intended to convince Israelis that the Palestinians are finally ready for peace or guarantee their security in the event a deal is struck. The president appears to think it’s time to shift back to the combative tone he struck toward Israel during most of his first term prior to his election-year Jewish charm offensive. Even though the Israelis have shown that they will accept Kerry’s framework that reportedly includes a Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, Obama’s intention seems to be aimed at placing the onus for the potential failure of the talks squarely on the Israelis.

That’s good news for Abbas who has made it clear he has no intention of agreeing to the framework. But it begs the question of whether Obama is more interested in venting his spleen at Netanyahu or brokering peace.

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Yesterday’s meeting between President Obama and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas brought no surprises. In contrast to the frosty reception that greeted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks ago, Abbas basked in Obama’s praise. In his public remarks the president also chose to emphasize those elements of the U.S.-sponsored framework for Middle East peace that conform to some of the Palestinians’ demands, such as a state along the 1967 borders with mutually agreed territorial swaps. But though the president also said that the Palestinians needed to take risks for peace, there was none of the heavy-handed pressure or criticism of Abbas that Netanyahu received. Nor was there even a mention of the need for Abbas to say the two little words that would guarantee a surge of Israeli support for concessions to the Palestinians: “Jewish state.”

Abbas didn’t miss the significance of that omission, which was foreshadowed by Secretary of State Kerry’s complaint last week about the necessity of making the Palestinians make a statement signaling the end of their war to destroy Israel. As the New York Times noted in a story published today, the president seems to be at pains to “right the balance” in the negotiations. Apparently, the White House has come to the conclusion that Secretary Kerry’s efforts to revive the peace process have been too focused on measures intended to convince Israelis that the Palestinians are finally ready for peace or guarantee their security in the event a deal is struck. The president appears to think it’s time to shift back to the combative tone he struck toward Israel during most of his first term prior to his election-year Jewish charm offensive. Even though the Israelis have shown that they will accept Kerry’s framework that reportedly includes a Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, Obama’s intention seems to be aimed at placing the onus for the potential failure of the talks squarely on the Israelis.

That’s good news for Abbas who has made it clear he has no intention of agreeing to the framework. But it begs the question of whether Obama is more interested in venting his spleen at Netanyahu or brokering peace.

Israelis will, no doubt, be surprised to learn that the administration thinks it has spent the last few months tilting the diplomatic playing field in their direction. After all, it was the Jewish state that paid a high price in terms of U.S. pressure that demanded the release of more than 100 terrorist murderers in order to persuade Abbas to come back to the negotiating table. And it was Israel that was the prime focus of pressure from Kerry throughout the first months of the talks as the secretary threatened it with a new intifada and growing economic boycotts if they failed to make sufficient concessions to the Palestinians in statements that appeared to justify such acts.

Kerry included in his framework the Jewish state demand as well as more concrete measures aimed at ensuring that the new Palestinian state would not pose a security threat to Israel. In doing so Kerry was rightly seeking an agreement that would actually bring a conclusion to the conflict rather than a pause before the Palestinians resumed it on more advantageous terms. But that was apparently too much for both the Palestinians and their friend in the White House. Thus, rather than using this visit by Abbas to pressure him to say those two little words and to recognize that peace must be final, the president appears to have employed it as a signal to Israel to back off lest it be blamed for the collapse of the talks.

The president is being assisted in this gambit by a liberal mainstream news media that knows how to pick up on administration cues. The headline on the Times article, “Jewish State Declaration is Unyielding Block to a Deal,” made it clear that Washington wants to leave no doubt that even though it is Abbas that is the one who is saying “no” to a peace framework, they blame the Jews for asking him to do something unreasonable.

Abbas’s refusal to take the steps necessary to make peace is nothing new when you consider that he and his predecessor Yasir Arafat have already turned down three Israeli offers of peace and statehood. This has been a consistent pattern for the PA. As the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl noted on Sunday, Abbas thinks he can get away with this because the Obama administration has no intention of pressuring him or holding him accountable for Palestinian incitement, terror connections, or diplomatic intransigence.

If the president were genuinely interested in pursuing peace he would be hammering the Palestinians for their behavior and making it clear they would pay a high price for saying no to Kerry’s framework. Instead, he has given Abbas carte blanche to maintain the same obdurate stance he has taken since he took over the PA from his longtime boss Arafat.

What will this accomplish? It won’t advance the cause of peace. But it will make it easier for Israel’s critics to blame Netanyahu for the inevitable collapse of Kerry’s effort and serve to rationalize the violence and the boycotts the secretary threatened the Jewish state with. All Obama is doing is setting up Israel to take the fall for a fourth Palestinian “no” to peace.

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Iran Nuclear Deal Looks Weaker Than Ever

Few will have been surprised by the announcement by the State Department that it believes the Iranians have been using the black market to purchase components necessary for the expansion of their nuclear infrastructure. More remarkable, on the other hand, was the way the State Department’s Vann Van Diepen apparently casually explained that these moves are not explicitly in contravention of the existing P5+1 interim agreement that Iran is signed up to. Indeed, it is being widely reported that Iran has been complying with the terms of the agreement. Yet, this fact says little in defense of the Iranians and much to condemn Secretary of State Kerry and the EU’s Catherine Ashton for having been complicit in formulating a deal that is so ineffectual as to permit this kind of thing.

We have been repeatedly assured by the administration that they had achieved some great feat, a diplomatic triumph, in getting the Iranians to sign onto the interim agreement. Yet, surely it is now obvious to any serious observer that an agreement so flimsy that it permits Iran to purchase new parts for the very nuclear infrastructure that this deal is supposed to work toward dismantling isn’t fit for purpose. This is the embodiment of the bad deal that Kerry assured us we wouldn’t get. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” or so we were told. If this deal isn’t bad, then it certainly sets the benchmark for good pretty low.

Not only does the interim agreement permit the continuation of nuclear enrichment, albeit at a lower level, but the fact that it allows for the Iranians to continue acquiring new nuclear parts is a reminder that this agreement is still more permissive than what had been agreed to even by the UN. Indeed, since 2006 the Security Council has placed sanctions on those selling such parts to Iran. The P5+1 interim agreement on the other hand has failed to proscribe such activity.

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Few will have been surprised by the announcement by the State Department that it believes the Iranians have been using the black market to purchase components necessary for the expansion of their nuclear infrastructure. More remarkable, on the other hand, was the way the State Department’s Vann Van Diepen apparently casually explained that these moves are not explicitly in contravention of the existing P5+1 interim agreement that Iran is signed up to. Indeed, it is being widely reported that Iran has been complying with the terms of the agreement. Yet, this fact says little in defense of the Iranians and much to condemn Secretary of State Kerry and the EU’s Catherine Ashton for having been complicit in formulating a deal that is so ineffectual as to permit this kind of thing.

We have been repeatedly assured by the administration that they had achieved some great feat, a diplomatic triumph, in getting the Iranians to sign onto the interim agreement. Yet, surely it is now obvious to any serious observer that an agreement so flimsy that it permits Iran to purchase new parts for the very nuclear infrastructure that this deal is supposed to work toward dismantling isn’t fit for purpose. This is the embodiment of the bad deal that Kerry assured us we wouldn’t get. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” or so we were told. If this deal isn’t bad, then it certainly sets the benchmark for good pretty low.

Not only does the interim agreement permit the continuation of nuclear enrichment, albeit at a lower level, but the fact that it allows for the Iranians to continue acquiring new nuclear parts is a reminder that this agreement is still more permissive than what had been agreed to even by the UN. Indeed, since 2006 the Security Council has placed sanctions on those selling such parts to Iran. The P5+1 interim agreement on the other hand has failed to proscribe such activity.

Negotiations for reaching an agreement that would definitively end Iran’s nuclear program resume once again this week. Yet, in recent weeks both Baroness Ashton and the Iranian foreign minister have expressed their skepticism about the likelihood of a deal being reached for the time being. Speaking from Tehran last week Ashton said that there was no guarantee that a final comprehensive deal would actually be reached. More recently Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has not only said that the Iranians do not expect to reach an agreement this time around; he has even claimed that a final agreement isn’t on the agenda for these talks.

With both parties in these talks apparently so unconvinced that these negotiations are leading anywhere, one has to ask what on earth they are doing taking part in them. The answer is that both sides are in these talks because they have to be, not because they want to. The sanctions regime that the West spent years meticulously constructing eventually forced the Iranians to the table. But Kerry and Ashton are only at that table because they must be seen to be doing something. The idea that the military option ever really existed for the Obama administration now looks completely implausible. Rather, both the Europeans and the administration knew that the military option was being seriously considered by Israel and others in the region. As such they are obliged to go through these diplomatic motions as a means of diverting anyone else from carrying out a strike on Iran which they no doubt fear would drag them into having to take a side in a conflict they wish to avoid at all costs.

With the threat of military action being more terrible in the eyes of both the Europeans and the Obama administration than the prospect of a nuclear Iran, one has to wonder what their calculus is. Presumably they are playing some kind of waiting game. With the sanctions now unraveling, and little hope of being able to reconstruct them in time to have any useful effect the possible trajectories seem clear. Either by some miracle the Iranians will lose all interest in their nuclear project, or, protected by the diplomatic process, Iran will cross the threshold of weapons capabilities by which point a military strike will become unthinkable in any case. The main objective for Obama and Kerry is to ensure that neither Israel nor the Saudis act on their threats of military action. And after that, Obama knows his time as president will be up, and the mess he has left becomes someone else’s problem.

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The Question Obama Should Ask Abbas

Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry “put the kibosh on the demand which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made central to peace negotiations with the Palestinians,” according to the report in The Times of Israel:

“I think it’s a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it [Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state] again and again and again as the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state and peace, and we’ve obviously made that clear,” Kerry said.

Kerry noted that the “Jewish state” issue was addressed by UN resolution 181 in 1947, which granted international recognition to the fledgling state of Israel. There are “more than 40 – 30 mentions of a “Jewish state” in the resolution, Kerry said, and added that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “confirmed that he agree it [Israel] would be a Jewish state” in 1988 and in 2004.

Seth Mandel and Tom Wilson have each addressed this issue in excellent posts. If it’s been internationally recognized since 1947, and if Arafat “confirmed” it in 1988 and 2004, what is the problem with confirming it again? Kerry’s argument reminds one of the reply that Talleyrand once made to a diplomat who proffered the “goes-without-saying” argument to him: “if it goes without saying, it will go still better by being said.”

This past Monday, the State Department tried to walk back comments from the prior week that indicated the U.S. was about to bail on any requirement that the Palestinians recognize a Jewish state. Spokesperson Jen Psaki had the following colloquy with reporters:

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Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry “put the kibosh on the demand which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made central to peace negotiations with the Palestinians,” according to the report in The Times of Israel:

“I think it’s a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it [Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state] again and again and again as the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state and peace, and we’ve obviously made that clear,” Kerry said.

Kerry noted that the “Jewish state” issue was addressed by UN resolution 181 in 1947, which granted international recognition to the fledgling state of Israel. There are “more than 40 – 30 mentions of a “Jewish state” in the resolution, Kerry said, and added that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “confirmed that he agree it [Israel] would be a Jewish state” in 1988 and in 2004.

Seth Mandel and Tom Wilson have each addressed this issue in excellent posts. If it’s been internationally recognized since 1947, and if Arafat “confirmed” it in 1988 and 2004, what is the problem with confirming it again? Kerry’s argument reminds one of the reply that Talleyrand once made to a diplomat who proffered the “goes-without-saying” argument to him: “if it goes without saying, it will go still better by being said.”

This past Monday, the State Department tried to walk back comments from the prior week that indicated the U.S. was about to bail on any requirement that the Palestinians recognize a Jewish state. Spokesperson Jen Psaki had the following colloquy with reporters:

QUESTION: There seems to be some confusion over some comments that you made on Friday about the whole recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. I’m wondering if you can address those. Has the Administration changed its position on this?

MS. PSAKI: We have not. Our position has been for quite some time that Israel is a Jewish state.

Then Psaki said the issue was something to be determined in negotiations and that she wasn’t going to say what should or should not be in a framework agreement. Now the secretary of state says it’s a “mistake” to raise the issue. With this administration, one can never rely on its “positions.” They are always subject to revision when the going gets tough. The red line turns out not to be red. The position stated with “Period!” at the end turns out to have a hidden asterisk. The position held “for quite some time” turns out to have no operational significance. It’s just a “position.”

In his March 4, 2014 address to AIPAC, after his meeting the day before with President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu emphasized the importance of the issue to Israel:

Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — (applause) — where the civil rights of all citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, are guaranteed. The land of Israel is the place where the identity of the Jewish people was forged. It was in Hebron that Abraham bought the cave of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs. It was in Bethel that Jacob dreamed his dreams. It was in Jerusalem that David ruled his kingdom. We never forget that, but it’s time the Palestinians stopped denying history. (Applause.) Just as Israel is prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, the Palestinians must be prepared to recognize a Jewish state. (Applause.)

President Abbas, recognize the Jewish state, and in doing so, you would be telling your people, the Palestinians, that while we might have a territorial dispute, the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own is beyond dispute. (Applause.) You would be telling Palestinians to abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees, or amputating parts of the Negev and the Galilee. In recognizing the Jewish state, you would finally making clear that you are truly prepared to end the conflict.

So recognize the Jewish state. No excuses, no delays, it’s time. (Applause.)

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state has been one of Israel’s central demands in the “peace process” long before Netanyahu brought the issue into its current focus. It is the critical indicator of whether the Palestinians are engaged in a search for a two-state solution or a two-stage plan. So perhaps President Obama will use his meeting Monday with President for Life Abbas to address this issue. He can ask him the same question he used in another connection in his recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg: “If not now, when?”

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