Commentary Magazine


Topic: Noah Pollak

More on “Experts” Power and Malley

This weekend, the New York Times covered the trials and tribulations of Samantha Power and Robert Malleyformer and current Obama advisers, respectively, whose remarks on the Middle East have drawn fire. Unsurprisingly, much of this coverage trivialized their critics: a Daily News headline deriding Power as “Pretty Dumb!” was portrayed as representative, while Malley’s detractors were dismissed as “a handful of Jewish bloggers.” As I wrote last week, one need not be Jewish to observe that Malley has frequently called events in the Palestinian political sphere blatantly wrong, while Noah Pollak and Martin Kramer’s dissections of Power’s statements demonstrate that the attacks on Power have been substantive, rather than ad hominem.

Yet the real story behind Power and Malley’s poor public receptions should have little to do with their critics. After all, we were merely responding to their previous statements. Rather, the scrutiny that Power and Malley have faced should provide a cautionary tale regarding the limits that aspiring experts must obey if they value their credibility.

Let’s start with Power. Prior to achieving “top adviser” status on Barack Obama’s foreign policy staff, Power had established herself as a certifiable expert on genocide: from 1993 to 1995, she covered the Yugoslav wars as a correspondent in Bosnia, and she later traveled to Rwanda. Her first book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, drew on these experiences, exploring American responses to the genocides of the 20th century. Yet as her star kept rising, Power seemed to forget the limits of her true expertise, acting as if her study of genocide had imbued her with expertise in just about anything foreign policy-related. Downright ignorant statements on Iran, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict followed, with critics rightfully questioning her depth as a consequence.

Malley’s story is different: although he has limited his statements to his area of expertise-the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-his writings frequently reflect the triumph of ideology over analysis. In this vein, Malley has continually furthered the myth that Palestinian national unity is an attainable prerequisite for Israeli-Palestinian peace, thereby advocating policies that have ultimately strengthened Hamas and undermined U.S. interests. For example, as I noted last month, Malley supported the inclusion of Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and later predicted that the 2007 Hamas-Fatah Mecca Accord-which ended with Hamas seizing Gaza barely four months after its signing-would likely hold. Indeed, the scrutiny that Malley has faced is not a matter of pro-Israel bloggers vocally disagreeing with a pro-Palestinian expert on key assumptions. Rather, at issue is how Malley’s gushing over Yasser Arafat has motivated bad policy analysis.

In short, two lessons can be drawn from Power and Malley’s poor public receptions. First, aspiring “experts” should stick to their areas of expertise. Second, they should avoid the interference of political sympathies with policy analysis. Sadly, neither Power-who argued that her critics were really just attacking Obama-nor Malley-who thought that revealing his Jewish identity would allay his detractors’ concerns-seems to understand this.

This weekend, the New York Times covered the trials and tribulations of Samantha Power and Robert Malleyformer and current Obama advisers, respectively, whose remarks on the Middle East have drawn fire. Unsurprisingly, much of this coverage trivialized their critics: a Daily News headline deriding Power as “Pretty Dumb!” was portrayed as representative, while Malley’s detractors were dismissed as “a handful of Jewish bloggers.” As I wrote last week, one need not be Jewish to observe that Malley has frequently called events in the Palestinian political sphere blatantly wrong, while Noah Pollak and Martin Kramer’s dissections of Power’s statements demonstrate that the attacks on Power have been substantive, rather than ad hominem.

Yet the real story behind Power and Malley’s poor public receptions should have little to do with their critics. After all, we were merely responding to their previous statements. Rather, the scrutiny that Power and Malley have faced should provide a cautionary tale regarding the limits that aspiring experts must obey if they value their credibility.

Let’s start with Power. Prior to achieving “top adviser” status on Barack Obama’s foreign policy staff, Power had established herself as a certifiable expert on genocide: from 1993 to 1995, she covered the Yugoslav wars as a correspondent in Bosnia, and she later traveled to Rwanda. Her first book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, drew on these experiences, exploring American responses to the genocides of the 20th century. Yet as her star kept rising, Power seemed to forget the limits of her true expertise, acting as if her study of genocide had imbued her with expertise in just about anything foreign policy-related. Downright ignorant statements on Iran, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict followed, with critics rightfully questioning her depth as a consequence.

Malley’s story is different: although he has limited his statements to his area of expertise-the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-his writings frequently reflect the triumph of ideology over analysis. In this vein, Malley has continually furthered the myth that Palestinian national unity is an attainable prerequisite for Israeli-Palestinian peace, thereby advocating policies that have ultimately strengthened Hamas and undermined U.S. interests. For example, as I noted last month, Malley supported the inclusion of Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and later predicted that the 2007 Hamas-Fatah Mecca Accord-which ended with Hamas seizing Gaza barely four months after its signing-would likely hold. Indeed, the scrutiny that Malley has faced is not a matter of pro-Israel bloggers vocally disagreeing with a pro-Palestinian expert on key assumptions. Rather, at issue is how Malley’s gushing over Yasser Arafat has motivated bad policy analysis.

In short, two lessons can be drawn from Power and Malley’s poor public receptions. First, aspiring “experts” should stick to their areas of expertise. Second, they should avoid the interference of political sympathies with policy analysis. Sadly, neither Power-who argued that her critics were really just attacking Obama-nor Malley-who thought that revealing his Jewish identity would allay his detractors’ concerns-seems to understand this.

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Hillary Isn’t the Monster

I was at first relieved to learn that Senator Barack Obama had chosen Samantha Power as a foreign policy advisor. Her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide is hardly wishy-washy or leftist, and I concur with Max Boot that it could have been written by a neoconservative. It had been years, though, since I had paid her any attention. Until, that is, Noah Pollak forced me to take a fresh look. Much of what she has written and said since her book’s publication has been troubling, and she turned out to be the most controversial of Obama’s advisors. Yesterday she resigned after calling Senator Hillary Clinton a “monster” in an interview with a Scottish newspaper. I suspect an additional (though unstated) reason may have been the unwanted storm of controversy surrounding her, a storm that has had the Obama campaign on the defensive for some time now.

To her credit, Power disavowed her most controversial idea–that American troops be sent to Israel and the Palestinian territories–but troubling questions remain. If she thinks Clinton is a monster, what does she think about the dictators of Syria and Iran? She doesn’t approve of them. That’s obvious. But neither she nor Obama has ever been so “undiplomatic” as to suggest that they’re monsters.

Though not actual monsters, they are indeed monstrous.

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks nuclear weapons and has compared the state of Israel to “bacteria” after threatening to wipe it off the map. Power called Clinton deceitful, but that goes ten-fold for Syria’s Bashar Assad, the assassin of prime ministers, the armorer of Hezbollah, and the car-bomber of liberal Lebanese journalists.

It has been said before that conservatives rely too much on military force and that liberals rely too much on diplomacy. Perhaps that’s true. In any case, I suspect the liberal yearning for dialogue with the likes of Ahmadinejad and Assad might be less troublesome if advocates of diplomacy gave some sign that they consider the tyrants and terrorist regimes of the Middle East to be more of a threat than election opponents.

We have met the enemy. And it isn’t us.

I was at first relieved to learn that Senator Barack Obama had chosen Samantha Power as a foreign policy advisor. Her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide is hardly wishy-washy or leftist, and I concur with Max Boot that it could have been written by a neoconservative. It had been years, though, since I had paid her any attention. Until, that is, Noah Pollak forced me to take a fresh look. Much of what she has written and said since her book’s publication has been troubling, and she turned out to be the most controversial of Obama’s advisors. Yesterday she resigned after calling Senator Hillary Clinton a “monster” in an interview with a Scottish newspaper. I suspect an additional (though unstated) reason may have been the unwanted storm of controversy surrounding her, a storm that has had the Obama campaign on the defensive for some time now.

To her credit, Power disavowed her most controversial idea–that American troops be sent to Israel and the Palestinian territories–but troubling questions remain. If she thinks Clinton is a monster, what does she think about the dictators of Syria and Iran? She doesn’t approve of them. That’s obvious. But neither she nor Obama has ever been so “undiplomatic” as to suggest that they’re monsters.

Though not actual monsters, they are indeed monstrous.

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks nuclear weapons and has compared the state of Israel to “bacteria” after threatening to wipe it off the map. Power called Clinton deceitful, but that goes ten-fold for Syria’s Bashar Assad, the assassin of prime ministers, the armorer of Hezbollah, and the car-bomber of liberal Lebanese journalists.

It has been said before that conservatives rely too much on military force and that liberals rely too much on diplomacy. Perhaps that’s true. In any case, I suspect the liberal yearning for dialogue with the likes of Ahmadinejad and Assad might be less troublesome if advocates of diplomacy gave some sign that they consider the tyrants and terrorist regimes of the Middle East to be more of a threat than election opponents.

We have met the enemy. And it isn’t us.

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Defending Samantha Power, Again

I see that neither Noah Pollak at CONTENTIONS nor Paul Mirengoff at Powerline is convinced by my defense of Samantha Power. I don’t want to belabor the point, but I would like to clarify my argument.

I don’t disagree with them on the merits of Power’s views on Israel and the Middle East. As they know, I am hardly a fan of the “peace process” or of détente with Tehran (although I have suggested in the past that it would make sense to offer to normalize relations with Iran in return for a cessation of its nuclear program and support of terrorism).

What I really objected to is the argument made by Pollak and some other critics that Power is part of a “disturbing number of foreign policy advisers to the Obama campaign who harbor hostile views of Israel.” That is a serious charge that needs to be handled with great care and hauled out only in the most dire circumstances because accusing someone of harboring “hostile views of Israel” is only a step or two removed from accusing them of harboring hostile views of Jews.

That conclusion is one that I think can be justifiably drawn about some people, such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Jimmy Carter. Their vociferous, over-the-top criticism of Israel and the “Israel Lobby” borders on paranoia and displays not just sloppy reasoning and factual mistakes but also active animus toward Israel, and perhaps toward Jews in general. (See Eliot Cohen’s article on Mearsheimer/Walt, and Kenneth Stein’s piece on Carter.)

On the other hand, there are many, many advocates of the “peace process” such as Dennis Ross and Bill Clinton (to say nothing of Shimon Peres and other Israelis) who have never displayed the slightest animus toward Israel. I think we can take it as given that their advocacy is driven by a desire to help, not hurt, the Jewish state. Their policy advice can and should be criticized, but their motives should not be questioned.

Into which category does Samantha Power fall? The first fact to note about her is how little she has had to say on the subject of the Middle East in general and Israel in particular. She is not an expert on the Middle East and does not pretend to be one. The criticisms of her are based on a handful of comments mainly made in response to questions from interviewers. That in itself is significant, because those who are driven by a real animus toward Israel tend to be outspoken and vociferous on the subject.

I don’t find any of the comments made by Power and cited by critics as being anywhere remotely close to anything that Mearsheimer/Walt or Carter have said. To take just one example, the attempts to twist a very ambiguous response to a question in this interview into evidence that, in Powerline’s words, “Power has blamed deference to Israel and the ‘special interests’ that support Israel for the U.S. intervention in Iraq” leaves me unconvinced to say the least. Read the whole answer in context for yourself and see what you think.

Apparently Pollak agrees with me that Power is not “animated by ‘anti-Israel’ sentiment, whatever that might entail.” I’m happy to hear it. That’s really all I was driving at: Let’s debate on the merits without questioning the other side’s motives except in extreme cases, of which this is not one.

I see that neither Noah Pollak at CONTENTIONS nor Paul Mirengoff at Powerline is convinced by my defense of Samantha Power. I don’t want to belabor the point, but I would like to clarify my argument.

I don’t disagree with them on the merits of Power’s views on Israel and the Middle East. As they know, I am hardly a fan of the “peace process” or of détente with Tehran (although I have suggested in the past that it would make sense to offer to normalize relations with Iran in return for a cessation of its nuclear program and support of terrorism).

What I really objected to is the argument made by Pollak and some other critics that Power is part of a “disturbing number of foreign policy advisers to the Obama campaign who harbor hostile views of Israel.” That is a serious charge that needs to be handled with great care and hauled out only in the most dire circumstances because accusing someone of harboring “hostile views of Israel” is only a step or two removed from accusing them of harboring hostile views of Jews.

That conclusion is one that I think can be justifiably drawn about some people, such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Jimmy Carter. Their vociferous, over-the-top criticism of Israel and the “Israel Lobby” borders on paranoia and displays not just sloppy reasoning and factual mistakes but also active animus toward Israel, and perhaps toward Jews in general. (See Eliot Cohen’s article on Mearsheimer/Walt, and Kenneth Stein’s piece on Carter.)

On the other hand, there are many, many advocates of the “peace process” such as Dennis Ross and Bill Clinton (to say nothing of Shimon Peres and other Israelis) who have never displayed the slightest animus toward Israel. I think we can take it as given that their advocacy is driven by a desire to help, not hurt, the Jewish state. Their policy advice can and should be criticized, but their motives should not be questioned.

Into which category does Samantha Power fall? The first fact to note about her is how little she has had to say on the subject of the Middle East in general and Israel in particular. She is not an expert on the Middle East and does not pretend to be one. The criticisms of her are based on a handful of comments mainly made in response to questions from interviewers. That in itself is significant, because those who are driven by a real animus toward Israel tend to be outspoken and vociferous on the subject.

I don’t find any of the comments made by Power and cited by critics as being anywhere remotely close to anything that Mearsheimer/Walt or Carter have said. To take just one example, the attempts to twist a very ambiguous response to a question in this interview into evidence that, in Powerline’s words, “Power has blamed deference to Israel and the ‘special interests’ that support Israel for the U.S. intervention in Iraq” leaves me unconvinced to say the least. Read the whole answer in context for yourself and see what you think.

Apparently Pollak agrees with me that Power is not “animated by ‘anti-Israel’ sentiment, whatever that might entail.” I’m happy to hear it. That’s really all I was driving at: Let’s debate on the merits without questioning the other side’s motives except in extreme cases, of which this is not one.

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In Defense of Samantha Power

I have no idea what Barack Obama thinks about Israel and the Middle East. I’m not sure he does either. It’s not something he would have given much thought to during the course of a career focused primarily on constitutional law and Chicago city politics. As Ralph Nader noted on “Meet the Press,” he seems to have been “pro-Palestinian” before he was pro-Israeli. But to label him anti-Israeli at heart based on the views of his foreign policy adviser Samantha Power is wrong.

My fellow CONTENTIONS blogger Noah Pollak claims Power “will advise” Obama to “repudiate America’s greatest ally in the Middle East” (i.e. Israel) while “appeasing its greatest enemy” (i.e. the Palestinians). I have read through all the evidence he has collected here, and I remain unconvinced.

Power can explain her views better than I can, but it seems to me that all Pollak has are some statements from her supporting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a dialogue with Iran. I am skeptical about the prospects of either initiative succeeding, but to be in favor of such policies hardly involves repudiating Israel.

Pollack also quotes her as somehow being in favor of imposing a settlement on the parties, presumably with an outside peacekeeping force. I think is a pipe dream because no outside nation will put its troops on the line to stop Palestinian terrorism, but again it’s hardly an anti-Israeli position. In fact ,many Israelis would favor the deployment of, say, a NATO force as part of a final settlement with the Palestinians.

I’ve known Power for six years and have never heard her say anything that I would construe as anti-Israel. In fact, at a December 2006 forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School at which we were both panelists, she rather forcefully dismissed a claim by a Jewish anti-Zionist in the audience who tried to equate Israeli policy with South African apartheid—a favorite trope of the hard left.

I don’t agree with Power on everything. In particular, I am astounded that someone who has campaigned so eloquently and rightly to stop genocide would advocate a troop pullout from Iraq that could very well result in a genocide. But I’ve also found Power to be one of the more reasonable, sane, and centrist foreign policy thinkers on the Democratic side. Her award-winning book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide could have been written by a neocon.

I have no idea what Barack Obama thinks about Israel and the Middle East. I’m not sure he does either. It’s not something he would have given much thought to during the course of a career focused primarily on constitutional law and Chicago city politics. As Ralph Nader noted on “Meet the Press,” he seems to have been “pro-Palestinian” before he was pro-Israeli. But to label him anti-Israeli at heart based on the views of his foreign policy adviser Samantha Power is wrong.

My fellow CONTENTIONS blogger Noah Pollak claims Power “will advise” Obama to “repudiate America’s greatest ally in the Middle East” (i.e. Israel) while “appeasing its greatest enemy” (i.e. the Palestinians). I have read through all the evidence he has collected here, and I remain unconvinced.

Power can explain her views better than I can, but it seems to me that all Pollak has are some statements from her supporting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a dialogue with Iran. I am skeptical about the prospects of either initiative succeeding, but to be in favor of such policies hardly involves repudiating Israel.

Pollack also quotes her as somehow being in favor of imposing a settlement on the parties, presumably with an outside peacekeeping force. I think is a pipe dream because no outside nation will put its troops on the line to stop Palestinian terrorism, but again it’s hardly an anti-Israeli position. In fact ,many Israelis would favor the deployment of, say, a NATO force as part of a final settlement with the Palestinians.

I’ve known Power for six years and have never heard her say anything that I would construe as anti-Israel. In fact, at a December 2006 forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School at which we were both panelists, she rather forcefully dismissed a claim by a Jewish anti-Zionist in the audience who tried to equate Israeli policy with South African apartheid—a favorite trope of the hard left.

I don’t agree with Power on everything. In particular, I am astounded that someone who has campaigned so eloquently and rightly to stop genocide would advocate a troop pullout from Iraq that could very well result in a genocide. But I’ve also found Power to be one of the more reasonable, sane, and centrist foreign policy thinkers on the Democratic side. Her award-winning book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide could have been written by a neocon.

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Obama’s Real Israel Problem

Last week, the blogosphere hotly debated Barack Obama’s stance on Israel. Here at contentions, Noah Pollak argued that Obama’s advisory staff suggests an unfavorable disposition towards Jerusalem, while I noted that Obama’s strongly pro-Israel statements on the campaign trail contrasted with his previous call for an “even-handed approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over at The American Prospect, however, Matthew Duss intimated that these concerns were petty—“Good heavens, ‘an even-handed approach’? What’s next, wearing a keffiyeh?” The Atlantic’s Matthew Yglesias agreed.

Unfortunately, Duss and Yglesias declined to address criticisms of Obama’s apparent Israeli-Palestinian flip-flopping—which was first exposed by a prominent pro-Palestinian activist—substantively. But, with the Patriots-Giants Super Bowl affording downtrodden Jets fans ample time to mull, I’ve decided that Duss and Yglesias are right: our focus on the various forces shaping Obama’s outlook and statements on Israel is petty, though not for their condescending reasons.

Consider the following: over the next four-to-eight years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to be the least dynamic feature of Middle Eastern politics and, by extension, U.S. policy in the Middle East. Firmly in control of Gaza, Hamas is bound to remain an actively destabilizing force in Palestinian politics for years to come. Fatah—the U.S.’s great hope for Palestinian moderation post-Arafat—remains weak and unpopular, and its decline will accelerate once Abbas leaves office in 2009. Meanwhile, Israel’s leadership still sees no contradiction between pursuing peace and expanding settlements, further lacking the vision to transform short-term military successes against terrorism into long-term political solutions.

Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian sphere will remain unambiguously hopeless for years to come. It is thus hard to imagine Obama adopting Samantha Power’s advice that pumping billions of dollars into a nascent Palestinian state is a panacea. Indeed, focusing on Obama’s Israel outlook merely distracts from his potential approach to far more dynamic—and therefore critical—areas of Middle Eastern politics.

For example, consider U.S. public diplomacy—the area in which Obama has the greatest potential to truly affect change. As LinkTV reports, “many Arabs believe that Obama’s ethnicity and background give him a kinder understanding of Third World countries.” I can vouch for these sentiments: when Obama announced his candidacy early last year, his childhood years in Indonesia and Islamic middle name enthused my classmates at the American University in Cairo, who were otherwise strictly critical of American politics and policy. These students represent the foremost demographic that U.S. public diplomacy must attract if it is to succeed: they are well educated, fluent in English, exposed to American culture, and relatively liberal in their social outlooks.

Yet Obama’s policy proposals would immediately undermine his biographical advantages with this key Arab constituency. After all, Obama has repeatedly called for dialogue with Iran and a conference with the leaders of Islamic states—initiatives that would sacrifice these young moderates to the region’s most illiberal forces. In Iran, Obama’s overture would inflict double damage: it would represent official U.S. acceptance of the hostage-taking Revolutionary regime, while debunking public sentiment that views Iran’s isolation as too steep a price for Ahmadinejad’s vitriolic rhetoric. Ultimately, the U.S. would be more in bed with Middle Eastern authoritarians than ever before, acquiescing to Iranian ascendancy in the process.

In short, if Barack Obama truly views himself as an “agent of change,” then scrutinizing his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the least dynamic of all Middle Eastern policy areas—is wasteful. Rather, it is his approach on Iran, Arab democracy, and U.S. public diplomacy—fluctuating issues that will demand Obama’s immediate attention should he assume office—that require the deepest evaluation.

Last week, the blogosphere hotly debated Barack Obama’s stance on Israel. Here at contentions, Noah Pollak argued that Obama’s advisory staff suggests an unfavorable disposition towards Jerusalem, while I noted that Obama’s strongly pro-Israel statements on the campaign trail contrasted with his previous call for an “even-handed approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over at The American Prospect, however, Matthew Duss intimated that these concerns were petty—“Good heavens, ‘an even-handed approach’? What’s next, wearing a keffiyeh?” The Atlantic’s Matthew Yglesias agreed.

Unfortunately, Duss and Yglesias declined to address criticisms of Obama’s apparent Israeli-Palestinian flip-flopping—which was first exposed by a prominent pro-Palestinian activist—substantively. But, with the Patriots-Giants Super Bowl affording downtrodden Jets fans ample time to mull, I’ve decided that Duss and Yglesias are right: our focus on the various forces shaping Obama’s outlook and statements on Israel is petty, though not for their condescending reasons.

Consider the following: over the next four-to-eight years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to be the least dynamic feature of Middle Eastern politics and, by extension, U.S. policy in the Middle East. Firmly in control of Gaza, Hamas is bound to remain an actively destabilizing force in Palestinian politics for years to come. Fatah—the U.S.’s great hope for Palestinian moderation post-Arafat—remains weak and unpopular, and its decline will accelerate once Abbas leaves office in 2009. Meanwhile, Israel’s leadership still sees no contradiction between pursuing peace and expanding settlements, further lacking the vision to transform short-term military successes against terrorism into long-term political solutions.

Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian sphere will remain unambiguously hopeless for years to come. It is thus hard to imagine Obama adopting Samantha Power’s advice that pumping billions of dollars into a nascent Palestinian state is a panacea. Indeed, focusing on Obama’s Israel outlook merely distracts from his potential approach to far more dynamic—and therefore critical—areas of Middle Eastern politics.

For example, consider U.S. public diplomacy—the area in which Obama has the greatest potential to truly affect change. As LinkTV reports, “many Arabs believe that Obama’s ethnicity and background give him a kinder understanding of Third World countries.” I can vouch for these sentiments: when Obama announced his candidacy early last year, his childhood years in Indonesia and Islamic middle name enthused my classmates at the American University in Cairo, who were otherwise strictly critical of American politics and policy. These students represent the foremost demographic that U.S. public diplomacy must attract if it is to succeed: they are well educated, fluent in English, exposed to American culture, and relatively liberal in their social outlooks.

Yet Obama’s policy proposals would immediately undermine his biographical advantages with this key Arab constituency. After all, Obama has repeatedly called for dialogue with Iran and a conference with the leaders of Islamic states—initiatives that would sacrifice these young moderates to the region’s most illiberal forces. In Iran, Obama’s overture would inflict double damage: it would represent official U.S. acceptance of the hostage-taking Revolutionary regime, while debunking public sentiment that views Iran’s isolation as too steep a price for Ahmadinejad’s vitriolic rhetoric. Ultimately, the U.S. would be more in bed with Middle Eastern authoritarians than ever before, acquiescing to Iranian ascendancy in the process.

In short, if Barack Obama truly views himself as an “agent of change,” then scrutinizing his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the least dynamic of all Middle Eastern policy areas—is wasteful. Rather, it is his approach on Iran, Arab democracy, and U.S. public diplomacy—fluctuating issues that will demand Obama’s immediate attention should he assume office—that require the deepest evaluation.

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Goodbye, Gaza

Last week Noah Pollak and I suggested that the Gaza blockade, coupled with the breaching of the Gaza-Egypt border, was good news, since it signalled a major shift of responsibility for Gaza, from Israel to Egypt. Although Eric Trager didn’t much agree, things are looking increasingly like Noah and I are right. Although the Egyptians have been trying to avoid taking responsibility for Gaza, it turns out that Hamas has plans of its own. According to reports, too see Gaza severing all economic ties with Israel as a high priority — a rare point of accord between Israel and Hamas. “Since the day we were elected,” said Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza’s de facto ruler, “we have said that we want to progress toward breaking our economic ties with Israel.” He added that “Egypt is in a much better position [than Israel] to meet the needs of the Gaza Strip.”

Not surprisingly, folks in Ramallah are furious at the prospect of Israel conducting a separete foreign policy with Hamas, thereby creating two separate Palestinian non-states. And Egyptians are anything but thrilled at deepened ties between Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood types in Egypt. But after so many years of telling their own people that the plight of the Palestinians is the root of all evil, the Egyptian government will be hard-pressed to reject the Palestinians’ own plea for salvation.

This is complicated, and may not work, but it’s worth taking the experiment to its conclusion. The benefits of an internationally recognized separation between Israel and Gaza are as follows: (1) Israel is wrenched free of an intolerable situation in which it is forced to provide food, fuel, and electricity to a terror organization currently involved in killing Israeli citizens; (2) Israelis will no longer be an “occupier” in Gaza, and will have a r elative free hand militarily; (3) Egypt will have to answer, to some degree or another, for Hamas’ iniquities. Not a bad deal overall.

Yet we should not be popping corks. Perhaps this is the best way that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza could have ended. But in the big picture, what has happened over the last three years is that the Gaza Strip has shifted from being under Western rule to a full-fledged Iranian satellite. (Last week, Iran sent officials to Egypt to discuss their “help” with Gaza. Why is an American ally receiving delegations from Ahmedinajad?) To use Soviet-era language, this is the opposite of “containment.” There is nothing good, not for Israel and not for the US, about the rise of an Iranian client state in the thick of the Western middle East.

Hamas built its popularity not only on by fanning the flames of revolution, but also on the promise of more caring, less corrupt governance than what Arafat had offered. Let us hope that at some point, some kind of accountability kicks in, and that perhaps with the ameliorating influence of pro-Western Egypt, Hamas will one day find a way to drop all this terror stuff and try to build their Gaza on a positive Islamic vision. Not too likely–but we can dream, can’t we? All right, never mind.

Last week Noah Pollak and I suggested that the Gaza blockade, coupled with the breaching of the Gaza-Egypt border, was good news, since it signalled a major shift of responsibility for Gaza, from Israel to Egypt. Although Eric Trager didn’t much agree, things are looking increasingly like Noah and I are right. Although the Egyptians have been trying to avoid taking responsibility for Gaza, it turns out that Hamas has plans of its own. According to reports, too see Gaza severing all economic ties with Israel as a high priority — a rare point of accord between Israel and Hamas. “Since the day we were elected,” said Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza’s de facto ruler, “we have said that we want to progress toward breaking our economic ties with Israel.” He added that “Egypt is in a much better position [than Israel] to meet the needs of the Gaza Strip.”

Not surprisingly, folks in Ramallah are furious at the prospect of Israel conducting a separete foreign policy with Hamas, thereby creating two separate Palestinian non-states. And Egyptians are anything but thrilled at deepened ties between Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood types in Egypt. But after so many years of telling their own people that the plight of the Palestinians is the root of all evil, the Egyptian government will be hard-pressed to reject the Palestinians’ own plea for salvation.

This is complicated, and may not work, but it’s worth taking the experiment to its conclusion. The benefits of an internationally recognized separation between Israel and Gaza are as follows: (1) Israel is wrenched free of an intolerable situation in which it is forced to provide food, fuel, and electricity to a terror organization currently involved in killing Israeli citizens; (2) Israelis will no longer be an “occupier” in Gaza, and will have a r elative free hand militarily; (3) Egypt will have to answer, to some degree or another, for Hamas’ iniquities. Not a bad deal overall.

Yet we should not be popping corks. Perhaps this is the best way that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza could have ended. But in the big picture, what has happened over the last three years is that the Gaza Strip has shifted from being under Western rule to a full-fledged Iranian satellite. (Last week, Iran sent officials to Egypt to discuss their “help” with Gaza. Why is an American ally receiving delegations from Ahmedinajad?) To use Soviet-era language, this is the opposite of “containment.” There is nothing good, not for Israel and not for the US, about the rise of an Iranian client state in the thick of the Western middle East.

Hamas built its popularity not only on by fanning the flames of revolution, but also on the promise of more caring, less corrupt governance than what Arafat had offered. Let us hope that at some point, some kind of accountability kicks in, and that perhaps with the ameliorating influence of pro-Western Egypt, Hamas will one day find a way to drop all this terror stuff and try to build their Gaza on a positive Islamic vision. Not too likely–but we can dream, can’t we? All right, never mind.

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Egypt “Solves” the Gaza Problem

When Israel sealed Gaza last week—cutting fuel supplies and food imports, among other resources—this blog was somewhat divided as to whether the fallout would be beneficial for Israel.  I argued that Israel had acted counterproductively, undermining its own strategy against Hamas while taking a substantial toll on Palestinian civilians.  My contentions colleagues Noah Pollak and David Hazony countered that Israel’s actions had made Gaza Egypt’s problem—a responsibility that Egypt had unwittingly accepted once it responded permissively to Hamas’ breach of the Gaza-Egypt border.

Unfortunately, my colleagues neglected a substantial difference between Israel and Egypt’s positions vis-à-vis Hamas-controlled Gaza.  While Israel justifiably refuses to deal with Hamas, Egypt continues to do so and can provide Hamas what it needs most—political legitimacy, particularly among Palestinians.  Egypt thus has substantial leverage for inducing Hamas to make sure that Gaza does not become Cairo’s problem—something that Hamas can provide so long as it maintains exclusive control of Gaza.

This morning, Egypt ensured that Gaza would not become its problem, welcoming Hamas leader Khalid Meshal in Cairo for meetings with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Head of Intelligence Omar Suleiman.  As Egypt won Hamas’ agreement to seal the Gaza-Egypt border, it entertained a variety of demands aimed at repealing the understandings under which Israel left Gaza in 2005.  Hamas has thus called for removing European Union monitors; opening the Rafah crossing to non-Palestinian Authority ID cardholders; and repealing Israel’s veto over the Rafah’s status.  Most critically, it has called for negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas regarding Rafah’s administration, refusing to accept “anything less than a major role.”

For the time being, Abbas is refusing to deal with Hamas and standing by his previous agreements with Israel regarding Rafah.  But one can hardly bank on Abbas neglecting Hamas for too long, and Egypt’s dealings with Meshal suggest that the guarantees that Israel achieved upon leaving Gaza are under diplomatic attack.  In short, so long as Israel fails to construct a military strategy narrowly tailored towards defeating Hamas—or at least damaging Hamas’ ability to reliably produce security for Egypt—Gaza will remain its problem exclusively.

A word to the wise: he may be the dullest of dictators, but never underestimate Hosni Mubarak’s ability to determine and protect his interests effectively.

When Israel sealed Gaza last week—cutting fuel supplies and food imports, among other resources—this blog was somewhat divided as to whether the fallout would be beneficial for Israel.  I argued that Israel had acted counterproductively, undermining its own strategy against Hamas while taking a substantial toll on Palestinian civilians.  My contentions colleagues Noah Pollak and David Hazony countered that Israel’s actions had made Gaza Egypt’s problem—a responsibility that Egypt had unwittingly accepted once it responded permissively to Hamas’ breach of the Gaza-Egypt border.

Unfortunately, my colleagues neglected a substantial difference between Israel and Egypt’s positions vis-à-vis Hamas-controlled Gaza.  While Israel justifiably refuses to deal with Hamas, Egypt continues to do so and can provide Hamas what it needs most—political legitimacy, particularly among Palestinians.  Egypt thus has substantial leverage for inducing Hamas to make sure that Gaza does not become Cairo’s problem—something that Hamas can provide so long as it maintains exclusive control of Gaza.

This morning, Egypt ensured that Gaza would not become its problem, welcoming Hamas leader Khalid Meshal in Cairo for meetings with Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Head of Intelligence Omar Suleiman.  As Egypt won Hamas’ agreement to seal the Gaza-Egypt border, it entertained a variety of demands aimed at repealing the understandings under which Israel left Gaza in 2005.  Hamas has thus called for removing European Union monitors; opening the Rafah crossing to non-Palestinian Authority ID cardholders; and repealing Israel’s veto over the Rafah’s status.  Most critically, it has called for negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas regarding Rafah’s administration, refusing to accept “anything less than a major role.”

For the time being, Abbas is refusing to deal with Hamas and standing by his previous agreements with Israel regarding Rafah.  But one can hardly bank on Abbas neglecting Hamas for too long, and Egypt’s dealings with Meshal suggest that the guarantees that Israel achieved upon leaving Gaza are under diplomatic attack.  In short, so long as Israel fails to construct a military strategy narrowly tailored towards defeating Hamas—or at least damaging Hamas’ ability to reliably produce security for Egypt—Gaza will remain its problem exclusively.

A word to the wise: he may be the dullest of dictators, but never underestimate Hosni Mubarak’s ability to determine and protect his interests effectively.

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Obama and American Jews

Throughout his presidential campaign, Barack Obama has faced a series of disturbingly slanderous e-mails. Obama has been falsely accused of being secretly Muslim; studying in an Indonesian madrassa; and refusing to say the pledge of allegiance, among other charges. Sensing that these e-mails were particularly prevalent within Jewish circles, Obama held a conference call with Jewish journalists yesterday afternoon.

During the call, Obama sought to reassure the Jewish community by addressing Jewish identity issues. He thus declared his support for Israel “as a Jewish state”; expressed concern for continued rocket attacks from Gaza; stated that the Palestinian right of return could not be interpreted “in any literal way”; and opposed negotiations with Hamas so long as it denies Israel’s right to exist. He further denied that he had ever practiced Islam, and said that his church leader had made a “mistake of judgment” in honoring Louis Farrakhan. “My church has never issued anti-Semitic statements, nor have I heard my pastor utter anything anti-Semitic,” he said. “If I have, I would have left the church.”

The implication that Obama—by virtue of his church leader’s connections with Farrakhan—is anti-Semitic is hard to swallow. After all, Obama remains one solid degree removed from Farrakhan—highly significant in a political environment in which Joseph Lieberman declared his “respect” for Farrakhan during his 2000 vice-presidential candidacy. Moreover, it is saddening that Obama continually feels the need to address his non-Islamic faith, particularly when doing so insultingly implies that Islam is undesirable.

Yet one question remains legitimate: how can voters who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship be reassured that Obama’s staunchly pro-Israel declarations are not mere pandering? After all, Obama is on record as having called for an “even-handed approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2000, just as the Palestinians commenced the Second Intifada following Camp David. According to Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abunimah, Obama’s pro-Israel epiphany occurred shortly before his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign—an about-face for which Obama apologized to Abunimah. “Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I’m hoping when things calm down I can be more up front,” Obama said at the time.

Obama’s apology to Abunimah—a major proponent of the one-state “solution”— indicates an unsophisticated view of American politics, in which success requires whispering sweet Zionist nothings to satisfy the almighty, one-issue Jewish electorate. Obama’s foreign policy advisers have similarly promoted this inflated vision of Jewish power. As my contentions colleague Noah Pollak has assiduously noted, Obama adviser Samantha Power has declared that sound Middle East policy might require “alienating a domestic constituency”—guess which one. His staff further features Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has defended the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that the U.S.-Israel relationship is the product of Jewish power politics, rather than strategic interest.

This mixture of prior statements and advisory influences suggests little regarding how Obama might act towards Israel if elected. Obama has repudiated Brzezinski’s call for dialogue with Hamas, while Power’s support for ending U.S. foreign military aid to Israel probably represents too radical a departure from historic U.S. policy to be taken seriously.

Rather, Jewish concerns regarding Obama’s candidacy should focus on whether Obama and his posse view American Jewry as a stumbling block in the way of promoting U.S. interests in the Middle East. This is the insidious crux of the “Israel Lobby” thesis, and Obama’s prior statements to Abunimah—as well as the writings of Power and Brzezinski—are hardly reassuring.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Barack Obama has faced a series of disturbingly slanderous e-mails. Obama has been falsely accused of being secretly Muslim; studying in an Indonesian madrassa; and refusing to say the pledge of allegiance, among other charges. Sensing that these e-mails were particularly prevalent within Jewish circles, Obama held a conference call with Jewish journalists yesterday afternoon.

During the call, Obama sought to reassure the Jewish community by addressing Jewish identity issues. He thus declared his support for Israel “as a Jewish state”; expressed concern for continued rocket attacks from Gaza; stated that the Palestinian right of return could not be interpreted “in any literal way”; and opposed negotiations with Hamas so long as it denies Israel’s right to exist. He further denied that he had ever practiced Islam, and said that his church leader had made a “mistake of judgment” in honoring Louis Farrakhan. “My church has never issued anti-Semitic statements, nor have I heard my pastor utter anything anti-Semitic,” he said. “If I have, I would have left the church.”

The implication that Obama—by virtue of his church leader’s connections with Farrakhan—is anti-Semitic is hard to swallow. After all, Obama remains one solid degree removed from Farrakhan—highly significant in a political environment in which Joseph Lieberman declared his “respect” for Farrakhan during his 2000 vice-presidential candidacy. Moreover, it is saddening that Obama continually feels the need to address his non-Islamic faith, particularly when doing so insultingly implies that Islam is undesirable.

Yet one question remains legitimate: how can voters who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship be reassured that Obama’s staunchly pro-Israel declarations are not mere pandering? After all, Obama is on record as having called for an “even-handed approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2000, just as the Palestinians commenced the Second Intifada following Camp David. According to Electronic Intifada founder Ali Abunimah, Obama’s pro-Israel epiphany occurred shortly before his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign—an about-face for which Obama apologized to Abunimah. “Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I’m hoping when things calm down I can be more up front,” Obama said at the time.

Obama’s apology to Abunimah—a major proponent of the one-state “solution”— indicates an unsophisticated view of American politics, in which success requires whispering sweet Zionist nothings to satisfy the almighty, one-issue Jewish electorate. Obama’s foreign policy advisers have similarly promoted this inflated vision of Jewish power. As my contentions colleague Noah Pollak has assiduously noted, Obama adviser Samantha Power has declared that sound Middle East policy might require “alienating a domestic constituency”—guess which one. His staff further features Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has defended the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that the U.S.-Israel relationship is the product of Jewish power politics, rather than strategic interest.

This mixture of prior statements and advisory influences suggests little regarding how Obama might act towards Israel if elected. Obama has repudiated Brzezinski’s call for dialogue with Hamas, while Power’s support for ending U.S. foreign military aid to Israel probably represents too radical a departure from historic U.S. policy to be taken seriously.

Rather, Jewish concerns regarding Obama’s candidacy should focus on whether Obama and his posse view American Jewry as a stumbling block in the way of promoting U.S. interests in the Middle East. This is the insidious crux of the “Israel Lobby” thesis, and Obama’s prior statements to Abunimah—as well as the writings of Power and Brzezinski—are hardly reassuring.

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The Big Squeeze

I’m starting to come around to Noah Pollak’s thinking on Gaza. Today Egypt’s president announced that he will keep the crossings from Gaza into his country open–meaning that in his own humanitarian moment, he put himself into a position in which the only way for Gaza to remain beseiged is if he does the beseiging.

The biggest problem with Gaza, from Israel’s perspective, is that Israel has withdrawn and yet the world still sees Gaza as occupied. An intolerable situation was created in which Israel sacrificed all the military and civilian advantages of being there but continued paying the price: Gaza remained dependent on the Jewish state for fuel and food. The only way to “end the occupation” was to cut itself off completely, which the world called a “seige” so long as Gazans had no way in or out.

The Israeli commentator Alex Fishman put it this way in a column today on Ynet:

Besides the Egyptian government, which shot itself in the foot, everyone is pleased: Businesses in Rafah are flourishing and in Gaza the price of a cigarette pack dropped by 80%. Israel has been presented with a golden opportunity for diplomatic gains: Yesterday, in fact, was the beginning of the real disengagement from Gaza . . . Yesterday Hamas caused an absolute and complete disconnection between the Gaza economy and the West Bank economy, ahead of the emergence of two separate Palestinian entities. The moment huge quantities of goods entered the Strip without coordinating it with Israel, all duty agreements were in fact breached. From now on, Gazans would not be able to export even a matchbox to Israel or to the West Bank.

Defense officials reached the conclusion that it’s all about physics, and that Gaza is like a toothpaste tube. You squeeze it powerfully and the paste comes out of the weakest side— Egypt.

With the floodgates open, there is no siege. The occupation is over. Gaza is now Egypt’s problem.

I’m starting to come around to Noah Pollak’s thinking on Gaza. Today Egypt’s president announced that he will keep the crossings from Gaza into his country open–meaning that in his own humanitarian moment, he put himself into a position in which the only way for Gaza to remain beseiged is if he does the beseiging.

The biggest problem with Gaza, from Israel’s perspective, is that Israel has withdrawn and yet the world still sees Gaza as occupied. An intolerable situation was created in which Israel sacrificed all the military and civilian advantages of being there but continued paying the price: Gaza remained dependent on the Jewish state for fuel and food. The only way to “end the occupation” was to cut itself off completely, which the world called a “seige” so long as Gazans had no way in or out.

The Israeli commentator Alex Fishman put it this way in a column today on Ynet:

Besides the Egyptian government, which shot itself in the foot, everyone is pleased: Businesses in Rafah are flourishing and in Gaza the price of a cigarette pack dropped by 80%. Israel has been presented with a golden opportunity for diplomatic gains: Yesterday, in fact, was the beginning of the real disengagement from Gaza . . . Yesterday Hamas caused an absolute and complete disconnection between the Gaza economy and the West Bank economy, ahead of the emergence of two separate Palestinian entities. The moment huge quantities of goods entered the Strip without coordinating it with Israel, all duty agreements were in fact breached. From now on, Gazans would not be able to export even a matchbox to Israel or to the West Bank.

Defense officials reached the conclusion that it’s all about physics, and that Gaza is like a toothpaste tube. You squeeze it powerfully and the paste comes out of the weakest side— Egypt.

With the floodgates open, there is no siege. The occupation is over. Gaza is now Egypt’s problem.

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Dealing with Hamas?

Noah Pollak is right to draw attention in an earlier post to events in Gaza of the last few days. Israel has taken out, stunningly, some of the top people in Islamic Jihad in Gaza, including Majed al-Harazin, their military commander, who has been responsible for hundreds of Kassam missiles launched at Israeli communities in recent months. The dramatic video of the takeout, shot from an IDF drone, can be seen here.

Yet the picture Noah describes of Israel stepping up pressure on “Hamas and Islamic Jihad” could be a little off. Israel is targeting only leaders of the Jihad, and Hamas’s response has been unusually subdued. After the attacks Monday night, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, told an Israeli TV reporter that he would be willing to talk with Israel through a third party. The organization has condemned the attacks, but stopped short of declaring that they will retaliate, as they usually do. And today Israel’s deputy Prime Minister and former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz says that Israel should take Haniyeh up on his offer.

It’s pretty unclear what’s really going on. It could just be that Noah is right, and that Hamas’s leaders are moderating their tone because they fear they might be next on the hit list, as one analyst has suggested. But there’s another possibility as well: that these hits reflect some kind of deal worked out between Israel and Hamas. For instance: Israel takes out Hamas’s main Islamist rival in Gaza, helping consolidate Haniyeh’s hold on the strip, but also deals a blow to Kassam launchers, scores points with the Israeli public, and gives Olmert a much-needed miltiary success as he faces mutiny in his own party in advance of next month’s release of the Winograd Commission report, which may blame him for massive failure in last year’s Lebanon war. Either way, senior terrorists are taking a big hit, and power is shifting in the Strip.

Noah Pollak is right to draw attention in an earlier post to events in Gaza of the last few days. Israel has taken out, stunningly, some of the top people in Islamic Jihad in Gaza, including Majed al-Harazin, their military commander, who has been responsible for hundreds of Kassam missiles launched at Israeli communities in recent months. The dramatic video of the takeout, shot from an IDF drone, can be seen here.

Yet the picture Noah describes of Israel stepping up pressure on “Hamas and Islamic Jihad” could be a little off. Israel is targeting only leaders of the Jihad, and Hamas’s response has been unusually subdued. After the attacks Monday night, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, told an Israeli TV reporter that he would be willing to talk with Israel through a third party. The organization has condemned the attacks, but stopped short of declaring that they will retaliate, as they usually do. And today Israel’s deputy Prime Minister and former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz says that Israel should take Haniyeh up on his offer.

It’s pretty unclear what’s really going on. It could just be that Noah is right, and that Hamas’s leaders are moderating their tone because they fear they might be next on the hit list, as one analyst has suggested. But there’s another possibility as well: that these hits reflect some kind of deal worked out between Israel and Hamas. For instance: Israel takes out Hamas’s main Islamist rival in Gaza, helping consolidate Haniyeh’s hold on the strip, but also deals a blow to Kassam launchers, scores points with the Israeli public, and gives Olmert a much-needed miltiary success as he faces mutiny in his own party in advance of next month’s release of the Winograd Commission report, which may blame him for massive failure in last year’s Lebanon war. Either way, senior terrorists are taking a big hit, and power is shifting in the Strip.

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Two Shades of Black

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s September 24 speech at Columbia University seems like ancient history. The news media has long since turned its attention to other obsessions, such as what a helluva nice guy Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee is, or just how low our expectations for the upcoming Annapolis conference should be. But professors at Columbia apparently have remarkably long attention spans, and the handling of Ahmadinejad’s speech remains deeply contentious among faculty members.

The fault lines of this dispute are numbingly predictable. Last week, over 100 faculty members signed a petition, protesting Bollinger’s leadership in light of the Ahmadinejad circus:

The president’s address on the occasion of President Ahmadinejad’s visit has sullied the reputation of the University with its strident tone, and has abetted a climate in which incendiary speech prevails over open debate. The president’s introductory remarks were not only uncivil and bad pedagogy, they allied the University with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, a position anathema to many in the University community.

Not to be outdone, as of Monday, 70 faculty members had signed a counter-protest petition defending Bollinger, disputing the notion that the president’s combative introduction of Ahmadinejad allied Columbia with (heaven forbid) the Bush administration:

As the publicly available transcript confirms, these remarks addressed sequentially: 1) Holocaust denial; 2) Ahmadinejad’s stated intent to destroy Israel; 3) Iran’s funding of terrorism; 4) Iran’s proxy war against US troops in Iraq; and 5) Iran’s nuclear program. Only the fourth item refers to the war in Iraq, and only in the context of Iran’s role in financing and arming terrorist attacks against our troops.

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s September 24 speech at Columbia University seems like ancient history. The news media has long since turned its attention to other obsessions, such as what a helluva nice guy Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee is, or just how low our expectations for the upcoming Annapolis conference should be. But professors at Columbia apparently have remarkably long attention spans, and the handling of Ahmadinejad’s speech remains deeply contentious among faculty members.

The fault lines of this dispute are numbingly predictable. Last week, over 100 faculty members signed a petition, protesting Bollinger’s leadership in light of the Ahmadinejad circus:

The president’s address on the occasion of President Ahmadinejad’s visit has sullied the reputation of the University with its strident tone, and has abetted a climate in which incendiary speech prevails over open debate. The president’s introductory remarks were not only uncivil and bad pedagogy, they allied the University with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, a position anathema to many in the University community.

Not to be outdone, as of Monday, 70 faculty members had signed a counter-protest petition defending Bollinger, disputing the notion that the president’s combative introduction of Ahmadinejad allied Columbia with (heaven forbid) the Bush administration:

As the publicly available transcript confirms, these remarks addressed sequentially: 1) Holocaust denial; 2) Ahmadinejad’s stated intent to destroy Israel; 3) Iran’s funding of terrorism; 4) Iran’s proxy war against US troops in Iraq; and 5) Iran’s nuclear program. Only the fourth item refers to the war in Iraq, and only in the context of Iran’s role in financing and arming terrorist attacks against our troops.

Last week, my contentions colleague Noah Pollak applauded the pro-Bollinger professors for standing up to the “tenured thugs,” who have undertaken “the setting of ideological boundaries by purging and intimidating those who would ignore them.”

Yet, for everything that one finds troubling about the anti-Bollinger petition—most especially, the presumption that we should be hospitable to Holocaust-denying dictators—it is hard to sympathize with Bollinger’s defenders. Indeed, the debate among Bollinger’s supporters and detractors obscures the fact that, no matter ones views of Bollinger’s firm introduction of Ahmadinejad, the entire affair should never have occurred in the first place. By inviting Ahmadinejad, Bollinger granted an academic forum to a most academically dishonest leader, dangerously boosting Ahmadinejad’s credibility where the United States can least afford it: among Iranians.

Again, this is all old news and you’ve probably heard it before. But here’s a new twist: I hereby declare myself the first contentions writer openly to obey a Rashid Khalidi-signed petition: after all, the anti-Bollinger petition decries the “intervention” of outsiders in faculty matters. Thus, as it is impossible to choose between the president that invited Ahmadinejad and professors who would have been more accommodating, I abstain from taking sides. Bollinger and his miffed opponents deserve one another completely.

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The Wrong Rebuttal

A major sticking point has arisen in the run-up to the not-much-anticipated Annapolis conference: as a precondition, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is insisting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. On Monday, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat created a stir when he announced that the Palestinians would do no such thing, arguing that, “no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity.”

Naturally, Erekat is wrong. As my contentions colleague Noah Pollak intimated, every country with a cross, crescent, or religious phrase on its national flag, to varying extremes, traces its national identity to religious/cultural roots. Moreover, Israel’s use of the term “Jewish state” hardly connotes theocracy, as Erekat deceptively implies, but rather the state’s ethno-cultural identity. In this vein, former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar once compared Israel’s being Jewish to France’s being French.

Yet these rebuttals all seem a little too neat. After all, we don’t find France demanding recognition of its French identity—least of all from its adversaries—as Israel continues to do. Indeed, nobody contests that France is French by virtue of a population that is overwhelmingly French.

Olmert should operate with similar confidence regarding Israel’s ethno-cultural character, which is Jewish by virtue of a population that is mostly Jewish. Of course, in this context, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is code for renouncing the “right of return,” by which four million Palestinians would be permitted to repatriate to Israel. But if Olmert wishes to prevent this outcome, he’d be better served dealing in terms that affirm Israel’s sovereignty, rather than subjecting its pre-existent character to Palestinian acquiescence. Sovereignty encompasses the right of a state to secure its borders—and determine who can and cannot enter. When Palestinians are asked to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” they are granted an undue voice in affirming Israel’s internal character—a strike against Israeli sovereignty that Israel bizarrely invites. Israel is a Jewish state, whether or not Erekat admits it.

So long as any Israeli-Palestinian peace process aims to create two sovereign states, Israel’s “Jewish character” must be seen as a matter for Israelis alone to define and determine. For this reason, Olmert would be best served arriving at the Annapolis conference ready to talk about security arrangements and final borders—ones that guarantee total sovereignty for Israelis and Palestinians over their own affairs.

A major sticking point has arisen in the run-up to the not-much-anticipated Annapolis conference: as a precondition, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is insisting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. On Monday, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat created a stir when he announced that the Palestinians would do no such thing, arguing that, “no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity.”

Naturally, Erekat is wrong. As my contentions colleague Noah Pollak intimated, every country with a cross, crescent, or religious phrase on its national flag, to varying extremes, traces its national identity to religious/cultural roots. Moreover, Israel’s use of the term “Jewish state” hardly connotes theocracy, as Erekat deceptively implies, but rather the state’s ethno-cultural identity. In this vein, former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar once compared Israel’s being Jewish to France’s being French.

Yet these rebuttals all seem a little too neat. After all, we don’t find France demanding recognition of its French identity—least of all from its adversaries—as Israel continues to do. Indeed, nobody contests that France is French by virtue of a population that is overwhelmingly French.

Olmert should operate with similar confidence regarding Israel’s ethno-cultural character, which is Jewish by virtue of a population that is mostly Jewish. Of course, in this context, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is code for renouncing the “right of return,” by which four million Palestinians would be permitted to repatriate to Israel. But if Olmert wishes to prevent this outcome, he’d be better served dealing in terms that affirm Israel’s sovereignty, rather than subjecting its pre-existent character to Palestinian acquiescence. Sovereignty encompasses the right of a state to secure its borders—and determine who can and cannot enter. When Palestinians are asked to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” they are granted an undue voice in affirming Israel’s internal character—a strike against Israeli sovereignty that Israel bizarrely invites. Israel is a Jewish state, whether or not Erekat admits it.

So long as any Israeli-Palestinian peace process aims to create two sovereign states, Israel’s “Jewish character” must be seen as a matter for Israelis alone to define and determine. For this reason, Olmert would be best served arriving at the Annapolis conference ready to talk about security arrangements and final borders—ones that guarantee total sovereignty for Israelis and Palestinians over their own affairs.

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A Failing UNIFIL

Noah Pollak of Azure has an informative summary of the problems with UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, whose ostensible mission is the disarmament of Hizballah and the pacification of southern Lebanon. UNIFIL was expanded to 14,000 troops last summer, but, as Pollak writes:

The new UNIFIL has of course done nothing. Actually, worse than nothing: In the year since the end of the war, Iran and Syria have been rearming Hizballah at a torrid pace, this time with better weaponry than before, and UNIFIL has barely even pretended to be interested in disrupting the arms flow. UNIFIL’s rules of engagement prevent the border with Syria from being patrolled, and UNIFIL blue-helmets have neither the desire nor the means to confront Hizballah.

UNIFIL is but one of many of the United Nations’ failed efforts around the world—which do not need to be elaborated upon for readers of COMMENTARY. But the gravest failure among the U.N.’s initiatives in the Middle East has to be UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which for over five decades has kept the Palestinians in perpetual refugeehood when the vast majority of those Palestinians deemed “refugees” (the children and grandchildren of those who were displaced by the 1948 war) would not actually classify as such by the United Nations’ very own definition. I explored the problem of UNRWA—and suggested another source for its hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid money—several months ago here.

Noah Pollak of Azure has an informative summary of the problems with UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, whose ostensible mission is the disarmament of Hizballah and the pacification of southern Lebanon. UNIFIL was expanded to 14,000 troops last summer, but, as Pollak writes:

The new UNIFIL has of course done nothing. Actually, worse than nothing: In the year since the end of the war, Iran and Syria have been rearming Hizballah at a torrid pace, this time with better weaponry than before, and UNIFIL has barely even pretended to be interested in disrupting the arms flow. UNIFIL’s rules of engagement prevent the border with Syria from being patrolled, and UNIFIL blue-helmets have neither the desire nor the means to confront Hizballah.

UNIFIL is but one of many of the United Nations’ failed efforts around the world—which do not need to be elaborated upon for readers of COMMENTARY. But the gravest failure among the U.N.’s initiatives in the Middle East has to be UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which for over five decades has kept the Palestinians in perpetual refugeehood when the vast majority of those Palestinians deemed “refugees” (the children and grandchildren of those who were displaced by the 1948 war) would not actually classify as such by the United Nations’ very own definition. I explored the problem of UNRWA—and suggested another source for its hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid money—several months ago here.

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Hamas, Slipping

Yesterday Noah Pollak (at Middle East Journal) cited some encouraging new poll numbers from Gaza:

Hamas got only 23 percent support, down from 29 percent in the previous survey last month, while Fatah climbed from 31 percent to 43 percent.

The poll, the first major survey since the Hamas takeover, also showed that 66 percent of Hamas supporters said they would vote Fatah if it undertook reforms.

Trust in the Gaza-based deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas stood at 37 percent, compared to 63 percent for Abbas. [Fatah] Prime Minister Sallam Fayad got higher trust marks than Haniyeh, 62-38 percent.

A bit more than eighteen months ago, Hamas took a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament (though it won just 44 percent of the popular vote). These new numbers don’t constitute a directly comparable result, but they suggest (as Pollak and others argue) that Hamas may be its own worst enemy. The tumble in Hamas’s standing also means that Fatah has a chance to recapture and retain power—provided that Abbas can remake his party into one capable of governing a functional (or less dysfunctional) state.

This would mean not only establishing a firm monopoly on violence, but addressing the rampant political corruption, internal tribal divisions, and rotten or non-existent infrastructure that have plagued Palestinian life for years. It would also mean, ultimately, ending hostilities—whether government-sanctioned or not—against Israel. (Dennis Ross took this line of argument at TNR.) Abbas may be too weak to accomplish this, but the opportunity is there. One hopes the Palestinian leadership won’t squander it.

Yesterday Noah Pollak (at Middle East Journal) cited some encouraging new poll numbers from Gaza:

Hamas got only 23 percent support, down from 29 percent in the previous survey last month, while Fatah climbed from 31 percent to 43 percent.

The poll, the first major survey since the Hamas takeover, also showed that 66 percent of Hamas supporters said they would vote Fatah if it undertook reforms.

Trust in the Gaza-based deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas stood at 37 percent, compared to 63 percent for Abbas. [Fatah] Prime Minister Sallam Fayad got higher trust marks than Haniyeh, 62-38 percent.

A bit more than eighteen months ago, Hamas took a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament (though it won just 44 percent of the popular vote). These new numbers don’t constitute a directly comparable result, but they suggest (as Pollak and others argue) that Hamas may be its own worst enemy. The tumble in Hamas’s standing also means that Fatah has a chance to recapture and retain power—provided that Abbas can remake his party into one capable of governing a functional (or less dysfunctional) state.

This would mean not only establishing a firm monopoly on violence, but addressing the rampant political corruption, internal tribal divisions, and rotten or non-existent infrastructure that have plagued Palestinian life for years. It would also mean, ultimately, ending hostilities—whether government-sanctioned or not—against Israel. (Dennis Ross took this line of argument at TNR.) Abbas may be too weak to accomplish this, but the opportunity is there. One hopes the Palestinian leadership won’t squander it.

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