Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ruth Wisse

What a Proportionate Response Would Look Like

In a 2009 COMMENTARY article on Israeli use of force, Ruth R. Wisse wrote:

“Would the international community truly prefer a proportionate or equal response?” asked Alan Richarz, a Toyko-based writer, in the Christian Science Monitor. “If Hamas launches three crudely-fashioned rockets into Israel, should the Israeli government respond with three equally-crude rockets? If three Israeli Defense Forces are kidnapped by Hezbollah, should the IDF respond by kidnapping an equal number of Hezbollah foot-soldiers?”

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In a 2009 COMMENTARY article on Israeli use of force, Ruth R. Wisse wrote:

“Would the international community truly prefer a proportionate or equal response?” asked Alan Richarz, a Toyko-based writer, in the Christian Science Monitor. “If Hamas launches three crudely-fashioned rockets into Israel, should the Israeli government respond with three equally-crude rockets? If three Israeli Defense Forces are kidnapped by Hezbollah, should the IDF respond by kidnapping an equal number of Hezbollah foot-soldiers?”

Grimly, the present moment offers an even clearer elucidation of the point: If Hamas slaughters three innocent Israeli teenagers, should the IDF sharpen their knives and find three innocent Palestinian teenagers? Indeed that would be a proportionate use of force. It would also be monstrous.

As Wisse noted:

Imagine a world structured along truly “proportional” lines. In such a world, Israel would have spent 60 years denying that Arabs had any rights to any form of statehood, rather than doing what Israel has actually done, which is to give up major swaths of land to Arabs in pursuit of peace. What move on the part of Arab states has been proportionate to the Israeli actions in giving up the Sinai and its oil riches, the vast majority of the West Bank, the entirety of Gaza, and the territory in Southern Lebanon from which Israel pulled its occupying force in 2000? An Israel acting in proportionate fashion would have gone to the United Nations and its constituent agencies and done everything it could to denounce illegitimate interlopers in the region, would have sought resolutions condemning Arab nationalism as racism, and would have pursued political alliances with other blocs on the basis of common opposition to Arab or Muslim states.

The further application of proportionality in the Middle East conflict would have required that Israel foster a culture of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim hatred and intolerance reaching (according to parallel Pew Global Attitudes studies of anti-Jewish attitudes in Muslim lands) levels of 99 percent to 100 percent. Israel would be using weapons of mass communication to charge Muslims with ritual murder and spending tens of millions of dollars on anti-Arab propaganda worldwide. It would be training suicide bombers for anti-Muslim missions. Its warriors would be mutilating the bodies of Muslims they cornered and killed.

This is a good time to read the whole thing. The very suggestion that Israel respond proportionately to those Benjamin Netanyahu has rightfully labeled “human animals” is a call to barbarism.

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Understanding Two Views of Modern Israel

This fall two important books about Israel have appeared in English and both are worthy of extended discussion. One is Yossi Klein Halevi’s rightly acclaimed Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, which was reviewed in the December issue of COMMENTARY. The other is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which has gotten a lot more play in the secular media and the approval of some of the Jewish state’s usual critics as well as praise from many of its friends. While both have provoked a lively discussion, anyone looking for an essay putting both in perspective could do no better than to read Ruth Wisse’s piece on the two volumes in Mosaic Magazine.

Wisse provides a valuable pushback against some of the unwarranted praise that Shavit’s book has received and provides both praise and criticism of Halevi’s book. I agree with her on the first but would like to provide a slightly different perspective on the latter.

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This fall two important books about Israel have appeared in English and both are worthy of extended discussion. One is Yossi Klein Halevi’s rightly acclaimed Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, which was reviewed in the December issue of COMMENTARY. The other is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which has gotten a lot more play in the secular media and the approval of some of the Jewish state’s usual critics as well as praise from many of its friends. While both have provoked a lively discussion, anyone looking for an essay putting both in perspective could do no better than to read Ruth Wisse’s piece on the two volumes in Mosaic Magazine.

Wisse provides a valuable pushback against some of the unwarranted praise that Shavit’s book has received and provides both praise and criticism of Halevi’s book. I agree with her on the first but would like to provide a slightly different perspective on the latter.

Wisse, a frequent and esteemed contributor to COMMENTARY, is one of the most astute writers about Jewish life. Her takedown of Shavit’s guilt- and fear-ridden approach to the triumph of Zionism, and in particular, her answer to his focus on the story of what happened in Lydda in 1948, is particularly valuable. She writes:

In his chronological march through Israel’s history, 1897, 1921, 1936, 1942, Shavit situates 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, not in Tel Aviv with David Ben Gurion reading the proclamation of independence under Herzl’s portrait, and not among the about-to-be savaged Jews of Jerusalem (in fact, not one of his chapters is situated in the capital, where Shavit has also lived part of his life), but in the battle over the Palestinian Arab town of Lydda (Lod), where he emblematically recasts the creation of the state of Israel as naqba, the “catastrophe” that is the founding myth of Arab Palestinians:

Lydda suspected nothing. Lydda did not imagine what was about to happen. For forty-four years it watched Zionism enter the valley: first the Atod factory, then the Kiryat Sefer school, then the olive forest, the artisan colony, the tiny workers’ village, the experimental farm, and the strange youth village headed by the eccentric German doctor who was so friendly to the people of Lydda and gave medical treatment to those in need…. The people of Lydda did not see that the Zionism that came into the valley to give hope to a nation of orphans had become a movement of cruel resolve, determined to take the land by force.

Like women who hold up bloody sheets to confirm a bride’s virginity, Shavit waves before his readers every bloody act committed by Jews in (what used to be known as) Israel’s war of independence. This chapter of the book was the one picked out to be featured, before the book’s publication, in the New Yorker, a venue in which Israel’s bloody sheets are regularly hoisted in place of its blue and white flag.

And what is “Lydda”? The researcher Alex Safian has taken the trouble to separate fact from propaganda in Shavit’s description of an alleged massacre in that town, second only to the more notorious alleged massacre in Deir Yasin. Starting with the Israelis’ cannon-bearing “giant armored vehicle”—actually, a recovered Jordanian light armored scout car the size of a Ford SUV—Safian deconstructs Shavit’s inflamed portrait to establish the following: the Arab inhabitants of Lydda first surrendered to Jewish soldiers and then, having retracted their surrender when it seemed that Jordanian forces had gained the upper hand, went about killing and mutilating Israeli fighters. This alone might be seen as cause enough for a “cruel” response at the height of a war launched by five invading armies against Jews who had been prevented by the British from preparing defenses and were relying on paramilitary forces of young volunteers. Once the town was secured, the Israelis let the Arabs leave, something both sides recognized would never have happened had victory gone the other way.

While acknowledging that Shavit deserves credit for recognizing before many of his fellow left-wingers at Haaretz that the Oslo peace process was a disaster, she rightly notes his inability to grasp the positive Jewish vision at the heart of the Zionist project or his lack of faith in the ability of his compatriots to resist the never-ceasing efforts of their foes to destroy their state. As she states:

Shavit ends his book as he begins it, with an image of concentric Islamic, Arab, and Palestinian circles closing in on Israel. But danger is different from tragedy, and the healthy fear that hostility inspires is different from the sickly fear of imagining that one is guilty of causing that hostility. Shavit fails to distinguish the triumph of Israel from the tragedy of the Arab and Muslim war against it—a war that began before 1948 and that has always been indifferent to concessionary adjustments of Israel’s boundaries or policies. The only harm Israelis ever did to Arabs—and I emphasize only—was to impose on the Palestinians a terrorist leader whom Israelis would never have allowed to rule over themselves. 

Wisse is more charitable to Halevi and it’s easy to understand why. Few books have offered more insight into what has happened in Israeli society since 1967. By telling the story of the lives of several of the paratroopers who ended the division of Jerusalem in 1967, he found the perfect vehicle for explaining both the Peace Now movement on the left as well as the settlement movement on the right. Their stories are remarkable and even readers who consider themselves well-versed in the history of modern Israel will find plenty here that is both fresh and full of insight about familiar topics as well as those that are less well known. It is nothing less than one of the best and most important books about Israel I’ve ever read.

Wisse notes one of its failings when she mentions that some readers are bound to find the large cast of characters confusing at times as well as the way the author bounces from one of their stories to the next and then back again. Like some classic Russian novels, this is a book that is best read with the page at the front of the volume with the “Who’s Who” permanently bookmarked. However, Wisse has a further criticism:

If there is a problem with this book’s back-and-forth method—and there is—the cause lies less in the disorder of its plot than in the flip side of the author’s eschewal of tendentiousness: namely, his studied disinclination to invest his plot with meaning. A book anchored in some of the most consequential battles for Israel’s life declines to tell us how or why those battles mattered. The same diffidence characterizes Like Dreamers’ tracing of the dissolution of the state’s regnant socialist ideology and the institutions of Labor Zionism, which we see crumbling from below as incrementally, as seemingly spontaneously, as Meir Ariel is drawn into the synagogue. As the book ends, in 2004, the former paratroopers are divided by clashing views on the fate of united Jerusalem, now claimed by the PLO as the locus of its capital; here again, in relaying the men’s arguments, the author strives for neutrality.

But why return to Israel’s “mythic moment” of victory in 1967 if one is unprepared to articulate what that moment signified, and what it continues to signify? If there is one thing the ideological wars over Israel legitimacy have taught us, it is that neutrality, impartiality, and indeterminacy are fodder for whoever and whatever is working actively against the very right of the Jewish state to exist.

In reading Halevi’s book, I share some of her frustration on this point. But any dissatisfaction on this point needs to be balanced by a recognition that what Halevi is doing in Like Dreamers is not so much a defense of Israel or a rationalization of its dilemma (as Shavit’s unsatisfactory book might well be described) as an attempt to explain the Jews to each other. Like the paratroopers who were divided along cultural and religious lines between the majority of kibbutzniks and the minority of modern Orthodox soldiers in the renowned 55th Brigade, both Israelis and American Jews alike need to transcend our differences. If Halevi chooses not to take sides in the arguments between Peace Now and Gush Emunim, it is because he, like some of his wiser subjects, has come to the conclusion that the left-right divide that has largely characterized Jewish and Israeli politics for the last generation has come to a dead end.

The events of the 20 years since Oslo have shown that the left was dead wrong about the Palestinians being willing to make peace and the right was mistaken to think that Israel could absorb the West Bank—Judea and Samaria, which form the heart of the Jewish homeland—without cost or with impunity. The battle facing both Israelis and their friends is not about where Israel’s borders should be or whether the settlements are good or bad, but whether the Jewish state should continue to exist. Like Dreamers calls upon us not to take sides in the deep division in Jewish life that arose after the paratroopers’ 1967 heroism but to rise above it in order to do what is necessary to preserve their sacrifices. Halevi does not tell us what to think about Israeli politics either in the past or the future, but he does remind us that those who focus exclusively on the old arguments are missing the point about the state’s current challenges.

As such, Halevi’s book is, perhaps even more than a pointed critique such as the one Wisse has given us, the perfect answer to Shavit’s ambivalence about Israel’s future. Halevi may not supply us with the conclusion that both Wisse and I would have preferred. But he has given his readers an essential starting point for a journey in the right direction.

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YIVO Conference on “Jews and the Left”

Last week, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research held a remarkable conference on “Jews and the Left,” convening an international group of scholars — largely from the left — to deliver formal papers on the subject. The conference has been covered by Tablet Magazine (Adam Kirsch), The Forward (Eitan Kensky), Newsday (Cathy Young) and American Thinker (me).

As Eitan Kensky wrote, “one of the most intriguing aspects of the conference was the extent to which the participants who self-identify with the left agreed with the view that it had indeed betrayed the Jewish state.” Adam Kirsch noted that “speaker after speaker agreed that the embrace of Communism by many Jews was a moral disaster” from a historical standpoint.

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Last week, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research held a remarkable conference on “Jews and the Left,” convening an international group of scholars — largely from the left — to deliver formal papers on the subject. The conference has been covered by Tablet Magazine (Adam Kirsch), The Forward (Eitan Kensky), Newsday (Cathy Young) and American Thinker (me).

As Eitan Kensky wrote, “one of the most intriguing aspects of the conference was the extent to which the participants who self-identify with the left agreed with the view that it had indeed betrayed the Jewish state.” Adam Kirsch noted that “speaker after speaker agreed that the embrace of Communism by many Jews was a moral disaster” from a historical standpoint.

But perhaps most striking was the number of speakers acknowledging the current moral disaster that infects a substantial part of the left. The paper presented by Norman Geras, professor emeritus of the University of Manchester and a man of the left – “Alibi Anti-Semitism” – concluded:

It is a moral scandal that some few decades after the unmeasurable catastrophe that overtook the Jewish people in Europe, these anti-Semitic themes and ruses are once again respectable; respectable not just down there with the thugs but pervasively also within polite society, and within the perimeters of a self-flattering liberal and left opinion. It is a bleak lesson to all but those unwilling to see…. We now know, as well, that should a new calamity ever befall the Jewish people, there will be, again, not only the direct architects and executants but also those who collaborate, who collude, who look away and find the words to go with doing so. Some of these, dismayingly, shamefully, will be of the left.

There is, of course, a difference between leftism and liberalism, and the reference to the “Left” in the title of the YIVO conference was to the former rather than the latter. But both reflect, in differing degrees, the historical phenomenon described by Norman Podhoretz in Why Are Jews Liberals? – the creation of a replacement religion based on the siren songs of utopianism and universalism. Michael Walzer’s keynote address acknowledged that the left had failed to appreciate the political achievements of traditional Jews – ones Ruth Wisse brilliantly explicated in Jews and Power.

When YIVO publishes the conference papers – which will be well worth reading – it will be worthwhile reading Podhoretz and Wisse at the same time.

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Here’s a Housing-Freeze Idea

COMMENTARY contributor Ruth Wisse asks a marvelous question: “How about an Arab ‘Settlement Freeze’?” Her point is a cogent one:

Of the children of Abraham, the descendants of Ishmael currently occupy at least 800 times more land than descendants of Isaac. The 21 states of the Arab League routinely announce plans of building expansion. Saudi Arabia estimates that 555,000 housing units were built over the past several years. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced during a meeting in Baghdad last year that “Some 10,000 units will be built in each province [of Iraq] with 100 square meters per unit” to accommodate citizens whose housing needs have not been met for a long time. Egypt has established 10 new cities since 1996. They are Tenth of Ramadan, Sixth of October, Al Sadat, Al Shurouq, Al Obour, New Damietta, New Beni Sueif, New Assiut, New Luxor, and New Cairo.

In 2006 the Syrian Prime Minister, Mohammad Naji Atri, announced a new five-year development plan that aims to supply 687,000 housing units. Kuwait expects to have a demand for approximately 100,000 private housing units by 2010. Last year Jordan’s King Abdullah launched a National Housing Initiative, which aims to build 120,000 properties for low-income Jordanians.

And the litany of housing goes on, as does the history of Arab rejectionism, which seeks to displace the Jewish state — housing units and all — from the region. As Wisse argues, “It is unfortunate that Arabs obsess about building in Israel rather than aiming for the development of their own superabundant lands. But why should America encourage their hegemonic ambitions?”

So why focus on the tiny Jewish state and 5,000 units in the undefined “East Jerusalem”? (By the way, the capitalization of “East” now employed by every journalistic outfit on the planet is misleading. There is east or eastern Jerusalem; there is no legal entity “East Jerusalem.”) We return then to her query:

Why does the White House take issue with the construction of housing for Jewish citizens within the boundaries of their own country? The same White House raised no objection when Jordan recently began systematically stripping citizenship from thousands of its Palestinian citizens rather than providing new housing units for them in a land much larger than Israel.

Perhaps Israel has been at fault for not doggedly insisting on unconditional acceptance of its sovereign existence, and for not demanding that Arab rulers adhere to the U.N. Charter’s guarantee of “equal rights of . . . nations large and small.” Preposterous as they would have thought it, perhaps Israelis ought to have called for a freeze on Arab settlements to correspond to unreasonable Arab demands on them.

It is a measure of how cockeyed our thinking has become that there is only a single country in the region — the one that affords its Arab minority more civil liberties than in the surrounding Arab states — that must play “Mother-may-I?” when it comes to housing its own population. Now there’s an “affront.”

COMMENTARY contributor Ruth Wisse asks a marvelous question: “How about an Arab ‘Settlement Freeze’?” Her point is a cogent one:

Of the children of Abraham, the descendants of Ishmael currently occupy at least 800 times more land than descendants of Isaac. The 21 states of the Arab League routinely announce plans of building expansion. Saudi Arabia estimates that 555,000 housing units were built over the past several years. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced during a meeting in Baghdad last year that “Some 10,000 units will be built in each province [of Iraq] with 100 square meters per unit” to accommodate citizens whose housing needs have not been met for a long time. Egypt has established 10 new cities since 1996. They are Tenth of Ramadan, Sixth of October, Al Sadat, Al Shurouq, Al Obour, New Damietta, New Beni Sueif, New Assiut, New Luxor, and New Cairo.

In 2006 the Syrian Prime Minister, Mohammad Naji Atri, announced a new five-year development plan that aims to supply 687,000 housing units. Kuwait expects to have a demand for approximately 100,000 private housing units by 2010. Last year Jordan’s King Abdullah launched a National Housing Initiative, which aims to build 120,000 properties for low-income Jordanians.

And the litany of housing goes on, as does the history of Arab rejectionism, which seeks to displace the Jewish state — housing units and all — from the region. As Wisse argues, “It is unfortunate that Arabs obsess about building in Israel rather than aiming for the development of their own superabundant lands. But why should America encourage their hegemonic ambitions?”

So why focus on the tiny Jewish state and 5,000 units in the undefined “East Jerusalem”? (By the way, the capitalization of “East” now employed by every journalistic outfit on the planet is misleading. There is east or eastern Jerusalem; there is no legal entity “East Jerusalem.”) We return then to her query:

Why does the White House take issue with the construction of housing for Jewish citizens within the boundaries of their own country? The same White House raised no objection when Jordan recently began systematically stripping citizenship from thousands of its Palestinian citizens rather than providing new housing units for them in a land much larger than Israel.

Perhaps Israel has been at fault for not doggedly insisting on unconditional acceptance of its sovereign existence, and for not demanding that Arab rulers adhere to the U.N. Charter’s guarantee of “equal rights of . . . nations large and small.” Preposterous as they would have thought it, perhaps Israelis ought to have called for a freeze on Arab settlements to correspond to unreasonable Arab demands on them.

It is a measure of how cockeyed our thinking has become that there is only a single country in the region — the one that affords its Arab minority more civil liberties than in the surrounding Arab states — that must play “Mother-may-I?” when it comes to housing its own population. Now there’s an “affront.”

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The Silence of the Lamb

In an interview last week with Al Arabiya, Hillary Clinton expressed surprise that “engagement” has failed, since “so many experts” thought it would succeed:

People say to me all the time, what happened to Iran? … When President Obama came in, he was very clear that he wanted to engage, and that’s what he’s been trying to do — reaching out to the Iranian people, reaching out to the Iranian leadership. And you have to ask yourself, why, when so many experts thought that there would be a positive response to President Obama’s outreach, has there not?

It’s a puzzler. But who were those experts who thought an outstretched hand, a video, an apology, a private letter, and a speech would cause Iran to slow (much less agree to stop) its nuclear weapons program? How many thought a nine-month period for response would produce anything other than nine months of uninterrupted centrifuge-spinning? Was there some hitherto unknown academic study of lion-lamb relations that gave the experts cause for optimism?

An explanation for the Iranian reaction is suggested by the question Ruth Wisse once asked in a different context: “Did the bleat of the lamb excite the tiger?” Obama set a deadline, then another, and then discarded any deadline at all; the result was open contempt from Iran’s president. The current effort to move to the “pressure track” of a UN resolution (with a strong letter to follow) is accompanied by public assurances from the secretary of state that the “engagement track” remains open and that the third track has been removed from the table. This is a foreign policy that would embarrass Neville Chamberlain.

The explanation Clinton gave to Al Arabiya for the expert-confounding situation was that the power of the Revolutionary Guard has been growing. But that explanation elicits the question: what caused it to grow? Bill Kristol’s analysis from 2006 now looks prophetic:

One of the bad side effects of our looking weak and hesitant is that in the last year Ahmadinejad’s been running around provoking everyone, behaving like a madman, thumbing his nose at the U.S. and the West — and he pays no price. And if one were an opponent of Admadinejad in Iran — not a dissident, but someone in government who is kind of a more cautious type, and you’ve been warning, “gee, this will get us in trouble” — and [Admadinejad] gets in no trouble at all — it’s very bad for the internal dynamics in Iran. I think we have inadvertently helped to strengthen [hardliners] in Iran by not responding vigorously.

Clinton’s Al Arabyia interview marked the inauguration of a new, exculpatory administration meme: don’t blame us for the failure of our “engagement” policy — it was thwarted by the triumph of the Iranian hardliners. But that triumph was the predictable result of the policy itself.

Obama’s obsessive “reaching out to the Iranian leadership,” starting in his inauguration speech and continuing month after month in spite of no Iranian response, sent an unmistakable signal — one confirmed when he stood mute after the fraudulent Iranian election; confirmed again after he offered a muffled response to the secret nuclear facility in Qom; confirmed yet again when he remained silent as each of his “deadlines” passed; and confirmed even now by his continuing silence on the subject as he devotes his speeches and attention to ObamaCare. Lions know a lamb when they see one.

In an interview last week with Al Arabiya, Hillary Clinton expressed surprise that “engagement” has failed, since “so many experts” thought it would succeed:

People say to me all the time, what happened to Iran? … When President Obama came in, he was very clear that he wanted to engage, and that’s what he’s been trying to do — reaching out to the Iranian people, reaching out to the Iranian leadership. And you have to ask yourself, why, when so many experts thought that there would be a positive response to President Obama’s outreach, has there not?

It’s a puzzler. But who were those experts who thought an outstretched hand, a video, an apology, a private letter, and a speech would cause Iran to slow (much less agree to stop) its nuclear weapons program? How many thought a nine-month period for response would produce anything other than nine months of uninterrupted centrifuge-spinning? Was there some hitherto unknown academic study of lion-lamb relations that gave the experts cause for optimism?

An explanation for the Iranian reaction is suggested by the question Ruth Wisse once asked in a different context: “Did the bleat of the lamb excite the tiger?” Obama set a deadline, then another, and then discarded any deadline at all; the result was open contempt from Iran’s president. The current effort to move to the “pressure track” of a UN resolution (with a strong letter to follow) is accompanied by public assurances from the secretary of state that the “engagement track” remains open and that the third track has been removed from the table. This is a foreign policy that would embarrass Neville Chamberlain.

The explanation Clinton gave to Al Arabiya for the expert-confounding situation was that the power of the Revolutionary Guard has been growing. But that explanation elicits the question: what caused it to grow? Bill Kristol’s analysis from 2006 now looks prophetic:

One of the bad side effects of our looking weak and hesitant is that in the last year Ahmadinejad’s been running around provoking everyone, behaving like a madman, thumbing his nose at the U.S. and the West — and he pays no price. And if one were an opponent of Admadinejad in Iran — not a dissident, but someone in government who is kind of a more cautious type, and you’ve been warning, “gee, this will get us in trouble” — and [Admadinejad] gets in no trouble at all — it’s very bad for the internal dynamics in Iran. I think we have inadvertently helped to strengthen [hardliners] in Iran by not responding vigorously.

Clinton’s Al Arabyia interview marked the inauguration of a new, exculpatory administration meme: don’t blame us for the failure of our “engagement” policy — it was thwarted by the triumph of the Iranian hardliners. But that triumph was the predictable result of the policy itself.

Obama’s obsessive “reaching out to the Iranian leadership,” starting in his inauguration speech and continuing month after month in spite of no Iranian response, sent an unmistakable signal — one confirmed when he stood mute after the fraudulent Iranian election; confirmed again after he offered a muffled response to the secret nuclear facility in Qom; confirmed yet again when he remained silent as each of his “deadlines” passed; and confirmed even now by his continuing silence on the subject as he devotes his speeches and attention to ObamaCare. Lions know a lamb when they see one.

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