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Is the West Bank a Vital American Interest?

Analysts of the Arab-Israeli conflict agree on very few issues, but there are two points on which, in 1989, a consensus exists virtually across the mainstream spectrum. First, nearly everyone concurs that the intifada, the riots which began in December 1987 on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (henceforth referred to as the territories), has made the status quo far less palatable than it had previously been. Indeed, among Israelis and Arabs alike, there is a new sense of urgency about the future of the territories. Second, there is widespread agreement that the Israelis face a nearly intractable dilemma with regard to the future of those territories. Moderate solutions are becoming less tenable, while extremist positions gain in strength.

These two dilemmas notwithstanding, there is no paucity of attempts to find a way out. Notable plans include Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s proposal for elections in the territories; the Egyptian ten-point plan for such elections; the Palestine Liberation Organization’s call for direct PLO-Israel negotiations to establish a new state of Palestine; and the Jaffee Center’s scenario of interim steps toward setting up a Palestinian entity.

My intent here is not to subject these schemes to a critical analysis, much less to offer one of my own. Instead, I want to review the role assigned to the U.S. in them. What should Washington do at this difficult moment to forward what it calls the peace process? A close evaluation of American interests points to a rather different approach from the ones currently being tried.

Before turning to the American role, the choices need to be delineated as they appear in the Middle East. For reasons that will soon become apparent, it makes the most sense to see these from the standpoint of the Israeli electorate.

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Israel acquired five distinct territories in the course of the Six-Day War in June 1967. One of those, the Sinai Peninsula, is no longer under Israeli control, having been returned fully to Egypt by April 1982 (with the outstanding issue, Taba, finally resolved in early 1989) in exchange for a peace treaty. Should negotiations advance, two other regions, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, will one day pose diplomatic problems, but that prospect is still distant. East Jerusalem has been annexed to Israel and so is a special case that cannot be dealt with at present; nor do the Golan Heights pose any diplomatic questions so long as the Syrian government shows no interest in ending its military conflict with Israel. This leaves the West Bank and Gaza, and especially the former, as the focus of diplomacy.

The Israeli mainstream includes two basic positions toward these territories. One, that of the Likud party, seeks to retain them permanently under Israeli control (even while, in accordance with the Camp David accords of 1979, it would concede autonomy to the residents). The other, that of the Labor party, seeks to return most but not all of these territories to Arab rule (though not to a state run by the PLO). Each of these positions harks back to one of the two main traditions of Zionism, and each enjoys the support of about 40 percent of the Israeli electorate, placing them in essential equilibrium. Such close balance creates a problem in itself, for neither approach has the chance of gaining a full audition. Instead, each negates or complicates the other in a seemingly endless minuet of personnel and policy alterations.

There is another problem, too, and it is far more basic and severe. This is that, in its pure form, neither of the two mainstream approaches is feasible. To begin with Likud: it would achieve its goal either by bringing Arab residents into the Israeli polity or by disenfranchising them. Yet both of these options are fraught with danger for Israel. Were Arabs brought in, their much higher birth rate would cause Israel to lose its Jewish majority and hence its Jewish nature—thereby nullifying the entire Zionist enterprise. Were Arabs permanently disenfranchised, and in general excluded and repressed, the resulting situation would be so morally repugnant to many Israelis that they might well leave the country, while Israel’s foreign supporters, including Jews and non-Jews in the U.S., would gradually lose heart.

Labor’s goal also suffers from a fundamental problem, namely, the absence of a responsible Arab interlocutor with whom to negotiate the future of the territories and to whom they might be relinquished. The party’s long-time favorite, King Hussein of Jordan, played hard-to-get for years, tantalizing Israeli leaders with the prospect of negotiations but never going beyond clandestine meetings with them. Then, in July 1988, Hussein withdrew from the diplomatic game, at least for some time to come, by renouncing his kingdom’s claim to the West Bank. As for Arab residents of the territories, they refuse to take responsibility for negotiations with Israel. Instead, they point to the PLO of Yasir Arafat as their spokesman.

The PLO, of course, has become increasingly eager to talk to Israel in recent years, even going so far as to utter the “magic words” (recognition of the Jewish state and renunciation of terrorism against it) demanded by Washington, but it remains unacceptable to most Israelis as a negotiating party. It falls short by virtue of its unwillingness truly and unambiguously to accept Israel’s existence; by its long record of duplicity and violence; and most of all by its lack of complete authority over all Palestinian factions, at least several of which are still openly committed to the destruction of Israel.

There is a further problem with the Labor plan, one that does not get much noted at this early stage, but which would probably derail progress down the line: any agreement Israel reached with the Palestinians would in all likelihood be vetoed by the Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the man who repeats, mantra-like, “There is no peace without Syria.” His is no idle boast, for Assad has the power to undo a weak Arab-Israeli agreement; indeed, he has already accomplished this once, causing Israel’s May 1983 accord with Lebanon to be abrogated in less than a year.

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Despite these bleak prospects for diplomatic advancement, or perhaps because of them, each of the two main Israeli parties retains a nearly mystical hope in the workability of its preferred solution. Likud propaganda calls on the old Israeli virtues of resolution and toughness; if only Israel hangs in there, it seems to imply, Arab residents of the territories will become docile or, better yet, will emigrate. In Shamir’s words, “something would happen.” Without anyone’s taking specific steps to effect it, one-and a-half million individuals in the West Bank and Gaza would either accept a restricted form of local autonomy or leave of their own volition. Never mind that they now overwhelmingly oppose both these courses—somehow they will see the light.

As for Labor, its mysticism lies in the apparent belief that if it can just wait long enough, King Hussein will return to the negotiating table, and this time he will be ready to talk turkey. In arguing this point, Labor tends either to discount King Hussein’s public renunciation of claims to the West Bank (and to emphasize instead the signs pointing to a Jordanian intent to reassert that claim);1 or it implicitly calls on the great powers to impose a solution. But Moscow and Washington are unlikely to heed Labor’s call to impose a Jordanian solution, if only because world opinion has by now so widely accepted the need for an independent Palestinian state. Indeed, if anything is going to be imposed, it is likely to be just such a state.

In short, neither of these Israeli expectations is based on well-founded premises. They represent, instead, the slightly desperate hopes of politicians caught in a predicament not of their own making. At best, they imply an intention to sit tight until circumstances change; at worst, they suggest illusion, not real analysis.

If ideas espoused by the mainstream Israeli parties look hopeless, the proposals of the fringe groups (each making up roughly 10 percent at either end of the political spectrum) fail even more dismally to address current problems. The far Right speaks of removing the Arabs from the territories by structuring the proper set of inducements; benign as this sounds, everyone knows that its proponents would resort to force if those inducements failed to have the intended effect. More than any other scheme, this one would truly jeopardize Israel’s existence, for it would vastly increase communal tensions within Israel, spark deep internecine fights within the Israeli polity, lead to a break in relations with Egypt, alienate world Jewry, and cause the loss of American support.

The far Left does little better. It blandly accepts the idea of a Palestinian state, without intelligently thinking through the many dangerous consequences of such a development for Israel. Against all evidence, the Left presumes that Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist in peace. It takes seriously Arafat’s comparison of Jordan, “Palestine,” and Israel to the Benelux countries. No less astonishing, it earnestly works out the provisions by which Palestinians agree to renounce in advance the right to raise an army or to ally with a foreign state. Like Westerners convinced that their own unilateral disarmament would inspire the Soviets to do likewise, the Left in Israel deludes itself into thinking that risk-taking by its own government will tame the enemy.

This is the Israeli predicament, and it is one of nearly total deadlock.

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Turning to American views of the peace process, one is struck by how closely they approximate the four principal Israeli approaches. In the American mainstream, one finds some variant of either the Likud or the Labor position (with many more, even among American conservatives, choosing the latter) while the fringes opt for transfer of population or an independent Palestinian state (again with many more choosing the latter). To take just one prominent example, President George Bush has virtually adopted the Labor position in defining his administration’s goals in the Arab-Israeli domain to be “security for Israel, the end of the [Israeli] occupation, and achievement of Palestinian political rights.”

What is more, Israeli priorities tend to become American ones. Most strikingly, because the intifada created a sense of urgency in Israel that the issue of the territories be resolved, this urgency has been directly felt in Washington.

Now, it is not so surprising that American friends of Israel should echo the positions found in Israel. These are people who—because they may adhere to the Zionist vision, or have relatives living in Israel, or admire the state’s democratic and liberal character, or remember the Holocaust, or because, as fundamentalist Christians, they ascribe eschatological importance to Israel’s welfare—see Israel not just in terms of potential value to the United States, but as something good and important in itself.

On the other hand, it is exceedingly surprising that Americans hostile to Israel should also echo Israeli positions. In the classic phrase of former Under Secretary of State George Ball, they would “save Israel in spite of herself.” Recently, for example, Helena Cobban, a passionate advocate of the PLO and its cause, endorsed Secretary of State James Baker’s Middle East policy on the grounds that it “should help put the U.S. relationship with Israel on a more healthy footing. . . . What Israel needs from the U.S. is not to have more policy disputes swept under the carpet. It’s in Israel’s long-term interest that it receive firm and realistic support, in which U.S. interests are clearly defined and acted upon.”

Of course, the phrasing of these comments is hypocritical, even deceptive, for those unfriendly to Israel really would like to do it harm. But they feel inhibited about saying so openly. Instead they adopt Ball’s anti-democratic rhetoric (implying that State Department officials are better judges of Israel’s interest than its own electorate) as a way of disguising their real goal, which is to override Israel’s leaders and impose a solution on them. That solution, of course, is the option at the far Left of the Israeli spectrum, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.2

Ironically, all moderate Americans, even those antagonistic to Israel, implicitly accept the notion that American interests are identical with Israel’s. Whether they do so unconsciously or as a way of hiding their ulterior motives, the fact is that they routinely portray events in the Middle East through Israeli eyes.

Reasons for this peculiarity are not hard to find. The absence of a standard Left/Right ideological prism through which to view the Middle East makes the region a subject of unusual political confusion. Also, thanks to the extraordinary interest shown by the American media in Israeli politics, the political debate there inevitably influences the debate here. Then, too, the singular preoccupation with the Arab-Israeli conflict on the part of the media imbues that issue with an emotional charge lacking in most distant confrontations. Willy-nilly, the discourse in seminars at Tel Aviv University foreshadows its counterpart at New York University, and the terms of argument in the halls of the Knesset in Jerusalem are transported to the Congress in Washington. The result is that Americans throughout the political mainstream stake out positions more relevant to the Israeli scene than to the American one.

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Transposing Israeli viewpoints to the United States has the unfortunate effect of inflating some concerns (notably the morality of means used by Israel to quell the intifada) while paying too little attention to others (especially the Soviet angle). Even more fundamentally, it distortedly emphasizes the Arab-Israeli conflict out of all proportion to its actual importance to U.S. interests, or to the world at large, while diminishing the significance of a host of other conflicts in the same region. The Iraq-Iran war, for example, received but a small fraction of the attention granted the Lebanon war of 1982. Larger and possibly more consequential civil uprisings in other parts of the world (including Burma and Algeria) have also attracted far less concern than the one taking place in the West Bank and Gaza.

To make matters worse, the four Israeli positions have undesirable implications for the United States. Each of them requires that the U.S. government adopt a stance that is either unfeasible or contrary to American interests.

Thus, if Washington were to accept the Likud policy of permanent Israeli control over the territories, American relations with the Egyptian, Jordanian, and other Arab governments would be poisoned. Nor is Labor’s dream of an imposed Jordanian solution realistic. Not only do many American officials tend to sympathize instead with Palestinian nationalism, they worry that incorporation of the West Bank into Jordan would further destabilize that country by increasing the size of its Palestinian majority.

If Washington cannot accept mainstream Israeli positions, the extremist views are even less palatable. On the one hand, no American government could continue normal relations with Israel if the West Bank Arabs were expelled. On the other hand, all American Presidents have opposed the creation of a PLO-led Palestinian state because of the obvious dangers its inevitable revanchism would pose to American friends in the region, Jordan no less than Israel.

These many problems point to the need for a distinctly American approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not only is this critical for a clear-headed view of United States interests, but, because it departs from Israeli perspectives, it may carry the seeds of insights which could be useful to both Israelis and Arabs. Getting away from the Israeli vantage point and looking at the Middle East through American eyes quickly makes a host of differences apparent. To cite just one instance, while the Jewish nature of the Israeli state is of the profoundest concern to Israelis, it is not one, generally speaking, that Washington need or should address. To the extent that Americans do involve themselves in this issue, it is for religious, ideological, or humanitarian motives—but not out of raison d’état.

What then are the specifically American interests in the Arab-Israeli conflict? The best way to determine them is to look at American interests in the Middle East as a whole. These have consistently been reaffirmed by American leaders to include at least four elements: a secure Israel; stability in the moderate Arab states; exclusion of Soviet influence; and the free flow of oil. Translated into policies, these interests have two main goals: keep the Egypt-Israel-U.S. triangle alive, and maintain the Carter Doctrine. The triangle consecrated in March 1979 with the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty on the lawn of the White House is absolutely central to what may be called the western Middle East. Similarly, the designation by President Carter in January 1980 of the Persian Gulf as an area to which the U.S. would commit military force to prevent Soviet domination is critical to the eastern Middle East.

The passage of ten years has not dimmed these commitments in the slightest, in part because Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking” has affected Soviet policies less in the Middle East than in any other major region. To be sure, there have been many nods and winks hinting of a new Soviet attitude (particularly toward Syria and Israel), but these are far too ambiguous and contradictory to warrant the scuttling of longstanding American policy guidelines. Further, such steps as Gorbachev has taken in the Middle East are not irreversible; accordingly, the U.S. government needs to be prepared if he falls from power or has a change of heart.

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Properly understood, the goals of a secure Israel and of stable moderate Arab states provide the key to developing a distinctly American policy. Working toward these goals in strictly logical fashion leads to unexpected results. It may therefore be useful to provide some background on what it means for one state to be concerned with the security and stability of other states.

Up until the end of the 18th century, when the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of foreign states reigned supreme, it meant concern with external relations only: one state would not pursue a policy toward events taking place wholly within the borders of another state. A ruler could spurn elections, subsidize exports, even suppress minorities, and his neighbors would not say or do a thing. But the French Revolution permanently shattered this comfortable notion; and for two centuries now, a new pair of factors has increasingly come to dominate policy: the existence of nationalist ties, whose intensity often overrides any scruples about noninterference; and the ideology of human rights, which makes certain types of violations everyone’s business.

This latter is a particularly American passion, and it causes the U.S. government to be perhaps the most meddlesome and intrusive of all states in the domestic affairs of other countries. That said, however, Americans do distinguish in a fundamental way between non-democratic and democratic states. In a word, they feel far more entitled to pressure the former than the latter. In the case of autocracies, outrage fuels activism. In the case of democracies, the assumption that an elected government will resolve matters on its own, without the need for American involvement, leads to much greater reticence. This assumption is a sound one, for democratic states do have self-corrective mechanisms that usually make their workings no less wise than any plan American experts can offer.

A few examples demonstrate the wide applicability of the distinction. In an effort to win internal reform, Washington feels no compunctions about bearing down on such non-democratic states as South Africa, Chile, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and the USSR. By contrast, it refrains from defining a distinct position on Britain’s problems in Northern Ireland. Similarly, the U.S. government had no policy on Quebec separatism when that was a hot issue in Canada, nor did it take a stand of its own on the conflict between the Walloons and the Flemish in Belgium, or on the Basques in Spain.

All this has important implications for Israel. To be sure, Israel presents a particularly knotty instance, for while the government is fully democratic within Israel proper, it is only partially so in the territories. Moreover, Israel’s behavior in the territories is driven by a complex mix of domestic and foreign-policy considerations. Nevertheless, consistency requires that Washington refrain from formulating policies on such matters as the establishment of Jewish settlements and the Israeli response to the intifada—unless American national interests are at stake. This means only one thing: the preservation of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

If tensions in the territories threatened to create popular unrest in Egypt, if Palestinian elements attempted sabotage in Egypt, or if Israeli policy toward the intifada jeopardized the Camp David agreement, then the U.S. government would be compelled to assume a direct role for itself. But so long as these prospects are remote, Washington should tread very lightly.

So far, they have been remote, and partly because Cairo no longer takes a truly active interest in Arab-Israeli affairs. To the benefit and relief of Egyptians, President Hosni Mubarak has not tried to emulate one of his predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser, as a world figure, or his more immediate predecessor, Anwar Sadat, as an American matinee idol. Instead, he has settled in as, in effect, Mayor of Egypt, busying himself with economics, pollution, and the myriad other problems facing his country. For him, the peace process has been useful primarily as a way to facilitate Egypt’s reentry into Arab politics. Now that this has been achieved, developments on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza matter less from the Egyptian point of view than does the appearance of action and movement.

This perspective should be kept in mind in assessing Cairo’s recent ten-point proposal for furthering elections in the territories. Mubarak has offered his ideas because he needs Israelis and Palestinians to keep negotiating; it hurts him if they are reduced to nothing but violent confrontationists. At the same time, Mubarak’s involvement is very thin; he cares less about the specifics of an election plan than about the fact that negotiations are taking place at all. Further, he has relatively little at stake here; the fate of his ten points is not about to jeopardize Egypt’s critical relations with the United States and Israel.

The same rule of thumb governing American activism has equally important implications for policy toward the moderate Arab states—Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf emirates. The key, again, lies in the nature of local government. Although many of these states feature certain democratic forms, in the final analysis all of them are autocratic. With the exception of republican Egypt and Tunisia, they are ruled by kings and emirs. In not one of them does the electorate’s voice ever extend to choosing the head of state; nor does it ever affect fundamental questions of foreign policy.

The moderate Arab states, therefore, fit under the rubric of those states where Americans have tended to feel entitled to involve themselves in internal affairs. In Morocco, Washington might ask about land reform, and in Tunisia about the treatment of the fundamentalist Muslims. In Egypt, what about the state of Muslim-Coptic relations and the privatization program? In Jordan, what about economic reforms, freedom of the press, the treatment of Palestinians? In Saudi Arabia the questions would be almost without end, concerning everything from women’s rights and the treatment of Shi’is to labor unions and summary executions.

The curious thing is that none of these questions figures prominently in U.S. policy. Hence, at times the situation in the Middle East appears topsy-turvy. Every small move by the democratic government of Israel comes under close and often hostile American scrutiny, while even the largest and most harmful actions of the autocratic Arab governments arouse little attention. Yet, as elsewhere in the world, the sensible course would be to assume that a democratic government will find its own way, while autocratic regimes should be pressured to behave in a more acceptable manner.

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Turning now to the Soviet factor, we see that today, no less than under Brezhnev, the Soviet presence in the Middle East relies primarily on good relations with three states: Libya, South Yemen, and Syria. Of these, Syria is by far the most important because of its geographic centrality, its deep involvement in the conflict with Israel, and the talents of its leaders, especially President Assad. Were Damascus won away from the Kremlin, the face of Middle East politics would change, as would the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But there is scant prospect of this, for ties between Damascus and Moscow continue to be deep and lasting. Of course there are tensions, arising in part from the fact that Assad is more faithful to the old verities than is Gorbachev. But these tensions, although they have unsettled what for years had been an exemplary working relationship, should not be exaggerated; as with Fidel Castro, the Kremlin has too many interests in common with Assad to drop him on account of differences of opinion, no matter how sensational.

Some observers hold that the route toward breaking the Soviet-Syrian alliance lies in forcing Israel to give up the Golan Heights. They are doubly wrong. Assad, it should be recalled, seeks not just the restitution of Syrian real estate but the destruction of the Jewish state. Nor is Assad’s anti-Zionism a passing concern: indeed, he has worked consistently since seizing power in 1970 to prevent a resolution of the conflict with Israel. No amount of Soviet pressure is going to change his anti-Zionism, nor is there any reason to think that he can be appeased by Israeli concessions. Accordingly, the U.S. government does not gain by pressing Israel to return the Golan Heights to the current regime in Syria.

Furthermore, the Syrian-Soviet alliance involves much more than the confrontation with Israel. Syria represents Moscow’s most important ally in the Middle East, and so serves a host of other functions. It provides key naval facilities, especially in Tartus; it spearheads Soviet sabotage efforts against Turkey; it serves as the fulcrum of the state-sponsored terror network throughout the Middle East; and it pressures the vulnerable oil states into keeping their distance from the United States.

If the Soviet alliance with Syria has little to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and even less with the territories, this is obviously even truer of Moscow’s relations with Libya and South Yemen. But what about new allies? Might King Hussein or some other leader turn to Moscow out of frustration with the stalemate on the West Bank? Not likely. The conflict with Israel is far from the only determinant of Jordanian policy; a change in orientation would entail too many risks. And the same reasoning applies to the other moderate Arab leaders.

All of which is to say that developments in the territories hardly touch on the degree of Soviet influence in the Middle East, and consequently have little bearing on the American interest in restricting the scope of that influence.

Nor, finally, does the American goal of maintaining the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf have much to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although attempts were made in the mid-1970’s to argue for a connection between the two, these arguments were proven wrong by subsequent events (notably, the Iraq-Iran war). Today, in an era when oil producers are fighting for customers, this thesis has less validity than ever.

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To sum up, then, critical, long-term U.S. interests in the Middle East are only slightly affected by the territories, and from this conclusion three guidelines follow: (1) Assess developments in the territories in light of Egypt-Israel relations. Only if those are threatened should the U.S. government get heavily involved. In effect, the U.S. government should downgrade the importance attached to the territories. (2) The U.S. government should also pay far more attention than at present to internal developments in the moderate Arab states. (3) The U.S. government should stop expecting the Arab-Israeli conflict to play an important role either in the Soviet presence in the area or in the free flow of oil.

Clearly, these guidelines run smack against the tide of majority opinion today, according to which the Arab-Israeli peace process should occupy the center of American attention in the Middle East. Clearly, too, at a time when many government officials are being urged by appeals in the media to take a more activist line, a call for American restraint is highly unlikely to fall on receptive ears. The peace process, to use a favorite government locution, is a train that has left the station. Anyone proposing a different route may find no one to talk to but the porters.

And so plans for special envoys, elections, and international conferences will continue to fill the air. But when the latest round of activism exhausts itself without result, there may well be an opening for alternative views. At that point, those who think that American interests are not served by the current approach will have a better chance of being heard.

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Footnotes

1 Such signs include: the partial reactivation of Jordanian ministries on the West Bank; the resumption of salaries to West Bank officials; funding of development projects; and media access for Palestinians allied with the Hashemite monarchy. Amman is probably behind the founding in July 1989 of a West Bank party, the Palestine National Union party, which advocates unity between the two banks of the Jordan. Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan has dubbed this intentionally confusing situation “constructive pluralism.”

2 The far Left in Israel returns the favor by calling on the U.S. government or American Jews to interfere in Israeli politics. For example, Yehuda Amichai, Amos Elon, Amos Oz, and A.B. Yehoshua, four well-known Israeli writers, published a statement in the New York Times, “Silence of American Jews Supports Wrong Side” (February 21, 1988), in which they implored American Jews and “all friends of Israel in the United States to speak up” about Israeli policies on the West Bank. More remarkably yet, they argued that “By their own silence, [American Jews] are massively intervening in Israel politics.”

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