How Isolated is Netanyahu?

After the much-anticipated French-sponsored Middle East peace conference ended last Friday with a whimper rather than a bang, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s critics were quick to point out that he shouldn’t be celebrating. They were right in that the event may be just the prelude to more such initiatives whose sole intent was to isolate the Israelis and perhaps set up one more climactic confrontation with the Obama administration this fall after the presidential election. It’s possible that at that point the United States might not oppose a new push for recognition of a Palestinian state without requiring it to first requiring it to make peace with Israel. If so, any satisfaction of the clear failure of the Paris conference would be premature. But as Netanyahu soon proved with a visit to Russia that highlighted Israel’s increasingly warm ties with the Putin regime, his nation is not as isolated as the prime minister’s domestic critics and foreign foes think.

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How Isolated is Netanyahu?

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Putin’s Propaganda Machine Targets Europe

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Saudi-Egyptian tensions reveal what really matters in the Middle East.

It’s one of the ironies of Middle Eastern studies and Western media that the Israel-Palestinian conflict tends to get outsize coverage in comparison to so many other matters more pertinent to local Arabs. Consider border disputes: From Morocco across the region to Iran, the only neighbors who do not have border disputes are Israel and Egypt, Israel and Jordan, Algeria and Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and, ever since accepting international arbitration, Bahrain, and Qatar.

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Survivor’s Guilt and the Media

Emotional manipulation is not a great look.

If you can summon the resolve, pity the political media. Their jobs aren’t easy. To do them well means they will satisfy few and enrage the vocal, and none is as noisy today as the last of the Clinton family’s courtiers. In defeat, they are reduced to wielding their waning influence over anyone still listening. By focusing on media—a profession whose members are still torn over their role in electing Donald Trump to the presidency—the Clinton court has found a set of uniquely receptive scapegoats. Team Clinton is now throwing brushback pitches at the heads of reporters and pundits, and their targets are flinching.

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A throne of lies.

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The Next to be Left Behind

Politicians will always promise a return to yesterday. They rarely deliver.

These days, somewhat paradoxically, Forgotten America is on everyone’s mind. Even before Donald Trump won the presidency by appealing to demographics and themes that effete, urban Americans found gauche, books like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and John Judis’s The Populist Explosion focused elite minds on those left behind in the Great Recession’s “recovery.” Trump’s “Forgotten Man” was, however, forgotten long before 2008. By casting himself as a defender of the status quo ante—leaving it up to voters to determine for themselves precisely when their preferred “ante” was—Trump tapped into the political potency of nostalgia. The globalized information age is not done transforming the American economic landscape. Others will soon join the ranks of those left behind. The rise of Trump has focused the nation’s attention on the implosion of the Middle American plant town. Across the industrial Northeast and Midwest, working-class voters were left stranded in hollowed-out communities. That was only one stage of the modern economic metamorphosis. Another feature of the visible American marketplace may be about to collapse. Brick-and-mortar retail may soon become an endangered species. Last August, Macy’s announced the closure of 100 stores in America, including a flagship presence in San Francisco. J.C. Penney followed suit. Between 130 and 140 of its stores will close this year. The thousands of employees who work at one of the 154 Wal-Marts closing this year will soon have to find new work. Over 500 Radio Shack locations will soon liquidate their holdings. American Apparel, Wet Seal, Bebe, Office Depot, Aeropostale, American Eagle, Game Stop, Men’s Wearhouse, Payless, The Limited, Abercrombie & Fitch, and many more–all are either going out of business permanently or substantially reducing their physical footprints. The collapse of the physical retail sector in America is accelerating and, in many ways, mirrors the implosion of its more mythologized cousins like the steel industry. As the cost of labor and energy rose and the demand for domestic American steel fell, the industry underwent a radical transformation. Despite popular belief, the steel industry never disappeared. Pursuant to the laws of comparative advantage, American steel manufacturers simply shifted to producing more specialized steel products that yield higher returns. Still, the lore of American steel and the lives that industry once supported enjoy a powerful hold on the imagination of men like Donald Trump. The retail industry’s implosion may soon have a similar effect. As an industry, it lacks only a similarly compelling story. That’s about to change. Citing research by Guru Hariharan, a former Amazon.com employee and the founder of his own online retail portal, the Atlantic’s Jerry Useem painted a dire picture in the magazine’s forthcoming issue. “On a whiteboard, he drew a series of lines representing the rising share of online sales for various kinds of products (books, DVDs, electronics) over time, then marked the years that major brick-and-mortar players (Borders, Blockbuster, Circuit City, and RadioShack) went bankrupt,” Useem wrote. “At first the years looked random. But the bankruptcies all clustered within a band where online sales hit between 20 and 25 percent.” That inflection point is a pivotal one, and it’s not limited to retail services. Grocers are expected to reach it by 2025. Education and learning programs may be next. Americans are clearly attracted to the convenience of Internet shopping despite, as Useem demonstrated, fluctuating and personalized pricing that occurs online. That doesn’t mean they prefer the experience. According to the results of a December Pew Research Center study, 65 percent of online shoppers prefer to do their shopping in physical outlets. In 2011, over 14 million people—approximately 10 percent of the American workforce—were employed in retail trade. “Cashiers and retail salespeople were the most common occupations in the entire economy in 2011, employing 3.3 million and 4.3 million people, respectively,” read an Aspen Institute study. According to the liberal activist organization Demos, the retail workforce is made up of many employees who literally cannot afford to lose their jobs. Fully 26 percent of median hourly wage retail workers live at or near the poverty line. Of them, over half are the sole income-earners in their family.  The speed with which this industry has been transformed and the neediness of those it will leave behind ensures that there will be many heart-rending stories to tell. As 2016 demonstrated, those stories get results. More intangible will be the average American response to their changing environment. Retail outlets populate American communities. The public square, indoor and outdoor malls, places supportive of that exceedingly rare commodity, human interaction, are peppered with retail stores. The decline of retail has coincided with the decline of America’s official unemployment rate, which is today lower than at any point since April of 2007 (at 4.5 percent). This industry isn’t disappearing entirely, and its employees are being absorbed by other sectors of the economy or by firms that fulfill the demand for online retail. But the visibility of a vibrant physical retail sector is as critical to America’s sense of place and purpose as are the steel mills of legend. Retail’s labor force may not be as displaced as were the manufacturers who worked in America’s blue-collar businesses, but the public spaces their industry created and the daily interactions they facilitated will not be so easily replaced. There will always be someone, somewhere willing to promise the restoration of that which was lost to progress. Dreamy reminiscence is a useful political tool when wielded by a skilled polemicist, and the evolving American vending landscape will have repercussions that extend well beyond the local outlet mall. The impulse to freeze existing employment conditions in place is, however, unrealizable. Politicians may promise to reverse the tides of history, ease the pressures on employers to automate rote labor, and repeal the Internet. Even if retail venues are more limited, Americans should recognize when they’re being sold a bill of goods.

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