The Myth That Abbas Fights Terror

While Palestinians were killing four Israelis in back-to-back terror attacks last week, I received an email lauding Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his vital role in fighting such terror. This email was parroting a very popular myth: that Abbas deserves the credit for the past several years of relative calm. Yet in reality, Abbas had nothing to do with producing this calm and little to do with maintaining it. And a simple year-by-year breakdown of the very numbers his cheerleaders cite to praise him is enough to prove it.

The myth relies on one completely true fact: Israeli fatalities have fallen dramatically since the height of the second intifada, from 452 in 2002 to 6 in 2013. But those who seek to credit Abbas for this development overlook two crucial details.

First, almost three-quarters of this drop occurred even before Abbas replaced Yasser Arafat as PA president in November 2004. Israeli fatalities fell from their 2002 peak of 452 to 208 in 2003 and 117 in 2004; a cumulative decline of 74 percent. Yet during those years, Arafat was still in charge.

Second, the remaining drop happened during years when Abbas was indeed PA president but had zero control on the ground because the Israel Defense Forces retook control of the entire West Bank in March 2002. Only five years later did they begin gradually returning certain areas to PA control.

When the IDF reasserted control in 2002, it launched a massive, years-long operation to defang the terrorist organizations that until then had used the PA as their home base. That’s why Israeli fatalities fell by roughly 50 percent a year during the last two years of Arafat’s rule, and why they continued to fall by roughly 50 percent a year during the first three years of Abbas’s rule – from 117 in 2004 to 56 in 2005, 30 in 2006 to 13 in 2007.

Only in late 2007, once terror was already down by 97 percent from its 2002 peak, did Israel begin returning control of major West Bank cities to the PA, starting with Nablus in November 2007 and then Jenin in May 2008. Thus by the time Abbas actually assumed security control, West Bank terror was already at the same low level it would maintain for the next six years (Israeli fatalities actually spiked in 2008, but due an upsurge in terror from Hamas-controlled Gaza, leading to the first Gaza war that December).

Moreover, in the one territory where Abbas did exert security control during those years – the Gaza Strip – he didn’t lift a finger against anti-Israel terror. The IDF unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, leaving Abbas’s forces in full control for almost two years until Hamas seized power in a week-long battle in June 2007. During those two years, Palestinians fired thousands of rockets at Israel from Gaza, including 1,123 in 2006 alone; yet Abbas took no action whatsoever against the rocket launchers, whom he deemed his “brothers.” By contrast, not one rocket was ever fired at Israel from the IDF-controlled West Bank.

Nor does Abbas deserve much credit for keeping the peace since 2007, because Israel learned from the mistake it made from 1995-2002 when the IDF’s scrupulous refusal to enter PA territory allowed terrorist groups to flourish. Since 2007, the IDF has conducted counterterrorism operations in the PA whenever it sees fit, sometimes almost nightly; and that’s the main reason terror has remained subdued. Indeed, the widespread view in the IDF is that were Israeli troops not present, Hamas would swiftly rout Abbas’s forces, just as it did in Gaza in 2007.

So given all of the above, why do IDF officers nevertheless routinely laud Abbas’s security coordination with Israel? Because the post-2007, Abbas does differ from both Arafat and his own pre-2007 self in one important respect: Following Hamas’s takeover of Gaza that summer, Abbas concluded that Hamas was a bigger threat to his own rule than to Israel, and since then, he has indeed cooperated in constraining Hamas in the West Bank. As noted, his role is strictly secondary. Moreover, the fact that he assumed it only after Hamas turned its guns on him shows that it stems not from any commitment in principle to fighting terror, but purely from self-interest. Nevertheless, a Palestinian leader who shares Israel’s interest in squelching Hamas is clearly better than one who doesn’t.

Yet even this benefit is largely offset by the fact that Abbas actively foments anti-Israel terror in other ways. Granted, he’s no Arafat; he doesn’t personally orchestrate terror attacks or smuggle arms. But he does engage in vicious, systematic incitement that encourages other Palestinians to kill Israelis, like accusing Israel of genocide (over a war whose casualties amounted to a mere 1 percent of those in Syria’s civil war), praising Palestinians who try to kill Jewish civilians as “martyrs,” or declaring that Jews who dare to set foot on Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount, “desecrate” it “with their filthy feet.”

Moreover, he makes terror a financially lucrative business by paying generous salaries – four to seven times higher than the average Palestinian wage – to all terrorists jailed in Israel, including Hamas terrorists responsible for killing dozens of Israelis each. Indeed, the payment scale actively incentivizes lethal attacks, because the longer the prison term, the higher the monthly salary. These salaries consume some $144 million of the PA’s annual budget.

Thus while Abbas is undeniably better than Arafat, he isn’t enough better that Israel should care if he quits. After all, credit for the calm of the past several years belongs primarily not to Abbas, but to the IDF. And the IDF will still be there once Abbas is gone.

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The Myth That Abbas Fights Terror

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The Flip Side of the Western Wall Crisis

A two-way street.

The Israeli government’s decision on Sunday to freeze a much-touted compromise on the Western Wall, which would have created a non-Orthodox prayer space equal in status to the existing Orthodox area, sparked numerous warnings of a grave rift between Israel and American Jewry.

Commentator Rachel Sharansky Danziger, for instance, wondered how the relationship could continue after the Israeli government “delivered a resounding, ‘You don’t actually matter to us’” to American Jews. But there’s a flip side to Danziger’s question that many commentators have ignored: The confrontation ended as it did partly because too many American Jews have delivered that same resounding message to Israelis in recent years.

Numerous previous battles over religious issues in Israel have ended the opposite way, with the prime minister bowing to American Jewish pressure. As recently as 2011, for instance, the government froze and ultimately scrapped a planned reform of conversion procedures because American Jews objected. Since American Jews were both members of the family and important sources of American political support, no Israeli prime minister wanted to alienate them, and neither did most ordinary Israelis.

If that sentiment is fraying today, it’s not just because of fringe anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace or even the growing ranks of the utterly indifferent, but also because of the attitudes of many American Jews who call themselves–and in many ways genuinely are–pro-Israel. To understand why, it’s worth pondering something Jewish-American author Jamaica Kincaid said in an interview with Haaretz earlier this month about Israel’s control of the West Bank.

I think one of the reasons this whole thing with the occupation and the territories is so alive is because most people do what Israelis do, just do it. They just do it! It’s not a conversation. You conquer the line, you drive the people off it, or you kill them. You know, you just do it. Then you move on. And maybe 100 years later, you have a little ceremony where you say, the head of state says, ‘I’m so sorry I did that.’ But you just do it…

“I suppose what surprises me is that Israel is the winning society, so I don’t expect it to be so self-examining. Usually, winners don’t examine themselves at all, but in Israel [there is] constant questioning and constant examining, constantly stating why you are right.

Kincaid is obviously correct: If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict draws disproportionate international attention, it’s in part because Israelis themselves endlessly and vocally debate its legitimacy, morality, and possible solutions. It’s also because, as an outgrowth of this debate, Israelis have made numerous attempts to solve it over the past quarter century, including repeated rounds of peace talks and unilateral withdrawals, and action of any kind is obviously more newsworthy than stasis.

But to many American Jews, even many who consider themselves pro-Israel, it doesn’t seem to matter that Israelis have repeatedly made generous peace offers, only to have the Palestinians walk away without even bothering to respond. It doesn’t seem to matter that every territorial withdrawal has led to a massive increase in Palestinian terror. It doesn’t seem to matter that numerous conflicts worldwide have produced far more bloodshed and far more oppression than this one. It doesn’t seem to matter that after almost 25 years of failed peacemaking efforts accompanied by vigorous internal debate, a solid majority of Israelis has reluctantly concluded that while a Palestinian state might be a good idea in principle, in practice, for the foreseeable future, there’s no better alternative to the status quo.

Despite all this, liberal American Jews are convinced that they know better. They know that the continued “occupation” is mostly Israel’s fault, and that Israel must end it immediately regardless of the price in Israeli blood and their job as American Jews isn’t to support Israelis’ painfully reached conclusions, but to pressure Israelis to disregard the lessons of their lived experience. If there’s a better way of telling Israelis “You don’t actually matter to us,” I don’t know what it might be.

Moreover, pursuant to that attitude, many American Jews–and again, not just fringe groups like JVP–are actively undermining Israel in various ways. Mainstream American Jewish groups like campus Hillels repeatedly host speakers from organizations that spew outright lies about Israel, such as Breaking the Silence, which even recycles the medieval blood libel about Jews poisoning wells.

American Jews also provide substantial financial support to such organizations, mainly through the New Israel Fund. Rabbis and Jewish organizations provide cover for anti-Israel activists. Leading liberal rabbi Sharon Brous, for instance, praised Linda Sarsour for “building a movement that can hold all of us in our diversity with love” even as Sarsour explicitly banned all Israel supporters from her movement. The Anti-Defamation League defended Keith Ellison, one of the few congressmen who consistently backs anti-Israel resolutions while shunning pro-Israel ones, as “an important ally in the fight against anti-Semitism” right up until he was caught out in overt anti-Semitism. American rabbinical students term Israel’s very existence a cause for mourning and engage in anti-Israel commercial boycotts. The Union for Reform Judaism urges members to step up their criticism of Israel. And on, and on.

American Jews no longer the bastion of support for Israel that they once were. If they still believe they have a familial relationship with Israelis, it increasingly feels like an abusive one in which the abuser shows his “love” by causing pain. Thus, it’s no surprise that support for Israel has plummeted among young American Jews; how many of them ever hear anything positive about Israel from their “pro-Israel” elders?

The result is that some Israelis are starting to feel, as Hillel Halkin wrote in Mosaic last month, “The distance between Israeli and American Jews is growing? Let it grow … so what?” Until recently, few Israelis would have said such a thing, and I still consider it a tragedy. But if American Jews keep telling Israelis that everything they think, feel and experience “doesn’t actually matter to us,” the number of Israelis who agree with Halkin will only grow.

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The Insufferable Tedium of Media v. White House

The War of the Poses.

Recently, the White House has adopted a habit that seems designed to maximize the frustration of the reporters who cover it. Occasionally, the administration flirts with doing away with the daily press briefing altogether or forcing reporters to submit written questions in advance. When reporters complain, the press briefing returns, but with no cameras allowed.

If the administration is feeling kind, it will allow the audio of the briefing to be recorded. Occasionally, reporters are permitted a still picture or two. This gesture is, however, only offered so as to not be so withholding that the targets of their psychological abuse lose interest in the game. Only when they truly want to hammer home a message will the White House appear to relent to journalists’ complaints and revert to the standard briefing format. Even then, it’s often only to castigate the reporters in attendance.

At Tuesday’s on-camera briefing, there was only one truly pressing subject. No, not the health care reform bill that is stalled in the Senate and could scuttle the president’s legislative agenda if it fails. Media bias was the topic du jour, as it is almost every jour.

Last week, CNN reported that Trump campaign advisor Anthony Scaramucci had ties to a state-run investment fund in Moscow. That story was based on false information and was retracted in its entirety. In a moment of rare professional penance, CNN accepted the resignations of three high-profile reporters and editors.

This display of loose journalistic ethics has become typical of reporting on Trump-Russian connections. The subjects of this smear, both those libeled directly and tangentially, have every right to be frustrated. CNN behaved admirably in facing its failure head-on. Both the president and his spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, took the opportunity to be graceless.

Donald Trump responded to the reporters’ dismissal by seeking to maximize his political advantage and declaring all stories related to his campaign’s interactions with Russian officials “fake news!” When she was asked why CNN’s response to their employees’ unprofessional conduct wasn’t good enough for the president, Huckabee Sanders attacked CNN for its serial inaccuracy. She then advised the American public to avail themselves of a video “circulating now” from James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas that purports to show a CNN producer objecting to his network’s ratings-driven obsession with the investigations into Russia and Trump. “Whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know,” Huckabee Sanders added.

At this point, Sentinel Newspapers’ Brian Karem had had enough. “What you just did is inflammatory to people all over the country who look at it and say, see, once again, the president’s right and everybody else out here is fake media,” Karem averred, “and everybody in this room is only trying to do their job.” The video of his remarks went viral, reporters and conservative pundits flew to their respective corners, and the familiar ritual of public posturing had begun.

Rarely has a perfectly symbiotic relationship been so antagonistic. Or, at least, rarely has that contrivance been so irritating.

Members of this administration might feel legitimately transgressed against when they are accused of conspiring to undermine American sovereignty—particularly if they believe those allegations to be false. And after spending the last 150 plus days being lectured about their corrupt and dishonest employers, friends, and colleagues, members of the press might sometimes put aside professional courtesies and become a little passionate. Those traits are honest and forgivable. Less defensible is the affectation of grievance.

“Does this feel like America?” barked the increasingly hysterical CNN reporter Jim Acosta. “Where the White House takes [questions] from conservatives, then openly trashes the news media in the briefing room?” Adopting the language of the over-caffeinated partisans who make up The Resistance has become a feature of Acosta’s rhetoric since the White House began to draw the curtain over the daily press briefing.

In fact, this is what a traditionally adversarial relationship between reporter and political institution looks like. It is a testament to how compromising the Obama years were for both the press and political professionals that this dynamic is so alien neither side appears to recognize it.

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Avoiding Obama’s Mistakes in Syria

A doctrine is taking shape.

With all of Washington consumed by the effort to craft and pass health-care legislation, the Trump White House appeared to catch the country’s political establishment off guard when it announced that the crisis in Syria was again reaching a crescendo.

In a prepared statement, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer revealed that the Bashar al-Assad regime was engaged in “potential preparations” to execute “another chemical attack” on civilians. “[If] Mr. Assad conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price,” the statement read.

Hours later, the Pentagon expounded upon the nature of the threat. “We have seen activity at Shayrat Airfield,” said Captain Jeff Davis, “associated with chemical weapons.” The Shayrat Air Base outside the city of Homs is the same airfield that was targeted in April with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

For all the frustration over the Trump administration’s failure to craft a coherent strategy to guide American engagement in the Syrian theater, the White House has communicated to the Assad regime a set of clear parameters in which it is expected to operate. That is a marked improvement over the approach taken by Barack Obama’s administration.

When American forces in Syria or those under the American defense umbrella are threatened by the Assad regime or its proxies, American forces will take action. On several occasions, U.S. forces have made kinetic defensive strikes on pro-government militias, and that policy recently expanded to include Syrian regular forces. On June 18, a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber was destroyed when it struck American-backed fighters laying siege to the ISIS-held city of Raqqa.

The Trump administration has also telegraphed to Damascus the limited conditions that would lead to offensive operations against regime targets. At the risk of contradicting his campaign-trail promise to scale back American commitments abroad, President Trump was convinced at the urging of his closest advisors and family members following the April 4 chemical attacks to execute strikes on the Assad regime. His administration was quick to communicate that this was a one-time punitive measure, not a campaign. There would be no follow-on action.

That directive may no longer be operative. With the release of this latest statement warning Damascus against renewed chemical strikes on rebel targets, the triggers that led to strikes on regime targets in April are hardening into a doctrine. The United States will act aggressively to maintain a global prohibition on the use of weapons of mass destruction.  There is enough consistency and clarity to Trump’s approach that it might amount to deterrence. Even if the Assad regime is not deterred, onlookers may yet be.

This is a doctrine that Barack Obama flirted with, but declined only at the last minute to adopt. “As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them,” Obama explained to the nation in a primetime address on September 10, 2013. “Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.”

This was and remains a prophetic warning. ISIS militants have already deployed chemical munitions against Iraqi troops and their American and Australian advisors. An inauspicious future typified by despots unafraid to unleash indiscriminate and unconventional weapons on the battlefield would surely have come to fruition had the West not eventually made good on Obama’s threats.

Obama framed his about-face as an odd species of consistency. He deferred to Congress in a way he hadn’t before and wouldn’t after while simultaneously empowering Moscow to mediate the conflict. This laid the groundwork for Russian armed intervention in Syria just two years later. In contrast, Donald Trump eschewed the rote dance of coalition-building and public diplomacy. Instead, he ordered the unilateral, punitive strike on a rogue for behaving roguishly. And he’s willing to do it again if need be.

That approach will prove refreshing to America’s Sunni allies who, by the end of the last administration, were entirely disillusioned with the Obama presidency. Obama’s waltz back from his red line undermined the Gulf States and shattered hopes in Syria that the West was prepared to enforce the proscription on mass civilian slaughter. In the week of war drums leading up to the anti-climax of September 10, 2013, a wave of defections from the Syrian Army suggested that a post-Assad future was possible. Today, few think such a prospect is conceivable. And because the insurgency against Assad’s regime will not end with Assad in power, an equal number cannot foresee a stop to the Syrian civil war anytime soon.

These circumstances have led some to criticize the Trump administration. Perhaps the behaviors they’ve resolved to punish are too narrowly defined. Maybe the White House should rethink regime change? It is, after all, not so much a civil war anymore but a great power conflict. American troops—to say nothing of Russian, Turkish, British, French, and a host of others—are already on the ground in Syria in numbers and at cross purposes. Still others contend that even this level of engagement in the Levant is irresponsible. They argue the Syrian quagmire is to be avoided at all costs.

These are all legitimate criticisms, but only now can there be a rational debate over a concrete Syria policy.

For more than three years, Barack Obama tried to have his cake and eat it, too. He presented himself as sagaciously unmoved by the political pressuring of Washington’s pro-war establishment, which salivates over the prospect of lucrative strikes on an alien nation.  At the same time, the Obama White House cast itself as a reluctant defender of civilization in the Middle East and elsewhere—perhaps even too quick to deploy men and ordnance. This was only nonsense retrofitted onto Barack Obama’s  pursuit of a face-saving way to retreat from his self-set “red line.”

The Trump administration’s policy in Syria is an improvement over Obama’s if only because it deserves to be called a policy. Love it or don’t, at least Americans are no longer being gaslighted into debating the merits of phantasms invented by political strategists in Washington talk shops.

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Trump Is Losing the Benefit of the Doubt on Russia

This isn't about politics.

On June 23, the Washington Post ran a comprehensive article reviewing the Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, which involved stealing emails from Democratic Party accounts and releasing them via Wikileaks. The outstanding work of reporters Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous shows that there was a bipartisan, cascading failure to respond adequately to this attack on our democracy. That attack began under President Obama and is continuing under President Trump.

The Post revealed that the CIA had “sourcing deep inside the Russian government” showing that Vladimir Putin had personally tasked his intelligence agencies with “audacious objectives—defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.”

Obama was informed of this while the election was underway, but he did little.

… the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could ‘crater’ the Russian economy.

But in the end, in late December, Obama approved a modest package combining measures that had been drawn up to punish Russia for other issues — expulsions of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian compounds — with economic sanctions so narrowly targeted that even those who helped design them describe their impact as largely symbolic.

The article went on to quote “a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia” who said: “It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked.”

In fairness to Obama, he tried to seek bipartisan support to expose Russia’s machinations and found no interest among the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, who were plainly more worried about losing an election than about this Russian attack on our democracy. Obama knew that if he had spoken out more forcefully, Trump and his Republican supporters would have hammered him for allegedly trying to “rig” the election for “Crooked Hillary.”

That doesn’t excuse Obama’s failure of leadership. He was the commander-in-chief; it was his responsibility. It does make clear, however,  that he was worried not just about the possibility of worsening relations with Russia but also about being charged with a partisan interference in the election.

The failure to react more strongly to the Russian hack extends now into the Trump administration. Trump’s reaction to the Post story is indicative of his troubling mindset. The day before the Post story came out, Trump claimed on Twitter that reports of Russian interference—as unanimously attested to by his own intelligence agencies—are “all a big Dem HOAX!” Following the publication of the Post’s story, he tweeted: “Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?”

Given that the Obama administration had publicly called out Russian interference in October, it’s hard to imagine why this would be news to Trump now.

The benefit of the doubt ends there. Trump’s next reaction was purely cynical. “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!” So when Trump is accused of collusion with the Russians or other wrong-doing, he claims that the entire Russian operation is a “hoax.” But when he wants to accuse Obama of wrongdoing, then he stipulates that the hacking was real.

For Trump, this is a purely partisan issue. The Democrats are out to get to him, to de-legitimize his election victory, and he will say or do anything to stop them—even if that means denying the reality of the Russian operation one moment and admitting it the next. There is no indication that he has treated this attack with the gravity it deserves, which makes it more likely that the Russians will be up to their old tricks in future elections, just as they have been doing recently in Europe.

Trump is right to castigate Obama for not doing more, but the same criticism now applies to him.

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200 Years on the Erie Canal

How the West was dug.

Next Tuesday marks the beginning of the 242nd year of the independence of the United States, and the day will be justly celebrated with parades, picnics, and fireworks from Hawaii to Maine.

But next Tuesday will also mark another anniversary of surpassing historical importance to this country. For it was on July 4th, 1817, 200 years ago, that the first shovelful of dirt was dug and the construction of the Erie Canal began. Finished eight years later (ahead of schedule and under budget) it united the east coast with the fast-growing trans-Appalachian west.

It was a monumental undertaking. At 363 miles, the canal was more than twice as long as any earlier canal. (The Canal du Midi in southern France was 140 miles in length.) Thomas Jefferson thought the project “little short of madness.” But Governor Dewitt Clinton saw the possibilities and went ahead, artfully handling the very considerable political opposition and arranged the financing (much of the money was raised in London).

Clinton was quickly proved right and the Erie Canal can claim to be the most consequential public works project in American history. Before the canal, bulk goods such as grain could reach the east coast population centers only by going down the Mississippi River and out through the port of New Orleans. With the canal, it could travel via the Great Lakes and the canal to the port of New York. Before the canal, it had taken six weeks to move a barrel of flour from Buffalo to New York City, at the cost of $100. With the canal, it took six days and cost $6.00. The result was an economic revolution.

Within a few years, New York City had become, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes (the doctor and poet, not his son the Supreme Court justice), “that tongue that is licking up the cream of commerce of a continent.” The city exploded in size, expanding northwards at the rate of about two blocks a year. That may not seem like much, but Manhattan is about two miles wide, and thus the city was adding about ten miles of street front every year, a pace that continued for decades.

The cost of the canal was paid off in only eight years and thereafter became a cash cow for the state. This allowed it to weather the crash of 1837 and the following depression, which bankrupted the state of Pennsylvania and crippled Philadelphia’s banks. New York quickly became the country’s undisputed financial center, which it has been ever since.

And while goods were moving eastwards, people were moving westward through the canal as farmers deserted the thin, stony soils of New England for the rich, deep loams of Ohio and Indiana. This “New England diaspora” moved the political center of the country westwards.

The canal era in this country was a brief one as railroads, beginning in the 1830’s, began to spread. But the Erie Canal continued to function as an artery of commerce until the 1970’s and is still used today for things that, usually for reasons of size, cannot be moved by highway or railroad. And it remains a popular avenue for recreational boating.

So Americans should remember Dewitt Clinton next week just as we remember Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin. For New Yorkers, that goes double. For it was the Erie Canal that put the “empire” in the Empire State.

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