When it comes to reinventing the wheel, some people just never tire of the exercise. That’s the only way to view a new Middle East peace initiative that its sponsors are touting as the proposal that the world has been waiting for that will finally solve the problem that has resisted every previous initiative. But in this case, the solution isn’t coming from unfriendly outsiders like the European Union, the United Nations, or even the Obama administration. It’s a group of American Jews who not only believe they are acting in the best interests of Israel but are pushing their ideas forward in cooperation with an organization of retired Israeli military and security officials as well as a Washington security think tank. Buoyed by the bad press that the current Israeli government has been getting, these people think now is just the moment to push forward a peace plan that will help prepare the way for change despite the opposition of the elected leaders of the Jewish state.
But even if we were to concede that their motives are pure, what they are doing is not only a waste of time, it is also actually counter-productive.
The group in question is the Israel Policy Forum, an organization supported and staffed by people with records of support for the Jewish state but which has been out of the news for a long time. Created at the behest of the late Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, the IPF’s original intent was to serve as a counterweight to AIPAC because the prime minister thought it was insufficiently enthusiastic about the Oslo Accords. Supported by heavyweight American Jewish donors, the group had a big initial splash, but its backers didn’t have the stomach to compete with the umbrella pro-Israel lobby. It was also soon outpaced by events as the Oslo process unraveled and was ultimately discredited in the eyes of the Israeli public by the deceit of Yasir Arafat and the horror of the Palestinian terrorism that he unleashed in the years that followed.
Since then, the IPF has been eclipsed among liberals by J Street, a group that didn’t shrink from seeking to support the Obama administration’s policy of pressure and more “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel as well as backing an Iranian nuclear deal that was opposed by Israelis across the political spectrum from left to right. Indeed, for many on the Jewish left here even J Street isn’t radical enough since it still puts itself forward as a “pro-Israel” group and opposes the BDS movement that aims at waging economic war on the Jewish state even as it supports those who practice more selective boycotts. But the IPF has just gotten fresh blood in the form of faithful Obama loyalist, apologist and funder Alan Solow and other liberal big shots. Yet though this effort is aimed at a more mainstream audience, the IPF initiative is based on the same bogus notion that Israel needs to be saved from itself and forced to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to preserve it as a Jewish state.
IPF’s partners in the idea are also mainstream players. The Israeli half is called Commanders for Israel’s Security. It’s a club for left-leaning former IDF and security personnel who don’t like the Netanyahu government and are frustrated by the way Israeli voters have deprived them of influence. The Washington think tank is the Center for a New American Security, a foreign policy think tank backed by many heavy hitters and even numbers among its board members former Senator Joe Lieberman, whose pro-Israel credentials are not to be questioned.
So what’s the nature of their big idea that is supposed to be unveiled next week? We’re told it’s a two-state solution involving withdrawals from the West Bank and Jerusalem, relocating of settlers and guarantees of Israel’s security. It all sounds plausible but there’s one big problem with the labor of all these very serious and well-intentioned people. While there may be a few quirks about this plan that haven’t previously been included in peace plans, there’s nothing original about the idea or even the details. It’s all been tried before and failed each time.
Those failures didn’t occur because, as the IPF pre-rollout publicity campaign IPF seems to imply, Israel’s governments were too right wing or not forthcoming enough, or its people weren’t “prepared” for peace. It failed because the Palestinians have repeatedly explicitly rejected a two-state solution. Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas have never been able to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn or who pays for relocating dispossessed Jewish settlers.
For two decades, peace processors have never ceased to tell us that there is a solution to the conflict and that everyone knows what it is. It’s the same basic formula Ehud Barak offered Arafat in 2000 and 2001 and Ehud Olmert offered Abbas in 2008. Since then even the supposedly incorrigible right-wing Netanyahu has agreed to two states and even offered major withdrawals from the West Bank that would have required the evacuation of settlements to Abbas. But the Palestinians have never taken yes for an answer and the reason is simple. It is their population that is unready for peace because their national identity has been inextricably linked to the war on Zionism for a century. That is why even Palestinian moderates extol terrorism and honor those who try to slaughter Jews and why even Abbas continually issues statements, as he did again this week, which indicates that, like his Hamas rivals, he believes all of Israel is “occupied” territory.
What the IPF heavy-hitters don’t understand is that the Israeli people elected a right-wing majority government for the third straight time last year because the Palestinians discredited the Oslo paradigm. A vast majority would probably support a plan like the one being promoted if they thought it would lead to true peace. But they aren’t interested in new peace plans about territorial withdrawals until the geniuses drawing up these schemes find a way to ensure that a Palestinian state in the West Bank won’t wind up being a carbon copy of the Palestinian state that exists in all but name in Gaza, which was brought into existence by Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from the strip. The problem is the smart people making these plans and the well-intentioned donors backing them have no realistic answer to that question. Nor do they seem to realize what even Israel’s left-wing opposition leader Isaac Herzog acknowledged earlier this year when he admitted there was no peace partner for Israel and that a two-state solution isn’t possible for the foreseeable future.
So what’s the point of this new effort? Sadly, it’s just Jewish politics, as liberal Jews like Solow and his friends try again to displace or diminish AIPAC because they believe the unpopularity of Netanyahu gives them an opportunity. The Israeli government got more right wing in the last week with a cabinet shuffle that brought an unattractive figure like Avigdor Lieberman (though he has always been an advocate of a two-state solution) again into a position of prominence. Maybe that provides an opening to help IPF get more mentions in the New York Times and to boost itself as a player when the next administration takes office in January even if their efforts have nothing to do with promoting a realistic chance of peace.
What harm can come of it? Unfortunately, this sort of mischief that is fueled by American Jews and Israelis who want to take shots at Netanyahu doesn’t come without a cost. Efforts like this one that promote the idea that Israel is the obstacle to peace rather than the Palestinians, make it that much harder to put the focus where it belongs. So long as people who claim to be Israel’s friends are carping about settlements or borders, or treating Israeli’s voters as if they were bigots or children rather than the realists most of them are, the Palestinians will never change. They will only redouble efforts to put pressure on Israel with terror.
All of which proves that the good intentions of the worthy people sponsoring this “new” peace initiative are as worthless as the promises Arafat made to Rabin when the IPF first went into business. This is the kind of help that Israel doesn’t need.
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Some Help That Israel Doesn’t Need
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: A misconception about the war on terror.
On this week’s first COMMENTARY podcast, we stand agog at the personal $32 million payout by former #1 cable news star Bill O’Reilly and what it means about the sexual harassment scandals and the way they are changing the rules. Then we move on to simpler matters, like American foreign policy and the ambush in Niger. Give a listen.
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When Trump fights on values, he wins.
For approximately 18 minutes, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly accomplished the impossible: He got America’s journalists and political opinion writers to shut up and listen.
Kelly took to the podium in the White House briefing room on Thursday to put an end to a controversy that had been bleeding the White House of credibility for days. On Monday, the president was asked why he had not yet spoken out about the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger and if he had spoken with the families of those killed in action. Trump confessed that he had not yet called the families of the dead because they were difficult calls for him to make. But he sought to insulate himself from criticism by insisting that Barack Obama, too, had refrained from contacting the families of deceased servicemen and women.
To the press, this sounded like a challenge, and they responded as they should. Methodical accounts of calls made by Obama to Gold Star families were uncovered. The Washington Post discovered that Trump had personally promised $25,000 to a bereaved family; the check was not written until the day that story was published. Finally, when Trump did contact the family of a serviceman who died in Niger, it was overheard by a family friend—Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson—who told the press that Trump had behaved insensitively on that call. Trump denied it, but the grieving mother of the fallen confirmed Wilson’s account.
It was a bad story for the White House, and Kelly was tasked with damage control. And he succeeded. Kelly held the rapt attention of reporters in the briefing room as he described what happens to a soldier when he is slain in action. Voice cracking, he opened up about his own experience when his friend, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, told him that his son lost his life in Afghanistan. Kelly said that Dunford used a variation of the words that Trump used, which the president’s critics had called artless. They might have been, but Kelly noted that there simply are no words that can ease the pain of that moment for a grieving parent who has lost their son or daughter. And he expressed bitter disappointment that the president’s words would be used as a political football by Rep. Wilson.
It was a moment that changed the game for Trump. When the president is fighting a war against established and confirmed facts, he loses. This week’s $25,000 check is not unlike the money Trump raised for veterans early in 2016 to counterprogram against a Fox News Channel debate he wanted to skip; the press can humiliate Trump and compel him to act in ways he’d prefer to avoid. But the facts have to be demonstrable. When Trump is engaged in a battle over amorphous sentiments and values–even if they are values Trump does not personally appear to share–he is on firmer terrain. That was precisely the terrain Trump’s chief of staff chose for the president.
Toward the end of his address, Kelly gave the press a rare window into his own thinking on cultural and political matters. He expressed disgust at the values and mores that have been cast aside. Respect for women, the sanctity of life, service to one’s country, honoring the sacrifice of a Gold Star family above petty political concerns–all gone. Many observed that these criticisms apply as much to Trump as they do his detractors, but that is beside the point. The nebulous and yet nevertheless intuitive values Kelly articulated—chivalry, piety, valor, and patriotism—are precisely the grounds on which Trump prefers to make his stands.
It turns out that Kelly was mistaken about Wilson. He attacked her for praising her own role in securing funding for a new FBI building in her district. In fact, she had only taken credit for helping to name it, and she did so in a humble and bipartisan way. Kelly was posturing as incensed for the benefit of the audience, and it was effective. Nevertheless, he missed the mark, and he should address the error. That will not be good enough for Kelly’s critics who are today behaving as though Trump’s chief of staff has slandered Wilson’s good name and must have satisfaction. What’s more, in scene-chewing fashion, Kelly’s critics are going so far as to deem him racist.
Planned Parenthood attacked Kelly for joining in a “pattern” of Trump administration officials “undermining black women.” MSNBC host Joy Reid and Lawrence O’Donnell implied Kelly’s comments were inspired by his upbringing in “segregated Boston.” Even Rep. Wilson suggested that Kelly deployed a “racist term” by attacking her for living up to the “long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise.” The phrase “empty barrels” had not been racist until about 4 hours ago, as of this writing, but it’s not hard to find liberal Kelly critics echoing the charge with vim. In fact, the line Kelly used is only one word off from a famous refrain in Shakespeare’s Henry V: “I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.’” It is hard to think of a more Shakespearean twist than a national effort to dissect this line for hints of coded racism.
Kelly erred in his attack on Wilson, but so, too, did Wilson err in her attack on Kelly. Trump’s critics will make no allowance for simple mistakes here; Kelly was far too effective behind that podium to let it stand unchallenged. In the process of litigating their grievance, Trump’s critics are charging headlong off of defensible terrain and into a debate about American values—debates that Trump tends to win. One day, Trump’s critics will stop making the same mistakes, but that is not today.
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More than just Trump.
On Thursday, George W. Bush delivered a speech at the “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In The World” event in New York City. Headlines are touting the speech as an attack on Trumpism. That’s accurate, so far as it goes. But it’s clear from Bush’s words that he was aiming for (and achieved) something loftier than yet another complaint about the 45th president. Bush was making the case against the pervasive discontent that’s driven many citizens throughout the Democratic West to a politics of grievance and revenge. Trumpism is but one example.
Without mentioning Trump by name, Bush said: “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.” Without uttering the words “America first,” he offered his critique of it: “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism—forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade—forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.” He went on to remark: “Bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.” A beautiful statement justly applauded.
Those quotes have garnered the most attention because they relate directly to Trump and his followers. But, in truth, the entire speech was a masterpiece, offering up brilliant gems throughout.
There was this description of our political divide: “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions—forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.” There was a kind of philosophical proof of the rightness of democracy: “No democracy pretends to be a tyranny. Most tyrannies pretend they are democracies. Democracy remains the definition of political legitimacy.” And on a day that found the president and a congresswoman sparring over whether or not the president had insulted a war hero’s widow, there was this: “We know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.”
If Bush had merely attacked Trump, his speech would have been subsumed into the sordid us-and-them squabbles he was denouncing. (If some pundits have their way, it still will be.) Bush, recall, has an aversion to criticizing other American presidents. “I don’t think it’s good for the country to have a former president undermine a current president,” he said while Barack Obama was in office, “I think it’s bad for the presidency for that matter.”
It’s also a way of avoiding the larger moral challenges we face. And Bush, the most misunderstood leader of our time, is all about large moral challenges. This is the man who said, three days after 9/11, “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” For Bush, ridding the world of evil still means, in part, advancing the cause of human liberty. And that’s really what his speech was about. As he said, “This is part of the reason we meet here today. How do we begin to encourage a new, 21st-century American consensus on behalf of democratic freedom and free markets?”
To find answers to that question he turned to Tom Melia and longtime COMMENTARY contributor Pete Wehner, both scholars at the George W. Bush Institute. In response, they drafted a paper titled “The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In The World,” and, yesterday, Bush talked up some of its recommendations. These include adopting a stronger defense against foreign attacks on American democracy, leading the fight for freedom around the world, placing a priority on civics education, and restoring trust to American institutions. These are all excellent ideas, and the paper elaborates on them in creative and useful ways.
The trickiest challenge of all, however, is cultural: how to encourage the American people to abandon destructive political fads and reclaim the higher ideals of our country’s founding. There is little that policy can do to strengthen our faith in the “American creed.” But toward that end, Bush’s speech was itself an effective step. His words will stand as a marker of where we want to be after the current political enthusiasms fail to deliver. The decency of the man, contrasted with the indecency of the moment he was describing, was the most powerful rebuke to American self-doubt that we’ve seen since Trump was elected president.
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Silence, Wordsworth wrote, “is a privilege of the grave, a right of the departed. Let him, therefore, who infringes that right by speaking publicly of, for, or against, those who cannot speak for themselves, take heed that he opens not his mouth without a sufficient sanction.”
Others have said it less poetically: don’t speak ill of the dead.
The message has apparently been lost on one Jenny Listman, who posted a diatribe against the late Elie Wiesel on Medium this week. In the wake of the #metoo campaign, Listman accused Wiesel of having sexually assaulted her 28 years ago.
In her account, Wiesel squeezed her tush at a fundraising dinner that had more than 1,000 people in attendance. She further alleged that Wiesel “mistook me for an ultra-religious underage girl who was unlikely to tell anyone about it.” She went on: “he purposely chose to molest someone who he assumed was a minor and who would be compelled into silence.” She then recited a laundry list of her problems: suicidal tendencies, depression, panic attacks, etc., all of which she seems to blame on Wiesel’s alleged assault.
I know I will be vilified for this, but Listman’s tale is hard to believe. She not only describes behavior on Wiesel’s part that no one, in his half-century as a major world figure, has ever even whispered about; she seems to know he thought she was religious and was underage and would therefore never report his offense against her. How could she know what he had thought, what she had looked like to him? The fact she is free to advance these wild speculations as though they were truth impeaches her credibility.
For writing these words, I’ll be called a sexist and a misogynist; a victim-blamer and a survivor-shamer. So be it. Like most women, I too have experienced un-asked for attention, unwanted catcalls, and yes, on the subway, once, a touch I did not request and to which I did not consent. According to the wording of the #metoo campaign, and the endless stories I saw on my social media newsfeeds, I could have posted, I could have claimed the mantle. “Me too,” I could have said to the world. But I haven’t. Because, sadly, I know women who have experienced real sexual assault, the kind that cannot ever be confused for harassment or impropriety. To equate harassment and assault, as the campaign does, is to do a grave disservice to women who most deserve our support.
Elie Wiesel is gone from this world. He can no longer defend himself, proclaim his innocence, declare that Listman’s tale is a false one. Or, if she is to be believed, if he is guilty, he can no longer apologize. This is a moment when accusers are believed without question before they have even had to offer an iota of proof for their allegations. The pen is mightier than the sword. You or someone you love might be next. Does that worry you? #metoo.
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A problem with no solution.
Though it’s certainly the worst Photoshop job I have ever seen, a provocative image making the rounds on social media also helps demonstrate why the fight against “fake news” is unwinnable.
Let’s set the scene: Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett is surrounded by his jubilant colleagues in the team locker room, all of whom appear to be madly celebrating their teammate’s decision to torch a giant American flag. The image apparently originated on Facebook weeks ago and had been shared thousands of times before it found its way to me. Yet even a cursory review of it would suggest to the critical observer that something is amiss.
For example, all of Bennett’s teammates are looking directly at him and not the blazing flag he’s holding. Even Bennett is looking away from the object of his hatred. Despite being almost entirely engulfed, the flag shows no signs of charring. There is no smoke, nor is there apparently any heat; Bennett is leaning into the flames. Despite being well outside the usual flag-burning demographic, head coach Pete Carroll is ebulliently observing the spectacle. You would think someone might be concerned that setting a blaze inside the tiny, windowless locker room might set off the sprinkler system. This demonic ritual seems to have so possessed our subjects that they are prepared to suffer smoke inhalation and minor burns; such is their commitment to hating America the protector of the faith, Donald Trump.
You don’t need to dig up a debunking of this image (there are several) to know it is propaganda, and weak sauce at that. The fact is, thousands wanted this to be true. They wanted to imagine that their cultural adversaries are one-dimensional robots with a monomaniacal hatred of the country. Those who earnestly shared this image had to suspend disbelief, and then to cloister themselves in circles that would not expose them to evidence contradicting their preconceptions. This is why Washington’s fixation with “fake news” and containing its most damaging effects on the national political ecosystem are doomed. That is a battle against human nature itself.
For lawmakers, that sounds like a challenge, and many have accepted. On Thursday, Axios revealed that Senator John McCain will join two Democrats, Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar, in supporting a move to regulate social-media outlets like Facebook. A proposed amendment to the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which regulates campaign- and issues-related advertising on broadcast, cable, and satellite radio and television, would compel tech and social media firms to disclose advertisements that cost more than $500. Though this act has suffered previous rebukes in the courts, its provisions preventing foreign nationals from engaging in political spending have survived judicial scrutiny. Moreover, Axios indicates Silicon Valley is resigned to the prospect of interference from Washington. The writing is on the wall for social media, but that does not change the fact that expanding Washington’s regulatory power to the Internet is a solution in search of a problem.
According to Facebook, between June 2015 and May 2017, Russian propaganda outlets and Russia-linked agitators purchased about 3,000 divisive ads to the tune of $100,000. That amount of money could yield at least one impression for anywhere from 23 to 70 million people. That seems like a lot, but, in 2015 and 2016, Facebook took in more than $11 million directly from campaigns, to say nothing of legitimate outside groups and 501(c)s.
While “fake news” had more potential to be shared and consumed by those who get some news and information from social media, it’s not clear that it had any impact on shaping public opinion. A study conducted by New York University’s Hunt Allcott and Stanford’s Matthew Gentzkow published in January found that average news consumers were highly unlikely to recall a fake news headline and even less likely to believe them. Moreover, media consumers are much more likely to get their news from news outlets online, radio, and broadcast and cable television than social media.
The scourge is, for the most part, homegrown. Of course, there are notorious foreign enterprises, like the Macedonian “fake-news” factory that methodically pumped propaganda into websites to ham-fistedly target conservative readers. For example, the fake website ConservativeState.com ran a headline in 2016 that purported to expose Hillary Clinton saying she hoped people like Trump ran for office because “they’re honest and can’t be bought.”
That is an atypically sophisticated example of the genre. Much of the “fake news” that concerns lawmakers is made in the U.S.A, and the examples are less than inspiring. Among them are the revelations that Barack Obama planned to issue a “blanket pardon” to protect Clinton from prosecution for crimes of which she was already exonerated, the fact that the former first lady filed for divorce after the election, that Trump thinks being an atheist is a good business strategy, and that the FBI had issued a warrant for Obama’s arrest.
The problem for the crusaders attempting to impose temperance on those who imbibe “fake news” is that their efforts are misdirected. “Fake news” isn’t the menace; gullibility is.
These and thousands of other fake-news stories should inspire in responsible news consumers a hunger for confirmation. It takes an active commitment to ignorance to take salacious headlines from suspicious sites for gospel, and that’s not something Washington can regulate away. They would be more effective educating the public on what constitutes “fake news” and fostering a sense of curiosity in whoever is still looking to politicians for guidance. Ultimately, though, the problem is not for politicians to solve. If you want to believe the former president personally makes millions off of Obamacare’s “royalties,” nothing will stop you. And, frankly, it’s a waste of effort to try.