Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barack Obama

Bibi’s Triumph Puts Obama on the Defensive

If President Obama was hoping that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would lay an egg with his much-anticipated and controversial speech to a joint session of Congress, he was gravely disappointed. Netanyahu’s address was a triumph that put the administration on the defensive over its reckless pursuit of détente with Iran. But though the administration’s apologists are willing to admit that Netanyahu won on style points, they are wrong when they claim he offered no alternative to a deal with Iran that abandons the president’s previously stated principles about forcing the Islamist regime to abandon their nuclear ambitions. To the contrary, Netanyahu’s speech was more than stirring rhetoric. It laid out clear benchmarks for what must be achieved in any deal and pointed the way toward a return to tough sanctions and equally tough negotiating tactics. In doing so, he put the administration on the defensive and, no matter what happens in the talks, forces it to explain an indefensible deal and reminded Congress that it has a responsibility to weigh in on the issue to ensure the nation’s security.

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If President Obama was hoping that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would lay an egg with his much-anticipated and controversial speech to a joint session of Congress, he was gravely disappointed. Netanyahu’s address was a triumph that put the administration on the defensive over its reckless pursuit of détente with Iran. But though the administration’s apologists are willing to admit that Netanyahu won on style points, they are wrong when they claim he offered no alternative to a deal with Iran that abandons the president’s previously stated principles about forcing the Islamist regime to abandon their nuclear ambitions. To the contrary, Netanyahu’s speech was more than stirring rhetoric. It laid out clear benchmarks for what must be achieved in any deal and pointed the way toward a return to tough sanctions and equally tough negotiating tactics. In doing so, he put the administration on the defensive and, no matter what happens in the talks, forces it to explain an indefensible deal and reminded Congress that it has a responsibility to weigh in on the issue to ensure the nation’s security.

What had to most frustrate the White House was Netanyahu’s ability to debunk their main talking point about the speech. After weeks of hyping the address as an injection of partisanship into the U.S.-Israel relationship, the prime minister’s willingness to give the president his due for past support of Israel and his refusal to mention the many instances in which Obama had undercut the Jewish state’s position and deliberately attempted to create more distance between the two allies made the White House’s angry reaction look petty. The prime minister’s initial decision to accept House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation gave the president the opening he needed to distract the country from his Iran policy. With the help of the president’s always helpful press cheering section, White House political operatives made Netanyahu’s supposed breach of protocol the issue rather than the appeasement of Iran. But they eventually succumbed to overkill in denouncing Netanyahu and by the time the prime minister took the podium at the Capitol, the administration’s efforts had the unintended effect of giving him a bigger audience than he might otherwise have had.

Thus, by the time the address was over, the issue was no longer whether he should have given the speech. Though the White House is doggedly trying to portray the speech as partisan, it was not. Now it is the substance of Netanyahu’s concerns about Iran’s behavior and the failure of the Western powers to negotiate a deal that would stop Iran from getting a weapon that is the subject of discussion. Which is to say that after winning news cycles at Netanyahu’s expense throughout February, the White House has set itself up to have to explain years of concessions to a dangerous regime with almost nothing to show for it in terms of making the world any safer.

At the core of the disagreement between Netanyahu and Obama on Iran is the president’s faith that Iran can or will change. Even Obama apologists no longer regard the notion that Hassan Rouhani’s election as president signaled a move toward moderation as a serious argument. Though the administration has been careful not to defend Iran’s past and present behavior, by eloquently laying out the Islamist regime’s record of terrorism and aggression, it put the onus on the president to explain why he thinks that over the course of the next decade, Iran is going to, “get right with the world,” as he has said.

Equally important, the speech forces the president to defend the substance of the deal he is desperately trying to entice the Iranians to sign. Netanyahu reminded the world what has happened since Obama’s pledge during his 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney that any deal with Iran would force it to give up its nuclear program. Since then, the administration has not only recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium but also agreed to let them keep several thousand centrifuges and the rest of their nuclear infrastructure.

As Netanyahu pointed out, even if they abide by the terms of the deal—something about which reasonable people are doubtful given their past record of cheating and unwillingness to open their country to United Nations inspectors—the ten-year sunset clause Obama mentioned in interviews yesterday gives the regime the ability to eventually build a nuclear weapon. Rather than stopping Iran from getting a bomb, the path that Obama has travelled ensures they will eventually get one even if the accord works. The president not only guarantees that Iran will become a threshold nuclear power but, as Netanyahu rightly argued, sets in motion a series of events that will create a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Did Netanyahu offer an alterative to the president’s policy? The answer is yes. The administration is right when they say Netanyahu offered nothing new, but that was the point. After belatedly adopting sanctions, the administration quickly gave up on them just at the moment in 2013 when they were starting to bite. By toughening sanctions, as the Kirk-Menendez bill currently before Congress would do, and increasing the political and economic pressure on the regime, the U.S. has a chance to reverse Obama’s concessions and bring Iran to its knees. The West must insist that Iran change its behavior before sanctions are lifted, rather than afterward. Instead of Obama and Kerry’s zeal for a deal encouraging the Iranians to make no concessions, Netanyahu was correct to remind Congress that Tehran needs a deal more than the U.S. Indeed, Netanyahu not only offered an alternative; he put forward the only one that has a chance of stopping Iran from getting a weapon without using force.

Try as they might to continue to abuse Netanyahu for a brilliant speech, the White House’s response demonstrates nothing but its intolerance for criticism and inability to defend a policy of capitulation to Iran. Rather than engage in pointless discussions about the president’s hurt feelings or Netanyahu’s chutzpah for telling the truth about the negotiations, it’s time for the press and Congress to start asking the administration tough questions about a reckless deal before it is too late.

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Have a Strategy to Stop Iran? Not Obama.

In an interview with Reuters intended as a rebuttal to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress tomorrow, President Obama claims that his critics are not only wrong about his negotiating strategy with Iran, but that they lack one of their own other than to declare war. The attempt to depict his critics as warmongers is a classic Obama straw man. Opponents of his policy do have an alternative: returning to the policy of pressure and sanctions that the president discarded in 2013 which offered the only way, short of the use of force, to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. But the real fallacy here is not so much the typical administration smears of critics. It is the fact that the president has an Iran strategy at all. Having made concession after concession to Iran in the last two years, there is little reason to believe that the current negotiations will stop Iran. To the contrary, the president appears set on a path that ensures that, sooner or later, Iran will get its bomb.

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In an interview with Reuters intended as a rebuttal to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress tomorrow, President Obama claims that his critics are not only wrong about his negotiating strategy with Iran, but that they lack one of their own other than to declare war. The attempt to depict his critics as warmongers is a classic Obama straw man. Opponents of his policy do have an alternative: returning to the policy of pressure and sanctions that the president discarded in 2013 which offered the only way, short of the use of force, to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. But the real fallacy here is not so much the typical administration smears of critics. It is the fact that the president has an Iran strategy at all. Having made concession after concession to Iran in the last two years, there is little reason to believe that the current negotiations will stop Iran. To the contrary, the president appears set on a path that ensures that, sooner or later, Iran will get its bomb.

Let’s examine the president’s claims.

Both the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have insisted that agreeing to let Iran keep its nuclear program—something that he specifically promised he would never do in his 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney—was unavoidable. They claim that Western pressure would never have forced Iran to surrender its nukes. More than that, they assert that their concessions have enticed Iran to agree to strictures that have halted Tehran’s progress toward a bomb.

The answer to the first claim is that we don’t know if that would have worked because Obama never tried it. By abandoning sanctions just at the moment when Iran seemed to be feeling the pressure—and prior to an oil price collapse that would have made them even less capable of resisting foreign pressure—the president ensured that the Islamist regime never had to face a worst-case scenario. Instead of waiting for them to fold, he did, and the result was a nuclear deal that undid years of diplomacy aimed at building an international consensus against Iran’s right to enrich uranium.

The president and Kerry are now boasting that their interim deal hasn’t been violated by Iran and that it has stopped their progress in its tracks. But given the poor intelligence that the U.S. has about Iran and the regime’s lack of cooperation with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, this is purely a matter of conjecture and faith on the part of the president and his apologists. But even if we were to believe, in spite of Iran’s long record of cheating on nuclear issues, that somehow the interim deal was succeeding, even the president concedes that allowing them to keep their nuclear infrastructure means that Iran could always go back on its promises, re-activate the stockpile of nuclear fuel still in its possession, and “break out” to a bomb in short order.

The length of a “break out” is a key point in the president’s defense of his strategy. He told Reuters that as long as long as this period was at least a year, the U.S. would be able to detect it in time to re-impose sanctions or use force to stop them from obtaining a bomb. But this is another argument based more on faith than facts and which, even in the unlikely event it is vindicated, still makes Iran stronger and puts U.S. allies in the region as well as the West in peril.

The prediction of a year is an optimistic conjecture embraced by the president because it sounds better than the few months some others think is a more sensible estimate. The lack of credible inspections of Iran’s military research makes any predictions about the length of a breakout a guess, and not even an educated one. U.S. intelligence in Iran is negligible. Even the IAEA concedes that Iran may have extensive nuclear facilities that the West knows nothing about.

But let’s say it is a year. Given the poor state of U.S. intelligence on Iran, why would anyone believe Obama’s promise that he’ll know what’s going on in their secret facilities? This is the same president who assured us that his intelligence told him that ISIS was merely a “jayvee” terror team not worth worrying about. And even if a U.S. president did learn the truth about their plans, would Obama or a similarly weak-willed Democratic successor be ready and willing to believe the intelligence that showed a cherished diplomatic strategy had failed and be ready to re-impose sanctions, let alone order the use of force?

Obama’s commitment to the negotiations isn’t purely one of belief that it is the only way to stop Iran’s nuclear dreams. It’s a path to his dream of a new détente with Iran that will erase decades of enmity and create a new era of cooperation with that tyrannical, anti-Semitic, and terror-sponsoring regime. Why should we believe that he is ready to give up his hopes if he has already proven himself to be unconvinced by Iran’s past deceptions and prevarications? Why should any American president, even one more sensible about Iran than Obama, think that once sanctions are dismantled, our Western allies who are eager to do business with the regime would be willing to give up their profits to redeem a promise made by Obama?

Moreover, by reportedly agreeing to a sunset clause, the president has already legitimized Iran’s nuclear dreams and rendered it almost certain that the ten-year period now being mooted for the agreement will be shortened one way or the other.

The president’s critics can’t be sure that their strategy of a return to sanctions and tough pressure on Iran aimed at bringing the regime to its knees will succeed. But, despite the president’s claims, he never tried it before he prematurely abandoned pressure for appeasement. But we can be almost certain that a strategy that aims at entente with Iran is guaranteed to fail miserably. Indeed, it is not so much a recipe for failure as it is one for a completely different approach to Iran that is ready to acquiesce to their demands.

That is a position that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu does well to protest tomorrow in his speech to Congress. So should Democrats and Republicans who take their pledges to stop Iran more seriously than the president.

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Netanyahu Is Everything Obama Is Not

A month ago, I referred to Barack Obama as “quite simply, anti-Israel.” Events in the last month have only confirmed that judgment.

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A month ago, I referred to Barack Obama as “quite simply, anti-Israel.” Events in the last month have only confirmed that judgment.

There are many arguments one could marshall to support that assertion, but it strikes me that among the most compelling is this: Mr. Obama has more anger toward Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, than he has toward any other regime in the world–including the most oppressive ones. He has treated the prime minister of the Jewish state with more disrespect and pettiness than any other world leader–including the most brutal ones. The time and energy that President Obama and his administration have spent on attacking Mr. Netanyahu–on the record, on background, and off the record–is astonishing. Only Obama’s golf game seems to command more of his time and passion than does Israel, though with the former it’s all positive energy and with the latter it’s all negative energy.

There is undoubtedly a troubling combination of reasons that explains Mr. Obama’s relentless hostility to Israel and Netanyahu; I suspect one of them is that the Israeli prime minister refuses to be intimidated by the president and is willing to publicly challenge his arguments–and worse, from Mr. Obama’s perspective, to embarrass the president by exposing (in this case) his policy of appeasement toward Iran. (For more on the disastrous deal the president has embraced, read this and this.)

I have spoken to members of Congress who have dealt with Mr. Obama and remarked to me that he gets most petulant and prickly when he’s challenged and bested in debate. It infuriates him, which is what you would expect from a president who is notorious for his facile arguments and intellectual dishonesty. No chief executive in my lifetime more closely fits the description by Kenneth Minogue: “a pyrotechnic in a field of straw men.” (h/t George Will.)

Narcissists hate to be embarrassed, which is precisely what Mr. Netanyahu will do to Mr. Obama tomorrow from the well of Congress. Unlike the president, the Israeli prime minister won’t be nasty or personal about it. Rather, he will do it, I suspect, with surgical precision, demolishing one Obama argument after another. Which will only infuriate Mr. Obama even more. (So will the fact that Mr. Netanyahu’s popularity in America is increasing despite, and perhaps because of, the administration’s childish attacks on him.)

Mr. Netanyahu is everything Barack Obama is not: Strong, tough, shrewd, unwilling to bend and bow to tyrants and willing to stand up for his nation and defend it abroad. On some level, Mr. Obama must surely know this. He hates Mr. Netanyahu for it, even as others of us admire him all the more for it.

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Iran Stakes Bigger Than Bibi and Barack

The Obama administration sent United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power to speak to the AIPAC Conference today to assure her audience that the U.S. would not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. But though she was greeted politely, the promises rang hollow in light of the credible reports of the latest terms being offered the Iranians by President Obama. That is why, despite the misgivings of some supporters of Israel and the vocal and often vicious attacks being directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu prior to his controversial address to a joint session of Congress tomorrow, the need to address the dangers of the current negotiations being conducted by the administration with Iran is greater than ever. Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech today didn’t succeed in defusing the controversy despite his own assurances that the argument was merely a family quarrel. To the very end, this story is being played as one of a personal rivalry between two men. There is truth to that interpretation, but it bears repeating that the stakes here are much bigger than President Obama’s resentment of the prime minister and Netanyahu’s reelection prospects. With talks involving Secretary of State Kerry and Iran’s foreign minister resuming today in Switzerland, Netanyahu’s address ought to be the starting point for a debate about the virtues of administration policy, not an occasion for analysis about whether he has damaged or politicized the U.S.-Israel alliance.

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The Obama administration sent United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power to speak to the AIPAC Conference today to assure her audience that the U.S. would not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. But though she was greeted politely, the promises rang hollow in light of the credible reports of the latest terms being offered the Iranians by President Obama. That is why, despite the misgivings of some supporters of Israel and the vocal and often vicious attacks being directed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu prior to his controversial address to a joint session of Congress tomorrow, the need to address the dangers of the current negotiations being conducted by the administration with Iran is greater than ever. Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech today didn’t succeed in defusing the controversy despite his own assurances that the argument was merely a family quarrel. To the very end, this story is being played as one of a personal rivalry between two men. There is truth to that interpretation, but it bears repeating that the stakes here are much bigger than President Obama’s resentment of the prime minister and Netanyahu’s reelection prospects. With talks involving Secretary of State Kerry and Iran’s foreign minister resuming today in Switzerland, Netanyahu’s address ought to be the starting point for a debate about the virtues of administration policy, not an occasion for analysis about whether he has damaged or politicized the U.S.-Israel alliance.

The focus on Netanyahu is understandable. By choosing to accept an invitation to speak to Congress from House Speaker John Boehner without first gaining the approval of the administration, he injected himself into a debate over an Iran sanctions bill that looked to have massive bipartisan support and perhaps even a veto-proof majority despite the fervent opposition of the White House. That decision gave the administration the opening it needed to pick off many wavering Democrats from the ranks of sanctions advocates including some who probably will not boycott Netanyahu’s speech. But once the terms being offered the Iranians were leaked in late February the debate about the speech became a mere political sideshow.

It bears remembering at this point that the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations has nothing to do with protocol or a speech many in this country perceive as having more to do with Netanyahu’s efforts to win reelection later this month. The crisis is the result of more than six years of administration efforts to distance itself from Israel on both the Palestinian issue as well as the Iran nuclear threat. By choosing to discard his 2012 campaign promises about eliminating Iran’s nuclear program and instead embracing a diplomatic effort aimed at creating détente with the Islamist regime, it is President Obama who precipitated the argument, not Netanyahu.

The question before Congress is, after all, not about U.S.-Israel relations. Rather, it is whether an administration that has already taken a step toward acquiescing to a nuclear Iran can, Power’s promises notwithstanding, take another even bigger one with the current negotiations. If, as reports indicate, the U.S. has not only already agreed to let Iran keep several thousand centrifuges but also agreed to a ten-year sunset clause that would give Tehran the ability to do as it likes after the deal expires, then what is under consideration is a fundamental re-ordering of U.S. security policy.

Allowing Iran to, in President Obama’s words, “get right with the world,” might involve the Islamist regime in efforts to fight ISIS. But it will also means that its efforts to achieve regional hegemony—a goal that the victories of its Syrian ally and the strength of Hezbollah and Hamas make possible—will also be strengthened and given the imprimatur of the United States.

Seen in that light, it is not possible to ignore Netanyahu’s warnings as mere political gamesmanship or a foolish game of one-upmanship being blamed by the two governments.

It no longer matters whether Netanyahu blundered when he stumbled into the trap Obama seems to have set for him when the speech was announced. Democrats who treat his speech and the underlying issues as a test of party loyalty are making a fundamental mistake. So, too, are any pro-Israel or Jewish groups that are trying to keep the prime minister at arm’s length right now.

After years of balancing his animus for Netanyahu against the political necessity of not undermining the U.S.-Israel alliance, Obama has finally and completely gone off the tracks with a potential Iran deal that could endanger the security of both countries. In a sense, it would be better for Israel if Netanyahu were not the face of opposition to this dangerous policy rather than Obama critics like Democratic Senator Robert Menendez. But with a dangerous deal that the president has no intention of submitting to Congress for approval perhaps only weeks away, there is no excuse for any supporter of Israel, no matter how devoted to their party, to stay away from the speech or to ignore its content.

Obama started this argument with Israel when he took office. But Congress has an obligation to act as a check on a policy that ought to alarm anyone who cares about peace in the Middle East or the survival of Israel. If Netanyahu’s speech can help focus attention back on that necessity, then it will be worth the grief it has caused.

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The Incoherence of Netanyahu’s Most Strident Critics

Near the end of his new autobiography, David Axelrod sheds some light on President Obama’s distaste for democracy. “Obama has limited patience or understanding for officeholders whose concerns are more parochial–which would include most of Congress and many world leaders,” Axelrod writes, in noting Obama’s preference for supercilious vanity projects. Yet while Axelrod paints with a broad brush, he gives two examples, and they are telling. He writes: “Whether it’s John Boehner or Bibi Netanyahu, few practiced politicians appreciate being lectured on where their political self-interest lies.” This passage is an important preamble to the current dustup between the two administrations.

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Near the end of his new autobiography, David Axelrod sheds some light on President Obama’s distaste for democracy. “Obama has limited patience or understanding for officeholders whose concerns are more parochial–which would include most of Congress and many world leaders,” Axelrod writes, in noting Obama’s preference for supercilious vanity projects. Yet while Axelrod paints with a broad brush, he gives two examples, and they are telling. He writes: “Whether it’s John Boehner or Bibi Netanyahu, few practiced politicians appreciate being lectured on where their political self-interest lies.” This passage is an important preamble to the current dustup between the two administrations.

One of the regular critiques from the administration and its spokesmen in the media of tomorrow’s speech by Netanyahu is that Bibi just wants to use the speech as a prop in his own reelection campaign. As Axelrod’s book demonstrates, catering to voters and representing their interests in the government is borderline incomprehensible to Obama. His disdain for other world leaders who follow the wishes of their employers–the taxpayers–instead of doing what Obama wants is especially strange, considering its undisguised imperialist overtones.

And Netanyahu, of late, has found himself the world leader who values democratic elections far too much for Obama’s taste. When Netanyahu pressed ahead with giving the speech to a joint session of Congress, the Obama administration said they’d hit back, and suggested one way of doing so would be for them to bash Bibi through the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, as they often do when they want to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Israel. They did so; here is how Goldberg delivers the talking point:

It would be reassuring—sort of—to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu decided to set the U.S.-Israel relationship on fire mainly because he fears that President Obama is selling out Israel. But Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3—a speech arranged without Obama’s knowledge by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and by Obama’s chief Republican rival, House Speaker John Boehner—is motivated by another powerful fear: the fear of unemployment. The message Bibi is preparing to deliver on Tuesday (a “statesmanlike message,” according to an official close to him) has as its actual target not Congress but, instead, Israeli voters who need reminding, in Netanyahu’s view, that he is the only leader strong enough to face down both the genocidal regime in Tehran and the Israel-loathing regime in Washington.

You can set aside the obviously false characterization of Netanyahu’s culpability. According to Goldberg–and the administration–Netanyahu’s “main” concern is not Israel’s perceived existential threats or a bad Iran deal or President Obama’s repeated insistence on selling out Israel (sometimes during wartime).

Now, obviously Netanyahu cares about reelection. He’s a politician in a democracy, and is acting as one, not as a tyrant or a religious cult figure. His decision to accept the speech without the president’s support was also clearly a mistake. He compounded that mistake by not backing out or rescheduling when he had ample opportunity to do so. And his mistake has already had tangible effects: the speech has almost certainly destroyed the possibility of the very veto-proof sanctions he hoped to inspire, at least for now.

But sufferers of Bibi Derangement Syndrome don’t see “mistakes”; they see arson. They violate the cardinal rule of democratic politics in a free society: Don’t attribute to malice what can be more easily explained by incompetence.

And the Obama-Axelrod-Goldberg line is strange for another reason: the belief that Bibi doesn’t take the long view but instead focuses on near-term electoral fortunes is pretty much the opposite of what the administration’s critique of him had previously been. In May 2011, the consensus was that Netanyahu was practically obsessed with incorporating the grand sweep of history into his dialogue with Obama. “Like many of you, I watched the Prime Minister of Israel publicly lecture the President of the United States on Jewish history with a mixture of shock, amusement and bewilderment,” Goldberg wrote in a post titled “Netanyahu Continues to Needlessly Alienate.”

(It was a common framing. ABC News: “In Oval Office, Bibi Offers History Lessons to Obama.” Chicago Sun-Times: “Obama gets Netanyahu Israeli history lecture.”)

Netanyahu has also come in for criticism for saying “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs… preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state.” And the press has taken a couple swings at him for referencing Ben-Gurion’s declaration of the establishment of Israel against the wishes of the State Department and other governmental agencies in his speeches, as he did this morning at AIPAC.

Also in his speech this morning, the prime minister returned to the long view of Jewish history:

For 2,000 years, my people, the Jewish people, were stateless, defenseless, voiceless. We were utterly powerless against our enemies who swore to destroy us. We suffered relentless persecution and horrific attacks. We could never speak in our own behalf, and we could not defend ourselves. Well, no more. No more. The days when the Jewish people are passive in the face of threats to annihilate us–those days are over.

It’s no surprise the recitation of history makes Obama uncomfortable. As we’ve seen, the president’s ignorance of history is comprehensive, but he is especially unknowledgeable on Israeli and Jewish history. It doesn’t seem to interest him, and it shows.

So it’s always been a bit rich for the president who thinks history started with his own presidential election to accuse others of not thinking about the big picture. What Obama means by this is actually that these other politicians and world leaders aren’t thinking enough about Obama’s legacy, which he’d like them to prioritize over the needs and wants of their citizens, Israel being no exception.

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The Murder of Yet Another Putin Critic

In 1934 Sergei Kirov, an old Bolshevik who had been head of the Party organization in Leningrad, was assassinated with a shot to the back. Most of his NKVD bodyguards had been mysteriously removed before the murder. Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union’s absolute dictator, expressed shock at the murder and promised to investigate personally. Within weeks a disgruntled former party functionary was arrested, convicted, and that very night executed. Stalin then used the assassination as an excuse to purge Trotskyites and others who he claimed were a threat to the regime, and whom he blamed for Kirov’s death. In reality, the bulk of the historical evidence suggests that Stalin himself arranged the assassination because he viewed Kirov, like other old Bolsheviks, as a potential threat to his rule.

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In 1934 Sergei Kirov, an old Bolshevik who had been head of the Party organization in Leningrad, was assassinated with a shot to the back. Most of his NKVD bodyguards had been mysteriously removed before the murder. Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union’s absolute dictator, expressed shock at the murder and promised to investigate personally. Within weeks a disgruntled former party functionary was arrested, convicted, and that very night executed. Stalin then used the assassination as an excuse to purge Trotskyites and others who he claimed were a threat to the regime, and whom he blamed for Kirov’s death. In reality, the bulk of the historical evidence suggests that Stalin himself arranged the assassination because he viewed Kirov, like other old Bolsheviks, as a potential threat to his rule.

Sound familiar? On Friday, Boris Nemtsov, a leading critic of the Putin regime, was gunned down with four shots to the back within yards of the Kremlin, the most heavily patrolled and secured area in the entire country. Vladimir Putin promised to personally take charge of the investigation while immediately branding it a “provocation,” presumably designed by his enemies to unfairly implicate him. Before long the Kremlin-controlled media were dropping dark hints that the CIA or the Russian opposition–or maybe the two in cahoots–were responsible for killing Nemtsov to blacken Putin’s good name. Or perhaps, they speculated, Nemtsov was killed because of his own moral turpitude; he was said to be involved in a back-alley abortion or some such.

Putin is no Stalin, but he has been rehabilitating Stalin’s image in Russia and he gives the clear impression that he has learned a few tricks from one of the most brutal dictators in history. Like how to get rid of your opponents.

There is, in fact, a disturbing and obvious pattern of what happens to those who challenge Putin’s authority. The “lucky” ones like Mikhail Khodorkovsky are merely sentenced to prison on trumped up charges–a decade in the gulag in Khodorkovsky’s case. Or their relatives are sentenced to prison–the brother of opposition leader Alexei Navalny was recently sentenced to three and a half years in prison on trumped up charges. The unlucky ones are simply eliminated from the face of the earth.

As the Washington Post notes, Nemtsov “was by no means the first Putin opponent to be murdered in brazen fashion. Similar hits by gunmen killed the dissident lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and the human rights activist Natalia Estemirova in Chechnya. A former KGB agent who turned on Mr. Putin, Alexander Litvinenko, was assassinated in London by agents who poisoned him with radioactive polonium.”

Putin treats other countries pretty much the same way he treats his own people. He has eliminated resistance in Chechnya with scorched-earth tactics. He has invaded Georgia and carved out Russian protectorates in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And now he has invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea and turning eastern Ukraine over to Russian-backed rebels.

Why does he do it? Because he can. Because Putin is a deeply corrupt, deeply amoral man who is out to acquire as much wealth and power as possible. Not just for himself and his cronies, to be sure: He is also, in his fashion, a Russian patriot who views the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century,” and he is clearly bent on undoing it. He is determined, in other words, to resurrect if not exactly the Soviet Union (he is too much of a crony capitalist for that) then the Russian Empire with himself as its benevolent tsar.

No doubt Putin, like countless other despots throughout history, has convinced himself that his country will become “great” again only if he is its absolute leader. Just as Hitler reacted to the weakness of Wiemar Germany and Mao to the weakness of the warlord era in China, so Putin is reacting to the perceived weakness of the Yeltsin era in the 1990s. He no doubt sincerely believes that it is in the interest of all Russians to swallow weak neighboring states, and that anyone who stands in his way is a “traitor” and “Fifth Columnist”–the epithets used to brand the likes of Nemtsov and Navalny. Whether Nemtsov was killed on Kremlin orders or killed by some ultra-nationalist inspired by the Kremlin’s ultra-nationalist propaganda is immaterial: No matter how many layers of cut-outs Putin had between himself and the dark dead, he is still morally culpable.

Beyond being a moral monster, Putin is also a supreme opportunist. He advances when he senses weakness and retreats, at least temporarily, when he encounters staunch resistance. He hasn’t been encountering a lot of staunch resistance lately.

The Bush administration all but ignored his subjugation of Chechnya, which could be linked to the broader struggle against Islamist terrorism, and did almost nothing about his invasion of Georgia, which came when the administration was war-weary and on its way out. John McCain argued for a stiffer response and was laughed off the stage.

Predictably Barack Obama, who came into office promising a “reset” of relations with the man in the Kremlin, has been even more supine in the face of Putin’s blatant aggression in Ukraine. Obama refuses to supply Ukraine with the weapons needed to defend it from Putin’s aggression. He won’t even provide Ukraine with usable intelligence on where Russian troops and Russian rebels are located. Because he is afraid of “provoking” Putin.

Which is just what Putin is counting on. The murder of Nemtsov and the invasion of Ukraine are of a piece: they are barely disguised acts of aggression designed to show Putin’s adversaries, real or perceived, what happens if they oppose his corrupt, imperial designs. No question about it, he is a scary man. He is capable of anything–anything that he can get away with.

But he is not suicidal. Putin is not a member of ISIS who seeks death in opposing the West. He seeks a long, prosperous life for himself and his cronies. If he thought that his criminal actions would endanger the prospects of such a happy outcome, odds are he would pull back. But he has no reason to think that now.

Sure, the U.S. and the European Union have imposed some sanctions on Russia, but Putin is convinced that when oil prices return to $100 a barrel, Russia will be in good shape. The sanctions aren’t doing much to hurt Putin personally or his inner circle; they still control their ill-gotten billions not only in Russia but in places like the City of London, Switzerland, and Cyprus. It’s the little people who are getting crushed by the devaluation of the ruble, but, a la “1984,” they are being narcotized by the steady stream of Kremlin propaganda which is touting the aggression in Ukraine as the greatest thing that has ever happened to the long-suffering Russian people.

Only a few Russians such as Boris Nemtsov have been brave enough to expose Putin’s lies–to oppose the aggression in Ukraine and the corruption behind the Sochi Winter Olympics. But Nemtsov is now gone, and few will follow in his footsteps.

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Obama Must Explain Why the Iran Deal Isn’t North Korea Redux

As the Obama administration rushes into a nuclear deal with Iran, it pays to remember the last time the United States struck a deal with a rogue regime in order to constrain that state’s nuclear program and the aftermath of that supposed success.

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As the Obama administration rushes into a nuclear deal with Iran, it pays to remember the last time the United States struck a deal with a rogue regime in order to constrain that state’s nuclear program and the aftermath of that supposed success.

Bill Clinton had been president barely a month when North Korea announced that it would no longer allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, followed shortly thereafter by an announcement that it would withdraw from the NPT altogether within a matter of months. If Kim Il-sung expected Washington to flinch, he was right. The State Department aimed to keep North Korea within the NPT at almost any price. Chief U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci and his aides explained in their book Going Critical, “If North Korea could walk away from the treaty’s obligations with impunity at the very moment its nuclear program appeared poised for weapons production, it would have dealt a devastating blow from which the treaty might never recover.” Unwilling to take any path that could lead to military action, Clinton’s team sought to talk Pyongyang away from nuclear defiance, no matter that talking and the inevitable concessions that followed legitimized Pyongyang’s brinkmanship.

As with President Obama relieving Iran of the burden of six United Nations Security Council resolutions which demanded a complete cessation of enrichment, Clinton’s willingness to negotiate North Korea’s nuclear compliance was itself a concession. After all, the 1953 Armistice required Pyongyang to reveal all military facilities and, in case of dispute, enable the Military Armistice Commission to determine the purpose of suspect facilities. By making weaker frameworks the new baseline, Clinton let North Korea off the hook before talks even began.

Just as Israeli (and Saudi and Emirati and Egyptian and Kuwaiti and Bahraini) leaders express frustration with the Obama administration regarding its naiveté and unwillingness to consult, so too did South Korea at the time chafe at Clinton’s arrogance. South Korean President Kim Young Sam complained to journalists that North Korea was leading America on and manipulating negotiators “to buy time.” And in a pattern that repeats today with regard to Iran, the IAEA held firmer to the demand that North Korea submit to real inspections than did Washington. The issue came to a head in September 1993 after the State Department pressured the IAEA to compromise on limited inspections.

In the face of Pyongyang’s defiance, Clinton was also wary that coercion could be a slippery slope to war. Just as President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel instructed U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf not to stand firm but rather to retreat if probed or pushed by Iran, Clinton sought to mollify Pyongyang, for example cancelling the joint U.S.–South Korea military exercise in 1994. Adding insult to injury, the Clinton administration criticized the South Korean government for being unwilling to compromise. Indeed, everything the Obama administration has done with regard to Israel over the past year—with the exception, perhaps, of the classless chickensh-t comment—was ripped right from the Clinton playbook two decades before when the White House sought to silence Seoul.

There followed months of baseless optimism in Washington, followed by disappointment quickly supplanted by denial. At one point, when it looked like Kim Il-sung’s intransigence might actually lead to war, former President Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang and, whether cleared to or not, made concessions which diffused the situation. It was the diplomatic equivalent of Obama’s voided redlines. Nightline host Ted Koppel observed on May 18, 1994, “this administration is becoming notorious … for making threats and then backing down.”

On July 8, 1994, a heart attack felled Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il, his eldest son, took over. Negotiations progressed quickly. Gallucci and his team promised an escalating series of incentives—reactors, fuel oil, and other economic assistance. They kicked inspections of North Korea’s suspect plutonium sites years down the line.

What had begun as North Korean intransigence had netted Pyongyang billions of dollars in aid; it would go down in history as the largest reward for cheating and reneging on agreements until Obama granted Iran $11 billion in sanctions relief just for coming to the table. Columnist William Safire traced the steps of concessions on North Korea. “Mr. Clinton’s opening position was that untrustworthy North Korea must not be allowed to become a nuclear power,” he observed, but Clinton “soon trimmed that to say it must not possess nuclear bombs, and stoutly threatened sanctions if North Korea did not permit inspections of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, where the CIA and KGB agree nuclear devices have been developed. But as a result of Clinton’s Very Good Deal Indeed, IAEA inspectors are denied entry to those plants for five years.” And Sen. John McCain, for his part, lamented that Clinton “has extended carrot after carrot, concession after concession, and pursued a policy of appeasement based … on the ill-founded belief that North Koreans really just wanted to be part of the community of nations.” Again, the parallels between Clinton’s and Obama’s assumptions about the desire of enemies to reform were consistent.

Clinton wasn’t going to broker any criticism of what he believed was a legacy-defining diplomatic triumph, all the more so when the criticism came from abroad. On October 7, 1994, South Korean President Kim Young Sam blasted Clinton’s deal with the North, saying, “If the United States wants to settle with a half-baked compromise and the media wants to describe it as a good agreement, they can. But I think it would bring more danger and peril.” There was nothing wrong with trying to resolve the problem through dialogue, he acknowledged, but the South Koreans knew very well how the North operated. “We have spoken with North Korea more than 400 times. It didn’t get us anywhere. They are not sincere,” Kim said. His outburst drew Clinton’s ire. He became the Netanyahu of his day. Meanwhile, the U.S. and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework. Gallucci and his team were “exhilarated.” They later bragged they “had overcome numerous obstacles in the negotiations with the North; survived the intense, sometimes strained collaboration with Seoul and the International Atomic Energy Agency; and marshaled and sustained an often unwieldy international coalition in opposition to the nuclear challenge, all under close and often critical scrutiny at home.”

Today, by some estimates, North Korea is well on its way to having 100 nuclear weapons and is steadily developing the ballistic capability to deliver them. Iran’s nuclear negotiators have cited North Korea’s negotiating strategy as a model to emulate rather than an example to condemn. Meanwhile, Obama has relied on many of the same negotiators to advance his deal with Iran.

The State Department has never conducted a lessons learned exercise about what went wrong with the North Korea deal. Perhaps it’s time. Diplomatic responsibility and national security demand it.

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Obama Sabotaged AIPAC, Not Netanyahu

The AL Monitor website gained a lot of attention yesterday with a story that alleged that AIPAC was opposed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to speak to a joint session of Congress next week on the Iranian nuclear threat. The conceit of the piece was that the controversy over the speech was undermining the lobby’s ability to maintain ties with both major political parties and that its leaders had pulled out the stops in private efforts to persuade Netanyahu to change his plans. In response to the article, today AIPAC officials spoke out and declared that they never opposed the speech and are, in fact, working hard to try and persuade wavering Democrats inclined to boycott the event in solidarity with President Obama’s position to show up for it. So did AL Monitor get the story wrong in a malicious attempt to undermine Netanyahu?

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The AL Monitor website gained a lot of attention yesterday with a story that alleged that AIPAC was opposed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to speak to a joint session of Congress next week on the Iranian nuclear threat. The conceit of the piece was that the controversy over the speech was undermining the lobby’s ability to maintain ties with both major political parties and that its leaders had pulled out the stops in private efforts to persuade Netanyahu to change his plans. In response to the article, today AIPAC officials spoke out and declared that they never opposed the speech and are, in fact, working hard to try and persuade wavering Democrats inclined to boycott the event in solidarity with President Obama’s position to show up for it. So did AL Monitor get the story wrong in a malicious attempt to undermine Netanyahu?

Whatever the motivations of those who published the piece — and the website is quite hostile to Israel’s government — the answer is clearly no. The current dustup is obviously a disaster as far as AIPAC is concerned. But as much as Netanyahu deserves some of the blame for their dilemma, the second story was just as true. Whatever their feelings about the wisdom of the decision to go to Congress in this manner, AIPAC activists who will be descending on Washington next week aren’t in any doubt about who’s the one who is working to undermine the alliance and the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus: President Obama.

Those inclined to defend both AIPAC and Netanyahu should concede that the basic conceit of the AL Monitor article actually captured a basic truth about the lobby’s purpose and the way it operates. Contrary to the allegations that have been hurled against it by its critics and the left-wing J Street lobby, AIPAC isn’t a creature of the right or slanted toward Republicans. It backs all Israeli governments, whether led by figures of the right or those of the left. And its great achievement over the course of the last 40 years is to have created a truly bipartisan, across-the-board coalition in favor of Israel in Congress and the nation.

So it is hardly surprising that the perception that the Netanyahu speech was a plot cooked up with Republicans to embarrass or insult a Democratic president would create a problem for AIPAC. That’s the way the speech has been treated by most of the mainstream media and the incessant and increasingly bitter attacks on Netanyahu by senior figures in the Obama administration has made AIPAC’s task of smoothing the way for support for both the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill much more difficult.

It’s also true that, as AL Monitor gleefully reported, leading American Jews have tried to persuade Netanyahu to back off on his plans and that figures in Israel’s defense establishment — many of whom have always disliked and tried to undermine the prime minister’s stands on security issues like Iran for political motivations of their own — have been not so quiet about their dismay about his decision.

Much as those who are rightly up in arms about President Obama’s dangerous concessions to Iran in the nuclear talks are eager to hear Netanyahu, there’s no getting around the fact the speech gave the White House the opportunity to change the subject from the administration’s push for détente with Iran to that of an alleged breach of protocol and the injection of partisanship into the discussion of the issue. This was nothing more than transparent political spin but that doesn’t mean that Netanyahu and his advisers didn’t make a mistake. For weeks, even as news broke about astonishing concessions being offered Iran in the form of a sunset clause that would give Tehran carte blanche to gain a weapon after ten years, Washington has been debating Netanyahu’s chutzpah and the president’s hurt feelings instead of the negotiations or the need for more sanctions. As a result, the odds of a veto-proof majority in both Houses of Congress in favor of a sanctions bill that would have had a chance to hold the administration accountable on the issue is far less likely than it was before the announcement of the speech. That’s because the White House has been able to pick off Democrats who don’t feel comfortable taking sides with Netanyahu against Obama. Can anyone blame AIPAC officials for being frustrated about the Israeli government’s unwillingness to listen to their advice about the consequences of the speech?

But the focus on AIPAC is a sidebar to the real story here.

Though Netanyahu deserves to be criticized for walking into Obama’s trap, the only player in this drama who has consistently sought to inject partisanship or to sabotage the U.S.-Israel alliance has been the president.

It was Obama who discarded his 2012 campaign promises (repeated in his foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney) about ensuring the end of Iran’s nuclear program and instead embarked on a path of appeasement whose goal is a misguided effort to make the Islamist regime a partner on a whole range of political and economic issues. The price for this entente cordial with the ayatollahs is acquiescence to their long-term nuclear ambitions as well as their plan for regional hegemony that is scaring the daylights out of America’s moderate Arab allies.

The decision to turn the Netanyahu speech into a cause célèbre was rooted in the White House’s belief that the only way to derail a new sanctions bill that already could count on massive bipartisan support was to turn Iran into a partisan football. And that’s just what the administration has done by piling on Netanyahu while disingenuously claiming to be defending the alliance.

At this point friends of Israel understand the argument about Netanyahu’s speech is now largely irrelevant. With an Iran nuclear deal that would sink any chance of stopping the Islamist regime from becoming a threshold nuclear power and eventually the owners of a bomb now perhaps only weeks away, the time has ended for recriminations about the way the invitation to Congress was handled. The only thing worth discussing now is what, if anything, Congress and the pro-Israel community can do to derail Obama’s betrayal of principle.

The number of those who boycott the speech will be a barometer of how much success the White House has had in undermining the pro-Israel consensus. Democrats who claim to be friends of the Jewish state and opposed to an Iranian nuclear weapon need to forget about false arguments about partisanship and join with fellow Democrats as well as Republicans in listening to Netanyahu. More importantly, they must help pass the Iran sanctions bill before it is too late to stop the president’s plans for détente with a terror-supporting, anti-Semitic Islamist regime.

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New Revelations Show IRS Is Judge, Jury, Executioner–And Grave Robber

The most important piece of information about the IRS’s targeting of conservative and pro-Israel groups is this: it is still going on. Politico reported yesterday that there are two categories of groups still being delayed and silenced by the IRS’s tax-exempt apparatchiks. The first category is Karl Rove (and his Crossroads organization). The second category is financially strapped mom-and-pop shops who have been driven into debt by the IRS’s corrupt practices in which critics of the Obama administration are deprived of some of their constitutional rights.

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The most important piece of information about the IRS’s targeting of conservative and pro-Israel groups is this: it is still going on. Politico reported yesterday that there are two categories of groups still being delayed and silenced by the IRS’s tax-exempt apparatchiks. The first category is Karl Rove (and his Crossroads organization). The second category is financially strapped mom-and-pop shops who have been driven into debt by the IRS’s corrupt practices in which critics of the Obama administration are deprived of some of their constitutional rights.

The story notes that this contradicts new IRS director John Koskinen’s claim that the agency “completed” its set of recommendations to get the corruption under control. As of this week, it’s still taking place. What this means in practice is that these groups, some of which applied several years ago, are still in limbo, unable to proceed. The point is to destroy the groups by bankrupting and suffocating them. Politico quotes a former IRS official using the agency’s term for this: “death by bureaucratic delay.”

Here’s how it plays out for the groups the government’s weaponized tax collectors set out to crush:

The years-long delay has gutted these groups’ membership, choked their ability to raise funds, forced them to reserve pots of money for possible back taxes and driven them into debt to pay legal bills.

“If you say the targeting issues have been resolved … how come we still haven’t received a determination one way or the other?” asked Rick Harbaugh, leader of the Albuquerque Tea Party, which has been waiting five years for its tax exemption. “We are still being targeted.”

Rove’s Crossroads group can afford being the target of a government campaign against those who would or should appear on the president’s enemies list (though obviously the IRS’s behavior is still morally repulsive). But what about all the others? Here’s one example:

At one point, for example, Unite in Action, a group that’s been on hold for more than 1,700 days, looked poised for growth. With members in various states and a mission to “prepare current and future generations to be guardians of our Constitutional Republic,” it quickly built a nationwide following, fundraising $600,000 to throw a multiday rally on conservative priorities in Washington, D.C., in 2010. Thousands attended.

IRS agents flagged its tax-exempt application, citing a blog post that said “fire Timothy Geithner,” then the Treasury secretary, and “demand Joe Biden apologize,” according to leaked IRS documents from 2011.

When the IRS asked Unite in Action for its list of donors, their occupations and addresses, the group’s finances took a nosedive.

“We told everybody that we will in no circumstances surrender that … [donor] information, but it still has dried up about 95 percent of the fundraising that we were able to do prior,” said current president Jay Devereaux, who joined the group in 2009. The IRS would later apologize for asking for groups’ donors, which it said was inappropriate.

Now Unite in Action is $16,000 in debt and operates on an annual budget of $8,000 to $10,000.

That case is an important one, because the IRS admitted afterwards that its own actions were inappropriate. There is no debate, in other words, about the injustice of the government’s actions here. But that didn’t stop the government from destroying a growing group and plunging it into debt because it dared criticize the administration of Dear Leader.

They lose donors and members “out of fear and frustration.” Some groups, Politico notes, “went belly-up while waiting.” That’s the point of the death-by-delay targeting. In other cases, the IRS demanded back taxes to try to pick the pockets of the activists one more time before the groups faded away. The IRS is both executioner and grave robber.

It’s also been engaged in a cover-up, and new revelations suggest that cover-up may be exactly as illegal as it looks: which is to say, very.

Politico reports on the congressional testimony of the IRS’s inspector general J. Russell George and his deputy, Timothy Camus. They revealed that the IRS actually withheld communication and evidence related to Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the abuse-of-power scheme:

In addition, TIGTA learned two weeks ago there were more than 400 additional back-up tapes that IRS did not disclose to the agency for examination when it opened its probe last summer and asked for all the relevant back-ups, said Deputy IG for Investigations Timothy Camus. They believe those could include more Lerner emails from 2011.

“There is potential criminal activity,” Camus said when pressed by Republicans.

And unsurprisingly, the Democrats in Congress are aiding in the cover-up by attacking the inspector general. These Democrats, including Virginia’s Gerry Connolly, want an investigation into the investigator. For whatever reason, the Democrats continue to act as though any serious investigation will be damaging to them.

And the Justice Department, led by outgoing attorney general Eric Holder, is lending its own support to the abuse of power. One of the reasons the IRS has given for the continued delay on some applications is that those applications are the subject of litigation and therefore the Justice Department has a say. But of course the Justice Department is not seriously investigating the administration or its political allies, so it’s a cover and an excuse to deny justice. It’s a scam.

The IRS, by the way, has basically proved that it shouldn’t be the free-speech gatekeeper not only because it’s unconstitutional but also because it’s simply incapable of respecting the rights of ordinary Americans. For example, the IRS, according to Politico, made the groups an offer: “immediate approval if they pledged to spend less than 40 percent of their time and resources on political campaigns. But several of the groups dismissed that option on principle, calling it unfair because it was a stricter standard than other 501(c)(4)s had to abide by.”

Precisely. The IRS told groups they could surrender a portion of their rights to which they are legally entitled and the IRS would allow them to retain the remaining portion of their free-speech rights. This is the behavior of an organized crime syndicate, not a governmental institution of a free country. It is extortionate, deeply immoral, and a permanent stain on the agency and the politicians who enabled it.

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Issue is the Constitution, Not the Shutdown

With time running out to avoid defunding the Department of Homeland Security, almost all of the focus of news coverage of the story has been on the contentious battle between Republicans who are in favor and those opposed to a stand that will lead to a shutdown. There is good reason for this, especially as House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell desperately to try to maneuver to keep their previous promises to avoid another politically damaging government shutdown. But though it’s hard to take our eyes off of the spectacle of impending civil war among Republicans, the real author of this week’s drama doesn’t work on Capitol Hill. President Obama was in Miami last night for a televised infomercial on MSNBC in which he tried to take a victory lap for having started the fight that is causing the shutdown. But despite his efforts to place himself on what he thinks is the right side of history and the slavish applause of the liberal mainstream media for this stand, the real issue today remains Obama’s blatant disregard for the Constitution, not whether or not Boehner and McConnell can find a way out of the corner into which Obama has forced them.

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With time running out to avoid defunding the Department of Homeland Security, almost all of the focus of news coverage of the story has been on the contentious battle between Republicans who are in favor and those opposed to a stand that will lead to a shutdown. There is good reason for this, especially as House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell desperately to try to maneuver to keep their previous promises to avoid another politically damaging government shutdown. But though it’s hard to take our eyes off of the spectacle of impending civil war among Republicans, the real author of this week’s drama doesn’t work on Capitol Hill. President Obama was in Miami last night for a televised infomercial on MSNBC in which he tried to take a victory lap for having started the fight that is causing the shutdown. But despite his efforts to place himself on what he thinks is the right side of history and the slavish applause of the liberal mainstream media for this stand, the real issue today remains Obama’s blatant disregard for the Constitution, not whether or not Boehner and McConnell can find a way out of the corner into which Obama has forced them.

While many conservatives continue to call for the Republican leadership to stand their ground against the Democrats, both Boehner and McConnell understand that this is a losing fight. Even if, as many on the right have aptly pointed out, the DHS shutdown is more symbolic than actual since most of its employees will continue to show up for work, that symbolism is the last thing the GOP needs right now.

At a time when concern over terrorism is on the rise and the country is coming to grips with the president’s inept and halfhearted approach to fighting ISIS and its allies, any defunding measure aimed at any part of the country’s defenses is political poison. Unlike the sequester that continued in place for many months with few citizens noticing, a DHS shutdown is a nonstarter. That’s especially true since it will enable the president to change the topic from his own failures and put the spotlight on a fractious and dysfunctional Congress where both chambers have Republican majorities.

But as bad an idea as a shutdown might be, anyone tuning in to see Telemundo and MSNBC host Jose Diaz-Balart feeding questions to Obama in order to press him to even greater commitments to amnesty policies must realize that the drama in Congress is something of a diversion from the real problem: a president that believes he can legislate on his own without benefit of Congress.

Immigration isn’t the only issue on which Obama’s imperial presidency is flexing its muscles against the Constitution. The Iran nuclear talks seem to be heading toward an American agreement to a deal that would make the Islamist regime a threshold nuclear power now and give it a green light to create a bomb in at least ten years. But the president has no plans to present the most important foreign treaty the U.S. has signed in this generation to the Senate for approval, as the Constitution requires. By not calling it a treaty, he intends to circumvent the law so as to avoid the scrutiny and the judgment of the legislature.

But it is on immigration which the president has made the boldest move toward one-man rule in decades. By signing executive orders that amount to amnesty for up to five million illegal aliens, the president has with a stroke of the pen asserted a power that he previously had said 22 times was not his to exercise. Though a lawsuit brought by 26 states against this measure has had an initial success in a Texas federal court, Obama may be right to feel confident that eventually the courts will back him up on technicalities.

But by issuing orders to the relevant departments to stop enforcing the law mandating the deportation of illegals, the president is actually setting a dangerous precedent. A president who feels entitled to state what laws may or may not be enforced is one untrammeled by the normal constitutional constraints at the heart of American democracy.

While playing to a crowd of immigrants, the president says that the changing demography of the nation mandates a solution to the dilemma of up to 12 million illegals already in the country. But whether you think that Congress is wrong to fail to act on a plan to give them a path to citizenship or not, the notion that laws can still be annulled by presidential fiat is an untenable concept that would be swiftly condemned by Obama’s press cheering sections if it were a case of a Republican undoing some liberal project created by a predecessor.

More to the point, the continuing stream of illegals over the border, lured by promises of amnesty and confident that requests for asylum, whether justified or not, will keep them out of jail, will ensure that Obama’s approach will not solve the country’s problem at the border.

Obama may be right to think he’s won this news cycle as the Republicans seek a path, whether temporary or not, to retreat from their pledges to use the power of the purse to stop the executive orders from being implemented. But more surges of illegals in the future could change the political balance of power on this issue in ways that Democrats confident of Hispanic support don’t currently envision. The only enduring values here are the defense of the Constitution and the rule of law that Obama has trashed, not amnesty for illegals. Whatever happens this week in Washington, if Republicans are faithful to that principle, they won’t regret it in the long run.

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The GOP Has An Image Problem with the Middle Class

The Pew Research Center’s latest survey paints a very mixed picture for the Republican Party.

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The Pew Research Center’s latest survey paints a very mixed picture for the Republican Party.

The good news for Republicans is the GOP has opened substantial leads on dealing with the terrorist threat at home (20 points), making wise decisions about foreign policy (13 points), and dealing with taxes (11 points). “On each of these issues,” according to Pew, “the GOP’s lead is as wide—or wider—than at any point in the last several years.”

When it comes to which party is better able to handle the overall economy, Republicans have a slight lead (44 percent v. 41 percent). Democrats have a slight lead on immigration (+2), abortion and contraception (+3), and health care (+7).

About half of those surveyed, 52 percent, say the Democratic Party has good policy ideas while slightly fewer than half (48 percent) say the same about the GOP. On who should take the lead in solving the nation’s problems, 40 percent say President Obama while 38 percent say GOP leaders. (President Obama’s job approval is now 48 percent v. 26 percent for the leaders of the new Republican Congress.)

But if Republicans are doing relatively well on issues, they are doing quite poorly in terms of image and public perception. Most Americans see the GOP lacking in tolerance and empathy for the middle class, and half view it as too extreme. To be precise, 60 percent say the Democratic Party “cares about the middle class” while only 43 percent say the same thing about the Republican Party–a 17 point gap. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed say the Democratic Party “is tolerant and open to all groups of people” versus 35 percent for Republicans. And half of those surveyed say the Republican Party is too extreme while only 36 percent view the Democratic Party as too extreme.

Among independents, more say the Democratic Party is tolerant and open (58 percent v. 33 percent for Republicans) and concerned about the middle class (56 percent v. 40 percent), while by a margin of 16 points, 54 percent to 38 percent, independents say the GOP is too extreme. (Majorities of independents say each party has strong principles, with Republicans having a +9 advantage, 63 percent v. 54 percent, over Democrats.)

About these findings, I’d say several things, the first of which is that Republicans would be foolish to ignore the findings or respond defensively to them. Many Republicans will of course feel these impressions are unfair, the product of biased media coverage and so forth. But they need to understand how the GOP is seen by voters, since accepting there’s a problem is the first step toward correcting it.

Second, Republicans need to be aware of how certain actions (e.g., pursuing policies that shut down the federal government and linking childhood vaccinations to autism) reinforce certain perceptions (the GOP is too extreme). Republicans have to realize that tone and disposition in politicians are enormously important, that people of strong philosophical/conservative convictions need to radiate a temperamental moderation. By that I mean they need to come across as not just principle but also as reassuring, as serious-minded and well-grounded, people of equanimity and who prize prudence. The extreme language and apocalyptic rhetoric–comparing America to Nazi Germany, constantly invoking warnings of tyranny–just aren’t helpful.

Third, the Republican Party still has a very significant problem with the middle class. That’s why some of us who are identified as “reform conservatives” put together a publication last year, Room To Grow, which lays out a middle-class agenda, one that applies conservative principles to the challenges and problems of this century, this decade, this moment. The Republican Party right now is seen by too many people as principled but out of touch, as champions of the rich rather than the middle class, as too adamantine, and as pursuing a governing agenda that won’t make the lives of ordinary Americans better.

You may believe those impressions are widely off the mark, or somewhat off the mark, or true in part. But the impressions are there, they are deep and rather durable, and if Republicans hope to win the presidency in 2016, they best nominate a person who has the intellectual and personal qualities to change them.

The opportunity for Republicans to win next year will certainly be there; the question is whether the right person will rise from the ranks.

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The Anti-Bibi Offensive Reaches the Point of Diminishing Returns

Taken in isolation, it’s hard to fathom exactly what was going through Secretary of State John Kerry’s mind when he attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Seeking to discredit the Israeli’s critique of the administration’s efforts to strike a bargain with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program, Kerry dipped back into history and cited Netanyahu’s support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq as proof of his questionable judgment. Netanyahu’s 2002 testimony before the same committee doesn’t qualify him for the title of prophet. But one wonders why no one among the posse of yes-men and flatterers that follow the secretary about on his travels thought to remind him that as lacking in prescience as Netanyahu’s remarks might have been, it was he, in his capacity at that time as a U.S. senator, who actually voted for the war a few weeks after the Israeli’s testimony. But his foolish eagerness to join the administration’s gang tackle of Netanyahu tells us more about the administration’s desperation and the counterproductive nature of its effort to discredit the Israeli than anything else.

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Taken in isolation, it’s hard to fathom exactly what was going through Secretary of State John Kerry’s mind when he attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Seeking to discredit the Israeli’s critique of the administration’s efforts to strike a bargain with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program, Kerry dipped back into history and cited Netanyahu’s support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq as proof of his questionable judgment. Netanyahu’s 2002 testimony before the same committee doesn’t qualify him for the title of prophet. But one wonders why no one among the posse of yes-men and flatterers that follow the secretary about on his travels thought to remind him that as lacking in prescience as Netanyahu’s remarks might have been, it was he, in his capacity at that time as a U.S. senator, who actually voted for the war a few weeks after the Israeli’s testimony. But his foolish eagerness to join the administration’s gang tackle of Netanyahu tells us more about the administration’s desperation and the counterproductive nature of its effort to discredit the Israeli than anything else.

After several weeks of feuding over Netanyahu’s alleged breach of protocol in accepting an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress from House Speaker John Boehner, the breach between the two governments has now reached the stage where it cannot be dismissed as a mere spat. The administration’s commitment to a policy shift on Iran, in which the effort to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon has been set aside in favor of a push for détente with the Islamist regime, has created more than just a little daylight between Israel and the United States. But what is curious is the way leading figures in President Obama’s foreign-policy team, whether it be Kerry or National Security Advisor Susan Rice, have chosen to treat Netanyahu as a major threat to its objective rather than just the leader of a small, albeit influential, allied country who is not in a position to do anything to stop Obama from doing as he likes.

The most remarkable thing about the piling on the Israeli this week is the disproportionate nature of the attacks. That this treatment has been ordered from the top—which is to say, the president—isn’t doubted by anyone in the know. But in doing so, the administration is now running the risk of losing the advantage it obtained when it was able to use Netanyahu’s blunder about the speech to divert the national discussion from its indefensible position on Iran. Rather than damaging Netanyahu’s credibility and increasing his isolation (an absurd charge since few took notice of Netanyahu’s testimony on Iraq at the time), this all-out offensive is making him seem a more sympathetic figure that deserves a hearing.

Netanyahu has shown remarkably poor judgment in recent weeks that belied the supposedly deft understanding of Washington and American politics that has been his trademark and that of Ron Dermer, his ambassador to the United States. Accepting Boehner’s invitation without clearing it with the White House allowed Obama to make Netanyahu the issue rather than the administration’s opposition to a sanctions bill that would have strengthened its hands in the Iran talks. The prime minister compounded that mistake by then refusing an invitation to meet privately with Senate Democrats because he feared that might constitute an admission that he was colluding with the Republicans.

The administration ought to be wary of overplaying its hand on Netanyahu. After all, no matter how much applause he gets or doesn’t get when he gives his speech to Congress next week, none of that can prevent Kerry from cutting a disastrous deal with Iran if the ayatollahs are ready to make one at all. Given the president’s plans not to present any agreement to the Senate for approval as a treaty and the poor chances of an override of a veto of an Iran sanctions bill, he might be better off ignoring Israeli objections rather than jousting with him.

Though Obama has a reputation as a cold-blooded decision maker, he seems to have let his hatred for Netanyahu get the better of him and ordered his minions to launch a general offensive against Israel in order to crush the prime minister even before he opens his mouth in Washington. Why is he bothering?

The answer is that deep underneath the president’s cool exterior and his conviction that he and only he understands what is right for the country is a fear that Netanyahu’s powerful arguments against appeasing Iran will be heard and believed. That gives the Israeli more credit than he may deserve, but it also reflects Obama’s awareness that if openly debated, his string of unprecedented concessions to Iran can’t be easily defended.

After promising in his 2012 reelection campaign that any deal with Iran would ensure that its nuclear program be eliminated, the president is now preparing to not only guarantee its continued possession of a vast nuclear infrastructure but the phased portion of the current proposal on the table would implicitly grant the Islamist regime the ability to build a bomb after a ten-year period. Just as importantly, the U.S. now seems as indifferent to Iran’s support of international terrorism, its anti-Semitism, threats to destroy Israel, and its push for regional hegemony as it is to the prospect of it being a threshold nuclear power.

In pursuit of this agenda with Iran, the president has ruthlessly played the partisan card (while accusing Netanyahu of doing the same), pushing Democrats to abandon what was formerly a true bipartisan consensus against Iran and seeking to undermine the pro-Israel coalition in Congress. But as long as pundits are discussing or bashing Netanyahu, these issues have been marginalized. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing even when it comes to sniping at the Israeli leader.

Kerry’s absurd overreach against Netanyahu while lamely seeking to defend his current concessions to Iran shows that the administration has reached the point of diminishing returns with respect to the Israeli. Whether Netanyahu was wise to plan this speech is now beside the point. The more the administration seeks to shut him up, the more credence his remarks get. Whereas the address might have been just a Washington story had the White House not gone ballistic about it, it will now be treated as a major international event raising the stakes on the Iran debate just at the moment the administration would like to calm things down. The time has come for the administration to back down and let him talk lest the country listen to Netanyahu’s arguments and realize the president is selling them a bill of goods on Iran.

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Don’t Abandon Muslim Dissidents

Presidents have a tendency to turn their back on initiatives championed by their predecessors, however deserving. Thus President George W. Bush came into office with nothing but contempt for “nation building” which he associated with the Clinton administration in the Balkans. Eventually Bush realized he had to engage in nation building too if he was going to achieve American objectives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Presidents have a tendency to turn their back on initiatives championed by their predecessors, however deserving. Thus President George W. Bush came into office with nothing but contempt for “nation building” which he associated with the Clinton administration in the Balkans. Eventually Bush realized he had to engage in nation building too if he was going to achieve American objectives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

His own emphasis was on the “freedom agenda”–i.e., expanding democracy. President Obama, by contrast, has governed for the most part as a Realpolitiker intent on “rebalancing” American commitments and not letting sympathy for human rights distract him from his foreign policy objectives. That American neglect is having dire consequences for dissidents in the Muslim world who champion precisely the liberal values that we would like to see flourish.

Paul Wolfowitz notes in the Wall Street Journal that Obama, while embracing Malaysian President Najib Razak, has ignored the plight of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has been jailed on bogus charges under an archaic “anti-sodomy” law. Wolfowitz, who once served as ambassador in neighboring Indonesia, notes that Ibrahim is “a liberal Muslim who defends the rights of the Christian minority and quotes the Quran alongside Tocqueville, Locke and Jefferson. Now his voice for a tolerant, modern and peaceful Islam will be silenced.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial board notes that the American-backed Sisi regime in Egypt is also busy jailing liberal activists. The Post writes that “a court in Egypt sentenced one of the country’s best-known liberal democratic activists, Alaa Abdel Fattah, to five years in prison, along with 20 other activists. The next day, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi issued a new law that will allow his regime to prosecute any protest as terrorism.”

This shows that Sisi’s crackdown extends far beyond the illiberal Muslim Brotherhood. The Post writes that many of those being locked up are “secular democrats who supported the 2011 revolution against the regime of Hosni Mubarak and later protested the autocratic excesses of Mr. Morsi. They include Ahmed Maher and a dozen other leaders of the April 6 movement, and Ahmed Douma, a liberal blogger who was sentenced this month to life in prison.”

And what is Obama doing about it? Not much beyond paying lip service to the need for freedom. At his summit on countering “violent extremism” last week, he said, “When dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.” But as with a lot of the president’s foreign policy (“red lines,” anyone?) this is just hot air that isn’t backed up with any action on the part of the United States.

Obama’s reluctance to intervene is understandable–both Malaysia and Egypt are American allies, so why get into a fight with their leaders over the fate of a few dissidents? Because ultimately it is those who are now being imprisoned who are the best hope of moving the Muslim world in a better direction. If the U.S. abandons them, we will continue to face a Sophie’s choice between secular despots (whose repression breeds terrorism) and radical Islamist regimes. There is a third way, to invoke a term used in the 1950s to describe an alternative to either Communism or colonialism in the Third World, but Obama seems to be ignoring it. The price of U.S. neglect will be paid not only by brave liberal Muslims but also by the United States, which will find the Muslim world increasingly evolving in the direction of ISIS.

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Selling the ObamaCare of Foreign Policy

Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with significant skepticism at yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, not only from Republicans, but Democrats as well. Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) told Kerry “we’re hearing troubling reports on the scale and duration of the program that Iran may be allowed as part of a deal.” He noted “very disturbing” reports that the administration “would ease limits on Iran’s production during the later years of an accord … [as] an attempt to bridge the difference between the two sides over how long an agreement should last.”

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Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with significant skepticism at yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, not only from Republicans, but Democrats as well. Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) told Kerry “we’re hearing troubling reports on the scale and duration of the program that Iran may be allowed as part of a deal.” He noted “very disturbing” reports that the administration “would ease limits on Iran’s production during the later years of an accord … [as] an attempt to bridge the difference between the two sides over how long an agreement should last.”

Kerry did not deny those reports.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) asked Kerry whether he was “willing to accept an agreement in which the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] does not have the right to go anywhere on short notice to look at undeclared or potentially undeclared” nuclear sites. Kerry responded only that “we are negotiating for the appropriate standards.” Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) noted that the IAEA has “published 12 sets of questions about Iran’s past work and Iran has only partially tackled one of those issues.” He asked if Kerry could confirm that “any deal can only be agreed upon if it provides for anytime, anywhere inspections.”

Kerry managed to dodge that question too.

At the beginning of the hearing, Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) offered a devastating critique of the administration’s talks with Iran, as well as the administration’s entire foreign policy:

[T]he committee, as you know, has real concerns about the direction of these talks. I’m hearing less about dismantlement and more about the performance of Iran’s nuclear program. That’s particularly disturbing when you consider that international inspectors report that Iran has still not revealed its past bomb work.

This should be treated as a fundamental test of the ayatollah’s intention to uphold any agreement. Iran is failing that test. Also, it is still illicitly procuring nuclear technology. Recently, Iran was caught testing a new generation of supersonic centrifuges. To be frank, as this committee reads about us being on the brink of a historic agreement, you have a challenge in terms of congressional buy-in.

Meanwhile, Iran and its proxies are wreaking havoc throughout the region. … And in the Middle East, ISIS is on the march. The administration was tragically slow to react to ISIS’s rise, missing the chance to devastate them with airstrikes during the first eight months of ISIS moving from Syria into Iraq, town by town, taking these cities. Air power was not used to devastate these columns out on the open road as it should have been applied.

Today the Kurds are still severely outgunned, our training of the Syrian opposition isn’t off the ground, and Arab allies complain they don’t have the weapons needed. And while the administration is focused on the fight against ISIS in Iraq today, it’s still unclear what its plans are for Syrian tomorrow. … In the past half year, the [State] Department has had to evacuate staff from two U.S. embassies: Libya and Yemen …

It is beginning to dawn on Democrats–at least those on the House Foreign Affairs Committee–that the Obama administration is cooking up the ObamaCare of foreign policy: a deal that will be presented at the twelfth hour as a fait accompli, without debate or congressional oversight beforehand, nor even public disclosure of the basic concessions in the offers already made in the current negotiations, much less a vote by Congress before proceeding with an agreement more important than any treaty in decades. The administration’s repeated assurances that it won’t sign a “bad deal” sound as reliable as the assertions that people could keep their insurance if they liked it–or the “red line” for Syria, or the “reset” with Russia, or the “success” of the withdrawal from Iraq, or the “success” in Yemen, et al.

The administration appears virtually in meltdown mode because the democratically-elected leader of a frontline ally will address a co-equal branch of government at the invitation of the speaker of the House. At yesterday’s hearing, Kerry resorted to a gratuitous ad hominem attack on Prime Minister Netanyahu–the surest sign that it is neither protocol nor politics that concern the administration, but rather the substance of what Netanyahu will say about the pending deal with Iran. Some Democrats may boycott the address–like Iranian delegates who exit the UN rather than be present to hear Israel’s prime minister–but yesterday’s House hearing, combined with (a) the warnings last month from former secretaries of state Kissinger and Shultz, and (b) Michael Doran’s comprehensive Mosaic article, “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy” (which has thus far attracted 220,000 unique visitors), suggest that the importance of the issue is belatedly drawing the necessary notice on Capitol Hill, after all the distractions regarding how Netanyahu’s speech was arranged.

At the eleventh hour, the prospect of Netanyahu’s address is focusing the attention of Congress on the on the distinct possibility that a very “bad deal” with Iran is in the works. The administration’s unseemly attacks on Netanyahu may, in the end, serve only to increase the attention that will–and should–be paid to his address by the Congress, the country, and the world.

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Who’s Destroying the U.S.-Israel Relationship? Obama Deserves the Blame.

It was President Obama’s first White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who said the administration never wanted to waste a crisis. The maxim appears to still be cherished by the president’s current advisors. The latest administration shot fired at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, this time by National Security Advisor Susan Rice in which she charged the Israeli with acting in a way that was “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship, is best understood by Emanuel’s subsequent explanation of his much-quoted statement: “And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Netanyahu’s blunder in accepting House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak to Congress was an opening that the administration has used to change the discussion about Iran’s nuclear threat to its advantage. But it has also given Obama’s team the chance to do something they’ve been longing to do for six years: openly attack Israel’s government. Yet while they are enjoying doing that, no one should be under any illusions about the fault for the problems between Israel and the United States being solely the fault of Netanyahu.

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It was President Obama’s first White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who said the administration never wanted to waste a crisis. The maxim appears to still be cherished by the president’s current advisors. The latest administration shot fired at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, this time by National Security Advisor Susan Rice in which she charged the Israeli with acting in a way that was “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship, is best understood by Emanuel’s subsequent explanation of his much-quoted statement: “And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Netanyahu’s blunder in accepting House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak to Congress was an opening that the administration has used to change the discussion about Iran’s nuclear threat to its advantage. But it has also given Obama’s team the chance to do something they’ve been longing to do for six years: openly attack Israel’s government. Yet while they are enjoying doing that, no one should be under any illusions about the fault for the problems between Israel and the United States being solely the fault of Netanyahu.

As I wrote earlier today, Netanyahu’s decision to turn down an invitation to speak to Senate Democrats is the latest in a series of unforced errors that have aided the administration’s efforts to distract the country from their string of unprecedented concessions to Iran on the nuclear issue. By choosing to accept an invitation from the speaker to speak to Congress in favor of a measure the president opposed—increased sanctions on Iran—Netanyahu allowed the White House to make his alleged breach of protocol the issue rather than the president’s indefensible appeasement of Iran in pursuit of a new détente with the Islamist regime.

That was a tactical error. But if we’re going to discuss who has done the most damage to the U.S.-Israel alliance, the notion that Netanyahu’s willingness to speak up about the administration’s drift to appeasement is the main factor tearing it apart means we’ve left the world of analysis and entered that of fiction. If you want to pin the blame for the decline in closeness, the fault belongs to President Obama.

Let’s remember that this is the same man who came into office determined above all to change one thing about U.S. Middle East policy: create more distance between the U.S. and Israel. At that time, the Obama team took it as a given that the reason peace had eluded the region was that George W. Bush had grown too close to Israel. President Obama did everything he could in subsequent years to change that perception, and he succeeded.

But years of pointless spats with Israel over Jerusalem (though Obama’s predecessors had never recognized Israeli sovereignty over its capital, this administration broke new ground by turning building projects in 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods into sources of tension), West Bank settlements (in spite of the fact that Netanyahu agreed at one point to a building freeze), and the terms of a final peace settlement brought the region not one inch closer to peace. That’s because no matter how much Obama tilted the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, they were still uninterested in a peace deal. But not even Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas torpedoing peace talks by making a deal with Hamas and heading to the United Nations in violation of his Oslo Accords commitments could convince this administration that the fault for their failure was the fault of anyone but Netanyahu.

Though the Obama administration did increase security cooperation and funding for defense projects like the Iron Dome missile-defense system, it also sought to undermine Israeli self-defense against Hamas attacks at every step, even cutting off the resupply of ammunition during last summer’s Gaza war.

But it is on Iran, an entente with which seems to have become the chief obsession of the president’s second term, that Obama did most to damage the relationship. Though he had pledged that any deal would not allow Iran to keep its nuclear program, a string of concessions has now led to the point where it is clear an agreement would allow it to become a threshold nuclear power. The latest U.S. retreat is now an offer to allow Iran to do anything it likes with its nuclear toys after a ten-year freeze. Moreover, the president’s decision to acquiesce to Iran’s military moves in Iraq and the continuation in power of Tehran ally Bashar Assad in Syria have signaled a major U.S. policy shift. While moderate Arab nations and Israel are worried about Iran’s successful drive for regional hegemony, the administration appears to be encouraging it.

Just as important, it is the administration that has done most to make Israel a partisan issue by trying to break up the bipartisan coalition in favor of Iran sanctions on party lines. Throughout the last few months it has been Obama who has been playing the partisan card to stop Iran sanctions even though prominent Democrats like New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez were leading the charge against his dangerous policies.

It is these actions and not Netanyahu’s inept decisions that are truly damaging the relationship. Blame the prime minister all you want for allowing his speech to become the cause célèbre symbolizing the breakdown in relations under Obama, but it has always been the president who has been the prime mover in damaging the alliance.

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Antonio Weiss, Elizabeth Warren, and the Spirit of the Constitution

When Elizabeth Warren led a campaign of misleading demagoguery against President Obama’s nominee for an under secretary of the treasury job, she was trying to make a point at the expense of someone else’s career. But since her success was temporary and Antonio Weiss has, as predicted, joined the administration anyway, Warren’s populist stunt has inadvertently raised questions about the entire premise of the Senate’s role in approving executive branch nominees.

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When Elizabeth Warren led a campaign of misleading demagoguery against President Obama’s nominee for an under secretary of the treasury job, she was trying to make a point at the expense of someone else’s career. But since her success was temporary and Antonio Weiss has, as predicted, joined the administration anyway, Warren’s populist stunt has inadvertently raised questions about the entire premise of the Senate’s role in approving executive branch nominees.

To recap: Obama chose Weiss, but his background in investment banking irked Warren, who loudly opposed the nomination in ways that proved her ignorance of the relevant issues but increased her celebrity and her rabid fan base. It was precisely the type of behavior that should not be rewarded, but unfortunately it’s also the type of behavior that works. So Weiss withdrew his nomination.

But that was not going to be the end of it. Here is what I wrote last month about how this would end: “Weiss will join the Treasury anyway, and give the same advice, not be much undercut by whoever eventually fills the under secretary seat. … Warren’s victory is, then, entirely symbolic. It will have no effect on policy. All it will do is act as an implicit threat to future nominees, pour encourager les autres.”

And that’s precisely what happened. As Bloomberg reports:

Eight days after joining the Treasury Department as an adviser, Antonio Weiss was the lead U.S. official listed at a meeting with Wall Street executives. It’s a role typically played by the undersecretary for domestic finance — the same post Weiss lost after Democratic senators stymied his nomination.

Weiss’s presence at that Feb. 3 meeting on quarterly debt sales shows him diving into many of the same tasks that would have come with the undersecretary’s job. The former Lazard Ltd. global head of investment banking is now working on issues ranging from debt management to housing finance and global market developments. One big difference: his job as counselor to Secretary Jacob J. Lew doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

The question–and it’s a fair one–is this: Does Antonio Weiss’s current job description violate the spirit of the separation of powers and the Senate’s advise-and-consent role in executive branch appointments?

Over at National Review, Charles Cooke says yes. Cooke writes that quality of candidate–and, by extension, the truthiness of the campaign against him–is beside the point: “Ultimately, I couldn’t care less whether Weiss is a better choice than Elizabeth Warren’s preferred candidate. If the Senate didn’t want him, he doesn’t get the job.”

He explains:

At first blush it must seem rather suspicious that the only functional difference between Weiss as undersecretary for domestic finance and Weiss as counselor to Secretary Lew is that the latter position “doesn’t require” the Senate confirmation that Weiss was so publicly denied. But first blushes are for schoolboys and bigots and haters, and for those wild-eyed radicals who would happily risk seeing into what sort of proto-Somalian hellhole the United States might fall if the Treasury secretary were to be denied an adviser for a few weeks. Here, as so often, we should presume that the president knows better than the other co-equal branches, and conclude that politics must not be permitted to intrude upon his getting his own way. Apologies to Elizabeth Warren and Dick Durbin, who made it their business to block Weiss’s nomination; but you know not what you do.

I support Cooke’s general defense of procedure here, but I don’t think it’s being violated in this case, for three reasons.

The first is that process matters. There is no way to prevent a government official from soliciting the advice he’s looking for. Having a Senate-confirmed spot in government is about more than hiring. It’s why it’s not inappropriate that Susan Rice landed at the exceptionally powerful National Security Council when opposition to her from the Senate chased the administration away from making her secretary of state. Yes, it’s a different job title, but so is Weiss’s. And since policy is made in the White House, Rice is arguably more influential toward the shape of American foreign policy as national security advisor than she would have been at State.

The second is that the purpose of the opposition matters. The truth is that Rice would likely have been confirmed. The problem for Obama was that Republicans wanted to use the confirmation hearings to press the administration (and especially Rice) on Benghazi. For Weiss, it wasn’t clear Warren had the votes to reject his nomination. What she wanted was to make a point about the administration’s supposedly too-cozy ties to Wall Street and demonstrate her growing clout in the Democratic Party. So yes, Weiss was hired this way to avoid the Senate’s “advice and consent” (mostly “advice”), but neither is it fully accurate to say that, in this case as in many others like it, “the Senate didn’t want him.”

The third reason is that you could say the same about recess appointments. But wait, you object, the recess power is in the Constitution! Indeed it is. And what is its purpose? If the purpose is to prevent debilitating vacancies while the Senate is out of session, then its popular use today unquestionably violates the spirit of that process.

Presidents use recess appointments for controversial nominees who would be otherwise “unconfirmable” by the Senate. Does this not trash the very concept of the Senate’s role in choosing nominees? If we follow this line of thinking, we should oppose any appointment that would otherwise go through the Senate. (Cooke may in fact agree; I’m not claiming to know, merely making a broader point.)

And if the spirit of the Constitution is not violated by recess appointments made for this purpose, then the case for Weiss is even stronger. We can then say that the framers allowed for the workaround in cases other than coincidental recess.

And we might glance at the way presidents choose their advisors for some perspective. If we must oppose Weiss’s hiring in this case for these reasons, then we might as well indict the executive branch’s general conduct in foreign policy. Was the diplomatic opening to Cuba arranged by the American secretary of state or even Foggy Bottom appointees? No it was not; it was arranged by presidential advisor (and Susan Rice deputy) Ben Rhodes, whose position is not subject to Senate confirmation. And we could say the same about the entire system of “special envoys” through which presidents approach foreign affairs.

There is a danger here, without question. And the growth of the administrative state and its army of unaccountable bureaucrats would surely horrify the framers, for a variety of reasons. But Weiss’s hiring is probably not one of them.

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Another Unforced Error for Netanyahu

What was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu thinking when he rejected an invitation from Senate Democrats to speak to a private meeting of their caucus? Netanyahu’s rationale is that he only wants to speak to bipartisan groups rather than to meet with either Democrats or Republicans and thereby be drawn into America’s partisan disputes. But by publicly rejecting what seems like an olive branch from Democrats, he is doing just the opposite. Rather than uphold the bipartisan nature of the pro-Israel coalition in Washington, the prime minister’s refusal is being interpreted as another snub to President Obama’s party after his decision to accept an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress from House Speaker John Boehner without consulting with the White House. Just when you thought this story couldn’t get any worse for Netanyahu—at least as far as the way it is perceived in the United States—the Israeli leader dug himself and his country a slightly deeper hole in yet another unforced error.

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What was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu thinking when he rejected an invitation from Senate Democrats to speak to a private meeting of their caucus? Netanyahu’s rationale is that he only wants to speak to bipartisan groups rather than to meet with either Democrats or Republicans and thereby be drawn into America’s partisan disputes. But by publicly rejecting what seems like an olive branch from Democrats, he is doing just the opposite. Rather than uphold the bipartisan nature of the pro-Israel coalition in Washington, the prime minister’s refusal is being interpreted as another snub to President Obama’s party after his decision to accept an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress from House Speaker John Boehner without consulting with the White House. Just when you thought this story couldn’t get any worse for Netanyahu—at least as far as the way it is perceived in the United States—the Israeli leader dug himself and his country a slightly deeper hole in yet another unforced error.

As his official response indicates, it is likely that the prime minister’s office saw the invitation as a trap rather than an opportunity to counter the White House spin of his speech as the Israeli government taking sides with Republicans against the White House on the question of Iran sanctions. Since he rightly believes that speaking to Congress about the dangers from Iran’s nuclear program and the need for increased sanctions is an issue that transcends partisan loyalties, Netanyahu may have thought that accepting the invite from the Democrats would have been a tacit admission that he had erred in cooking up the speech with Boehner.

He may have been right about that. But, once again, the prime minister and his advisors—people who have a better grasp of Washington culture than most Israelis—have gotten so deep into the issue that they’ve lost sight of political reality. Rightly or wrongly, the speech to Congress is widely seen as a Netanyahu attack on Obama that is resented even by Democrats who agree with the prime minister and disagree with the president on Iran sanctions and the direction of the negotiations with Tehran. Rather than viewing the invitation from the Senate Democrats negatively, he should have taken it as an opportunity to prove that he had no interest in playing one party against another. If there were a problem with the perception of him meeting with one group of senators—something that is far from unprecedented—it wouldn’t have been too hard to persuade Republicans to meet with him too.

Instead, by stubbornly sticking to his narrative about the speech to Congress and ignoring the need to acknowledge that the story has gotten away from him, Netanyahu has done more damage to his reputation and, once again, assisted the administration’s efforts to brand him as a disruptive force within the alliance. Just at the moment when it seemed the discussion was shifting from one about the prime minister’s chutzpah to the latest dangerous round of concessions being offered to Iran by the president, we get another news cycle in which the focus is on Netanyahu’s incompetent management of relations with people who should be his allies in Congress.

Acknowledging this latest blunder doesn’t mean that Netanyahu’s position on Iran isn’t correct. The administration’s reported offer of a ten-year freeze with Tehran that would grant Western approval not only for Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but its eventual acquisition of a weapon is a betrayal of the president’s 2008 and 2012 campaign pledges on the issue. Though some were accusing Israel of making up stories about the talks in order to discredit the diplomatic process, it now appears that the worst fears about Obama’s push for détente with Iran are coming true. Rather than stopping Iran, the administration’s priority is making common cause with it to the detriment of the security of both America’s moderate Arab allies and the Jewish state.

This is the moment when the bipartisan pro-Israel community in this country should be uniting behind a push for more sanctions on Iran and opposition to appeasement of its nuclear ambitions. But by walking right into Obama’s trap, Netanyahu has reduced the chances of passing sanctions by a veto-proof majority. And by doubling down on this by refusing to meet with Senate Democrats, he has ensured that his speech will continue to be interpreted through a partisan lens rather than as a necessary cry of alarm that should be taken up by both parties.

It’s possible that, as I wrote yesterday, the duel with the White House may actually be helping Netanyahu in his reelection fight at home since it puts Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog in the unenviable position of being the Israeli ally of a president that is rightly viewed with suspicion by most voters in the Jewish state. But you don’t have to sympathize with either Obama or Herzog to understand that Netanyahu’s blunders are deepening the divide between Republicans and Democrats on Israel just at the moment when he should be redoubling his efforts to bridge them.

In the first six years of this administration, Netanyahu was roundly abused in the American press for his arguments with the president. But on the whole he conducted himself with dignity and strength and was rarely outmaneuvered. But in the last two months, Netanyahu has not been able to get out of his own way when it comes to managing relations with Congress or the White House. It may be too late for him to step back from the speech. But it isn’t too late to try and rectify the harm he is doing by rethinking his rejection of the Democrats’ invitation.

I don’t know exactly who is advising him to make these unforced errors but whoever it is, they should be fired or ignored in the future. Whether or not Netanyahu is reelected next month, the next prime minister of Israel is going to need both Republicans and Democrats in the years to come to maintain the alliance and to manage the growing threat from Iran that Obama is encouraging rather than stopping. Much to my surprise and others who thought him a brilliant political operator, Netanyahu seems to have forgotten that.

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GOP Must Find a Way Out of Obama’s DHS De-Funding Trap

With only days to go before a deadline for funding the Department of Homeland Security, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is desperately seeking a way to sell Republicans in both houses of Congress on a plan to get themselves out of the trap that President Obama set for them. His conservative critics aren’t wrong when they say this is nothing more than a GOP surrender that gives up any hope of taking a stand against the president’s extralegal executive orders granting wholesale amnesty to up to five million illegal immigrants. But unless McConnell can persuade House Republicans to go along with him, the understandable desire to defund those parts of the government that will carry out the president’s orders will cause the party to embark on another suicide charge that might prove to be even more disastrous than the 2013 government shutdown.

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With only days to go before a deadline for funding the Department of Homeland Security, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is desperately seeking a way to sell Republicans in both houses of Congress on a plan to get themselves out of the trap that President Obama set for them. His conservative critics aren’t wrong when they say this is nothing more than a GOP surrender that gives up any hope of taking a stand against the president’s extralegal executive orders granting wholesale amnesty to up to five million illegal immigrants. But unless McConnell can persuade House Republicans to go along with him, the understandable desire to defund those parts of the government that will carry out the president’s orders will cause the party to embark on another suicide charge that might prove to be even more disastrous than the 2013 government shutdown.

Let’s specify that Tea Partiers and other GOP stalwarts are right to be outraged about the president’s end-run around the Constitution. The notion that a president has the right to legislate on his own simply because he says he gave Congress time to do what he wanted it to do and must now act since they failed to is absurd as well as reflecting contempt for the rule of law. Regardless of one’s views about the need for immigration reform, the president’s actions constitute an ominous precedent that presage a constitutional crisis as the executive branch runs roughshod over the normal order of government. Indeed, even many Democrats said as much last fall prior to the orders, especially those up for reelection.

But simply because something is wrong and should be stopped doesn’t necessarily mean there is a way to do it that is politically palatable. The orders were given in a way that there is no option for halting their implementation other than defunding the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which now falls under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security. The courts may rule in favor of the 26 states that have sued to halt Obama’s orders. The decision of one federal judge in Texas in favor of that suit has, at least temporarily, stopped Obama in his tracks. But unless that track works—and it is likely that it won’t—the only alternative is defunding DHS.

It is true that Republicans are attempting to keep the rest of Homeland Security operating while preventing INS from doing the president’s will with respect to amnesty. But with Democrats in the Senate filibustering that effort and the president ready to veto that measure even if the Upper Chamber’s minority doesn’t hold on, taking a stand on illegal immigration will shut down the entire department.

While most Americans don’t like the idea of government shutdowns under any circumstances, furloughs for DHS employees right now is about the worst political idea anyone in Washington could come up with. The GOP could probably get away with shutting down the Department of Education or Housing or Health, Education, and Welfare or any number of other federal bureaucracies and not be hurt by it. But defunding DHS at a time of rising concern about terrorism is a political loser as well as arguably very bad policy. It not only creates another liberal narrative about Republican obstructionists trying to stop the government from operating. It also allows the president to change the subject from his lack of a coherent strategy to defeat ISIS to the old tried-and-true meme about Republicans blowing up the government.

Conservatives are right that this isn’t fair. A principled stand by the GOP against Obama’s executive orders isn’t anymore extremist than the Democrats’ refusal to compromise or step back from amnesty. The assumption that Republicans should be blamed for a shutdown is based on biased media reporting that reflects Democratic talking points. Unfortunately, the public seems to have bought it, in no small measure because the GOP’s small-government philosophy seems to make it more likely to act as if the government does deserve to be blown up.

But fair or unfair, it is a matter of political reality. As even Senator Marco Rubio noted today, shutting down DHS is simply unthinkable right now. Thus, the GOP should swallow hard and follow McConnell’s plan by passing a “clean” funding bill for DHS and then having a separate vote on a measure to stop the executive orders that will inevitably fail. If the House balks, it won’t matter that President Obama and the Democrats deserve the lion’s share of the blame for starting the fight with the orders and then filibustering a GOP bill to fund DHS.

Such an outcome is frustrating for party activists that turned out and elected a Republican Senate as well as a GOP-run House. But as infuriating as it may be, they need to realize that the only way to rescind those orders is going to mean electing a Republican president of the United States. And that is a prospect that will be less likely if they wind up shutting down DHS and further damaging their brand as a party at time when they should be gaining ground at the Democrats’ expense on foreign policy.

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President Obama Vetoes the Keystone XL Pipeline Bill

As expected, the president has vetoed the bill that passed both houses (surviving a Senate filibuster) that would have authorized a pipeline that would move crude oil from the Alberta oils sands region and the Bakken shield in North Dakota, a state now producing more oil than any other except Texas, to the Gulf coast.

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As expected, the president has vetoed the bill that passed both houses (surviving a Senate filibuster) that would have authorized a pipeline that would move crude oil from the Alberta oils sands region and the Bakken shield in North Dakota, a state now producing more oil than any other except Texas, to the Gulf coast.

The pipeline has consistently polled well with all groups, is environmentally harmless (indeed, beneficial as pipelines are safer than moving oil by train, as West Virginia found out last week), and would create many construction jobs. It would be a huge gesture of good will to our neighbor and ally, Canada, and a poke in the eye to our antagonist, Venezuela, whose oil exports to the United States would be curtailed. But the Tom-Steyer-lunatic-fringe of the environmental movement adamantly opposed it, so Obama delayed and delayed and delayed.

This veto was, of course, not unexpected and it is unlikely to be overridden in either house of Congress. So the bill was, in a sense, just a political gesture on the part of the new Republican-controlled Congress. It is only the president’s third veto in more than six years in office, but there is likely to be many more as he no longer has Harry Reed to protect him politically.

But his stated reasons for the veto are almost comical:

In a message to Congress, Mr. Obama cited the ongoing State Department review as the reason for his veto, saying “because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest—including our security, safety and environment—it has earned my veto.”

“Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest,” Mr. Obama wrote. He added that while the presidential veto is an executive power he takes seriously, “I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people.”

Asked if the Obama administration might eventually approve the pipeline after the State Department review is complete, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, “That possibility still does exist. This is an ongoing review.”

This is truly rich. There is not a person on planet earth who thinks that the Keystone XL Pipeline has not been studied enough already to make informed judgments. And President Obama stated on 22 occasions that the executive branch lacked the power to change immigration law, a power reserved to Congress. But once the 2014 election was out of the way, he changed the law anyway by executive order. His complaint was that Congress had failed to act and so he had to. But when Congress, fed up with the unconscionable foot-dragging over an oil pipeline, tried to do by constitutionally correct means what the president had refused to do, he is outraged at an attempt “to circumvent longstanding and proven processes.” In other words, the Constitution is optional for the Obama administration, but executive branch procedures are absolute for Congress.

This is shameless, but what else could be expected of this administration?

Candidates for the Republican 2016 nomination should be clear that 1) once in the White House, they will clear the way for the pipeline and that, 2) they will not misuse procedures in order to avoid having to make difficult political decisions.

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Obama’s Uncomfortable Israeli Ally

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog stated the obvious when he noted today that both the Israeli government and its opposition agreed on the nuclear threat from Iran. But as much as he shares Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conviction that Israel cannot tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon, he wants no part of a joint trip to Washington with his rival. Herzog rejected the invitation from the Likud to join the prime minister when he goes to Congress in early March. But while there are good reasons for both Israelis and American supporters of the Jewish state to question the wisdom of Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation to address a joint session of Congress, Herzog’s unwillingness to play along with Netanyahu’s gambit demonstrates that a move that has actually worsened the chances of Congress passing more sanctions may be helping the prime minister politically at home more than it is hurting him. By forcing Herzog to declare himself ready to trust the Obama administration to do the right thing on Iran—just at a time when it appears to be making even more concessions that endanger the security of the West and Israel—Netanyahu could be ensuring his reelection next month.

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Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog stated the obvious when he noted today that both the Israeli government and its opposition agreed on the nuclear threat from Iran. But as much as he shares Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conviction that Israel cannot tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon, he wants no part of a joint trip to Washington with his rival. Herzog rejected the invitation from the Likud to join the prime minister when he goes to Congress in early March. But while there are good reasons for both Israelis and American supporters of the Jewish state to question the wisdom of Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation to address a joint session of Congress, Herzog’s unwillingness to play along with Netanyahu’s gambit demonstrates that a move that has actually worsened the chances of Congress passing more sanctions may be helping the prime minister politically at home more than it is hurting him. By forcing Herzog to declare himself ready to trust the Obama administration to do the right thing on Iran—just at a time when it appears to be making even more concessions that endanger the security of the West and Israel—Netanyahu could be ensuring his reelection next month.

With only three weeks to go before Israeli voters head to the polls, the race between Netanyahu’s Likud and the Zionist Union bloc led by Herzog is still too close to call in terms of which party will get the most Knesset seats. But the coalition math in which either party must negotiate deals with several smaller parties in order to get to a 61-seat majority and the right to govern still favors Netanyahu. In order to become the next prime minister, Herzog is going to have to finish first by a healthy margin and then put together a tenuous coalition including the religious and centrist parties but excluding the anti-Zionist Arabs.

Pulling off such a feat is possible but not likely. And the more Netanyahu is able to position himself as the sole figure standing up to American pressure on the Palestinians and fighting against appeasement of Iran, the worse Herzog’s chances look. Thus, it might have made sense to make some gesture of national unity that would have enabled him to steal at least some of Netanyahu’s thunder in Washington. But Herzog can’t do it. Why? Because the rationale underlying his candidacy is a critique of the way Netanyahu has messed up the alliance with the United States.

Herzog rightly understood that the invitation to join Netanyahu was a political stunt and that the Likud was hoping he would say no. The opposition leader isn’t wrong to view the speech as now having a lot more to do with Israeli domestic politics than an effective effort to stop an administration determined to cut a deal with Iran on any terms, even if its provisions virtually concede its status as a threshold nuclear power and will eventually allow the regime to build a weapon with impunity. But the problem for Herzog is not in diagnosing the futility of Netanyahu’s speech or the fact that it has helped President Obama pick off wavering Democrats and therefore prevent the creation of a veto-proof majority for increased sanctions on Iran. Rather, it is in being put in the position of being Obama’s man in Jerusalem just at a time when the president seems to be betraying Israel’s interests in the Iran talks rather than just engaging in another pointless spat with Netanyahu.

There’s no question that the White House will be holding its breath on March 17 and the days following the Israeli vote hoping that somehow Herzog and his ally Tzipi Livni can prevail. Herzog seems to appreciate this and is saying nothing to indicate that he will make trouble for Obama on Iran or any other issue.

But Herzog has to be worried about two things happening that would make Netanyahu’s congressional speech more than a campaign speech.

One is the very real possibility that the U.S. will cut a deal with Iran in the next couple of weeks that will give the Islamist regime the right to hold onto to its nuclear toys and give it a chance—whether by a breakout or waiting out a freeze period such as the one suggested by the U.S. this week—that will give it a nuclear weapon. If the president who is already deeply unpopular in Israel agrees to a deal that is widely seen as undermining Israeli security, Herzog will be hard-put to continue to claim that he can defend Israel’s interests more effectively than Netanyahu by warming up the relationship with Obama. At that point, he will be forced into a stance that will be a faint echo of Netanyahu’s full-throated opposition to an Iran deal and irrelevance.

But even if a deal isn’t struck before the speech or the election, Herzog still has to be concerned about the administration’s push for Iran détente becoming more overt. Indeed, the closer we get to a deal, whether or not it is signed, the steady stream of U.S. concessions to the Islamist regime makes Herzog’s position as Obama’s favorite in the elections more untenable than ever. Though Obama would like to help Herzog, the irony is that the harder he tries to achieve his main second-term foreign-policy goal—an entente with Iran—the worse Herzog’s chances may be. While Herzog is right to say that, if elected, he would, at least initially, be able to warm up relations with Obama, being cozy with someone who is getting cozy with Iran is a very uncomfortable place to be for a man who wants to be elected prime minister of Israel.

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