Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israel

What If There’s No Iran Deal?

Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

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Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

Here’s how the Politico article closes, with a quote from an administration official:

“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.

The Obama administration’s official perspective on the Middle East currently engulfed in brutal sectarian conflict, civil war, and the collapse of state authority is: Let it burn. Nothing matters but a piece of paper affirming a partnership with the region’s key source of instability and terror in the name of a presidential legacy.

But there’s another question that’s easy to miss in the frenetic, desperate attempt to reach a deal with Iran: What if there’s no deal?

Obviously the president wants a deal, and he’s willing to do just about anything for it. The Obama administration long ago abandoned the idea that a bad deal is worse than no deal, and only recently began hinting at this shift in public. Officials have no interest in even talking about Yemen while they’re negotiating the Iran deal. It’s a singleminded pursuit; obsessive, irrational, ideologically extreme. But it’s possible the pursuit will fail: witness today’s New York Times story demonstrating that the Iranians are still playing hardball. (Why wouldn’t they? Their demands keep getting met.)

Surely it’s appalling for the administration to be so dismissive of the failure of a state, such as Yemen, in which we’ve invested our counterterrorism efforts. But it also shifts the power structure in the region. Take this piece in the Wall Street Journal: “Uncertain of Obama, Arab States Gear Up for War.” In it, David Schenker and Gilad Wenig explain that “The willingness of Arab states to finally sacrifice blood and treasure to defend the region from terrorism and Iranian encroachment is a positive development. But it also represents a growing desperation in the shadow of Washington’s shrinking security role in the Middle East.”

They also note the Arab League’s record isn’t exactly a monument to competent organization, so it’s not a great stand-in for an American government looking to unburden itself as a security guarantor for nervous Sunni allies. And it adds yet another note of instability.

Yemen’s only the latest example of the realignment, of course. The death toll in Syria’s civil war long ago hit six digits, and it’s still raging. Bashar al-Assad, thanks to his patron Iran and Tehran’s complacent hopeful partner in Washington, appears to have turned a corner and is headed to eventual, bloody victory.

The Saudis are toying with joining the nuclear arms race furthered by the Obama administration’s paving the Iranian road to a bomb. In Iraq, as Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent report, our decision to serve as Iran’s air force against ISIS has grotesque consequences, including that our military is now “providing air cover for ethnic cleansing.” Iran’s proxies, such as those in Lebanon and on Israel’s borders, will only be further emboldened.

And the lengths the administration has gone to elbow Israel out of the way–from leaking Israel’s nuclear secrets to intervening in its elections to try to oust those critical of Obama’s nuclear diplomacy–only cement the impression that to this president, there is room for every erstwhile ally under the bus, if that’s what it takes to get right with Iran. The view from France, meanwhile, “is of a Washington that seems to lack empathy and trust for its long-time friends and partners — more interested in making nice with Iran than looking out for its old allies.”

The ramifications to domestic politics are becoming clear as well. The point of Obama portraying foreign-government critics as Republicans abroad is that he sees everything in binary, hyperpartisan fashion. The latest dispatch from the Wall Street Journal on the issue includes this sentence:

In recent days, officials have tried to neutralize skeptical Democrats by arguing that opposing President Barack Obama would empower the new Republican majority, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Taking a tough line on Iranian nukes is bad, according to Obama, because it could help Republicans. It’s a rather amazing bit of myopia and partisan mania from the president.

And yet all this damage Obama is doing is for an Iran deal that might, in the end, not happen. And what if that’s the case? We can’t stitch Yemen, Syria, and Iraq back together. The failure of the negotiations won’t make the Saudis or the Israelis or the French trust Obama any more.

Obama’s clout on the Hill will plummet. And his legacy will be in ruins. After all, though he has been on pace to sign a bad Iran deal, it would at least buy him time for his devotees to spin the deal before its worst consequences happen (which would be after Obama leaves office, as designed). In other words, signing a bad deal for Obama allows him to say that at least from a narrow antiwar standpoint, all the costs we and our allies have incurred were for a purpose.

Of course, the grand realignment Obama has been seeking with Iran can’t and won’t be undone. That’s happening whether a deal is signed or not. And while Obama will have spent much of his own political capital, the president’s wasted time will pale in comparison to the smoldering ruins of American influence he leaves behind.

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What Does Current Morass Say About Middle East Studies?

The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

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The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

For more than a half century U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East has been largely consistent and bipartisan. President Dwight Eisenhower briefly tried to reorient the basis of American policy away from close ties with Israel to a broader alliance favoring Arab states and the Arab narrative—hence the Suez debacle—but he quickly discovered that Israel simply made a better and more consistent ally than the likes of Gamal Abdul Nasser or the myriad Arab leaders, many of whom were simply the latest coup leaders.

It’s worth considering why Obama is such an outlier. While, on paper, Obama might be expected to be the most international president—with Kenyan family and a boyhood in Indonesia—when it comes to the Middle East, he had little practical background. His introduction to the region appears to have occurred in American universities, if not directly in Middle East Studies courses, than through his friendship and close association with Middle East Studies luminaries like Rashid Khalidi and perhaps Edward Said as well.

Martin Kramer, currently president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, penned in 2001 one of the best researched, careful, and damning assessments of Middle Eastern Studies, in which he traced the inverse relationship between its polemics and relevance. Much of this can be traced back to Edward Said. Said, is of course, famous for penning Orientalism, perhaps the most influential book in Middle East Studies in the last half century. Few people who cite Orientalism, however, have ever read it. If they had, they would readily see the emperor had no clothes, for Said’s essay is so full of errors of both fact and logic as to suggest scholarly incompetence if not academic fraud. Quite simply, the reason why Said is so popular on campus today is because his argument became a blessing to prioritize polemic and politics above fact and scholarly rigor. For Said, up was down, wrong was right, and power was original sin.

Rashid Khalidi, a close friend of Obama from their mutual University of Chicago days, now holds a chair named in Said’s honor at Columbia University. He has consistently argued that politicians and diplomats do not listen to those like himself who claim expertise in the Middle East. This was a complaint which permeated his 2004 book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, which I reviewed here. The irony here, of course, is that Khalidi, who was previously the PLO spokesman in Beirut, had never been to Iraq but nevertheless castigated policymakers for ignoring his advice on the subject.

Khalidi, as with many others in his field, both sought to prioritize and amplify the importance of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time, he appears obsessed with post-colonial theory. American power is corrosive, and the road to Middle East peace runs through Jerusalem. Likewise, cultural equivalence predominates: what the West calls terrorism is not so black and white. Hateful ideologies? They are simply the result of grievance. America should apologize and understand and accommodate to the position of the other if it is committed truly to peace.

Obama entered office internalizing such beliefs. Rather than act as leader of the free world, he approached the Middle East as a zoning commissioner. What he lacked in understanding, he compensated for with arrogance—dispensing with decades of accumulated wisdom and experience of predecessors both Democrat and Republican. Rather than jump start the peace process, Obama succeeded in setting it back decades.

When it comes to the U.S. military, there are few places with less trust and understanding than the university campus. Generations have now passed through the Ivory Tower since the end of conscription and, especially at elite universities, few professors or students have any experience in or with the military. The U.S. military is treated in an almost cartoonish, condescending fashion. Rather than see its projection as the enabler of peace, Obama—like many of his university colleagues—saw it as an arrow in the U.S. policy quiver with which past American presidents engaged in wars of choice and unjust gunboat diplomacy. Sovereignty and nationalism were enablers of evil; it was the United Nations and other multilateral institutions that held the key to peace and justice, if only they might operate unimpeded by the United States.

Of course, when put to the test, these assumptions failed completely. Obama’s promise to withdraw from Iraq did not win that country peace and stability, but condemned it to a return to terror and war. His failure to intervene in Syria early transferred a situation that might have been resolved with minimum force into a cancer which now spreads throughout the region. His outreach to Iran has shaken decades-long alliances with Arab allies to the core, and broken a trust in the United States and its red lines which will take decades to restore. Never before—not in 1979, not in 1967—has the Middle East been so torn asunder.

And yet, all Obama did was follow the prescriptions taught at so many American universities today: reconcile with Iran, condemn Israel, rationalize terror, trust Islamist movements, and refuse military solutions. The Middle East will test whoever succeeds Obama. It is doubtful that either a Democrat or a Republican will follow Obama’s path. History will treat him as an outlier. Still, it is worth considering whether Obama represents academe’s first grand experiment, enabling area studies professors to see their ideas put into action on the world stage. If so, perhaps it is worth considering whether many Middle Eastern studies programs are repositories of expertise, or rather have transformed themselves because of their own ideological conformity and blinders into a dustbin of wasted potential.

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Time for Lawyers to Take a Stand Against BDS

​When a United Nations Commission singles out Israel and Israel alone for violating the rights of women, it barely registers. The U.N., when it comes to Israel, has long been a joke. When the American Studies Association singled out Israel and Israel alone to boycott, people were shocked, but only because they were unaware that the obscure American Studies Association had long been populated by academics who saw Israel as an accessory to America’s racist and imperialistic crimes.

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​When a United Nations Commission singles out Israel and Israel alone for violating the rights of women, it barely registers. The U.N., when it comes to Israel, has long been a joke. When the American Studies Association singled out Israel and Israel alone to boycott, people were shocked, but only because they were unaware that the obscure American Studies Association had long been populated by academics who saw Israel as an accessory to America’s racist and imperialistic crimes.

​But I have to admit that I was taken aback when I learned from David Bernstein of George Mason University that the Virginia State Bar has canceled a conference in Israel citing “some unacceptable discriminatory policies and practices pertaining to border security.” A “state agency,” president Kevin E. Martingayle sniffs, has to be concerned with “maximum inclusion and equality.”

​As Bernstein points out, this is not about border-security practices. At the Modern Language Association last year, academics who favored the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel went with what they thought they might be able to get: a resolution calling on the State Department to denounce Israel’s visa policies. Max Eden of AEI was right at the time to call the resolution “a savvy and deeply hypocritical opening gambit,” designed to secure any propaganda victory that could be secured. Bernstein may well be right that Martingayle and his colleagues “can’t be so naive and out-of-touch to think that the concerns raised are not part of the broader divestment, sanctions, and boycott movement meant to delegitimize Israel.”

It doesn’t inspire confidence that, as Bernstein also notes, the pro-boycott site the Electronic Intifada evidently had a copy of President Martingayle’s letter to members before members did.

​Bernstein calls on Bar members to boycott the Virginia State Bar, avoiding whatever alternative site is chosen for the conference, and limiting ties to the VSB as much as is consistent with fulfilling one’s professional responsibilities.

Perhaps still more can be done. BDS supporters may have overplayed their hand. There was apparently no public discussion of the move to cancel the conference. Instead, the leadership was evidently moved by a petition signed by just 34 people. One doubts they represent Virginia’s lawyers. We have here a classic example of how an organization consisting of numerous but marginally involved members can be influenced by a small, determined group. Members of the Virginia State Bar should demand a statement dissociating the VSB from the boycott movement, and members of other state bars and bar associations should protect themselves by insisting on similar statements, whether dissociating themselves from the actions of the VSB or from the boycott movement in general.

​There is a model for this. When the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israel, well over 200 college and university presidents issued statements distancing themselves from and sometimes condemning in the harshest terms the ASA’s move. What looked like a victory for the BDS movement was turned into an embarrassing defeat.

​College presidents, perhaps unfairly, are not noted for stiffness of spine. Let’s see if the lawyers can show the same backbone.

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GOP Doesn’t Play Fair. They Back Israel.

New York Times coverage of Republicans tends to be biased and judgmental. Conservatives are generally portrayed as either conniving and cynical big money manipulators of simple-minded voters (the standard trope about establishment Republicans) or as racist fire-eaters (i.e. Tea Partiers). But occasionally even the Grey Lady gets something right in its political coverage. That’s the case with the piece published today in which they note in their headline that, “For GOP, Support for Israel Becomes a Litmus Test.” They’re right about that and the contrast with Democrats, especially in the wake of the tirades against Israel’s government emanating from the White House in recent weeks, couldn’t be greater. While, as I noted yesterday, Democrats are claiming that the GOP is trying to turn Israel into a partisan wedge, what is really happening is that one of our two major parties has become a bastion of support for the Jewish state while the other is drifting away from it.

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New York Times coverage of Republicans tends to be biased and judgmental. Conservatives are generally portrayed as either conniving and cynical big money manipulators of simple-minded voters (the standard trope about establishment Republicans) or as racist fire-eaters (i.e. Tea Partiers). But occasionally even the Grey Lady gets something right in its political coverage. That’s the case with the piece published today in which they note in their headline that, “For GOP, Support for Israel Becomes a Litmus Test.” They’re right about that and the contrast with Democrats, especially in the wake of the tirades against Israel’s government emanating from the White House in recent weeks, couldn’t be greater. While, as I noted yesterday, Democrats are claiming that the GOP is trying to turn Israel into a partisan wedge, what is really happening is that one of our two major parties has become a bastion of support for the Jewish state while the other is drifting away from it.

As the Times points out, it used to be the Democrats who were the pro-Israel party and Republicans were the ones who were divided on the issue. That changed in the last quarter of the 20th century as GOP leaders like Ronald Reagan (who, despite clashes with Prime Minister Menachem Begin early in his tenure, was rightly seen as a warm supporter of Israel) and the influence of evangelical voters made life difficult for Republicans who were opposed or even merely unenthusiastic about the Jewish state. By the time of George W. Bush, whose closeness to Israel was something Obama set out on his first day in office to change, the GOP was unified behind the Jewish state. Even an outlier on foreign policy like Senator Rand Paul, whose father was hostile to it, has made a concerted effort to at least appear to be pro-Israel as he attempts to make a serious bid for the party’s presidential nomination.

What the Times leaves out of their story is that the opposite trend has been happening among Democrats as polls have consistently shown lower support for Israel among them for more than 20 years.

To some on the left, like J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami, strong support for Israel and opposition to efforts to pressure it to make suicidal concessions to its foes is a sign of growing radicalism among Republicans. But, unsurprisingly, he has that backwards. By embracing Israel, Republicans have moved into the mainstream on a key foreign policy issue since most Americans feel a tremendous sense of kinship with it for a variety of reasons, including religious motivations as well as its status as America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East.

The change among Republicans distresses the J Street crowd and those even farther on the left who eschew mere pressure tactics on the Israelis and prefer to isolate it or support the efforts of those who wish to destroy it.

Other more mainstream Democrats think there’s something fishy about it since it puts them in the position of having to compete with a rival party where backing for Israel is universal while they are forced to admit that many Democrats, including the president of the United States, are not exactly fans of the Jewish state and its democratically-elected government. But their claims that Republicans are making Israel a partisan issue are false. It is the Obama administration that has sought to break up the bipartisan consensus in Congress in favor of more sanctions against Iran or support for the Netanyahu government by appealing to the partisan loyalties of Democrats.

Whereas the president is seeking to convince Democrats to be less supportive of Israel and its security, Republicans understand that putting yourself on the wrong side of the issue is politically dangerous. That’s why Jeb Bush was quick to disassociate himself from James Baker’s attacks on Israel in front of J Street, in spite of the fact that the former secretary is a faithful Bush family retainer.

This doesn’t mean that there still aren’t Democrats who back Israel though they have been awfully quiet about the way the president has been bashing Netanyahu and the Israeli electorate in the last week. But what it does mean is that there is no use pretending that the bulk of the two parties are united on the issue. As the Times reports, there’s no longer much room in the GOP for opponents of Israel. At the same time, President Obama has transformed the Democrats from a bastion of pro-Israel sentiment to the home of most of its most vicious critics. Supporters of Israel, no matter their partisan affiliation, should be delighted about the former and deeply worried abou the latter. If voters are noticing the difference it isn’t because the GOP is acting unfairly. It’s because some of the most important Democrats in the country have abandoned Israel.

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Iran’s Existential Threat to Israel Not Exaggerated

As President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry rush to a nuclear deal that addresses few of the original issues that have sparked international concern with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, it may be useful to consider just why Israel has come to view a nuclear capable Islamic Republic of Iran as an existential threat. While there is much to criticize in the technicalities of the agreement, the consistency and frequency of Iranian threats against the Jewish state, as well as the prestige within Iran of those who have made such threats, are too often ignored.

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As President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry rush to a nuclear deal that addresses few of the original issues that have sparked international concern with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, it may be useful to consider just why Israel has come to view a nuclear capable Islamic Republic of Iran as an existential threat. While there is much to criticize in the technicalities of the agreement, the consistency and frequency of Iranian threats against the Jewish state, as well as the prestige within Iran of those who have made such threats, are too often ignored.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was an unabashed racist and anti-Semite. He began his seminal essay on Islamic government—the exegesis that underlays the Islamic Revolution and Islamic Republic—by cursing the Jews. “From the very beginning, the historical movement of Islam has had to contend with the Jews, for it was they who first established anti-Islamic propaganda and engaged in various stratagems, and as you can see, this activity continues down to the present,” he declared.

Then, of course, there have been the repeated declarations about Israel’s destruction. Iranian authorities have declared the last Friday in Ramadan to be “Qods [Jerusalem] Day” and have reserved it for the most vitriolic sermons and threats. It was on Qods Day in 2001 that Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and one of the most influential regime figures, declared, “If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” Hassan Rouhani was, of course, Supreme National Security Council chairman at the time. He applauded. Has he changed? No. One of his first actions as president was to underscore the importance of the annual Qods Day rally.

Other Iranian figures appointed by the supreme leader have also threatened to eradicate Israel by means of nuclear weapons. Why Western diplomats believe the assurances they receive in English when the supreme leader’s inner circle says quite the opposite in Persian is something someone might want to ask America’s nuclear negotiators. Likewise, while Obama seems to embrace the pre-World War I notion of secret treaties, there is no reason why the supreme leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons should remain secret unless, of course, the assurance which Obama so often cites simply does not exist. Certainly, if the backbone of newfound trust in Iran is such a fatwa, the White House could provide its text. That it chooses not to do so again amplifies concerns that Obama has become Khamenei’s useful idiot.

Underlying concerns about Iran’s intentions have been frequent statements by Iranian officials attesting to Iran’s genocidal intent. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that “Israel must be wiped off the face of the map,” academic apologists for Iran ran interference. Here, for example, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole suggested that the New York Times had mistranslated Ahmadinejad’s quote of Khomeini, and suggested the phrase he used was perhaps drawn from medieval poetry and had nothing to do with tanks. Of course, this is belied by the Iranian regime itself, which in bilingual posters made clear its intent and which tended to repeat its declaration not in poetry slams but rather in military parades.

And while Obama and Kerry put their head in the sand with regard to Iran’s nuclear intentions, those within range of Iran’s missiles remember the last will and testament of Maj.-Gen. Hassan Tehrani-Moghadam, the overseer of Iran’s missile program, who died in an explosion in 2011. While not published in English, the Iranian press highlighted how Moghadam had asked that his epitaph read, “Write on my tombstone: This is the grave of someone who wanted to annihilate Israel.”

Perhaps Obama and Kerry wish to ignore the frequency of Iranian statements seeking an end to Israel’s existence. They may see it as rhetorical excess only, but never bother to ask why a regime would embrace such rhetoric in the first place. Make no mistake: Anti-Zionism may be the cool new trend in Western Europe and in American universities, but wishing Israel out of existence is akin to seeking the eradication of the people who populate the country. And the Iranian regime, which has been a charter member of the “eradicate Israel” camp will, thanks to Obama and Kerry, soon have the means to fulfill their dream. The deal Obama now strikes is analogous to trusting Hutus in early 1990s Rwanda to manufacture and use machetes for agricultural purposes only despite their rhetoric to cut Tutsis to pieces.

Yes, Israel must take Iran at its word and recognize that the nightmare of an Iranian regime able to back its rhetoric with substance will soon be its new reality. Under such circumstances, the Israelis would be foolish to respond to the threat with inaction.

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Obama’s Two Obsessions: Weaken Israel and Empty Gitmo

We learned on Wednesday that the United States Army is going to charge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted, Mr. Bergdahl could face life in prison.

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We learned on Wednesday that the United States Army is going to charge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted, Mr. Bergdahl could face life in prison.

This charge hardly came as a surprise to those who served with Bergdahl; they had immediately suspected him of desertion when he left his post in Afghanistan in 2009. Both President Obama and Susan Rice surely must have known all this before (a) Mr. Obama celebrated the deal in the Rose Garden last May with Bergdahl’s parents and (b) National Security Adviser Susan Race declared Bergdahl had served his country with “honor and distinctoin.” Only if you believe desertion and misbehavior before the enemy is honorable and a mark of moral distinction.

But what made this particular case even more problematic is that Bergdahl was freed in exchange for five high-value Taliban figures who had been held captive in Guantanamo Bay. As several outlets and individuals have pointed out, getting back a soldier who was almost certainly a deserter was simply a pretext. The main goal of President Obama is to empty Guantanamo Bay. It is something the president declared he wanted to do during his first day in office and it’s something he is committed to doing before his last day in office. Swapping Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders–several of whom are trying to return to the battlefield so they can kill more Americans–was the convenient (if explosively contentious) excuse. The Wall Street Journal reminds us that Mr. Obama told NBC that emptying Gitmo “is going to involve, on occasion, releasing folks who we may not trust but we can’t convict.”

So we have a president with at least two obsessions: One of them is attacking the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and weakening the Jewish State of Israel; the second is to empty Guantanamo Bay and release terrorists committed to killing as many Americans as possible.

We’ve never seen anything quite like this president.

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“Orthodox” as a Pejorative: The Democrats and the Jews

Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s controversial comments at the J Street conference–a gathering seemingly formed for the purpose of disparaging the rest of the Jewish community–deftly illustrated a couple of uncomfortable truths about modern liberalism’s increasingly rocky relationship with religious belief. Liberalism itself has become a religion, and so the left generally seeks to either coopt or delegitimize competing religious practice. At J Street, Schakowsky engaged in the latter.

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Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s controversial comments at the J Street conference–a gathering seemingly formed for the purpose of disparaging the rest of the Jewish community–deftly illustrated a couple of uncomfortable truths about modern liberalism’s increasingly rocky relationship with religious belief. Liberalism itself has become a religion, and so the left generally seeks to either coopt or delegitimize competing religious practice. At J Street, Schakowsky engaged in the latter.

As JTA reported:

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois apologized for referring to a one-time political rival as an “Orthodox Jew” in casting him as a threat to liberal interests. …

“In 2010, I had an election within our community. That is, I ran against a Jewish Orthodox Tea Party Republican who made it very clear that actually, Jan Schakowsky was anti-Israel because of the positions that she took,” Schakowsky said. She thanked J Street because it “came to the rescue” with money and moral support.

Schakowsky in 2010 faced Joel Pollak, a conservative activist, in her suburban Chicago district.

After JTA tweeted a reference to Schakowsky’s comments, the Orthodox Union asked her for a clarification.

“In the context of her remarks and speaking to such an audience, the Congresswoman’s use of the term ‘Orthodox’ was a negative term – as negative for that audience as Tea Party and Republican,” the O.U.’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, said in a statement.

To her credit, Schakowsky offered a sincere apology, though she did deny the obvious intent of her comment. But it was important and revelatory. The lede of the JTA story gets it exactly right: Schakowsky saw her opponent’s Orthodox faith as a threat to her view of proper politics and governance.

There are a few points to unpack here. The first is that this is further confirmation of what Norman Podhoretz called the “Torah of Liberalism.” Many left-leaning Jews have elevated their political ideals to the level of scripture.

A related point is what follows from that: they have demoted scripture to the level of politics. That’s why Schakowsky–who is Jewish–thought it relevant to add “Orthodox” to the list of political modifiers that included “Tea Party” and “Republican.” To Schakowsky, and no doubt to many liberal Jews, Pollak was a political opponent because of his level of private religious observance.

It’s entirely appropriate that her comments were made at a J Street event. Back in 2010 the Washington Jewish Week noted that J Street had launched a website dedicated to personally attacking Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer. The site “highlights the pair’s stances on gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party movement and the separation of church and state,” and left even liberal Jews confused. But they shouldn’t have been confused: J Street has always been a Democratic pressure group, of which Israel is only one excuse to smear political opponents and settle scores. It’s why they saw fit to launch a campaign to promote abortion while selling themselves to donors as a “pro-Israel” lobby.

The liberal positions on these issues have nothing to do with Israel, but they do conflict with strict adherence to Jewish law and tradition. And so they were targeted.

The only strange part of Schakowsky giving this speech to J Street, in fact, was that she certainly didn’t need them and they certainly didn’t ride to the rescue. In 2010 she won about 66 percent of the vote in a district Roll Call rates as “safe.” She was never in danger of losing, notwithstanding the nefarious Orthodox Jews lurking about her district.

One of the prevailing myths of the liberal view of history is that religious conservatives–especially evangelical Christians–greatly increased their activity in the public square in order to attempt to force religious doctrine into legislative governance, rather than as a reaction to what they saw as a bureaucratic intrusion into private religious practice. Jewish participation seems destined to follow a similar trend, but the real numbers of Orthodox Jews in the U.S. mean they won’t have a tangible impact on national political contests in the immediate future, even if they continue wading more into the public sphere.

That would be true, at least, as a standalone bloc. But Orthodox interests align with many conservative Christian interests as well, which align with certain libertarian interests, for example with regard to the debate over religious freedom and forced compliance with regulations that violate religious liberty. Seen in that light, then, the raw numbers of politically aware (and right-of-center) Orthodox Jews aren’t nearly as significant as what they represent: the expansion of a broad conservative alliance pushing back on encroachments on constitutional freedoms.

Israel is only part of this story, because it has long been a bipartisan cause. But it’s poised to become a larger part if Democrats continue distancing themselves from support for Israel and casting Israel as a litmus test of partisan loyalty, as President Obama has done.

And that’s a more likely justification for Schakowsky’s professed gratitude toward J Street for her reelection campaign. She didn’t need them for votes, or really anything tangible. She needed cover from an ostensibly “pro-Israel” group because her party’s traditional support for Israel is waning, and J Street is dedicated to improving the political viability of declining support for Israel.

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AP Editor Flunks Middle East 101

Those of us who write about Middle East politics sometimes joke that the mainstream press is desperately in need of an introductory course on the subject. And now, thanks to the latest effort by the Associated Press, we’re forced to ask: What happens when reporters take Middle East 101–and fail? The AP’s Middle East editor this week tackled the burning question: “Is Israel democratic?” If you know anything at all about the country, you know that this question requires a one-word answer: Yes. The AP, however, thought it was an essay test. And what a disaster it was.

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Those of us who write about Middle East politics sometimes joke that the mainstream press is desperately in need of an introductory course on the subject. And now, thanks to the latest effort by the Associated Press, we’re forced to ask: What happens when reporters take Middle East 101–and fail? The AP’s Middle East editor this week tackled the burning question: “Is Israel democratic?” If you know anything at all about the country, you know that this question requires a one-word answer: Yes. The AP, however, thought it was an essay test. And what a disaster it was.

The full headline to AP editor Dan Perry’s piece is “AP Analysis: Is Israel democratic? Not so clear.” Such baldly false smears are part and parcel of the debate, of course. For some reason it’s considered acceptable practice to merely make up stuff about Israel and pass lies off as truth. It comes with the territory of being the world’s one Jewish state. But the timing here is interesting. All that’s really changed regarding Israel is President Obama’s public attitude toward it, in which his hostility toward the country and its people are being broadcast instead of denied.

The Associated Press seems to be taking its cue from the president, “reassessing” its public posture toward Israel, and facilitating team Obama in their efforts to change the narrative. But it also does consumers of news on the Middle East a favor: anyone who doesn’t know Israel is clearly a democracy is obviously not a reliable source on the subject.

The AP also shows how much hedging and spinning needs to be done to even try to paint Israel as less than a democracy. Perry begins by calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “hardliner”–a common term employed by anti-Israel activists but one which has no basis in reality. Painting Netanyahu as a “hardliner” is especially useful if you’re trying to undercut his democratic credentials, however.

As Perry builds his argument, he is first forced to acknowledge that he has no case:

The displeasure felt in some quarters over his win has placed front and center the world community’s unwritten obligation to accept the results of a truly democratic vote. It is a basic tenet of the modern order which has survived the occasional awkward election result — as well as recent decades’ emergence of some less-than-pristine democracies around the globe.

For Israel, the argument is especially piquant, because its claim to be the only true democracy in the Middle East has been key to its branding and its vitally important claim on U.S. military, diplomatic and financial support. Israel’s elections, from campaign rules to vote counts, are indeed not suspect.

He then follows, of course, with “But.” It’s the “occupation,” as would be expected, but even here the AP can only build its case by making flatly false statements–and again we come back to Perry failing Middle East 101. He includes all of the West Bank and Gaza in his “analysis,” and stacks the deck thus:

Of the Arabs, only a third have voting rights. These are the “Israeli Arabs” who live in the areas that became Israel in the 1948-49 war, which established the country’s borders.

Does Perry believe Israel exists? It’s hard to tell, thanks to the scare quotes around “Israeli Arabs.” In fact, they are Israeli Arabs by definition–they are Arab citizens of Israel. Additionally, the Israeli war of independence did not establish “the country’s borders.” As the agreements and communiqués and subsequent negotiations made clear, no one considered the 1949 armistice lines to be permanent borders. This was not, by the way, an invention of Israelis who wanted to expand their territory at will; it was the position of the Arab states who wanted to regroup and then try again to eradicate the entire Jewish state.

And that’s the key fact that people who choose to fabricate Israel’s supposed nondemocratic nature must get around. Perry does so by calling the lines “borders,” which they manifestly are not and aren’t considered to be. But it’s important that they’re not borders, because once you acknowledge that fact you are describing not occupied territory but disputed territory, at least as far as international law is concerned. And it becomes even more difficult to tell Jews they can’t live there simply because they are Jews.

Such inconvenient facts appear throughout the piece. Perry paints Israel as the obstacle to peace; “The supposedly temporary arrangement shows no sign of a change — at least not one initiated by Israel,” we’re told. And yet a few paragraphs later we read:

Israel annexed East Jerusalem, and its approximately 200,000 Arabs can have voting rights if they choose. Most have rejected it–whether out of solidarity with the idea of Palestine or for fear of future retribution.

Retribution from whom? Not the Jewish state that offered those Arabs full voting rights. Retribution, instead, from the Palestinian government that continues to be opposed to peace and coexistence with the Jews. Perry then criticizes the security arrangement that currently prevails in the Palestinian territories, but also tells us that “The arrangement is a relic of the 1990s interim accords, which were meant to be succeeded by a final agreement by 1999.” In other words, they were agreed to by the Palestinians, and are being upheld by Israel.

No such article would be complete without some misleading scaremongering about settlements, such as: “Another four years of a Netanyahu government can be expected to add many thousands more settlers, complicating the prospects of a future pullout even more.”

As Evelyn Gordon explained two weeks ago, construction in the settlements has seen a steep drop. Additionally, she wrote, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics “settlement construction throughout Benjamin Netanyahu’s six years as prime minister has been significantly lower than it was under his predecessors.” More importantly, the construction has tended to be “up, not out”–it’s in towns Israel would keep as part of any final-status agreement and not expanding the borders of those towns, and therefore would not “complicat[e] the prospects of a future pullout even more.”

In sum, Israel’s democracy is so strong that even attempts to challenge that status can’t avoid confirming it. The only thing we ended up learning was that Middle East 101 is far too advanced for the AP.

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Yes, Mr. President, Time to Stop Pretending About the Middle East Peace Process

If only he really meant it. During his joint press conference yesterday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, President Obama addressed the tension between the United States and Israel by saying that American policy toward the Middle East must be rooted in reality. The remark was yet another White House jab at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pre-election comments about not allowing a Palestinian state to be created on his watch. The president said that Netanyahu’s statement, even after he had walked it back after his election victory, had changed the reality of the region and that the U.S. can’t base future strategy on events that couldn’t happen. Fair enough. But what the president failed to note was that this is exactly what he has been doing throughout his presidency with respect to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

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If only he really meant it. During his joint press conference yesterday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, President Obama addressed the tension between the United States and Israel by saying that American policy toward the Middle East must be rooted in reality. The remark was yet another White House jab at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pre-election comments about not allowing a Palestinian state to be created on his watch. The president said that Netanyahu’s statement, even after he had walked it back after his election victory, had changed the reality of the region and that the U.S. can’t base future strategy on events that couldn’t happen. Fair enough. But what the president failed to note was that this is exactly what he has been doing throughout his presidency with respect to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The president’s latest shot over Netanyahu’s bow was not meant to be subtle:

I am required to evaluate honestly how we manage Israeli-Palestinian relations over the next several years.  … What we can’t do is to pretend there’s a possibility of something that’s not there. And we can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen at least in the next several years.  That is something that we have to, for the sake of our own credibility; I think we have to be able to be honest about that.

The unspoken threat there—made more explicit in comments leaked to the press by officials speaking without direct attribution—was that the U.S. would reevaluate its willingness to stand up for Israel at the United Nations and other international forums. By making it clear that he doesn’t believe the two-state solution is possible in the foreseeable future, Netanyahu had not merely offended Obama but gave him the opportunity to fundamentally change U.S. policy in a way that would tilt it even more toward the Palestinians and against the Jewish state.

The justification for such a switch will be to head off what Obama called the possibility of complications from Netanyahu’s candor:

That may trigger, then, reactions by the Palestinians that, in turn, elicit counter-reactions by the Israelis.  And that could end up leading to a downward spiral of relations that will be dangerous for everybody and bad for everybody.

That means Obama believes he must address Palestinian distress at Netanyahu’s foreclosing the possibility of their getting an independent state. The president is right about the possibility of a surge in violence, but not about its cause.

There’s not much secret that Obama’s reaction to Netanyahu’s statements stems largely from his anger about the prime minister’s decisive victory, coming as it did after he spoke to Congress in opposition to the president’s push for a dangerous nuclear deal with Iran. But the problem here is not so much the way the Israeli election demonstrated again what a sore loser the president can be. Rather, it is his determination to distort the facts about the conflict to conform to his pre-existing prejudices about both Israel and Netanyahu that makes his reaction so egregious. It is exactly his fixation on peace hinging on Israel’s acceptance of two states that is so inaccurate.

As we’ve noted here too many times to count, the obstacle to a two-state solution has never been Israel’s unwillingness to embrace it. Israeli governments offered the Palestinians statehood and independence in Gaza, a share of Jerusalem, and almost all of the West Bank three times between 2000 and 2008. They were turned down each time. And in spite of what Netanyahu said last week, he accepted the U.S. framework for talks offered by Secretary of State John Kerry and sent his rival Tzipi Livni to work with the Palestinians in talks that even she admitted were blown up by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s unwillingness to negotiate in good faith.

The roadblock to a two-state solution today is the same one that existed when Obama entered office in 2009: the inability of the Palestinian leadership to accept any agreement that would force them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. With Hamas running an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza and his own Fatah still committed to Israel’s eventual destruction, Abbas can’t make peace even if he wanted to do so.

The people of Israel understand this, and that is the reason why the parties of the left have been discredited by the failure of Oslo and the catastrophe of the withdrawal from Gaza that both illustrated that what they had done was to trade land for terror, not peace. Netanyahu’s election victories in 2009, 2013, and this month can be directly traced to the fact that Israelis have done exactly what Obama says he will now do: stop basing their country’s foreign policy on things that can’t happen. They know a two-state solution isn’t possible because they want it while the Palestinians continue to reject it.

Even worse, they also know that Palestinian violence is not a manifestation of frustration with Israel so much as it is based in the ideology of their national movement and indications that the West might abandon the Jewish state. If Hamas is getting ready for another war, as some think possible, it is due to their sense that Obama will leave Israel on its own, not because of Netanyahu’s statements.

If the president were truly interested in a reality-based strategy he would stop pushing the Israelis to do something that even Netanyahu knows most would embrace if it brought a chance for true peace. Instead, he should let the Palestinians know that he will only invest more U.S. effort in the peace process if they give up their century-long quest for Israel’s destruction.

But Obama, who before he was elected spoke about his antipathy for Netanyahu’s Likud and entered office under the delusion that the problem was too much closeness between the U.S. and Israel, is still fixated on Israel. He’s badly in need of a reality check, but if this last week is any indication, he’s just as reluctant to accept his own advice about not basing policy on fantasies as he has ever been.

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Obama’s Pointless Israel Spats Illustrate Spite, Not Strategy

A week has now passed since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected in a decisive win that deeply disappointed the Obama administration that made no secret of its desire that he be defeated. But rather than cut its losses, the White House continues to dig itself in deeper in a conflict with the Israelis with an interview in which President Obama expressed concern for the future of Israeli democracy all the while making it clear that he would like to invalidate the verdict of Israeli voters. But that was not all. The president also sent his chief of staff to speak at the conference of the left-wing J Street lobby. There, James McDonough brought an audience of critics of Israel to its feet by vowing that the U.S. would not cease its efforts to force the Netanyahu government to “end 50 years of occupation.” All of this stoking the fires of conflict forces us to ask why the president is so invested in this effort. The answer isn’t reassuring, especially for those who wanted to believe the president’s 2012 re-election pitch that claimed he was a true friend of Israel.

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A week has now passed since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected in a decisive win that deeply disappointed the Obama administration that made no secret of its desire that he be defeated. But rather than cut its losses, the White House continues to dig itself in deeper in a conflict with the Israelis with an interview in which President Obama expressed concern for the future of Israeli democracy all the while making it clear that he would like to invalidate the verdict of Israeli voters. But that was not all. The president also sent his chief of staff to speak at the conference of the left-wing J Street lobby. There, James McDonough brought an audience of critics of Israel to its feet by vowing that the U.S. would not cease its efforts to force the Netanyahu government to “end 50 years of occupation.” All of this stoking the fires of conflict forces us to ask why the president is so invested in this effort. The answer isn’t reassuring, especially for those who wanted to believe the president’s 2012 re-election pitch that claimed he was a true friend of Israel.

As I noted yesterday, one motive for the conflict with Israel is the disagreement over the Iran nuclear negotiations. The president clearly is not willing to get past his anger about Netanyahu speaking to Congress in opposition to the deal that the U.S. is offering the Iranian regime. With the talks moving into their final stages, it seems likely that Iran will sign an accord, especially since, that country’s so-called “hard-liners” appear to be thrilled with the concessions that their nation has forced out of an Obama administration so fixated on its goal of détente with the Islamist regime that it is willing to retreat from every principle it went into the talks to defend.

Suppressing criticism of the deal has become the top foreign policy priority for the White House and that means keeping the extravagant concessions made to Iran secret for as long as possible. As our Max Boot noted earlier, the administration bizarrely claimed today that Israel was spying on U.S. negotiators with Iran and sharing the information with an entity that the president considers a hostile power — Congress — while admitting that it knows this is true because of U.S. spying on Israel.

But while the nuclear issue and Obama’s acquiescence to Iran’s quest for regional hegemony is a huge part of the current tangle with Israel, that does not completely account for the administration’s bold talk about reviving the dead-in-the-water peace process.

This has, after all, been a constant theme since the president took office in January 2009 determined to make a correction from what he felt was the Bush administration’s coziness with Israel. Throughout the last six years, with only a one-year break for a re-election campaign Jewish charm offensive, President Obama has picked numerous fights with Netanyahu government over settlement building and borders as well as the status of Jerusalem. The goal throughout has been to persuade Israel to take “risks for peace” involving retreating from the West Bank and dividing Jerusalem.

This struggle has been undertaken in the name of saving Israel from itself because as the president noted in his Huffington Post interview, he wanted to preserve Israel’s democracy. But, like his admirers among the crowd at J Street, at no point has the president chosen to hold the Palestinians accountable for their consistent rejection of Israeli peace offers or efforts to torpedo talks, such as the end run around negotiations and unity pact with Hamas that blew up the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry last year.

Nor is there any answer to the widespread concern voiced by Israeli voters about what would happen if their country heeded Obama’s advice and withdrew from the West Bank, whether to the 1967 lines or not. After the example of Gaza, from which Israeli pulled out every last soldier and settler and which was then transformed into a vast terror base from which rockets are rained down on Israeli cities, why should Israelis believe a pullout from the West Bank end any differently.

Moreover, when McDonough speaks of “ending occupation,” Palestinians hear something very different from Americans. When Fatah and Hamas talk about occupation they are referring not just to parts of the West Bank that even most Israelis would happily exit in exchange for true peace, but all of the country, including those parts that were not taken in the 1967 war. When such a high official uses language that is routinely employed by Hamas, albeit for different purposes, why should anyone be surprised if those terrorists regard the White House temper tantrum as a green light for a repeat of last summer’s bloody and pointless war? If Obama was prepared to cut off arms resupply for the Israeli army during that conflict, what might he do next time?

One may disagree with Netanyahu on many things and even fervently advocate for a two-state solution and still understand that White House pressure on Israel about the Palestinians in the absence of any sign that the PA will ever make peace on any terms is utterly irresponsible. Until PA leader Mahmoud Abbas or his Hamas rivals have change their minds about refusing to agree to any deal that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, a return to the table isn’t merely pointless, it’s an invitation to more mayhem as the Palestinians raise the ante in hopes that the U.S. will abandon its Israeli ally.

From January 2009 to the present, the conflict between Israel and the United States has never been connected to any real chance of peace or ending the conflict in a manner that is consistent with American pledges about ensuring the Jewish state’s security. At this point, it is time for even those that have rationalized and apologized for Obama’s penchant for attacking Israel to face up to the fact that his behavior requires a better explanation than an alleged desire to save it from itself. Nor is the argument about Iran enough to justify what we are witnessing. Nothing about the current argument can be traced to U.S. security needs. Rather, its motive seems more about personal anger and vague ideological assumptions about Israel and the Palestinians that have no connection to reality.

That is a sobering thought that should motivate even those Democrats who are no fans of Netanyahu to begin speaking up against an administration policy that seems rooted in spite, not strategy.

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Open Hillel: Two Can Play the Shame Game

Last December I wrote about Open Hillel, a movement founded in 2012 to oppose Hillel’s Standards of Partnership. Hillel International is the most prominent campus Jewish organization, with over 500 college and university affiliates. Their standards for sponsoring speakers or cooperating with organizations, though imperfect, protect Hillel’s foundational principles, which include a commitment to Zionism understood in the broad sense in which nearly all Jews of the left, right, and center, endorse it, namely the belief in the legitimacy and desirability of a Jewish state in the Middle East. This principle has led Hillel to say that it will not sponsor speakers or cooperate with groups who promote the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. That movement has, since 2005 sought to turn Israel into a pariah state comparable to apartheid era South Africa or even Nazi Germany. It is in the context set on campuses by BDS, which has included the targeting not simply of Zionists or Israel but of Jewish people and organizations altogether, that Hillel adopted its standards. As I have written here concerning Swarthmore College’s decision to disaffiliate with Hillel, when Open Hillel assails Hillel International for sticking to its standards of partnership, it assails it for sticking to rather than abandoning its fundamentally decent principles.

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Last December I wrote about Open Hillel, a movement founded in 2012 to oppose Hillel’s Standards of Partnership. Hillel International is the most prominent campus Jewish organization, with over 500 college and university affiliates. Their standards for sponsoring speakers or cooperating with organizations, though imperfect, protect Hillel’s foundational principles, which include a commitment to Zionism understood in the broad sense in which nearly all Jews of the left, right, and center, endorse it, namely the belief in the legitimacy and desirability of a Jewish state in the Middle East. This principle has led Hillel to say that it will not sponsor speakers or cooperate with groups who promote the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. That movement has, since 2005 sought to turn Israel into a pariah state comparable to apartheid era South Africa or even Nazi Germany. It is in the context set on campuses by BDS, which has included the targeting not simply of Zionists or Israel but of Jewish people and organizations altogether, that Hillel adopted its standards. As I have written here concerning Swarthmore College’s decision to disaffiliate with Hillel, when Open Hillel assails Hillel International for sticking to its standards of partnership, it assails it for sticking to rather than abandoning its fundamentally decent principles.

But this year, Open Hillel has been running a campaign to force Hillel International to abandon its principles. It is, one must admit, clever. Four Jewish veterans of the American civil rights movement are touring the country to discuss what they see as the connection between their civil rights work and their Israel-Palestine activism. Two support BDS. The campaign is quite explicit that its intent is to break Hillel’s standards of partnership. As Open Hillel says of the activists, who appeared at Open Hillel’s conference in October, they “discussed their work in the South fifty years ago and the role Judaism played in shaping that work. They tackled issues that are banned by Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. They made connections between their work in the Jim Crow south and activism around Israel-Palestine today.” I call the campaign clever because if Hillel rejects these speakers—two of whom can be expected to proselytize for BDS—they will appear to reject that most American of causes, the civil rights movement. But if they accept the speakers they put their name on the Zionism is racism obscenity, not at all well disguised in the program’s coupling of Jim Crow to Israel.

To its credit, Hillel has refused to sponsor the “From Mississippi to Jerusalem” event. So the civil rights veterans involved are expressing shock and outrage that Hillel won’t sponsor their campaign against Hillel. Their piece is entitled—one hopes not by them—“Shame on Hillel for Shunning Civil Rights Veterans.

If you are looking to inspire shame, though, it helps to start by being honest. Our civil rights veterans write that they “are honored that since the [Open Hillel] conference, Hillel students around the country, from Boston to Chicago to North Carolina, have invited us to continue these conversations in their Jewish communities on campus.” What they don’t say, here, or anywhere else in the 900 plus word article, is that they are part of the campaign I just described, publicized and partially funded by the Open Hillel movement, to break Hillel’s standards of partnership.

Our civil rights veterans say that one of them, the pro-BDS activist Dorothy Zellner, spoke in February “on an interfaith panel at Harvard Hillel, where she discussed both her work organizing for racial justice in the United States and her work organizing for Palestinian human rights in Israel/Palestine.” This event was well received, but “to our great dismay, Hillel International, the parent organization for Jewish students on campus, has blocked us from coming to every subsequent campus Hillel where students have invited us to speak.” What they don’t say is that Hillel International was willing to have its name associated with the Harvard event because it did not focus on Israel and Palestine, and that they have indicated—in a letter to Swarthmore—their willingness to have chapters sponsor similar events featuring these very civil rights veterans. So no, Hillel did not shun any civil rights veterans. But they won’t sponsor programs for speakers to “present or proselytize their known anti-Israel and pro-BDS agenda.” The campaign in which these civil rights veterans have been engaged is, unlike the Harvard event, designed precisely so that BDS can be preached under the Hillel banner, and it was because Hillel took a principled stand on that matter that Hillel supposedly should feel ashamed.

Finally, the civil rights veterans think that Hillel should be ashamed for trying to “censor what Hillel students can hear.” In fact, there is no shortage of anti-Israel or BDS speech for Hillel students to hear on the campuses that have declared themselves Open Hillels and, if anything, speech in favor of Israel is suppressed.

Unlike our civil rights veterans, I am no expert on what people should be ashamed of. But people who use their civil rights records to cover for a movement as ugly as BDS, then publicly misrepresent their own actions and Hillel’s, should probably not be wagging their fingers at others.

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Baker Creating J Street Challenge for Jeb

The announcement that former Secretary of State James Baker was one of the advisors to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign created a minor stir a few weeks ago. As our Michael Rubin noted at the time, Baker’s long record of hostility to Israel and consistent backing for engagement with rogue regimes ought to make him radioactive for a candidate seeking to brand himself as a supporter of the Jewish state and a critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. But Baker’s status as a faithful family retainer for the Bush family might have given Jeb a pass, especially since, as Michael wrote, another far wiser former secretary of state — George P. Schultz — is considered to be Jeb’s top foreign policy advisor. But the news that Baker will serve as a keynote speaker at the upcoming annual conference of the left-wing J Street lobby ought to change the conversation about this topic. Coming as it does hard on the heels of the president’s open threats to isolate Israel, having someone so closely associated with his campaign serve in that role at an event dedicated to support for Obama’s hostile attitude toward Israel obligates Jeb to not let this happen without saying or doing something to disassociate himself from Baker.

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The announcement that former Secretary of State James Baker was one of the advisors to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign created a minor stir a few weeks ago. As our Michael Rubin noted at the time, Baker’s long record of hostility to Israel and consistent backing for engagement with rogue regimes ought to make him radioactive for a candidate seeking to brand himself as a supporter of the Jewish state and a critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. But Baker’s status as a faithful family retainer for the Bush family might have given Jeb a pass, especially since, as Michael wrote, another far wiser former secretary of state — George P. Schultz — is considered to be Jeb’s top foreign policy advisor. But the news that Baker will serve as a keynote speaker at the upcoming annual conference of the left-wing J Street lobby ought to change the conversation about this topic. Coming as it does hard on the heels of the president’s open threats to isolate Israel, having someone so closely associated with his campaign serve in that role at an event dedicated to support for Obama’s hostile attitude toward Israel obligates Jeb to not let this happen without saying or doing something to disassociate himself from Baker.

Baker won’t be the only celebrity in attendance at the conference. White House chief of staff James McDonough will also be there signaling the president’s approval for his faithful liberal fans. That’s an encouraging development for a group that, despite its boasts about supplanting AIPAC as the voice of American Jewry on Israel, has struggled for influence even during the administration of a president they ardently support. J Street has little juice on Capitol Hill, as only hard-core left-wingers tend to endorse their proposals with the overwhelming majority of members of both political parties rightly understanding that AIPAC remains the address for the pro-Israel community.

Even the Obama administration has often bitterly disappointed J Street, especially during the president’s re-election campaign, when the White House made clear that its focus was on appeal to the mainstream pro-Israel community, not its left-wing base. In 2012, the president not only addressed the AIPAC conference but also went farther toward the pro-Israel community on the Iran nuclear issue than ever before.

But in recent months as Obama openly feuded with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu over the president’s pursuit of détente with Iran, J Street has been feeling more love from the administration. After the White House responded to Netanyahu’s re-election with petulance and threats, J Street is thrilled with a president who seems to have finally decided that he need not hide his disdain for the Jewish state’s electorate.

Baker served the last president before Obama who engaged in feuds with Israeli leaders. Though rightly considered egregious at the time, George H.W. Bush’s provocations against the Shamir government seem tame when compared to Obama’s stunts. But as the moving force behind the elder Bush’s attacks on AIPAC as well as a policy of pressure against the Jewish state, Baker is rightly remembered as a foe of Israel.

Baker did help the campaign of George W. Bush, especially during the Florida recount. But he was a consistent critic of Bush 43’s foreign policy. While it is to be expected that he would rally to support the third member of the Bush clan to seek the presidency, for someone so publicly identified with Jeb’s campaign to be the keynoter at J Street’s conclave creates a much bigger problem for the candidate than even Michael Rubin thought a few weeks ago.

Simply put, Bush can’t let Baker’s appearance at the J Street event go unremarked upon. He must either explicitly distance himself from Baker’s appearance and from J Street’s support for Obama’s threats against Israel or ask Baker to formally disassociate himself from his presidential effort. That will be hard for Jeb as, like the rest of this family, he prizes loyalty and Baker has been the most faithful soldier in their family retinue for decades. But if he allows this to pass without telling the world that he condemns J Street’s activities and Baker’s support for Obama’s policies, it will taint him and his campaign. The man who would be Bush 45 has a strong record of personal support for Israel and was rightly among the first to congratulate Netanyahu on his decisive victory in Tuesday’s election. But if he keeps Baker on now, it will be difficult to argue that he can be counted upon to stand with Israel against Obama.

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Two States: In Principle? Yes. Now? No.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement today claiming that he still favors a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians isn’t likely to persuade his detractors that he wants peace. The day before his decisive victory in Tuesday’s election, he vowed that there would be no Palestinian state established on his watch. This provoked a torrent of international criticism and served as justification for Obama administration threats to abandon Israel at the United Nations. But while Netanyahu can certainly be accused with some justice of being a cynical flip-flopper, this episode doesn’t justify the claims that Israel wasn’t negotiating in good faith with the Palestinians during the past few years. Nor is it entirely illogical. In fact, the two statements show that Netanyahu is very much in tune with the views of most Israelis. They support a two-state solution with the Palestinians in principle. But they also know that isn’t a realistic option under the current circumstances.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement today claiming that he still favors a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians isn’t likely to persuade his detractors that he wants peace. The day before his decisive victory in Tuesday’s election, he vowed that there would be no Palestinian state established on his watch. This provoked a torrent of international criticism and served as justification for Obama administration threats to abandon Israel at the United Nations. But while Netanyahu can certainly be accused with some justice of being a cynical flip-flopper, this episode doesn’t justify the claims that Israel wasn’t negotiating in good faith with the Palestinians during the past few years. Nor is it entirely illogical. In fact, the two statements show that Netanyahu is very much in tune with the views of most Israelis. They support a two-state solution with the Palestinians in principle. But they also know that isn’t a realistic option under the current circumstances.

Let’s concede that Netanyahu’s comments about not allowing the creation of a Palestinian state while he was prime minister was a brazen attempt to lure voters away from right-wing allies in order to boost his Likud Party totals. But whether this was necessary or not, it must be accepted that it helped him and that it was not unfair of critics to conclude that he was retracting his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech in which he accepted a two-states as the basis for peace. But his subsequent effort in an interview with NBC’s Andrew Mitchell to claim that he still favors such a solution is, while seemingly inconsistent, actually correct.

Whatever he may have said on Monday, the left’s talking point about the campaign proving that Netanyahu had been lying for six years doesn’t hold water. Whether you like the prime minister or loathe him, the fact remains that Netanyahu did freeze settlement building at President Obama’s behest. He also sent his recent electoral opponent Tzipi Livni to negotiate peace with Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. As we now know, documents have revealed that he went a long way toward accommodating Kerry’s ideas for a framework during those talks and even Livni concedes that it was Abbas who torpedoed them by never negotiating in good faith. Had Abbas been serious about a two state solution at any point during the last six years he could have said he was willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state but he refused to do so no matter where its borders might be drawn. He also continued to assert that he could never give up the right of return for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Both stands are reflective of the fact that Palestinian nationalism has always been inextricably tied to the war on Zionism. Assuming he wanted to, Abbas is incapable of abandoning these stands and surviving. Hamas has no interest in such a scenario.

Moreover, Palestinian actions during the last 20 years of peace processing have convinced the overwhelming majority of Israeli voters, including many who voted for Netanyahu’s opponents, that neither Abbas nor his Hamas rivals ruling in Gaza have any interest in signing a peace agreement that will end the conflict for all time. Even if you want to ignore what happened in the 1990s when Yasir Arafat was running the Palestinian Authority and it set out on a course of fomenting hatred and subsidizing terrorism, Abbas’s record is not better. In 2008, he rejected Ehud Olmert’s offer of independence and a state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem just as Arafat had done in 2000 and 2001. Even worse, after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, the strip has become an independent Palestinian state in all but name and transformed into a base for terrorism by its Hamas rulers.

Under those circumstances and with the PA refusing to hold elections about of fear that the corrupt kleptocracy that runs the West Bank might be replaced by their Islamist rivals, it’s little wonder most Israeli voters think Netanyahu was right when he warned that two states now meant another Hamasistan next to the Jewish state’s population centers.

A two state solution in which a demilitarized Palestinian state lives peacefully next to Israel with both Jews and Arabs free to live unmolested on either side of the border is the ideal solution to the conflict. But until a sea change in the Palestinian political culture happens to make that an actual possibility rather than merely a fantasy, no rational Israeli government would consent to a complete withdrawal from the territory.

Is it possible to oppose a two-state solution under the current circumstances but to be for it in principle? Netanyahu’s detractors would argue that it isn’t. What’s more they claim that his vow and his “Hamasistan” comments show that he merely wants to preserve the status quo.

But this reflects the basic myth that has been the foundation of the mistaken policies pursued by the Obama administration. Like some on the Jewish left, they’ve wrongly assumed that the only thing that is missing for peace to become a reality is a willingness on Israel’s part to take risks to achieve it. But Israel has been taking such risks for 20 years and has discovered that it traded land for terror, not peace. That realization has rendered the Israeli left unelectable and given Netanyahu a fourth term in office. Even if Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union had beaten the Likud on Tuesday, he was no more likely to create a Palestinian state than Netanyahu.

It’s long past time for the United States to stop pretending that Palestinian intransigence and terror are the real obstacles to peace. Peace will happen when the Palestinians decide they are ready for a two state solution that has always been favored more by Israelis than Arabs. Until that happens, it can remain a theoretical goal but one that, like Netanyahu, sensible Israelis will not choose to pursue under the present circumstances.

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Can Americans Tell European Jews to Leave for Israel?

Actor Michael Douglas came face to face with European anti-Semitism recently and didn’t like the experience. Neither have many of the European Jews interviewed by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg for his feature, whose headline poses the main question about the upsurge in hatred and violence against them: “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” Douglas writes about the abuse directed at his son because the boy was wearing a Star of David while staying in what was likely a posh hotel in “southern Europe,” in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times. He has plenty of commendable outrage but nothing other than an anodyne call for an ecumenical stand against hatred to offer in response to a trend that can’t be ignored. Goldberg delves deeper into the motivations of the haters and the responses of the Jews but seems ambivalent about what conclusions to draw from it all. But the answer remains obvious even if it is easier for American Jews, who live in a country where anti-Semitism touches few lives, to ignore it: Israel remains the only logical answer to the question that his article poses.

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Actor Michael Douglas came face to face with European anti-Semitism recently and didn’t like the experience. Neither have many of the European Jews interviewed by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg for his feature, whose headline poses the main question about the upsurge in hatred and violence against them: “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” Douglas writes about the abuse directed at his son because the boy was wearing a Star of David while staying in what was likely a posh hotel in “southern Europe,” in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times. He has plenty of commendable outrage but nothing other than an anodyne call for an ecumenical stand against hatred to offer in response to a trend that can’t be ignored. Goldberg delves deeper into the motivations of the haters and the responses of the Jews but seems ambivalent about what conclusions to draw from it all. But the answer remains obvious even if it is easier for American Jews, who live in a country where anti-Semitism touches few lives, to ignore it: Israel remains the only logical answer to the question that his article poses.

Douglas’s piece was noteworthy because he lends his celebrity status to the effort to draw attention to what even the U.S. State Department has described as a “rising tide” of anti-Semitism in Europe. Goldberg offers a far more comprehensive triptych through Europe, describing the dilemma of Jews in places as diverse as France and Sweden and everywhere finding the same thing: it is increasingly impossible for Jews to live openly Jewish lives in nations that were long assumed to be bastions of Western freedom. But while the two pieces together help establish the importance of the issue, they also show how hard it is for American Jews to speak out on this issue in way that offers any clarity about the choices facing their European brethren.

Goldberg concludes his piece with the following puzzling paragraph:

I am predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly. But I am also predisposed to think this because I am an American Jew—which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.

Is Goldberg telling us that Jews must make “a run for it” in Europe in order to assure their safety? Or is he making a point that American Jews, who live in a very different environment, lack the standing to tell Europeans what to do?

If the latter, there is a point to be made on that score. No one can stand in judgment on the willingness of Jews in France, Sweden, and other countries to put up with insults and violence while seeking to conceal their Jewish identity in public. Leaving a home where you have history, jobs, family, and connections is very difficult. As a general rule, most people only do so when they feel they have little to lose by leaving or are motivated by ideology. Certainly American Jews, who are not likely to leave their homes for Israel, are in no position to demand that European Jews wake up and depart. Nor are we in a position to assure them asylum here at a time when a broken immigration system has left so many waiting to get in while millions live here illegally, albeit with the promise of amnesty from President Obama.

But it is possible for American Jews to look at the situation in Europe and to cease pretending that scattered gestures of goodwill or appropriate statements of concern from European leaders is any kind of an answer. As Goldberg’s report makes plain, the problem is too widespread, the roots of anti-Semitism run too deep in European culture, and the hate brought with them by Muslim immigrants to the continent far too embedded in their religion and culture to be talked out of existence. If Jews fear to wear Stars of David in public in some of the most enlightened capitals of the world, then it must be conceded that they not only have no future, but not much of a present.

Nor should American Jews think this situation has nothing to do with them.

It is true that American exceptionalism renders even the most virulent anti-Semitism less dangerous on these shores. Despite a history that includes many instances of Jew hatred, unlike every European and Asian country, America is a place where there is no real history of government-sponsored discrimination against them. Moreover, unlike Europe, where Israel’s existence is considered a vestige of the original sin of imperialism, support for Zionism is embedded in the political DNA of America. Religious Christians are ardent supporters of Israel and opponents of anti-Semitism. So are the overwhelming majority of Americans of all faiths.

But the trends that Goldberg discusses in Europe have established beachheads here on university campuses where Israel is a constant object of hate speech and boycott movements are part of the mainstream of academic culture. Last month’s incident at UCLA where a Jewish student was initially disqualified for a student government post was just the tip of the iceberg of a growing problem of prejudice. So is the ability of BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movements to demonize supporters of Israel and to legitimize anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish rights on many campuses.

The difference is that American Jews are in a position to stand up against these disturbing trends while European Jews find themselves isolated and at risk. Though attacks on Jews still vastly outnumber those on Muslims (despite the incessant harping of the media on the myth of Islamophobia), Jews know they are at home in America in a way they can never be in places where they have already experienced expulsion and extermination.

But as we wrote in our February editorial on “The Existential Necessity of Zionism,” after the attack on the Hyper Cacher market, like the subsequent attack on a Danish synagogue and a host of other examples in recent years, it is no longer possible to treat anti-Semitic violence as if it were an isolated phenomenon.

Nor are the arguments of Israel’s critics, such as those recounted in Goldberg’s piece, even minimally persuasive. The State of Israel faces a nuclear threat from Iran and an ongoing siege of terror from Palestinians and other Islamists. But it has the capability and the will to defend itself and it can be counted on to do so no matter who is running its government. Israel will retain its Jewish identity and it will do what it must to preserve itself even if that means, as it has so often in the past, forfeiting the applause of Europeans who are indifferent to the rise of anti-Semitism in their backyards.

The only possible answer to what Michael Douglas and Jeffrey Goldberg witnessed in Europe is an effort to help those Jews who wish to leave Europe to do so. And it should remind all Jews and non-Jews that the need for a Jewish state is just as much of an imperative as it was in the late 19th century where the Dreyfus case convinced Theodor Herzl of the need for one or as it was during and after the Holocaust. Any response to anti-Semitism that seeks an answer that ignores the Zionist imperative is part of the problem, not its solution. And American Jews, who are for the most part, as Goldberg pointed out, descendants of people who had the smarts to leave Europe while the getting was good, should not be shy about saying so.

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Southampton U. to Host Three Days of Hate

The announcement that Southampton University in England is to host a conference delegitimizing Israel’s basic right to exist is just one more reminder of how warped the conversation about Israel has become in the academic world. The conference has drawn criticism from a handful of British politicians, but not nearly as many as would have spoken up if the fundamental rights of just about any other people were being called into question in this way. Naturally, the university has gone on the defensive and is invoking arguments about academic freedom. Of course, the university has every right to hold such a conference if it wishes, but that still doesn’t make the decision to do so a decent one. And a glance over some of the names attending this conference reveals that this event has nothing to do with free or credible academic inquiry.

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The announcement that Southampton University in England is to host a conference delegitimizing Israel’s basic right to exist is just one more reminder of how warped the conversation about Israel has become in the academic world. The conference has drawn criticism from a handful of British politicians, but not nearly as many as would have spoken up if the fundamental rights of just about any other people were being called into question in this way. Naturally, the university has gone on the defensive and is invoking arguments about academic freedom. Of course, the university has every right to hold such a conference if it wishes, but that still doesn’t make the decision to do so a decent one. And a glance over some of the names attending this conference reveals that this event has nothing to do with free or credible academic inquiry.

It should be said at the outset that even if the organizers could demonstrate that they are structuring the sessions and speakers for this conference in a balanced manner, to put Israel’s right to exist up for question is itself far beyond the pale. It’s not as if debating the existence of the world’s other nation-states is a routine practice. Unless Southampton University can provide a serious list of other countries that have been subjected this kind of treatment—a three-day-long extravaganza of condemnation and delegitimization—then we are left with no choice but to conclude that this institution just doesn’t mind playing host to bigotry.

Of course, the whole undertaking is not only profoundly offensive; it is also utterly absurd. The conference is being hosted by the college’s law faculty, and claims that it will be exploring the question of Israel’s right to exist with regard to international law. But as Israel is one of the few states in the world that was actually established by specific instructions by both the League of Nations and the United Nations, there are simply no plausible grounds for inquiry here.

Similarly, the university’s website defends the conference as being part of the effort to establish an “enduring peace.” But what kind of genuine peace process involves telling one side that it doesn’t have any rights, not even to so much as exist?

It comes as no surprise then to discover that one of the key speakers billed to appear at this event is Richard Falk. This is a man who is a notorious 9/11 truther, who has likened the Jewish state to Nazi Germany, and who has used his personal blog to promote anti-Semitic cartoons and conspiracies. That Falk has issued a stream of anti-Semitic comments is not only the opinion of groups such as the ADL; even the British mission to the UN has explicitly called Falk out for his anti-Semitism.

The attendance of Richard Falk, astonishing as it is, becomes less surprising once one takes a look at who the conference’s primary organizer is. Southampton’s Professor Oren Ben-Dor—who is behind this conference—is not simply an ex-Israeli wildly hostile to his own country of origin; he is also a defender of Gilad Atzmon, a known anti-Semite. That fact alone ought to be enough to set the conference far beyond the realms of credibility.

As crazy as this whole affair is, it is important to stress that this does matter and should be taken very seriously. Not because Southampton University is regarded as particularly prestigious among British universities—indeed another institution might have sidestepped arguments about intellectual freedom and simply shut down this conference on the grounds that this undertaking lacks any serious academic rigor. But rather, it is important because events like this one must not be allowed to become accepted as a normal part of the academic scene.

The conference boasts of being the “first of its kind,” ”ground-breaking,” and “historic.” No doubt it is the first of its kind, but the activist academics behind it also hope that it will not be the last. We must disappoint them. As it is, one or two genuinely pro-Israel speakers do appear to have accepted the invitation to attend, no doubt with the best intentions of fighting the good fight. But there are occasions when it is better just to not give these things the veneer of acceptability.

Southampton’s Vice Chancellor Don Nutbeam has defended the university’s right to hold the conference. As mentioned, it is true that they do have every right. But Nutbeam and his institution should just know that if they go ahead with hosting such conferences, they will be directly complicit in furthering the rising and harrowing tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, a phenomenon that has already got a number of innocent people murdered.

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The Half-Full Cup of Jewish-Arab Relations

If you believe the media, “human-rights” organizations, the Israeli left, and many American Jews, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have never been so bad. And given the past year’s events, this conclusion certainly has legs to stand on: Jewish thugs have repeatedly beaten up Arabs and even horrifically murdered an East Jerusalem teenager; Arab residents of Jerusalem have committed several deadly terror attacks, including a horrific murder of worshippers at a synagogue; last summer’s war in Gaza sparked vicious social media outbursts in which Arabs and Jews openly called for killing members of the other group. Yet three new polls published over the last three weeks show that, like many popular narratives about Israel, this one seriously distorts the true picture.

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If you believe the media, “human-rights” organizations, the Israeli left, and many American Jews, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have never been so bad. And given the past year’s events, this conclusion certainly has legs to stand on: Jewish thugs have repeatedly beaten up Arabs and even horrifically murdered an East Jerusalem teenager; Arab residents of Jerusalem have committed several deadly terror attacks, including a horrific murder of worshippers at a synagogue; last summer’s war in Gaza sparked vicious social media outbursts in which Arabs and Jews openly called for killing members of the other group. Yet three new polls published over the last three weeks show that, like many popular narratives about Israel, this one seriously distorts the true picture.

The first poll, published last month, unsurprisingly shows that 77 percent of Israeli Jews and 68 percent of Israeli Arabs also believe last summer’s events worsened Jewish-Arab relations, and that negative stereotypes still abound. What it also shows, however, is that neither side considers this situation irreversible, and both are seriously interested in changing it.

For instance, a whopping 87 percent of Arab respondents said they still believe Jewish-Arab coexistence is possible. Even more astonishingly, the proportion of Arabs who said they identify with the Israeli flag shot up to 55 percent, from 37 percent last year, while the proportion that identifies with the Palestinian flag plunged from 34 percent to 8 percent.

Among Jews, the proportion who said they’d like to know the Arab population better shot up to 52 percent, from 38 percent last year. And this isn’t just talk: As Haaretz reported last month, both Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites are studying the other’s language in record numbers. New classes are filling “almost as fast as the courses can open”; waiting lists are long; and both sides say they could easily fill many more classes were it not for the shortage of qualified teachers.

The other two polls–conducted independently by Tel Aviv University and the Abraham Fund Initiatives, and released this week–show that Arab turnout in next week’s election is expected to hit a 16-year high. This is noteworthy, because the last time Jewish-Arab relations nosedived, following the Arab riots of October 2000, Arabs responded with a symbolic bill of divorce: boycotting the 2001 election. This time, they’re responding by turning out to vote in record numbers. As Thabet Abu Ras, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, told the Times of Israel, “Arabs are now taking their citizenship more seriously than any time in the past.”

Moreover, many of them now want to use this citizenship not to push a separatist Palestinian identity, but to improve Arab integration. According to the TAU poll, 44 percent of Arab respondents think their Knesset members’ top priority “should be dealing with the ailments of Arab society: unemployment, violence, women’s status, education and health.” Another 28 percent said the most important issue was “government treatment of the Arab population,” while only 19 percent prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Haaretz poll last month similarly found that 70 percent of Israeli Arabs want their MKs to focus on their own community’s socioeconomic problems rather than the Palestinian problem.

In part, as I explained in detail in my article for COMMENTARY this month, this change in Arab attitudes stems from the fact that successive Israeli governments have invested heavily in trying to reduce anti-Arab discrimination and increase Arab integration, and though the job is far from done, the progress has been noteworthy. But another significant factor, as Abu Ras correctly noted, has been the events of the Arab Spring, which gave Israeli Arabs a new appreciation of Israeli democracy.

“Despite the discrimination that exists in Israel, which should be combated, people now tend to see the cup as half full,” he told the Times of Israel. “Arab political discourse used to emphasize the cup as half empty, but no longer.”

This clearly bodes well for Israel’s future. Yet if even Israeli Arabs now see the cup as half full rather than half empty, isn’t it time for the rest of the world to do the same?

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Obama Gives Sisi the Netanyahu Treatment

In a Middle East where Islamist terror groups and the Iranian regime and its allies have been on the offensive in recent years, the one bright spot for the West in the region (other, that is, than Israel) is the way Egypt has returned to its old role as a bulwark of moderation and opposition to extremism. The current government led by former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has clamped down on Hamas terrorists and has been willing to deploy its armed forces to fight ISIS in Libya while also clamping down on a Muslim Brotherhood movement that seeks to transform Egypt into another Islamist state. Yet despite this, the Obama administration is unhappy with Egypt. Much to Cairo’s consternation, the United States is squeezing its government on the military aid it needs to fight ISIS in Libya and Sinai terrorists. As the Israeli government has already learned to its sorrow, the Egyptians now understand that being an ally of the United States is a lot less comfortable position than to be a foe like Iran.

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In a Middle East where Islamist terror groups and the Iranian regime and its allies have been on the offensive in recent years, the one bright spot for the West in the region (other, that is, than Israel) is the way Egypt has returned to its old role as a bulwark of moderation and opposition to extremism. The current government led by former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has clamped down on Hamas terrorists and has been willing to deploy its armed forces to fight ISIS in Libya while also clamping down on a Muslim Brotherhood movement that seeks to transform Egypt into another Islamist state. Yet despite this, the Obama administration is unhappy with Egypt. Much to Cairo’s consternation, the United States is squeezing its government on the military aid it needs to fight ISIS in Libya and Sinai terrorists. As the Israeli government has already learned to its sorrow, the Egyptians now understand that being an ally of the United States is a lot less comfortable position than to be a foe like Iran.

The ostensible reason for the holdup in aid is that the Egyptian government is a human-rights violator. Those concerns are accurate. Sisi’s government has been ruthless in cracking down on the same Muslim Brotherhood faction that was running the country until a popular coup brought it down in the summer of 2013. But contrary to the illusions of an Obama administration that hastened the fall of Hosni Mubarak and then foolishly embraced his Muslim Brotherhood successors, democracy was never one of the available options in Egypt.

The choice in Egypt remains stark. It’s either going to be run by Islamists bent on taking the most populous Arab country down the dark road of extremism or by a military regime that will keep that from happening. The obvious Western choice must be the latter, and Sisi has turned out to be an even better ally than Washington could have dreamed of, as he ensured that the Brotherhood would not return to power, took on Hamas in Gaza, and even made public calls for Muslims to turn against religious extremists.

But rather than that endearing him to the administration, this outstanding record has earned Sisi the Netanyahu treatment. Indeed, like other moderate Arab leaders in the Middle East, Sisi understands that President Obama has no great love for his country’s allies. Besotted as he is by the idea of bringing Iran in from the cold, the American government has allied itself with Tehran in the conflicts in both Iraq and Syria. He also understands that both of those ongoing wars were made far worse by the president’s dithering for years, a stance that may well have been motivated by a desire to avoid antagonizing Iran by seeking to topple their Syrian ally.

But those issues notwithstanding, one of the major changes that took place on President Obama’s watch was a conscious decision to downgrade relations with Cairo, a nation that his predecessors of both parties had recognized as a lynchpin of U.S. interests in the region. The current weapons supply squeeze is not only a blow to the efforts of a nation that is actually willing to fight ISIS and other Islamist terrorists; it’s a statement about what it means to be an American ally in the age of Obama.

As the Times of Israel reported:

On Monday Sisi was asked what he and the other Arab allies thought of U.S. leadership in the region. It is hard to put his response in words, mainly due to his prolonged silence.

“Difficult question,” he said after some moments, while his body language expressed contempt and disgust. “The suspending of US equipment and arms was an indicator for the public that the United States is not standing by the Egyptians.”

It turns out that although the American administration recently agreed to provide the Egyptian Air Force with Apache attack helicopters; it has been making it increasingly difficult for Cairo to make additional military purchases.

For example, the U.S. is delaying the shipment of tanks, spare parts and other weapons that the army desperately needs in its war against Islamic State.

This development raises serious questions not only about U.S.-Egyptian relations but the administration’s vision for the region.

This is, after all, a time when the administration is going all out to make common cause with Iran, an open enemy that is currently the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world. President Obama is pursuing a diplomatic arrangement that will strengthen the Iranian regime and guarantee the survival of a nuclear program that moderate Arabs see as being as much of a threat to them as it is to Israel or the West.

The Egyptians understand that Washington isn’t interested in their friendship. Nor is the administration particularly supportive of Cairo’s efforts to rein in Hamas or to fight ISIS. Indeed, the Egyptians are now experiencing the same sort of treatment that has heretofore been reserved for the Israelis. That’s especially true in light of the arms resupply cutoff against Israel Obama ordered during last summer’s war in Gaza.

Despite flirting with Russia, Egypt may, like Israel, have no real alternative to the United States as an ally. Perhaps that’s why Obama takes it for granted. But if the U.S. is serious about fighting ISIS as opposed to just talking about it, Washington will have to start treating Egypt and its military as a priority rather than an embarrassment.

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Settlement Data Once Again Shows Bibi’s “Hardline” Image Doesn’t Match Reality

According to official data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, housing construction in West Bank settlements fell by a whopping 52 percent last year–far greater than the 8 percent decline in construction nationwide. Moreover, the bureau said, settlement construction throughout Benjamin Netanyahu’s six years as prime minister has been significantly lower than it was under his predecessors: Overall, the number of housing starts in the settlements was 19 percent lower in 2009-2014 than it was in 2003-2008, under prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, while the number of housing completions was 15 percent lower.

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According to official data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, housing construction in West Bank settlements fell by a whopping 52 percent last year–far greater than the 8 percent decline in construction nationwide. Moreover, the bureau said, settlement construction throughout Benjamin Netanyahu’s six years as prime minister has been significantly lower than it was under his predecessors: Overall, the number of housing starts in the settlements was 19 percent lower in 2009-2014 than it was in 2003-2008, under prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, while the number of housing completions was 15 percent lower.

This, of course, doesn’t match the popular perception of Netanyahu: The accepted wisdom among international journalists and diplomats is that he’s a major backer of the settlements who has presided over massive building there. Indeed, just last year, President Barack Obama declared that “we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time”–a claim belied by the official data at the time and once again belied by the new statistics released yesterday. But it was nevertheless widely believed, because it fit the accepted narrative of Netanyahu as “hardline” and “right-wing.”

And this is just one example of a far broader problem: Too many international journalists and diplomats see Israel and its leaders through the prism of a preconceived narrative, and any facts that don’t conform to this narrative are simply ignored. Netanyahu is “right-wing,” so he must be building massively in the settlements, even if he isn’t. Israeli voters have elected him twice in the last six years, so the country must have become more right-wing, even if in reality–as I explained in detail in my article for COMMENTARY this month–most Israelis have moved so far to the left over the last two decades that they now hold positions formerly held only by the far-left Arab-Jewish Communist Party. Netanyahu is “hardline,” so he must be to blame for the failure of peace talks, even if in reality–as was evident from American officials’ own testimony at the time and confirmed by a leaked document just last week–Netanyahu was prepared to make dramatic concessions, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to budge.

And of course, settlement construction itself is another salient example of this problem. It is almost universally considered the major obstacle to peace. Yet as Elliott Abrams and Uri Sadot explained last year, the vast majority of settlement construction is in the major settlement blocs that everyone knows Israel will end up keeping under any deal with the Palestinians, so it doesn’t affect the contours of a deal at all. Annual construction in non-bloc settlements amounted to only a few hundred houses even in Netanyahu’s peak construction year. And since the non-bloc settlements already contain some 80,000 Israelis, the idea that a few hundred additional families would be a deal-breaker is fatuous even if you think the PA’s demand for a judenrein Palestine is legitimate and all these settlements should indeed be evacuated.

Over the last six years, while the Obama Administration was wasting its time and energy complaining about “aggressive” settlement construction that was actually far less aggressive than it was under Netanyahu’s predecessors, Israeli-Palestinian relations have deteriorated drastically. That outcome might have been averted had the administration focused on the real problems in the relationship rather than inflating the settlement issue out of all proportion.

But that’s the problem with bad facts; they usually produce bad policy. And it’s hard for journalists and diplomats to obtain good facts if they systematically ignore any data that conflicts with their preconceived narrative.

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Presidential Commitments Then and Now

The White House “outrage” at the “open letter” to Iran signed by 47 senators, led by Sen. Tom Cotton, was reinforced by Vice President Biden’s formal statement, which intoned that “America’s influence depends on its ability to honor its commitments,” including those made by a president without a vote of Congress. Perhaps we should welcome Biden’s belated insight. As Jonathan Tobin notes, President Obama on taking office in 2009 refused to be bound by the 2004 Gaza disengagement deal in the letters exchanged between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that such commitments were “unenforceable”–that they were non-binding on the new administration. In 2009, Obama disregarded previous commitments not only to Israel but also to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Georgia; he “fundamentally transformed” America’s previous commitments, as he likes to describe the essential element of his entire presidency.

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The White House “outrage” at the “open letter” to Iran signed by 47 senators, led by Sen. Tom Cotton, was reinforced by Vice President Biden’s formal statement, which intoned that “America’s influence depends on its ability to honor its commitments,” including those made by a president without a vote of Congress. Perhaps we should welcome Biden’s belated insight. As Jonathan Tobin notes, President Obama on taking office in 2009 refused to be bound by the 2004 Gaza disengagement deal in the letters exchanged between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that such commitments were “unenforceable”–that they were non-binding on the new administration. In 2009, Obama disregarded previous commitments not only to Israel but also to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Georgia; he “fundamentally transformed” America’s previous commitments, as he likes to describe the essential element of his entire presidency.

The Gaza disengagement deal was (1) approved by Congress; (2) included in the Gaza disengagement plan presented to the Israeli Knesset, and (3) relied on by Israel in withdrawing from Gaza later in 2005. The history of the deal (which the current secretary of state endorsed at the time as a U.S. “commitment”) is set forth here, and the reason Obama sought to undo it is discussed here. In 2009, the Obama administration refused at least 22 times to answer whether it considered itself bound by the deal; in 2011 it openly reneged on key aspects of it.

President Obama is currently negotiating an arms control agreement in secret, refusing to disclose the details of the offers his administration has made to Iran, a terrorist state according to his own State Department, and a self-described enemy of the United States since 1979. He has opposed not only a congressional debate before he concludes the deal but also a congressional vote afterwards. If he closes a deal with Iran on that basis, it will not be binding on any future president–at least not if that president chooses to follow the precedent Obama himself set in 2009.

If the administration is now seeking to restore the credibility of presidential commitments, the president might consider taking two steps: (1) acknowledge that the U.S. is bound by the disengagement deal negotiated by President Bush with Israel, endorsed by a vote of Congress; and (2) promise to put his prospective deal with Iran to a similar congressional vote once the deal is done. If not, perhaps a reporter at his next press conference will ask how he reconciles his position that (a) he could ignore President Bush’s congressionally approved deal with his view that (b) future presidents must honor the non-congressionally approved one he is negotiating now.

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The Hidden Message in Netanyahu’s Speech

In “Echoes of Churchill Pervade Netanyahu’s Speech,” Belladonna Rogers notes that the address included a subtle reference to Churchill’s “Chicken Speech”–one of the British leader’s most eloquent war speeches, delivered December 30, 1941 to the Canadian Parliament. She argues persuasively that Netanyahu’s allusion conveyed a powerful message about a particular historical parallel.

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In “Echoes of Churchill Pervade Netanyahu’s Speech,” Belladonna Rogers notes that the address included a subtle reference to Churchill’s “Chicken Speech”–one of the British leader’s most eloquent war speeches, delivered December 30, 1941 to the Canadian Parliament. She argues persuasively that Netanyahu’s allusion conveyed a powerful message about a particular historical parallel.

Ms. Rogers writes that, three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill braved the perils of wartime travel to meet with FDR and address Congress, and then spoke to the Canadian Parliament four days later. In Canada, he reminded his listeners that in 1940 the Nazis had conquered four nations–Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium–and then the “great French catastrophe” took place: France fell into “utter confusion” and the French abandoned their pledge “in which [they had] solemnly bound themselves with us not to make a separate peace.” Churchill told the Canadians that if France had stood with England, instead of capitulating to Germany, the war could already have been won. Then he said:

When I warned [the French] that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, their generals told their Prime Minister and his divided Cabinet, ‘In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken! Some neck!” [Laughter and applause].

In Netanyahu’s address this week to Congress, as Ms. Rogers wrote, he noted that Iran “now dominates four Arab capitals–Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana’a”–and that “at a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations.” Netanyahu then borrowed Churchill’s cadence from 1941:

Now, two years ago, we were told to give President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif a chance to bring change and moderation to Iran. Some change! Some moderation!

Rouhani’s government hangs gays, persecutes Christians, jails journalists and executes even more prisoners than before. … Iran’s regime is as radical as ever, its cries of “Death to America” — that same America that it calls the “Great Satan” — as loud as ever … and that’s why this regime will always be an enemy of America.

Michael Doran, Bret Stephens, Lee Smith, and others have noted that President Obama appears to be implementing a grand strategy to re-align America with Iran, establishing a de facto alliance in which America recognizes Iran as a “very successful regional power,” in the President’s words in his year-end NPR interview. It is a shift that worries not only Israel but also America’s moderate Arab allies, with the Saudi press now openly editorializing about it. Ms. Rogers writes that the situation parallels what Churchill saw as the utter confusion of the French in 1940:

Not only from the Israeli perspective, but also that of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other American allies in the Middle East, the deal under consideration appears to be a what Churchill called “a separate peace” with a terrorist state the U.S. is on the brink of recognizing as the new hegemonic power in the region. … In his subtle but unmistakable reference to Churchill’s “Chicken Speech,” the Israeli prime minister sought to persuade the United States to stand with its allies in the Middle East …

The day after the 1941 address, the New York Times editorialized that Churchill had spoken “magnificently” in a speech with “no shrillness … as it [moved] from impassioned eloquence to its contagious chuckle” that would give the speech its popular title. This week, Netanyahu spoke similarly, without shrillness, moving from eloquence to a subtle allusion to Churchill’s speech, ending with an assertion that if Israel had to stand alone, it would stand–a final echo from Churchill’s 1941 address.

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