Israel appears to be sending mixed signals to Washington on U.S. aid to the new Palestinian unity government. On one hand, the Netanyahu government wants everyone to know it’s furious over the new “reconciliation government” that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has formed with the reviled terrorist organization Hamas. Officials from Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington ambassador Ron Dermer have been declaring that the unity pact means “there can’t be business as usual.”
On the other hand, it’s not clear Israel that wants Washington to respond by cutting its financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. Jerusalem depends heavily on the PA security forces’ cooperation in fighting terrorism in the West Bank, and loss of funding could freeze their salaries and keep them home. In the longer run, the aid underwrites billions of dollars in PA governmental services from health to mail delivery and garbage collection that would fall on the Israeli taxpayer if the authority were to collapse under U.S. and international pressure.
Israelis who have met members of Congress in recent days say they’re hearing expressions of confusion over Israel’s mixed messages — that the new PA government is essentially a terror-backed group but that aid should not be cut.
Pro-Israel lawmakers and Jewish groups have been reciting a line that seems to represent a demand for ending aid, namely: “U.S. law is clear — no funds can be provided to a Palestinian government in which Hamas participates or has undue influence.” Those words appear in a pop-up on AIPAC’s website. A nearly identical phrase appears in a speech by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez that’s touted on the American Jewish Committee website and elsewhere.
But that’s not the whole law. Deeper on the AIPAC website is a set of “key points” that states the entire relevant law:
President Obama was in rare form at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday, delivering zingers at House Republican leaders, Fox News, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his own Obamacare troubles. His best line of the evening, the pundits seem to agree, was this one aimed at House Speaker John Boehner:
I’m feeling sorry — believe it or not — for the speaker of the House as well. These days, the House Republicans actually give John Boehner a harder time than they give me, which means orange really is the new black.
But the most outrageous lines came from comedian Joel McHale, the star of NBC’s Community and host of E Network’s The Soup. The workover he gave Christie must have set some sort of record. He opened his act by promising to keep it “amusing and over quickly, just like Chris Christie’s presidential bid.” Later, he asked, “Governor, do you want bridge jokes or size jokes? I could go half and half — I know you like a combo platter.” Then he did an incredible parody of Christie’s Bridgegate response, saying his joke was inappropriate but while it was written by his staff he took full responsibility and would appoint an independent investigation headed by himself to find out whose fault it was. But why read my summary? Watch it below.
New York magazine’s Caroline Bankoff put together a pretty good roundup of the evening, including useful statistics on how many jokes each were aimed at CNN, Fox and MSNBC and who was the most ragged-on politician of the evening (Christie). And Fox has a full transcript of Obama’s remarks, which shows either that they’re masochists deep down or that they want to use it to get their base riled up, perhaps hoping to emulate the ADL’s success in taking down Nation of Islam leader Khalid Abdul Muhammad in 1993 by running his anti-Semitic ravings as a full-page ad.
Here are the videos of Obama’s and McHale’s routines, in full:
Caroline Glick / Wikimedia Commons
From the New Jersey Jewish News comes word that the campus Hillel at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, recently sponsored an appearance by a militant one-stater. The program was co-sponsored by, among others, two nearby Jewish federations including the state’s largest, the Jewish Federation of MetroWest (through its Jewish community relations committee).
You might think there’s a scandal brewing. But not likely. The one-stater in question is the fiery right-wing Israeli columnist Caroline Glick, senior contributing editor of the Jerusalem Post. Glick’s new book “The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East” calls for Israeli annexation of the West Bank, a position she’s advocated for years. She’s vehemently opposed to the two-state solution. Her March 11 talk was also cosponsored by the equally one-statist Zionist Organization of America. It was “supported” by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, where Rutgers is located.
Whether Glick’s Rutgers appearance violates the much-discussed national Hillel guidelines governing campus programming is probably a matter of interpretation. Contrary to popular belief, the guidelines don’t actually say anything about potential speakers supporting a two-state solution. They say that Hillel “will not partner with, house, or host” organizations or speakers that “Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.” Unlike, say, AIPAC, which “strongly supports a two-state solution,” Hillel has no opinion on the matter.
Some people might argue that annexing the West Bank would result in an Israel that is either not Jewish or not democratic, but Glick and most of her fellow Zionist one-staters don’t agree. Most tend to dismiss the demographic projections that show Jews becoming a minority. Others come up with theoretical Israeli constitutional arrangements that somehow add up to a state that’s Jewish in character and still democratic. Their claims might not seem plausible, but there’s nothing in the guidelines about plausibility.
Where Glick and others like her might run afoul of the guidelines is in a separate clause that bars speakers who “foster an atmosphere of incivility.” The guidelines don’t define “incivility,” so we’re left again with a matter of interpretation. But Glick devotes a huge proportion of her writing to tearing down those who disagree with her and branding them as enemies of Israel and the Jewish people. I haven’t done a statistical analysis, but it seems as though she spends more time attacking Jews she disagrees with—along with allies of Israel, beginning with President Obama and his secretary of state—than advancing her own ideas.
Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013 / Getty Images
The debate over the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill in the Senate just keeps getting uglier. And now the nastiness is seeping – make that pouring – right into the heart of the Jewish community, as liberals and conservatives trade accusations of bullying, maligning, smearing and even “destroying” opponents.
On January 9, the newly appointed executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Rabbi Jack Moline, accused two of the most influential national Jewish organizations, AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee, of pressuring senators to support the bill despite the strong objections of President Obama. Moline told JTA that the two agencies were using “strong-arm tactics, essentially threatening people that if they don’t vote a particular way, that somehow that makes them anti-Israel or means the abandonment of the Jewish community.”
On Tuesday Moline dialed the accusation back a step or two. He told me he’d subsequently had a conversation with David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who assured him that AJC wasn’t applying the sort of pressure he described. Moline said he hadn’t heard directly from AIPAC, but he’s taking Harris’s denial as applying to both agencies, “and I take them at their word.”
“The situation seems to be that citizen-advocates are using the organizations’ names and initials without the encouragement of those organizations,” Moline said. Unfortunately, the calls and emails from rank and file pro-Israel activists speaking in the name of the two organizations appear to have created an impression on Capitol Hill that these “strong-arm tactics” are at the behest of the agencies themselves.
Moline may be a tad too generous here. AIPAC, AJC and other Jewish organizations have a long tradition of lobbying Congress by urging their members and followers to pick up the phone. They can generate thousands of phone calls from Jews in the hinterlands who are deeply concerned for Israel’s safety and aren’t shy about saying so. They don’t tell their members to be rude and bullying when they call. They don’t have to. They’ve been doing this long enough that they know exactly what’s going to happen.
AIPAC’s legislative agenda page on the Iran sanctions bill is even more direct. It offers three “Key Points” for activists to raise in advocacy: America Must Prevent an Iranian Nuclear Weapon Capability; Diplomacy Must Be Backed By the Threat of New Sanctions; and America Must Stand with Israel. It doesn’t come out and tell members to say that if you don’t support the bill you’re not standing with Israel, but that’s easy enough to infer. That’s how the game is played.
In the meanwhile, though, Moline has come under sharp attack on the website of the conservative magazine Commentary. First came Commentary’s senior online editor, the brilliant and passionately partisan Jonathan Tobin. On January 10 he blogged that Moline’s comments were part of a Democratic campaign to stop efforts to slow “the administration’s headlong rush to embrace Iran.” Specifically, Tobin wrote, the president had “assigned his Jewish surrogates the job of smearing mainstream Jewish groups that have been lobbying for the bill.”
President Obama and Haim Saban, Washington, D.C., December 7 / Getty Images
Tempers are wearing thin both in Washington and Jerusalem over continuing disagreements on the Iran nuclear talks and the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. And the situation wasn’t helped by last weekend’s Saban Forum in Washington. The three-day forum, sponsored by the Brookings Institution, featured talks by President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, all taking the opportunity to stick fingers in each others’ eyes.
Both Obama, who spoke Saturday afternoon (video, transcript), and Kerry, who spoke Saturday evening (video, transcript), strongly defended the agreement with Iran signed November 24. And both took digs at Netanyahu’s sharp criticisms of the agreement, Obama in a jesting, almost mocking tone, Kerry in sharper tones. Kerry went through the agreement point by point, occasionally raising his voice in anger as he noted concessions won from Iran that reflected what Netanyahu had been calling for.
Obama, by contrast, had a smile on his face through most of his 47-minute dialogue with forum backer Haim Saban. He drew frequent audience laughter, sometimes at Netanyahu’s expense, as when he referred to Netanyahu’s demand that Iran give up all enrichment capabilities. Reaching an agreement that sharply limited and monitored Iran’s enrichment capabilities is far preferable to not reaching an agreement and seeing Iran continue its progress toward a bomb, he said. In order to reach an agreement, he said, Iran would have to be:
Now, you’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the prime minister, that say we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation. And this takes me back to the point I made earlier. One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, we’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all gone. I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful.
And both American leaders argued strongly for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that meets Palestinian as well as Israel needs. At the same time, they indicated clearly that the agreement would be in stages, with full Palestinian statehood coming only at the end, after Israeli security concerns have been satisfied. Palestinians have rejected a staged settlement up to now.
That bombshell Associated Press report on Sunday about the months of secret U.S.-Iranian talks that led up to the Geneva agreement has added whole new layers of mystery and intrigue, not to mention venom, to the news of the nuclear agreement itself.
What’s fascinating is how much isn’t being said. The story was first broken not by the AP but by Israeli investigative reporter Raviv Drucker in a Channel 10 TV News report on November 17, seven days before the AP story. According to Drucker, the secret talks began not in March 2013, as most outlets are reporting, but more than a year ago. And the American side was led not by relatively obscure mid-level officials but by President Obama’s close friend and top adviser Valerie Jarrett.
The White House at first flatly dismissed the entire report as “absolutely 100% false.” Then on November 24, hours after the Saturday night Geneva deal signing, it gave its version to the AP, which said it had caught wind of the talks in March but didn’t report them because it couldn’t confirm. The official version, the one now making the rounds, says Kerry was at the center of the process, which was led by his deputy William Burns and vice-presidential national security adviser Jake Sullivan. The talks took place mainly in Muscat, the capital of the Gulf emirate of Oman, and were brokered by Oman’s chief, Sultan Qaboos.
Drucker replied Sunday evening with a report stating that the White House was intensely eager to keep the full story secret because Obama wants to keep the secret channel open for further negotiations. Channel 10’s respected foreign news editor Nadav Eyal, in an in-studio commentary following Drucker’s report, said Obama is aiming for a wide-ranging agreement, involving America, Iran, Russia and “perhaps Saudi Arabia,” that would address regional issues like Syria.
It’s hard to know exactly how to respond to Vladimir Putin’s op-ed essay in Thursday’s New York Times. On the one hand, polls show that most Americans agree with his call to avoid American military engagement in Syria. On the other hand, very few of us want to come out and agree with Putin. Apparently we don’t like dictators telling us what to do, even when we think they’re right.
Bloomberg News probably hit the note that would resonate with most people, declaring in an editorial that while much of what Putin wrote was misleading, self-serving or downright false, it advances a plan that could disarm Syria’s poison gas without war. “In other words: Vladimir Putin is that rare writer whose actions matter more—and certainly must be more persuasive—than his words.” Go Vlad.
Some went a bit further, into what most of us might consider uncomfortable territory. Former Reagan White House aide Pat Buchanan told Greta Van Sustern Wednesday evening on Fox News, responding to the Times piece, that “in the last week Vladimir Putin looks like a statesman.”
But Buchanan is someone who knows a thing or two about uncomfortable territory. He’s the guy who once called Congress “Israeli-occupied territory.” He also, it’s generally believed, was the Reagan aide who pushed hardest for the Gipper to visit that Nazi military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985. So hearing that he’s Putin’s most prominent defender in the public square at this point is, somehow, not surprising.
That’s the funny thing. The blogosphere was filled with cheers for Putin from folks you never heard of at outlets like policymic and Daily Kos, but virtually all the mainstream pols and pundits were falling in line behind Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who apparently spoke for all of us when he told CNN that on hearing about Putin’s op-ed during dinner “I almost wanted to vomit.” After all, Menendez said,
I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interests and what is not. It really raises the question of how serious the Russian proposal is.
Menendez is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so he’ll be in the driver’s seat when Congress takes up President Obama’s war powers request. In a democracy like ours, decisions about our national interest are placed in the secure hands of our own elected representatives, as Obama wisely did when he asked Congress to decide whether to take us into another war in the Middle East. We trust Congress.
That’s why I look to Robert Menendez when I want to know how to judge a foreign dictator’s announcements. The idea that a former spook from the KGB should be taken seriously as a world leader is, well, spooky. A former head of the CIA like our 41st president, George H.W. Bush—now that’s a different story. But the KGB? Perish etc. I always leave my big thinking to guys from Jersey.
And the idea that the New York Times would put itself in the service of the president of Russia so he can reach over the heads of our government and talk directly to the American people, as though he owned the place, must raise the question of which side the Times is on. Freedom of the press is one thing, but that doesn’t mean it should let its opinion pages be the plaything of foreign bullies.
It tells you something about the Times—that “it’s REALLY Pravda-on-the-Hudson,” as John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and former opinion editor and current columnist of Australian-British-American media bully Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, tweeted on Thursday.
Unfortunately, Putin has a sorry track record in this appalling behavior. Usually, though, it’s been more subtle. When he’s tried in the past to manipulate American public opinion, he’s usually written his op-eds in his former capacity as prime minister of Russia rather than president. I guess that’s different. For example:
One of the strangest aspects of the Syria debate is how much energy and passion is going into it, on both sides — for and against American air strikes — and how little light is being shed on the central issue, namely chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in his supposedly game-changing speech August 26, forcefully declared that using chemical weapons is a “moral obscenity,” but he didn’t get beyond noting that they kill women and children, which is true of pretty much all weapons. He didn’t explain why chemical weapons killing 1,429 people is worse than standard munitions killing 100,000.
President Obama’s defenders, like New York Times moral internationalists Roger Cohen and Nick Kristof, defend intervention by citing the moral depravity of the Assad regime. Obama, however, has made it clear that regime change isn’t on the menu. It’s about chemical weapons. But why?
If you search on line for current discussions of the morality of chemical warfare, almost everything you find argues that there’s no difference. “Getting killed by mustard gas is surely awful. But so is getting blown up by a bomb,” writes Paul Waldman at the American Prospect. And Chicago Theological Seminary’s Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, writing in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, adds: “The truth is, war is the moral obscenity. It is war that must be stopped and bombing campaigns do not end war.”
Well, OK. But ending war isn’t on the menu either. Folks have been trying to do that for about 5,774 years and gotten absolutely nowhere. Human society won’t be perfected, but that’s no reason it can’t be improved. (The same goes for American governments. So they (we) have ignored or abetted chemical warfare in the past. Does that mean we should continue with that repugnant practice?)
And no, bombing campaigns don’t end war. But they can put a price on violation of the laws of war.
Over the past century and a half, nations have tried to place limits on the conduct of war, in hopes of making it just a little less horrible. Thus, the laws of war. If you’re curious, here’s Yale Law School’s online archive of the laws of war, going back to the 1856 Declaration of Paris, the first Geneva Convention on battlefield wounded (1864) and right on through to the 1975 chemical and biological weapons ban. The latest, not in the Yale archive, is the Optional (!) Protocol on Child Soldiers adopted by the General Assembly in 2000.
The question remains, why chemical weapons? What makes them worse than conventional weapons? The answer is that chemical weapons make killing unconscionably easy and thorough. Consider: Over the past two years, the Assad regime and its opponents have managed to kill about 100,000 people, including combatants on both sides and innocent bystanders. On August 21, using chemical weapons, the regime was able to kill 1,429 people in a few minutes. And that’s not all.
Boy, President Obama is really taking it on the chin over the latest Al Qaeda threat and the closing of those 19 embassies.
On the right, he’s getting hammered by the likes of The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, Long Island Republican Rep. Peter King and even the distinguished Bard College international relations scholar Walter Russell Mead, an Obama supporter, all accusing him of underestimating Al Qaeda’s resilience, foolishly dialing back the war on terror and trying to stop the bad guys by dialogue—all of which have brought us to this sorry juncture.
From the left comes Obama’s own campaign counter-terrorism adviser, La Salle University political scientist Michael Boyle, accusing him in the Guardian of foolishly continuing and even escalating the failed Bush administration policies that have simply made things worse and—brought us to this juncture.
Which is it? Did Obama recklessly take his foot off the gas in the war on terror, or did he recklessly floor it? Leave it to the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson to point out the essential point, which is that the wheels fell off this clunker a long time ago. It was the war-on-terror strategy that created the current crisis.
The truth is that U.S. foreign policy helped to create the decentralized al-Qaeda, a branch of which is believed to be trying to launch some kind of strike.
Robinson offers the perfect metaphor to illustrate the practical effect of the war on terror that we’ve been fighting against Al Qaeda for the past decade:
Al-Qaeda turns out to be like a pool of mercury. Hit it with a hammer and you end up with 10 little blobs instead of one big one.
Now that the White House has officially acknowledged the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, the question is no longer whether we get involved in the Syrian civil war, but how. This represents a victory for the smallish, outspoken group of liberal interventionists who have been arguing for an American military role, while trying to shake off the stigma of their de facto alliance with neoconservatives a decade ago in supporting President Bush’s war in Iraq. President Obama’s nomination last week of Susan Rice as National Security Adviser and Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations seemed to signal that we’d be moving in this direction, given their records as liberal interventionists, but nobody expected it to happen so fast.
Liberal interventionists have been insisting for months that, as The New York Times’ Bill Keller and The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen argued recently, memories of Iraq shouldn’t deter America from acting in Syria, because they’re not the same thing. The scale of humanitarian disaster in Syria is genuine, immediate and overwhelming. On the contrary, the proper precedents are the shameful tragedies of our delayed intervention in Bosnia, as The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier maintains, and our abject failure to act in Rwanda, as Princeton University political scientist (and former Obama State Department aide) Anne-Marie Slaughter forcefully insists. Indeed, the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon writes that the lesson for Syria from the Bosnia experience is what went right after we did intervene.
Conservative interventionists like Elliott Abrams and, well, a host of others have been calling for months for action in Syria as a way to weaken Iran and Hezbollah. Hebrew University Middle East scholar [Moshe Maoz], perhaps Israel’s most respected Syria watcher — and an outspoken dove on the Palestinian issue—makes both arguments in a new op-ed essay in Haaretz: that the humanitarian disaster and the growing prospect of an Assad-Hezbollah-Iran victory in the civil war should stir Washington and NATO to a firm, Bosnia-style intervention. Israel has everything to gain from such an intervention, he writes, and while it can’t be part of the action, it can and “must use its good ties with the U.S. to persuade it to give strategic military support to the rebels in Syria.” As for fears that a rebel victory would install a jihadist or Al Qaeda-style regime in Damascus, he writes:
Even in a political culture as poisonous as ours is of late, there’s still something deeply disturbing about the perverse dishonesty of the right-wing attacks on Samantha Power, President Obama’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations.
There are so many layers of bad faith at work here that it’s hard to know where to begin. On the broadest level of principle, the president is taking the nation’s most articulate proponent of international action to prevent genocide and putting her in the very spot where she’s most needed. All those conservatives who rail against American lassitude in Syria, Libya and so on back to the Holocaust should be thrilled. But no. Instead, we’ve been hit with a barrage of accusations over the past 24 hours.
Far more startling is the substance of the attacks. Most of them are based entirely on two statements she made years ago, which are twisted to make her sound anti-Israel. One is an outrageous distortion, turning her response to a bizarre, hypothetical “thought experiment” during an obscure 2002 interview into a clarion call for invading Israel. The other is a flat lie – a repetition of two sentences, one about the malign influence of lobbyists, the other about our “important” alliance with Israel, and making them sound like a single thought by removing the middle of the paragraph. (A handful of attackers have dredged up a sprinkling of other statements that are more difficult to distort, though they’re trying.)
The most popular charge is that she “advocates” sending a massive U.S. invasion force into Israel and the territories to “impose a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This is based entirely on two-minute segment in an obscure, undated 2002 interview she gave to a Berkeley professor, Harry Kreisler, now circulating on YouTube. He asks her to respond to a “thought experiment”: if she were an adviser to the president, how would she advise him to act if it looked like either Israel or the Palestinians were “moving toward genocide.” Her answer was to take the same action she recommends in other genocidal situations: send in troops to stop it.
I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief now that Andrew Adler has resigned as publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times. His January 13 column, proposing that Israel might consider assassinating President Obama, was enormously embarrassing to Israel, its supporters and Jews everywhere. Removing him from his visible position makes life a lot easier for the rest of us, doesn’t it?
One could argue that Adler’s outburst shouldn’t cause Jews to cringe; after all, we know that supporting Israel and loving America are not incompatible. We can’t be blamed collectively for the blathering of one fool, even if he provided fuel for the fevered imaginings of those who believe Jews are disloyal. We should have outgrown the old habit of worrying about what others think of us. Proud Jews do what they need to do, not what the world tells them to do. On the other hand, we also worry that Israel is waging a war against delegitimization and isolation, fighting for its good name and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. That is, we sneer at the opinions of the world, but we’re also worried sick about the opinions of the world. I’m sure those two thoughts fit together somehow, though I’m not sure how.
Before we put the Adler incident comfortably behind us, though, let’s linger a moment to consider how such a thing might have happened. After all, this wasn’t just some lone nut talking—it was the owner of the Atlanta Jewish Times, the semi-official voice of one of the nation’s major Jewish communities. A fellow like that is supposed to have some feel for the mood of the community he’s covering, plus enough common sense to run a business and write coherent thoughts. Nor is Adler some self-inflated businessman who decided to purchase intellectual gravitas. He has a B.A. in journalism, according to his LinkedIn.com page. He reportedly worked in the past as the paper’s managing editor, then started up a smaller, independent Jewish weekly before acquiring the Times. What made him wander so far off the reservation?
The answer is, he didn’t. He was speaking for a community—or rather, an assertive subgroup of the community—that considers itself the true heart of the Jewish people and lives in fear and loathing of President Obama. Anyone who circulates regularly in organized communal circles knows what I’m talking about: the earnest denunciations of Obama as hostile to Israel, sympathetic to radical Islam, the worst president for Israel in its history, intent on weakening Israel and leaving it vulnerable to its enemies. Liberals like to dismiss such talk as Republican partisan smoke, but it’s not. It’s widely believed. Lots of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, are genuinely scared of Obama. They shouldn’t be, as we’ll see in a moment. But they are. that needs to be understood.
Barack and Bibi: An Optimistic Reading
According to a very reliable source, Abraham Foxman got an e-mail the other day, lamenting the fact that Hitler didn’t get him, apparently because of the Anti-Defamation League’s statement praising President Obama’s Middle East speech. I didn’t call for confirmation because I didn’t want Abe to ask me not to publish, and I regard my sourcing as pretty close to impeccable.
The Internet has been exploding lately with e-mail slime about Obama and the so-called “Auschwitz borders,” which Abba Eban often said was the one moment in his life that he regretted more than any other. There’s an ugly mood in the land that ill serves us. This is not something orchestrated out of Jerusalem; it’s an expression of a psychological debility, some sort of post-Holocaust stress syndrome: Eban once said, “We are a wounded people.”
Nonetheless, Bibi could make things better if he moderated his own speech. He’s taken up a position that he knows is untenable, partly for domestic political reasons, playing to his right flank, and partly as a tactical feint to improve his eventual, inevitable bargaining position. Israel has run out of time for stalling; Bibi’s too smart not to know this, and besides, he’s hearing it from his security and intelligence people. He’s saying stuff that simply inflames the right and makes things uglier.
Now, assuming he’s saying the stuff he’s saying for tactical reasons, that’s not the end of the world. Politicians can’t always be telling the truth — they have to tell people what they want to hear in order to gain the running room to do what needs to be done.
The fact is, though, that his reaction to Obama’s speech is one giant whopper. Three giant whoppers, in fact. Call it the Three Whoppers of Blair House, in honor of the famous Three No’s of Khartoum.
Whopper No. 1: It’s unrealistic to demand that Israel go back to the 1967 borders, because they’re indefensible. Negotiations can’t be conducted on that basis. First of all, nobody asked Israel to go back to those lines. The demand is that those lines be the basis for the talks. And they have been the basis for nearly every round of Israeli-Palestinian talks up to now. That’s why we keep on hearing about 92%, 98%, etc. 92% of what? The territories as they were before 1967.
Whopper No. 2: The 1967 border isn’t a peace border, it’s a war border. Israel was subjected to constant war before it occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. No — actually Israel had very little war on its borders before 1967, and lots and lots of wars on its borders and inside its “borders” since 1967.
Whopper No. 3: Israel can’t talk to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, because Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. By that logic, the Palestinians can’t talk to an Israeli government that includes Yisrael Beiteinu, which openly rejects peace, and HaBayit HaYehudi-The Jewish Home, which claims that the West Bank is part of Israel.
Some more details about these three Whoppers, plus a theory that Obama is endorsing the 1967 borders because he can’t get Bibi to do so openly and it’s the only way to get the Palestinians back to the table, after the jump:
My latest Good Fences column looks at the gloomy state of the economy and argues that it’s a mistake to blame either President Obama or the recent President Bush. What we’re experiencing actually is the collapse of a snake-oil economic cult theory that’s had us in its thrall for the past 30 years or so, the so-called Washington Consensus, also known as Reaganomics. In this blog post I run through some of the sources for my numbers, so you can check my math or even do your own exploring.
My column looks mainly at the paradoxical results of lowering taxes in order to encourage economic growth, which is a core tenet of our post-1980 economic faith. Between 1946 and 1980 the top income tax rate averaged around 80%. In the 30 years since then, the top rate has averaged around 35%. For some reason, the past 30 years have not seen increased economic growth. What they have seen is an explosion of the national debt, plus a colossal divergence between the incomes of the richest Americans and everyone else.
There are lots of other factors besides tax rates that play into the divergence, including deregulation of finance, killing off labor unions (thus increasing the bargaining power of the employer versus the wage-earner), technological changes and more. Slate.com has run a magisterial series by Timothy Noah, “The Great Divergence,” that explores the various factors, one by one. It’s worth the time.
Two recent newspaper articles have done a particularly powerful job of illuminating less-noticed aspects of the current crisis and its human impact. From The New York Times, “For the Unemployed Over 50, Fears of Never Working Again.” And from The Washington Post, “Families struggle to build nest egg in wake of recession.”
Some people find it hard to believe that income tax rates used to be at 91% in the good old days. Well, it’s true. No, nobody paid 91% of all their income in taxes. It was a marginal rate — the amount you paid on any income above a certain ceiling. Today’s top marginal rate, for example, is 35%, but it only applies to your earnings after your initial $312,000.
This chart shows you the top marginal income tax rate, year by year, going back to 1913 (when income tax began), along with the cutoff point in earnings above which the top rate was applied.
The marginal rate throughout the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations — from 1951 (under Truman, actually) through 1963 — was 91% on income above $400,000. (Calculating for inflation, $400,000 back in 1963 was worth about $2.8 million in today’s dollars.) The only president whose full tenure coincided with the confiscatory 91% marginal rate was Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican.
Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt offers a striking theory on how President Obama chose his agenda for his first two years, and why so many of his allies are so disappointed in the results. Basically, there was just too much basic repair work to be done, given the mess he inherited from the previous administration, and that left too little time and political capital to do all the things he wanted to do. It’s a must-read, but here’s the guts of it:
An ambitious set of goals motivated Obama’s candidacy, and early in his presidency the rap was that he was taking on too many. But the legacy of wars abroad and the Great Recession at home threatened his ability to accomplish any of them. Simply managing that bleak inheritance, he realized, might consume his entire term.
To avoid that trap, Obama had to govern with discipline. First, he would have to turn potential negatives into successes. At home, that meant not only engineering a stimulus program to end the recession but also designing financial reform to prevent a recurrence. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it meant charting a path to not just to withdrawal but stable outcomes.
Since both fronts would take enormous energy and political capital, Obama could not afford to squander whatever remained across an array of worthy electives. So over time he subordinated everything to just two: health-insurance reform and blocking Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Anything else, no matter how popular or deserving, had to give way if it interfered with those.
As Hiatt tells it, that led to a host of controversial decisions like stalling on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, letting labor-law reform die, making nice to Russia and China while neglecting close friends in Europe and a whole lot more.
It’s like what our good friend Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “The day is short, the work is vast and the workers are slow, but the reward is great. And besides, the landlord is coming for the rent.” (Mishnah Avot II:20). And bear this mind: “He also used to say” — this one is a shout-out to Obama’s unhappy allies — “You’re not obliged to finish the job, but neither are you free to walk away.”