In the Arena

Armageddon Blues

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REUTERS/Jason Reed

Convinced that the world was coming to an end on May 21, my wife and I decided to spend our last days–before being engulfed in the eternal fire–in Italy last week. Imagine my disappointment that the Lord’s smite schedule was out of whack (except, horrifically, in Joplin, Missouri), and I had to go ahead and cover the AIPAC convention in Washington on Monday. Actually, there was an eschatological link between the two events: a posse of evangelical Christians have attached themselves to Likudnik Jewry in recent years, out of motives both noble (rebel Jews did invent their religion, and Old Testament principles do frame it) and not so (there’s the ridiculous Rapture scenario, which will only be kicked off, according to some versions, when the Jews regain control of the entire land of Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza). There was a panel about why evangelicals should just love Jews to death, and I attended it until the accumulated saccharine–this one woman insisted on calling Israel “Is-Ra-Yel” in a tone that suggested some form of concupiscent ecstasy–made me light-headed and I had to go off in search of more solid policy fare.

Of which there was, happily, plenty…And also not. The annual AIPAC event is a combination of some very astute policy panels, gagging pageantry (why on earth do they have to read off every last name of the 67 US Senators and more than 300 Representatives–count ’em!–attending their gala banquet with Michael Buffer-ian melodrama–Congressman Jeb HENsarling of…Texas!–and stirring movie epic music thumping away?) and embarrassing oratorical panderation by a Conga line of American politicians, all of whom love Israel so much that they would plight their troth even if AIPAC weren’t well known as a princely source of campaign cash (and, occasionally, as a vindictive opponent if the preferred line is breached).

I’ll have more to say about the “controversy” of the week–that is, President Obama’s support for a two-state solution with borders based on the pre-1967 lines, with mutually agreed upon land swaps to assure Israel’s security and the inclusion of most Israeli settlements–in my print column on Thursday. For now, though, let me pick apart a speech delivered by Senator Harry Reid at the last night’s banquet. Now, I like Harry Reid. He’s a lovely man, a fellow Mark Twain and folk music devotee. But his pandering last night was problematic. His first excess was a back-handed swipe at President Obama for suggesting the entirely non-controversial notion that a settlement be based on ’67 lines with land swaps:

The place where negotiating will happen must be the negotiating table – and nowhere else. Those negotiations will not happen – and their terms will not be set – through speeches, or in the streets, or in the media.  No one should set premature parameters about borders, about building or about anything else.

Of course, we’ve now had nearly 20 years of on-and-off negotiations–all of which have included talks (and yes, even maps!) about redrawn borders based on the need for Israeli security and restitution to Palestinians of land roughly equal to territory occupied by Israeli settlements contiguous to the 1967 borders. I have no idea why Reid decided to throw his President “under a bus,” to use Mitt Romney’s felicitous phrase, for supporting the continuation of the very same negotiating parameters that nearly brought an accord in 2001 at Taba and again in 2008. (In both cases, the Palestinians foolishly chickened out of deals that were entirely plausible.)

Reid’s second excess won’t get any headlines but may be quite significant: he threatened to cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas is brought into the government:

Palestinians’ cooperation on the following fundamental principle will also determine America’s willingness to continue our current aid program. I’ll say this as clearly as I can: the United States of America will not give money to terrorists bent on the destruction of the State of Israel. If the Palestinian government insists on including Hamas, the United States will continue to insist that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, that it renounce violence, and that it honor the commitments made by prior Palestinian Authority governments.

This elicited a roar from the crowd–and may well elicit a rash of demagoguery from the Republicans running for President. But it’s a terrible idea, and a very broad-brush depiction. What exactly constitutes Hamas involvement? Does the interim, pre-election, team of non-partisan “technicians” mutually agreed upon by Fatah and Hamas count? The wise answer to this question is: probably not. Earlier in the day, at a really smart panel on whether the Palestinians are a reliable partner right now, Elliott Abrams–as committed a neoconservative as walks the Earth–said that it was crucial that the moderate Fatah faction defeats Hamas in the next round of Palestinian elections. The best way for the U.S. to favorably influence that result would be to continue funding the excellent work that the Palestinian Authority has been doing in building a non-corrupt government, economy and security apparatus on the West Bank. It is especially important to continue funding for the U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces, which have cooperated with Israel in rooting out terrorists on the West Bank while establishing safe neighborhoods no longer under the control of militant factions there.

Abrams’ two co-panelists, former Congressman Robert Wexler and Israeli peace negotiator Tal Becker, agreed: There will be no hope for any sort of negotiated settlement in the near future if Hamas wins those elections. The continuation of pre-election aid for the Palestinian Authority is crucial. The funding question can obviously be revisited if Hamas wins and continues to refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist within secure borders. The point is, this is an important nuance that can easily demagogued. One expects such things of Rush Limbaugh. To see Harry Reid succumb to the temptation is very disappointing.