Is Obama Getting Tough With Israel?

By Dan Froomkin
2:00 PM ET, 05/29/2009

President Obama heads to the Middle East next week, where on Thursday he'll make a much-anticipated address in Cairo aimed at repairing American's ties with the Muslim world.

He has a big advantage simply not being George W. Bush, of course -- and having abolished the most egregious, Crusade-like aspects of this country's approach to counter-terrorism.

But what can he tell the world's Muslims to assuage their anger about their most long-standing grievance: America's reflexive support of Israel?

As I've written before, there are signs Obama will promote a new regional peace initiative for the Middle East, much like the one championed by Jordan's King Abdullah.

And now along comes the first distinct signs that Obama is willing to play hardball with Israel.

Paul Richter, Christi Parsons and Richard Boudreaux write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Obama and top Israeli officials staked out sharply opposing positions over the explosive issue of Jewish settlements Thursday, propelling a rare dispute between the two close allies into full public view just days before the U.S. leader is due to deliver a long-awaited address in Egypt to the world's Muslims.

"Speaking after a White House meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Obama reiterated that he had been 'very clear about the need to stop building settlements, to stop building outposts' on Palestinian territory.

"Only hours earlier, the Israeli government said it would continue to allow some growth in the settler communities in the West Bank.

"The exchange underscored the unusually hard-line position Obama has taken publicly with Israel early in his administration. Most U.S. presidents, aware of the political sensitivity, have worked hard to keep disagreements out of sight, when they existed."

The issue of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories is incendiary for Palestinians, and nearly defining for the right-wing Israeli political bloc that newly re-installed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu depends on in order to retain power.

Farah Stockman writes for the Boston Globe: "As he prepares to fly to the Middle East next week to give a speech on his policy toward the region and US-Muslim relations, it seemed clear yesterday that his administration is willing to risk prickly relations with one of the closest US allies - and possible anger from some Jewish voters - to try to create a Palestinian state."

David S. Cloud writes for Politico: "Obama's willingness to place much of the initial onus on Israel for resuming peace talks is clearly greater than his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who rarely allowed any hint of public difference between himself and Israel. The strategy also carries some domestic political risk for Obama. That was clear Thursday when 329 House members and 76 senators sent him a letter advising against putting too much public pressure on Israel."

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post that the 2003 "road map" for peace, "commits Israel to dismantling settler outposts and freezing 'all settlement activity,' including building to accommodate what is known as 'natural growth.' But the near-daily barrage of U.S. demands that Israel halt settlement growth has surprised Israeli officials, who argue that they greatly restrained growth under an unwritten 2005 agreement with the Bush administration. Under that deal, Israel was to stop providing incentives for settlers to move to the West Bank and was to build only in areas it expected to keep in future peace agreements....

"The Obama administration appears to have calculated that pressing Israel on settlements will help demonstrate to the Arab nations that the United States is serious about pursuing peace, even at the risk of appearing to undermine Netanyahu's nascent government."

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Barack Obama Thursday ratcheted up what might be America's toughest bargaining position with Israel in a generation."

Thomma also writes: "It's noteworthy that Obama this week announced that he'd go to Saudi Arabia early next week for a private dinner with King Abdullah, en route to Cairo.

"'If what Obama is trying to do is get states like the Saudis to actually do things now, not only will he have achieved something pretty significant, he'll make it almost impossible for the Israelis to say no,' Miller said. 'No Israeli prime minister can afford to mismanage Israel's most important relationship, especially at a time when the Iranians are closer to nuclear power.'"

It's also possible that Obama is willing -- heck, even eager -- to see Netanyahu's government collapse. The prime minister has been a longtime skeptic of proposals to create a Palestinian state and refused to commit to the concept during his U.S. visit.

Laura Rozen blogs for Foreign Policy: "According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him over Memorial Day recess. To Netanyahu's dismay, Obama doesn't appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was....

"Even one veteran Washington peacemaker who had grown skeptical that Washington can overcome obstacles to get substantive progress on Middle East peace admitted to being impressed by the Obama team's resolve. 'What I'm beginning to see is that the Obama administration may be less concerned with actually getting to negotiations and an agreement and more interested in setting new rules and rearranging the furniture,' said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Institute. 'They may have concluded that they can't get to a real two state solution with this prime minister. Maybe they want a new one? And the best way to raise the odds of that is to demonstrate that he can't manage Israel's most important relationship: with the U.S.'"

Jackson Diehl writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "From its first days the Bush administration made it clear that the onus for change in the Middle East was on the Palestinians: Until they put an end to terrorism, established a democratic government and accepted the basic parameters for a settlement, the United States was not going to expect major concessions from Israel.

"Obama, in contrast, has repeatedly and publicly stressed the need for a West Bank settlement freeze, with no exceptions. In so doing he has shifted the focus to Israel."

This is not a good thing, Diehl writes, because in so doing, Obama "has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud."

But in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth translated by M.J. Rosenberg, Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a former United States ambassador to Israel, suggests that Obama is on a larger mission.

"Netanyahu should listen to Obama because Obama is telling him, in essence, that resolving the conflict is an American interest," Indyk said. "What is happening at present is that the Israeli-Arab conflict serves as an instrument in the hands of America's enemies — Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. Time is not working in Israel's favor or in favor of peace."

Indyk says Obama's new message to Israels is this: "[A]ll these years, the US has been strengthening you precisely for this purpose — so that you can take the risk of making peace. How exactly can the Palestinians destroy you? The real existential danger is that you will not succeed in parting from them."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:45 PM ET, 05/29/2009

Lolita C. Baldor writes for the Associated Press: "America has for too long failed to adequately protect the security of its computer networks, President Barack Obama said Friday, announcing he will name a new cyber czar to take on the job."

James Gordon Meek writes for the New York Daily News that Obama "also revealed today that his presidential campaign's computers were hacked by intruders who broke into sensitive files." (That actually was first reported by Newsweek right after the election.)

Devlin Barrett writes for the Associated Press: "The Obama administration asked a federal appeals court Thursday to halt the release of disturbing images of detainee abuse, saying the photos could incite violence in Pakistan as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. The court papers filed in New York cite two partially secret statements from two top U.S. generals, David Petraeus and Ray Odierno. Such arguments failed to sway the court in the past....ACLU lawyer Amrit Singh said the new filing by the Obama administration "has no new arguments" and will be opposed. She also criticized the Obama administration for redacting parts of the generals' arguments about the safety threats posed by the photos. 'It's troubling to us that not only is the government withholding the photographs, but it's also withholding its arguments for withholding the photographs,' said Singh."

Craig Whitlock and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "Rising opposition in the U.S. Congress to allowing Guantanamo prisoners on American soil has not gone over well in Europe. Officials from countries that previously indicated they were willing to accept inmates now say it may be politically impossible for them to do so if the United States does not reciprocate....European officials involved in the negotiations said Obama administration officials had assured them that some detainees who are not considered security threats would be released in the United States, while others would be prosecuted in U.S. courts." Obama wants to resettle at least 50 Guantanamo Bay prisoners in Europe.

Marc Ambinder blogs for the Atlantic: "President Obama isn't ready to back away from the state secrets privilege...Justice Department lawyers are expected to notify a judge [today] that it will not back away from its assertion of the privilege in the Al-Haramain case, even under the threat of sanctions."

Bobby Ghosh writes for Time that "the experiences of officials like [former FBI interrogator Ali] Soufan suggest that the utility of torture is limited at best and counterproductive at worst. Put simply, there's no definitive evidence that torture works. The crucial question going forward is, What does? How does an interrogator break down a hardened terrorist without using violence? Time spoke with several interrogators who have worked for the U.S. military as well as others who have recently retired from the intelligence services (the CIA and FBI turned down requests for interviews with current staffers). All agreed with Soufan: the best way to get intelligence from even the most recalcitrant subject is to apply the subtle arts of interrogation rather than the blunt instruments of torture."

Garance Franke-Ruta writes for The Washington Post that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs yesterday "denied a report in British newspaper the Daily Telegraph that photos showing detainees in Iraq being sexually abused were among those President Obama recently decided not to release." Here's the briefing transcript.

Peter Bergen and Katherin Tiedemann, writing in a New York Times op-ed, take issue with the Pentagon report made public on Tuesday that concluded that 74 of the 534 men who have been freed from Guantánamo were "confirmed or suspected of re-engaging in terrorist activities." The findings "are very likely inflated," they write. "This is in part because the Pentagon includes on the list any released prisoner who is either 'confirmed' or just 'suspected' to have engaged in terrorism anywhere in the world, whether those actions were directed at the United States or not. And, bizarrely, the Defense Department has in the past even lumped into the recidivist category former prisoners who have done no more than criticize the United States after their release."

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek: "On a number of perilous fronts—Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Mideast—this most diplomatically oriented of American presidents, who came into office four months ago eager for 'engagement,' has few responsible or dependable parties with whom he can negotiate. As a result, despite Obama's best intentions, each of these foreign-policy problems is likely to grow much worse—possibly disastrously worse—before it gets any better."

Philip Elliott writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama warned Thursday that if Congress doesn't deliver health care legislation by the end of the year, the opportunity will be lost, a plea to political supporters to pressure lawmakers to act. 'If we don't get it done this year, we're not going to get it done,' Obama told supporters by phone (audio, transcript) as he flew home on Air Force One from a West Coast fundraising trip."

Binyamin Appelbaum and Peter Whoriskey write in The Washington Post that senior administration officials "say they are focused solely on forcing critical financial repairs at GM and other companies in which the government plans to take large ownership stakes. They do not want to get dragged into the weeds of daily decision-making." But: "An array of advocacy groups, including unions, environmental advocates and shareholder activists, see opportunities to wrest long-sought concessions from businesses that are now beholden to taxpayers."

Bill Varner writes for Bloomberg: "The Obama administration took actions that averted a second Great Depression and now needs the American people to be patient as the recovery gathers steam, senior White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee said."

Jeffrey M. Jones writes for Gallup: "So far in May, Barack Obama has averaged 65% job approval. Since World War II, only three of the previous eight presidents elected to their first terms -- Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan -- have had a higher average approval rating in May of their first year. Obama's average exceeds those of the three most recent presidents -- George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush."

The New York Times reports: "President Barack Obama remains by far the most popular world leader among people in major Western nations and is the one political figure on whom people consistently pin their hopes in the economic crisis, according to new polls conducted for the International Herald Tribune. About 80 percent of people in France, Germany, Italy and Spain have a positive view of Mr. Obama, a ratio that declines only slightly, to about 70 percent, in the other two countries surveyed, Britain and the United States."

Noelle Straub and Eric Bontrager write for Greenwire: "No logging or road project on tens of millions of forested acres will proceed without personal approval by the Agriculture Department's secretary for at least a year while the Obama administration decides how to handle a controversial Clinton-era roadless rule, officials said today."

Chris Christoff writes for the Detroit Free Press about former President George W. Bush's speech yesterday at the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan. Bush "defended his decision to allow harsh interrogation of a terror suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., saying it was cleared by his lawyers to prevent what his advisors believed was another, imminent attack. 'I made a decision within the law to get information so I can say, I've done what it takes to do my duty to protect the American people,' he said. 'I can tell you, the information gained saved lives.'"

Eartha Jane Melzer writes for the Michigan Messenger about Bush's "repeated references to the challenges he faced as commander in chief amid the 'fog of war.'" and how "during a crisis it can be difficult to get good information to make the best decisions."

Julie Mack writes in the Kalamazoo Gazette: "One subject that Bush didn't talk about was President Obama. 'Nothing I'm saying tonight is meant to criticize my successor,' Bush said. 'There are plenty of people who are weighing in on that, but I didn't like when former presidents criticized me, and I'm not going to do it to him. I wish him all the best.'"

But Bush chose not to distance himself from some of the most extreme criticism of his successor, either. Peter Hamby writes for CNN: "Bush was asked what he thinks about conservative pundits who claim the Obama administration's fiscal policies are opening the door to socialism. 'I've heard talk about that,' he said. 'I think the verdict is out. I think people are waiting to see what all this means.'"

And James Prichard writes for the Associated Press: "Flying on Air Force One, eating meals prepared by the White House kitchen staff and drawing inspiration from his encounters with U.S. military personnel were among things former President George W. Bush missed since leaving office, he said Thursday."

Unsympathetic Argument Against Empathy

By Dan Froomkin
12:38 PM ET, 05/29/2009

The increasingly common conservative argument that empathy has no place in the judiciary is both blatantly disingenuous and utterly antithetical to the American judicial tradition.

These conservative critics aren't really against empathy -- they're just against empathy with what they consider the wrong people.

And they display a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the judicial branch. A key role of the judiciary is to serve as a check and balance against the executive and legislative branches -- by protecting the rights of the powerless and the minority against the tyranny of the majority.

In fact, the critics don't even seem to understand the word that's upsetting them so. They see empathy as a synonym for bias. But empathy is simply the ability to understand where other people are coming from. It's not a zero sum game.

Empathy is, however, not only one of President Obama's key requirements in a Supreme Court nominee, it's also central to his political philosophy. As I explained two weeks ago in The Empathy War, Obama wrote in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope that empathy is "not simply...a call to sympathy or charity, but...something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes." And it applies to everyone -- "the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor."

That said, it's no secret that Obama believes that a societal lack of empathy has been more damaging to some groups than others. "I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society," he wrote. "After all, if they are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves."

Here's how law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky, writing in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, sees the role of empathy in judging: "Judging, especially at the level of the Supreme Court, is not and never has been a mechanical process of applying clear rules to yield determinate answers. It is a human activity in which there is often great discretion....In exercising this discretion, justices should be mindful of the consequences of their decisions on people's lives. That is what empathy is about, and it is hard to imagine wanting judges who lack empathy....

"[A]ll justices as human beings inevitably feel empathy. Most of today's Supreme Court justices apparently feel it more for businesses than employees, and more for victims of crimes than criminal defendants. Obama's wish that justices feel empathy for minorities and the poor should hardly be controversial, for the Constitution above all exists to protect minorities. The majority generally doesn't need a constitution for its protection because it can control the political process."

Even conservative, but not empathy-hating, David Brooks writes in his New York Times opinion column: "People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row."

He explains: "The crucial question in evaluating a potential Supreme Court justice, therefore, is not whether she relies on empathy or emotion, but how she does so. First, can she process multiple streams of emotion? Reason is weak and emotions are strong, but emotions can be balanced off each other. Sonia Sotomayor will be a good justice if she can empathize with the many types of people and actions involved in a case, but a bad justice if she can only empathize with one type, one ethnic group or one social class."

Nevertheless, leading conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer writes in his Washington Post opinion column that Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, while essentially unstoppable, should be used to expose to the public how Democrats see "empathy as lying at the heart of judicial decision-making...

"Since the 2008 election, people have been asking what conservatism stands for. Well, if nothing else, it stands unequivocally against justice as empathy -- and unequivocally for the principle of blind justice," he writes.

"Figuratively and literally, justice wears a blindfold. It cannot be a respecter of persons. Everyone must stand equally before the law, black or white, rich or poor, advantaged or not."

But the figure of "blind justice" has typically not symbolized ignorance of either the real-world effects of legal decisions or the humanity of the people involved. It's been about avoiding bias -- particularly bias towards the powerful.

Similarly, Michael Gerson, the official speechwriter for "compassionate conservatism", decries empathy in his Washington Post opinion column. He writes about how Obama "opposed John Roberts for using his skills 'on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak.' He criticized Samuel Alito for siding with 'the powerful against the powerless.' Obama made these distinguished judges sound monstrous because they stood for the impartial application of the law."

Gerson sees that as evidence that Obama "developed a theory that Supreme Court justices should favor socially unfavored groups."

But Obama wasn't saying he necessarily wanted the playing field tilted in favor of the weak -- just not tilted in favor of the strong. (And his concerns about those justices were utterly justified.)

That Gerson sees a justice system that doesn't automatically side with the powerful as inherently unfair says a lot about his own judicial philosophy.

Adam Serwer blogs for the American Prospect that "the conservative justices on the court...are not emotionless robots able to interpret the law without bias or personal experience coloring their rulings. They don't lack empathy; they simply don't empathize with the people Obama or liberals might like them to. Conservatives want their justices to empathize with the religious, the unborn, and powerful corporate interests. Liberals want their justices to empathize with women and minorities, workers and the downtrodden."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, is a proud and accomplished Latina. This fact apparently drives some prominent Republicans to a state resembling incoherent, sputtering rage."

He writes about the two major grievances conservatives have against her, and concludes: "In both instances, as Sotomayor's critics saw it, minorities were either claiming or obtaining some kind of advantage over white males. Never mind whether this perception has any basis in fact. The very concept seemed to be enough to light a thermonuclear fuse."

In other Sotomayor coverage, Jo Becker and Adam Liptak write in the New York Times that she "has a blunt and even testy side."

But "Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard law professor who served as an adviser in the process that led to Judge Sotomayor’s selection for the Supreme Court, said the White House had found concerns about her temperament unfounded."

And Second Circuit colleague Guido Calabresi tells the Times of the criticisms: "Some lawyers just don’t like to be questioned by a woman....It was sexist, plain and simple."

Raymond Hernandez and David W. Chen, also writing in the New York Times, try to make Sotomayor's presence on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in the 1980s sound controversial. Because "her critics, including some Republican senators who will vote on her nomination, have questioned whether she has let her ethnicity, life experiences and public advocacy creep into her decisions as a judge," they write that it's "inevitable, then, that her tenure with the defense fund will be scrutinized during her confirmation hearings."

But later on, they acknowledge: "Of course, it is not as if a lawyer and judge with a history of involvement in racial issues has not made it onto the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall, a fierce advocate for racial justice as a lawyer for the N.A.A.C.P., sailed onto the highest bench in the 1960s."

Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "The White House scrambled yesterday to assuage worries from liberal groups about Judge Sonia Sotomayor's scant record on abortion rights, delivering strong but vague assurances that the Supreme Court nominee agrees with President Obama's belief in constitutional protections for a woman's right to the procedure."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:38 AM ET, 05/29/2009

Tony Auth on who fears Sotomayor, Bruce Beattie, John Cole and Steve Sack on the GOP's Sotomayor predicament, and John Sherffius and Rex Babin on the GOP and empathy.

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