Thursday, June 30, 2011

I’m disgusted

It’s always helpful to get an outsider’s perspective on a situation you’re bogged down in.  They can often see the forest for the trees when you can’t.

A recent editorial in the British newsweekly The Economist (World Economy: Sticky Patch or Meltdown?) did just that.  I was especially struck by these words near the end of the piece:

The current battle over raising the federal government’s debt ceiling is driven not by careful consideration of the economics but by ideology and brinkmanship. Democrats refuse to consider serious spending reform. Republicans reject higher taxes. Many tea-party types would rather see America’s government default than compromise on spending.

The result is a perilous stand-off—and a growing danger that America will have to make drastic short-term spending cuts, or even find itself forced into a technical default. ...

This dangerous political brinkmanship could also have a damaging effect by creating uncertainty. Companies are currently sitting on piles of cash because they are wondering how strong economic growth will be. Politics gives them more reason to sit on their hands rather than investing and hiring immediately, providing a boost the world economy sorely needs.

One of the first things I learned in business school is that the market hates uncertainty, so The Economist’s raising this potential effect above the many struck home for me.  They continued:

There is a real risk that the politicians’ pig-headedness could lead to disaster. The odds of a catastrophe—harsh fiscal tightening in America, or a crash in the euro zone—may not be high, but neither are they negligible. Though economic logic suggests that the world economy is just going through a sticky patch, squabbling politicians could all too easily turn it into a meltdown.

Then yesterday morning, as if on cue, this appeared in First Read from NBC:

Remember the GOP talking points on "certainty?"  [Over] the past year, John Boehner and Republicans have railed against the Obama administration’s policies (on health care, on the financial industry), arguing they create uncertainty for the business community. “We're calling for an end to the threat of tax hikes -- and a fundamental reform of the tax code -- to provide certainty to those in our country who create jobs," Boehner said in May. “We need to move forward on those policies that will give our small businesses the certainty to create those jobs,” he added earlier this month. “We need to stop the regulations to provide more certainty for America's job creators,” he noted two week ago. But the issue of "certainty" is not being brought up now by Republicans when it comes to the debt ceiling. If anything, despite calls from the Wall Street and business communities to CREATE certainty by taking this debt ceiling issue off the table sooner rather than later, the GOP is now doubling-down on creating a LACK of certainty for now as a way to gain leverage in the talks with the White House.

In fact:

Deadline? What deadline? Yesterday, Boehner called the Aug. 2 debt-ceiling date an “artificial” deadline. "Nobody believes the United States is going to walk away from its obligations," Boehner said in an interview taped for the "Hannity" show on Fox News Channel. "Dealing with this debt problem and this deficit problem is far more important than meeting some artificial date created by the Treasury secretary." Similarly, a GOP Hill source in the know told First Read yesterday that the Aug. 2 drop-dead debt-ceiling date is not likely as hard a date as Treasury is leading on. It could be pushed to mid-August, the source said. (But a Treasury Department official says they’re not setting the deadline. “It is purely a function of the government's cash flows,” the official tells us. “We will provide an update on the debt-ceiling outlook at the beginning of July, as we have done at the beginning of each month this year, but it is unlikely that the date will move by more than a day or two -- if at all.)

This brinkmanship is really unbelievable ... but as The Economist pointed out, both Democrats and Republicans have to compromise to get this done.

I’m not hopeful.  After I listened to the President’s news conference on CSPAN, I listened to the Republicans’ and Democrats’ press conferences on the deficit/debt ceiling situation.   There I was, all revved up about the President’s tough talk about how both sides had to make the tough decisions and “just get it done,” and what do I hear?

First that the Republicans have decided that now’s the time to talk about a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.  And then that the Democrats have decided that it’s helpful to challenge the Republicans to include a repeal of ethanol subsidies as a part of a final deal on the debt limit.

Those are the high-minded, unselfish, helpful ideas our leaders have to offer 30 days before we hit the debt ceiling??

I’m disgusted with all of them.


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

For Irwin and Susan

I don’t usually title my blog posts with a dedication, but it feels right to me right now.


I’ve just finished watching the President's news conference on CSPAN.  (Remember when I wrote about listening to more than just the sound bites?  Well, I’ve taken that lesson to heart.)


I’m not going to write a lot today.  I’m simply going to ask that you take 15 minutes and watch two parts of the news conference:

  • the opening remarks (about 10 minutes long), and
  • the President’s riff about leadership (about 3 minutes, beginning 57 minutes in).


Just click this link, begin playing the clip, and after listening to the opening 10 minutes, move the slider below the video window until the time indicator says 57.00 and listen for 3 minutes more.


Tonight’s TV and cable news and tomorrow’s papers, will deconstruct and pick-apart the President’s words, and that’s fine.  But given the angst so many of you have been feeling lately, do yourself a favor.  Listen to the President ... then let me know your reaction.

Monday, June 27, 2011

What’s wrong with bi?

Two friends wrote me yesterday about Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times (“Why is he Bi? (Sigh)”).  I suspect it tapped in to the frustration they and many Democrats are feeling about what they consider insufficient movement on the liberal agenda.


Dowd writes,” Our president likes to be on both sides at once,” and frames it as a criticism.  He can’t help it.  “He was born that way.”


She cites his positions on Afghanistan, Libya, the budget, the environment, health care, Wall Street, and politics.  Poor guy – she doesn’t cut him a break.  (Well, she does give him credit for “the capture of Osama and his drone campaign in Pakistan and Yemen.”)


So it’s time for two reminders,  First, governing is about compromise.  And second, he’s actually accomplished quite a lot. 


Governing is about compromise


Last December, in the wake of criticism of Obama following the lame-duck session tax deal, I wrote in a blog post:


The liberal-left side of the debate says Obama has no principles and isn’t willing (or tough enough) to fight for anything. I’m on the other side. Compromise – important even after winning the White House and Congress in 2008 because of the broad range of views among Democrats - became critical when Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate last January. And it will be even more so going forward, given Democrats’ weakened position in both houses since November.


In view of Dowd’s column and the angst it is producing, it’s worth repeating some of Matt Bai’s NY Times piece from that time:


Is President Obama himself a triangulator? Has he become the kind of compromiser he once disdained? Perhaps the better question might be: So what if he has?


Again and again, we have Democratic presidents who say, ‘Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the better,’ and ‘This is the best I can do,’ ” says Robert Reich, the liberal economist and former labor secretary under Mr. Clinton. “And over and over we have Republican presidents who say, ‘I am going to hold out for my principles.’”



In this more expansive sense of the epithet, one can reasonably tag Mr. Obama as a triangulator. In striking his tax deal — which extended cuts for the highest income levels and reinstated the estate tax at a much lower rate than sought by liberals, while also extending unemployment benefits and establishing a new payroll tax holiday — Mr. Obama effectively said that the perfect could not be the enemy of the better, and that this was the best he could do.



The problem with this definition of triangulation, though, is that it comes awfully close to an indictment of governing, generally. Some political compromises, of course, are craven or even disastrous; there’s a reason that the words “appeasement” and “Yalta” remain part of the lexicon. But to disdain pragmatic compromise is to become unyielding and self-satisfied in the service of theory, rather than creative in the service of your agenda. ...



Perhaps Mr. Obama could have won a more progressive resolution to the tax-cut debate had he and Congressional Democrats taken up the issue earlier this year, when the deadline wasn’t so close and when the president could have mounted a sustained public campaign. But as it stands, the deal Mr. Obama got, while no one’s idea of perfect, will pump hundreds of billions of dollars in consumer and business tax breaks into a languishing economy, while also aiding the unemployed and easing the tax burden on a strained middle class.



On the other hand, had Mr. Obama held the line on principle and allowed all the cuts to expire, as some Democrats would have preferred, the public debate in January would most likely have come down to which of the two parties was responsible for letting middle-class taxes rise during a recession. It’s an argument that Democrats, historically vulnerable on taxes and already fending off charges of expanding government, would probably have lost.



Such compromises, ideal or not, are the building blocks of responsible governance. If that makes Mr. Obama some kind of triangulator, then it could also make him a successful president.


Reflecting on the Dowd column and my post the other day on Obama’s Afghanistan speech, my friend wrote:


Obama NEVER has disappointed me when it comes to his vision or his beliefs for our country.


But, suddenly I am realizing that I have yet to see any of those visions come to light ... or even be put into some kind of beginning action. Yes, I know that probably many (if not all) of his visions are unrealistic, but has he once since getting into office shown the American people that he has PLANS, not just IDEALS??


Well, my first reaction was, “You have to play the hand you’re dealt,” and Obama was dealt a really bad hand.  Even so, her comment showed me the need for a second reminder: 


He’s actually accomplished quite a lot


From “It takes an attitude adjustment,” a February post, here are some first-two-year accomplishments:


·     Passed historic health care reform, providing stability and security to those who have insurance and affordable options for those 30+ million people who don’t, and putting an end to pre-existing conditions and life-time caps.   (This was one of his plans, not just an ideal.)


·        Dealt masterfully with his inherited challenges: an economy in freefall, a health care system in crisis, and two wars. [OK, we’re not where we’d like to be, but we avoided a Great Recession, saved the U.S. auto industry and thousands of related jobs, and made some progress on reform of the financial system.]


·        Made three huge investments in the future with the Recovery Act, which was the largest infrastructure investment since Eisenhower, the largest education investment since Johnson, and the largest clean-energy bill ever – rolled in to one law. The Recovery Act saved or created 3.7 million jobs while creating a foundation for future growth.   


·        Reauthorized and expanded the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to another 4 million low-income kids.


·        Took important steps to improve our national security. Ended combat operations in Iraq and made troops available for the greater threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan (another plan). Reached the most significant arms control agreement with Russia in two decades that will reduce nuclear arsenals and put inspectors on the ground in Russia.  (Another plan.)


·        Made major investments in education to prepare us for the future, by funding programs like “Race to the Top” to spur innovation and provide needed funds to schools, reforming student lending to make more available at less taxpayer cost, and funding a new GI Bill to make college more affordable for returning veterans.  (Education reform – another of his plans.)


·        Took important steps to protect civil rights by repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act making it easier for women to challenge unequal pay practices, and signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act giving law enforcement new tools to prosecute those who commit hate crimes.


Further, Obama’s leadership on the tax deal (much-criticized by Democrats) made possible in the lame duck session:


·        Middle-class tax cuts;

·        Extending unemployment benefits and temporarily reducing the payroll tax;

·        Major food safety bill for the first time giving the FDA a mandate to prevent, rather than simply respond to, contamination of the food supply;

·        9/11 responders health bill.

Other accomplishments of the Obama administration (in no particular order):

·        Overturned restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research;

·        The Credit Card Bill of Rights, outlawing hidden fees and deceptive lending practices from credit card companies;

·        Overturned Bush Administration “global gag rule,” allowing American aid to international health organizations who provide family planning, including abortion counseling;

·        Appointed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the first Latina to ever serve on the bench, and with Obama’s appointment of  Elena Kagan, three women now serve on the Court;

·        Ended previous policy of offering tax benefits to corporations who outsource American jobs; now promote in-sourcing to bring jobs back;

·        Ended previous policy on torture.

(Google the phrase “Obama accomplishments.”  I found great lists at BuzzFeed.com, WikiAnswers.com and Obamaachievements.org.  The list at the latter site was complied by “a team of about 100 volunteers dedicated to countering the constant negative drumbeat of our mainstream media. In the past two years, over 400 steps forward have been taken by the Obama administration, yet the media continues to focus on the negative.”)

Dowd glibly captured the frustration of many, and I understand it.  But it’s important to remember that it’s not a perfect world.  Obama is not the perfect president.  As I said to my friend, “He’s a man, not a miracle-worker.”  But I can think of no one I’d rather have leading our country during this four-year period. 

We’re about to witness another challenge to Obama’s leadership.  A recent poll shows 63 percent of Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling, and the Republicans’ brinksmanship really scares me. 

There will no doubt be compromise, and Democrats will no doubt be unhappy.  So in the coming weeks, it will be important to continue to keep Bai’s words in mind:

[Some] compromises, ideal or not, are the building blocks of responsible governance.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More than just the numbers

We had dinner out last night so I wasn’t home to watch the President’s speech on Afghanistan.  Taped it, but got home too late to watch. 


Turned on TV when I got up this morning to see what the pundits were saying.  Got the numbers (10,000 troops out by the end of this year; 23,000 by the end of next summer).  Read the front-page story in the New York Times (“Obama Will Speed Pullout From War in Afghanistan”) and the comments in my First Read from NBC News daily email. (Nancy Pelosi wants troops out faster; John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Tim Pawlenty want it slower; “from the White House’s perspective, the withdrawal decision was the most aggressive Obama could get military commanders to sign off on (which was somewhat contentious).”


OK – I got the gist of it.  So did I need to watch the speech? 


Got an email this morning from David Plouffe, Senior Advisor to the President (we’re on a first-name basis J), with a link where I could watch online. 


Decided to watch – and was I glad I did.  In fact, I watched it twice.  It was only 15-minutes long (the Times article had told me that).


It was an important reminder that talking points and pundits’ snappy sound bites may give me the “what” and the “when” – and other people’s reactions – but without hearing the speech myself, I couldn’t objectively form my own opinion.


For me, what was more important than the numbers and the withdrawal timetable – which were outlined in the first few minutes of the speech – was hearing the President remind us why we are in Afghanistan in the first place, and why an additional 30,000 troops were sent in last year (“one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve made as President”).


When I announced this surge at West Point, we set clear objectives:  to refocus on al Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country.  I also made it clear that our commitment would not be open-ended, and that we would begin to draw down our forces this July.


Since we are meeting those goals, Obama said, we can begin the drawdown.


Then he explained why he decided on a pace of withdrawal that was faster than some wanted:  We’ve made a lot of progress in weakening Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and Afghan security forces have grown and begun assuming responsibility for security in many areas.


He said we’re not cutting and running, but Afghanistan needs more than a reduction in violence.


… peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement.  So as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.  Our position on these talks is clear:  They must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution.  But, in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made.


He stated the goal for the next stage of our involvement in Afghanistan:


No safe haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies. 


Importantly, he said what we won’t do:


We won't try to make Afghanistan a perfect place.  We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely.  That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people, and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace.  What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures –- one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.


He acknowledged the need to continue working with Pakistan to keep the Taliban from using it as a base for “violent extremism” and said we would “insist that it keeps its commitments.”


Then he broadened the discussion to the need to “chart a more centered course” for our foreign policy in the 21st century, and set out what I’d call his foreign policy philosophy:


[W]e must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events.  But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute.  When threatened, we must respond with force –- but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas.  When innocents are being slaughtered and global security endangered, we don’t have to choose between standing idly by or acting on our own.  Instead, we must rally international action, which we’re doing in Libya, where we do not have a single soldier on the ground, but are supporting allies in protecting the Libyan people and giving them the chance to determine their own destiny.


In other words – we have a role to play, but we don't have to go it alone.  It’s not black or white, there are shades of gray.  I completely agree, and I think it is important and significant that he said it.


Finally, he talked beautifully about “what sets America apart:”


… not solely our power -– it is the principles upon which our union was founded.  We’re a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens.  We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others.  We stand not for empire, but for self-determination. 


And then he said:


That is why we have a stake in the democratic aspirations that are now washing across the Arab world.  We will support those revolutions with fidelity to our ideals, with the power of our example, and with an unwavering belief that all human beings deserve to live with freedom and dignity.


This part of the speech reminded me again why I am such a strong supporter of Obama: I share his view of the role of government domestically, and his view of the role of America in the world.  My values are his values; his are mine.  We might differ on some of the tactics, but we share the same goals.


In concluding the speech, Obama pivoted to the situation at home.  Realpolitik. 


Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times.  Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource –- our people.  We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industries, while living within our means.  We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy.  And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war.  For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep, no horizon is beyond our reach.


America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.


I hope I haven’t given you so much of the speech that you decide not to watch it.  As I said at the beginning, all this is is my take, my reaction.  I hope you’ll take 15 minutes and watch the speech yourself ... and then let me know what you think.

Monday, June 20, 2011

JSA Address Correction

Thanks to those readers who have expressed interest in helping with tuition for Erika Ramirez's Junior Statesmen of America Summer School in Princeton.  Please note there was a typo in the zipcode of the address to which contributions should be sent.  It should be:
The Junior Statesmen Foundation Inc.
The Junior State of America
1600 K St. NW, Suite 803
Washington, DC 20006-2840
Include a note saying that the contribution is for the benefit of Erika Ramirez, JSA 2011 Princeton Summer School. 

Mean-spirited Neapolitans

A letter to the editor in the June 8th Naples Daily News really impressed me:


Dear editor


I am currently a student at Naples High, as a junior I am looking forward to my coming senior year and making the transition into college. Since I arrived in this country at the age of five, my parents instilled in me the importance of setting goals and reaching my full potential. My education is my highest priority. I have completed six advanced placement college level classes, two years of drafting and design, and maintained a 4.0 GPA. I have been a part of Naples Eaglettes, Spanish Honor Society & JSA. I have 40 hours of community service with Habitat for Humanity & Domestic Animal services. My senior year I will have completed 2 additional AP classes & written a Laureate paper. I have been accepted to attend Junior Statesmen of America’s academic program for future leaders at Princeton University this summer.  I come from a hardworking humble family who do not have the means to finance this great opportunity. I am writing to seek help from the community and local business in making this dream a reality by helping finance my tuition. I am the first in my family to attend college and attending this program is a chance to expand my mind and bring me a step closure to making future endeavors a reality. If you wish to make help make my dream come true please contact me at erikaxxoxo@hotmail.com. I hope to make my dream a reality, thank you and God.


My passion is engaging people – especially women and students – to become active in civic life, and the JSA program at Princeton sounded right up my alley!  I emailed Erika my congratulations, said I’d like to help, and asked for a copy of the acceptance letter, which she promptly emailed:


Congratulations, Erika, you have been ACCEPTED to the 2011 JSA Princeton Summer School!  ...The Orientation Packet can ... be downloaded here. ...



This summer is a great time to be studying politics and discussing current issues with students from all over the nation and around the world.  A new spirit of civic engagement is taking hold and The Junior Statesmen Summer School will prepare you to get involved as a leader and make a positive difference in society.  At the end of the program, you will graduate with expertise in your area of study, sharpened leadership skills and a bunch of new best friends!

... Once accepted, many students and their families turn their attention to pulling the tuition together.  [Note: Erika received a scholarship for $2,500 or 50% of the tuition.]  Many students raise funds for their tuition from community sources....  These students were successful and you can be too.  You can download a copy of The Junior Statesmen Foundation Fundraising Manual that has helped countless students over the years attend the program.... Don't let the tuition be a barrier to your participation....


But before I got around to sending Erika a check, the letters to the editor started:



If she is so scholastically accomplished why hasn’t she been able to get a scholarship?  If she didn’t make the grade then there’s always a student loan. It’s called Sallie Mae.  If her family is hard-working why don’t they have the finances for her tuition?


My parents and I worked hard for my college education. My parents didn’t attend high school; they attended trade school.  My father became and airline mechanic. My mother became a beautician. She took out a loan and started her own beauty salon to help the family and to save for her children’s college education.


Unlike Ramirez, I did not have the luxury of performing volunteer community service. Every summer after the fourth grade I worked in my mother’s beauty salon, sweeping up hair. When I was 14 I worked as her receptionist.  Never would my parents and I have considered taking money from "the community." That’s charity.  But these days "pride" doesn’t prevent people from soliciting handouts.


— Pearl Becker


And in yesterday’s paper:


I was appalled at the request of Erika Ramirez’s letter for donations for a summer program at Princ­eton.



Let’s slow down here. She is already very fortu­nate to have immigrated here at age 5 without first picking tomatoes. She is fortunate to not be called a gold digger.



Many Americans have worked hard to get where they are only to lose their homes and jobs due to this economy.



I doubt the summer program at Princeton will amount to much.



I hope no one donates to her cause. Whenever I have money to give it goes to the veterans who have lost limbs, etc.



I get pictures of them thanking me. It breaks your heart.



It is evident that Ramirez just doesn’t get it. It is so easy for her to send an attractive picture and write about all she has accomplished and, of course, the Naples Daily News helped a lot.



It can be a long, hard road here in America. Many people have sacrificed for what she is taking for granted and yet it is not enough.



She had to take a shortcut. — Helen L. Serrao


And in today’s paper:


Editor, Daily News: Re: Erika Ramirez’s letter asking for do­nations to help attend a summer program at Princeton.



It was very distasteful and disgusting.



I am a single mother of four children. I have never lived on the government; I’ve always worked two or three jobs.



Recently two of my kids graduated from Lely High School; they got no help for schol­arships. My daughter has a dream to go to college, but it probably is not likely because we don’t live in the system.



The only time I asked the public for help was for funeral expenses for my 3-year-old daughter in 1994.



Unlike Erika, I was really in need.



I am an American with diabetes and can’t even get health care. I live paycheck to paycheck.



Where are her parents in all this?



I see a lot of people from other countries who are more secure than us Americans.



What has happened with the world that it is OK to beg and get everything for free instead of working and earning it with pride as true Americans always have?



Donations can feed and take care of people here who are really in need.


— Diana Brown


And there were others. 


As I’ve read these letters and others like them over the past weeks, I’ve been dismayed at the mean-spiritedness. 


After the first letters appeared, I emailed Erika asking if she’d seen them, telling her they upset me.  She responded:


I have not read these editorials quite frankly I'm not interested in these people's heartless opinions.


Good for her.  She’s not going to let the mean-spiritedness of some Neapolitans get her down.  (Or at least, she says she’s not.)  Wish I were as strong. 


I’m sending a contribution toward her tuition to the JSA Summer Program, 1600 K St. NW, Ste 803, Washington, DC 20006-2840, for the benefit of Erika Ramirez, JSA 2011 Princeton Summer School.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Israel debate

A friend emailed me shortly after President Obama’s important speech about the Middle East last month:


Have been receiving only negative reaction to Obama's recent speech suggesting Israel give consideration to reverting to pre '67 borders in their negotiations. Seems absurd to me given that would leave Israel mostly indefensible. What is going on with Obama? Enlighten me.


I’m by no means a Middle East expert, so I suspect my friend asked my opinion because of my work for Obama in the 2008 campaign.


I responded to my friend (at length) and thought nothing more of it until I realized that my local paper, the Naples Daily News, has printed not one, not two, but three guest commentaries similarly criticizing the President’s position in response to an earlier commentary with which I agreed.   (The Pro-Obama commentary: Michael Rubner: “Middle East Peace - Why American Jewry should support Obama and reject Netanyahu.”  The anti-Obama commentaries: Jerrold L. Sobel:  “The Reason American Jewry Should Not Support President Obama,” Lee Levin:  “Israel can’t be secure with ’67 borders” and Gerald A. Honigman:  “No Return To The Auschwitz Lines.”)


Clearly this is an important issue for the American Jewish community.  In fact, it’s a “third rail” issue that most politicians (and many American Jews) who support the President’s position would prefer not to touch.  But I have an opinion, and I write a political blog ... so I thought I would share my response  to my friend:


Dear friend,


The first thing I would say is that you, like many (including - at first, but subsequently walked back – Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu) only quoted the first part of Obama's comment about the borders, but not the full statement.  Here's the part of the speech in question, with the white-hot sentence and other (in my opinion) important parts about the borders in green, and other important parts in blue:


Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace.

For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.

For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of work by previous administrations. Yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now.

I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever. That's certainly true for the two parties involved.

For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it's important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people -– not just one or two leaders -- must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome.  The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.

Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them -- not by the United States; not by anybody else. But endless delay won't make the problem go away. What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows -- a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations.  Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I'm aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Now, let me say this: Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.

I recognize how hard this will be. Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened. But I'm convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past. We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. That father said, "I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict." We see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza. "I have the right to feel angry," he said. "So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate. Let us hope," he said, "for tomorrow."

That is the choice that must be made -– not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but across the entire region -– a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future. It's a choice that must be made by leaders and by the people, and it's a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.

So the point is - Obama did NOT suggest "Israel give consideration to reverting to pre '67 borders."  He said those borders should be the starting point but adjusted "with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states."

Many of the reviews I've read of this part of the speech say that this is something that has been acknowledged by both Democratic and Republican administrations for years but that it has been a “third-rail” to say it out loud. 

But Obama did say it.  Why? In his words:

[P]recisely because of our friendship, it's important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

Seems indisputable to me.

Another comment – My husband and I were in Israel on a trip organized by our temple and led by our rabbi in 2004 or so.  Among the officials we met with was one who explained at length the dilemma posed by the differing rates of population growth of the Jews and the non-Jews within Israel's current borders.  He said it is only a matter of time before Jews become the minority within the borders, and that in view of this, only two options really exist: (1) a two-state solution or (2) apartheid. 

It was the first time I'd heard that, but since then I've heard it quite often.  While I'll be the first to admit Wikipedia is not perfect, this Wiki excerpt seems reasonable to me (see the Wiki article for footnotes linking to underlying sources):

In the northern part of Israel the percentage of Jewish population is declining. The increasing population of Arabs within Israel, and the majority status they hold in two major geographic regions — the Galilee and the Triangle — has become a growing point of open political contention in recent years. Dr. Wahid Abd Al-Magid, the editor of Al-Ahram Weekly's "Arab Strategic Report" predicts that "The Arabs of 1948 (i.e. Arabs who stayed within the bounds of Israel and accepted citizenship) may become a majority in Israel in 2035, and they will certainly be the majority in 2048." Among Arabs, Muslims have the highest birth rate, followed by Druze, and then Christians.  The phrase demographic threat (or demographic bomb) is used within the Israeli political sphere to describe the growth of Israel's Arab citizenry as constituting a threat to its maintenance of its status as a Jewish state with a Jewish demographic majority.  .....

Several politicians have viewed the Arabs in Israel as a security and demographic threat.

The term "demographic bomb" was famously used by Benjamin Netanyahu in 2003 when he noted that if the percentage of Arab citizens rises above its current level of about 20 percent, Israel will not be able to maintain a Jewish demographic majority. Netanyahu's comments were criticized as racist by Arab Knesset members and a range of civil rights and human rights organizations, such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.  Even earlier allusions to the "demographic threat" can be found in an internal Israeli government document drafted in 1976 known as the Koenig Memorandum, which laid out a plan for reducing the number and influence of Arab citizens of Israel in the Galilee region.

So what that says to me is that there is a slowly ticking demographic time bomb in Israel that the majority of Israelis don't have the political will to deal with.  (Sort of like our own problem with entitlements.)  Everyone knows it exists, but most just want to keep kicking the can down the road.


The first step in dealing with a problem is putting it in to words, openly and honestly.  Seems to me Obama showed great courage by doing so in his speech.


One final thought, and it's obliquely referred to in Obama's speech: whether with the post or the pre '67 borders, given technological advances, Israel will never really be as defensible as it would like.  It's a small country either way.  Traditional warfare is being replaced by chemical weapons, computer viruses, biological weapons, and nuclear weapons.  I think Israel needs to give the argument about the need for defensible borders some serious re-consideration.


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So those are my thoughts on this highly-charged and important subject.  I’d be interested in yours.