TIME

Accept Brian Williams’s Apology

The judgments about whether the NBC anchor should be fired, from pundits who never saw the inside of a chinook helicopter, are self-righteous and gagging

In 1978, Rolling Stone magazine gave me my first overseas assignment–in Lebanon, covering the first Israeli military incursion. I got press credentials from the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut, then jumped into a taxi with three other journalists and headed for the front. It was a wild drive that culminated at the Litani River, where we were stopped at a PLO checkpoint and asked for our credentials.

Two teenagers guarded the checkpoint and they were a sight to behold: They were wearing platform shoes, love beads, U.S. college t-shirts–one was Texas Tech; I don’t recall the other–and brandishing Kalashnikovs. One brandished his Kalashnikov right on through the open window and into my chest and started screaming something. “He wants your credentials,” the taxi driver said.

Ohh-kay.

I fished out the credentials, handed them to the kid, who read them intently, then showed them to his friend, nudging him in the ribs. “You mean like,” he said to me and the two of them began to sing, “My papa was a rollin’ stone…”

Great story. And that’s how I remember it. But is it true? Yes, I’d swear it…but maybe not on my life. Did the kid jam that Kalashnikov in my chest or did he just point it at me? Did the two kids begin to sing? I’d love to think so.

I do remember being scared witless. And it may–or may not–be that I’ve exaggerated those aspects of the story as an ego gratifying thing or, maybe, to convey the terror and relief I felt at the time. Or maybe not. It may just be true.

All of which is to say: I understand Brian Williams’ predicament. Our memories are not very reliable, especially in life-and-death situations. Part of it is, yes, our need to aggrandize the risks we take; part of it is our minds’ reaction to fear. Part of it is that journalism involves story-telling and sometimes the story gets carried away with itself. Mistakes are made. My story may be minor compared to the one Brian Williams told–but that one story should not imperil his distinguished career. His apology was not elegant, but it should be accepted.

In the end, I find the phenomenon of the schadenfreude circus that has erupted–yet again–to be overwrought and unnecessarily brutal. And the sudden reports, from unnamed NBC staffers, that nobody ever liked Williams anyway, to be too convenient to be credible. And the judgments about whether Williams should be fired, from pundits who never saw the inside of a chinook helicopter, self-righteous and gagging.

The next time Williams finds himself in a war or storm zone, I’ll be watching with appreciation, with the absolute conviction that, after this sad moment, his reporting will be impeccable.

TIME State of the Union 2015

Barack Obama Is Ready to Rejoin the Battle

In the story of a Minnesota couple, an embattled President rediscovers his voice and his purpose

America, meet Rebekah Erler. She was the one sitting between Michelle Obama and Jill Biden because she wrote a letter to the President, which provided the strongest line of Obama’s State of the Union speech: “We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.” He repeated it four times, the last iteration a grand reference to the American “family.” Indeed, we learned a lot about the Erler family during Obama’s speech. She waited tables. Her husband Ben’s construction business dried up after the 2008 crash, and he traveled long distances to do odd jobs. She went to community college and became an accountant. They had two sons. The rising economy brought a happy end to the story: Ben’s remodeling business was growing again.

MORE: How 7 ideas in the State of the Union would affect you

Obviously, the President thought the Erlers were a good metaphor for the arc of his presidency. But they were more than that: they represent ground zero in American politics, the white working families who used to form the solid base of the Democratic party, then began to slip away to the Republicans in the late 1960s—especially the men. (Ben wasn’t in the first lady’s box with his wife, touching off a tweetnado). And they were a perfect frame for Obama’s speech, which was written to appeal to the Erlers of America.

There were twin sources of the white flight from the Democratic party. One was the sense that Democrats were only interested in taking money from people like the Erlers and giving it to deadbeats, or feeding the government bureaucracy, personified by the post office stereotype: slow-moving, sullen, entitled. The other was a matter of values: the Democrats were the counterculture party, an argument that is evaporating as the culture has moved on, accepting homosexuality, premarital sex and, soon, marijuana. The first argument remains strong, though. It was what propelled the Republican victory in 2014. Obamacare was perceived as classic “liberalism”—it took money from hard-working Americans and gave it to unhealthy deadbeats. Only it didn’t: it gave subsidies to the working poor; the indigent were already covered by Medicaid.

The striking thing about Obama’s latest round of proposals is how targeted they are: the centerpiece tax reforms take money from the wealthy and give it to middle-class taxpayers, people like the Erlers. You have to actually pay taxes to benefit from tax credits (except for the child care deduction, which becomes a stipend for those who don’t). Even his free community college proposal might have been a boon to Rebekah, as she struggled to learn accounting. This is quite the opposite of offering health insurance to a country that was already 85% covered. It is middle-class populism: money is taken from the wealthy and given to a broad swath of the population whose incomes have been stagnating for 30 years.

The Republicans will oppose this, but I suspect they may have a tough argument this time. Big money is about as popular in this country as big government, and the sense that the rich don¹t pay their fair share (Exhibit A: Mitt Romney) is as strong as the sense that government wastes a lot of money. “Lowering tax bills for the middle class is a perfectly fine idea,” says James Pethokoukis of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “I would probably raise the money in a different way. [Obama] wants to increase the capital gains tax, which should be as low as possible. But we’re only talking about $210 billion over ten years, which is little more than a rounding error, given the size of the budget.” There are other, more ambitious income redistribution plans afoot. Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) has proposed a .01% tax on stock transactions that would not only provide a $1000 middle class tax credit, but also put a damper on the high-speed Wall Street casino trading that helped lead to the last crash. This is a public argument worth having. It will be at the center of the 2016 presidential campaign, if we’re lucky.

MORE: Obama made history by using this word during the State of the Union

“If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments,” the President said, “But let’s make them arguments worthy of this body and this country,” another statement that may have struck home in Erler-world, where the latter day bleat of American politics has come to seem sordid and silly. Obama’s personal transformation over the past six months has been stunning. He almost seemed defeated and uncaring last summer, playing golf instead of honoring an American journalist who had been beheaded. He was rejected by his own party, and then the country, in the fall. He has been on the defensive through most of his second term. But he has resurrected himself through action‹on immigration, on Cuba—and the still-iffy buoyancy of the economy. Like the Erlers, he has been struck and stunned, but he seems ready, finally, to rejoin the battle.

TIME

Why Mitt Romney Won’t Win (Again)

Will this iteration of the two-time presidential candidate come equipped with a backbone?

It is always wonderful to see a twice-failed politician suck it up and sort of announce he’s going to be running for President again. Mitt Romney’s allies say he will be different this time. There is talk of a new personal style that was really his old personal style—as seen in the Netflix documentary Mitt—but was brutally suppressed by his … political consultants, most of whom seem back on board. There is talk of Romney emphasizing the eradication of poverty as one of his three campaign pillars. There is talk about his being less gaffe-prone this time. (Translation of last two sentences: he will try to act like a rich guy who cares for the 47%.) He will “position” himself just to the right of Jeb Bush.

These are the things politicians and horse-race reporters talk about.

What they don’t talk about is whether this iteration of Romney will come equipped with a backbone. The last two certainly didn’t, to the point of embarrassment. In neither campaign did Romney take a position that was even vaguely controversial with his party’s rabid base. He was disgraceful on immigration, “self-deporting” himself to Dantean circles of chicanery. He was craven on fiscal sanity, opposing in one debate—along with all his fellow candidates—a budget proposal that would include 90% cuts and 10% revenue increases. Worst of all, he self-lobotomized on the subject of health care, dumbing himself down egregiously, denying that his (successful) universal-health-coverage program in Massachusetts was the exact same thing as Barack Obama’s (increasingly successful) national version. He never expressed a real emotion—not anger, not sadness, not unscripted laughter. His manner was as slick as his hair.

That was why he lost. Not because of gaffes or because he wasn’t conservative enough (as extreme conservatives claim) or because he was just too rich. He lost because he seemed computer-animated. There was nothing real to him. He was “positioned.” And so he was deemed untrustworthy by the crucial sliver of attention-paying voters in the middle of the spectrum who decide most elections.

So now he’s back and will be successful this time—his backers say—because he’ll be even slicker. No more gaffes. He’ll also be more personal—although it has yet to be determined whether he’ll be an actual person (many market tests to come before such a crucial decision is made). He will try to compete in the moderate primary along with Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, and perhaps a few others. This will be difficult. His only competition to the left of Attila the Hun last time was Jon Huntsman, who spoke Chinese in one of the debates—not a wise choice in a party of xenophobes—and presented a credible plan for the “too big to fail” Wall Street banks to be dismantled … in the party of bankers.

Bush is immediately more credible than Romney. He opposed his party’s positions on immigration and educational testing. He is also bilingual—Spanish!—and seems a man who has actually existed in the America of the past quarter-century, suffering family problems along with the rest of us. We still don’t know all that much about him. He was a very good governor. I’ve found him to be a smart and bold policy wonk when we’ve spoken one-on-one. (Tragically, I felt the same way about Romney—in the days before his advisers prohibited one-on-ones.) The biggest question about Bush in my mind is whether he returns to his father’s brilliantly sophisticated foreign policy or to his brother’s disastrous Cheney-dominated first term in office, or to George W.’s more reasonable second term, marked by realistic aides like National Security Adviser Steve Hadley and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Does he think strategically or tactically?

As for Christie, who may be left behind in the high-powered race to come, his greatest appeal is that he is the exact opposite of Mitt Romney. No political consultant could make him up. As a human being from the greater New York metropolitan area, I will enjoy every moment of his campaign if he doesn’t try to Romnify himself.

Does this mean Mitt is pretoasted? I wouldn’t say that. He could surprise us all and come out in favor of breaking up the big banks—ending “moral hazard”—and for reforms that would take the tax advantages away from the financial sector (including his own self). In fact, I suspect that if he had done that in 2012, he might be President today. But think of the speech he could give …

 

TIME Middle East

The Path to Peace

vanAgtmael_11.JPG
Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos A Palestinian man prays in a Gaza neighborhood destroyed during the war last year between Hamas and Israel

Chaos in the Middle East is sowing the seeds for an unlikely alliance between Israel and the Arab states

On May 26, 2014, an unprecedented public conversation took place in Brussels. Two former high-ranking spymasters of Israel and Saudi Arabia–Amos Yadlin and Prince Turki al-Faisal–sat together for more than an hour, talking regional politics in a conversation moderated by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. They disagreed on some things, like the exact nature of an Israel-Palestine peace settlement, and agreed on others: the severity of the Iranian nuclear threat, the need to support the new military government in Egypt, the demand for concerted international action in Syria. The most striking statement came from Prince Turki. He said the Arabs had “crossed the Rubicon” and “don’t want to fight Israel anymore.”

The Turki-Yadlin dialogue was not “official,” but it sent a clear message. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah had personally approved the meeting, intending it as an olive branch to the Israelis. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to reciprocate–at least not openly. It was too dangerous politically. Crucial components of Netanyahu’s coalition, especially his supporters among right-wing Jewish settlers in the West Bank, oppose any deal with Palestinians.

And yet, in the months after he decided against a public gesture to the Saudis, Netanyahu was suggesting at private meals with editors and influential figures at the U.N. General Assembly meetings last September that an alliance with the Arabs was not only possible but perhaps the best way to resolve the Palestinian problem.

Other odd things have been happening recently in the gridlocked Middle East. On New Year’s Day, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi made an interesting speech, challenging Islamic radicalism and calling for a Muslim reformation. “It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred,” he said, “should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!” The sentiments were not unexpected, since al-Sisi had come to power by overthrowing the country’s democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood leaders in 2013. (Al-Sisi won a largely uncontested presidential election last year.) But these are not sentiments that have often been uttered publicly by Arab leaders before.

And then, the very next day, the Times of Israel reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and exiled Palestinian leader Mohammed Dahlan had met privately in Paris. Dahlan has made no secret of his desire to replace Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; Lieberman is a conservative who has fallen out with Netanyahu and wants to be part of a coalition to replace him. So what on earth were Dahlan and Lieberman talking about?

All of this may add up to nothing. But there seems to be a growing impatience with the perpetual status quo in the region. There is a new generation of leaders pushing for power in Israel and Palestine. There are dangerous new threats like ISIS. There is concern about the U.S.–the possibility of a nuclear deal with Iran, the waning need for Middle East oil. There is the memory of the Arab Spring, which ultimately produced chaos instead of democracy.

The established powers in the region, like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have found in recent years that they have increasingly aligned foreign policy interests. The Israelis and Saudis have been sharing intelligence for the past few years, according to regional sources. The Israelis and Egyptians are cooperating on security efforts in Sinai and in Gaza, where Hamas–the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood–is a common enemy. There are private talks going on between Israeli and Saudi Arabian officials. “It might be called mushroom diplomacy,” an Israeli told me. “It can only grow in the dark.”

Most Israeli and Arab officials I spoke with during a December tour of the region acknowledge the mushrooms and hope that the burgeoning relationships–especially the acceptance of Israel as a de facto ally–can be brought to light in time. There are, of course, all the usual roadblocks, including the eternal one: nothing can happen publicly without an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. The Saudis and the Arab League promised to recognize Israel in 2002 if such a deal were made, but the Arab terms–a return to 1967 borders, with Palestinians’ right of return to their former lands in Israel–were unacceptable to the Israelis. Now those terms may be changing. Prince Turki described the proposal as a “framework,” which implies room to maneuver.

Is it possible that the Middle East has become so unstable that an Arab-Israeli peace is no longer unthinkable?

The ISIS Effect

As 2015 begins, the Middle East seems to be a greater mess than it ever was–especially when it comes to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The deterioration began with Israel’s 50-day war in Gaza last summer, which increased the popularity of Hamas in the West Bank and has led Abbas to take a series of steps toward the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. In recent weeks, the Palestinian Authority applied for membership in the International Criminal Court–a red flag to the Israelis because the Palestinians would presumably use membership to bring war-crimes charges against Israel. In return, the Israelis have cut off the monthly payment of taxes they collect for the PA, which represent almost 80% of the government’s $160 million monthly budget. It is possible that the Palestinians could retaliate by suspending government operations in the West Bank–schools, health care and, especially, security. Chaos would be the likely result.

In the rest of the region, the sectarian split between Sunni and Shi’ite has become more dangerous, even as it has become more confusing. The Sunni Arab nations–which include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states–have worried for a decade that the U.S. demolition of Saddam Hussein’s ugly but stable dictatorship in Iraq has created a power vacuum in a broad swath of the region that the Iranians are exploiting. They call it the “Shi’ite crescent,” a sphere of influence stretching from Hizballah-controlled southern Lebanon and President Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria, to Iraq and Iran, right up to the border of the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia, a majority-Shi’ite area where most of the country’s oil is produced.

But the old Sunni-Shi’ite conflict has been complicated by a new threat in the region: ISIS, a Sunni radical military force vastly more competent and frightening than al-Qaeda. ISIS began in Iraq but made its mark in the rebellion against Assad’s government in Syria. Assad isn’t well liked by his Sunni neighbors–and some of them, like Qatar and perhaps private sources in Saudi Arabia, gave surreptitious support to ISIS and other Sunni militias in the early days of the rebellion.

The lightning march ISIS made through Iraq last year changed the equation. An ISIS-controlled Iraq would be a threat not only to Iran but also to some of the Sunni royal families in the region, as well as Egypt. The Jordanians–already overwhelmed by refugees from Iraq, Syria and Palestine–are vulnerable. The Saudis, governed by an increasingly feeble gerontocracy–the 90-year-old Abdullah was hospitalized with pneumonia at the start of the new year–are worried too. The Egyptians are fighting ISIS-style terrorists in Sinai and are threatened by Libyan militias, which may also be loosely affiliated with ISIS.

In response, a heterodox alliance has gathered to make war with ISIS. Iranian-backed militias, like Hizballah, are the most ardent fighters in this war, along with the Kurds. But they are now joined by U.S. airpower–as well as pilots from Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Another potentially major change in the region: the Israelis, Iranians, Saudis and Egyptians are increasingly concerned about Turkey, which sees the ISIS threat somewhat differently from its neighbors. Turkey has allegedly allowed thousands of militants to cross its border and join ISIS because the group is fighting Assad and militant Kurdish groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turks see as a permanent threat in the south and east of their country. (Turkey has acknowledged that its border with Syria is porous but has denied accusations that it purposefully allows militants to cross.) “Why aren’t you Americans making more of a fuss about Turkey’s support for ISIS?” a prominent Egyptian official asked me. “I read a lot more about our humanitarian problems in the American press than I do about the Turks who are allowing terrorists to cross their border and behead Americans.”

Of course, the “humanitarian problems” in Egypt are very real, as al-Sisi’s forces have led a brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Egyptians have become sensitive to the point of paranoia about the changing U.S. role in the region. I had dinner in Cairo with a group of prominent leaders. One of them, a banker, asked seriously, “Is it true that there is a secret alliance between Obama and the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the existing Sunni governments in the region?”

I started to laugh, but none of the Egyptians at the table were smiling. They didn’t buy the banker’s conspiracy theory, but they laid out an array of charges, ranging from the (pre-Obama) Iraq invasion to the President’s support for the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak to the Administration’s recent slow walk of military supplies, especially spare parts, to the al-Sisi government. “Doesn’t he want us to be fighting ISIS in Sinai?” asked the banker.

The Obama Administration maintains that all al-Sisi has to do is free some political prisoners–especially those who are American and three jailed journalists from al-Jazeera who were accused, implausibly, of joining a terrorist group and broadcasting “false news”–and the military support will flow again. The Administration argues that its overall policy–steering clear of neocolonial adventurism like the 2003 invasion of Iraq and working to bring Iran back into the international community–has been more effective than George W. Bush’s neoconservatism. Obama aides also point out that there are two U.S. naval fleets in the region, plus U.S. bases in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Djibouti. “Does that sound like disengagement?” one of them asked me. “We’re not going anywhere.”

From Washington, the region seems a jigsaw puzzle ruled by anarchic moving pieces–a disproportionate source of concern that leaches attention from growing problems in Russia and East Asia. From Cairo and Riyadh and Jerusalem, though, the U.S. seems a fickle ally that can’t decide whether its policy is to support stability or the naive hope for democracy in a region that isn’t ready for it.

The modern Middle East was stabilized, in a toxic but effective way, by the Cold War, when partnership with superpowers provided security and economic aid. In the 21st century, the USSR is gone and the U.S. no longer has the incentive, or the money, to lavish vast aid packages on local clients. But the nations of the Middle East have been unable to wean themselves from their dependency on outside forces. “Whenever we’re in trouble we dial 911,” an Arab diplomat told me. “But it is illogical to think the U.S. was created to protect the Sunnis.”

With few other options, the Arabs have returned to an old idea, which was mostly bluster in the past–that they must unite to protect themselves. And any serious conversation about security and economic development has to include the one nation in the region that has succeeded at both: Israel. There is no love for the Israelis, but there is respect. And so there is a hope–a conversation that is occurring across the Arab states–that perhaps the only alternative is to bank on the regional forces of stability to create a security alliance against the extremist threat of both Shi’ite and Sunni militias. Even if that means partnering with Israel.

Strange Bedfellows

Is such an alliance even vaguely possible? History says no, vehemently. But in the days before Netanyahu’s government collapsed in December, Israeli intelligence sources–usually the most skeptical people in the country–were allowing tiny shreds of hope to creep into their calculations. The common security interests with the Arabs were compelling, several of them told me, and might lead to new arrangements in the region. It was not impossible that the Arabs could help broker a peace deal with the Palestinians. The Egyptians could help provide security; the Saudis and Gulf states could provide funds for Palestinian economic development.

For that to happen, though, Israel would need to make changes of its own. “These governments can’t be seen to be cooperating with Israel as long as there isn’t a deal with the Palestinians,” said one intelligence expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “ISIS can turn the Arab street, especially their young people, against them. It’s bad enough that [the U.S.] is dropping bombs on Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. That strengthens [ISIS] on the street as well.”

At the heart of this conundrum stands Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister may have been selling an alliance with the Arabs in New York, but he’s been selling intransigence back home. That includes a new law that would make Israel a “Jewish” state–with the implication of second-class citizenship for its 1.7 million Arab citizens. His insistence on pushing that law resulted in the collapse of his government, as moderate parties led by Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid refused to support the legislation.

Netanyahu is no longer very popular in Israel, but no one is betting against him in the March election. Given his political skills, the absence of a charismatic mainstream challenger and the steady tattoo of terrorist incidents–stabbings, shootings, cars running over pedestrians–most observers assume that Netanyahu will prevail somehow, though he might even struggle to maintain control of his Likud Party. The rising tide seems to be with the settler-movement leader Naftali Bennett, whose party might well outpoll Likud in March. It is also possible that the moderate-liberal coalition of the Labor Party and the splinter party of Livni’s supporters will challenge Likud for first place in the March election and the right to attempt to form a government of its own.

The real negotiations begin after the election. Netanyahu will try again to cobble together a centrist coalition. The big question is whether he will have to include Bennett in a government; if so, there will be no hope of Israel’s negotiating a deal with the Palestinians–and no hope of closer public ties with its Sunni Arab neighbors.

But there are other possibilities as well. If Labor-Livni polls strongly and is joined by Lapid’s centrist party, they may find a partner in Avigdor Lieberman. The Foreign Minister and leader of the Israel Beitenu party ran a crass, anti-Arab campaign last time. “But Lieberman plays a different game inside the government than he does outside,” says Shai Feldman, director of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies. “As Foreign Minister, he’s had to deal with the leaders of other countries. He’s more of a realist now.” But he’s also less of a political force, as recent polls show support for his party waning dramatically because of renewed corruption charges against Lieberman. “It is absolutely impossible to predict how this election is going to turn out,” Feldman says.

The New Generation

Netanyahu has been at the center of Israeli politics for nearly 25 years. Abbas has been a force in Palestinian politics even longer. But a new generation of leaders is rising, which is why the Lieberman-Dahlan meeting in Paris was noteworthy, at the very least. One thing the two men have in common, despite their wildly divergent politics, is that both believe the Netanyahu-Abbas era is coming to a close.

Dahlan is perhaps the most skilled of the next generation of Palestinian leaders, although he developed a well-deserved reputation as a thug when he led the Palestinian security services in Gaza. He is a young-looking 53, a protégé of Yasser Arafat’s and a native Gazan. He’s also the sworn enemy of Abbas, who accused Dahlan of corruption and convicted him in a show trial; Dahlan has been living in Abu Dhabi since 2011. He has already announced that he will run for President of the PA against Abbas–who is supremely unpopular–should Abbas ever call the Palestinian election that has been long delayed. But Dahlan’s strategy is more expansive than a one-on-one fight with Abbas. His hope is to create a new coalition that would appeal to people across the Palestinian political spectrum, from Hamas to Fatah.

How could he manage that? By forming an alliance with a Palestinian leader currently sitting in an Israeli prison. Marwan Barghouti, 55, is considered a folk hero by both Hamas and Fatah. He was a prominent leader of the first and second intifadehs before he was arrested by the Israelis in 2002 and sentenced to five continuous life terms for murder. Barghouti’s wife has already announced her support for a movement to draft him for President. Dahlan’s vision is that Barghouti would be the titular head of the PA from inside prison and Dahlan himself would be the hands-on guy, running the show from Ramallah, while former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, widely considered Palestine’s most effective bureaucrat, would administer the West Bank.

Netanyahu has long lamented the fact that he doesn’t have a “strong” partner on the Palestinian side. Abbas has never had the support among his people to cut a deal, and his predecessor Arafat had little desire to do so. But a government led by Barghouti or Dahlan could hardly be considered weak, and a Barghouti-Dahlan coalition would be formidable. The question of what to do with Barghouti–whether to release him or not–has been discussed by Netanyahu’s inner circle. At this point, Barghouti’s political views are a mystery; he has been described as “Mandela-esque” and utterly unrepentant.

Dahlan has been meeting with Arab leaders across the region. He is close to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and also to Egypt’s al-Sisi. His aspirations parallel Netanyahu’s: that the Arab states could be brought into the talks as intermediaries. Dahlan hopes the Arabs will nudge the Israelis to make concessions; Netanyahu hopes that the Arabs will nudge the Palestinians to make concessions. But the bottom line is the same: visions of commercial cooperation that transforms ports in Gaza and Haifa into Middle Eastern Singapores; visions of a security alliance strong enough to fend off Islamic radicalism, both Shi’ite and Sunni.

The only thing preventing all this is what usually gets in the way in the Middle East–reality. Here is what might also happen in 2015: Israel might elect a right-wing government that wants nothing to do with the Arabs. The West Bank may fall into chaos as the PA struggles without the funds necessary to keep its security forces in operation. The U.S. might make a nuclear deal with Iran, with unforeseen consequences for the region. The U.S. might not make a nuclear deal with Iran, with unforeseen consequences for the region. King Abdullah might pass away in Saudi Arabia. The moderate Jordanian government might be overwhelmed by the tide of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. Bashar Assad might fall, or survive, with consequences for the Kurds, the Turks and the Lebanese. Libyan militias might find common cause with ISIS. The rickety new government in Iraq might collapse.

Any of these events is more likely to occur than a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, brokered by the Arabs. But the fact that the conversation is taking place–between Prince Turki and Amos Yadlin, between Mohammed Dahlan and Avigdor Lieberman, secretly at the U.N. and in capitals across the region–means that peace, the most unlikely Middle East result, is no longer off the table.


This appears in the January 19, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME Mario Cuomo

Remembering Mario Cuomo

Andrew Cuomo once told me that I had “sort of a father and son relationship” with his father, Mario, who died Thursday at the age of 82. I’m not sure what he meant by that. Cuomo and I argued a lot, at length–but it was sportive arguing, a kind of dance. We once watched at entire New York Knicks game together on television—with the governor on the phone in Albany, me on the phone in New York. We spent the first half arguing politics; the second half talking sports. He favored a new rule: a five-point shot from half court or deeper.

Andrew also told me that the difference between him and his father was that Mario—and Andrew always called him Mario—focused on what should be done and Andrew focused on how to do it. Once, on the phone, Mario asked me why I hadn’t given him credit for increasing education funding by—he claimed—90%. I replied, “You did that? Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?” He asked, bristling.

“Because the schools still [stink],” I replied. He was, of course, furious. He trusted me enough to get angry at me. He knew our conversations were private; he knew that I valued them too much to ever use them against him.

We disagreed about a lot of things, but I loved the fact that when it came to policy his first instinct was compassion. (Politics was another matter. He could be brutal toward his enemies.) One of those enemies once told me that Cuomo was “a Queens ward-heeler with the voice of Abraham Lincoln.” But that was unfair; Cuomo’s rhetorical brilliance was rooted in personal experience. His heart was always—always—with the workers “whose fingers are too thick to work a computer keyboard.” He was, indeed, old school outer-borough New York, my New York. He once asked me if I wanted to go to Japan with him on a trade mission and I said no. “Why not?” He asked, shocked. I told him that I knew exactly what he would do when he got there. He would go to his hotel room and spend six hours on the phone back to New York, go to a couple of trade meetings with Japanese officials, have a ceremonial dinner where he’d feel uncomfortable, get back on the plane and go home. “When I go to Japan,” I said. “I want to go to Japan.” He agreed that I had a point. I asked him why he was like that. “I grew up over the store,” he said. “I get nervous when I’m not close to the store.”

Which was why, I think, he never ran for President. He was afraid he’d get to Iowa and do something New York stupid, like mistake corn for wheat. He also, I suspect, felt that way about the Supreme Court, a position he was offered by Bill Clinton: he would have to compete with another smart Italian, Antonin Scalia, and might not be up to the job. He didn’t understand that his big heart, his basic instincts, his athletic cleverness, was exactly the moral challenge that Scalia needed.

Father and son? Well, we did have conversations of a personal quality that I’ve never had with a politician before or since. Just after Michael Dukakis lost the presidential campaign of 1988, I told Mario what an old Boston politician had once told me, “Dukakis was never like us”—he meant a working-class ethnic sort—”he was never ashamed of his father.”

I said it as a provocation. Cuomo had worked hard for Dukakis. But he didn’t flash back at me. He was silent for a while; I could feel his brain cranking. And then, finally, he said, “I used to hate going to parents’ night in school. My father couldn’t speak English. I was so embarrassed. I would try to keep him away from my friends.” He called me back three days later, having polled his inner circle—Fabian Palomino, Sandy Frucher, others—about whether they’d been ashamed of their fathers. “You sure hit a nerve with that one,” Frucher told me.

But I remember Mario best on the stump in the 1982 gubernatorial primary, running against Ed Koch—who was, like, 30 or so points ahead at the beginning of the race. Koch was hammering away on the death penalty. The polls said the people were for it, overwhelmingly. Koch was for it. Cuomo was against it.

And Cuomo made it the central issue of his campaign. We went from town to town in upstate New York, just a few of us—all the press and smart money were with Koch at that point. Mario would hold town meetings, knowing viscerally that he could only win their votes if they knew what kind of man he was. And he needed the death penalty for that. If they didn’t ask him about it, he’d ask them, “Doesn’t anyone want to ask me about the death penalty?”

He would tell them whether they wanted to hear it or not. He would tell the story of how one of his daughters was accosted by a thug on the street in Queens who burned her breast with a cigarette. “Did I want to murder that guy? Absolutely. My son Andrew got into the car with a baseball bat, looking for the guy. I would have torn him apart with my bare hands if I’d ever found him … But would have that been the right thing? No. It would have been the barbaric thing to do. That’s what we have government for—to protect us from the barbaric side of human nature.” The state, as an exemplar of moral rectitude, had to abide by the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

People would come up to him after the meetings and say, “I’m still not sure I agree with you on the death penalty, but I certainly respect your position.” In the end, they decided to vote for him. They voted for him because Mario Cuomo was a man to respect, a man who respected them well enough to tell them what they didn’t want to hear.

Read next: Pro-Choice Mario Cuomo Was Still A Catholic Politician

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TIME

The 2014 Teddy Awards

In a dismal political year, these Americans went far beyond the call of duty

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again … who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.”
—Teddy Roosevelt

This has been a terrible year for Barack Obama, a humiliation. Members of his own party, across the sorry South and West, fled from his shadow. He was hammered relentlessly by an egregious opposition. He made needless unforced errors in his public statements. His occasionally negligent foreign policy came back to haunt him, especially in the failed states of Iraq and Libya. But he deserves the lead Teddy—my annual award for political courage, named after Teddy Roosevelt, quoted above—because his policies remain moderate, sane and humane. And by and large, they’ve worked. His executive action on immigration was not just legal but also surpassingly moral—allowing the parents of American citizens to stay with their children. His response to the Ebola crisis, the decision to send American troops to save lives in the African hot zone, was a great example of what America should be doing abroad. His health care plan quietly brought coverage to millions. His stimulus plan, which prevented a depression, paid belated dividends as the economy began to soar. He continued the essential negotiations with the Iranians, which may bear fruit in the coming year. His stubborn sanity is hereby recognized.

The election campaign of 2014 was dismal, but there was one innovation that should be noted: politicians who campaigned by doing public-service projects. One was Michelle Nunn, a not very charismatic candidate who ran for U.S. Senate from Georgia and lost. Nunn, who has spent her life promoting public service, walked her walk on the campaign trail, spending hours cleaning parks and preparing meals for the elderly when she could have been dialing for dollars. Another was Seth Moulton, a former Marine captain and newly elected Congressman from Massachusetts—whose campaign featured teams laced with post-9/11 veterans doing community projects. Moulton’s altruism reflects the values of his military generation—more than 90% of whom say they want to continue their service at home. It seems a concept that should catch on: politicians who demonstrate their desire to serve … by actually serving in their communities.

Speaking of veterans, Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has been an edgy, controversial figure in recent years, a creative critic of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The revelation of widespread corruption and incompetence in the VA, and the dismissal of Secretary Eric Shinseki, proved the value of Rieckhoff’s persistence. His willingness to take flak for his brothers and sisters in arms merits a Teddy.

The 2016 presidential campaign is on and, in its early days, has produced three Teddy-worthy mavericks. One is Elizabeth Warren, who may not run but will certainly influence the Democratic Party’s economic debate. She deserves a lifetime Teddy for her work against the depredations of the financial sector and her ability to explain complex problems in a manner comprehensible to average humans. Another is Jeb Bush, who has challenged his party on immigration and education. And Rand Paul provided a fresh neolibertarian challenge to his party on a variety of issues, especially foreign policy and prison reform.

Political memoirs rarely provide fodder for Teddys, but there were two courageous—and actually readable—efforts this year that deserve the nod. One was Duty, by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which provided a fierce narrative of a public official who fought his own bureaucracy (and Congress) for the benefit of the troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. A second was Outpost, by former ambassador Christopher Hill, who is less well known than Gates, but a truly gifted, sometimes hilarious and, dare I say, undiplomatic writer about the frustrations and occasional successes of his work. A Teddy is also awarded to a great career diplomat who retired this year: Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who spent decades of quiet service making the world a safer place, from his time as ambassador to Russia to his recent work on the Iran nuclear negotiations. We need many more like him.

Finally, a Teddy seems hardly sufficient recognition for those courageous journalists who lost their lives in pursuit of the story this year, especially those beheaded by ISIS. It is a reminder, though, that we, too, live in the arena.

TIME

Viva Cuba Libre

A woman walks under a Cuban flag on March 22, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
Spencer Platt—Getty Images A woman walks under a Cuban flag on March 22, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.

This is an island crazy with energy, ready to join the rest of the world

Back in 1975, I traveled to Cuba with a group of American journalists led by the late Senator George McGovern. At noon one day, I sneaked into the main cathedral in Havana in search of dissidents. I found plenty, willing to talk about the depredations of the Castro regime. One man, who had been imprisoned by the regime, was particularly vehement when I asked him what the U.S. should do about Cuba: “Recognize us! Lift the embargo!” Castro would never be able to control the influence of American freedom and commerce on the Cuban people. He needed a satanic American enemy to maintain control. “Recognize us,” the man said, “and Fidel won’t last a year.”

I’ve never forgotten that conversation because it speaks to an essential truth in international affairs. “Non-recognition” is a relatively recent diplomatic ploy. It began in 1917, with the west’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Russian revolution. It has been attempted time after time–by the the United States against China and Cuba and Iran (and by Iran, vice versa, against us), and by the Arab states against Israel. And it has never worked. Non-recognition, at its heart, is a denial of reality.

Those who favor a continuation of our failed Cuba policy are a reflexive lot with a muddled argument. They’re the usual myopic tough guys–John McCain and Lindsey Graham immediately jumped on the President after his Cuba announcement today–who have no idea of the seductive power of the American way of life in the rest of the world. I can understand why the corroding Iranian regime would want to keep us out (a sign in Tehran: “When the Great Satan praises us, we shall mourn”). I’ve always thought: then let’s recognize the hell out of them. Let ’em mourn. Let the Revolutionary Guard try to fend off Kanye West and Star Wars. Good luck with that.

Iran and Cuba have always been linked in my mind: they are the two countries in the world with the greatest mismatch between a government and its people. This is especially true in Cuba, where the people are brilliantly heterodox, fun-loving and creative–the wrong fodder for the grim discipline of Marxism, which has been a disaster there, as everywhere, a dry rot form of governance anxious to collapse.

I can understand the anger that still infects the oldest generation of Cuban-Americans–Marco Rubio’s parents and their friends, who were robbed and brutalized by the Castro regime. But their children and grandchildren are ready to reclaim their heritage, return to the island with an idea for a condo project or Juicy Couture franchise. This is an island crazy with energy, ready to join the rest of the world; the Castros have no future in such a place.

I’ll miss the atavistic charm of Havana, the ’50s cars kept beautifully alive, the gorgeous melodies of Cuban jazz–but nostalgia for a Museum of Communism should not prevent Cubans from finding their way to prosperity and eventually, one hopes, freedom.

So Congratulations, President Obama, on finally ending a foolish chapter in American diplomacy. Tonight, I’ll break out the rum and do a little Victor Cruz touchdown dance to the mambo beat of the Buena Vista Social Club.

TIME In the Arena

Burned Books in the Holy Land

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

Jewish and Arab parents watch as Israel’s hopes for peace fade

The Vandals started the fire in the first-grade classroom with a pile of textbooks. But textbooks apparently don’t burn so well. The classroom was destroyed, and the one next to it damaged, but that was all. It was a Saturday evening. The janitor called the principal, Nadia Kinani, to report the fire, and she rushed to the school. She saw that it wasn’t only a fire. There was graffiti that turned her stomach. First she saw kahane was right, a reference to Meir Kahane, a deceased Jewish extremist leader. And then she saw no coexistence with Cancer. And death to Arabs. Kinani is an Arab, and her school is the rarest of things–a bilingual academy whose students are nearly 50% Jewish and 50% Arab, in the heart of Jerusalem. “My first thought was, Our dream is finished,” she told me three days after the fire. “No parents will want to send their children here anymore.”

The hand in hand school in Jerusalem–one of five such–opened in 1998, after several years of careful preparation. It was a moment of hope. The Oslo accords had been signed by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin; peace was surely on the way. “I believed that if you want to solve any problem, the way to begin is through education,” says Hattam Mattar, an Israeli Arab who sent his daughters to the school. “Some of my friends said, ‘Your daughter will marry some Jew guy.’ But I figured my daughters could meet Jew guys on the bus. I thought that this school would give them a stronger sense of their own identity and who we are living with.”

The school is totally bilingual. There are two teachers per classroom. All holidays are celebrated–or at least noted and discussed, as in the case of Nakba Day, the Palestinian remembrance of those forcibly removed from the land during the 1948 war. In fact, everything–every riot and bombing and “protective” wall–is discussed by parents and children alike. There is no political consensus about one state or two states, just a feeling. “We are all here,” Kinani told me. “We have to figure out a way to live together.”

The school was built next to a railroad track and is close to the original 1948 border between Israel and Jordan. It was built in an Israeli neighborhood but is adjacent to an Arab area. “They say we live in a bubble, but it is more like a cauldron,” said Rebecca Bardach, the school’s director of resource development and strategy, as she led me to a terrace that overlooked a wadi. On the other side of the valley was the arena where the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team plays. The Beitar fans are notorious; one of their favorite chants is “Death to Arabs.”

There was a time–during most of Israeli history, in fact–when such sentiments were considered way out of the mainstream, unacceptable in polite society. But that is changing. There is rising tension in Jerusalem, with near daily acts of terrorism and humiliation by both sides. Last summer, three Israeli children were kidnapped and killed by Palestinians on the West Bank; some Jews responded by killing a Palestinian child. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted with emotional disgust to the vengeance killing, but his government has been promoting an entirely unnecessary, and quite possibly meaningless, law that would make Israel a Jewish state. And so you have a steady bloody dribble of horror in the streets. Palestinians murder four rabbis in a synagogue. Israeli thugs torch the Hand in Hand school.

Gradually, the Oslo dream of two states, Israel and Palestine, living peacefully side by side begins to seem unlikely. There are all sorts of sane arguments for a two-state solution. The West Bank occupation has smashed Israel’s moral compass, and Israel’s democracy will be destroyed as the West Bank Palestinian population increases and is refused the right to vote. But in the Promised Land, fantasies have always trumped reality. There is the fantasy now of a Greater Israel; there is the fantasy of no Israel at all. These views are held by minorities with the dead-eyed arrogance of majorities.

Almost immediately, on the night of the fire, the parents went to the Hand in Hand school. At first, Kinani’s fears seemed justified. A parent told her she was withdrawing her child. But there was a discussion in the library that night, a classic Hand in Hand discussion, with Arab and Jewish parents sharing their anger and fears. The parent changed her mind. “There is no place else I would want my child to be,” she said. A student at the meeting asked if there would be school on Monday. “Yes,” Kinani responded, “and there will be homework.” And on Monday, the students responded with graffiti of their own. We are not enemies, said one sign. And another: We continue together without hatred and without fear.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland


This appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

Facts and Ferguson

An undated evidence photograph made available by the St. Louis County prosecutors office on Nov. 25, 2014 shows Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson's vehicle at the scene of the confrontation.
St. Louis County Officer Darren Wilson's vehicle is shown at the scene of the confrontation in this undated evidence photograph made available by the St. Louis County prosecutors office

There will be two conversations about this shooting and its investigation. One will be public. The other will be private

It has come down to this in the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown: none of the evidence produced a clear enough picture of inappropriate behavior by Officer Darren Wilson. Indeed, the preponderance of forensic and eyewitness testimony suggests that Wilson was acting in self-defense against a violent perpetrator. But the eyewitness testimony is muddled, even among the local residents who supported Wilson’s version of the story. It is amazing how fast violence happens, how hard it is to remember events accurately. And so the grand jury couldn’t say–wasn’t asked to say–what actually happened on August 9 in Ferguson.

VOTE: Should the Ferguson Protestors Be TIME’s Person of the Year?

It is probable that a public jury trial would have a tough time establishing Wilson’s guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. The question is, do Michael Brown’s parents–and the rest of us–deserve to have the facts laid out, the case against Wilson argued in a court of law? Undoubtedly, there will be such a case–a federal case or a civil case, brought by the parents. But a grand jury indictment, even on a lesser charge like manslaughter, would have lent appropriate seriousness to a contested, foggy situation. It would have indicated, at the very least, that the evidence wasn’t dispositive and the situation required further public attention.

Several things are absolutely clear, though. The authorities in Missouri, from Ferguson to St. Louis County to the governor’s office, have bungled this case from the start. That Michael Brown’s body was allowed to lie in the street for four hours is inexcusable. That crucial evidence–Wilson’s gun–was not dusted for prints is mystifying and incompetent. And then there was the Monday spectacle of a verdict reached, but not announced until after dark. Sheer idiocy.

But there can no longer be a question that the initial accounts of the case were fraudulent. Michael Brown was not a gentle giant. He was not shot in the back. There was a scuffle of some sort between Brown and Wilson, perhaps with Brown trying to gain control of the police officer’s gun. There was, apparently, at least one shot fired at close range. Brown ran away, then turned and charged the officer.

Again, as I wrote a few weeks ago, Wilson’s actions may have been justifiable under the law in Missouri, but he is not entirely exonerated: the death would have been preventable if he had been better trained. Still, you can’t indict Wilson for not abiding by training he didn’t receive. And you can’t elide the facts of the case. Wilson clearly panicked. He thought his life was in danger. He killed a young man. He should have to defend these actions publicly, under the fierce pressure of cross-examination.

There will now be still more calls for a discussion about race in America. But that conversation can not simply be about white guilt or prejudice. The latter certainly does exist; it exists overwhelmingly, disgracefully. But the assumptions that lead police, and bodega owners, to racial profiling are real–and those must be discussed, too. Liberals have avoided this conversation for 50 years, since crime rates exploded in the 1960s. And by doing so, they have done a real disservice to the disproportionate number of crime victims who are African-Americans, urban and poor. Poverty is no excuse for criminality. People who commit crimes are perpetrators, not victims. Indeed, blaming poverty for criminality is an insult to the vast majority of poor blacks who play by the rules–graduate from high school or college, find a job, are responsible parents–and have improved their lives as a result. As the President said, you can’t gainsay the fact that there has been enormous progress over the past 40 years…with more to come, as a new generation of polychromatic, unprejudiced young people take charge.

Back in the 1980s, my wife and I lived in a mostly-black neighborhood in New York. Our neighbors were placed in an impossible position: they were infuriated that many of the police who patrolled (or, more often, failed to patrol) our streets treated them as if they were criminals, but they also were terrified of, and infuriated by, the criminals who made it a life-threatening challenge to go down to the corner for a quart of milk. We had some real conversations in those days–about crime, about the double-edged sword of affirmative action, about the hilariously stupid racial assumptions they encountered in the city. Some of our neighbors were public employees; others weren’t and were pissed off about the level of service they were receiving. There were intense conversations about whether it was “racist” to fire incompetents on the public payroll. I miss those conversations. They required a certain amount of candor and subtlety. They would have been impossible for ideologues, because the reality on our block defied any ideology. And they probably would have been impossible in public, since it was very hard for our neighbors to criticize young black men who had grown up in anger-infusing chaos.

It is sad, but inevitable, that there will be two conversations about Ferguson. One will be public, one will be private. The public conversation will be dominated by rant, oversimplification and guilt-mongering. The private conversation will be unspeakable in segments of the white, Asian and Latino communities. If my experience in the 1980s is any guide, the conversations in the black community will be more reasonable, marked by anger, pain, embarrassment and the difficulties of dealing with kids like Michael Brown. It’s a national tragedy that we can’t seem to have that conversation in public, that political correctness stands directly athwart honesty in this republic of free speech.

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TIME 2016 Election

Jim Webb is Running

Meet the Press - Season 67
William B. Plowman—NBC/Getty Images Former Sen. Jim Webb, left, and moderator Chuck Todd, right, appear on Meet the Press in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014.

He's a long shot, but could give Hillary heartburn

With all the impact of a sparrow’s feather landing in the forest, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb announced the formation of a 2016 presidential exploratory committee last night. He did it in a video and letter sent to supporters. He thus becomes the first official challenger to Hillary Clinton, who has not yet gone exploratory, on the Democratic side.

Webb is interesting. He is not your standard-issue politician. He is a decorated former Marine, perhaps the best war novelist of the Vietnam generation, Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. His one term in the Senate was protean, with Webb focusing on issues as diverse as the reestablishment of relations with Burma, and prison reform, and the new GI bill for Iraq-Afghanistan veterans.

He will be a refreshing presence on the campaign trail. He doesn’t talk like a politician. He can be blunt and combative. He has taken strong populist economic stands and was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq. In fact, Webb goes in strong whenever he takes a stand. He’ll certainly be fun to watch during debates (he was a boxer at Annapolis).

You’d have to call him a longshot, of course. But I suspect he’ll be one of those long shots who have the power to shape a campaign with new ideas and sharp arguments. He will certainly cause Clinton some populist agita, should she run.

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