Fallows On The News: Israeli Flap, Health Care

Israel set off a diplomatic row during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden when it announced new Jewish settlement construction, and Congressional Democrats are hoping to haul health care legislation over the finish line. Host Guy Raz talks with news analyst James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine about that and other big stories from the past week.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Vice President Biden's trip to Israel this week turned into a diplomatic disaster. While he was there, the government approved 1,600 new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, an area Israel has occupied since 1967.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): It was insulting. And it was insulting not just to the vice president who certainly didn't deserve that. He was there with a very clear message of commitment to the peace process, solidarity with the Israeli people. But it was an insult to the United States.

RAZ: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talking with NBC's Andrea Mitchell.

Joining us now, as he does most weeks, is national correspondent for The Atlantic and news analyst James Fallows. Jim, hi.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (Journalist, The Atlantic; News Analyst): Guy, nice to talk to you.

RAZ: So, Jim, Secretary Clinton spent 45 minutes on the phone yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The conversation was described by the State Department as, quote, "tough" and some of the headlines are using words like upbraided and berated. Somewhat unusual for all of this to be made public, isn't it?

Mr. FALLOWS: It certainly is. And I think that while the substance of this dispute, in a way, is not surprising in the 30-plus years since the Camp David agreement, essentially, the tensions between the U.S. and Israel have come down to balancing Israel's claim for territory against guarantees for peace. But the frontal nature of this dispute really is the first thing we see of this sort in 20 years since the first President Bush was opposing loan guarantees for Israel over similar settlements dispute.

And it's particularly surprising, I think, on the Israeli side that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden who have been seen as, quote, "friends of Israel," unquote, over the years were the ones delivering this very tough message. But in the circumstances, it seems that they could do nothing else because of the either intentional or unintentional nature of what Secretary Clinton called the insult to United States and to the vice president.

RAZ: And Jim, I know that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, apologized for the timing of the announcement, but he did not apologize for the substance of the announcement. I'm wondering, do you sense any significant shift in the way the United States is approaching Israel?

Mr. FALLOWS: The main issue, again, has been continuous over the decades because the basic question inside Israel have been all these unchanged existential questions of what it takes to have the long-term survival of a Jewish state in the Middle East.

But I think that what's interesting in this case is there certainly is nothing the U.S. can do directly despite its very great influence over the Israeli government to change a policy that is seen internally by the Israeli public as being necessary for their survival.

But this is an issue where there is very great division inside Israel over the wisdom of continuing the settlements policy in the long run. So, I think if there is to be any positive outcome of this, the showdown would be whether Israeli public opinion changes in a way that makes them say this is not in our long-term interest to continue the settlement policy.

RAZ: And moving on to health care now, Jim. The president, as you know, has postponed his upcoming trip to Indonesia. This is in an effort to get Congress to pass his health care legislation possibly next week, possibly delivering a very dramatic end to a long, long, long debate. We don't know what the outcome will be.

Mr. FALLOWS: We certainly don't. And you don't know these things until you actually know them. There was this very dramatic vote on the socalled Medicare Part B 2003 where the Republicans who then control the House had to keep the voting open practically until 6 a.m. because they lost on the first count of the vote and they had to persuade several people to change their minds. So we won't really know until the vote is cast. But the very fact of the president is bearing down on this, postponing a trip, that House Speaker Pelosi is saying, okay, we're moving towards this, along with a number of her allies, suggest the Democrats probably wouldn't be doing this if they didn't think that in the end, they could pull out the necessary 216 votes.

RAZ: Now, Jim, do you think that the president will push Congress to vote on this even if there's a possibility it won't pass? I mean, will he put all of his credibility on the line for this?

Mr. FALLOWS: If he and Speaker Pelosi thought for sure they didn't have the votes, then they would avoid having a vote, I think. And so the fact of moving ahead suggests that they think that there's a chance. But there is a risk at the last minute that they might fail, that the conservatives who are concerned abortion policy, the liberals who would like to have a more public option or other provisions in the bill, they might finally not come across. So, there's a genuine drama and there's genuine high stakes for the president.

RAZ: That's James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic. Jim, thanks so much.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure, Guy.

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