Lessons To Be Learned From Netanyahu’s Victory

March 18, 2015 § 8 Comments

I’m going to pat myself on the back for predicting on Monday that Likud and Bibi Netanyahu would win the most seats, that Buji Herzog would have no viable path to becoming prime minister, and that the government formed would boil down to Moshe Kahlon deciding whether to go with Netanyahu or force a national unity government (for the record, I think Kahlon going with Netanyahu is now an inevitability given how things turned out.) But my specific seat predictions were way off, and it’s easy to see how. I expected two things to happen, which I closed out the post with: “First, I think that Likud will gain back some votes at Habayit Hayehudi’s expense as rightwing voters are freaked out by the late Zionist Camp surge in the polls, and decide to throw their support behind Netanyahu despite their general fatigue with him. Second, socioeconomic issues are dominating people’s concerns, and that will translate into unexpectedly strong showings for Yesh Atid and Kulanu at the expense of Zionist Camp and Shas.” I was more right than I knew about that first statement, and vastly underestimated just how much that shift from BY to Likud was going to occur. I was dead wrong about that second statement, which is what led me so far astray. Let’s dive into the numbers a bit to see what actually happened yesterday, and I have some thoughts on what the various consequences might be.

The most useful comparison is between this year’s results and the 2013 results. In 2013, the rightwing bloc of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Habayit Hayehudi won 43 seats; the leftwing bloc of Labor and Meretz won 21 seats; the two state solution bloc (which was only Hatnua) won 6 seats; the socioeconomic reform bloc (which was only Yesh Atid) won 19 seats; the Haredi bloc of Shas and UTJ won 18 seats; the Arab bloc won 11 seats. The last two seats went to Kadima, but frankly nobody at the time could explain what Kadima stood for and was running on, and I’m not going to try.

In yesterday’s election, the rightwing bloc of the same three parties won 44 seats; the leftwing bloc of the same two parties plus Hatnua (since it formed an electoral alliance with Labor) won 28 seats; the socioeconomic reform bloc of Yesh Atid and Kulanu won 21 seats; the Haredi bloc won 13 seats; the Arab bloc that is now the Joint List won 14 seats. Compared to the last election, the nationalist right picked up only one seat, the left picked up only one seat (since Zionist Camp plus Meretz in 2013 added up to 27, and it’s unfortunately impossible to tease out which Zionist Camp votes were for Labor and which were for Hatnua), the socioeconomic camp picked up two seats, the Arab bloc picked up three seats, and the Haredi parties lost five seats. Nothing about this is a surge for the right, or for any side for that matter; the various blocs remained more or less constant, with the exception of the Haredi bloc losing seats due to the Shas-Yachad split. But it is unquestionably a surge for Likud itself, which went from 19 seats in the current Knesset to 30 seats in the next one. Where did those seats come from? It’s pretty evident that they came from the two other rightwing nationalist parties, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu, which respectively won 12 and 11 seats in 2013 but fell off a cliff to 8 and 6 yesterday. When you add in the seat that Likud picked up once Eli Yishai’s Yachad party did not make the threshold, you account for pretty much all of Likud’s gain. There is simply no denying that Netanyahu’s eleventh hour tactics worked, which were to drum up turnout on the right and explicitly make the case that rightwing voters could only vote for Likud or they would be risking a leftist government. He successfully cannibalized his natural allies, and in so doing increased Likud’s share of the pie without making the pie any bigger.

The related questions of turnout versus polling are interesting as well. My initial instinct yesterday was that the polling – both pre-election and exit – must have been garbage, and I noted on Monday that there are many reasons not to trust Israeli polling, which proves to be inaccurate in some measure every cycle. After thinking about it a bit more though, now I’m not quite so sure. The legal moratorium on polls in the last few days before an election meant that no poll could be conducted after Thursday, and the exit polls were concluded two hours before the actual election itself (since they aren’t interview surveys, but require Israeli voters to cast their actual vote and then go and cast a dummy vote in a fake voting box for the exit pollsters, which then get collected and tallied). Netanyahu’s huge campaign push – in which he gave an unprecedented number of interviews and turned up the nationalist rhetoric –  occurred over the weekend and through election day itself, so the pre-voting polls would have had no way of capturing this effect. As far as the exit polls go, final voter turnout was up 4% from 2013, but if you were obsessively keeping track of the turnout numbers throughout the day yesterday as I was, you know that this turnout surge did not take place until very late in the day, so that the exit polls (which aren’t really polls) missed much of it. The exit polls may very well have been correct in reflecting a 27-27 deadlock between Likud and Zionist Camp at 8 PM Israel time, and the anecdotal evidence suggests that there was a flood of rightwing voters in the last couple of hours. The takeaway from this is not necessarily that Israeli pollsters are incompetent, although that can’t be ruled out, but that the accuracy of Israeli polling is not served by the legal blackout at the end of the campaign. On turnout, it should be noted that Netanyahu’s old-fashioned barn-burning turnout efforts destroyed the get out the vote campaign run by V-15 and Jeremy Bird. Likud increased its share of the rightwing vote, while Zionist Camp didn’t increase the percentage of leftwing voters or even get more of them to vote for Herzog. The money spent in this campaign to unseat Netanyahu was as big of a waste as what GOP groups spent in 2012 to get rid of Obama.

If there is one big thing that jumps out at me the day after, it is that ideology and identity distinctly trump economics in Israeli politics. Like in 2013, voters overwhelmingly listed socioeconomic concerns as their top issue in the run-up to the election, but ultimately that made little difference. There was no flock of new voters to Yesh Atid and Kulanu, which both ran on the economy and quality of life issues and had very little of substance to say on security. Likud, which barely bothered to campaign on specific policies, hugely increased its vote share by essentially saying, trust Netanyahu on security and send a message to the leftists and their foreign backers trying to take over your country. It was an emotional and identity-based appeal to nationalism that resonated with many voters, and it is a tactic that is sure to be replicated on both sides in the future.

There are many dangers in overt appeals to nationalism, one of which is that when you win, it makes it easier to demonize your opponents and claim that you have a mandate to do whatever you please. For Exhibit A through Z on how this works in practice, take a gander through the increasing ugliness of Turkish politics that has been wrought largely by Tayyip Erdoğan. Israel’s political system makes this even messier because of how it is structured. Netanyahu will act like he has been granted an enormous mandate following a landslide victory; after all, he beat the next largest party by a 25% margin in seats, obliterated the predictions for Likud based on the polls, and is going to control the winning coalition and be prime minister. Taking a step back though, Israel’s proportional representation political system means that in reality he won only 23% of the votes cast, which translates to 25% of the seats in the Knesset. He is simultaneously the clear winner and on the receiving end of 77% of Israeli voters preferring someone else. This does not in any way make his win illegitimate, and anyone who argues otherwise does not want to face reality, but the fact of the matter is that the system itself encourages post-election overreach. Netanyahu and his supporters are going to insist that his win validates his entire approach to politics, the Palestinians, the international community, etc. because voters were presented with a choice and they choose him. The true answer to that is in some ways yes and in some ways no, and as he will be leading the government fair and square, he can do as he pleases since that is how democracy works. But objectively, when the clear victor can only manage to get 1 out of every 4 votes cast, the system is probably not translating voters’ preferences into the appropriate policy outputs.

I don’t think much needs to be written on what Israeli policy will look like under a third consecutive Netanyahu government, since there aren’t very many surprises left. Netanyahu is who he is, and he is not going to undergo a late in life conversion that convinces him to shift course. I am more interested in what happens to Israel in the U.S., since Netanyahu’s reelection is going to keep on affecting one political trend that is already in full swing and may influence another, and perhaps more important, social one. The first is the partisanization of Israel in the U.S., which was very much laid bare by the machinations surrounding Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. The blame for this lies partially on both sides, although I certainly think one side is far more to blame than the other. Everyone with a dose of common sense knows that the White House badly wanted to see Netanyahu get tossed out by Israeli voters and that Netanyahu is now just biding his time until January 20, 2017 so that he never needs to think about Obama again, so it goes without saying that relations between Obama and Netanyahu for the next 22 months are going to be abysmal, and probably even non-existent. Will U.S.-Israel ties survive and come out the other side intact? Of course they will. But there will be more ugliness ahead and short-term relations are going to be very rocky, and if I worked in the prime minister’s office, starting today I would be spending all of my time coming up with a strategic plan for operating in the world without an automatic U.S. veto in the UN Security Council, because I think that era is now officially over. Netanyahu clearly and explicitly rejected a Palestinian state on Monday, and there is no walking it back or dissembling after the fact. That he did so wasn’t and shouldn’t be a surprise, but it destroys the legal fiction that he had constructed, and so when the Israeli government talks about the Palestinians not living up to their Oslo obligations or their promises to the Quartet (which in many ways they aren’t), that now officially goes both ways. You cannot insist that Palestinians must establish a state through the sole route of negotiations with Israel after you have declared unequivocally and without reservation that there will be no independent Palestinian state in the West Bank so long as you are prime minister. It was electioneering, but electioneering is not consequence-free.

Lastly, there is the pink elephant in the room that I have been ignoring so far in this blog post. Assess the following quote: “The right wing government is in danger. Black voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left wing NGOs are bringing them on buses. We have no NAACP; we have the National Guard, we have only you. Go the polls, bring your friends and family. Vote Republican in order to close the gap between us and the Democrats. With your help and with God’s help, we will form a nationalist government that will protect the United States.” Nobody with any sense of decency would call that a legitimate effort to counter a get out the vote drive targeting minority voters. So when Netanyahu said it yesterday about Arabs – which everyone by now recognizes as the direct quote from him, with the specifics altered of course to make the analogy work – it wasn’t simply a legitimate attempt to just bring voters to the polls, as the usual suspects are reflexively arguing. Does this mean that Netanyahu is racist and has been harboring views all of these years that he just now allowed to come out, or that he made a racist appeal in a desperate attempt to boost his prospects? I don’t know, and frankly it doesn’t matter, since neither explanation is acceptable. The prime minister of any country should be nothing short of proud when more citizens vote, and exhorting only the right kind of citizen to get to the polls in order to counter the wrong sort of citizen is disgusting and unworthy of the leader of a democracy. That some people are falling all over themselves to pretend that there is nothing out of the ordinary or objectionable about this reflects just as poorly upon them as Netanyahu’s comments do upon himself. What all of this leads to for me is to wonder how this will affect American Jews. Just as the rejection of a Palestinian state under any circumstances will have political consequences, the blatantly racist appeal is going to have social consequences among American Jewry. American Jews as a group proudly support Israel, and one of the reasons is a conviction that Israel is in a tough spot but is genuinely trying to do the right thing. That argument, both internally and externally, becomes harder by some degree or another after yesterday. Are people going to look at the Jewish state bill in a new light? Is Netanyahu still going to get nearly universal support from establishment groups? Most crucially, what is the effective counter when the odious Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement takes this quote and argues incessantly that it proves official and institutional racism in Israel? I don’t know the definitive answer to these questions, but I suspect that it will ultimately prove to be a significant aspect of Netanyahu’s eventual legacy.

Does the Outcome of the Election Even Matter for Israeli Foreign Policy?

March 17, 2015 § 3 Comments

I have a piece in Foreign Affairs today in which I argue that on foreign and security issues – Iran, the peace process, settlements, fighting with Hamas, etc. – a Herzog prime ministership will look very much like Netanyahu’s prime ministership has. Here is the setup to my argument:

These days, Israeli opposition leader Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog is on everyone’s mind, and for good reason. Herzog’s Zionist Camp electoral bloc is the clear leader in the last polls allowed to be published before Tuesday’s election, raising the prospect of an opposition candidate unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who is coming off two consecutive terms following his first term nearly two decades ago.

Herzog’s electoral prospects are not the only thing creating buzz, however. For those opposed to Netanyahu’s hawkish positions on Iran and the Palestinians—and his general worldview of an Israel beset on all sides by enemies (including, in some iterations, the Obama administration and the European Union), Herzog seems to represent the possibility of genuine change. He has been described as Netanyahu’s “polar opposite” and would be Israel’s first truly left-wing prime minister since Ehud Barak in 1999. Many thus hope that his election could bring a significant turn in Israeli foreign and defense policies, including an end to Israeli opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran and a renewed push toward Palestinian statehood.

Those hoping to see a momentous shift in Israeli foreign policy, however, will be disappointed. No matter who emerges as the prime minister following the election and the inevitable weeks of haggling and horse-trading that go into forming a coalition, Israel’s foreign policy on the big issues will be marked by consistency rather than transformation. Although no one should casually dismiss Herzog’s markedly different tone and approach to the world, his and Netanyahu’s areas of disagreement are not as large as one might think. Further, in office, both would be similarly boxed in by circumstances beyond their control.

It is no accident that Herzog’s campaign, like the previous Labor campaign in 2013, has been largely run on domestic issues. Not only are economic and social issues the most pressing items on voters’ minds, the space between Likud and Labor on foreign policy can be measured in inches rather than miles. The big foreign policy matter that Herzog has seized upon is the faltering relationship between the Untied States and Israel, which he vows to improve. There is no doubt that the White House would immediately warm to a Prime Minister Herzog, given that he is far less abrasive than Netanyahu and would work to ease tensions, but that would be the case with nearly any other candidate. The personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is so cold that an improvement in bilateral ties will be more about Netanyahu’s absence than about his replacement.

On the biggest policy issue dividing the United States and Israel, however, Netanyahu and Herzog speak with the same voice. Herzog’s denouncement of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress should not obscure the fact that, like Netanyahu, Herzog would never accept a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli and that Herzog’s perception of the Iranian threat is far more acute than Obama’s. The likelihood that Herzog would certainly work to keep his disagreements with the White House behind closed doors does not mean that there would be no disagreements and that Herzog would clear the path for a nuclear deal. In fact, he would not bring about a change in Israel’s fear of Iranian nuclear ambitions or the country’s correspondingly hawkish stance.

To read the rest of the price, please head over to Foreign Affairs.

Who’s Going To Win Tomorrow’s Israeli Election?

March 16, 2015 § 5 Comments

Israeli politics is massively entertaining and raucous under normal circumstances, but tomorrow’s election is particularly special since for the first time in awhile, the outcome is entirely up in the air. Nobody knows with any real degree of certainty who will emerge victorious or how the coalition horse trading will conclude or even who is going to get the first shot at building that coalition. Americans – me very much included – spend lots of time watching shows like House of Cards, Scandal, Game of Thrones, and others that provide twists and turns that hinge on varying degrees of political surprises, but there is nothing like the real thing, and Israel’s election is certain to provide that. If you haven’t been paying attention, you’re missing the best reality show that exists.

Anybody who is confident that they know who the ultimate winner will be is demagoguing and I do not claim any clairvoyant powers, so take everything that follows with a grain of salt as it is nothing more than my best guess based on the last polls that were published on Friday and some intuition developed after years of closely paying attention to Israeli political trends. Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable; large classes of voters are disproportionately inaccessible to pollsters (Haredim, Arabs, immigrants, working poor), Israeli voters are fickle and in many cases do not decide until the last minute, and the proportional representation system presents a fundamental dilemma of voting strategically versus voting your conscience. For instance, pretend that you are a lifelong Meretz voter stepping up to the ballot box on Tuesday. You are almost certainly secular, liberal, Ashkenazi, living in Tel Aviv or its immediate environs, and you despise Netanyahu with a burning passion. In the last election, you knew that the left had no shot at forming the government and so there was no reason not to vote for Meretz. In this election, however, the last polls gave the Machane Tziyoni (Zionist Camp) alliance led by Herzog and Livni a four point lead over Likud, and you know that at least a four point margin is likely required if Zionist Camp is to be given the first shot at forming the government. So voting for Meretz and the leftist bloc overall is actually not cost-free even though your vote for Meretz is functionally a vote for a Herzog government, as Herzog needs as much as a lead as he can get over Netanyahu in order to get a chance at building a coalition. The Habayit Hayehudi voter at the opposite end of the spectrum is faced with the same choice; voting for the far-right party that is guaranteed to be part of a Netanyahu coalition risks empowering the leftist (and yes, that is a dirty word to your typical rightwing Israeli voter), defeatist, if not outright anti-Zionist Herzog and Livni, and so do you swallow your principles and vote for Likud directly, or do you vote for Habayit Hayehudi and Naftali Bennett as the only way of keeping Netanyahu honest and guaranteeing that a Likud government will never compromise on settlements and giving up land? This is all a roundabout way of saying that Nate Silver’s sorcery would never work on the Israeli election, because the polls are a guidepost but are not entirely trustworthy.

Assuming that the final polling results hold up – and I don’t think that they necessarily will – it is going to be very hard for Herzog and Livni to form a government. The last Channel 2 poll had Zionist Camp at 25, Likud at 21, Joint Arab List at 13, Yesh Atid at 11, Habayit Hayehudi at 11, Kulanu at 9, Shas at 9, UTJ at 6, Yisrael Beiteinu at 6, Meretz at 5, and Yachad at 4. We can safely assume that Zionist Camp, Yesh Atid, and Meretz are a united bloc, which is 41 seats. Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, and Yachad will not join with that group under any circumstances and they hold 36 seats, which leaves a leftwing government needing to pick up 20 seats from the 43 remaining. The 13 seats held by the Arab list can be used to block Netanyahu and Likud, but since the Arab list is not going to sit with Zionist parties barring a momentous and unprecedented policy change, Herzog actually needs to find 20 seats from the 30 represented by Kulanu, Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas and UTJ have sat with leftwing governments in the past, but even if they are willing to do so again, neither they or Lapid will sit with each other. Yisrael Beiteinu, which is led by Avigdor Lieberman, won’t sit with Meretz (and vice versa). Herzog could potentially pick up Kulanu, but he’d still need to somehow break the logjam between Lapid and the Haredi parties in order to get to the magic number of 61. In other words, Zionist Camp can beat Likud and the ideological leftwing bloc can beat the ideological rightwing bloc, and Herzog still has an almost impossible uphill climb to form a coalition. Not many people foresaw the bizarre Lapid-Bennett alliance two years ago and so I’m not willing to say that Herzog cannot somehow work some sort of combination of magic and legalized bribery in order to cobble something together, but it would be pretty much the most unworkable coalition in Israeli history and would be on death watch from day one. The one big wrinkle would be if the Arab list decides that actual political power is worth compromising on its principles and joins the coalition, but even then Herzog is not home free as Kahlon has publicly stated that he will not sit in a government that is dependent on the Joint Arab List for seats, which means convincing the Haredi parties to sit with Lapid, Meretz, and Arab parties. In other words, I wouldn’t be putting very much money on the next prime minister being Buji Herzog.

Netanyahu’s path is also difficult, but far less so. He starts with 36 and needs another 25 out of the remaining 30, but Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beiteinu sat in Netanyahu’s 2009 coalition and are all natural Likud partners. Those three parties get him to 57, meaning that Netanyahu’s fate hinges upon Kahlon. On the one hand, Kahlon is a former Likud minister whose list includes Netanyahu’s first term ambassador to the U.S. (Michael Oren) and whose support is drawn from Mizrahi traditional Likud supporters. On the other, Kahlon left Likud for a reason, starting with the fact that his stance on socioeconomic issues – which is his raison d’être in politics – is way out of whack with Likud and the right generally, and his base of voters has become disillusioned with Likud after feeling like it has been taken for granted and leans more left on economic issues. That Kahlon has stated as his goal to be appointed finance minister also cuts both ways. Netanyahu publicly promised over the weekend that Kahlon would be finance minister in his government irrespective of the number of seats Kulanu wins (an offer that Kahlon refused to accept before the election), and this is a promise that Herzog cannot match given his pledge to appoint Manuel Trajtenberg as finance minister should Zionist Camp form the next government. Despite this, it is hard to imagine Kahlon being more empowered to implement his agenda of lowering housing costs and regulating Israel’s banking system under a Likud government than he would be under a Labor government, and Kahlon know this full well. Again, I claim no clairvoyance to know what Kahlon is thinking or what his natural inclination is before both sides start wooing him in earnest, but I do know that he appears to control the only viable path to a third consecutive Netanyahu term, and you can bet that Netanyahu will move heaven and earth to gain Kahlon’s support. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it’s good to be the king(maker).

Assuming that Kahlon does not want to enthrone Bibi, it means that Israel is headed for a national unity government. That could happen right away if Kahlon and Lieberman (natural allies in many ways given that they are both immigrants who came of age in Likud and now head parties that champion socially rightwing voters who have traditionally been poor and on the margins of Israeli society) decide that they will not recommend either Netanyahu or Herzog to President Rubi Rivlin and instead insist on a short-lived national unity government (and if they do this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Yair Lapid, with his finger perpetually to the wind, do the same). It could also happen after three or six weeks of drawn out haggling with no resolution. If this happens, it would mean Netanyahu and Herzog agreeing to a prime ministerial rotation, and I have my doubts as to whether Bibi would actually accept such a scenario or would resign instead. In any event, for those who are still following along here, the sum total of this is that I am expecting either a third Netanyahu term or a national unity government, and which one occurs hinges entirely on Moshe Kahlon.

A few other small things to watch out for if you’re keeping score at home. First is whether Meretz, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Yachad clear the new higher electoral threshold of 3.25%, up from a previous 2%. While I suspect they will all squeak in – and frankly, you almost have to be rooting for YB and Lieberman not to make it for poetic justice purposes since he engineered the higher threshold in an effort to keep the Arab parties out in a move that backfired ever so spectacularly – the one I am keeping my eye on is Meretz, since it will not surprise me if Meretz is kept out of the Knesset. Meretz has basically been on a long and slow 15 year decline, but the pressure is really on now because I expect some Meretz voters to defect to Zionist Camp now that the left smells blood in the water and is riding the momentum of the final polls putting Herzog and Livni in first place. If Meretz does not make it in, this places Herzog’s path to becoming prime minister even further out of reach.

Second is the bad blood – and that’s putting it mildly – between Yachad leader Eli Yishai and Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the man whom Yishai replaced as head of Shas and who then had his revenge by replacing Yishai. In an effort to get back at Deri, Yishai split from Shas, initiating a nasty internecine fight and invoking insults directed at Deri from beyond the grave by deceased Shas spiritual leader and founder Ovadia Yosef. Yishai and Deri are mortal enemies, and having the two of them in the same coalition might present some problems as well.

And lastly, a final word about the polls. As I indicated, I don’t particularly trust in their accuracy, and I am guessing that they will be wrong in a few ways. First, I think that Likud will gain back some votes at Habayit Hayehudi’s expense as rightwing voters are freaked out by the late Zionist Camp surge in the polls, and decide to throw their support behind Netanyahu despite their general fatigue with him. Second, socioeconomic issues are dominating people’s concerns, and that will translate into unexpectedly strong showings for Yesh Atid and Kulanu at the expense of Zionist Camp and Shas. Since I want to give everyone the opportunity to mock how far off I am, my final spot predictions for the election are as follows:

Likud – 23
Zionist Union – 22
Yesh Atid -15
Joint Arab List – 12
Kulanu – 12

Habayit Hayehudi – 11
UTJ – 7
Shas – 6
Yisrael Beiteinu – 4
Meretz – 4
Yachad – 4

My Quick Takeaway from Bibi’s Speech

March 4, 2015 § 10 Comments

I doubt there’s anyone reading this who didn’t watch (or at least read the transcript of) Bibi Netanyahu’s speech themselves yesterday, and everyone has their own well-informed opinions by now so I don’t feel the need to comment too extensively. I did want to flag just a few things though that I found interesting or significant.

1. Coming into the speech, the conventional wisdom on the right was that Netanyahu was going to inform Congress and the world of all the worrisome details in the emerging Iran nuclear deal that the administration has been withholding, and the conventional wisdom on the left was that Netanyahu was going to bash the administration and argue that nothing short of military action will halt Iran’s inevitable march to a bomb. Netanyahu actually did neither of those things, and I found his speech to be relatively tame. As I expected (which you know if you were following me on Twitter yesterday morning), he was conciliatory toward Obama and the Democrats and clearly realized that there was no further benefit to stoking the fire, and he didn’t say anything new in his speech that he hasn’t said before. I found the first half that catalogued Iran’s various sins somewhat unnecessary, as nobody to be taken seriously is arguing that Iran is a positive actor or a force for good in the world, but I also happen to agree with Bibi’s characterization of Iran as a revisionist state engaged in all sorts of unsavory and troublesome behavior around the world, so perhaps there are some who needed the reminder. I do not think that he hit a home run as nothing he said will convince anyone on the fence to change their views, but I also do not think that he struck out since predictions of a confrontational, bombastic, offensive Netanyahu were wrong.

2. I wrote yesterday that I was listening for a viable alternative to the administration’s current approach, and Netanyahu did not offer that exactly. His prescription was to negotiate a better deal, but the details of how one goes about doing that were non-existent. Is it replacing John Kerry and Wendy Sherman with negotiators more inclined to yell and throw a chair or two? Is it passing a sanctions bill now, before negotiations have concluded, to put more pressure on the Iranian side? Is it to pull out of negotiations unless Iran drops any demands that cross certain red lines, like a sunset clause (which if I were negotiating things on the U.S. side would be a deal breaker for me)? Natan Sachs makes a great point in Ha’aretz, which is that trying to torpedo this deal before things have run their course makes it much likelier that the administration will rush to sign an agreement even if it isn’t an ideal one, and that is obviously a very suboptimal outcome. I wish Netanyahu had been specific about how he thinks a better deal can be achieved, since it’s very easy to tear something down but far harder to do so constructively.

3. While I don’t think the speech will move the needle at all in terms of whether individual congressmen are in favor or opposed to talks, more sanctions, etc. I think it’s likely to have motivated more members to approve the Menendez-Corker bill in the works that will require congressional approval of any agreement. This is a good development, not a bad one. Even leaving aside that the executive branch has steadily gobbled up more and more power for decades and destroyed nearly any balance between the branches – a development sorely in need of a corrective – tacking on explicit legislative approval creates the two-level game that is required to get the better deal that Netanyahu believes is out there. If Obama or Kerry can turn to the Iranians and make the case that there are certain elements that simply will not pass Congress and that including those elements will scuttle any negotiated deal, it gives them more leverage in the negotiations since it convincingly self-binds them within a demarcated framework of what is and is not acceptable. It lets the U.S. negotiating team play good cop to Congress’s bad cop, and it can only create a better outcome for the U.S. side (assuming that Iran is serious about negotiating).

4. Far and away the most significant element to the speech is not anything that Netanyahu said, but what he left out, and I am baffled as to why this hasn’t been picked up on more widely. For the first time in awhile, Netanyahu did not insist on his oft-repeated demand that Iran be left with zero enrichment capability, and I assume that this was intentional. If Netanyahu is resigned to a deal happening and wants to make sure that it is one that Israel can live with, dropping the zero enrichment demand is the biggest and most important concession he can make since it creates a space that allows U.S. expectations and Israeli expectations to overlap, not to mention the fact that zero enrichment was a fantasy that was simply never going to happen. So long as Netanyahu was demanding no enrichment at any level, there was not going to be an outcome that he could live with. The fact that he did not repeat it suggests to me that he is taking a more realistic and more reasonable view of things, particularly since low level enrichment was always a red herring – the only number that matters is 20% and higher for breakout purposes – and for the first time, he is actually helping a deal along. I give him lots of credit for this, and I don’t particularly care whether he did it because he realized that demanding zero enrichment made no sense from a technical perspective or whether he did it because he realized that it was just not a realistic demand and hence decided to be pragmatic about things. Either way, people should take this for the positive development that it is, and hope that the aftermath of this speech is that it has created the necessary space for a better deal by enlarging the part of the Venn diagram where the U.S. and Israel overlap.

What To Listen For In Netanyahu’s Speech Today

March 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

This morning’s Bibi Netanyahu speech to Congress is must-see tv if for no other reason than to observe the culmination of all the histrionics of the past month, but there is also one key thing in my view to keep an eye out for. Netanyahu’s goal is to make the case that the Obama administration is moving down a dangerous path with the Iran nuclear negotiations (although there are signs today that Iran may be looking for excuses not to sign a deal anyway) since allowing Iran to retain any nuclear capability or the ability to enrich uranium means that a nuclear breakout is inevitable, and that the world cannot and should not tolerate a nuclear Iran. We know that Netanyahu believes that a nuclear deal will not avert this result, and that it may even hasten it by confirming Iran’s right to enrich uranium and easing sanctions that make it harder for Iran to build a bomb, but we haven’t yet heard from him what his alternative is. I agree that a nuclear Iran is a terrible outcome, and a deal with a sunset clause that imposes no restrictions on Iran past the cessation of an agreement in the hopes that a new government will be lodged in Tehran is dangerously naive, but the alternatives bandied about do not accomplish the stated goal either. I’ve written about why I think the right deal is the best shot for preventing an Iranian bomb, but for those who disagree, I haven’t yet heard a convincing argument about what should happen instead.

If negotiations break down or Iran rejects a deal, then the options left are a) do nothing; b) impose harsher sanctions and wait for Iran to come back to the table or for the regime to fall; or c) bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and/or wage a wider air and ground campaign. The first option of doing nothing may end up what happens given the difficulty of rallying already-reluctant countries for a different and more confrontational course of action, and this would certainly be a disaster, as it would allow Iran to proceed with its nuclear program uninhibited. The third option – military action – is also not going to prevent a bomb. Destroying Iranian nuclear facilities is a band-aid rather a permanent solution as they can – and will – easily be rebuilt, and it would unquestionably harden Iranian resolve to put facilities underground and go full out for a bomb as quickly as possible on the logic that the only way to deter future attacks is to become a nuclear power. There is very little chance that it will make Iran rethink its desire to gain weaponized nuclear capability, and unless the U.S., Israel, or some broader coalition is willing to make bombing runs every two years like clockwork, I can think of no more reliable way to ensure an Iranian bomb in the future. This is without even mentioning that sustained military action against Iran every few years would cause an inconceivable mess to U.S. interests and power in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria…the list goes on. As for the option of reenacting the Gulf War but this time in Iran, that is a pipe dream and will never happen; there’s no political support for it and even less military support for it.

This leaves the option that I think most deal opponents have in mind, which is harsher sanctions in an effort to get Iran to either voluntarily stop its program, force Iran into coming back to the negotiating table with a more conciliatory stance, or bring down the regime. While this sounds great in theory, I don’t see how to realistically connect the dots and turn this from theory into reality. Harsher sanctions are more likely to have the same effect as a limited bombing run given that Iran has abided by the interim deal so far according to all of the available evidence, and following up its compliance with an interim deal by imposing harsher sanctions will lead to the logical conclusion on the Iranians’ part that the only way to break the impasse is not through more concessions – as doing so may lead to yet more sanctions based on recent history – but to dash for a bomb. In other words, Iran is going to look at its expected payoffs and reasonably conclude that surviving sanctions and going nuclear yields a more certain benefit than making more concessions. Again, this may be satisfying to the U.S. and Israel in the interim as Iran’s economy crumbles even more, but it won’t achieve the ultimate outcome of preventing a nuclear Iran. The other big problem is that harsher sanctions only work with a buy-in from Europe, Russia, and China, and if the perception is that the U.S. is the unreasonable party, then a more crippling sanctions regime will be an impossible sell. This is why I still think a deal – and a good deal, rather than any deal – has to be pursued, and I don’t see that the other options on the table actually accomplish the ultimate goal.

So this is all a long way of saying that if Netanyahu gets up before Congress in an hour and gives a stemwinder trashing the deal – which I expect him to do – but does not then move to the necessary coda, which is what should come in place of a deal and what plausible and enactable ideas he has to prevent a nuclear Iran, then he will not have accomplished his objectives. It isn’t enough to say what you don’t like if you have no solution for what to do instead. There’s no question that an Iranian bomb is a disastrous outcome; there’s no question that reports about the status of the negotiations are worrisome. A serious speech from Netanyahu will suggest a way forward that is more to his liking rather than offering up a hope and a prayer.

Israel Is Now Officially A Political Football

February 25, 2015 § 3 Comments

With more odd goings on yesterday surrounding Bibi’s upcoming speech to Congress, I thought I’d give my quick take on what I think is actually taking place, as it seems to make little sense on the face of it. On Monday, Democratic senators Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein invited Netanyahu to a closed door meeting with Senate Democrats while he is in Washington next week, explicitly tying their invitation to a desire for avoiding “lasting repercussions” stemming from the damage they allege has been done to the U.S.-Israel relationship due to Netanyahu’s speech turning Israel into a partisan political issue. On Tuesday, Netanyahu declined the invitation to meet, writing to the senators, “Though I greatly appreciate your kind invitation to meet with Democratic Senators, I believe that doing so at this time could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit.” Durbin followed that with a statement saying, “We offered the Prime Minister an opportunity to balance the politically divisive invitation from Speaker Boehner with a private meeting with Democrats who are committed to keeping the bipartisan support of Israel strong. His refusal to meet is disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades.” For a lot of people, Netanyahu electing not to meet with Democratic senators and offending two senior and staunchly pro-Israel members of that group in the process is a puzzling decision at best, and a confirmation of his overt partisanship in favor of Republicans at worst. Whatever your view of Netanyahu, rejecting the offer to meet does not seem to be doing Israel any favors in terms of restoring whatever bipartisan support has been lost over the past month.

What’s really going on here is not, however, quite so cut and dry. Just as John Boehner was playing politics and using Israel to put the White House in an awkward position when he and Ron Dermer concocted the invitation for Netanyahu to speak before Congress, the Democrats are doing the same thing here to the Republicans and using Israel to score political points. By inviting Netanyahu, Durbin and Feinstein were setting him up in a way that made it impossible for him to win and impossible for them to lose. Had Netanyahu accepted the invitation to meet with Senate Democrats – and only Senate Democrats – behind closed doors, it would have been an implicit admission on his part that the speech to Congress was indeed a partisan maneuver intended to benefit Republicans and embarrass the White House, and that this was an appropriate way of belatedly balancing things out. After giving a gift to the GOP and having it backfire, meeting with Senate Democrats would have sent the message that a chastised Netanyahu had understood that he screwed things up, and that in order to set things right he’d have to give something to the Democrats in return. The benefit to the Democrats here would have been twofold: public confirmation of the what they’d been arguing since the speech was announced – namely that it was a partisan maneuver designed to put the administration in a box – and an electoral benefit in the form of being able to show their constituents that they are pro-Israel and have no problem with Netanyahu himself, but rather that their issue is solely with the timing of the speech before Congress and the way that it was handled.

Now that Netanyahu has declined, the Democrats still win. As Durbin’s statement makes clear, they are now going to double down on the argument that Netanyahu is injecting himself into partisan politics, endangering bipartisan support for Israel by favoring the Republicans, and not really interested in having a substantive conversation with Democrats. As it happens, I believe those arguments to be accurate, but it doesn’t change the facts that Senate Democrats issued the invitation to meet privately as a way of making the Republicans look bad rather than to restore any sense of real bipartisanship. Just as the Republicans were using Bibi for their own political purposes earlier, Democrats are doing so now in response. This has little to do with Israel and everything to do with the scorched earth tactics both political parties use against each other. Netanyahu loses here too in the larger sense of things, as it looks to all the world like he is favoring the Republicans and blind to the dangers of politicizing Israel as an issue with Congress. He also damages relations with two powerful Democratic senators whom he might have counted on going forward but who will not be inclined to be giving him any preferential treatment in the future.

Nevertheless, it should have been obvious from the second the invitation to meet was issued that Netanyahu would decline it. Accepting it would have meant confirming his mistake, both in openly plotting with the Republicans with no realization that there would be consequences to doing so and in making a speech that seems to be doing Israel more harm than good. Bibi is not one to admit mistakes, and he certainly cannot acknowledge this one given how high he has raised the stakes with his rhetoric on the issue and being in the final stages of an election campaign. It would mitigate whatever benefit he will get – and yes, he will benefit at home politically in some quarters – from standing before Congress and thundering about the Iranian nuclear threat and his sacred duty to protect Israel. So from Netanyahu’s perspective, it makes perfect political sense not to meet with Senate Democrats, even though to many it is a head-scratching decisions since it appears that Netanyahu just missed out on a perfect opportunity to make things right with one side of the aisle and restore some much needed bipartisan love.

And so Israel is being wielded by both sides as a cudgel in order to pummel political opponents, and Netanyahu’s mess of his own creation just keeps getting worse and worse. In the meantime, reports about the Iranian nuclear negotiations are increasingly worrisome as talk of sunset clauses is bandied about, and Democrats who might have been inclined to take a harder line are reluctant to do so as Netanyahu has set up an environment in which it will appear that they are taking his side rather than that of the president, and thus Israeli fears about Iran are compounded. Netanyahu wins at home while Israel’s political standing suffers, which could have been avoided had he just structured the timing of the speech differently. Really, is there anyone left who thinks that this speech is in any way a good idea for Israel, or that it was ever about anything but Netanyahu’s personal political ambitions?

Losing The Forest Of Iran Policy For The Trees Of A Nuclear Deal

February 10, 2015 § 9 Comments

There has been tons of discussion over the past week about Mike Doran’s recent voluminous piece in Mosaic in which he argues that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East – his approach to Syria, ISIS, Israel, Iraq, Sunni allies, etc. – can be explained through the prism of a desired rapprochement with Iran and a goal of building a new regional order in which Iran plays an integral role. According to Doran, Obama sees the U.S. and Iran as natural allies and believes that blame for enmity between the two countries rests with the U.S., and thus the president’s strategy has been to accommodate rather than confront Iran in the hopes that a nuclear deal will lead to a larger grand bargain. In other words, the nuclear deal itself is a means rather than an end, which makes the particulars of any negotiated deal less important to the White House than the fact that a deal gets done in some form or another, as a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is the only pathway to a new Middle East in which the U.S. and Iran cooperate on a set of shared interests. Doran has long and detailed sections on how American inaction in Syria and bad relations between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu were impacted by this overarching goal, and he also spends a lot of time building a case that the U.S. has made permanent concessions to Iran in return for short term and easily reversible Iranian restraint. The result, according to Doran, is that the U.S. has given Iran all of the leverage and guaranteed that any emerging nuclear deal will be a disaster. I have quibbles with some of the details and sub-arguments (more on this below), but I find the overarching thesis convincing: that the White House’s ultimate goal is to turn Iran into an ally based on the view that the U.S. and Iran are natural partners with a set of common interests.

Building off Doran’s piece and off a Washington Post editorial that takes Obama to task over the nuclear negotiations, Walter Russell Mead lays out a list of problems with a nuclear deal that he sees the White House needing to address in order to gain real support for its Iran policy. These include enhancing Iranian power in the Middle East at the expense of a regional balance, assuming that a more powerful Iran will be less hostile to the U.S., linking more engagement with Iran to eventual regime liberalization and transition, and selling out a set of current allies without any guarantee of an adequate replacement. Even more so than Doran’s, Mead’s piece resonates because he is completely focused on the end game and on challenging the assumptions underlying the Obama administration’s view of a post-deal world. I agree with Doran that the administration’s strategy on nuclear negotiations is animated by wanting a grand bargain rather than wanting to deal with Iran’s nuclear program qua nuclear program, but I part ways with him when he focuses his ire on the nuclear deal itself. Not only am I not convinced that a nuclear deal is inherently a bad thing, I think that focusing on the nuclear aspect of Iran policy is a bad tactic. Those worried about Iranian intentions and Iranian power as a force of destabilization in the Middle East – and you can firmly include me in that camp – should assume that a deal is going to happen and should start thinking now about how to then contain a nuclear Iran in every way possible instead of wasting time trying to prevent what may be a fait accompli.

Why do I think that a nuclear deal is itself not a disaster? I’ll stipulate up front that I have no expertise in the science component of this or in knowing precisely how much enriched uranium constitutes a significant quantity, a.k.a. the point of no return in terms of preventing a usable bomb. But friends and colleagues who are experts in this stuff claim that the fighting about number of centrifuges is a red herring because the real issue is the 20% enrichment level, and nobody disputes that the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action successfully diluted the enriched uranium, which is what lengthens the breakout time. The ten thousand centrifuges that Iran already has are IR-1 centrifuges, but those are not the efficient ones that will allow a quick nuclear breakout, and the more efficient IR-8 centrifuges are the ones that the JPOA addressed. So any deal that preserves this status quo, meaning continued dilution of 20% enriched uranium and a cap on IR-8 centrifuges, makes a breakout period long enough to be easily detectable in time to verify it and take required action, military or otherwise.

Let’s assume for a moment though that this is wrong, and that somehow the Iranians will figure out a way to use the old centrifuges with greater efficiency and increase their stock of 20% enriched uranium. Let’s further – and much more concretely – assume that Iran is going to do everything it can to game the system and violate nuclear agreements, since all evidence suggests that it has tried to do so with degrees of success for years (see Fordow for the most prominent example). Let’s also assume that Iran sees a nuclear deal as nothing more than a way to lift sanctions and has no intention of genuinely freezing its nuclear program. Even in this situation – and to be clear, I am not playing devil’s advocate on these last two assumptions; I presume that this is precisely what will occur – isn’t a deal that creates an inspections regime the best way of preventing Iran’s attempts at cheating from being successful? If Iran wants a nuclear bomb, I’d much rather have as many roadblocks in place as possible than having no roadblocks at all. If a deal is not reached next month and further sanctions are slapped on Iran, that’s all fine and good, but sanctions alone are not going to stop a determined wannabe nuclear state from achieving that status. The most punishing sanctions conceivable will make it harder, but will not foreclose the eventual result. North Korea has no economy to speak of and is as isolated from the rest of the world as if the country exists in a different galaxy, and somehow it managed the trick. Put more simply, option one is to allow Iran to resume its nuclear program in a hellbent manner and with no inspections or safeguards in place, and option two is to put inspections and safeguards in place to try and frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Isn’t the logical choice here option two, even if it is a less than perfect solution? Isn’t something in this case much better than nothing if the actual ambition is to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to regime change)?

The argument against a deal at this point rests on the implicit assumption that military action will be used to stop Iran’s nuclear program (and perhaps overthrow the regime), and I don’t see that happening. It’s pretty clear to me that the Obama administration won’t do it, and anything short of an Iraq War-style ground invasion (as opposed to some targeted strikes against nuclear facilities) would be a band-aid solution anyway, whether such a limited strike is carried out by the U.S. or Israel. Regular inspections and continued dilution of 20% uranium are the only possible ways of preventing a nuclear Iran given current realities, so why not just strike a deal and watch Iran like a hawk for the next few decades? I agree that the administration has been too sanguine about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, but arguing about what could have been done better in the past is pointless. If your absolute and most pressing goal is to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and you recognize that a long and sustained military campaign is just not in the cards even if you think such a move would be wise (and I don’t), then the best way of doing so is a deal that puts intrusive inspections and limits in place, as it provides the highest chance of detecting Iran’s attempts at a surreptitious breakout.

The real action right now should not be on preventing a deal, but on preventing a larger policy of trying to turn Iran into a partner and ally. To call such a policy foolhardy would be charitable, as the regime’s very legitimacy is derived from its demonization of the West generally and the U.S. in particular. I wrote about this in September so there’s no need to extensively harp on it again now, but the Iranian regime cannot and will not risk its own domestic standing by significantly decreasing its public hostility to the U.S. To do so would put its entire rule in danger, as ideological states that allow their central governing political ideology to be delegitimized end up dealing a fatal blow to their own legitimacy and ultimately to their own survival by making themselves vulnerable to challenges from the opposition. The Iranian state’s rule and political institutions are structured around a revolutionary ideology that assumes opposition to the U.S. and the West as a raison d’être and thus betraying the revolution in such a blatant manner as openly reconciling, let alone partnering, with the U.S. is not a realistic or even rational move for the Supreme Leader and his cadre. In Iran’s case, this is magnified by the fact that the first generation of ideological and revolutionary true believers are still around, and to the extent that ideological states become post-ideological, it only happens once the originators of the ideology are off the scene, as they can be expected to have a deeper and more personal connection to the ideology than successive generations of leaders who have had the ideology instilled in them but were not present at the creation.

Hoping for a change in regime and a more friendly government to come to power and embrace the U.S. is barely more likely than the current regime changing its tune. As the past four years in the Middle East have demonstrated, revolutions frequently do not lead to regime change, and in the event that they do, there should not be any reasonable expectation of a liberal or pro-American government coming to power, no matter how educated/wealthy/enlightened/secular/fill-in-your-favorite-adjective the population is. Nobody likes to remember this, but the leaders of the Green Movement in 2009 were not opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, and in fact embraced it. Assuming that engagement with Iran will quickly lead to greater liberalization, political pressure from the masses, splits among ruling elites, and eventually a transition to democratic government is destined to end with dashed hopes. Political change in this manner is glacial in its pace, and the link between economic liberalization and political liberalization is dubious. Look at China for the best datapoint, which has economically liberalized relatively rapidly in the scheme of things (and by relatively rapidly, I mean over 20 or 30 years), but has moved far more slowly on political liberalization. The point here is that anyone assuming a grand bargain with Iran leading to cooperation on a variety of fronts and a new regional order anchored by a pro-American Iranian government is taking so many leaps of faith that are contradicted by theory and evidence as to make a serious argument in its favor crumble on sight.

For as much as Obama’s critics like to paint him as a slave to reflexive liberal ideology, when it comes to foreign policy the White House focuses on interests rather than ideology to the exclusion of all other factors. Obama behaves like an ideal type of a theoretical realist, and in nearly every situation assumes that states act according to their pure rational utility maximizing interests. It has led to a miscalculation of Russian behavior, and it is leading to what will be an even costlier miscalculation of Iranian behavior. What should be happening now is preparation for a full court press to see Iran completely bottled up in the aftermath of a nuclear deal, and a plan for reassuring our allies in the region – assuming that we still want to have any – with explicit security guarantees and large public demonstrations of military cooperation. A nuclear deal is only a bad thing if it means ceding the region to Iran in the aftermath of an agreement, and that does not have to happen. Separating out the nuclear deal from Iran policy writ large is difficult as the two are obviously connected, but it’s not impossible. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier on a different topic, we should be working toward a deal as if there is no larger reason to contain and hinder Iran, and containing and hindering Iran as if there is no nuclear deal.

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