This Is Why The CHP Is Irrelevant

April 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

The AKP, like most democratic political parties, has designs on becoming something of a permanent ruling party. Luckily for them, the opposition CHP is all too happy to play the role of the Washington Generals to the AKP’s Harlem Globetrotters. Fresh off Davutoğlu’s aggressive statements last week on Syria and Turkey’s role in the world, CHP deputy leader Osman Korutürk decided that the proper response was to blast the AKP’s policy on Syria, which he dubbed as damaging to Turkey.

Defining the policy a failure, CHP Deputy Chairman Osman Korutürk maintained that “Turkey has turned into an interventionist country, meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbors, instigating war and taking part in regional conflicts.” “Turkey has become an isolated country within the international community due to its Syria policy. It pretended to back Annan’s peace plan but has created a perception that it supports a military intervention in Syria,” Korutürk added.

There are two simple lessons that the CHP needs to learn. First, nobody wants to listen to politicians telling you how terrible and unworthy you are. It is simply not a recipe for winning elections, particularly in a country like Turkey that has very strong nationalist feelings and state pride. When refugees are pouring across the border, it just won’t do to talks about Turkish meddling or war-mongering. It is tone deaf at best, dangerously cynical at worst. In addition, Syria is a strange issue on which to go after the AKP. The government might have dragged its heels at the outset, waiting interminably for Assad to carry out the various reforms that he had promised his buddy Erdoğan were forthcoming, but Ankara has arrived at a place where it has a principled and praiseworthy position on Syria. Why in the world would the CHP attack Erdoğan and Davutoğlu on this aside from just wanting to jump up and down and wave their arms in the hopes of getting some attention? The strategy here basically seems to be to look at what the AKP is doing on foreign policy and then do the opposite, irrespective of the actual policy or issue at hand. There is a reason that the CHP has been out of power for three decades, and this type of nonsense is not going to help matters.

Second, it is not enough to just tear down the other side without having a coherent policy of your own. What would the CHP have Turkey do in Syria? Is Korutürk arguing that it is actually in Turkey’s interests to just leave Assad alone to do his own thing? Note that Korutürk did not accuse the government of trying to intervene in Syria themselves, but rather of supporting a military intervention in Syria, which implies an international force of some sort, whether it be NATO or the UN. This is an aggressive posture to be sure, but given that this is precisely what happened in Libya, it doesn’t read as being totally outrageous or unprecedented. It is unclear to me why the CHP thinks that Turkey has in any way instigated war or how it believes Ankara is now isolated, and what its solution is to contain the enormous problem in Turkey’s backyard that is spilling over into Turkey itself. Also, bear in mind that this is the very same party that was going hard after the AKP one year ago for being inconsistent on the Arab Spring, supporting the people in one instance and the regime in another, and now its position is that Turkey should just sit on its hands in every situation? Rather than generating endless sound and fury, the CHP needs to take a step back, figure out what its position actually is, and become proactive rather than always react to what the government is doing. Until this happens, Davutoğlu is going to continue running circles around the CHP’s foreign policy voices and the party will keep on consigning itself to irrelevance.

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Israeli Politics Blows Up, Part 2

April 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

The other big development over the weekend was the governing coalition, which has been fraying at the seams, nearly bursting apart and the unofficial announcement of early elections. It appears that Netanyahu wants Knesset elections to be held on either August 14 or September 4, which pulls the rug out from under Shaul Mofaz and Kadima and allows Bibi to capitalize on his current wave of popularity. The reason for the early elections though is that Netanyahu is afraid that his coalition will not last much longer past the summer. Avigdor Lieberman has threatened to break the coalition apart and bring down the government over the Tal Law, which was ruled unconstitutional but which Netanyahu has promised to somehow reauthorize, and over the weekend Lieberman announced plans to introduce his own bill dealing with Haredi military exemptions. Lieberman’s bill would take away welfare payments from anyone who does not serve in the military or perform national service, which is of course unacceptable to coalition partners Shas and UTJ. Lieberman says he is going to introduce his bill on May 9, while Netanyahu has asked him to wait until August which is when the Tal Law expires and when Netanyahu conveniently wants to hold elections. Ominously for Bibi’s plans, Lieberman also declared that his obligation to the coalition was over, and does not look like he is going to dissuaded from introducing his bill and letting the chips fall where they may. Barak has also announced plans for his own Tal Law alternative that would exempt 400 Haredi students from serving in the army each year as compared to the currently 60,000+ that are exempt, which is naturally going to be equally unacceptable to the coalition’s Haredi parties.

There are also serious differences over settlements which have been papered over but are becoming tougher to ignore. After the government announced that it was not going to comply with the High Court’s order to demolish the Ulpana neighborhood, the court granted it a 60 day extension but this is not going to be enough to make all the coalition partners live together as one happy family. Shas introduced a bill yesterday that requires the Interior Ministry and Religious Services Ministry – both of which it currently controls – to sign off on the destruction of religious structures, which is a shot at Barak and his authority as defense minister over settlements. While the rift over settlements is not nearly as large a problem for the coalition as the secular-religious divide since it basically isolates Barak and Atzmaut rather than pitting Likud and Shas on one side against Yisrael Beiteinu and Atzmaut on the other, the constant calls from other members of the government for Barak to step down and leave the coalition is bound to take a toll on any unified sense of purpose that exists. And In case all this wasn’t enough, Kadima, Labor, Meretz, National Union, and Balad are all introducing no-confidence motions in the Knesset next week (originally scheduled for today but postponed out of respect following the death of Ben-Zion Netanyahu, Bibi’s father).

In light of all the above, the early elections gambit is unavoidable, but it may not turn out as favorably as Netanyahu wants. While elections in August do not give the opposition parties much time to organize, it also means that they will take place in the midst of social protests over Haredi exemptions, state resources going disproportionately to settlements, and the exploding cost of living, and Mofaz has declared his intention to lead this protest movement. Without a few additional months to blunt the effects of this, Netanyahu may be facing voters at the height of their anger at the government. The most current Israel Hayom poll  gives Likud 31 seats, which is only a 4 seat gain over what it has right now; it’s quite conceivable that this figure drops over the summer, and then Netanyahu does not get the benefit of the recovery that would likely happen by October. He is taking a risk based on the timing of ceding real ground to Labor and to Kadima, and a larger share of seats for those two parties will make it harder for him to form a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu (which is not going to agree to serve again if Haredi parties are included).

Finally, to connect this post with my previous one, early elections are going to impact the Iran decision as well by making the chances of a strike more remote. As I have stressed before, Netanyahu’s career demonstrates that he is risk-averse, and I don’t think there is any way that he takes the chance of a strike on Iran going poorly or igniting a war with Hizballah in the north if there are going to be early elections. This is particularly the case now that there is a chorus of current and former defense officials weighing in against a strike right now. With his position as prime minister at stake and so many doubters speaking up, Netanyahu is not going to attack Iran a mere three months before an election when public opinion polls show that Israelis are decidedly lukewarm to the idea of an Israeli strike to begin with.

Israeli Politics Blows Up, Part 1

April 30, 2012 § 4 Comments

Lots of big news happened over the weekend with far-reaching consequences, so let’s start with Friday’s Yuval Diskin speech. Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, slammed Netanyahu and Barak – and did so in a particularly insulting manner tinged with class-based resentment by referring to them as the “messiahs from Akirov [the expensive high end apartment building in Tel Aviv where Barak resides] and Caesaerea” – as being unfit to lead the government and for presenting Israelis with a false choice on Iran. Diskin said that he does not trust either of them, and that they are wrong to declare that striking Iran will set back its nuclear program when in fact it might accelerate it. He also warned about right wing extremists on both sides of the Green Line and said that something like the Rabin assassination could easily happen again, and charged Netanyahu with not wanting to conduct peace talks with the Palestinians because it would break apart his coalition. Diskin’s broadside launched a round of recriminations, with the pro-Bibi camp charging Diskin of petty score-settling over the fact that he was not appointed head of the Mossad following his time as head of the Shin Bet, and ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan – himself a strident critic of Netanyahu and Barak over the Iran issue – and ex-IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi both publicly supporting Diskin.

Let’s sort this all out. What precisely is going on here? To begin with, there is no doubt that personality issues are part of this very public feud. Diskin’s strikingly sneering personal tone is unusual for a critique solely based on the merits, and he is clearly still upset about not getting the Mossad job. It is also well known that the trio of Diskin, Dagan, and Askenazi were all pushed aside and replaced by Netanyahu partially to clear the way for a strike on Iran since all three of them were opposed to such a move, and this is coming back to haunt Bibi as they are now getting their revenge. That does not mean, however, that they are wrong, although Diskin is the least qualified to register such a strong objection given that his portfolio had him dealing mainly with Palestinian issues and not with Iran.

It’s tough to say why Diskin decided to speak up now and do it so harshly, but it definitely fuels speculation that he wants to enter politics and that this was his opening salvo. I also wonder, given his area of expertise and the fact that he was critical on a host of topics, if he meant for the Iran issue to be front and center or if he instead expected his criticisms of Netanyahu’s stance toward the Palestinians to be the headline in the weekend papers. Diskin holding forth on Iran is unusual because it would be analogous to the FBI director attacking the White House over drone policy in Pakistan – he certainly knows more about it than most people, but it falls far outside his portfolio. More appropriately, Diskin went after Bibi pretty hard on the Palestinian front, essentially accusing him of negotiating in bad faith and insisting that Netanyahu rather than Abbas was the person responsible for the lack of progress due to his having no interest in altering the existing status quo. Diskin also stressed his bona fides on the topic by pointing out that he knows what is going on from being up close to the Palestinian issue and dealing with it personally, and that the West Bank is primed to explode in frustration over the lack of progress toward a Palestinian state. The news has a way of spiraling out of people’s control, and I’ll bet that Diskin did not necessarily expect his Iran comments to be the ones dominating the airwaves.

It is also interesting to see who spoke up in defense of Netanyahu and Barak and who did not. Likud ministers went after Diskin, including Yuval Steinitz (Finance), Limor Livnat (Culture and Sport), and Yisrael Katz (Transportation), but there were some mixed signals from people who actually matter when it comes to Iran. Avigdor Lieberman criticized Diskin for serving out his full Shin Bet term if he had such major issues with Netanyahu and Barak, but in the same sentence praised Diskin as an excellent Shin Bet head and stressed that the entire security cabinet and not just Bibi and Barak would be making decisions on Iran. Silvan Shalom, who is the vice PM, also praised Diskin’s tenure at the Shin Bet and stressed that the decision to strike Iran is not Netanyahu and Barak’s alone to make. Most importantly (and ominously for Netanyahu), the silence from Moshe Yaalon, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Eli Yishai was deafening. These four, as faithful readers of this blog may recall, are the members of the Shminiya believed to be opposed to attacking Iran, and they did not come out swinging in Netanyahu or Barak’s defense. Combined with the fact that current IDF head Benny Gantz is evidently bearish on the idea as well, and that Netanyahu is historically an extremely cautious political actor, it signals that Bibi is still fighting an uphill battle and confirms my longstanding belief that a strike is nowhere near imminent.

At the end of the day, no matter what Diskin’s motives or his credibility level, his speaking out is not a good development for Netanyahu and Barak’s freedom of action on Iran. Israel has great respect for its military, security, and intelligence leaders, many of whom later enter politics with great success, including current Cabinet members Barak and Yaalon and Kadima head Shaul Mofaz and Kadima MK Avi Dichter. The current and previous four IDF chiefs (Gantz, Ashkenazi, Dan Halutz, Yaalon, and Mofaz) are all on record as opposing a strike or are believed to oppose a strike at this point in time, and while Mofaz clearly has political reasons for being opposed given his status as opposition leader, the other four do not. All of this carries weight with Israelis, and it should carry weight with Netanyahu and Barak as well. This Yediot article quotes a bunch of anonymous state and defense officials trashing Diskin, including one “senior minister who has a close relationship with Netanyahu” saying that Diskin fits into a legacy of “moronic Shin Bet chiefs,” but it cannot escape notice that not one of the people questioning Diskin’s intelligence or abilities was willing to go on record. The fact that the security and military officials who matter primarily appear to view attacking Iran right now as a bad idea is not a small problem that Netanyahu and Barak can wave away. In the grand scheme of things, Yuval Diskin’s opinion might not matter, but he stands as a proxy for a larger group of people whose opinion does.

An Enormous Turkish Policy Shift

April 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

Ahmet Davutoğlu gave a remarkable speech before the Turkish parliament yesterday in which he completely smashed any remaining vestiges of his own zero problems with neighbors policy and embraced his full neo-Ottoman side. Davutoğlu declared that Turkey will be the “owner, pioneer, and servant” of the new Middle East which he says Turkey has led the way in creating, and that Turkey will continue to lead and “guide the winds of change” in the region. On Syria specifically, Davutoğlu claimed that Turkey had been urging Assad to reform well before the Arab Spring and said that he could not understand those who embrace autocratic leaders at the expense of the people, and stated that the AKP’s motto is “cry out against oppression.” Most remarkably and in what must be seen as an enormous policy shift, Davutoğlu said that Turkey will no longer wait to let the big powers set the agenda in Syria before acting and that Turkey will not follow any policies that do not originate with its own government. In making it apparent that Turkey is a force to be reckoned with, Davutoğlu said, “Even your dreams can’t and won’t reach the place where our power has come to.” Whew! Anyone else think that Ahmet Bey has been reading too many glowing testaments to his own brilliance in Time and Foreign Policy?

Despite the snark, I actually think this is a good thing because it means that Turkey’s rhetoric is starting to catch up to current realities. In instituting zero problems with neighbors, Davutoğlu’s aim was to rebuild Turkish power by cutting out unnecessary foreign policy distractions and using Turkey’s growing economic clout to expand its influence. By any measure, the policy has been enormously successful as Turkey has transformed itself into a regional power with ambitions of becoming a top geopolitical actor. While this has occurred, Turkey has insisted throughout that it can still maintain positive relationships with all countries in the region and work out any problems through dialogue and mutual understanding. As I have pointed out previously, this is silly naivete. Last week I wrote the following:

 Becoming a regional power means less neutrality and more forcefulness. Turkey is now demonstrating that with regard to Syria, as it has over the past months moved away from trying to gently influence Assad to organizing efforts with an eye toward forcing him to leave. It might mean a loss of credibility as an arbiter or mediator, but the flip side is a more muscular role for Turkish power in the region.

The fiction that Turkey could somehow remain neutral on all issues and be friends with everybody has been exposed by the Arab Spring, the chaos in Syria, and now by Iran. It’s time for Ankara to drop the charade, acknowledge that it is not going to be able to rewrite the rules of international politics all by itself, and come up with a new grand strategy and slogan that recognizes that being a regional power means having to act like a bully sometimes.

Turkey, and Davutoğlu particularly, has continued to spout the zero problems with neighbors line, but it does not fit with what Turkey is trying to do. Davutoğlu has finally come out and said what everyone knows, which is that Turkey views itself not as a first among equals but as a regional leader, and that it expects to be out front in setting policy for the region in a bid for hegemony. It took the opposition parties accusing the government of interfering in Syria at the expense of ignoring domestic problems for Davutoğlu to reveal his true thoughts and ambitions, but now that they are out in the open, there is no point in trying to cram them back into the box. Turkey should embrace its new role and its newfound power rather than trying to hide the ball, and the empty slogans about zero problems and humility in foreign policy now need to stop for good.

P.S. By the way, if you want to do a fun little exercise, compare the news stories on Davutoğlu’s speech in Hürriyet and in Zaman. Before you do so, try to guess which paper frames the speech as dealing with Syria and which frames the speech as outlining Turkey’s ambitions to lead the Middle East, and if both report Davutoğlu’s declarations about policies that originate in Ankara and Turkey’s epic power.

Turkey and Iranian Oil

April 26, 2012 § 3 Comments

One of the obstacles, if not the largest obstacle, to peeling Turkey away from Iran is the economic ties between the two, particularly when it comes to energy. Turkey imports 90% of its oil, and Iran was its largest supplier until 2007 when Russia took the top spot. Through March of this year, Turkey was importing 200,000 barrels per day from Iran, which accounted for 30% of Turkey’s oil imports and 7% of Iran’s oil exports. This is obviously a huge barrier for the U.S. to gaining closer cooperation from Turkey in pressuring Iran over its nuclear program, and the announcement last month that Turkey was slashing its oil purchases from Iran by as much as 20% was accordingly a big deal.

Turkey does not import oil from Iran because it is necessarily a supporter of the regime, but because Iran has been a convenient source. There are, however, real bilateral energy issues between the two that make Turkey receptive to U.S. entreaties to get its oil from elsewhere. Turkey consumes around 1.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas annually and it imports 24% of its gas from Iran, but Iran charges Turkey more than $500 per 1000 cubic meters of gas, which is more than it charges any other country and $100 more than the market price. In contrast, Turkey pays $350 for gas from Azerbaijan and $400 for Russian gas. Turkey is stuck because it signed a 25 year deal with Iran in 1996 and because it has no way of replacing Iranian gas imports, which Tehran knows full well, and in the last few weeks Turkey has taken Iran into international arbitration over its natural gas price gouging. The gas price has become an even bigger problem in the past year as energy prices have risen across the board fueled by insecurity about global energy supplies, which led to a 40% increase in Turkey’s energy imports in 2011 as compared to 2010. The point here is that Turkey may very well be actively looking into ways to reduce its reliance on Iranian oil anyway, U.S. pressure or not. The agreement to buy oil from Libya in conjunction with reducing Iranian imports is a good first step, since it gets Turkey’s foot in the door with the new Libyan government, and might eventually lead to Saudi concessions on price as well.

It is in this context that today’s news that Turkey is starting oil and gas drilling in northern Cyprus should be viewed. Obviously this is partly a response to Cyprus’s own oil and gas exploration, but TPAO’s drilling is not merely symbolic. Turkey’s energy needs are enormous and growing, and the question is whether it will have to continue relying on Iran or if it can fill the gap somewhere else. If the answer ends up being the latter, it will have the effect of isolating Iran further and making a resolution to the nuclear issue that does not involve military strikes more likely. To that end – and to continue beating a dead horse from previous posts – a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement would help Turkey soften the blow from Iranian natural gas once the Tamar and Leviathan natural gas fields are up and running in 2013. In any event, keep an eye out for Turkey exploring any possibility open to it as far as oil and gas are concerned, since that will yield clues as to how the Iranian nuclear standoff is likely to be resolved.

A Simple But Radical Independence Day Proposal

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today is Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, and while Israelis of all stripes are celebrating, it is pretty clear that Israeli politics is badly dysfunctional. This is not a new phenomenon by any means, but it appears to have gotten worse over the last decade. Amir Mizroch had a fantastic post yesterday outlining some of the problems, and almost all of them stem from the legislative gridlock and political hostage-taking that characterize the Knesset and government by coalition. As Mizroch puts it,

It is crystal clear that we need to change the system of government, to make government more accountable to the voters, to break the power of small sectoral parties, and to stabilize our governments so that they can rule for at least 4 years and carry out long-term projects of national importance. We cannot continue to swap governments every 2 to 3 years. Nothing of consequence gets done.

The problem, of course, is that the party that gets the most seats in elections (or in the current Knesset, the second most seats) never has even close to a majority and so has to rely on an increasingly disparate set of smaller parties to form a coalition. Each of these parties has different interests and demands which conflict with those of its coalition partners, and the prime minister’s party ends up making concessions to the most extreme coalition members, who know that they can hold the government hostage by threatening to leave if their demands are not met. In addition, little is actually passed or implemented since only legislation that appeals to every party in the coalition will get through the Knesset, except for certain situations when the opposition parties agree with a measure that the ruling party introduces. Knesset coalitions are inherently unstable because of this constant tension between conflicting interests, and thus governments fall with alarming regularity. The problem has only worsened over the past twenty years, as the share of the leading party has shrunk from 44 seats in 1992 to 28 seats today (and Likud, which formed the government, only has 27). This means that Israel is likely to see politics pulled even more to the extremes as smaller parties gain even more leverage to advance their particular issue.

Take the example of the current Netanyahu government, which has appeared to buck the trend and has been remarkably stable. In the past two weeks alone there have been numerous threats from Likud partners that they will pull out of the coalition if the government complies with a High Court order to demolish the Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El, while at the same time Ehud Barak has insisted that the neighborhood must go (although he has since appeared to back down). The Tal Law, which exempts Haredim from military service, was ruled unconstitutional in February, prompting Shas and UTJ to threaten to leave if a legislative workaround was not passed, and Yisrael Beiteinu to then threaten to leave if it was. All the while, Netanyahu and Likud have no choice but to cater to their partners’ demands as the only way out would be to invite Kadima into the government, which cannot happen since Shaul Mofaz has one more Knesset member than Netanyahu and would therefore never agree to serve in a coalition in which he was not prime minister.

How did Israel arrive at this morass? It has come about through Israel’s system of party list proportional representation voting, meaning that voters cast one vote for a single party and then Knesset seats are allocated in rough proportion to the percentage of votes each party receives. The big advantage to this system is that of proportionality, which allows for many different voices in the Knesset and gives smaller parties that would never have a chance of winning a seat in a multi-district first-past-the post election an opportunity to actively participate in legislative politics and even be part of the government. The disadvantages, which are obvious to anyone who has either taken an introductory comparative politics course or spent a minimal amount of time observing Israeli politics, are that there is less accountability as people don’t know who their direct representative is and parliaments get bogged down and become more susceptible to extremes in order to placate small coalition parties. Sound familiar?

Aside from the practical issues laid out above, there are some genuine philosophical problems with a proportional representation electoral system as well. In a sense, it is extremely anti-democratic because more voters will have voted against the ruling party than for the ruling party. Bibi Netanyahu is prime minister despite his party getting only 21.6% of the votes cast, and the Interior Ministry is controlled by Shas with its 8.5% of the vote, which seems like a fundamental problem when we think about the fact that we associate democracy with majority rule. This is not an issue that is particular to Israel at all, as it plagues all proportional representation systems. In fact, it is not even particular to PR, since it rears its head in winner-take-all voting systems as well, such as the one we use right here in the United States.  For instance, in the 2010 House elections, Bill Owens won the election in New York District 23 with 48% of the vote. This means that a majority of the voters in his district voted to send someone else to Congress, yet Congressman Owens won anyway. Similarly, Bill Clinton became president in 1992 with only 43% of the vote, meaning that 57% of voting Americans wanted someone else in the White House.

Furthermore, when Israelis go to vote, they are not able to express their true range of preferences because they only check off the name of one party. Most voters though have strong opinions about the full slate of parties competing, and would jump at the chance to communicate those opinions and have them translate into results. For example, when an Israeli looks at his ballot during the next Knesset elections, he may want Labor to win but want just as much for Likud to lose, or he may want Atid to win if Labor does not, but there is no way of communicating that preference as he only gets to put his first choice on the ballot. This is another way in which party list PR restricts democratic choice, and it also has the unintended consequence of making politicians write off voters who might favor someone else. A voter who is decided in favor of Labor but likes Atid as a second choice is of no value to Yair Lapid, and Lapid has no incentive to appeal to that voter or take his views into account. This in turn encourages a less open-minded approach on the part of parties and politicians, as the incentives are structured to appeal only to those who list you as their first choice and to ignore everyone else, furthering a narrow set of partisan interests and hardening viewpoints.

So what is the solution to this whole mess of a broken Israeli political system? There are undoubtedly others, but mine is a system of voting that encourages parties to appeal to the widest group of people possible, while simultaneously taking into account the full range of voters’ preferences in an effort to make elections even more democratic. Such a system is used in Australia and Ireland, and it is called single-transferable voting. It works by having voters rank the parties on the ballot in order of first preference to last preference, rather than only checking off one, and a party has to meet a quota in order to get a seat (for anyone interested in the math, the quota is generally the number of votes divided by one more than the number of parliamentary seats, plus one). When votes are tallied, these preferences are taken into account so that being listed as a voter’s second or third choice boosts a party’s chances of winning the election, in a manner similar to how Major League Baseball and the NFL vote for their season MVPs.

The advantages to voting this way are manifold. Because voters get to indicate their full range of preferences, outcomes are more representative of voter opinion. More importantly for our purposes, however, parties have to appeal to as many voters as possible, since being listed at the bottom of voters’ ballots makes it extremely difficult to win a seat. This desire to be people’s second and third choice, and not only their first choice, means that parties running in the elections cannot afford to ignore voters who have decided on someone else, as each marginal vote is important for winning. This has the effect of eliminating extreme single issue parties that are only looking for benefits for their constituents, but it also does not mean that single issue voters are ignored entirely since parties are looking to pick up votes wherever they can. In addition, in order to appeal to a wide range of voters, parties must also consider a wide range of viewpoints, making moderation, compromise, and bipartisanship a hallmark of STV voting systems.

Translated to the Knesset, this would mean larger parties representing a wider swath of voters, making unstable coalitions with multiple conflicting interests a thing of the past. It would also make for less extremist positions, as someone like Avigdor Lieberman or Danny Danon would turn off so many people that it would hurt his party’s prospects of winning by garnering so many last place votes. In short, Israel would have more stable governments that were less in thrall to smaller extremist sectoral parties, and far more would be accomplished. I am under no illusions that this system will ever be instituted in Israel since it would threaten far too many entrenched interests, and the Knesset is too dysfunctional to even enact such a change if it wanted to, so it will remain a pipe dream. But for anyone who is at their wit’s end over the state of Israeli politics, it is worth realizing on this Yom Haatzmaut that it does not have to be this way, and that Israel’s political system is a victim of its own structure.

Misreading Benny Gantz

April 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Andrew Sullivan’s takeaway from the Benny Gantz interview is that the Israeli military does not view Iran as an existential threat, and he implies that much like many Israeli military leaders were opposed to the Iraq War, Gantz’s comments might mean that the same applies here too. Certainly Gantz is clear that he does not think Iran is developing nuclear weapons yet, but the quote that Andrew pulls out has to be read in its proper context, which is sorely missing. The full quote on Khamenei’s rationality is as follows:

“If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous.”

Two important points to note in here. First, Gantz is open to the possibility that because the Iranian leader is unquestionably an Islamic fundamentalist, he might at any point make a different decision that would not fall under the category of being rational. This means that Gantz does not have the same cocksure certainty about what Iran is ultimately going to do as Andrew does. It is trite to imply that Gantz does not see Iran as threatening or favor military action under the right circumstances when he leaves his reading of Khamenei’s actions open to revision. This leads to the second important point, namely that Gantz thinks Khamenei will pursue a bomb if the supreme leader believes that he can get away with it because Iran’s nuclear facilities are impervious to attack. This is in line with something that Gantz says earlier in the interview:

“The military option is the last chronologically but the first in terms of its credibility. If it’s not credible it has no meaning. We are preparing for it in a credible manner. That’s my job, as a military man.”

And on the question of whether the threat is existential for Israel as compared to America:

“We aren’t two oceans away from the problem – we live here with our civilians, our women and our children, so we interpret the extent of the urgency differently. “

The problem here, and the point that Sullivan misses, is that only the threat of serious military action transforms the threat from Iran from an existential, life-altering one into the kind of ordinary adversarial threat with which Israel is used to dealing, but Sullivan generally thinks that Israeli threats are an unquestionably bad thing. Gantz is not downplaying the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon that might be used against Israel, but stressing that just because Iran does not appear in his view to be developing nuclear arms right now does not foreclose completely the possibility that it will happen down the road. And the best way of making Iran stick to this path is by keeping the sword of Damocles hanging over its head. Does this mean that the Israeli military does not view Iran as an existential threat? I don’t think it does. It means that Gantz has a hard-eyed view of what it takes to contain this threat and ensure that it does not become unmanageable. As always, context is king. Even Abdullah Gül concedes the tough spot the Israelis are in with Iran in an interview in the current issue of Foreign Policy in which he says, “I don’t mean to in any way disregard the threat perception on the part of Israel either,” while expressing his opinion that Israel should not attack Iran.

Given all this, I think the Gantz interview actually makes me a bit more charitable toward Netanyahu, as shocking as that may be. Bibi’s constant threats and warnings certainly fulfill Gantz’s desire to make Israeli military action appear to be as credible as possible. I have written a bunch of times that I think Israel is bluffing and does not intend to strike Iran, and to the extent that this is true, it plays directly into what Gantz says has to be done to prevent Iran from trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

This Is What I Want All Israeli Leaders To Sound Like

April 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz gave a wide-ranging interview to Haaretz that is practically pitch perfect. Everyone should go read it for yourselves, for it combines realistic and sober analysis on Iran with a measured sense of quiet confidence that will give pause to any Iranian leaders doubting Israeli capabilities or resolve. It also manages to convey the way in which Israel feels a genuine threat without resorting to the path of least possible resistance in invoking the Holocaust. All in all, it is a convincing display that the IDF is in excellent hands.

For those who want the quick summary, Gantz says that while he does not think Iran has chosen or will choose to develop nuclear weapons, the threat of a nuclear Iran should not be downplayed since it would have devastating global consequences. He reiterates that Israel is the strongest state in the region and will remain so, but that it is also a careful and measured state that does not make decisions borne out of hysteria. He is of the opinion that global pressure on Iran is working, and keeps up that pressure rhetorically by stressing that Israel’s military option must be credible in order to work and that he is doing everything in his power to ensure that Israel’s military threats are indeed credible.

The best crystallization of his thoughts on Iran is this line, which is one you are unlikely to ever hear from Netanyahu: “I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous.” Unlike Bibi, who views Iran as being led by suicidal men in the throes of religious fervor, Gantz views the Iranian leadership as religious fundamentalists who nevertheless are vulnerable to pressure and persuasion. Gantz also has thoughts on Shalom Eisner, Haredi military service, and Israeli military preparedness in the North, but like I said, I urge you to read the interview yourself.

Yom Haatzmaut begins tonight, and it is a good time to reflect on the fact that Israel’s founding leaders were not always perfect nor prescient (hello, Haredi military exemption!) but were nonetheless remarkable and awe-inspiring men who built a democratic state from nothing and managed to defend their new country from enemies all around without destroying it from within. My fervent wish is that Israel’s next generation of leaders prove themselves worthy of the mantle that they have been bequeathed. If Benny Gantz is indicative of anything, there is hope yet.

Turkey Should Not Get Its Hopes Up Over Hollande

April 24, 2012 § 2 Comments

With the prospect that Socialist candidate François Hollande might be France’s next president, there is a renewed sense of optimism in Turkey over EU accession talks due to Nicolas Sarkozy’s role in blocking Turkey’s bid and the expectation that Hollande will look upon Turkey’s application more favorably. Relations between Turkey and France have deteriorated to a once-unimaginable level during Sarkozy’s tenure, a fact that resonates even more today being Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day with the recent hostility between Turkey and France over the subject. There is yet another controversy now brewing over Turkish schoolchildren in France being exposed to an anti-Turkish cartoon dealing with the Armenian genocide, which will only hasten Ankara’s eagerness to be done with the Sarkozy era and what it feels is unwarranted aggression toward Turkey.

Assuming that Hollande defeats Sarkozy in the run-off, Turkey might still want to temper its hopes. Hollande is on record as being more open to Turkey joining the EU as a full partner, but there is still the inconvenient fact that it will not happen during his five year term, so any gains made during that period might easily be reversed later on. It is also true that while Sarkozy has been leading the charge against Turkish EU membership, France is not the only country that is opposed. Many Europeans are nervous about the prospect of Turkey joining the EU and instantly becoming the bloc’s second largest country and with its largest military, and German Marshall Fund polling reflects European nervousness over the economic benefits of Turkish accession. That Sarkozy is not the sole obstacle even where France is concerned is illustrated by the fact that historically, French support for Turkey’s bid has not translated into tangible results. Jacques Chirac championed Turkey’s efforts to join and oversaw a period during which Turkey carried out wide-ranging reforms in order to meet the Copenhagen criteria, yet Turkish accession was repeatedly put off. Hollande may very well be more open to it than Sarkozy, but that is no guarantee of anything.

The other factor is that French-Turkish enmity is not simply a matter of clashing personalities or who happens to be occupying the Élysée Palace. As Yigal Schleifer points out, France and Turkey battle behind the scenes and sometimes in the open for influence in the Middle East, most recently following Qaddafi’s fall in Libya, and that is not set to change with Sarkozy’s defeat. France sees much of North Africa as being in its domain given its colonial history there, and it is threatened by another outside power establishing deep economic ties as Turkey has been doing. The Armenian issue is also not one that was first initiated by Sarkozy; the French parliament voted in 2001 to declare the events in Armenia a genocide and the Assembly voted in 2006 to criminalize its denial (it did not pass the Senate at that time). Turkey-bashing is a popular electoral sport in France no matter who is running, and the emotions that it stirs up are not so easily suppressed once the votes are counted. At the end of the day, a Hollande victory is likely to herald a positive reset in France’s relations with Turkey  – although Hollande is considered to be one of the Socialist Party’s most pro-Israel politicians so the continued shenanigans over Israel in NATO forums won’t help matters – but it is not going to be the panacea that permanently puts the Armenian issue to rest in France or mean a fast track victory for Turkey’s EU bid.

You Mean Abbas Is Not A Committed Liberal?

April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

George Hale reports in Ma’an that the Palestinian Authority has been forcing Internet service providers to block websites critical of Mahmoud Abbas on the orders of the attorney general, who is getting his marching orders either from PA intelligence or from Abbas’s office directly. This is sadly not at all surprising coming on the heels of arrests of journalists for criticizing Abbas on Facebook, and is the latest reminder that while the PA may look benign compared to its more radical cousin in Gaza, it is not and never has been a democratic organization, nor is it a paragon of liberal values.

The question is why is this taking place now, and as with so much of this type of behavior, the answer is internal Palestinian politics. Hale notes that the sites being shut down are perceived to be in Muhammad Dahlan’s camp, and since Dahlan is Abbas’s fiercest and oldest rival, Abbas has missed few opportunities to harass him every chance he gets. Eliminating rivals has taken on greater urgency, however, as calls grow for the indefinitely postponed Palestinian elections to actually be held at some point soon. No date has been set, but events on the ground indicate that Abbas is preparing for an election that he anticipates will take place by the end of the year. The shutting down of sites loyal to Dahlan is part of the general crackdown on dissent and criticism of Abbas that is being carried out against journalists, bloggers, and private citizens. These measures have intensified and suggest that Abbas is more worried now about public opinion than he has been in the past.

Dahlan is also not the only potential rival being targeted. The recent contretemps between Abbas and Fayyad, initiated by Abbas trying to embarrass his prime minister by having him meet with Netanyahu on Palestinian Prisoners Day and now having degenerated to the point where Abbas refuses to be on speaking terms with Fayyad, is also borne out of internal Palestinian politics. There are rumblings that Fayyad might challenge Abbas and run for president, and even though Fayyad has no real base of support and would likely lose, his popularity with foreign governments and the international community still makes him a dangerous threat to Abbas. Unlike Dahlan, who is basically a gangster chieftain, Fayyad cannot be compromised or endlessly investigated, so Abbas’s options for discrediting him are limited to trying to make him look foolish and like an Israeli stooge, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to try. And of course, Abbas is doing everything he can to root out support for Hamas in the West Bank, which presents the ultimate threat to his continued rule over the PA.

Taken together, I think this means that Abbas knows something we don’t, and that elections are more imminent than anyone thinks. The Arab Spring and elections in Tunisia and Egypt make it harder for the PA to keep on pushing them off, and Abbas’s actions look to me like classic campaigning in an electoral authoritarian state. Expect more reports of decidedly illiberal behavior on Abbas’s part for the rest of the year, or until elections are held (if ever). When Abbas took over the PA’s reins following Arafat’s death, there was a perception that he was quiet and mild mannered and had no real interest in staying in power for long. Turns out that being Palestinian president is a decent gig, and like authoritarians everywhere, Abbas is willing to fight dirty to hang on to his job.

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