Cracks Appearing In All Sorts Of Coalitions

June 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Apparently Bibi Netanyahu’s strategy of expanding his governing coalition in an effort to deal with the crisis precipitated by the Tal Law’s expiration didn’t solve the problem but only kicked it down the road. Following the news that the Plesner Committee, which was charged with coming up with a viable plan to rectify the military and national service exemptions for Haredim and Israeli Arabs, has decided to essentially give Israeli Arabs a free pass, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party quit the committee. The news that Haredim were going to be treated differently than Israeli Arabs obviously did not sit well with Shas and UTJ either, who were already upset that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima are insisting on severe penalties for draft dodgers that are squarely aimed at the Haredi sector. So in a nutshell, the two sides that were pulling on Netanyahu from opposite ends during the last coalition crisis are now both angry again, and this is all being driven by Kadima, Netanyahu’s new coalition partner that was supposed to give him room to maneuver and put an end to the constant worrying about the coalition breaking apart.

Netanyahu and Mofaz are meeting today in an effort to try and resolve the impasse after the prime minister made clear that he was not ok with the Plesner Committee plan (which is being pushed, if not outright dictated, by Mofaz), but this is just a reminder that Israeli coalitions are never fully stable no matter how large they are. This is not going to bring down the government, but if forced to choose between Mofaz and Kadima on the one hand and Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu on the other, Netanyahu is going to go with Mofaz, which will set off all sorts of problems with the settler community at the worst possible time for Bibi given that the Ulpana evacuation just went off shockingly smoothly.

Speaking of Ulpana, the events there this week revealed another important split, but this one has nothing to do with coalition politics. Instead, there seems to be a growing divide between the camp containing the majority of the settlement movement and the more extreme militant wing (often referred to by the shorthand “hilltop youth”), with some in the settler leadership waking up to the fact that violence turned outward almost always inevitably migrates inward as well. It began when Ze’ev Hever, who is in charge of the settlement movement’s building and construction, found his car tires slashed, prompting a set of mea culpas from him and from Yesha head Danny Dayan, who both admitted that they have stayed silent for years in the face of settler violence against Arabs. This acknowledgement and promise to begin cracking down on the violent extremists within their midst unfortunately came too late for the Defense Ministry subcontractors visiting Ulpana earlier this month in preparation for the evacuation who were pelted with rocks for their efforts to ensure that Ulpana’s residents would be moved out as painlessly and seamlessly as possible. Then if that weren’t enough, the Ulpana families – who were fully cooperative and left peacefully – had to spend their time skirmishing with hilltop youths who were trying to prevent those very families from evacuating by barring their way and then barricading themselves in one of the vacated apartments. If it wasn’t clear to the settler leadership that they have a serious problem within their midst while violent settler extremists were torching mosques and carrying out odious “price tag” attacks in the West Bank, it has become abundantly clear now. All of this is a useful reminder that, as Jeremy Pressman aptly put it yesterday, the term “settler” papers over the fact that settlers are not a monolithic group and the settlement movement is not a unified whole marching in lockstep. These divisions within Israeli politics and Israeli society bear close watching over the next few months as tensions that have been buried are now starting to bubble up to the surface.

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The Turkish Paradox

June 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Anyone who follows Turkey knows that there has been a perpetual debate during the past few years over whether Turkey is becoming more democratic or less democratic. The answer you get depends on whom you ask, and Turkey experts point to different factors to bolster their respective cases. To my thinking though there is no absolutely right or absolutely wrong answer to the question, because the truth is that Turkey is becoming both simultaneously; it just depends on where you look. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Steven Cook and I tried to capture this dynamic and explain the proper way of viewing what is going on in Turkey by harkening back to Robert Dahl’s definition of democracy that divides it into two elements, participation and contestation. Our article can be found here, and I have excerpted part of it below. I look forward to people’s feedback and comments.

June 27, 2012

The Turkish Paradox

How the AKP Simultaneously Embraces and Abuses Democracy

Michael J. Koplow and Steven A. Cook
MICHAEL KOPLOW is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University and has a blog called Ottomans and Zionists. STEVEN A. COOK is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Prime Minister Erdogan sitting in a fighter jet on June 27, 2012. (Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters)

The Halki seminary, founded in 1844 as a center of learning for the Orthodox Eastern Church, was for decades a symbol of religious toleration and minority rights in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. But in 1971, Ankara closed the seminary when the constitutional court, dominated by adherents of Kemalism, the secular ideology of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ruled that only the army was allowed to run nonstate-supervised private colleges. So in March, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the Halki seminary would be restored and reopened, it seemed that the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the country’s ruling faction since 2002, was furthering its reformist agenda of making Turkey a more open society by expanding personal, religious, and economic freedoms.

But while Ankara encourages openness with one hand, it clamps down on it with the other. In May, Erdogan announced that the government would end state subsidies for the arts, closing the spigot on $63 million in annual funding and, in effect, endangering the country’s more than 50 state theaters and artistic venues across the country. The AKP claimed that it did so in the name of private enterprise and was instituting a modern approach to government patronage of the arts; opponents argued that it was a deliberate attempt to silence artists, some of whom had become highly critical of AKP rule. Since the AKP era began, the world has watched closely to see if Turkey would embrace, or abuse, democracy. What is becoming clear is that Erdogan’s strategy is to do both, simultaneously.

The key to understanding democracy under the AKP lies with the meaning of democracy itself. The Yale political scientist Robert Dahl wrote that democracy is defined by the extent to which citizens can participate in civic life and whether they can contest the government’s power. Looking at each factor separately illustrates why Turkey is such a paradox.

To continue reading, please click over to the article at

Some Non-Blog Writing

June 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

Brent Sasley (whose excellent blog can be found here) and I wrote an op-ed that is now up at the Christian Science Monitor on the steps that need to be taken for Israel and Turkey to restore their relationship. This is not an argument that Turkey and Israel will actually to do so; in fact, regular readers of this blog know that I am pessimistic on the chances of this happening since domestic politics and personality clashes on both sides are working against it. The fact remains though that there are powerful reasons why the two countries should make up, and this op-ed is my and Brent’s effort to set forth a roadmap for how both parties can do so. I’d love to know what people think, so please share your thoughts via blog comments or email.

The Politics of Russia in Israel

June 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

Vladimir Putin was in Israel this week, and the government rolled out the red carpet for him. Shimon Peres hosted a state dinner for him and he held meetings with Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and he inaugurated a memorial in Netanya to Soviet soldiers who were killed in WWII. The Israeli welcoming embrace might seem strange given that Israel and the Soviet Union had an acrimonious relationship and that Putin is not exactly seen as a paragon of virtue these days, but it is actually a no-brainer from a domestic political standpoint. There are over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel out of a total population of 7.6 million, and there are many prominent Russian-Jewish politicians, from Natan Sharansky to current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many of these Russian olim no longer feel as acrimonious toward their former homeland as they once did, and they still have deep ties to Russia that make the Russian issue a political winner.

This point was really driven home for me this morning reading Marc Tracy’s post-Birthright thoughts on how his trip to Israel has made him feel more viscerally connected and emotionally attached to Israel even though he is an American Jew and not an Israeli. This connection felt by American Jews is one of the primary drivers behind the U.S.-Israel bond, as a particularly active and vocal (and yes, influential – let’s not sell ourselves short) segment of Americans feel so strongly about Israel. In Israel, the same holds true about the Russian population, who are Israeli citizens and may have not been to Russia or other former Soviet countries since they left but nevertheless feel a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward their previous home. This relationship goes both ways, as the new annual $1 million prize that Israel is going to bestow on recipients whose contributions to sciences or the arts reflect Jewish values is being funded by a group of Jewish Russian oligarchs. It makes sense for Israeli politicians to take advantage of this sentiment through stronger ties with Russia and wanting to have their pictures taken with Putin when he visits.

The question for me is whether this is a good idea for Israel geostrategically once you set aside the domestic political benefits, and my answer is no. To begin with, as Elise Labott points out, Israel and Russia do not see eye to eye on many foreign policy issues these days. The two countries are working at cross purposes when it comes to Iran and Syria, and yesterday Putin met with Mahmoud Abbas and implicitly backed the Palestinian president’s view that Israel is the party responsible for the deadlock in peace negotiations. Peres spent much of the visit publicly pressuring Putin to come around to the Israeli view of things, commenting during the memorial dedication ceremony that the country that defeated fascism will not tolerate similarly odious regimes in Iran and Syria, and expressing his view during the state dinner that Russia will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. This seems more like wishful thinking than an expression of confidence, since Russia has so far shown little inclination to budge on these issues and did not hint at any changes in policy during Putin’s meetings with Israeli leaders. Netanyahu, Barak, Lieberman, and other Israeli officials are assiduously working to court Russia, but to no avail. At some point, the closer relationship with Russia is going to come to a head, and it will be easier if there are fewer messy entanglements at that point.

Aside from the fact that Israel is destined to endlessly bang its head against the wall when it comes to Russian policy, there is another good reason for Israel to distance itself from Russia. Putin under Russia has evidenced an increasingly authoritarian bent, with Putin’s domestic opponents harassed and jailed, opposition political parties eviscerated, and charges of election rigging and voter fraud. Russia today is no longer a democracy, and Freedom House this year assigned it a 6 for political rights and a 5 for civil liberties (with 7 being the worst score a state can achieve). In short, Israel is trying to tighten its relationship with a deeply illiberal state, and one with which it foten disagrees on matters of foreign policy. In doing so, it risks damaging its relationship with other democracies and European states that do not look kindly upon Russian intransigence. Israel often evinces a view that any friend is a good one, but cozying up to Russia is not going to advance Israel’s international standing or leave it feeling less isolated. This is a classic example of losing sight of what is strategically prudent in the long term in favor of short term tactical political gain. Israel does not have to publicly repudiate Russia or Putin or lead the Mitt Romney vanguard that views Russia as the top geopolitical threat in the world today, but it also does not need to spend its time trying to be Russia’s best friend. Israel should work to keep its relationship with Russia as non-acrimonious as it can while holding Russia at arm’s length.

A Turkish Lesson On How To Turn Lemons Into Lemonade

June 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Up until this week, Turkey was not having much success with its Syria policy. Ankara made some noise about establishing a buffer zone inside of Syria in order to alleviate the problem of refugees streaming across its border, but nobody took that suggestion seriously since it was clear that Turkey was not going to invade Syria in order to make such a move happen. When Syrian forces shot across the border in April, Turkey threatened to invoke NATO Article 5, but that too was an idle threat. Assad had misled Erdoğan a number of times about his willingness to reform and stop killing civilians, and was turning a blind eye, if not actively aiding, the PKK’s presence in Syria. Turkey wanted Assad gone, but was not having any success convincing the international community to take action and did not want to step into the Syrian morass alone.

Then Syria shot down the Turkish plane on Friday, and rather than jump headlong into a retaliatory strike, Ankara has been coolly assessing its options and in the span of four days has made more progress on its goals on Syria than it had in the previous 12 months combined. By turning this into a NATO Article 4 issue rather than an Article 5 one, Turkey has gotten a harsh blanket condemnation of Syrian action while still maintaining the credible threat of future force. Had Turkey made the same mistake that it did a couple of months ago by rashly bringing up Article 5 (and in fact, Deputy PM Bülent Arınç threatened to invoke it yesterday before quickly being reigned in), it would have backfired since there is no desire among NATO countries right now to go to war with Syria. By not doing so, Turkey now buys some time to convince Russia that its backing of Syria and Assad is a mistaken policy and lets pressure on Assad build, and also lets the possibility of unilateral Turkish action dangle out there in the wind.

More impressively, Turkey has now established a de facto buffer zone inside of Syria without having to cross the border or fire a single shot. By changing its rules of engagement with Syria and announcing that it will consider all Syrian military forces approaching the border to be a threat, and then deploying its own tanks and artillery to the border, Turkey has accomplished its goal of a few months ago. Syria is going to be far more cautious going forward about what goes on near the Turkish border, and Turkey now gets its buffer zone and possibly a temporary solution to its refugee problem. This will also help stop PKK fighters from crossing over into Turkey as there is a much larger military presence than there was previously.

Nobody at this point should need any convincing that Assad is a butcher whose actions are reprehensible in every conceivable way. States tend to turn a blind eye to abuses that take place within another state’s borders, however, on the grounds that the offending state does not represent a threat to other sovereign entities. In shooting down the Turkish plane, Damascus made a grave mistake, because we now have Exhibit A that Syria’s actions are not confined simply to killing its own people, but that it is willing to lash out at other states as well. Ankara is doing everything it can to drum that fact home by contrasting Syrian action with its own – Erdoğan today revealed that Turkish airspace was violated 114 times this year with every violation resolved without incident, and that Syrian helicopters crossed into Turkish airspace 5 times and each time were warned to turn around without being fired upon. By doing a masterful job of highlighting Syria’s reckless overreaction against another state and by painstakingly marshaling the resources to tighten the noose around Damascus, Erdoğan is making the possibility of Assad eventually being forced from power more likely. An immediate Turkish assault on Syrian targets last Friday might have been viscerally satisfying, but Ankara is being smart in taking the longer view of things.

A Brief Thought Experiment on Turkey and Syria, and What Comes Next

June 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

Turkey is in an uproar over its jet that was shot down by Syria on Friday, and between talking with the opposition on Sunday and a cabinet meeting on Monday, not to mention briefings and consultations with allies over the weekend and the upcoming NATO Article 4 meeting, it is not yet clear what steps Ankara will take in retaliation. Whatever happens though, I remain confident that this is not going to lead to Turkey taking any unilateral steps toward attacking Syria, despite the reports that Syria knew it was shooting at a Turkish jet. Turkey does not want to get bogged down in a war with Syria, despite the fact that it has an enormous military advantage. It has been dragging its feet for months – remember all that ridiculous speculation about Turkey establishing buffer zones inside of Syria? – and trying to get the international community involved to no avail, and the downing of its jet will only magnify this tendency.

To be clear, I am not contending that Turkey does not want to see Assad gone; I have no doubt that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu want him out of Damascus in the worst way possible. They do not, however, want to do it themselves, and for very good reason. This is a smart pair and they know the many pitfalls of going to war, and despite the fact Syria is causing them all sorts of headaches, they do not rise to the level of serious threat that would require Turkish military intervention. Ankara threatened to invoke Article 5 when Syrian forces shot across the border in April, but it was clear that was an empty threat and ultimately did not good. This time around, the government is being much smarter, and not threatening to invoke Article 5 but actually invoking Article 4, which calls for NATO consultations rather than automatic NATO action. The intention is not to actually invade Syria, but to ratchet up the political pressure as much as possible so as to force a diplomatic solution in which Assad’s Russian backers desert him and he has to leave. The strategy is the same as it has always been – internationalize the conflict as much as possible so that Turkey is not left to do the dirty work all by itself – only now Turkey has a big trump card in its hand, which is the credible threat of force since shooting down a jet is a pretty big deal. Will this strategy work? I think it depends on how determined Assad is to stay put at all costs. My read of the situation is that the only way he ever agrees to leave his perch in Damascus is by gunpoint, but Ankara might have a different (and much better informed) view that mine. Here’s to hoping that Turkey is able to turn this incident into a positive and force a resolution to the mess in Syria that leaves Syria better off and Turkey in a stronger and less uncertain position.

The more interesting question to me though is why Turkey has shown so much restraint, which is both admirable and puzzling at the same time. To understand why, it is useful to do a quick thought experiment. Let’s say that Syria had downed an Israeli jet on Friday; is there any doubt at all that Israel would have spent the weekend absolutely pummeling Syrian military targets? There wouldn’t have been a Syrian air defense battery left standing. It also can’t escape notice that in 2007 Israeli inserted commandos into Syria after which Israeli planes crossed into Syrian airspace, took out a Syrian radar installation, completely obliterated a Syrian nuclear reactor, extracted the commandos (who had painted the target with lasers), and landed safely back in Israel with literally zero consequences. Yet Syria had absolutely no compunction about shooting down a Turkish plane that ever so briefly crossing a couple of miles into Syria. When it comes to Israel, Syria is scared of its own shadow, but it has no problem bringing down a Turkish plane or shooting across the Turkish border. It’s not as if Syria shouldn’t think twice about messing with Turkey – the Turkish military is large, well trained, well equipped, and generally fearsome.

I think the answer to Turkish restraint here lies in the various international institutions in which it is enmeshed, a situation that is different to that of Israel’s. Turkey is a member of NATO and a prospective member of the EU, and this affords it both a measure of security while also acting as an involuntary restraint. Turkey has the luxury of involving NATO and bringing a lot of global pressure to bear on Syria with the possibility of a genuinely international response to Syrian action against Turkey. Attacking Turkey is enormously risky in this regard, which is why Syria immediately went out of its way to emphasize that this had been a mistake and that it was working to recover the two missing pilots and the wreckage of the jet. By the same token, however, the very thing that increases Turkey’s power and clout also holds it back. Because an attack on Turkey is an attack on every other NATO country, Turkey cannot just dash into an armed conflict with Syria, as NATO Article 5 then gets invoked and that is pretty serious business. By testing the waters with Turkey, Damascus is gambling that the other NATO states do not want to get involved in what has turned into a Syrian civil war and that Ankara knows this. The days of deliberations on the heels of Friday’s disaster confirm this, since Turkey has not yet responded, has not revealed what its plans are, and has not brought up Article 5, and the more time that passes, the more difficult it will be for Ankara to respond militarily. It seems to me that the Turkish government is going out of its way not to inflame public expectations for a forceful armed response, and the NATO factor is a large part of why that is. To some extent, Turkey is handcuffed when it comes to these borderline situations in a way that a state like Israel is not, and Assad understands this full well.

This is a really useful example of the way in which international institutions can both empower and restrain simultaneously, illustrating that they confer serious benefits but also come with serious drawbacks. Turkish restraint here is not just about Turkey or what Erdoğan wants to do, but is bound up in NATO politics. Were Turkey in Israel’s position and felt in a variety of ways more isolated, leading to a more go it alone mentality, I think Assad would be sleeping far more fitfully tonight.

Questions About Syria’s Downing of the Turkish Warplane

June 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Syria has apparently shot down a Turkish warplane, and the details about how it occurred and whether or not the pilots have been rescued yet are still murky since there are conflicting reports. I don’t want to draw any large conclusions yet until we know precisely what happened, but here are some questions to think about while we wait for more details.

1. Was the plane shot down on purpose or was it an accident? A subset of this is whether Syria purposely and knowingly shot at the plane but didn’t realize who it was shooting at

2. Was the plane in Syrian airspace or in international airspace? If the answer is the former, what was it doing there? My bet is that a Turkish plane along the border is PKK-related, but it could be something else entirely.

3. What is the scope of the Syrian apology? It is simply an apology, or is it being backed up by Syrian assistance in a search and rescue mission?

4. Is Turkey talking about invoking NATO Article V, as it threatened to do a couple of months ago when Syrian forces shot across the border with Turkey? That would be a sure sign that it plans on ratcheting things up with Syria.

5. Does Turkey actually want to increase hostilities with Syria? Up until this point, Ankara has been trying its hardest not to get entangled without a serious international effort, which is why the talk about Turkish buffer zones has dried up. Is this going to be the impetus for Turkish forces in Syria? My guess is no, but Erdoğan is headed now to Ankara for consultations with his top defense officials and he may feel pressured to respond in some form.

6. Can Erdoğan leverage the incident to make this a net positive for Turkey? If he can credibly threaten Assad with a military response, he might be able to get some cooperation on getting rid of the PKK or quieting things along the border to alleviate the refugee problem.


The Problem With Religious Monopolies

June 22, 2012 § 4 Comments

Since Israel’s founding, the Orthodox movement has had a monopoly on the official practice of Judaism in the state. Gershom Gorenberg’s superb book The Unmaking of Israel goes into the way this came about and the problems with it in great detail, but the short summary is that the Orthodox chief rabbinate controls marriage, divorce, and conversion, giving it absolute power over who is considered a Jew and of the largest personal milestones in the Jewish life cycle. The monopoly that Orthodox Judaism has is so absolute that Israel does not even recognize Conservative and Reform rabbis as being rabbis, and instead categorizes them as community leaders. This would not matter in practice except for the fact that the state pays the salaries of Orthodox rabbis to provide religious services to municipalities and communities, and does not do so for non-Orthodox leaders as they are not recognized as having rabbinical authority.

In May, the Israeli government announced that it was going to correct this imbalance and begin recognizing Conservative and Reform rabbis and pay their salaries as well. The financing is slated to come from the Culture and Sports Ministry rather than the Religious Services Ministry, and the Conservative and Reform leaders are to be called “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” so as to effectively put an asterisk by their names, but this is undoubtedly an important progressive step nonetheless, especially given the fact that the majority of Israelis are not Orthodox and this in no way infringes upon Orthodox Judaism’s own practices and strictures that it sets up for itself.

Sadly predictably, however, there has been a huge backlash from Orthodox rabbis against the government’s plan. This week, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar sent a letter to hundreds of Orthodox rabbis in which he called for them to fight the government’s plan and reimpose the absolute religious monopoly that he and his compatriots have enjoyed. He also made his pernicious views on non-Orthodox rabbis crystal clear, expressing his “sorrow and terrible pain” over the recognition of “uprooters and destroyers of Judaism who have already wrought horrible destruction upon the People of Israel in the Diaspora.” Rabbi Amar and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger have called a strategy meeting for Tuesday and declared rabbinical attendance to be mandatory, and no doubt both of them will have some more unpleasant words for those with whom they disagree. Israel now faces the specter of one arm of the state – the Chief Rabbinate, which is an official state office – actively working to subvert the government and the High Court, and having its chief rabbis openly call for the attorney-general to consult with them before issuing legal directives. This is, of course, completely outrageous, particularly since the decision to recognize Conservative and Reform rabbis does not affect the Orthodox in any meaningful way other than diluting their political power and hold over the 70% of Israeli Jews who are not Orthodox, and the Chief Rabbinate is marshaling all of its resources in an effort to maintain rank state discrimination in an area in which the state should not be choosing sides. All of this is a sad consequence of the religious monopoly that Orthodoxy was granted at the state’s founding, since over decades this monopoly over religious ceremony has been internalized in a way that has led many Orthodox rabbis in Israel to believe that no other branch of Judaism is even legitimate.

One of my closest friends and college roommate, Ephraim Pelcovits, is the rabbi of the East 55th Street Conservative Synagogue in New York. Ephraim is an astoundingly deep thinker on all issues under the sun but particularly on the role of religion in Israel and Jewish communal issues more broadly. Over too many hours-long conversations throughout the past 15 years to even count, he has been a major influence on my thinking on Israel, Israeli politics, and Judaism. Since this appears to be guest posting week on O&Z, and since he is uniquely qualified to speak on this topic having grown up in the Orthodox community in the U.S. and spent a year of his rabbinical training in Israel, I present to you Ephraim’s thoughts on Rabbi Amar:


This Saturday, Jews all over the world will read the Bible portion dealing with the rebellion against Moses’ leadership, led by a party so uninterested in dialogue or reconciliation that it was designated as “evil” by God for its constancy in conflict, and was later held up by the Jewish tradition as the paradigm of senseless infighting.

Earlier this week – just as world Jewry was about to get its annual reminder about the dangers of senseless conflict – Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, decided to designate me – and all my colleagues in the liberal rabbinate– with that same moniker in a letter he distributed on his official government stationary. We – Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Rabbis – were disparaged as “…enemies of God, wicked people who are like the turbulent sea that cannot be quieted, their entire aim being to do harm to the sanctity and purity of the Torah in our Holy Land…”

The cause of this vituperative rant? A decision by the Attorney General of Israel’s Office to begin paying the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis who serve in Regional Councils or in Agricultural Settlements, just as it has always done for their Orthodox counterparts.

Obviously it is inappropriate for a State employee – like Rabbi Amar – to use the trappings of his office to lobby for a personal initiative – in this case the overturning of a new State Law which begins to allow for religious pluralism in Israel.  Yet what really terrified me as a religious leader was reading the fierce and dehumanizing tone of his letter, including the highly incendiary language Amar uses to describe the non-Orthodox movements and their leadership.

For the rabbis of the classical period, God’s designation of the rebels against Moses as evil opens a broader discussion of other villains marked with the same moniker, a list which includes those who seeks to do physical harm to their peers as well as those who borrow money and refuse to repay their loans.

It seems to me that Rabbi Amar misses the entire point of the classical rabbinic teaching on this week’s Torah portion. What I believe the ancient rabbis were teaching by connecting the ills of physical violence and shirking loans with the theme of provoking conflict is that all three will lead to the crumbling of society.

Let me explain that connection.  In a culture like that of Traditional Judaism, which forbids interest paying loans between community members, the presence of even one shirking borrower threatens the ability of all those in need from receiving money from their more fortunate brethren. The resulting freezing of credit parallels the power of the violent and of the provocateur to rip apart a tight knit community. All of these actions – which tear tenuous human connections apart – are designated as evil.

This Saturday, in my synagogue, we’ll take a stand for community and join together with our brethren the world over to hear the traditional narrative read from them Bible. When we finish hearing the story of a rabble rouser from Biblical history, I will tell my congregants about a contemporary thug – Rabbi Shlomo Amar – who is using his government office and it’s powers to tear our people apart, and to label us – members of a Conservative Synagogue – as “uprooters of the faith.” I will then encourage those in attendance to take a stand against incendiary speech, and to make connections and open dialogue with people – Jews and non-Jews – who live religious lives that look different than ours. Israeli society and democracy is too precious – and too precariously held together – for Rabbi Amar’s fear driven brand of Judaism to hold a monopoly on Israeli religious expression!

Syria: Bringing Former Friends Back Together

June 21, 2012 § 3 Comments

Michael Herzog and Soner Cagaptay have an op-ed in today’s New York Times on Israel-Turkey relations in which they argue that the situation in Syria can provide the impetus for the two countries to reconcile. I was reluctant to comment on it since I have an op-ed of my own coming out soon on steps that need to be taken for Israel and Turkey to make up, but I think their piece has some flaws that I can’t help but point out. I am no stranger to the Syria argument, having pointed out before that it would be to both states’ benefit to cooperate on Syria. Herzog and Cagaptay take this idea a few steps too far, however, by essentially arguing that the mess in Syria can be the primary force that will move Jerusalem and Ankara back together.

The first problem with this is that while Israeli and Turkish cooperation would be nice, Syria presents a very different set of problems for each. Turkey is facing a serious refugee crisis with Syrians fleeing across the Turkish border, the prospect of revitalized PKK terrorism if Assad provides the PKK with a safe haven inside Syria, and reputational and credibility problems following early Turkish threats to establish buffer zones inside of Syria that are clearly nowhere close to materializing. In contrast, Israel is facing the possibility of Assad and the Syrian army stirring up trouble with Israel in an effort to distract from the massacres being carried out by Assad’s forces, Hizballah shooting volleys of missiles into northern Israel in response to alleged “Israeli meddling” in the conflict, and the inclusion of Islamist elements dangerously hostile to Israel in the Syrian opposition. So yes, in a wider sense, both Israel and Turkey are facing problems because of the brewing Syrian civil war, but that does not mean that cooperation between the two is such a no-brainer that it will get them to reconcile. For instance, would Israel help install the Syrian National Council in Damascus in order to stem the flow of refugees into Turkey if it means that it now faces Islamist governments on its southern and northern borders? Does Israel have anywhere near the level of interest in driving the PKK out of Syria as Turkey does? Yes, both countries want a resolution of some sort, but it is entirely unclear that they would agree on what that should be.

Second, Herzog and Cagaptay argue that any Israeli involvement in Syria has to be secret:

Any Israeli contribution would, of course, have to be invisible in order not to create a sense that Israel was behind the Syrian uprising. This makes Turkish-Israeli cooperation against Mr. Assad even more valuable, for it would allow Israel to provide untraceable assets to support Turkey’s efforts to undermine the Assad government.

Well, doesn’t that contradict the premise of the entire argument? Israel and Turkey are very publicly at odds, and any reconciliation is going to have to be a public one as a result. Much of the benefit of reconciling, and this is particularly true for Israel, is a public relations one, so some sort of secret rapprochement that nobody knows about outside of the respective countries’ militaries and intelligence services does not do much good. The notion that Israel would agree to help out Turkey but do so in an untraceable way is not a point that bolsters the argument that cooperation on Syria is going to lead to a reconciliation. It might be an important confidence building measure, but if you are claiming that the Syria mess is going to push Israel and Turkey to repair their relationship, you had better come up with something more than covert intelligence assistance.

Then there are a bunch of smaller problems in the piece. The authors assert that “A Turkish-Israeli dialogue on Syria could bolster Israel’s interest in regime change and enlist Israel to generate American support,” but I hardly think that Israel voicing its approval of a Turkish plan to get the U.S. involved is going to sway the administration’s impulse to stay out of things. They also argue that Shaul Mofaz’s inclusion in the cabinet dampens the influence of Avigdor Lieberman and his strident criticisms of Turkey, but Lieberman is hardly the only politician to have a hard line on a flotilla apology and there is no evidence that Mofaz is itching to pursue normalized ties. There is no discussion in the piece of the larger structural incentives that might push Israel and Turkey to reconcile, since the Syria issue has not been enough up until this point. In sum, I don’t think that Herzog and Cagaptay are wrong to identify Syria as a problem for both Israel and Turkey, but the overall argument flies right over so many important details that to me their op-ed fails to convince.

Guest Post: Which Side Is It That Is Actually Politicizing Israel?

June 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Following my post last week about the GOP turning Israel into a partisan issue, my friend Gabe Scheinmann emailed me to register his disagreement with what I had written. Gabe and I met when we were at Harvard and we both ended up as PhD students in the Government Department at Georgetown, and he is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Gabe is a rising star in conservative foreign policy circles, and I always take his unfailingly intelligent and informed views on security policy very seriously. Gabe has a different take on who is responsible for politicizing Israel as an issue in U.S. elections, and I asked if he would be willing to write a guest post laying out his rebuttal to my argument and he graciously agreed. Here is Gabe on the differences between the Republicans and Democrats on Israel and which side is more responsible for playing politics.

Making “Israel” into a partisan issue football is bad for Israel and bad for America. A true alliance does not bloom and wither based on the party in power, but instead represents long-term interests. By politicizing such an alliance, both political parties, and both countries for that matter, are jeopardizing the crucial trust and commitments needed for a fruitful relationship. Moreover, the current parties’ dispositions on Israel have not always been the same. Prior to the Nixon Administration, it was the Democratic Party that was a great friend of Israel, from immediate political recognition from Truman to the beginning of a military relationship under JFK. In contrast, the greatest crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations to this day occurred during a Republican Administration, when an irate Eisenhower browbeat Israel over its invasion of the Sinai and Suez Canal in 1956. Three decades from now, the parties’ identities may yet again change and it would be a disservice to the U.S, Israel, and the alliance if the parties were to develop diametrically opposed views on the subject.

That said, I think the real culprit is that for the first time in a long time, real differences have emerged between the two parties regarding their policies towards Israel. The Democratic Party’s lurch leftwards on foreign policy—partly a result of Vietnam, partly due to demographics—has also shaken its once solid support for Israel. The Democratic Congressional leadership remains very pro-Israel, way more so than the current president. But if you look at poll after poll of Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, what you find on Israel is very troubling. Whether it’s the J Street crowd (whose leadership is way more right-wing than its supporters, and that’s saying something), or the African-American community, or the environmentalist community, or the gay community, you’ll find some terrible sentiments on Israel. The ritual condemnation of Israel by supposed “human rights” organizations, all left-leaning, are manifestations of this. And while the Democratic leadership is indeed pro-Israel, the ranks of the Democratic party are not. The “Gaza-54” letter, asking Obama to pressure Israel to ease the Gaza blockade in 2010, was signed exclusively by 54 Democratic Congressmen, Rep Jim Moran (D-VA) blamed the Iraq War on AIPAC—earning the rebuke of Rep. Steny Hoyer—and, most recently, the New York Democratic Party establishment has come out against Charles Barron, the former Black Panther running for Congress, for his anti-Israel and anti-Semitic positions, even though he has been endorsed by the retiring Congressman whose seat he’s running for.

Moreover, President Obama himself has politicized Israel policy to a degree unseen in decades. The Obama Campaign put out a glossy, epic-music-leitmotif video on its “exemplary” record on Israel, the White House (note: not the campaign) has a webpage exclusively devoted to the president’s Israel record, longer than the entirety of its foreign policy page, and the president himself declared that he “has done more in terms of security for the state of Israel than any previous administration” and knows more about Judaism than any other American president. The list goes on. Obama has spoken at AIPAC two years in row, a first for a president. The recent spate of national security leaks—authorized or not—have served to make the president look tougher to his electorate, while compromising real national security, such as the disclosure of the joint U.S.-Israeli cyberwarfare campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, which has a direct quote from VP Biden blaming Israel.  In addition, Biden has recently reemphasized the president’s campaign speech of last October, also expounding that “I believe that no president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s physical security than Barack Obama”, even managing a small dig at the Bush Administration for supposedly not putting enough pressure on Iran.

Moreover, the President’s Israel policy seems dictated not by U.S. national security, but by his own reelection campaign, as his policies on the peace process and Iran have morphed as the November approaches.

Take the Peres ceremony. To be clear, if the GOP leadership was indeed invited, they should have gone. (However, Kampeas’ blog postings on the subject are far from definitive as to who was actually invited and who was out of town, so I’m not sure there’s solid evidence that the GOP absence was out of spite for Obama’s Israel record.) Notice the glowing and unprecedented reception the White House gave Peres compared to its shabby treatment of Netanyahu, Israel’s actual leader. Notice Obama quoting extensively from Peres’ 1993 Nobel peace prize speech, or the very act of giving Peres the medal, or more importantly, singling him out for a separate ceremony than the rest of the recipients the previous week. For example, when Obama gave Bush 41 the same medal two years ago, not only was it not a black tie event, nor at night, nor a reception, but he was one of fifteen recipients! This was an entire political operation by the president, from the decision to award the medal, to the manner in which it was presented, to the themes hit upon. (Notice how Peres brought up Iran, while Obama didn’t.) Obama’s message to Bibi was “See how I’ll treat you if you believe in what I believe”. It was a no-so-subtle dig.

To conclude, I believe that the core of the Democratic party has moved far leftward on foreign policy and, as a result, it is losing its reliable pro-Israel bent. This has begun to trickle up the ranks of its leadership, but for the moment its Congressional leadership is still solidly pro-Israel, more so than the president himself. So, what should the GOP or, for that matter, pro-Israel Democrats do? In order to keep Israel bipartisan, should they compromise? How should the Republican Party respond when the White House attempts to impose a settlement freeze on Israel, or equates the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering, or denies the existence of Bush era assurances to Israel, or attempts to refund UNESCO in contravention of U.S. law, or opposes the counting of Palestinian “refugees”?

In the past 5 years, substantive differences have emerged between the two parties on Israel, largely a result of a shift in the Democratic party. The emergence of groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel is a consequence, not a cause, of this shift and is merely trying to highlight these differences while ultimately letting voters decide. If the differences between the two parties, or Obama and Romney, were invented, then that would be a different story. However, they are not and therefore ought to be debated.

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