July 31, 2012 § 4 Comments
When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their controversial article on the “Israel Lobby” in the London Review of Books in March 2006, they defined the lobby as follows:
We use ‘the Lobby’ as shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. This is not meant to suggest that ‘the Lobby’ is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals within it do not disagree on certain issues. Not all Jewish Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them…
Jewish Americans have set up an impressive array of organisations to influence American foreign policy, of which AIPAC is the most powerful and best known. In 1997,Fortune magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the most powerful lobbies in Washington. AIPAC was ranked second behind the American Association of Retired People, but ahead of the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association. ANational Journal study in March 2005 reached a similar conclusion, placing AIPAC in second place (tied with AARP) in the Washington ‘muscle rankings’.
When their argument was published in book form one year later, the definition remained the same, although “Lobby” was switched to the less conspiratorial looking “lobby” and “steer” was changed to “shape.” The point was clear though; the Israel lobby is made up of groups and empowered individuals who seek to influence the foreign policy process. Mearsheimer and Walt swore up and down that they were not indicting Jews or Jewish voters wholesale, but were seeking to expose the activities of a select “loose coalition.”
With that background information in mind, Walt wrote a blog post yesterday purporting to put Mitt Romney’s various remarks over the weekend while in Israel into context. According to Walt, Romney was engaging in a time honored bipartisan tradition of pandering to the Israel lobby, but -
The good news, such as it is, is that both Romney and Obama are probably lying. No matter how many times each of them talks about the “unshakeable commitment” to Israel, or even of their “love” for the country, they don’t really mean it. They are simply pandering to domestic politics, which is something that all American politicians do on a host of different issues. Of course, they will still have to shape their policies with the lobby’s clout in mind (as Obama’s humiliating retreat on the settlement issue demonstrates), but nobody should be under the illusion that they genuinely believe all the flattering stuff that they are forced to say.
None of this is new or surprising, since Walt writes variations on this theme regularly. What is noteworthy about this particular Walt missive is that his definition of the lobby is far more expansive than usual. He opens by saying, “Pandering to special interest groups is a time-honored American political tradition, especially in an election year…Whether we are talking about the farm lobby, the NRA, the AARP, Big Pharma, Wall Street, or various ethnic lobbies, it’s inevitable that politicians running for office will say and do lots of stupid things to try to win influential groups over.” So the expectation is that what will follow is an exegesis about how Romney has been trying to win over the groups, or even people, that Walt has previously identified as making up the Israel lobby.
That is not, however, what Walt does. Instead, Walt explicitly states that he is talking about Jewish voters. In the second paragraph, right after the sentences about lobbies that I quoted above, he states about Romney, “He wasn’t trying to win over Israelis or make up for his various gaffes in London; his goal was to convince Israel’s supporters in America to vote for him and not for Barack Obama. Most American Jews lean left and will vote for Obama, but Romney would like to keep the percentage as low as he can, because it just might tip the balance in a critical swing state like Florida.” Lest there be any confusion that Walt is conflating the Israel lobby with American Jews, after referring to Obama and Romney tailoring their policies “with the lobby’s clout in mind,” he spends the rest of the piece talking not about ways in which “the lobby” punishes politicians who deviate from the party line by raising money for their opponents or running ads in their districts, but about how presidents Carter and Bush 41 saw their percentages of Jewish votes drop after pressuring or confronting Israel. He is not telling a story about what he has previously defined as the Israel lobby, but is telling a story about American Jews that he is calling a story about the Israel lobby.
Remember this next time someone claims that Mearsheimer and Walt are not indicting all American Jews with their theory, or are only focusing on a finite and defined set of groups. Walt’s defenders here will claim that because he and Mearsheimer argue that the Israel lobby influences public opinion, this is an extension of that argument, and that by pandering to the Israel lobby Romney and Obama know that they will affect how American Jews vote. Unfortunately, that argument won’t fly in this case. There is simply no way around the fact that Walt defines all American Jewish voters as “the Israel lobby” in his latest piece, and when he indicts Romney for pandering to the Israel lobby he means that Romney is pandering to Jewish voters. There is nothing wrong with pointing out what Romney is doing, but Walt is going to have a difficult time going forward explaining that when he references the Israel lobby, he is talking about “Zionists” or “pro-Israel groups” rather than Jews.
July 30, 2012 § 4 Comments
With Mitt Romney visiting Israel this weekend and giving speeches and making statements about his policy toward Israel, it seems like a good time to think about how his approach as president would be different from what we have seen under President Obama. Romney’s Jewish supporters, noting that a significant number of American Jews appear to be uncomfortable or disappointed with the way that Obama has interacted with Israel, have been pushing the notion that there will be a sea change if Romney is in office, and Romney himself has played up this idea as well. So, if Romney is sitting in the Oval Office come January 20, what can we expect to change?
The first big issue is military and intelligence cooperation and assistance, and almost nobody disputes the fact that these are at an all time high under Obama. Whether it be funding for Iron Dome, coordination on Stuxnet and other measures meant to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, or the sale of advanced weaponry, Israel and the U.S. enjoy a closer relationship now than at any other time in the last 60 years. Indeed, last year Ehud Barak remarked, “I can hardly remember a better period of support, American support and backing and cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.” This type of cooperation is sure to continue should Romney win in November.
Another big policy area is the peace process. Despite concerns over whether Romney supports a two state solution, which largely stem from the backing he is receiving from Palestinian state opponent Sheldon Adelson, I find it difficult to imagine that Romney will buck the strong bipartisan consensus and actually come out in favor of the rightwing one state solution favored by Joe Walsh and Danny Danon. Bibi Netanyahu himself is on record as being in favor of a Palestinian state, and even if you think this is mere lip service, it demonstrates just how far outside the mainstream abandoning the two state solution would place Romney. On the issue of whether he would push the Israelis on settlements and making concessions to the Palestinians, my guess is that Romney will occupy the same position as George W. Bush, which is to have an official policy against continued Israeli settlement expansion but to do nothing about it in practice. Obama famously pushed the Israelis on the issue of settlements earlier in his term, but has since backed off either due to a realization that his initial strategy was a bad one or in order to calm Jewish voters who were uncomfortable with his pressuring Israel but not the Palestinians, or perhaps a little bit of both. Whatever the case, Romney will likely not make the peace process a priority, but it is an open question as to whether a second term Obama would make a strong effort to force the two parties into a peace deal, and my own view is that he is going to let it drop. Between getting burned once and announcing a pivot toward Asia, I think that Obama’s heavy involvement in the peace process is a thing of the past.
Romney’s visit to Israel raised two other issues of American policy after he issued statements addressing each, and these are American support for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On the Iran issue, there was initially some confusion as to whether Romney would commit U.S. troops after the fact were Israel to strike Iran, but Romney himself made clear in an interview in Ha’aretz that he and Obama hold the same position on Iran, saying, “President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.” While Romney has criticized Obama over his Iran policy and suggested that he would be more forceful with the Iranian regime, his actual policy is identical when it comes to tactics – namely, increased sanctions and keeping the military option on the table. Where the two men differ is over what constitutes the precise red line; for Obama it is Iran developing a nuclear weapon, while for Romney it is the attainment of nuclear capability.
Another place where Romney drew a clear distinction with Obama over the past two days was on the embassy question, but it is the emptiest of distinctions. Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, Romney pledged to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and like Bush and Clinton before him, it is a virtual guarantee that should Romney be elected the embassy will remain right where it is. Since Jerusalem’s status is an issue to be negotiated under an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, no American government will actually move the embassy to Jerusalem so as to not act in a prejudicial way. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply knows very little about the politics of Israel in the U.S., and Romney himself knows full well that calling for the embassy to be moved is low hanging political fruit that will never see the light of day once he is in office.
Romney famously said earlier this year that he would do the opposite of what Obama has done on Israel, but this will plainly not be the case. When it comes to hard policy, the differences between the two men are negligible at best. The one place where Romney may differ from Obama is that, as pointed out in this excellent Aaron David Miller column, Obama does not seem to connect with Israel on an emotional level and this impacts the way he speaks about it and the way American Jews perceive Obama on the issue. Romney will not have this same problem, and while I think that looking at actual policies is the best way to judge the two on the Israel question, I understand the concerns that some Jewish voters have when it comes to Obama’s rhetoric. This divide on how one views Obama on Israel was captured in an instructive Twitter exchange yesterday between CFR’s Steven Cook (who is a friend and recent co-author) and Emergency Committee For Israel executive director Noah Pollak. After Pollak referenced “Obama’s abuse of Israel,” Steven queried how Iron Dome, Stuxnet, sanctions on Iran, and ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge could be considered abuse. Pollak’s response was, “Diplomatic ambushes, tirade @ UNSC, joining HRC, WH snubs, going nuclear on settlements, isolating Isr to please Erdogan.” The bottom line here is that Obama supporters are convinced that he could not possibly be any more pro-Israel, and Romney supporters are convinced that Obama is anything but and that a President Romney would usher in a massive shift in Israel policy. From where I am standing, it seems pretty clear that, rhetoric aside, there is little daylight between the two when it comes to actual policies on Israel with the limited exception of what threshold will trigger military action against Iran, and that no matter who our next president is, we are bound to have almost complete continuity on policy toward Israel.
July 27, 2012 § 1 Comment
Turkey is suddenly gearing up to face what might be the biggest foreign policy challenge the AKP has faced in its decade in government, which is the emergence of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. As Assad’s forces pull back and retrench, they have left the Kurdish areas of northern Syria in the hands of the PYD, which is the Syrian counterpart to the PKK, and all of a sudden Turkey is facing the prospect of a Syrian Kurdish state right on its border. This has caused enormous angst in Ankara, with the prime minister threatening to invade Syria in order to prevent the PYD from controlling its own swath of territory. In addition, it seems as if the time and effort spent courting Massoud Barzani has backfired, as he was responsible for getting the PYD to join the Kurdish National Council and present a unified Kurdish front and has subsequently allowed the PYD to train in Iraqi Kurdistan. All of this, of course, terrifies Ankara since it raises the specter of a mass movement on the part of Turkish Kurds to have their own autonomous region as well once they see independent Kurdish governments in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Consequently, Ahmet Davutoğlu is slated to visit Erbil next week to express his displeasure with Barzani and make Turkey’s concerns clear.
All of this comes at the worst possible time given the way in which Erdoğan has been dealing with Turkey’s Kurdish situation. Turkish Kurds are restive following the cessation of the AKP’s Kurdish opening, and as Aliza Marcus pointed out last week, Erdoğan has directed his energy at denying the existence of Kurdish nationalism and ignoring Kurdish concerns. Rumors have the AKP making common cause with the nationalist MHP in order to sidestep the Kurdish issue in the new constitution, and the government has continued arresting and trying people for alleged links to the PKK, including 46 lawyers earlier this month. In short, despite the obvious benefits that would have come with a gentler touch, the very recent strategy has been all sticks and no carrots when it comes to dealing with the Kurdish population, so the developments in Syria are even more worrisome for the government than they otherwise would be.
It must also be noted that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had no inkling that this was coming and appear to have no good strategy to deal with it. The assumption appeared to be that because the Syrian National Council is led by a Syrian Kurd, that would be good enough and the PYD would not seek to carve out its own autonomous sphere, which was naive at best. The two seem to have trusted that their zero problems with neighbors strategy with Barzani would hold, but much as this outdated policy imploded with regard to Assad, Barzani seems to be resistant to Ankara’s charms as well. So Turkey is left with a situation where it is madly rushing tanks and missile batteries to the border and threatening to invade and even to create a buffer zone, but we have seen this play before and it turned out to be all bark and no bite. While the PKK issue inserts a new variable into the equation, the fact remains that the PYD has joined hands with Barzani and the Kurds of northern Iraq, which makes military action against them far more risky than it previously was. Turkey has been reluctant to send its forces into Syria alone and has avoided doing so at all costs (including after its plane was shot down) up until this point, and nothing has altered that equation. There also still doesn’t appear to be a huge appetite among the Turkish public for an invasion of Syria and all that it will entail, and while the MHP might be chomping at the bit to take it to the Kurds once and for all, that isn’t enough to make armed conflict a foregone conclusion. The greater likelihood is that this is one big show designed to appeal to popular nationalist impulses and that the tough talk is being driven by domestic politics. The problem with making a lot of noise about the PYD is that Turkey risks being the boy who cried wolf if it blusters without doing anything yet again, which can have real world consequences. Threats are only effective if they are considered to be credible, and talking tough without actually taking action risks emboldening the PYD and the PKK and destroying any deterrence that Turkey has established. By taking such a hard rhetorical line, Turkey is risking its long term foreign policy and security goals unless it is prepared to follow through, and the evidence suggests that it is not ready to do so.
In short, Turkey is in a no-win situation after being completely blindsided, and it can only hope that moving troops and tanks to the border in a show of force will be threatening enough to keep things quiet and that the PYD will keep its focus on getting rid of Assad rather than stirring up trouble for Turkey and openly aligning with the PKK. In any event, going after the PYD would not solve much of anything anyway, since that is simply fighting the side effects rather than the disease. If Turkey wants to keep its Kurdish population happy and part of Turkey, Erdoğan is going to have to change his tune very quickly and come to the realization that eliminating the PKK, PYD, and all other Kurdish terrorist groups is not going to address the real issue of Kurdish disenchantment within his own borders. A military solution might be attractive, but political problems require political solutions.
July 25, 2012 § 4 Comments
In what appears to be a new strategy to restore ties with Turkey, the Israeli government this week invited a group of Turkish journalists to Israel, where they first met with Avigdor Lieberman and then with Bibi Netanyahu. The thinking behind this is pretty straightforward; there has been little apparent progress so far in mending ties with Ankara, and so going past the Turkish government to Turkish journalists, who in turn will hopefully write about Israel in a favorable light, will create some momentum for a reconciliation.
This gambit, however, has initially had mixed results. First, there were conflicting reports in the Turkish press following the meeting with Lieberman over whether Israel was prepared to offer an apology for the Mavi Marmara. According to Hürriyet, Lieberman said that Israel is ready to talk to Turkey about any and all issues but is categorically unwilling to apologize, while Today’s Zaman report of the very same meeting quoted Lieberman as saying that Israel is willing to discuss an apology provided that it be included in discussions on a host of other issues. The confusion certainly did not help matters, and the Turkish Foreign Ministry reiterated its stance that it requires an apology and reparations from Israel and dismissed Israeli public diplomacy efforts as a failed end-run around the conditions laid out by Ankara for normalization of relations. Netanyahu’s meeting with the group of journalists seemed to go better, which is no surprise given that Lieberman is a particularly undiplomatic diplomat. Netanyahu met them in his national security council conference room and placed a Turkish flag next to the Israeli one, and expressed how important the relationship is with Turkey while reassuring his visitors that improved Israeli ties with Greece are not related to the deterioration in relations with Turkey.
In the meantime, none of this seems to be having the desired effect on the Turkish government. The AKP hosted an iftar dinner for the foreign diplomatic corps in Turkey, but the two countries not invited were Israel and Syria. That Israel is being lumped in with Syria, a regime that shot at and downed a Turkish fighter jet and that is busy massacring its citizens, is perhaps the biggest slap in the face that Ankara could give to Jerusalem. Then, Erdoğan held a smaller iftar dinner with Ahmet Davutoğlu and Hakan Fidan where he hosted Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal. Inviting Meshaal to a private meeting at the prime minister’s home with the prime minister and Turkey’s top foreign policy and intelligence officials is also not going to make Israel feel any more comfortable about where its relationship with Turkey is heading.
It is also unlikely that the PR offensive will move the Turkish public into clamoring for a restoration of full ties with Israel. Turks don’t see how the spat with Israel has cost them anything and are of the firm view that Israel needs Turkey far more than Turkey needs Israel. Writing in Hürriyet, Mehmet Ali Birand warned that the fallout from the flotilla has cost not only Israel influence in the region but Turkey as well and that no holistic Middle East policy can be undertaken while shutting Israel out, but I’m not sure that either average Turks or the Turkish government believe this to be the case. Turkey does not seem to think that the freeze with Israel is particularly costly, and the government has maintained its strategy of keeping pressure on Israel while Israel vainly tries to restore ties without meeting Ankara’s demands. The effort to woo journalists is nice in theory, but it is not going to accomplish much. Israel and Turkey were on the verge of patching things up last summer and then the agreement got scuttled when – depending on which reports are to be believed – either Netanyahu or Lieberman got cold feet at the last moment. The only way the situation will be resolved is on a government to government level, and whether the barrier is Lieberman’s inclusion in the coalition or Davutoğlu’s absolute refusal to even talk to his Israeli counterpart, Turkey needs to be convinced that its reputation and strategic interests are being damaged by this cold war while Israel needs to be convinced that it will have to take some genuine moves to restore ties and that the whole thing will not just blow over with time.
July 24, 2012 § 3 Comments
Today’s post is going to be a departure from my usual fare, but it’s an issue I have been thinking about lately so I figured I’d muse about it. There is a debate currently taking place among policymakers and security analysts over whether to arm the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups in an effort to bring down the Assad government. While there have been reports that Turkey and Sunni Arab states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been doing so, the United States has so far been resistant despite criticism from John McCain – who yesterday, in response to a question asking if we should be arming the rebels, flippantly said, “Sure, why not?” – and others. The U.S. is reluctant to do so primarily because we don’t know precisely who the rebels are and there are reports that the rebels are being supported by al-Qaida, which makes arming them a dangerous proposition. The decision not to arm the rebels is being driven by the specifics of the situation in Syria, but I think there is a bigger picture question that should precede it, which is whether arming rebels is ever a good idea in any situation.
Looking at the U.S. history of arming rebel groups reveals some major long term strategic blunders. The most prominent one was the effort to arm the Afghani mujahideen in the 1980s in a bid to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. This policy seemed like a smart one at the time, at it was undoubtedly successful in carrying out its immediate objective, as the Soviet Union suffered enormous losses in Afghanistan and ultimately pulled out, which was one of many contributing factors to its ultimate demise and the end of the Cold War. In hindsight, however, arming the mujahideen caused enormous blowback for the U.S., since the weapons supplied by the U.S. were ultimately turned on U.S. and NATO troops years later and the arms and training indirectly benefited al-Qaida and the Taliban down the road. All you have to do is read the very first chapter of Steve Coll’s excellent book Ghost Wars, in which the CIA is running around desperately trying to buy back all the Stinger missiles that it handed out in Afghanistan 15 years earlier so that they aren’t turned on American planes, so see why the policy was highly problematic. In other examples, arming and training rebels in South and Central America ultimately led to death squads or brutal military dictatorships in places like Honduras, Nicaragua, and Chile, and did not create stability or end the bloodshed but rather extended it.
I asked the question on Twitter yesterday whether there is an instance in which arming rebels did not lead to terrible unintended consequences down the road, and the two answers people collectively came up with were the French supplying weapons to the colonists during the American Revolution and the arming of the French Resistance and other partisan groups in Nazi-occupied Europe. A few people suggested Libya as a positive example, but it is way too soon to tell what the long term consequences there will be. Neither of the two historical examples is particularly encouraging given that one happened 250 years ago and involved no weapons more powerful than muskets, and the other was a much smaller scale and less organized effort to arm rebels who were also engaged in many other resistance activities other than fighting. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the Syrian rebels should under no circumstances be armed or provided with support. More importantly, I am absolutely not suggesting that the world should just sit back and watch Assad massacre more Syrians in an effort to stabilize the country and end the bloodshed as quickly as possible, since that is not a viable or ethical solution. What I am suggesting is that before people rush to arm the Syrian rebels, there should be a real conversation about what happens the day after the immediate goals are achieved. Where do those arms go next and what will they be used for? What can we learn from previous historical examples that will help us manage the unintended consequences that accrue from arming rebel groups? Given what we know happens when a country in the midst of a civil war is flooded with more weapons, is there a better option and should active outside intervention be rethought? I would like to hear more discussion that focuses on what happens once the conflict ends in addition to the current discussion about the easiest and least short term costly way to remove Assad from power.
July 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
For anyone paying attention to the news this weekend, it appeared that Kadima was on the ropes. There were reports that a faction of Kadima MKs was set to leave and join Likud, while another group of more left-leaning Kadima members were plotting to leave and either form their own party or join up with Labor or Meretz. As of today, however, it seems that the rebels have been foiled for now. Finally, Shaul Mofaz shows why he was a top general! Instead of breaking away, the four Kadima MKs who had allegedly agreed to move over to Likud are now going to be referred to the Knesset House Committee as secessionists and if they are found to have tried to secede then they will not be able to run again under the Kadima banner.
The reason the four cannot just leave on their own is, in a bit of dark humor, a legacy of Likud trying to entice Mofaz to do the very same thing for which he is now denouncing his own members. Before 2009, if a faction of MKs wanted to break away from their party, they needed to have the votes of 1/3 of the party’s Knesset parliamentarians. In 2009, however, Bibi Netanyahu passed a bill through the Knesset that is known as the Mofaz Law, since its sole purpose was to entice Mofaz to leave Kadima, which at the time was controlled by Tzipi Livni. The Mofaz Law eliminated the 1/3 requirement and instead enabled a group of seven MKs to leave a party, which was coincidentally the number of Kadima members who were reputedly unhappy under Livni’s stewardship and considering joining Mofaz and returning to Likud. Mofaz himself denounced the law and did not end up jumping ship, but the law is still in force. Reports over the weekend were that a group of seven had been lined up, but this turned out to be premature, despite the fact that Likud members were reportedly bragging about having held discussions with half of the Kadima MKs.
Why did this gambit fail? For one, it was organized by the wrong person. Tzachi Hanegbi, who was trying to organize the group of Kadima rebels to jump ship and was going to be named Home Front Defense Minister in return, is not currently a member of the Knesset after having been convicted of perjury. For him, this is a cost-free action since he doesn’t have much to lose by incurring the wrath of Mofaz and the Kadima leadership, but that is not the case for the MKs. Either the larger group of seven got spooked by something or they did not like what they were hearing from Likud, but they were taking a bigger chance by attempting to leave than Hanegbi is and might have suspected that he was using them for no other reason than to get himself back into the cabinet. Had the move to Likud been organized by an MK, perhaps the story this morning might be different.
Second, it’s possible that Netanyahu himself fouled this up by inexplicably presenting his watered down Tal Law replacement plan to the cabinet yesterday. It is essentially a sellout to the Haredi parties that calls for only 6000 Haredim to be drafted annually and calls for a draft exemption age of 26, and does away with any personal sanctions for draft dodgers. After basically giving Haredim another free pass, it would have been tough for the Kadima MKs to go, as the Plesner plan was far more popular than the one that Netanyahu just announced and the optics would have been terrible for the Kadima rebels to join Likud the day after Bibi made it clear that he is putting his Haredi coalition partners’ interests above popular sentiment.
This appears to be Bibi’s first real strategic blunder to date. For whatever reason, the Kadima MKs are staying put for now and he still has to deal with his awkward coalition that contains Shas/UTJ and Yisrael Beiteinu, who are very much at odds. If the Kadima members had joined Likud, he would have been able to more or less ignore YB, but now he is stuck with the same problem he had before the Kadima unity deal. In addition, the polls on Likud are all over the place with some indicating that Likud is losing popularity over the Plesner Committee fiasco and others indicating that Likud will increase their margin in the next election. So as things currently stand, Netanyahu began the weekend with the prospect of picking up Knesset seats without having to call elections, and ended the weekend right back where he started but is now saddled with a Tal Law albatross around his neck of his own making. My hunch is that he thought the Kadima rebels jumping ship was a done deal and he then took the opportunity to shore up Shas and UTJ support with his Tal Law replacement bill. There have been rumors today that Netanyahu is now going to call an early election within 90 days, and then quick refutations from the prime minister’s office that these rumors are wrong. Elections would make sense if Bibi had expected to have a larger Likud this morning but now doesn’t and thinks he might reasonably pick up the majority of voters who cast their ballots for Kadima in 2009, but given the polls that show Likud dropping and the fact that he just signed on to what is sure to be a massively unpopular draft law, I think that the rumors of early elections are probably unwarranted. Whatever the case may be, this has not been one of Netanyahu’s better political sequences.
July 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Another Friday, another gallimaufry post. This one is going to be even more all over the map than the last one since I read a more diverse group of interesting stories and essays in the last few days that all deserve some mention.
First, it was good to see the Turkish Foreign Ministry speak out against the Bulgaria bombing yesterday, using the phrase “crime against humanity” and strongly condemning the terrorist attack. Turkey has often gone out of its way to note when Palestinian civilians are killed and drawn charges of displaying a double standard when Israelis are killed, and this strongly worded statement is a positive step in blunting that criticism. Matan Lurey had pointed out that Turkey was initially quiet and argued that a statement from Turkey would be important in demonstrating that Israeli-Turkish relations were not at the point of being unsalvageable, so I’m glad that Turkey came through in a forthrightly unambiguous way.
Moving from condemnation of one kind to condemnation of another, Tablet published an essay this week by Anna Breslaw in which she tried to write cogently about the television show Breaking Bad by expressing her disgust for Holocaust survivors. For a representative sample of how Breslaw thinks, try this:
I had the gut instinct that these [Holocaust survivors] were villains masquerading as victims who, solely by virtue of surviving (very likely by any means necessary), felt that they had earned the right to be heroes, their basic, animal self-interest dressed up with glorified phrases like “triumph of the human spirit.”
I wondered if anyone had alerted Hitler that in the event that the final solution didn’t pan out, only the handful of Jews who actually fulfilled the stereotype of the Judenscheisse (because every group has a few) would remain to carry on the Jewish race—conniving, indestructible, taking and taking.
After the altogether justified uproar that Tablet, a Jewish outlet, would publish such anti-Semitic drivel, editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse issued a clarification that was certainly not an apology or even arguably an acknowledgement that the essay was inappropriate on many levels, beginning with the blatant anti-Jewish bigotry and ending with the fact that concentration camp survivors were used as an analogy for a fictional drug dealing murderer. Readers who know me outside of this blog (or who have engaged with me on Twitter) will be aware that I am a free speech absolutist and that I believe in every situation that the answer to objectionable speech is more speech. If you don’t like an argument that someone has made, the proper response is not to censor them or shout them down but to counter with a better and more convincing argument. Breslaw is entitled to her own warped and disturbing opinions and she should be allowed to air them in any venue that is willing to print them. The question I have is whether Tablet, an outlet that describes itself as one for “Jewish news, ideas, and culture” should be that venue. There is a Jewish tendency to push the bounds of discourse – after all, the site that is the best known clearinghouse for hateful screeds against both Jews and Israel is run by Philip Weiss – and that is one of the reasons that Judaism is such an intellectually vibrant tradition, but I don’t quite think it is Tablet’s role to be publicizing frivolous attacks on Holocaust survivors that assail them for the crime of not dying in a gas chamber at the hands of Nazis. If Tablet disagrees and thinks that this is precisely the role that Tablet should be playing, it should come out and say so clearly and forthrightly.
While Tablet provided a terrible example of how to use a personal narrative to make a larger point, my friend Steven Cook provided a great one with his reflections on the recently departed Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Steven writes about the meetings he had over the years with Suleiman, and points out that the spymaster was so blinded by his own conceit that he himself was responsible for Egypt’s stability and could control events that he never saw the revolution coming or conceived of the possibility that the Tahrir uprising would lead to Mubarak’s ouster. The regime’s thinking, as personified by Suleiman, was way behind the thinking of Egyptians in the streets and even of foreign governments, who saw the writing on the wall before Mubarak actually stepped down, and it had real consequences as it drove the Egyptian government’s actions. This is a useful reminder that in many cases we have no real idea what authoritarian leaders are thinking or how they perceive various actions, and the net result is that while actors may intend to convey a certain message, the intended target’s takeaway might be something completely different. We assume that encircling Iran, both literally with warships and figuratively with sanctions, will convey Western seriousness about dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, but Tehran might very well be hearing the message that because no military strike has happened yet that this is all a bluff. Similarly, just because the world is warning Bashar al-Assad about the dire consequences of using chemical weapons does not forestall their use, since Assad might assume that the chances of him hanging on now are remote and that deploying chemical weapons is the best remaining path to staying in power. Just because we assume that cues are universal and will lead to what we view to be rational behavior does not mean that rationality is a fixed variable (paging Kenneth Waltz).
Finally, and on a lighter note, one of my absolute obsessions is space. If I had to choose between catching a Red Sox game at Fenway or spending the day at the Hayden Planetarium, it would be a genuinely tough decision. One of my two or three biggest regrets in life is that I was never good enough at math or science to be an astrophysicist (one of my two A+ grades in college was Astronomy, and that was relatively elementary stuff but the math still killed me), and I am constantly on the hunt for things to read or watch about the latest discoveries in astrophysics that are accessible to a non-expert audience (NOVA on PBS is a great example). If I could meet any one person, it would hands down be Neil DeGrasse Tyson. So I was intrigued when I read this week that space does not smell like what I had imagined. I always envisioned space to be the ultimate example of fresh air – cool, crisp, the way it smells on a clear night in northern New Hampshire. Turns out that space smells like a scrap metal yard or a welding plant. Kind of makes sense when you think about all of the massive dust clouds and stars burning up at unimaginable heat, but who knew?
July 19, 2012 § 3 Comments
With the killing yesterday of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle of defense officials, most experts appear to agree that this marks the beginning of the endgame phase for the Assad regime, although how long this phase will last is anyone’s guess. Assad is not going to go quietly and there is bound to be a lot of violence and bloodshed ahead, but given yesterday’s blow to the regime’s top leadership and the fighting in Damascus, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which Assad ultimately quells the opposition and rules a unitary Syria again. This has left the most interested outside parties struggling with how to respond, and the new situation is a good illustration of why, as I wrote a month ago, Syria was never going to be the issue that forced a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement (despite the fact that it would be helpful if the two coordinated on their response).
At the moment, both countries have very different concerns. Israel’s most pressing worry is that Assad will use chemical weapons against Israel in a last gasp effort to rally Syrians around Syrian nationalism and distract from the massacres of his people that he has been carrying out, or alternatively that chemical weapons will be passed to Hizballah. The problem is that Israel is not in a position to do anything about it because attacking chemical weapons plants and storage depots will provide Assad an opportunity to marshal public opinion behind him against the Israeli enemy or the pretext to then retaliate by launching missiles at Israeli cities. Consequently, Israel is left to choose between a bevy of bad and worse options, and is thus in the awkward position of being somewhat wary about Assad’s departure. If it can be done in a controlled way, then Israel can sleep a lot more quietly at night, but that is unlikely to happen. While there is no doubt that Jerusalem does not want to keep watching Assad massacre Syrians, its involvement in pushing him out the door has to be minimal and the consequences of his downfall, direct and indirect, pose numerous security problems.
Turkey, on the other hand, is not exposed to the same risks as Israel, and thus its policy preferences are different. Ankara has a good relationship with the Syrian opposition and has been indirectly supporting them, and has placed itself in an optimal position for when Assad is finally removed. Turkey has zero ambivalence about Assad at this point and wants him gone at all costs, but unlike Israel, Turkey does not face the same dangers that might accrue from Assad leaving. Turkey will not be a target of Syrian chemical weapons, nor will it be facing down Hizballah, and so it has little to fear from the messy consequences of Assad’s downfall (the PKK is not in the chemical weapons market). Turkey wants to see as much pressure on Assad as can be brought to bear, whether it is from outside forces or an Islamist opposition, and it needs the Syrian civil war to end as quickly as possible so as to staunch the flow of refugees over the Turkish border.
You can see then how Syria might actually end up dividing Israel and Turkey even further rather than bringing them closer together. Let’s say Israel ultimately decides that it cannot live with the possibility of chemical weapons being out there and it destroys the Syrian facilities, which in turn allows Assad to get his officers and people to rally around the flag. In this scenario, Turkey will be apoplectic since this hypothetical Israeli action would have strengthened Assad and undermined the opposition, and prolonged the conflict in Syria. Israel, on the other hand, will have justifiably acted to neutralize a very real threat, and will not be amenable to listening to Turkish arguments on the issue. Relatedly, if Turkey actively steps in to broker a solution or steps up its efforts to arm the Syrian opposition rebel groups, and Assad or Hizballah attack Israel as a consequence, Israel will be unsparing in its criticism of Turkey. The bottom line here is that Israel and Turkey both do not like what they see going down in Syria, but that does not mean that their interests perfectly coincide and it certainly does not mean that they see eye to eye on Syria in such a way as to force their reconciliation. Yesterday’s events only make these differences more stark rather than less so.
July 18, 2012 § 6 Comments
This post is not about Israeli politics. I mean that in the most literal way possible. A bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria was blown up, and according to Ha’aretz, at least seven people have been killed. There is some dispute at this point as to whether this sub-human act was carried out by a suicide bomber or a planted explosive device, but that doesn’t really matter since the purpose of killing Jews was accomplished either way. The attack comes 18 years to the day that Hizballah terrorists blew up a Jewish community center in Argentina, which certainly will not escape the notice of Israeli defense and intelligence officials.
This post is not about Israeli politics. I mean that in a figurative sense as well, since do not for even one second think that the massacring of Israeli tourists has anything at all to do with Israeli politics, Israeli policy in the West Bank, Israeli treatment of Palestinians, or anything else that Israel does. There is simply no excuse under the sun to blow up civilians, and the victims of the terrorist attack on that bus were not targeted because they are Israelis or because some deranged lunatic thinks that Bibi Netanyahu is not serious about establishing an independent Palestinian state. The innocents on that bus were murdered in cold blood for being Jews, plain and simple. Anyone who suggests otherwise needs to not only be dismissed outright, but to be shouted down, publicly shamed, and made to feel foolish for wallowing in abject ignorance. The word “Israel” should only enter this conversation for the purpose of identifying the citizenship of the people who were killed.
This post is not about Israeli politics. Today’s terrorist attack should serve as a reminder that when people use Israel as an excuse to kill Jews for who they are, it obliterates the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. I think that distinction does in some cases actually exist, but unless the people who constantly remind us that the two are not the same call this out as forcefully as I am right now, then their argument should be permanently consigned to the dustbin of history and they should be rightly dubbed as frauds. Do I call out Israeli misbehavior all the time when I think it is warranted? I sure do. Just look at my previous post for an example. Does anything that Israel ever does justify what happened today under the banner of anti-Zionism? Not for anyone who isn’t barbaric. It’s as simple as that, completely black and white. Anyone who doesn’t get that needs to seriously rethink their world view and place as a human being.