Did Bibi Make A Mistake?

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Like I said yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Likud Beiteinu deal and whether it is actually going to accomplish what Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping. I expanded on my thoughts from yesterday for Foreign Policy, and looked at whether Likud Beiteinu is going to add to the vote share that the two parties have separately and what the whole thing means for the U.S. You can read the original article on FP’s website here, and I have reproduced it below for convenience sake.

In an announcement last Thursday that shocked the Israeli political establishment, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated their intention to merge Netanyahu’s Likud Party with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Despite the contention made by some – notably Haaretz editor Aluf Benn — that this move creates a war cabinet that will make it easier for Israel to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, it’s more likely the two men had domestic politics at the forefront of their minds. In birthing the new Likud Beiteinu, Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping to create a monolith that will dominate Israeli politics for years to come.

Creating a workable majority in the 120-seat Knesset has proven to be difficult, and always requires a coalition of larger and smaller parties. In the current Knesset, Kadima has the most seats with 28, and Likud comes in second with 27, but these numbers are historically low for the top vote-getters. Two decades ago, Labor won the 1992 Knesset elections after garnering 44 seats and Likud came in second with 32 seats, while the previous election in 1988 had yielded 40 seats for Likud and 39 for Labor’s leftwing bloc. Netanyahu and Lieberman are gambling that their new Likud Beiteinu party will be an electorally dominant rightwing giant by combining the strength of their two parties while also picking up former Likud voters who have voted for Kadima in the past two elections. The hope is that a bigger party will have the strength to withstand hostage-taking demands from smaller parties and be able to push its agenda through the Knesset with a minimum of haggling and horse trading. That agenda is likely to include a renewed push for Haredi military service, more building in the West Bank, and a neoliberal economic policy — and Netanyahu wants to be able to carry his policies out with a minimum of resistance.

While this is nice in theory, it is unlikely to play out in the way that Netanyahu and Lieberman hope. To begin with, the current polls are not looking too promising and show Likud Beiteinu either slipping from its current combination of 42 seats or maintaining the exact same share of the Knesset that it holds now. Controlling 42 seats as a single party would give Netanyahu a lot of power and flexibility, and there is certainly plenty of time between now and the election for Likud Beiteinu to surge in the polls. There are, however, good reasons to believe that the new party is not going to surge, but is actually going to slip.

To begin with, Likud Beiteinu might have a real problem with the Russian voters who make up Yisrael Beiteinu’s base. A poll commissioned for Channel 99 showed only 59 percent of 2009 Yisrael Beiteinu voters casting their ballot for the new mega-party in 2013, with 22 percent undecided. It is very possible that Russian voters who voted for Yisrael Beiteinu because it served as a patronage party bringing benefits to Russian immigrants are rightfully wary that Likud Beiteinu will have the same focus, and are casting around for another party to fill that void.

Within Likud, there is a mirror-image problem of the party’s base of Mizrahi (Jews primarily from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen) voters being turned off by the elevation of the Russian Lieberman to the second-most powerful person in Likud. The party has long struggled with the problem of having a Sephardi grassroots and an Ashkenazi leadership, and the inclusion of Lieberman along with the concurrent exit of Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is of Libyan descent, might very well drive some Likud voters into the arms of Shas, which represents ultra-Orthodox Sephardi voters.

Another reason to suspect that this new arrangement is not going to yield as strong a party as Netanyahu hopes is that it rests on an odd and somewhat counterintuitive theory of party strengthening. As a general rule, the best ways to create a newly large and powerful party are to co-opt the opposition and to create a big tent that welcomes many different factions. The Likud-Kadima coalition agreement in May — despite its quick demise — was actually a successful attempt at such a maneuver since it eliminated Likud’s largest opponent and built bridges between a rightwing party and a more centrist party. The merger deal with Yisrael Beiteinu, however, will not be successful at co-opting smaller centrist parties and it will not create a big tent, as both Likud and YB reside on the right side of the political spectrum.

What this means in practice is that we are likely to see Likud Beiteinu get the largest share of seats in the Knesset but with nothing approaching a mandate for action. Rather than smooth sailing for the ruling party, there will be the usual political gridlock and unstable coalition as the smaller parties extort Likud Beiteinu to fund their pet projects as a condition of joining the government. Lieberman is also an unusually polarizing figure, and his presence at the top will make it harder for a party like Labor to even contemplate joining up in a unity government.

There are also some real implications here for the new U.S. administration, whomever the next president might be. The fact that Netanyahu is not going to be in as strong a position as he anticipates means that he will not be able to afford alienating his settler base or risk an insurrection from Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, and the more revanchist wing of Likud. Lieberman, himself a settler, takes an extremely hard-line positions on settlements as well, and thus the new Likud Beiteinu is likely to frustrate any desires on the part of the United States for the Israeli government to either freeze settlement building or to make concessions to the Palestinians, who have been immovably intransigent. The formation of Likud Beiteinu might even deal the final fatal blow to the Palestinian Authority, as Lieberman has been waging a months-long campaign to discredit Mahmoud Abbas by calling him a diplomatic terrorist and is unlikely in his newly powerful position to agree to keep on bolstering the PA. This will create all sorts of headaches for the United States and means that any remaining optimism surrounding the peace process is misplaced.

Netanyahu and Lieberman are banking that their new party will be greater than the sum of its parts, but there is an excellent chance that it will actually be the opposite. Should that turn out to be the case, expect to see a continuation of the congestion that has marked Israeli politics and frustrated its diplomacy over the last decade.

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Likud Beiteinu Is Going To Happen, But Is It A Good Idea?

October 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m writing this post at 10:30 on Monday night as a hurricane rages outside my house, and since I somehow inexplicably have power (and really Pepco? I lose power when there is a little drizzle, but you manage to keep it going during a freaking hurricane??) I am going to keep it short and sweet before it goes out. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu moved one step closer to merging today as the Likud Central Committee voted to move forward with the union. This is going to be the first post of many analyzing whether this move makes sense, and according to the initial polls, the answer is not necessarily. The Channel 10 poll has Likud Beiteinu winning 35 seats, down from their current combined 42, and the Channel 2 poll has LB treading water at 42 seats. The point of this merger was to create a party greater than the sum of its parts, and while we have months to go before the actual vote, so far Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman do not appear to be moving toward accomplishing that goal.

Why might this be? I think a big part of the answer so far has to do with Yisrael Beiteinu’s base. When the news of the deal broke on Thursday, I wrote the following:

Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though, are not necessarily better off. Likud is now alternating with Yisrael Beiteinu for the first 42 party slots, which obviously waters down Likud, and the rank and file have got to be furious about this. As for YB, the party’s focus on Russian voters is not going to be as laser-like as it once was, and while it will likely get some more attention for its initiatives at the outset, the independent concerns that YB had are eventually going to be subsumed by the larger Likud project and constituency.

If you look at YB voters, they appear to have some real concerns. The Panels poll conducted for Channel 99 has LB winning 35 seats, and the poll asked 2009 YB voters how they were planning on voting in this election with results that should worry Netanyahu. Only 59% of 2009 YB voters indicated that they are planning on voting for the new LB party in 2013, and an enormous 22% said they were not sure. That 22% is the key to this election, since my strong hunch is that those are the voters who cast their ballot in the past for YB because they counted on Lieberman to represent their interests as Russian olim. It is no longer assured that Likud Beiteinu will perform that same function, and that’s one of the reasons why this merger was, to my mind, a strange and risky move for Netanyahu. He needs to keep all of those Russian voters and then pick up some extra voters along the way, but by banding with Lieberman not only does he risk losing some of the Russian voters, he also risks losing some of his own considerable Mizrachi base within Likud since they are wary of Lieberman and the Russians. Netanyahu now has to do a very precarious dance in convincing both of these camps to hang around, and moves signaling one group that they are still valued are precisely the types of signals bound to turn off the other. How Netanyahu and the new LB party deal with this over the next few months will be very interesting indeed.

More to come when there isn’t an old man outside my window loading pairs of animals into an ark..

Republic Day Highs and Lows

October 29, 2012 § 5 Comments

Today is Republic Day (Cumhuriyet Bayramı) in Turkey, which marks the anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. While most Americans would probably assume that Republic Day is like July 4 here and that it is a controversy-free public holiday where people gather with friends and family to celebrate, Republic Day is not quite that simple. Because Turkey’s institutions were created concurrently with Kemalism, a set of challenges arose that continue to this day, and the various controversies playing out on this year’s Republic Day illustrate how unsettled Turkey still is when it comes to the basic issue of what the purpose of the state should be and what role ideology should play.

When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded Turkey out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, he did so with clearly thought out ideas about how his new state should be organized and what goals it should seek to attain.  Furthermore, unlike in other states where an ideology may be adopted after the institutions of the state are already in place, Atatürk built Turkey’s political and social institutions at the same time that he was installing Kemalism as the state’s official ideology.  This enabled him to create structures and rules that were explicitly designed to strengthen and enable Kemalism, meaning that any challenge to the state would unmistakably be a challenge to Kemalism as well.  Kemalism was so entrenched and well articulated that its tenets were explicitly written out and incorporated into the ruling CHP’s flag during Atatürk’s tenure so that there was no ambiguity about which theories and actions comported with Kemalism and which did not.

Since ideology was so wrapped up and intertwined with the state itself, it meant that Turkey was unable to convert first order battles over ideology into a lower grade conflict even after the initial transition to democracy after WWII.  Any ideological wobble away from Kemalism precipitated a crisis, particularly given the fact that the most important and powerful state institution, the military, saw itself as the ultimate guardian of Kemalism irrespective of which party was in power.  Thus, ideological conflict ensured that once ideological fights erupted into the open post-transition, the system was unable to successfully manage them.  Lingering ideological issues hampered Turkey’s political development for decades, leading to a cycle of military interventions and shaky returns to civilian government.

Turkey today under Erdoğan and the AKP seems to have broken the pattern of military coups, which is certainly something to be celebrated during this year’s Republic Day. The fights over Kemalism, however, and whether the state should still be pushing a specific ideology that is linked to both secularism and statism (among other things) are very much ongoing. On a positive note, this is the first Republic Day during Abdullah Gül’s time as president that the leaders of the Turkish military are attending the official reception at the presidential palace. The reason that they had not attended in the past was because Gül’s wife Hayrünissa – along with the wives of other top government officials – wears a head scarf, and Kemalism frowned upon head scarves to the point of banning them from government buildings and universities. That top officers are going to the presidential reception this year might partially be a function of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations intimidating the military into changing their behavior out of fear, which is not a good development, but I think that the stronger impulse at work here is an emerging realization that ideological battles need to be put aside and deemphasized in order to make Turkey the strongest and most successful state that it can be.

On the other side of the ledger on this Republic Day is the unfortunate tendency of the AKP government to view ideological challenges as existential threats that require clamping down on freedom of expression. The government banned any Republic Day gatherings at the old Grand National Assembly building, which is closely associated with Kemalism and the founders of the Republic, under the theory that they would devolve into anti-government rallies. As a result, politicians and journalists, including CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, have been sprayed with water hoses and pepper spray today while hundreds, if not thousands, of Turks have been prevented from entering Ankara. This too is a result of the lingering legacy of Kemalism, but unlike the standoff in previous years between Gül and the military, this episode is not being resolved peacefully or amicably, and instead is a reminder of the AKP’s darkening record on freedom of speech. While Republic Day rallies may very well be aimed at criticizing the current government, true democracies are able not only to absorb such criticism but to enable it. As Turks celebrate this Republic Day, they should at the same time hope that future Republic Days remind everyone what an amazing country Turkey is rather than get hung up on still-unresolved issues surrounding Turkey’s ideological legacy.

I Don’t Think This Is About Iran, Redux

October 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

Building on my initial reaction yesterday to the new Likud Beiteinu party created by Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, I have one more important point to add about why I think this deal happened. It seems to me that this was about domestic politics, plain and simple. Netanyahu was nervous about polls showing Likud’s vote share slipping and Labor’s rising, and Lieberman wanted to position himself to head his former party and not have Yisrael Beiteinu suffer the fate of so many other parties like Shinui or what is about to happen to Kadima. This way the two men were able to create the perception of a strong rightwing party that will be able to withstand any challengers and give an air of inevitability to Netanyahu remaining as prime minister and Likud Beiteinu creating the next governing coalition.

Aluf Benn thinks that something else is at work though, which is the creation of a war cabinet to strike Iran. He writes, “The merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party will dissolve any domestic opposition to the war, since after the election, Netanyahu will be able to argue that he received a mandate from the people to act as he sees fit. Ministers and top defense officials will have a hard time arguing with him. From now on, only American opposition is liable to delay, or even prevent, a command to the Israel Air Force to take off for Iran.” He adds that Ehud Barak, Benny Begin, and Dan Meridor will be marginalized or pushed out completely and that Lieberman will push the cabinet into radical foreign policy positions that Netanyahu will no longer be able to disavow.

This analysis is plausible on its face, but I think there are a few problems with it. First, it’s not enough to just declare absent compelling evidence that every move Netanyahu makes is with the intent of striking Iran. Plenty of people said the same thing when Netanyahu made the deal with Kadima despite the fact that Mofaz had been on record as opposing a strike, and obviously the short-lived unity government did not make any moves on the Iran front. Bibi’s obsession with Iran is well documented, but he has other concerns as well, such as political survival and consolidating his position, and this seems so clearly aimed at doing just those things that I don’t see why the simplest explanation here is not the right one.

Second, looking at what Benn actually argues, I don’t think it is correct to assert de novo that this gives Netanyahu a mandate for anything. For that to occur, the new LB party has to win an unusually large number of seats and Netanyahu has to campaign specifically and primarily on the Iran issue. Netanyahu is probably counting on about 45 seats, which is roughly what you get from adding up where Likud and YB were in public opinion polls, but I think there is a significant chance that the number is less than that. Lieberman is a polarizing figure, to say the least, and he could easily scare away some Mizrachi and more religious Likud voters. It is also possible that Russian YB voters who were mainly voting for the party based on its advocacy for Russian olim will be disenchanted and feel that Lieberman has sold out their core interest in the pursuit of greater personal power. If that happens, then Netanyahu’s alleged mandate is not going to be quite as strong as Benn predicts, and I don’t quite understand why ministers and generals would have a hard time opposing him. Even if he does get 45 seats, that doesn’t seem like it will all of a sudden cow Likud members like Meridor, Begin, and Bogie Ya’alon into reversing their positions, or convince the IDF leadership that their reservations on Iran have been wrong.

Third, there is the fact that, like Mofaz before him, Lieberman is not necessarily an Iran hawk. The reports are that he originally opposed a strike and was then convinced to change his position, but it’s obviously not on the top of his agenda. Lieberman cares much more about undermining the Palestinan Authority and taking a hard line on peace process issues and territorial concessions, so if there is any foreign affairs implication from yesterday’s announcement, it is that the two state solution is now even more endangered. Lieberman is going to take many radical positions; of that I have no doubt. The question is whether those positions will have anything to do with Iran, and I’m not sure that they will. He may support a strike, but he is not going to be strongly and constantly advocating one. The math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised. One also must consider who the rest of the coalition is going to include, since 45 seats still means that Netanyahu is going to have to rope in Shas, where Eli Yishai is opposed to a strike, or one of the center or left parties, and Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, and Shelley Yachimovich are certainly not guaranteed to vote the way Netanyahu wants on Iran.

In looking at yesterday’s merger, does it strengthen Netanyahu’s hand by giving him a larger number of seats? Yup, it does. But he still has to contend with opposition in Likud, opposition in the IDF, opposition from other potential coalition partners, and opposition from the public. In short, aside from making generalizations about the prime minister’s increased clout and murky electoral mandates, I don’t see how this makes a strike on Iran a foregone conclusion by any means.

My Quick Reaction To Likud Beiteinu

October 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

I have almost no time today, but I just cannot let the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu merger go by without commenting. Here are my very brief thoughts, with hopefully more to follow later.

1. This deal shows how worried Netanyahu actually was about the emerging strength of the center-left bloc. The reason for him to make this deal is to control so many seats that there is no alternative but to let Likud form the next government.

2. This is about the two personalities involved rather than the parties. Netanyahu is now virtually guaranteed of staying on as PM no matter what else happens. Avigdor Lieberman gets to be the presumptive Likud heir apparent when Netanyahu eventually steps down and his own political power has increased immeasurably. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though, are not necessarily better off. Likud is now alternating with Yisrael Beiteinu for the first 42 party slots, which obviously waters down Likud, and the rank and file have got to be furious about this. As for YB, the party’s focus on Russian voters is not going to be as laser-like as it once was, and while it will likely get some more attention for its initiatives at the outset, the independent concerns that YB had are eventually going to be subsumed by the larger Likud project and constituency. Oh, it also goes without saying that you can now kiss any hope of a peace deal or concessions to the Palestinians or a harder line on settlements goodbye.

3. Where the Haredi parties now go is the most interesting part of this. Before the Likud-Kadima deal last spring, the coalition was nearly falling apart due to the clash between YB and Shas. Now that YB is part of Likud and presumably still pushing the question of Haredi military service just as hard as before, can Shas actually be part of the next Likud-led coalition? I’m not sure that it reasonably can, and I think that Aryeh Deri’s presence makes it even more likely that it does not join up and considers its alternatives. And by the way, this should be a reminder to Andrew Sullivan that, like I previously argued, not all Israeli rightwing parties are rightwing in the same way.

4. If I am Tzipi Livni or Shelley Yachimovich, I strongly consider joining up with the Likud coalition following the elections given the secularist bent it is now bound to have. I also think about the fact that Lieberman might be the most polarizing figure in all of Israel, and that Likud is now stronger in the short term but weaker in the long term. In fact, I might go so far as to suggest that this move, and setting up Lieberman to take over Likud, means the eventual demise of the party as Israel’s political powerhouse.

5. If you just stop for a moment and think about what has gone on over the past year, Bibi’s coalition almost broke up over YB-Shas fighting; then he brought in Kadima in an effort to marginalize his Haredi partners; then the unity government broke up because Bibi decided to back the Haredi parties and their opposition to equalizing the burden of service, which infuriated Lieberman; and now he is actually merging with Lieberman and probably casting the Haredi parties into the wilderness. The two lessons from this are that Israeli politics is just about the most entertaining show in the world, and that Bibi has no long term plan or strategy other than surviving from moment to moment.

The CPJ Report on Turkey

October 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

Earlier this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report on what it dubbed Turkey’s press freedom crisis. I have written about the AKP’s targeting of journalists and worrisome record on free speech before, so the CPJ report was welcome news as far as I am concerned, but I think that it will be ignored by the Turkish government for a variety of reasons. I wrote about some of them for the Atlantic yesterday:

The October 22 report on Turkey issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP) is getting lots of attention, and rightly so. Amid the growing clamor over Turkey’s media crackdown, the CPJ slammed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government for jailing (by its count) 76 journalists, 61 of whom are in prison as a direct result of their writing or reporting, mainly on Kurdish issues. The CPJ stated what many seasoned Turkey observers have known for awhile, which is that Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have used overly expansive terrorism laws to staunch criticism of the government and intimidate the press into self-censorship.

The CPJ report is a welcome development, but it unfortunately comes too late. Not only is the harsh spotlight that the CPJ trained on Turkey unlikely to ameliorate the problem, it is in fact more likely that the government’s response will be to retrench rather than to let up in its assault on journalists and free speech. The political environment is such that Erdoğan feels that he has more to lose now by admitting that his government has taken an undemocratic turn when it comes to restrictions on free speech, although this would not have always been the case had organizations like the CPJ been paying closer attention in the not too distant past.

Five short years ago, the AKP was a lot more vulnerable to this type of critique. Turkey was coming off a series of wide-ranging political and social reforms that had been passed as part of the European Union accession process, and the AKP had in fact been initially elected by running on a stridently pro-EU platform. The Erdoğan government was reluctant to do anything that would endanger this process, and condemnation from Western governments and NGOs was taken seriously. Furthermore, the AKP was in the midst of a reelection campaign and, like any other political party in a democracy, more attuned to criticism.

The rest of the article can be found on The Atlantic’s website, so please head over there to read it.

U.S. Intervention In Syria Isn’t Coming, So What’s Next?

October 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the things that clearly emerged from the debate on Monday is that, despite some predictions to the contrary, there is not going to be any serious U.S. assistance to Turkey on the Syria front after the election. As regular readers know, I have argued that no U.S. or NATO military action is forthcoming but I have still seen and heard speculation that neither candidate can make promises to intervene during campaign season but that it will happen following the election. On Monday night though, both President Obama and Mitt Romney insisted in no uncertain terms that the U.S. military is not going to get involved. Romney displayed a willingness to supply the Syrian rebels with heavier arms but not to send U.S. troops to intervene in the conflict, and Obama reiterated previous warnings about the dangers of blowback once you arm rebels with anything more than light weapons. Neither of the two men left much wiggle room at all in their answers, and it did not seem to me as if these were positions being staked out for campaign purposes that will be quickly rolled back once the election is in the rearview mirror. It goes without saying that if the U.S. is reluctant to intervene in Syria, NATO is even more so, and I can’t imagine a scenario in which there is a NATO presence in Syria or along the Syrian border without American involvement.

So what does Turkey do now? Prime Minister Erdoğan has been agitating for months to get the U.S. to intervene, ideally by setting up a no fly zone, and has denounced the U.S. for dragging its heels. That strategy has not paid off, and more tough rhetoric from Ankara is not going to change that since both Obama and Romney have calculated that it is simply not in American interests to intervene. It seems to me that Turkey has a menu of very bad options from which to choose. One is to try and go into Syria alone, which as I have detailed and as Dov Friedman and Aaron Stein have documented even more thoroughly, is a bad idea that is unlikely to happen. Another is to sit tight, try to keep the status quo, and respond to each instance Syrian shelling across the border with a more forceful round of Turkish shelling, which is what Turkey has been doing for the past month. I think that this second option is what is going to keep on taking place, but it should be perfectly clear by now that this doesn’t exactly solve the problem. If Turkey expected this strategy to be a placeholder until it got outside help for intervening, now is the time to rethink things in a serious way. Ankara has to come up with a new strategy that assumes no eventual U.S. or NATO involvement, since it has appeared up until now that Erdoğan has been waiting for exactly that. It goes without saying, of course, that Turkey can use all the help that it can get, and to that end the continuing refusal to back down from demanding that Israel end its Gaza blockade is not doing Turkey any favors. The Israeli government certainly seems open at this point to apologizing and paying compensation, and the faster that Turkey drops the Gaza demand, the faster Israel and Turkey can reconcile and perhaps some coordination will allow Ankara to start developing a more realistic long-term strategy to deal with its truculent neighbor next door.

I Say Israel,You Say Israel

October 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

So, how about that foreign policy debate last night? Among some of the international affairs topics discussed by our two august candidates for president was the auto industry bailout, economic opportunities for the middle class, how to balance the budget, bayonet manufacturing and horse husbandry…well, you get the point. I made a joke on Twitter before the debate started alluding to the fact that, unlike during the first two debates, nobody was going to be complaining about the lack of foreign policy in this debate, but turns out the joke was on me. Mitt Romney was all too happy to shift the debate away from foreign policy to the economy and President Obama for some reason followed. I’m still waiting for the promised foreign policy debate.

One topic that did come up early and often, however, was Israel. Obama was the first to break the seal, and both candidates spent a lot of time playing up their pro-Israel credentials. Curiously, Romney initially seemed to back off his early and often claim that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus” and when he resurrected his usual line of attack later on, Obama hit back at him hard by comparing Romney’s fundraising trip to Israel to Obama’s own trip to Israel during the previous campaign when Obama visited Yad Vashem and the rocket-scarred border town of Sderot. So aside from the fact that the debate was held in Boca Raton and that Florida has a large Jewish population, why so much focus on Israel? As much as some people like to shout about the Israel lobby, Israel happens to be very popular with U.S. voters generally, and some important swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have a high percentage of Jewish voters. The race by each candidate to establish pro-Israel bonafides is caused by the electoral college, and not the Israel lobby. Were there a national popular vote rather than a state-by-state one, Israel would come up a lot less.

More interesting is not that Israel was mentioned so often (22 times vs. not one mention of Europe, which is a staggering fact to digest about a supposed foreign policy debate given everything going on in the Eurozone at the moment), but that Obama was the first one to do it. Israel is generally viewed as a weak spot for Obama given the uneasy relationship he has with Bibi Netanyahu and the constant GOP attacks on Obama’s record toward Israel, and I would have bet that Romney would bring up Israel and try to hammer Obama over the head with it and force him to play defense. That Obama preempted Romney and repeated again and again that Israel is America’s greatest ally in the Middle East, that Egypt breaking its peace treaty with Israel is a red line for the U.S., and that the U.S. will back Israel if it is attacked says to me that the Obama campaign has some internal polling that is scaring it to death. Obama had clearly also prepared a strong and challenging answer for Romney’s contention that Obama was not sufficiently pro-Israel and he hit him hard with it when the opportunity arose. Obama knows that beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt and continuing through his own victory in 2008, only once has a Democrat been elected president without winning at least 75 percent of the Jewish vote (Jimmy Carter received 64 percent in 1976), and I think based on last night that he is legitimately worried about what will happen should he miss that threshold.

A few other quick and not so quick thoughts on non-Israel related topics:

There was much speculation a few months ago about which camp was winning the fight for Romney’s foreign policy soul, the neoconservative wing or the GOP establishment realist wing. It seems pretty clear after last night that John Bolton and Romney’s other neocon advisors appear to have lost the battle. Romney disavowed intervention in Syria and was not pushing too hard for a war with Iran, and in many ways agreed with much of what Obama has been trying to do.

For me, the most disheartening part of of the debate last night was the brief section on drones. The reason it was brief is because Obama and Romney apparently have the exact same position on the subject, which is that drones are a great tool that the U.S. employs and are entirely unproblematic. I know most people don’t think much about the drone war taking place in Pakistan and that the public is generally supportive of it, but this is something that desperately needs to be debated. As Justin Green succinctly put it, “This is the time partisanship should cause these questions to arise, but instead we have a consensus on the issue. Shameful.” Leaving aside the fact that the drone war may be radicalizing an entire new generation of people, or that it leaves large numbers of civilian casualties in its wake, or that the Obama administration has taken the unprecedented – and to my mind blatantly unconstitutional – step of claiming the right to kill American citizens extrajudicially via drones without any type of meaningful due process, there is another serious issue the drone war raises, which is that we are opening a dangerous Pandora’s box. At some point other states are going to ramp up their use of drones as well, and I don’t quite know what our response will be given our current behavior when China or Russia or Iran starts flying drones over U.S. territory. I desperately wish that if this issue were to unite both parties it would be in the other direction, but at the very least we need to have some debate on this, rather than Obama talking about how great the policy is and Romney nodding his head as vigorously as he can.

Finally, Romney’s call for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be indicted for advocating genocide was a bit curious given what I am sure is his position on international tribunals and universal jurisdiction. If Ahmadinejad were to be indicted, the indictment would be issued by the International Criminal Court, a body which nearly all Republicans are opposed to and to which the U.S. has not joined as a member (and with good reason, in my view). I am certain that Romney does not support the idea of international judicial organizations having the power to bring criminal cases across all national boundaries, and yet he forcefully advocated such a move for Ahmadinejad. Talk about head-spinning!

Ehud Olmert Is The New Mario Cuomo

October 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

For years, Mario Cuomo was the great hope of the Democratic Party. He was a smart, high profile governor with the golden gift of eloquence, and every four years there was a clamor for him to run for president. He was seen as such an impressive figure that George Stephanopolous recounted in his memoir how Bill Clinton seriously considered Cuomo for the Supreme Court. The reason that Cuomo never ran for president and is not now a member of The Nine is the same – Cuomo famously was the Great Waffler, never able to make a decision or pull the trigger despite legions urging him to do so. Whether Cuomo was simply indecisive or had an acute sense of his own limitations is impossible to say for sure, but I always think of him as the prototypical politician who was constantly touted as a party savior yet was destined to disappoint.

For months now since his acquittal, people have been holding up Ehud Olmert as the only person with the ability to dethrone Bibi Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel. Early polls showed some combination of Olmert and Tzipi Livni as siphoning off enough support from Likud to make a center-left coalition a possibility. I never bought into this because Olmert is a deeply flawed figure who makes for a weak politician, yet the rumors of his resurrection persisted as politician after politician came to pay Olmert homage and the anti-Netanyahu forces worked themselves into a frenzy. But hey, guess what? Turns out that Olmert is probably not going to reenter politics after all. This should not be a surprise, and I intended to write a long screed explaining why, and then I remembered that I already did this the day that Olmert was acquitted last July. It bears repeating though given the constant voices imploring that Olmert is Israel’s only hope of avoiding another Bibi term, so here is a refresher from the summer:

I wouldn’t be so quick though to count on Olmert rising from the political graveyard. First, there is the question of his political constituency. Let’s not forget that Olmert was massively unpopular due his presiding over some enormous catastrophes, starting with the 2006 war against Hizballah. The Winograd Commission eviscerated Olmert’s leadership, judgment, and decisionmaking, and stressed his lack of military experience, all of which led to Olmert’s approval rating falling to a jaw-dropping 3% at one point. His efforts to negotiate an agreement with Mahmoud Abbas were widely viewed as a political stunt engineered to save his career. Even before the indictments against him, Olmert was seen as being overly corrupt in a political system legendary for its corruption. In short, this was an unpopular prime minister with no military record to fall back on whose primary accomplishment was negotiating an agreement that was never accepted or even countered. Which segment of the public is going to be clamoring for his return? What in his track record makes him a foe that Bibi should fear? Plenty of Israeli politicians have had second lives in politics after being cast aside, with Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu being the two most prominent recent examples (and Tzipi Livni perhaps poised to be another), but they all had large cadres of backers and took advantage of new political developments to reassert themselves.

Which brings me to point number two. Given his efforts at the end of his time in office and his public comments since he stepped down, Olmert’s presumed constituency would be the Israeli center that wants to see a renewed push for a deal with the Palestinians. The problem is, this center is pretty much non-existent at this point. It is no accident that we hear very little from Labor leader (and opposition head) Shelley Yachimovich about the peace process, or that Tzipi Livni barely harped on it when she was opposition leader, or that Shaul Mofaz focused almost exclusively on social issues when he ran to replace Livni as Kadima head. There are a combination of factors that have contributed to the death of the Israeli peace camp (and this deserves a long blog post, which I plan on getting to soon), but suffice it to say that a deal with the Palestinians is not a winning issue in Israeli politics these days. Given that this has become what Olmert is best known for (aside from royally screwing up in Lebanon), I don’t envision a huge grassroots movement to draft Olmert back into politics.

The one place where he does appear to have a constituency is within the ranks of Kadima. The Kadima MKs who called for him to return yesterday are pretty clearly unhappy with Mofaz, who went from stating that he would never join forces with Netanyahu (whom he dubbed a liar) to joining the coalition to then making empty threats about leaving and is now seen as an incompetent as he endlessly dithers over whether to stay or go following the Plesner Committee fiasco. The problem is that Mofaz is not going to just step down and hand over the reins of his party to Olmert, despite the nonsensical assertion in Time that Mofaz’s congratulatory message to Olmert yesterday means that he would do exactly that. Let’s say that Olmert’s supporters within Kadima, who are disenchanted with Mofaz, decide to revolt. Either they manage to break off and form a rump party with Olmert at its head, which is not going to scare anybody, or they force another divisive leadership battle within Kadima, which weakens it even further and leads to its virtual disappearance. Either way, I don’t see how this provides a successful vehicle for Olmert to rise back up to political relevance.

I can understand why there are those who look at Bibi and miss the days when Olmert was prime minister, but my hunch is that this group of people, however large, mainly resides outside of Israel. Within Israel, I just don’t see how Olmert at this point reenters politics with any real support behind him. There doesn’t seem to be a contingent of Israelis that would naturally support him, and some disenchanted MKs being led by a former PM whose popularity at one point was almost literally zero does not a political dynamo make. It would be great if Olmert’s return to the political scene sparked a renewed interest in the peace process and a reexamination of what Israel needs to do to separate from the Palestinians and create a Palestinian state once and for all, but I think that Netanyahu can rest easy when it comes to Olmert presenting a challenge to his political dominance.

Daniel Pipes Jumps The Shark, And Other Oddities

October 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

In keeping with this week’s O&Z theme of highlighting poor commentary and analysis, the thread running throughout today’s gallimaufry is going to be more of the same. I’m not sure why I’ve been pulling an Andy Rooney routine lately, but there seems to be an unusually large amount of nonsensical drivel floating out there, so let’s plunge right into the dung heap.

Starting us off with first prize for the week, the month, and possibly the year is Daniel Pipes’ error-riddled and borderline hallucinatory head-scratcherat the National Review on Turkey and Syria. He opens it with this:

Why is the Turkish government acting so aggressively against the Assad regime in Syria?

Perhaps Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes that lobbing artillery shells into Syria will help bring a satellite government to power in Damascus. Maybe he expects that sending a Turkish war plane into Syrian air space or forcing down a Syrian civilian plane en route from Russia will win him favor in the West and bring in NATO to intervene. Conceivably, it’s all a grand diversion from an imminent economic crisis due to borrowing too much.

Hmmm, let’s see…why is Turkey acting so aggressively? Don’t have the answer yet? Perhaps it’s because Turkey isn’t acting aggressively at all, but is responding to Syrian shells landing on Turkish territory and killing Turkish civilians. One would never know from reading Pipes that Syria shot down a Turkish plane, is hosting Kurdish terrorists who are launching attacks on Turkey, and ends up shelling Turkish border towns on an almost daily basis these past few weeks. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a more Orwellian assault on basic facts than what is contained in this first paragraph. If you decide that you want to keep on reading – although I caution that if you do you are putting yourself at risk of an aneurysm – you will learn some other wonderful things about Turkey that you might not have been aware of, such as the fact that Erdoğan’s goal is to bring sharia to Turkey or that Turkey has abandoned the U.S. security umbrella (which must make it pretty awkward that we are still basing nuclear missiles on Turkish territory). You’ll also get to see some truly great logical consistency at work, such as when you compare, “Erdogan’s actions fit into a context going back a half-century” with the opening sentence of the very next paragraph, which is, “A new era began in November 2002 when Erdogan’s AKP, a clever Islamist party that avoids terrorism and global-caliphate rants, replaced the center-right and -left parties that long had dominated Ankara.” I could go on all day, but Brent Sasley beat me to it, so just read his takedown of Pipes instead.

Then you have David Brooks, who I always read and often find thoughtful but who wrote an entire column this week based on a ridiculous premise. Brooks listed a set of criteria for selecting a president who will make Washington less dysfunctional after opening with the following.

Voters have been astonishingly clear. In 2000, they elected George W. Bush after he promised to change the tone in Washington. In 2008, they elected Barack Obama after he promised to move the country beyond stale partisan debates. In this year’s first presidential debate, surveys show that viewers loved Mitt Romney’s talk of professionalism and bipartisanship.

In other words, primary campaigns are won by the candidate who can most convincingly champion the party’s agenda, but general election campaigns are won by the candidate who can most plausibly fix the political system.

With all due respect to Mr. Brooks, this is ridiculous. He plucked out something that he happens to care about, and without any evidence or data at all asserted that this is what decides elections. It’s no different than claiming that voters elected President Obama in 2008 because he is left-handed and then writing 800 words on why left-handed people make better leaders, or that President Bush won in 2000 because general election campaigns are won by the candidate who has more experience clearing brush. Bush and Obama both promised lots of things, so where is the evidence that it is a promise to change the tone in Washington that is decisive? As anyone familiar with basic political science knows, the economy is actually the best determinant of who will win the election, and the previous election fit into that pattern perfectly. So while voters might like to hear candidates who talk about bipartisanship, making a definitive statement that “general election campaigns are won by the candidate who can most plausibly fix the political system” based on nothing but conjecture is unlikely to convince anyone who cares about things like evidence, causation, or facts.

Finally, there is the story of Felix Baumgartner. For anyone who spent this week marooned on a desert island or happens to be Amish, Baumgartner took a ballon 24 miles up into space and then jumped down back to Earth, breaking the sound barrier in the process. It was an incredible feat which millions of people, myself included, watched live on Youtube, and it was a stunt that is actually going to lead to some important scientific and technological breakthroughs. There were many declarations last Sunday that Baumgartner’s skydive is going to inspire a new generation of astronauts and revitalize the desire for space exploration, and if that happens it will be a wonderful outcome. If you enter “Felix Baumgartner” into Google News you get 8.46 million hits, so his jump got plenty of warranted attention. It may come as a surprise to you though that Baumgartner’s jump was only the second most consequential development this month in the realm of space exploration, because the event that dwarfed Baumgartner by a magnitude of thousands didn’t get nearly enough attention. It turns out that NASA’s Voyager 1 probe, which was launched in 1977, just became the first man-made object to leave the solar system (!!!). Do you have any idea how astonishing that is? We have exited the freaking solar system and are now in uncharted territory, and somehow nobody seems to know or care. Comparing Baumgartner to Voyager 1 is like comparing the discovery of gravity to me finding a $5 bill in my coat pocket from last winter, and yet it is Baumgartner’s jump that is inspiring people rather than the fact that we have just exited our own star system. If you put “NASA Voyager” into Google News, you get 3,640 results. I weep for our future.

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