What I Got Wrong

December 28, 2012 § 3 Comments

As 2012 comes to a close, I want to take a look back at the big things I got wrong this year. Crowing about what I got right is a lot more fun – and I don’t waste many opportunities to remind everyone that I was correct about an Iran strike – but it is also far less useful for me and for my readers, since it doesn’t allow me to recalibrate my thinking or give all of you a sense of when and why you should be ignoring me. I started this blog on March 13 of this year and this is my 276th post so I don’t have the time to comprehensively go through every single one, but after trying to go through the bulk of them, here are some of my biggest misfires from 2012.

Migron’s evacuation: On March 26, I wrote, “Yet, I’ll bet almost anything that Migron is not evacuated and demolished by August 1, and that Likud’s younger rightwing vanguard does everything in its power to make sure that the Migron decision is consigned to nothingness. The Knesset’s current coalition politics will not allow anything less, and Israel will continue to fight a losing battle to convince the world that it is blameless for the situation with the Palestinians and that it will be able to withdraw from part of the West Bank whenever the Palestinian leadership is interested in returning to the negotiating table.” 

While this was technically correct since Migron was still standing and fully populated on August 1, the idea behind it was wrong as Migron was evacuated by the first week in September. In this case, I did not give enough credit to the Israeli government and its willingness to carry out an unambiguous High Court decision.

Palestinian civil war: This one was a big misfire. On April 3, I wrote that Hamas and Fatah were on the brink of open armed conflict. My logic was that the Palestinian Authority moves to quash dissent in the West Bank were aimed at limiting Hamas’s ability to operate in Fatah’s stronghold, and that Hamas would do the same in Gaza in response and that eventually the entire tinder box would blow up. This has of course not happened, and I think I was too glib about just how drastic things would have to get for a civil war to take place.

Ehud Barak and Atzmaut: On May 3 I wrote that Barak and his party were going to make the threshold for getting into the next Knesset once elections happened. While this has not actually been proven wrong yet, Barak has decided not to run and Atzmaut is going to fold, so this prediction will be wrong quite soon. Let’s just all pretend that I did not write the following: “So despite the polls, remember that you read this prediction here first: Atzmaut is going to have seats in the next Knesset, will serve in the governing coalition, and Ehud Barak will continue as defense minister.”

Kadima staying in the coalition: On July 3, I predicted that the Likud-Kadima unity government was going to hold together despite the Plesner Committee – which was tasked with figuring out a solution to Haredi and Arab military exemptions –  being disbanded. When my prediction was proven incorrect, I wrote a long post taking stock of where I went wrong, so no need to rehash that again.

Turkey’s response to Operation Pillar of Cloud: On November 14, I wrote in The Atlantic that Turkey and Prime Minister Erdoğan were going to maintain a muted response to Israel’s Gaza operation because of the hypocrisy entailed in a more vocal response given Turkey’s tactics against the PKK. Here’s the relevant part:

But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.

Much like Israel’s fight against Hamas, Turkey’s fight with the PKK has not been without civilian collateral damage. Last December, the Turkish military carried out an airstrike in Uludere that killed 34 civilians who the military thought were PKK fighters attempting to cross the border into Turkey. Earlier this year, the government sealed off the Semdinli district in the Hakkari province for months while it fought the PKK, not letting any information out or any journalists in.

Turkey’s problem with PKK terrorism, combined with the inevitable civilian casualties that occur when fighting terrorist groups embedded amongst the general population, makes it harder this time around for Turkey to angrily denounce Israel as it once did. While I expected Turkey to issue a condemnation of Israeli actions, it is not surprising that it did not have the full force as it has in the past given the uncomfortable parallels that exist between Israel’s actions against Hamas and Turkey’s actions against the PKK.

Of everything that I’ve written this year, this is the prediction that was perhaps the one that was most off-base, as Erdoğan later blasted Israel repeatedly for days. My error here is pretty easy to identify, which is that I for whatever reason convinced myself that a desire to not look like a hypocrite was going to override the strong political incentives that existed for Erdoğan to continue foaming at the mouth any time Israel comes up, and to tie himself to the Palestinian cause at every opportunity. Rest assured my naiveté on this issue is done with.

So there you go. I am sure I’ve missed things, and if anyone knows what those are, please let me know in the comments. Happy New Year, and see you all back here in 2013.

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Hagel And The Israel Lobby

December 27, 2012 § 11 Comments

I really didn’t want to write about Chuck Hagel since I don’t think there is much to say that hasn’t already been said (although for the record, I have no problem with him as defense secretary based on what he has said about Israel, and in over an hour with him last September at the Atlantic Council he didn’t say one thing about Israel that raised a red flag), but reading James Besser’s op-ed in today’s New York Times compels me to weigh in. Besser’s thesis is that mainstream American Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are either silent on Hagel or complicit in trying to torpedo his nomination because they are afraid of extremist voices on the pro-Israel right such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, and that this radical fringe is setting the pro-Israel agenda and pushing more mainstream voices to adopt extreme positions. He says American Jewish leaders “increasingly tremble in the face of a small minority of zealots, whose vision of Israel’s future diverges from that of the majority of American Jews and clashes with core American values of freedom and democracy,” and he compares them to the leaders of the Republican Party in warning that a movement driven by extremists is bound to fail since it will run afoul of public opinion. Besser is basically arguing that the institutional pro-Israel movement is headed toward irrelevance because it is adopting positions that do not line up with the bulk of American Jewry, and he uses the Hagel nomination as his hook to make that argument.

I agree with Besser that more extremist voices such as the ECI are driving the conversation on Hagel, and that this is not a good trend, although I am not as confident as he is that American Jewish leaders don’t themselves hold the same convictions and are rather being prodded along into taking positions with which they don’t agree. That aside though, there are two major problems with his argument, one specific to the Hagel issue and one general one. First, Besser is assuming that opposition to Hagel is going to provoke some sort of popular backlash because the anti-Hagel position is so extreme, but this seems to me to be a stretch. To begin with, while there is lots of support for Hagel within the foreign policy community, opposition to Hagel is emanating from too many quarters to make the anti-Hagel position the equivalent of denying evolution. I also don’t think this fight is really registering much among the general public, as Hagel’s name recognition is pretty low and this is the kind of Beltway fight to which most people pay little or no attention. As far as I can tell from a quick search, Hagel’s name recognition is actually so low that nobody has even bothered to do any polling on his potential nomination. The idea that opposing Hagel is so extreme and will provoke such outrage that it will cause the pro-Israel community to go into a death spiral is pretty far-fetched at best.

The bigger issue though is with Besser’s argument that it is the views of American Jews that empower pro-Israel groups and will ultimately determine their success or failure. This betrays a lack of understanding of what makes AIPAC and other similar groups successful, which is not that Jews support them, but that the majority of the overall population supports them. Aaron David Miller pointed this out earlier this week and Walter Russell Mead does it all the time as well, but when the former Washington correspondent for The Jewish Week still doesn’t get how things work, it bears some repeating. American public opinion has been favorable toward Israel since its founding,  and support for Israel is relatively constant within a set range. This works to create pressure on politicians to espouse a pro-Israel view. In the years spanning the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations, Israel’s favorability ratings as measured by Gallup ranged from 45 percent to 71 percent, and in only in four out of twenty-one instances did less than 50 percent of the public indicate holding a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Israel. When asked to rate countries as close allies, Israel consistently ranks behind only the Anglosphere countries of Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, with those describing Israel as a close ally ranging from 26 percent to 47 percent from 1982 through 2008.

Furthermore, when looking at the preferences of the issue public – citizens who have strong feelings on the issue of the U.S. relationship with Israel and Israeli behavior generally – people in this category are even more supportive of Israel and Israeli policies than the general public by more than twice as much. A pluralist model of politics predicts a correlation between the views of citizens who have a strongly held view on an issue and public policy, since ignoring strong or intense preferences will erode democratic legitimacy over time, so it makes sense that politicians respond to the pro-Israel wishes of the most vocal subset of citizens. Support for Israel among the U.S. populace is both broad and deep, which means that the pro-Israel sympathies of the general public are reinforced by the more intense feelings of support expressed by a vocal minority of both Jewish and non-Jewish voters. When taking into account the importance that Jewish and Christian voters assign to Israel, combined with the public’s affinity and support for Israel in general, the pluralist model that equates strong public opinion with corresponding policy explains why AIPAC and other groups are successful.

None of this means that this situation is static. Support for Israel is driven by a sense of shared values, and so if that perception erodes, Israel is going to be in trouble. One of the reasons I pound away at Israel’s myopia in hanging on to the West Bank – aside from the fact that I find it morally questionable, to say the least –  is because I am pretty sure that it is going to spell doom for Israel long term as it relates to U.S. support. However, focusing on the opinion of just American Jews is going to tell you very little about whether mainstream American Jewish organizations are going to remain strong or not. American Jews are probably the most liberal group of Americans that exist, so if the rest of the country ever catches up to them, then the ADL and the AJC are going to have something to worry about. Putting up a fight over Chuck Hagel though is just not going to be the issue that relegates mainstream Jewish organizations to obsolescence.

Domestic Politics Vs. International Politics In The Israeli Election

December 26, 2012 § 7 Comments

As regular O&Z readers know, if this blog has any sort of running theme it is that domestic politics is often decisive in determining foreign policy. When I wrote last week for The Atlantic about the rightwing political competition that is driving settlement activity, a close friend emailed, “So you’re saying it is local politics at work…#ImagineMySurprise.” I have pointed to domestic politics to argue that Israel and Turkey won’t be normalizing relations any time soon (and I’ll try and write about the recent NATO news tomorrow, but no, I don’t think it signals that anything is going to imminently change) and to predict that there was not going to be an Israeli strike on Iran last spring, summer, or fall. Does this mean that domestic politics is always decisive in every situation? Of course not. There are plenty of times in which other considerations are at work; the months-long push on the Turkish government’s to get NATO to intervene in Syria is one such instance. Nevertheless, I maintain that a lack of focus on domestic politics and the constraints it imposes leads to lots of shoddy analysis from both professionals and casual observers.

Over the next few months, Israel is going to be a great petri dish for watching these trends at work. On the one hand, influential and respected defense and security experts like Amos Yadlin are warning that Israel is losing its international support and status because of its footdragging on the peace process, Tzipi Livni has founded a new party devoted solely to reviving talks with the Palestinians, and there is chatter that the EU is losing so much patience that it is going to try and force Israel and the Palestinians into a deal. Last week the State Department issued a harsher than usual condemnation of Israeli settlement activity, as did the fourteen non-U.S. members of the Security Council. By any measure, Israel’s settlement policy and reticence on the creation of a Palestinian state is become increasingly costly. Looking at it from a black box perspective, you have a state living in a hostile neighborhood with an enormous qualitative military edge over its neighbors that is facing a dangerous potential dip in support from its main external allies and is facing increasing international isolation over the Palestinian statehood issue, which does not present an existential security threat by any means. The state is facing what it believes is an existential threat from Iran, and on that front it needs all the help it can get from its main allies. Given everything involved, you’d expect Israel in this situation to take moves to forestall its isolation and shore up its relationship with the U.S. and EU – which are its primary providers of military and economic aid and diplomatic support across the board – by making some serious concessions on the Palestinian front. After all, even if settlements in the West Bank are viewed as a security buffer, keeping them from a security perspective given Palestinian military capabilities pales in comparison to risking the cessation of purchases of military hardware and transfers of military technology, and enabling the risk of complete diplomatic isolation.

Given all of this, one might expect to see an Israeli coalition after the election that includes Livni’s Hatnua party and that undertakes serious initiatives on the Palestinian statehood and peace process fronts. Such a coalition would under no circumstances include Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi, as Bennett wants to annex Area C and does not support the creation of a Palestinian state. Indeed, there have been moves in that direction as far as keeping Bennett out is concerned, and there have also been reports that Netanyahu and Livni are exploring the possibility of Hatnua joining the coalition after the election, which would almost necessarily mean her return to the Foreign Ministry and a greater push for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, taking domestic politics into account would point to a different path. As I wrote last week, the idea behind the joint Likud-Beiteinu list was to create a right-wing monolith that would put an electoral victory out of reach for Israel’s left and to also present rightwing voters without a real alternative. Netanyahu wanted to eliminate any challenges from his right flank by co-opting Lieberman, but it now turns out that he has to deal with Bennett on his right and a swift migration of voters (so far, at least) away from Likud and to Habayit Hayehudi. It is also the case that Israeli voters do not care about the Palestinians or the peace process, which is why Hatnua is stuck in single digits, Labor and Shelley Yachimovich barely mention anything other than social issues and the economy unless absolutely forced to, and Bennett is gaining a larger following based partly on a perception that Netanyahu is actually not hawkish enough. Taking all of this into account means a coalition that includes Bennett, continues to take a hardline on a Palestinian state, and bemoans the lack of support from European states rather than constructing a policy meant to change that reality.

So which will it be? Unsurprisingly, my money is on the second option, but the first one is certainly plausible. It really just depends on how much weight you place on the domestic political calculus. Netanyahu’s history is that he pays attention to his domestic political survival above all else, and I see no evidence that he has suddenly become a changed man. To my mind, Israel’s long term health necessitates the first path, while Netanyahu’s lies with the second. Let’s hope that events in 2013 prove me wrong.

The Turkish Debate Over Separation Of Powers

December 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

As has been happening with increasing frequency, President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan are having a passive aggressive public disagreement, this time over whether separation of powers is a necessary element for democracy or a hindrance to democratic development. It began with Erdoğan’s comments on Monday fingering separation of powers as the biggest obstacle facing Turkey’s government. According to the PM, there is a bureaucratic oligarchy that hinders efficient provision of services, and projects are unnecessarily stalled due to judicial objections. Erdoğan’s preference would be for the executive, legislature, and judiciary to all work together in order to eliminate “errors within the system” that he feels slow things down. In response today, Gül said that separation of powers is absolutely fundamental to the success of Turkish democracy and said that Erdoğan must have misspoken. This is of course a proxy fight for the larger argument that is taking place over whether the AKP is going to revise the constitution in a way that creates a powerful presidency in a presidential system, and whether Erdoğan is then going to become Turkey’s first directly elected and newly empowered president or whether Gül is going to remain in his post and finish out his term.

The debate over separation of powers is an interesting one historically. Most people – including the folks at Wikipedia – ascribe the principle to Baron de Montesquieu, but this is actually incorrect. As my former professor Jack Rakove lays out in his excellent book Original Meanings, the idea behind separation of powers arose during the 17th century in Britain out of the upheaval caused by the English Civil War and the battle between the monarchy and the parliament. Parliamentary supporters in the 1640s came up with the principle of separation of powers as a way of distinguishing it from the concept of mixed government, which advocated for having representatives of the monarchy, aristocracy, and the people in the legislature as a way of avoiding tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy. Separation of powers was an effort to draw lines between the different functions of government so that one particular branch of government would not overwhelm the others, as opposed to being concerned with one branch of society becoming dominant. Supporters of the monarchy under Charles I advocated mixed government since it allowed the king to dominate the parliament, and thus his opponents began to emphasize separation of powers as a way of leveling the playing field and eliminating the king’s power to govern without Parliament and abrogate legislation. Once Charles was beheaded and the monarchy was suspended, the separation of powers crowd turned on Parliament, as it was now Parliament under Oliver Cromwell that had enormous and unchecked powers.

This debate was picked up in the American colonies not as a response to the government in Britain but because of the constant feuding between colonial legislatures and colonial governors, who were battling over parliamentary rights and executive power and what the proper balance would be between the two. Colonial governors were actually viewed as a bigger problem than the British Parliament, and that led to the Congress eventually being granted something of a privileged position, as seen by the fact that Article I is about Congress rather than the president or the courts. As Gordon Wood has written, the reason separation of powers was given such a prominent place in the Constitution was not because the framers wanted to check Congress, but because they wanted to protect Congress and the judiciary from the president.

I bring this up because the Turkish debate over separation of powers is playing out in reverse, demonstrating just how extreme Erdoğan’s complaints are. Whereas the British and American concept of separation of powers arose out of a desire to check and limit a powerful executive and give the legislature more of a free reign,  Erdoğan is bringing up separation of powers because he believes that the executive does not currently have enough power and that it is the judiciary that is hindering the proper functioning of government. The English-speaking men of the 17th and 18th centuries immersed in the philosophy of government would have found this situation absurd, since nobody really contemplated that separation of powers would create a situation of judicial or bureaucratic tyranny, as Erdoğan is alleging, or buy into the idea that separation of powers should be eliminated in order to empower an executive even further. Despite controlling a near super majority in the Grand National Assembly and operating under a system in which real power is vested in the prime minister rather than the president, Erdoğan is still claiming that it is not enough and that separation of powers has to go, when in fact he is vested with a huge degree of autonomy despite separation of powers. This is precisely why separation of powers is so important, and Gül is correct to point out that it is the foundation of Turkish democracy. Eliminating it in the name of efficiency will lead very quickly to a complete erosion of Turkish democracy, since democracy is not about efficiency but about the ability for a diverse set of parties and interests to contest power while allowing the people to participate in civic life. As I’ve said before and will keep on saying, if you are focused on Erdoğan’s Islamist background rather than on his familiar Turkish authoritarian tendencies, you are missing what is actually going on in Turkey right now.

Rightwing Competition And Settlements

December 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wrote a piece for the Atlantic yesterday about how Israel’s recent announcements on settlements in the West Bank and building in East Jerusalem is widely viewed as an effort to punish the Palestinians in the wake of their statehood bid at the UN, but that’s not the only thing driving Israeli policy. The sudden emergence of serious competitors on Bibi Netanyahu’s right flank accounts for much of what is going on as well. Here’s a teaser:

Over the past few weeks, the Israeli government has been on a building spree. First came word that planning and zoning would begin for E1, a controversial move that would further encircle East Jerusalem with settlements — cutting off from the West Bank the part of the city Palestinians demand to be the capital of their future state. As part of the same announcement, Israel said that it was going to build more housing in other parts of the West Bank as well.

This week, the government approved 1500 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem — the same housing units whose initial announcement in 2010 during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel caused a temporary rift between the United States and Israel and Hilary Clinton’s chewing-out of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem Local Committee are also expected to approve plans to build in Givat Hamatos and Gilo this week, both of which are new Jerusalem neighborhoods that are also across the 1967 armistice line that divides East and West Jerusalem.

This is all taking place despite enormous pressure and condemnation from Western countries, who are not happy with the escalation of Israeli plans to expand settlements or to build up Jerusalem neighborhoods that challenge the viability of a future Palestinian state. Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal are about to formally condemn Israel over its East Jerusalem building plans, and the 14 non-American members of the United Nations Security Council are going to do the same. Even the United States seems to have lost its usual patience with the Israeli government, deeming the new building announcements part of a “pattern of provocative action” that endangers the peace process and the two-state solution. Israel seems hell-bent on isolating itself over the settlement issue, and appears determined to move ahead with plans for both the West Bank and East Jerusalem no matter the cost.

It is easy to chalk this up to Israel’s fury with the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid at the United Nations, as the E1 announcement came the day after the vote, amidst stated determination on Israel’s part to punish the Palestinians for pursuing unilateral moves outside of the Oslo framework. “We felt if the Palestinians were taking unilateral action in the UN, we had to also send the message that we could take unilateral actions,” Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren said this week, making the connection explicit.

Yet, this does not account for the scope of the recent Israeli announcements, or for the seeming recklessness of drawing real anger and censure from Israel’s Western allies immediately following American and EU support during Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza. There is indeed something else going on here, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinians and everything to do with the political jockeying taking place on the right of Israel’s political spectrum before Israelis go to the polls on January 22 to elect their next government.

To read the article in its entirety, please click over to the Atlantic’s website.

The Mavi Marmara Fallout Continues

December 19, 2012 § 3 Comments

Despite the Mavi Marmara incident being two and a half years in the past, its effects are still reverberating in Israel and Turkey and neither side is exactly covering itself with glory. On the contrary, both countries are in the midst of taking action directly related to the Gaza flotilla of 2010 that reflects poorly on each, and that does not inspire confidence for the future of Israeli-Turkish relations.

First is the less egregious example brought to us by Israel, which is the effort to bar National Democratic Assembly MK Hanin Zoabi from running in the January 22 election. Zoabi was the first Arab Israeli woman elected to the Knesset as a member of an Arab political party, and the Central Elections Committee is voting to bar her from running again based on charges that she does not support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and that she incites violence against the government. The first part of this equation stems from the fact that Zoabi decries Israel as racist for being a Jewish state and is openly and proudly anti-Zionist. The second part stems from Zoabi’s participation in the flotilla, as she was aboard the Mavi Marmara when it was boarded by IDF troops and afterwards blasted the IDF and accused it of deliberately killing people on board. It is for this latter reason that Likud MK Ofir Akunis submitted the petition to have Zoabi barred from the next Knesset, since there is an enormous amount of anger in Israel that a Knesset parliamentarian would take Turkey’s side against Israel and actually participate in a flotilla designed to break the Gaza naval blockade. In the past, petitions have been filed to ban parties, and this is again the case this time, but now we have the addition of going after Zoabi personally for her involvement in the flotilla.

There is no doubt that Zoabi is enormously critical of Israel, and there is also a strange cognitive dissonance involved when Zoabi uses her perch as an Arab Israeli elected to the Knesset on behalf of an Arab Israeli party to claim that Israel is fundamentally undemocratic. Nevertheless, one of the wonderful things about Israel is that someone like Zoabi can be elected to the Knesset and can express her opinions as loudly as she wants; this is precisely why arguments that Israel is not a democracy fall flat. Furthermore, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who is not exactly a leftist, has urged the Central Elections Committee not to disqualify Zoabi because he says the evidence against her is not sufficient to do so. Once Zoabi is banned – the vote is not in question – she is almost certainly going to be reinstated by the High Court, but that does not make this episode any less discomforting. Democracies tolerate all types of unsavory and odious speech, and nobody has alleged that Zoabi herself engaged in violence or attacked IDF soldiers aboard the Mavi Marmara. Letting Zoabi continue to spout her view that Israel is not a democracy while doing so from the floor of the Knesset is a much better way of strengthening Israel than providing her with ammunition for her point.

While the move to kick Zoabi out of the Knesset is misguided, Turkey’s new effort to place heat on Israel over the flotilla is far more insidious. Turkish intelligence is now claiming that five of the IDF soldiers who boarded the Mavi Marmara were Turkish citizens who helped raid the ship and interrogate passengers, and it has sent their names to the prosecutor trying the case against IDF officers. According to this new information, which somehow nobody had ever mentioned for two and a half years until now, people on board the ship heard IDF soldiers talking in fluent Turkish and the alleged Turkish IDF members told the Turks whom they were interrogating that Israel had solicited them to be interpreters. In order to figure out who these people are, Turkey has investigated all of its citizens who traveled to Israel and back in the weeks before and after the flotilla, which means that the MIT is spending lots of time checking out Turkey’s Jewish community.

It is certainly in the realm of possibility that Israel sent Turkish translators to interrogate passengers, but I don’t buy the story for a second about Turkish Jews flying in to work for the IDF and then flying right back home when they were done. This is a not so subtle effort to intimidate Turkish Jews and create an implicit threat that if Israel does not apologize and pay compensation, it is Turkey’s Jewish community that will suffer the consequences. Hüseyin Ersöz Oruç, who is the vice chair of the IHH (the group that organized the flotilla), declared that the five names are going to be published and that “everyone will know who the Turkish Jews are that served in the Israeli army and killed Turkish civilians on the Mavi Marmara.” This obviously is worrisome for Turkish Jews who now have to worry about reprisals and attacks upon their loyalty, which is even more absurd considering that a large portion of Turkish Jews purposely back away from Israel and go out of their way to stress that Judaism and Zionism are two separate things. Since Turkey’s efforts to pressure the Israeli government through traditional diplomatic means are not working, someone has made a decision to try new tactics and hit Israel in a sensitive spot by threatening the local Jewish community. As misguided as Likud MKs are in trying to throw Zoabi out of the Knesset over her support for a foreign government, it does not even begin to compare to threatening an entire minority community for nothing more than being Jews. I am confident that the Israeli High Court will do the right thing, and let’s hope that the Turkish government comes to its senses and does the right thing as well.

Israel’s Next Unity Government

December 18, 2012 § 8 Comments

In the time leading up to an Israeli election, one always gets the impression that Israel’s political system is the most fractured on Earth. Outrageous charges are hurled back and forth, and this year Kadima took things to a new level by adopting an anti-Bibi slogan superimposed on a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud as its campaign poster. Nevertheless, as Israeli parties and politicians all jockey and maneuver before the January 22 election, it seems to me that if the poll numbers remain relatively stable, there is a good chance that Israel is headed toward a unity government comprised of Likud and Labor. While nobody will come right out and admit that while campaigning, the inter-party dynamics, Bibi Netanyahu’s past preferences, and Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich’s interview over the weekend are all pointing in that direction.

The latest polling – and the first to be released after Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as foreign minister – confirms the trend that has been taking place for weeks, which is that the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu joint list is polling in the mid to upper 30s range for Knesset seats and is likely to garner fewer seats than the two currently have now (and don’t forget where you first heard that this arrangement was going to backfire). In addition, the Habayit Hayehudi list under Naftali Bennett is holding steady at 11 seats, and is Netanyahu’s natural coalition partner given its rightwing stance. While there are rumors that Netanyahu would rather not deal with Bennett, he cannot afford to have Bennett constantly sniping at him from his right flank, particularly given how rightwing voters appear to be leaving Likud and flocking to Habayit Hayehudi. Including Bennett gets Netanyahu to just under 50 coalition seats, leaving him 10-12 short depending on how things precisely shake out. In the past, Netanyahu has turned to Shas and UTJ to fill this gap, and indeed together they are currently at 16 seats, which would get Netanyahu past the magic number of 60 seats and allow him to continue as prime minister. The problem is that Yisrael Beiteinu has been adamant about not wanting Haredi parties in the coalition, and Bennett last week demanded that Netanyahu take away the Interior and Housing ministries from Shas as part of his general argument that Haredi parties should be kept out of the next coalition. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party might not get enough seats to fill the gap, and even if it does, it will still leave Netanyahu with a very narrow margin and no wiggle room. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party is probably out too, as Livni and Netanyahu do not like each other and Livni has turned down multiple opportunities to join with Netanyahu in the past. As demonstrated by his move to form a unity government with Kadima last spring, Netanyahu clearly likes to keep as many options open to him as possible, and his current narrow one has been a disaster, with infighting over the Tal Law and Haredi military service being a particular problem. This means constructing a coalition with as many seats as possible and without a big issue that will prove enormously divisive and impossible to overcome.

Enter Labor, which is second in the polls behind Likud Beiteinu, and Yachimovich, who has repeatedly declined to rule out joining a Likud-led coalition and who has insisted that Labor is not a leftwing party but a centrist party. Yachimovich wants to  join the next coalition because she has never served as a minister and is relatively inexperienced and untested. Serving in the government will provide her with some more gravitas and do away with the impression that she isn’t quite ready for prime time, and lay the foundation for a future chance at expanding Labor’s seats and competing to be prime minister. In this vein, yesterday she gave an interview in which she said that the budget for settlements should remain untouched in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and stressed Labor’s history of building settlements when in government and that Labor has always had a hawkish element, including Yitzhak Rabin. This drew immediate responses from Lapid and Meretz chief Zahava Gal-On, but Yachimovich does not appear to be worried about Gal-On or other leftist parties damaging her credibility. Instead, she is clearly appealing to the fact that Israel’s electorate is far more hawkish on the Palestinians and the West Bank than in the past, and is laying the groundwork to be able to join a Likud-led coalition in which support for settlements is going to be a must. It is not accidental that Yachimovich broke her laser-like focus on economic and social issues to talk about settlements rather than Iran, the peace process, Gaza, etc. If there is one issue that will make it possible for Netanyahu to invite Labor into the coalition without risking a rightwing revolt it is support for the settlement budget, and Yachimovich’s interview was an attempt to forestall any criticism that might emerge on this front. While there will invariably be differences in opinion between her and Netanyahu on socioeconomic issues and on the peace process, there is now no daylight on the question of support for settlements. While I am loath to predict anything with certainly when it comes to coalition politics – particularly as I have been burned in the past – the signs as I read them point to a Likud-Labor unity government once the dust settles after the election.

When It Comes To Freedom Of Speech, Turkey Is Still All Talk

December 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

It looks like the attention being paid to Turkey’s abysmal record on speech issues has finally created enough noise to get the government to sit up and take notice. Deputy PM Bülent Arınç said on Saturday that there is a draft law in the works that will change the Anti-Terror Law, which criminalizes making “propaganda” on behalf of a terrorist organization, to have “propaganda” be interpreted more loosely. According to Arınç, he does not want to see any journalists in jail, and he claimed that this issue has been discussed in cabinet meetings and should be resolved soon, although he did not hesitate to add that no parties save the BDP want to see the Anti-Terrorism Law scrapped entirely.

The good news here is that it appears that the efforts of NGOs to highlight the detestable state of press freedom in Turkey are having an effect. Arınç cited the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute, both of whom recently have called out Ankara for jailing journalists. When the CPJ issued its report in October, I was critical of the organization for not calling attention to this issue sooner and for actually providing cover to Turkey in the past by downplaying the scope of the problem. Thankfully Ankara is sufficiently worried about the CPJ report to feel the need to address it publicly, which is why Arınç was trotted out there to talk about how terrible it is for even one journalist to be wrongly imprisoned. If the Turkish government didn’t feel some heat over this issue, it would still be doing what it did when the report was released in October, which is try to sweep the whole thing under the table.

Nevertheless, I am highly skeptical that Arınç’s public relations offensive represents a genuine move to ameliorate Turkey’s draconian treatment of the press. It is difficult to imagine that Prime Minister Erdoğan and his cabinet are seriously considering amending the Anti-Terrorism Law to make it easier for journalists to report on Kurdish issues and to criticize the government at the same time that Erdoğan is calling for the creators of a soap opera to be prosecuted because he doesn’t like the way they are portraying Ottomans sultans, or when members of his government are introducing bills to not only ban the show but to educate Turkish filmmakers on proper Turkish values and morals. On the one hand, the AKP wants to shut down any speech that it finds objectionable in any way at all, and the on the other hand it wants you to believe that it is going to loosen restrictions on speech that it has long claimed to be a security threat that is equivalent to terrorism. It also beggars belief that Erdoğan is considering any real amendments to Articles 6 and 7 of the terrorism law at the same time that dozens of Kurdish politicians are being arrested under these very same provisions and the prime minister is trying to strip BDP deputies of their parliamentary immunity. That Arınç can even say with a straight face that he has a draft of a revised law on his desk and that he hopes it can be passed soon when the campaign to sweep up even more people under these very same articles he claims to want to revise is being prosecuted with even greater ferocity is outrageous. It’s as if the government thinks people have no capacity to independently judge what is taking place, and that everyone should just trust that they will do the right thing despite having no track record worthy of garnering trust.

Furthermore, Arınç’s claim that the law is going to be reinterpreted is a specious one even if you set aside the government’s recent actions. As noted above, after saying that the government was going to relax the law, he made it very clear that the law is here to stay, that all parties other than the Kurdish BDP support it, and that propaganda is going to remain a crime if it lauds terrorism or violence. So, based on Arınç’s interpretation of things, right now Turkey has a law on the books which it uses to throw journalists in prison by claiming that their reporting has supported terrorism, and after these alleged revisions that the government is debating, Turkey will still have a law on the books that will allow it throw journalists in prison by claiming that their reporting has supported terrorism. I fail to see what Arınç claims is going to be tangibly changed aside from a loose promise to reinterpret the word propaganda, which is a meaningless and empty promise if the law as it is currently written is not significantly altered or done away with. In short, given the government’s continuing assault on free speech of all varieties and arrests of Kurdish journalists and politicians, there is little reason for anyone to trust that Arınç means what he says. Until the Erdoğan government takes some actual steps toward relaxing its restrictions on speech, its rhetoric and promises on this issue will remain hollow and meaningless.

Why Avigdor Lieberman’s Resignation Really Matters

December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

In an announcement that has long been anticipated, Israel’s attorney general yesterday said that Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman will be indicted for fraud and breach of trust stemming from his efforts to help former ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben Aryeh become ambassador to Latvia after Ben Aryeh leaked information to Lieberman about the government’s investigation into his dealings. While the breach of trust charge was not a surprise, the fraud charge was, and after saying that he was not going to resign, Lieberman just announced that he will be resigning as foreign minister although he remains as YB party chief and will be running in the elections on the joint Likud Beiteinu list.

When it looked like Lieberman was not going to resign yesterday, there was a lot of commentary on what the indictments would mean for him politically. Brent Sasley called the indictments a distraction and argued that it wouldn’t have much impact on the upcoming election or on Lieberman’s long term goal of eventually becoming prime minister, and I think this is right even after the news that he is stepping down from his cabinet post. Lieberman is still going to get a lot of votes for his party as part of the joint list with Likud, and I think he is also likely to return to his post as foreign minister, even possibly before the election should he work out a plea bargain in time. The short term impact of the indictment and resignation is going to be minimal, and for all of those hoping that Lieberman was going to disappear from public life, you are bound to be very disappointed. Nevertheless, there is an important way in which Lieberman’s indictment and his decision to (temporarily) vacate his FM post matters, but it isn’t about short term politics.

For much of Israel’s history, Israeli politics was dominated by great men who had accomplished substantial things. In some instances they were achievements to be proud of, such as Yitzhak Rabin commanding the IDF to victory in 1967 (at least when he wasn’t suffering a nervous breakdown) and then signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, and in other instances they were (to my mind, at least) not, such as decisions by multiple prime ministers to settle and then settle more the West Bank. Israeli leaders were known for their accomplishments, whether it be creating the institutions of the state, fighting wars against hostile enemies bent on Israel’s destruction, or carving out diplomatic space and cementing alliances. In some ways this was inevitable, as the founding fathers of any state are going to be more accomplished than those that come after them given the nature of the trial by fire that is involved. Yet, even the current generation of Israeli leaders includes seriously accomplished military officers like Ehud Barak, or those with a long history of real diplomatic experience such as Bibi Netanyahu, or people who have grappled with the administrative difficulties of running the world’s most complicated and sensitive city such as Ehud Olmert. Is there a serious drop off from Ben Gurion and Rabin to Netanyahu and Barak? Sure. But Avigdor Lieberman represents a crass and disturbing trend that makes the latter group look like veritably Jeffersonian.

Lieberman has no tangible accomplishments to speak of other than being a thuggish party hack. He went from being a student who stirred up tensions between Jews and Arabs at Hebrew University to being a bouncer to being a Likud functionary beholden to Netanyahu. He has become the leader of his party not because of any substantial accomplishments but because of his Russian background. He has been an embarrassment as foreign minister who has complicated Israel’s relations with a number of countries, contributed to the Palestinian Authority’s losing ground to Hamas, and is frequently sidelined by his own government when it comes to carrying out important diplomacy with the United States that cannot be left in his untrustworthy hands. He has gotten to where he is solely because it has become politically beneficial for Netanyahu to cynically rely on him for political cover and because his party is a solid bloc of reliable Knesset votes. I cannot envision a situation in which anyone turns to Lieberman for real advice on issues of diplomacy or security, or where they feel that his sage counsel is necessary. He is the embodiment of everything that is currently wrong with Israeli politics, from his lack of any tact or moderation to his trail of corrupt and unsavory behavior. My fervent wish is that his resigning as foreign minister in the wake of this indictment will cast a new light on him, and that Netanyahu and the Israeli political class realize how much better off Israel is without Lieberman as its face to the world, even if the hiatus is a temporary one. The more that someone like Lieberman – who, let me be clear, I am going after not because of his political views but because of his utter mediocrity – is marginalized rather than elevated to senior cabinet level posts, the better off Israel will be.

The Relevance of Hanukkah To Israel

December 13, 2012 § 6 Comments

Commentaries about Hanukkah abound this year, from Hilary Krieger’s reminder in the New York Times that the holiday is about more than miraculous oil and plying children with presents to a typically obtuse Mondoweiss piece by Avigail Abarbanel decrying any celebration of Hanukkah as hypocritical because Israel is occupying the West Bank (but don’t worry, since Mondoweiss never conflates Judaism with Israel as we all know that criticism of the latter in no way ever has anything to do with the former). Tying in Krieger’s argument about what Hanukkah is really about with Abarbanel’s clumsy attempt to bash Israel over the head got me thinking that there is indeed a connection between Hanukkah and modern day Israel, but it is not the one that Abarbanel advances about Israeli behavior making Hanukkah unfit to be celebrated.

As Krieger points out, Hanukkah is actually about a revolt that paved the way for Jewish independence and freedom of worship, and the miracle of the oil burning for eight nights is only ancillary to the main story. Making Chanukkah primarily about lights burning in the Temple is the equivalent of celebrating on New Year’s Eve not because the calendar is about to change but because a giant ball is going to drop in Times Square. The reason Jews originally celebrated Hanukkah was because it represented the triumph of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel for the first time since the Babylonian expulsion four centuries earlier. Following hundreds of years of Judea being ruled by foreigners – Persians and Greeks – the Hasmoneans carried out a successful revolt against Judea’s Syrian Greek overlords and established a Jewish kingdom that lasted for a century before one side in the Judean civil war made the mistake of inviting the Roman general Pompey to settle things, which led to a Roman siege of Jerusalem and eventually Roman control over Judea. Hanukkah certainly has an important religious component in that it celebrates the end of Greek religious persecution – which, for those interested, is the only recorded instance of forced religious coercion by pagan conquerors in the ancient world – but just as vital is the celebration of Jewish political sovereignty and the establishment of a Jewish kingdom that was independent rather than a client of a larger empire. To me, Hanukkah has always been about this rather than about lights remaining kindled in the Temple.

Krieger mentions Maccabean religious zealotry and attacks on neighbors, and argues that these elements to the story require some Jewish introspection, as occurs on other Jewish holidays. The story is actually a lot more interesting than she details and requires vastly more real estate than the New York Times op-ed page provides. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Seleucids, they embarked on a mission to expand the borders of their new state. After the Seleucid empire broke apart, the Hasmoneans seized the opportunity to conquer the regions neighboring Judea, including the Galilee, Idumea, and Samaria, expanding into what is modern day Syria and Jordan. This expansion was not benign, however, as the Hasmoneans were not only looking to conquer territory but to create an explicitly Jewish kingdom. This meant forcing the local populations that they conquered to submit to conversion (which included being circumcised) or face expulsion, which was not exactly a great set of options. Over time, this enlarged kingdom became harder to defend and to govern, and the Judean political class divided into factions and civil war ensued. In many ways, what happened is reminiscent of Jack Snyder’s imperial overreach, and Jewish sovereignty was eventually snuffed out by the Romans.

So what’s the relevance of all this to modern day Israel? The reason Israel holds such meaning for many Jews around the world is because it represents the triumph of Jewish sovereignty in the historical Jewish homeland for the first time since the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks in the Hanukkah story and established the kingdom of Judea. In a sense, Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday most intimately connected to Israel and the Zionist dream, precisely because it mirrors the struggle to create the Jewish state and because it is a holiday that has powerful political meaning behind it rather than a holiday that is purely a religious one. Hanukkah represents Jewish political and military power and Jewish political independence, and it is something to be proud of and grateful for if you are Jewish and have any sense of Jewish history at all. The Hasmoneans and their fellow 2nd century BCE Judeans were able to establish a state despite the odds being heavily stacked against them, and it is tough to look at the Hanukkah story and not see the parallels to David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, and the other founding fathers of Israel.

Ultimately, however, as great as it must have been to establish Jewish sovereignty after centuries of foreign rule, the Jewish state in the Hanukkah story collapsed under its own weight due to poor decisions and infighting. So too, there are many dangers looming in Israel’s path, some of which are out of its control and some of which are very much of its own making. It should be obvious to everyone, particularly as the possible beginnings of a third intifada are just now emerging, that hanging onto the West Bank is a failed policy that is hanging around Israel’s neck like an albatross, and it is one that will continually put Israel’s status as a Jewish democratic state at risk. The more that Israeli policies anger Western states that do not have the same base of support for Israel that exists in the U.S., the more Israel will rely solely on the U.S., and that in itself will endanger Israeli sovereignty as it will become harder for Israel to chart its own independent path. Just as ancient Judea expanded beyond what it could reasonably control and descended into destructive factionalism and eventually civil war, modern day Israel does not quite appear to be in such dire straits but resembles this scenario in enough of a way as to be unsettling. Hanukkah should not prompt one to reject any celebration of the holiday because Jews once fought against foreign occupiers and Israel is now occupying the West Bank, but it should certainly prompt a recognition that there are some lessons to be learned from ancient Jewish history. Just like the Hanukkah story of the kingdom of Judea, which began so triumphantly but ended tragically, Israel is also currently headed down a path that it desperately needs to find a way around so that Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland is not once again interrupted.

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