May 1, 2013 § 7 Comments
Ben Alter (who has done yeoman’s work editing the last couple of pieces I’ve written for Foreign Affairs) and Ed Fishman wrote an insightful op-ed for the New York Times this past Sunday in which they argued that American energy independence – which may be a reality by the end of the next decade – will have a downside too, which is that it will lead to massive destabilization in states that rely on high global energy prices. States like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain depend on revenues from oil and natural gas to maintain to dole out patronage and co-opt the opposition, but the introduction of U.S. shale gas into the global marketplace will lower energy prices worldwide, and Alter and Fishman argue that it will create domestic unrest and even regime change in petrostates, which will in turn put shipping lanes in harm’s way, endanger counterterrorism cooperation and efforts to deal with Iran between the U.S. and Arab Gulf monarchies, and force Russia into a more aggressive and territorial foreign policy. The upshot here is that energy independence will not allow the U.S. to withdraw from the world as it is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil producing states, but rather the U.S. will still have to act as the liberal hegemon guaranteeing the safety of global trade, maintaining great power stability, and working to spread democracy so that the international system remains relatively stable.
Writing in Forbes in response, Christopher Helman says that Alter and Fishman baked a faulty assumption into their argument since the price of oil will never get as low as $50 a barrel (and he accuses them of taking liberties with the report that they presumably cite), and that even if the global price did hit that floor, it wouldn’t remain there as unrest in petrostates would cause global prices to skyrocket once more. Another scenario is that OPEC states would cut their production in order to inflate prices back up to $90-$100 per barrel in order to maintain their current levels of government spending. While this criticism may be accurate, Helman is misreading the important takeaway from Alter and Fishman’s piece, which is that there are unintended consequences that emanate from even what appear to be the rosiest of scenarios. In short, U.S. energy independence and lower energy prices will be a great development for the U.S. in many respects, but it will also create a host of negative externalities that will require the U.S. to stay on its toes.
While reading the Alter/Fishman piece, I couldn’t help but think about how their argument applies to Iran and the question of whether a nuclear arms race in the Middle East will ensue should Iran achieve nuclear status. There is a wide-ranging debate over whether this scenario is a realistic one, with no less than President Obama (and thus presumably the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) warning that a nuclear Iran will set off a regional nuclear arms race, and analysts such as my close friend Steven Cook arguing that nuclear dominoes will not fall in the Middle East as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia either don’t have the scientific capability and infrastructure or the cash on hand to build their own bombs. I do not claim to have any expertise in this area at all, and Steven certainly knows his stuff, but let’s assume for a moment that of these three candidates, Saudi Arabia could conceivably go nuclear given that the Saudis have the cash to buy the technology and build the infrastructure they would need in a hurry. Let’s also assume that Alter and Fishman’s predictions unfold, and U.S. energy independence destabilizes Saudi Arabia in fifteen years and leads to the fall of the ruling family and the government. Isn’t this in many ways the ultimate nightmare scenario – not that the current governments in the Middle East will become nuclear powers, but that whomever or whatever replaces them will be nuclear powers?
Anyone who knows anything about U.S. foreign and defense policy knows that the most pressing problem facing the U.S. right now is not the rise of China or the fight against al-Qaida. It is the possibility that the Pakistani government will fall and that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will be taken over by extremists. Only slightly less worrisome is that the lax command and control structure that exists for Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile – and for those who don’t pay close attention to these things, it turns out that the Pakistani government moves its nukes in and out of traffic in barely guarded civilian vans so that we won’t steal them – will lead to a nuke being stolen or even accidentally launched. This is the reason that the U.S. keeps on propping up the Pakistani government and throwing money into a Pakistani black hole despite mountains of evidence that Pakistan is not our ally and actually works to undermine the U.S. in Afghanistan and other places.
Now let’s replicate this situation in Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or any other slightly shaky Middle Eastern state that may be inclined to try and acquire nuclear weapons in response to Iran, and that later falls due to the instability unleashed by the Arab Spring or the instability unleashed by falling oil prices. Or imagine the nightmare that we would be dealing with right now in Syria if Israel had not bombed the Syrian reactor a few years ago and Syria had somehow made a successful mad dash for a nuke, and that instead of worrying about missing Syrian chemical weapons, we were worrying about missing Syrian nuclear weapons. I am not someone who worries about the current Iranian regime actually using a nuke should it develop the capability to build one – although I do worry about the cascade effects of Iran having the bomb and thus making its support for international terrorism and groups like Hizballah largely untouchable – but I certainly worry enormously about what would happen to an Iranian nuke in the chaos following the current regime falling, or a Saudi nuke in the chaos of the monarchy falling. Maybe I have missed the conversation on this issue, which would be understandable since I am not a nuclear policy person, but shouldn’t the conversation surrounding Iran and its nuclear program be a little more focused on the Pakistanization of this problem in a regional context when energy prices fall rather than solely on whether the Iranian regime can be trusted not to nuke Tel Aviv?
February 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
Halil Karaveli has an op-ed in today’s New York Times with the title “Turkey, The Unhelpful Ally” and in it he argues that Turkey is acting at cross purposes to American goals in Syria by exacerbating civil strife in backing Sunni groups to the exclusion of others. Karaveli actually takes the argument even further and maintains that in not reining Turkey in, the U.S. risks having sectarian tensions blow up into a regional war. He thinks that the U.S. has empowered Turkey and encouraged it to behave as a Sunni power in order to confront Iranian interests, and that doing so is creating incentives for unhelpful behavior on Turkey’s part.
Karaveli is correct that Turkey’s actions are contributing to sectarian strife and he is accurately describing the effects of Turkey’s policy choices, but I don’t think Turkey’s intentions are quite so nefarious. It is true that Turkey’s foreign policy has tended toward boosting Sunni power, and I am sure that Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu harbor ambitions of being the great leader of the Sunni world, but what’s taking place in the Syrian context is something different. Other than Syrians themselves, Ankara wants Assad gone more than anyone, and it will do whatever it can to make that happen. In fact, the Turkish government so desperately wants to see Assad go that who or what replaces him has become a second order concern following the primary objective of just making sure that he is removed from power. To this end, Turkey did not back the Syrian National Council and now the Syrian National Coalition primarily because these groups are Sunni or Sunni-dominated, but because it was clear early on that they represented the best chance to remove Assad due to their strength, resources, organization and outside backing. That they are Sunni groups likely to act more favorably toward Turkey rather than Iran should they ultimately replace Assad is beneficial and part of the calculus, but it is not the only thing going on here.
Turkey is looking to back the group or groups best suited to overthrow the Syrian regime, and concern for a harmonious patchwork of Sunni and minority groups is not a priority at the moment because it is putting the cart before the horse. Karaveli writes that “the Turkish government has made no attempt to show sympathy for the fears of the country’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities. The Alawites and the Christians have backed the government in large numbers and fear retribution if Mr. Assad is toppled.” The minority groups in Syria are right to be concerned, but if this means that Turkey should drop its desire to see Assad go, it is simply not a reasonable suggestion given all of Turkey’s other interests. The aftermath of Assad’s fall, should it ever happen, is bound to be messy and it will be part of Turkey’s job as a responsible actor to exert its influence over Sunni groups to make sure that sectarian violence and retributions do not break out. None of that can happen though until Assad goes, and there does not seem to be a good way to get to that eventuality without backing the large Sunni opposition parties. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be negative externalities to Turkey’s policy, but I think Karaveli is downplaying the challenges Ankara is facing.
There is also the issue of Karaveli’s assertion that Turkey is behaving this way because of a rift with Iran. Yes, relations between Turkey and Iran are strained, but the idea that Turkey has decided to confront Iran in the same manner as the U.S. or the Gulf monarchies is not supported by the available evidence. Karaveli cites Turkey’s consent to deploying the NATO X-Band radar system on its territory, but Turkey ultimately had little choice in that matter if it wanted to remain in good standing with its fellow NATO countries, not to mention that the Turkish government went out of its way to assure that the radar would not be used as a way to protect Israel from any Iranian nuclear threat. Furthermore, Turkey has been helping Iran evade sanctions for months by using gold to buy Iranian natural gas and thereby get around the ban on financial transactions with Iranian banks. New sanctions aimed at just this activity have ground the creative evasion to a halt rather than a desire to confront Iran, and it is a curious assertion that the U.S. desire to pressure Iran has translated to Turkey and transformed its behavior in a negative way given Turkey’s cautious but non-hostile posture when it comes to Iran.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Turkish behavior in the Syrian and Iranian spheres, but Karaveli should give Turkey a bit more breathing room than he does. Ankara’s motives are complex in this case, but there is no reason to believe that it does not genuinely want Assad gone for humanitarian, security, and stability reasons, rather than simply out of a desire to promote Sunni hegemony within Syria and the greater region.
February 7, 2013 § 3 Comments
I’m a day behind on writing about this, but as everyone now knows and has processed, President Obama will be visiting Israel next month. There is lots of speculation about why he is going, and most of it has focused on the peace process. The instant conventional wisdom is that Obama is going to lean hard on Prime Minister Netanyahu to restart serious talks with the Palestinians and that the focus of the new Israeli government is now going to be on diplomacy and the two-state solution rather than on the domestic issues over which the election was fought. There are even those who argue, as Dan Margalit does in Israel Hayom, that Obama’s pending arrival is going to affect which parties are in the coalition since Netanyahu will not want to welcome Obama to Israel without a center or left party included in the government.
I get why all of this makes sense on its face, but I disagree with the premise. Of course Obama cares about the peace process and assigns a large degree of importance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and without question it will be a topic of conversation between Obama and Netanyahu and will be part of whatever public comments Obama makes while there. It would be bizarre for Obama to show up and not try to create some pressure on both sides to resume negotiations. But there are a few reasons to think that this trip is not intended to be a big diplomatic push over and above whatever else the administration is currently doing on the peace process front.
First, the White House said yesterday that the trip is not going to include a rollout of any specific peace proposals. That means no roadmap, no offer to host a summit, no calls for settlement freezes, or any other approaches that we have seen in the past by this or other administrations. Second, the U.S. has not coordinated this trip with any European countries, which is strange given EU efforts to convince the administration to reinsert itself into the peace process and the reports that Britain, France, and Germany are planning on making a big push on this issue now that Israeli elections are over. Third, a presidential visit to Israel does not automatically mean pressure on the Israeli government over the Palestinians, as there was little pressure placed when President Bush went to Israel in 2008 despite Ehud Olmert being more receptive to such an approach.
As Brent Sasley pointed out yesterday, there are lots of reasons for Obama to be going to Israel, although I disagree with Brent (which is rare) about Iran, and I think that this trip is much more about foreign policy issues than domestic politics (which is even more rare for me). Obama’s travels are going to take him to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel; if that isn’t a lineup that indicates the focus will be on coordinating strategy to deal with Iran, then I don’t know what is. Now that both Obama and Netanyahu have been returned to office and both clearly have their eyes on Tehran, I think that Obama’s visit to Israel is about security issues – Iran, Syria, etc. – first and foremost. That John Kerry is going to Israel before Obama’s trip reinforces that for me, since Kerry’s visit will likely be focused on the peace process while Obama’s visit will be geared toward other things. And of course, the possibility exists that Obama is going simply because he promised he would, as Haviv Rettig Gur reminded everyone yesterday.
Finally, on the coalition politics issue, I don’t buy the argument that Obama’s visit will affect the coalition one way or the other. Once the trip was announced, all leverage in that area was gone. Bibi could put together the most rightwing coalition imaginable at this point, and it won’t alter the fact that Obama is going to Israel come hell or high-water. I don’t quite get the argument that Netanyahu won’t dare greet Obama without a center-left component in his government, or that a three day visit somehow creates such enormous pressure that an entire coalition designed to theoretically serve for five years has to be shaped around three days.
Furthermore, there is a real possibility that Netanyahu won’t form a coalition until after Obama has come and gone, in which case all of this speculation is moot. [As Chemi Shalev has helpfully pointed out in the comments below, the deadline for Bibi to form a coalition is March 16 - ed.] Let’s also not forget that Netanyahu went out of his way just this morning to reiterate that his policy on settlements has not changed. Obama coming to Israel is a new wrinkle, but if Netanyahu were not going to bend to internal and external pressure to jumpstart the peace process, I don’t think Obama’s visit would alter his calculations.
To be clear, I am sure that Obama will talk about the peace process, and I am also sure that Netanyahu will not embarrass Obama on Israeli soil so he will likely make some token concessions or promises. I do not think that this trip changes the entire thrust of the government’s policy or makeup though, and I do not think it means we are about to get a real life version of the fictional Bartlet peace plan from the second to last season of the West Wing. It was always assumed that Kerry was going to be more interested in the peace process during the second term than Obama was until there was some real movement, and I haven’t seen anything over the last two days to make me think that assumption is incorrect.
November 27, 2012 § 3 Comments
On Sunday and Monday, Likud party members got to vote in the Likud primary and choose the list that will stand for Knesset elections in January, and what emerged was the most rightwing Likud in the party’s history. The Likud list is a catalogue of the most strident and hardline voices in the party, with Danny Danon in the 6th spot, Zeev Elkin in 9th, Yariv Levin in 10th, Tzipi Hotovely in 13th, and Moshe Feiglin – who is Bibi Netanyahu’s main intra-party challenger from his right and is not even currently an MK – in 15th. Regular O&Z readers will recognize all of these names, as their exploits make regular appearances on this blog, but in case you need a refresher, Noam Sheizaf has a rundown of their greatest hits. In addition, because of the deal with Yisrael Beiteinu that created the joint list with Likud, it is unlikely that anyone lower than 20th on the list is going to make it into the Knesset, which means that Likud princes and moderates such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Mickey Eitan are going to lose their jobs as MKs. To get a sense of just how remarkable this is, not only are Begin and Meridor currently Knesset members, they are both ministers and members of the nine person security cabinet, and yet Likud voters just unceremoniously showed them the door. This is not just a changing of the guard from the old to the new, but a serious step to the right. If there was any doubt left that Likud is first and foremost a settler party, it has just been erased.
Plenty of people will spend the next couple of days bemoaning the state of Israeli politics and noting that a Likud government in which someone like Danny Danon might actually be a minister is going to double down on settlements and treat the peace process like a relic from a bygone era. This is all true, and in my humble opinion it’s a terrible development for Israel, but I am not here to state the glaringly obvious. Instead, I’d like to think through the impact of the new Likud makeup on Israel’s defense policy outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The immediate result is going to be the involuntary hiatus of Ehud Barak, who announced yesterday that he was quitting politics and would not stand for election in January. While I found the timing of this announcement strange given that Barak’s Atzmaut party, which had been polling at zero Knesset seats, had rebounded in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud and was looking like it might return to the Knesset with the same five seats it currently has, a couple of smart observers of Israeli politics have convinced me that perhaps it makes sense given the humiliation involved for a former PM barely crossing the Knesset threshold. Amir Mizroch and Robert Danin argue that in resigning, Barak is actually plotting a course to remain as defense minister since he will be viewed as the indispensable general whom Netanyahu will have no choice but to reappoint, and the fact that he is not a member of Knesset will free from him any political constraints. I think it’s quite plausible that this was Barak’s plan yesterday morning and that he may even have been able to pull it off, but he did not count on the events of the afternoon and evening. MKs like Danon and Elkin absolutely detest Barak with every fiber of their being because they have long viewed him as the primary hurdle standing between them and unfettered settlement growth, and now that they essentially control the party, Netanyahu is not going to have the political space to keep Barak as his defense minister. Doing so will cause a riot within Likud and open Netanyahu up to a serious challenge from Feiglin or from his old nemesis (and Washington Generals-type foil) Silvan Shalom, and Bibi is not going to risk that. Instead, I think the Likud primary has guaranteed that Bogie Ya’alon becomes the next defense minister, which also puts him in the pole position to be the next Likud leader once Netanyahu decides to leave the scene.
Aside from silencing Barak and removing his all-encompassing control of Israeli defense policy, I think the new Likud list also makes an Israeli strike on Iran a lot more likely. I have been continuously arguing that one of the primary constraints on an Israeli strike is the makeup of the security cabinet, where four out of the nine members have been unwaveringly opposed to unilateral military action against Iran. Two out of those four are Begin and Meridor, who are now going to be out of the group, and they will almost certainly be replaced by ministers who are more hawkish. The third of the four is Ya’alon, who badly wants to be defense minister and who knows that the post is a potential stepping stone to eventually becoming prime minister. The fact that the defense portfolio is now going to be open might be enough incentive for him to quietly acquiesce to Netanyahu’s plans on Iran in order to get the appointment that he seeks, in which case the security cabinet flips from being divided down the middle to being nearly unanimous in favor of a strike. That does not make a war with Iran a fait accompli, but it does bring the possibility ever closer. One month ago in arguing that the Netanyahu-Lieberman deal was not going to affect the Iran calculus, I noted that “the math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised.” As it turns out, the result of this week’s Likud primary means that the math has now changed, and the impact on Israeli defense policy might be even greater than the impact on Israeli domestic politics.
November 7, 2012 § 5 Comments
As it became clear last night that President Obama was headed for an easy victory, a bunch of people on my twitter feed began speculating – or more accurately, making jokes – about what this would mean for Bibi Netanyahu. The joking actually turned into a serious conversation about whether Obama will somehow punish Netanyahu for his perceived support of Romney and clashes with the president, with some going so far as to speculate that he will tell Netanyahu that no help on Iran is forthcoming. It seems that Netanyahu is worried himself, as he is already clamping down on Likud members who are expressing negative reactions to Obama’s reelection out of fear that it will damage his standing with the White House even further.
Despite what is obviously not a great relationship between the two men, I don’t quite see how Obama’s reelection is going to have much of a negative effect on Netanyahu or the U.S.-Israel relationship at large. This is true for a few reasons. First, as Steven Cook persuasively argued last month, the relationship is institutionalized to the point that personal animosity between the countries’ leaders is not going to have much of an effect, if any. Let’s assume that Obama decides this morning that he wants to put the screws on Netanyahu – what precisely is he going to do? Aid to Israel is controlled by Congress, the joint military and intelligence cooperation is so deeply ingrained that it would take a long time to reverse, and there are deep ties between the two countries at all levels of government, business, and society. There are smaller things that Obama could do on the margins, but the immediate consequences are close to zero.
Second, and I cannot stress this enough, if you think that the myriad of ways in which Obama supported Israel during his first term was just a feint to win an election, then you are falling victim to the same delusion that said Nate Silver and all of the polls predicting an Obama win were deliberately skewing the evidence. Quite simply, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that all of a sudden funding for Iron Dome, joint military exercises, vetoing of anti-Israel UN resolutions, and other similar actions are going to stop now that Obama doesn’t have to worry about senior citizens’ votes in Florida. I will bet any amount of money that there is no drop-off in the administration’s support of Israel in the security and diplomatic spheres, and the folks who think otherwise have a large burden of proof to overcome that cannot be swept away merely by shouting “but he didn’t visit Israel” or “he left Netanyahu waiting while he ate dinner with his family.”
Third, Obama is not very popular among Israelis, and so even if he wanted to punish Netanyahu by trying to interfere in the Israeli election, it just wouldn’t work. Bill Clinton might have been able to sway Israelis when he was president, but Obama does not have the popularity, credibility, or familiarity with Israeli voters to pull of such a move. The fact that Obama was reelected is not going to factor into Israelis’ calculations when they go to the polls, as Brent Sasley helpfully pointed out previously. The idea that Netanyahu now has to be running scared because his hopes to have Romney elected did not pan out is a pretty flimsy one.
Finally, the suggestion that Obama is now going to tell Netanyahu that the U.S. has no interest in confronting Iran makes little sense to me based on previous U.S. actions and Obama’s long record of statements indicating that he views an Iranian nuclear bomb as a real problem. Aside from Stuxnet, crippling sanctions, and an increased carrier presence in the Gulf, Obama has made clear that preventing nuclear proliferation is perhaps the foreign policy issue that he holds most dear. The disagreement between he and Netanyahu over the red line of nuclear capability vs. nuclear weapons is still going to be there, but Obama has held firm to his own timeline so far and he is not going to now somehow make it even more firm because he has been reelected. The bottom line here is that Obama is worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon as well, and he is not going to drop his concerns just because he and Netanyahu do not get along very well.
P.S. For another argument on why the Obama revenge meme is an ill-informed one that focuses on different variables than mine, check out Peter Beinart this morning.
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.
September 28, 2012 § 4 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu gave a widely covered and dissected speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday in which the main takeaway seems to be that he watched a lot of Warner Brothers cartoons during his time as a teenager living in the U.S. Brent Sasley and Jeffrey Goldberg both weighed in on what Netanyahu was trying to accomplish, and Ali Gharib pointed out that Bibi actually made a mistake with his cartoon bomb, so I don’t need to rehash what others have already eloquently written. Instead I’d like to pick up on a theme that Robert Wright captured, which is that Netanyahu essentially conceded that Israel will not be bombing Iran any time soon. As regular O&Z readers know, I have thought for months that an Israeli strike is unlikely to happen, and so now that the conventional wisdom has caught up with me, it is worth rehashing why most people thought that an attack was going to happen during the summer or fall.
The thinking in the DC foreign policy community on an Israeli strike has largely been shaped by the notion that the decision to attack lies with Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and so the speculation over whether Israel was on the brink of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities broke down into two camps. On one side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are deadly serious about a strike. They view Israeli saber rattling as an effort to prepare the Israeli public for war and think that the reportedly reluctant Israeli military and political leadership will line up behind the prime minister and the defense minister once they decide to order military action. On the other side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are engaged in an elaborate bluff designed to either pressure Iran into ceasing its uranium enrichment program or to convince the United States to handle the job of taking out the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli chatter about the looming threat from Iran is aimed at creating conditions under which the U.S. feels it has no choice but to do everything possible to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and convincing the Europeans to back harsher sanctions on Iran. In this reading of the situation, the rest of the Israeli military and political leadership do not matter because Netanyahu and Barak are only interested in creating the perception that they are going to attack.
The question then of what Israel is going to do turns on Netanyahu and Barak’s true mindset; if they are serious about attacking they will attack, and if they are bluffing they won’t. It is a very simple dynamic, leading to an entire cottage industry designed to ascertain what precisely the two men’s intentions are, with an increasing focus on Barak – or, per his feeble attempt at anonymity, the “decision maker” – as the key figure. In this increasingly accepted view, there are only two possibilities and two outcomes, and the only people who matter are the Netanyahu-Barak tandem.
What this discussion has entirely missed, however, is that there is a plausible third outcome, which is that Netanyahu and Barak are dead set on launching a military operation against Iranian nuclear sites but that such an operation will not occur. People have discounted this possibility because they either misread the way in which national security decision making takes place in Israel or discount the Israeli political climate.
Netanyahu and Barak are not the only people who matter in this decision. When an American president wants to go to war, he generally gets his way irrespective of what his cabinet or generals want to do, with the Iraq War a good demonstration of how the president is truly The Decider. In contrast, Netanyahu and Barak will not be able to launch a strike on Iran without the near unanimous consent of the inner security cabinet and the larger political-security cabinet, and such authorization is not assured. Four of the nine members of the smaller group are currently believed to be opposed to a strike, and the fact that Netanyahu briefed Rav Ovadia Yosef in order to flip Eli Yishai’s support speaks volumes about Netanyahu and Barak’s power to order an attack against other ministers’ wishes.
There are also important constraints on Netanyahu and Barak’s decision making. Israeli public opinion does not favor a unilateral Israeli strike, the home front is woefully unprepared for retaliation from Iran or Hizballah, a myriad of current and former IDF and intelligence officials believe an attack is a bad idea at this point, and the specter of the Winograd Commission – which blasted former prime minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF chiefs for the 2006 war in Lebanon – hangs over everything. All of this is particularly salient given Netanyahu’s historical risk aversion when it comes to ordering military operations of any sort, compounded by the fact that this is an operation whose chances of success are seen to be limited to delaying Iran’s nuclear program rather than ending it and might end up with thousands of Israeli civilian casualties as retaliation. That the Obama administration is also opposed to an Israeli strike is an enormous constraint on Netanyahu given Israeli reliance on U.S. munitions and aid.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s speech, there is a rush of commentary focusing on the fact that Obama looks increasingly likely to be elected and so Netanyahu feels like he needs to back off and not risk angering the White House any further. I am sure that is part of what is going on, but this narrative implies that Netanyahu would have ordered a strike by now if Romney were ahead in the polls. I think that is wrong, and misses the fact that there is lots going on here on the Israeli side and that the U.S. is only one of many variables in this equation, and perhaps not even the most important one. If the focus is exclusively on the argument that U.S. pressure has sufficiently convinced Netanyahu to change his plans, then analysts are guaranteed to get it wrong again in the months or years ahead when trying to figure out what Israel is going to do.
September 13, 2012 § 5 Comments
We Americans have a tendency to look at situations and think that they revolve around us. The best recent example of this has been the debate over America’s role in the Arab Spring (or Arab Awakening, Islamist Winter, or whatever other term people are using these days) and the view that the U.S. was somehow the decisive actor in determining whether or not regimes fell. We can debate all day whether President Obama was right to withdraw support for Hosni Mubarak – and I for one firmly think that he was – but there is simply no question that Mubarak would have fallen anyway even if the U.S. had backed him to the hilt. The revolution in Egypt was not about us, nor did we have the ability or wherewithal to control it. Yet this idea persists that “we needed to back our allies” and that Mubarak would still be the modern day pharaoh of Cairo had we wanted him to stay put, all stemming from this mistaken paradigm that insists on seeing all world events as revolving around the U.S. In many, if not most, instances, political events overseas have little to do with the U.S. in more than a tangential manner, and even when they do involve the U.S., it is in an indirect way.
This brings me to the latest dustup between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, which began when Netanyahu responded to Hillary Clinton’s statement that the U.S. did not see a need to issue any red lines over Iran by saying, “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” This was of course a direct reference to the U.S. and set off all sorts of reverberations, beginning with Israel letting it be known that the White House had rejected a request for a meeting between the two leaders, Obama and Netanyahu speaking on the phone for an hour late Tuesday night, and Senator Barbara Boxer releasing an astonishing letter that she sent to Netanyahu in which she wrote, “Your remarks are utterly contrary to the extraordinary United States-Israel alliance, evidenced by President Obama’s record and the record of Congress,” and “I am stunned by the remarks that you made this week regarding U.S. support for Israel. Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel?”
The fireworks between the two countries were immediately interpreted as Netanyahu’s attempt to leverage the U.S. presidential campaign season against Obama. The very first sentence of the New York Times story on the affair is “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel inserted himself into the most contentious foreign policy issue of the American presidential campaign on Tuesday, criticizing the Obama administration for refusing to set clear ‘red lines’ on Iran’s nuclear progress that would prompt the United States to undertake a military strike.” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote, ”Now Netanyahu seems determined, more than ever, to alienate the President of the United States and, as an ally of Mitt Romney’s campaign, to make himself a factor in the 2012 election—one no less pivotal than the most super Super PAC.” The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu’s statement lashing out at the administration over the lack of red lines on Iran is an attempt to force Obama’s hand before the election or to create enough problems for Obama with pro-Israel voters and groups that it will swing the election to Romney. In short, Andrew Sullivan’s most dire prediction come to life.
The focus on the presidential campaign is a misreading of what is actually going on here that stems from the American pathology I laid out at the top of this post. Netanyahu’s harsh words are not aimed at the presidential race but are a result of what I imagine to be his deep and maddening frustration that he cannot force an Israeli strike on Iran. The point of Netanyahu’s verbal barrage is not to sabotage Obama or influence the 2012 vote for president, and in fact is only directed at the U.S. because he has already emptied his chamber on Israeli leaders opposed to a strike and cannot publicly criticize the person – Ehud Barak – with whom he is actually frustrated. Barak has reportedly changed his mind about the wisdom of an Israeli strike because he has come to realize what it will mean for U.S.-Israel relations, and without Barak on board any hopes Netanyahu has of taking out Iranian nuclear facilities are completely dashed. Netanyahu cannot go after Barak, however, since he cannot afford to alienate him or to let everyone know that the two men are no longer of one mind on this issue, and so he is reduced to directing his intemperate words at the U.S. and the Obama administration as the indirect causes of his current anger. Netanyahu’s outburst is not about the presidential campaign or presidential politics, but about what he views as an Israeli national security imperative that is being stymied by an array of forces. The fact that this is campaign season in the U.S. is only incidental, since Netanyahu would have issued a similar statement at the beginning or middle of a presidential term. His prism is an Israeli one, not an American one, and his focus is on Iran rather than on U.S. politics. Believe it or not, Israel has other concerns aside from the Obama-Romney contest. Yes, what is going on in the U.S. obviously impacts this entire issue, but the notion that what Bibi said yesterday is about the presidential campaign here is just the latest data point for the case that knowledge of Israeli politics on this side of the ocean remains poor.
August 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have run into the problem that they appear to be virtually alone when it comes to deciding whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. The two are so out on a limb at the moment that Shai Feldman, writing in Foreign Policy, declared the debate over attacking Iran to be over because Netanyahu and Barak lack the minimum consensus that would be required for military action. The defense and intelligence establishments are united in wanting to wait for the U.S. and not wanting to attack Iran unilaterally, and until Avi Dichter was added to the security cabinet formerly known as the Octet last week (which means that it is no longer a shminiya but a tishiya), the vote to attack Iran was reportedly split 4-4. A lot was made of the fact that Dichter is presumed to be on Netanyahu and Barak’s side and that adding him to the mix breaks the logjam, but I didn’t write anything about that last week because it is a faulty and ill-informed argument. A 5-4 vote is not going to be enough to launch a strike given the heavy opposition that exists to such a move; Netanyahu and Barak need to do some serious convincing and make real headway with the holdouts, who are Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, and Eli Yishai.
It is this last name that is perhaps the toughest to move, because Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all members of Likud and presumably Netanyahu has some more sway with them since he is their party leader (although my hunch is that Meridor, and to a lesser extent Begin, would never flip). Yishai, however, is a member of Shas, and that’s how we get to the outrageously cynical ploy that Bibi tried yesterday. For the uninitiated – although since you are reading a niche blog about Israeli politics right now, you probably don’t need this background – Shas is an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, controls how its members vote despite not being an elected official of any kind. I wrote about this dynamic back in May, when Rabbi Yosef ordered Yishai to change his opinion on being willing to consider alternatives to the Tal Law. What you have in Shas is a theocratic party, in which the elected politicians are beholden to the party’s rabbinic leadership and dare not contravene rabbinic orders when it comes to taking public positions or voting on issues in the Knesset or the cabinet. With this in mind, yesterday Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – who holds no elected or official position in the Israeli polity and has zero to do with Israeli national security – was the recipient of a national security briefing on Iran. Not only was he briefed, but it was done by Yaakov Amidror, the head of the Israeli National Security Council, lest anyone think that this was not a big deal or little more than a courtesy for a former chief rabbi of Israel.
Make no mistake about what is going on here in case it isn’t already abundantly clear: Netanyahu is trying to swing a vote to launch a strike against Iran by convincing a religious leader to order an acolyte to vote a certain way. He is not trying to convince Yishai by making a cogent case for military action – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has given up trying to do it this way – but is going above his head to Yishai’s rabbi, whom he knows Yishai is bound to follow, and telling a man with no national security experience at all and no training or education in evaluating intelligence or threat assessments that it is crucial to bomb Iran. Does anyone think that Amidror, a general and Israel’s equivalent of Tom Donilon, had any trouble at all convincing Rabbi Yosef about the urgent need to strike now in order to prevent Israel’s annihilation? For all of the outrageous things that go on in politics, and Israeli politics in particular, this represents an absolute low. It is a naked appeal to religious authority made to a theocratic party in which politicians serve as mouthpieces for rabbis. The reason that Shas has never taken an interest in foreign affairs is because its spiritual leaders don’t care about the issue, and to prey on that ignorance in order to influence a crucial position on national security is nothing short of abominable.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from this sorry and craven episode. First, Netanyahu is desperate since he realizes that he is fighting a steep uphill battle and he will resort to anything, no matter how blatantly insulting and undemocratic, to get an advantage. Second, Netanyahu and Barak’s argument for an attack is not only falling on deaf ears but is so weak on its face that they both know it cannot win on its own merits. Briefing Eli Yishai’s rabbi is not a move made out of strength, but one made out of a position that is even weaker than anyone could have realized. If this svengali routine is the best that Netanyahu can come up with, I hope for his sake that he has something better when it comes to the rest of his security cabinet, since unlike Yishai, the three Likud holdouts do not answer to a higher authority.