October 31, 2013 § 6 Comments
The all-powerful and nefarious Israel lobby is in the news again. On Tuesday, the White House briefed officials from the Israel lobby Legion of Doom – AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations – on efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program, with the real aim being to get pro-Israel groups on board with the effort not to impose new sanctions on Iran. In the administration’s view, the tough sanctions that have been imposed accomplished the task of getting Iran to the negotiating table, and now that Iran appears ready to talk, even more sanctions will be counterproductive by spurring Iran to make a reinforced push to go nuclear. On the other side is Congress, where the overwhelming view is that biting sanctions are the only reason that Iran agreed to negotiate at all, and now is the time to ramp up pressure in order to force Iran into a deal rather than allowing the Iranian government to use negotiations as a mechanism for running out the clock. So far, pro-Israel groups appear to be leaning toward Congress’s view of things, and Tuesday’s meeting was part of the White House’s strategy for getting Congress to hold off.
Naturally, the fact that Jewish and pro-Israel groups received a private NSC briefing on Iran has a bunch of people up in arms about the Israel lobby wielding inappropriately outsized power, and a bunch of more unreasonable people raging about Jews controlling U.S. foreign policy. For Mondoweiss, the meeting is the latest datapoint for the proposition that Jews and the Israel lobby are the groups that count the most in foreign policy and that pro-Israel rightwing hawks drive U.S. policy in the Middle East. There is little question that pro-Israel groups are influential and that AIPAC is extremely successful, but where the argument breaks down is when it gets taken to Walt and Mearsheimer proportions, i.e. that pro-Israel groups are able to push the U.S. government into doing things it would not otherwise do or that pro-Israel groups are able to control outcomes in Congress. Max Fisher yesterday compared the lobbying efforts to strike Syria and the lobbying efforts to capture African warlord Joseph Kony and noted that the “all-powerful lobby narrative” does not stand up to the evidence at hand. I’ll quote Fisher directly on the section on AIPAC:
If the conventional wisdom about lobbying and U.S. foreign policy were true, we would expect Obama to have received wide support for his Syria plan and basically zero support for the Central African hunt for Kony. But that’s the opposite of how it turned out.
In mid-September, as President Obama pushed to get Congress’s support for Syria strikes, his administration turned to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. If you’ve spent any time at all working on Israeli issues, Palestinian issues or MidEast issues generally, you’ve heard people on all ideological ends of the spectrum speak in hushed tones about the awesome power of AIPAC. Critics of the right-leaning, pro-Israel group often refer to it simply as “The Lobby,” as if it were so powerful that other lobbyist organizations hardly even mattered. It’s not considered especially controversial to suggest that the group plays a major role in shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
AIPAC’s influence is thought to be strongest in Congress, where support for pro-Israeli policies is indeed bipartisan and passionately held. Its membership is thought to include lots of Washington power-brokers and heavy-hitters, the types who, in the common telling, pull all the hidden levers of American governance and foreign policy. So when AIPAC began lobbying on behalf of Obama’s Syria strike plan, many assumed it was a done deal, particularly since the administration most needed help in Congress, turf AIPAC knows well.
There is every indication that AIPAC threw its full weight into generating support for Obama’s Syria plan, both in Congress and among its own constituency. But the group failed utterly to even move the needle on the policy: Congress only strengthened its opposition to Obama’s Syria strikes. It was a rare public test of AIPAC’s ability to shape U.S. foreign policy and it flunked.
As Fisher then goes on to explain, the lobbying campaign to go after Kony was carried out by underfunded, inexperienced, not well connected lobbyists who targeted high school and college students, a group not exactly known for its power and influence. Yet the Kony campaign succeeded to the point where the U.S. military is currently engaged in what has been a fruitless search to locate Kony, backed by Congressional support that has not wavered. How to explain this conundrum? Fisher suggests that public opinion may be the answer, but I’ll take it one step further: public opinion is absolutely the answer, particularly when it comes to AIPAC. Pro-Israel groups succeed when the cause they are championing is already popular, and they fail when it isn’t. Yes, AIPAC is very-well connected, pro-Israel groups get courted, and even get benefits – such as private briefings – that other groups do not get. But let’s take a look at why support for increased sanctions are running so high in Congress and why the White House campaign to keep them steady is going to fail (hint: it has nothing to do with what AIPAC does or does not want).
In mid-September, Gallup did a poll asking whether Americans consider Iran to be an ally, friendly, unfriendly, or an enemy. 45% of respondents categorized Iran as an enemy and 38% said Iran is unfriendly. In early June, a CBS/NYT poll found that 58% of respondents favored military action against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon while 37% opposed it. In March, Pew asked people which was more important: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action, or avoiding military conflict with Iran even if it means that Iran develops a nuclear weapon, and 64% favored military action vs. 25% who wanted to avoid military conflict. Finally, in the most recent poll that asked about sanctions, which was from March 2012 (after the first round of sanctions had already been put in place), 74% were in favor of increasing sanctions against Iran while 21% were not. (All of the polls can be found here). Given Iran’s recent outreach efforts following Rouhani’s election, it is very possible that a poll taken today would find that support for increasing sanctions is below that 74% number, but I doubt it’s down in a significant way given the current numbers viewing Iran as hostile. The point here is that AIPAC does not need to do much lobbying of Congress to get it to support increased sanctions, because this is a policy that is overwhelmingly popular. The idea that Congress would be marching in lockstep with the White House’s foreign policy preferences on this issue were it not for the covert whisperings of Howard Kohr and Abe Foxman is simply nonsense and intellectual laziness. When AIPAC’s preferences align with public opinion, it is successful; when its preferences go against public opinion, it’s not. It is really that simple, and if you want a lot more on this, go read my (unfortunately paywalled) peer-reviewed article in Security Studies on this very subject, complete with case studies and everything (link is here).
The irony of this is that Walt and Mearsheimer’s book and the loud insistence of Israel lobby truthers that AIPAC controls U.S. policy in the Middle East has, more than anything else, enhanced the power of pro-Israel groups by convincing a growing number of people that the mistaken perception is actually true. This in turn leads to government officials believing the hype, and thus you get the ADL and AJC invited to a private briefing at the White House out of a belief that these groups have far more power than they actually do. The bottom line is that Congress in this instance is going to do what public opinion tells it to do, and the Israel lobby’s preference that Iran sanctions be increased is not what is driving policy here in any real way.
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?
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 14, 2012 § 6 Comments
I don’t know if you guys have heard, but apparently Israel is about to go to war with Iran. Not only that, but it doesn’t actually matter what is going in Israel or the rest of the world, because any event or environment can be interpreted to mean that an Israeli strike is just around the corner. In fact, an imminent Israeli attack can be predicted based on two diametrically opposed sets of facts. For instance, in May it was reported that the decision to attack was imminent because Israeli officials were being uncharacteristically silent, and this speculation lockdown meant that an attack was about to come. As one unnamed Israeli official said, ”Nobody is saying anything publicly. That in itself tells you a lot about where things stand.” So the lesson is that when things are quiet, an attack is on the way. But wait – now there is a slew of reports that Israel has decided to attack because all sorts of officials are openly talking about it, and everyone knows that rampant speculation means that an attack is about to come. So the lesson now is that when there is lots of noise about an attack, an attack is on the way. Isn’t it nifty how that works? No matter what Israeli officials are saying and doing, a strike on Iranian facilities can be easily predicted.
The same can be applied to the looming presence of Bibi Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu. When Ben-Zion was alive, his influence over his son meant a strike was more likely. Now that he recently passed away, Bibi’s desire to heed his father’s warnings and sense of history make a strike more likely. How about the Likud-Kadima unity deal? When it was announced, some interpreted it to mean that a strike on Iran was now coming (which, for the record, I pointed out as bad analysis at the time). Now that Mofaz is even more clear that he opposes a unilateral Israeli strike, I have no doubt that someone somewhere has made the argument that Bibi let the coalition fall apart in order to pave the way for an attack on Iran. I could go on, but you get my point. The process at work here seems to assume that an attack will happen and then reverse engineer the facts to support that conclusion, rather than looking at the facts and trying to ascertain in light of those facts what is most likely to occur.
Rather than interpret any and every event as leading to war, let’s take a step back and assess actual factors that might mean an Israeli strike is more or less likely. To my mind, the recent extremely public chatter weighs against things, since successful Israeli strikes in the past – Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 – were complete surprises and were not in any way publicly telegraphed. In contrast, we have heard that Israel was readying to strike at Iran for nearly a decade now, and yet it still hasn’t happened.
Also weighing against an attack is the fact that there is a lack of support for such a move from three influential groups. First is the Israeli public, which opposes a unilateral Israeli strike by 46% to 32%, and which has increasingly rated Netanyahu’s job performance as unsatisfactory over the past three months as he has ratcheted the war talk back up. Second is the U.S., whose top officials have repeatedly stated that sanctions should be given more time to work and have pleaded with Israel not to launch an attack. Third, and perhaps most significantly, Israeli officials aside from Netanyahu and Barak are staunchly opposed to a strike, and while the IDF has to carry out whatever orders are given, when the IDF chief of staff thinks that an attack is a bad idea, he is probably going to be listened to. There is also the inconvenient fact that there is no majority in the Shminiyah (or Octet), which is the inner security cabinet, for a strike on Iran, with Eli Yishai, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, and Boogie Ya’alon all firmly opposed and Avigdor Lieberman and Yuval Steinitz reportedly wavering back and forth. Netanyahu and Barak are probably banking on the fact that the other six ministers will back them when push comes to shove, but that’s a real risk to take and the prime minister and defense minister cannot just make the decision on their own without the support of the rest of this group. In fact, one could make a good case that all of the recent war talk from the two men at the top is directed entirely at the Octet and that the chatter is completely about stirring up public pressure on them.
There are also the problems that Israel does not have the military capability to do the job thoroughly and completely by itself, that an attack on Iran would devastate the Israeli economy according to Israel’s central banker Stanley Fischer, and that the home front is woefully underprepared. There are indications that Netanyahu and Barak are deluding themselves about this last factor with their speculation that a retaliation from Iran would claim no more than 500 Israeli lives, but one would think that they will conduct a real and thorough analysis of the potential damage and loss of life before making any decision.
There are, however, two new factors that point to the conclusion that Netanyahu and Barak are readying an attack. First, the government just handed Netanyahu unprecedented procedural powers to delay ministerial committee decisions and to give himself a vote on every ministerial committee irrespective of whether he serves on it or not. This to me seems like a move to make a vote on Iran go Bibi’s way by eliminating debate and making it easier to put every single other issue to the side until the Iran outcome is to his liking. Second, after waiting months to appoint a replacement for outgoing Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, Netanyahu appointed Avi Dichter last night as Vilnai’s replacement, the Home Front Command is testing the emergency text message alert system this week, and gas masks and supply kits are being distributed around the country. This indicates that the government is suddenly taking the mission seriously of preparing its citizens for war, and unlike hawkish rhetoric, the recent moves are tangible and actually cost something.
So, all in all, it appears to me that a strike on Iran is still unlikely, but it is not out of the question. More stuff like this from the press and various analysts would be helpful, rather than people running around with their hair on fire and claiming that an attack is coming because the sun rose in the east this morning and will set in the west this evening. More facts please, and less rampant breathless speculation.
June 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
Israeli Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss released a report earlier today slamming Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak for their shoddy preparation, decision-making, and faulty assumptions in the lead up to the violence aboard the Mavi Marmara two years ago. Lindenstrauss detailed the way in which Netanyahu ignored warnings to convene the cabinet and hold a group discussion about how to prepare for the flotilla, did not consult with the National Security Council (a body first created by Netanyahu when he served as prime minister in the 1990s and with which the PM is required by law to consult), and along with Barak ignored warnings from military officials that boarding the boat would be a violent and potentially fatal enterprise. The picture painted here is one of two men making decisions in isolation without involving any other people with expertise and experience, rejecting or downplaying warnings that contradict their previously formed opinions, and forming plans without all the necessary information because they either couldn’t be bothered to obtain it or willfully ignored it. Unsurprisingly given what the report says about how he processes information contradicting what he already believes, Netanyahu’s response was to essentially ignore it by saying that Israeli security under his watch proves that there are no problems.
Amir Mizroch has a devastating critique of Netanyahu and Barak in which he points out that this behavior is not surprising given the two men’s backgrounds as elite commandos, which leads them to view everything as a military problem to be neutralized rather than looking at the wide range of security and diplomatic implications. This created a terrible problem that is ongoing with Turkey, and it does not inspire confidence on Netanyahu and Barak’s threat assessment regarding Iran, their willingness to legitimately exhaust all other options before striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, or their preparedness and sense of reality for what the aftermath of an attack on Iran will bring. Netanyahu has faced an avalanche of criticism from former defense and intelligence officials, and he or his spokesmen have brushed it all aside by denigrating their motives, their current level of knowledge, their lack of understanding of just how existential the Iranian threat is, and stressing that ultimately only he is responsible for the fate of Israel and the Jewish people. It has been widely reported for months, if not years at this point, that he and Barak are keeping their own counsel and not involving the rest of the security cabinet when it comes to national security decision-making. In short, nearly every mistake that the pair made in the run-up to the flotilla as outlined in Lindenstrauss’s report is being made a second time in the run-up to a decision on Iran. After reading this, does anyone still trust that Netanyahu and Barak have looked at all the angles, considered every possibility, and are listening to the opinions given and information presented by the IDF and the Mossad? Jeffrey Goldberg has just posted a write up of an interview he did with former Mossad chief (and strident Netanyahu critic) Meir Dagan in which the following paragraph appears:
But what angers him most is what he sees as a total lack of understanding on the part of the men who lead the Israeli government about what may come the day after an Israeli strike. Some senior Israeli officials have argued to me that a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities might actually trigger the eventual downfall of the regime. Dagan predicts the opposite: “Judging by the war Iran fought against Iraq, even people who supported the Shah, even the Communists, joined hands with (Ayatollah) Khomeini to fight Saddam,” he said, adding, “In case of an attack, political pressure on the regime will disappear. If Israel will attack, there is no doubt in my mind that this will also provide them with the justification to go ahead and move quickly to nuclear weapons.” He also predicted that the sanctions program engineered principally by President Obama may collapse as a result of an Israeli strike, which would make it easier for Iran to obtain the material necessary for it to cross the nuclear threshold.
That Netanyahu has brushed off Lindenstrauss entirely is disturbing, since it suggests that he has learned nothing from his previous mistakes and is set in the way he makes decisions. Netanyahu claimed to the comptroller that nobody ever mentioned to him the possibility that taking the Mavi Marmara would end in fighting, but the report details that at least three ministers raised objections and questions along these line and were simply ignored. How many more scathing post-mortems of failed Israeli military operations need to be issued before some lessons are learned? Apparently the Winograd Commission did not do the trick, and the Lindenstrauss flotilla report has already met the same fate less than 24 hours after being released. If Netanyahu sincerely plans on striking Iran, he had better have all of his ducks in a row, since the flotilla blowback is nothing compared to what will happen should Israel be unprepared for an Iranian or Hizballah response. Netanyahu has now used up his last credible excuse, since nobody is going to believe at this point that he has listened to every possible voice and considered a wide range of advice. He needs to firm up his decision-making process to ensure that whatever he choice he eventually makes is an informed one.