June 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Since there isn’t any one particular subject that I feel compelled to write about today, I thought I’d pay tribute to my all-time favorite website and share some brief thoughts on a bunch of interesting items in the news.
Israeli politicians this week can’t seem to keep their feet out of their mouths. First Kadima MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich called for “all human rights activists” to be arrested, imprisoned, and then “transported to camps we are building.” The camps she is referring to are detention centers the government is building for migrants who are entering Israel illegally, but Shamalov-Berkovich apparently thinks they can be put to better use for people whose views she simply doesn’t like. Not to be outdone, Shas MK and Interior Minister Eli Yishai called South Tel Aviv – which has become an African immigrant stronghold – the garbage can of the country and claimed that many Israeli women have been raped by African migrants but are not coming forward and reporting it because they are afraid of the stigma of AIDS. He did not provide any evidence for this assertion, and was immediately rebutted by those who would know better. Somehow I get the feeling that Eli Yishai might be an Antoine Dodson fan.
The New York Times has a long report on President Obama’s efforts to launch an all-out cyber war against Iran’s nuclear program, detailing his decision to accelerate the cyber attacks in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. I look forward to the spin from the usual quarters explaining how this demonstrates that Obama hates Israel, has no desire to prevent a nuclear Iran, and is selling out Israel’s security in order to curry favor with Muslims.
Also in the NYT today is a story about the Russian Orthodox Church’s opposition to intervention in Syria and how this in some ways guides Russian policy. Vladimir Putin has turned to the church for political support, and the church’s mission of protecting Christian minorities in the Middle East is bumping up against any Russian will to get rid of Assad (to the extent that any really exists at all). This is a useful reminder of what an immensely powerful religious lobby actually looks like and how it affects a state’s foreign policy, as opposed to an intellectually lazy and factually questionable argument along the same lines.
Finally, this op-ed by New York-based Turkish reporter Aydoğan Vatandaş on how U.S.-Israeli relations and its impact on American Jews affects the U.S. presidential race was interesting for a bunch of reasons. First, the reasons that Vatandaş lists for why the Israeli government is disappointed with the Obama administration includes the U.S. relationship with Turkey and focuses on Turkey’s request for Predator drones. I don’t think that Israel expects the U.S. to ditch Turkey, and I also don’t think that Israel is overly concerned about the U.S. selling Predators to Ankara for strategic reasons, since if Turkey and Israel ever actually exchanged hostilities, drones would not play a role. Israel does not, however, want the U.S. to sell Predators to Turkey simply as a way of pressuring Turkey to reconcile, and Vatandaş is strangely optimistic that the sale will occur, which has almost no chance of getting through Congress at the moment. The other thing that jumped out at me was some of the questionable or overly simplistic analysis, capped off by the conclusion, which reads, “It may sound strange, but what I have observed in America is that most American Jews today define themselves as Jews but also tend to be very secular. And, in terms of politics, they tend to be very liberal.” This is a fairly obvious point to any American who follows politics, but to a Turkish audience it might not be, and it got me wondering about whether my own analysis of Turkey reads as simplistically (or perhaps wrongly) to a Turkish audience. Something to think about…
May 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak are both abroad and are, among other things, engaged in their usual efforts to keep the pressure up on Iran. Netanyahu is in Prague while Barak was in Washington, but there are mixed signals coming from their dual diplomatic missions. After bringing seven cabinet members with him (including Avigdor Lieberman, who is apparently allowed to engage in actual diplomacy on rare occasions) and meeting with the Czech president yesterday, Netanyahu today said that he sees no evidence that Iran is about to halt its nuclear program, and compared its negotiation strategy to that of North Korea with the ultimate goal of delaying and buying more time. In doing so, he threw a bucket of cold water on the P5+1 talks scheduled for May 23 by making it clear that he views them as a farce. This is of course not surprising, but coming on the eve of the NATO summit and less than a week before the negotiations in Baghdad, it certainly reads as Netanyahu communicating his desire to strike Iran sooner rather than later, and unilaterally if need be. He also emerged with some support from his hosts, as Israel and the Czech Republic issued a joint statement expressing concern over Iran’s uranium enrichment program and the Czech foreign minister reiterated that the Czech Republic plans on continuing to support Israel within the EU. Combined with the story in Yediot that Israeli military and defense officials have suddenly gone quiet on Iran, it points to Israel preparing to attack on its own timetable and by itself if need be.
Meanwhile, Barak was in the U.S. meeting with Leon Panetta to request more money for the Iron Dome missile defense system and undoubtedly to talk about Iran as well. This comes on the heels of Israeli military intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi’s secret visit to Washington a couple of weeks ago to talk about Iran as well. Barak’s meeting with Panetta must have gone well, because it was announced afterward that not only is the U.S. committing more money to Iron Dome down the road, it is providing an immediate extra boost of $70 million so that Israel can fund more Iron Dome batteries in 2012. It seems unlikely to me that the funding guarantees for Iron Dome do not come with a promise of Israeli restraint in return, since this is a crucial component of Israel’s defense strategy and this is an area where the U.S. has leverage over the Iran issue. It is widely presumed that the U.S. does not want Israel to attack Iran, and it certainly does not want Israel to do so before the U.S. strategy of sanctions and P5+1 negotiations is exhausted, so the fact that top Israeli officials are still shuttling to Washington for close consultations and emerging with money for Israeli military priorities indicates that the U.S. and Israel are on the same page with regard to a strike on Iranian facilities.
So which of these two events has more explanatory power in thinking about what is going to happen next with Iran? As my regular readers know, I think that actions speak louder than words here, and I don’t believe that we are going to see an Israeli strike on Iran this summer. There are obviously electoral considerations in play that make some think that Israel will launch an attack before November, which is presumed to then tie President Obama’s hands and leave him no choice but to fully support Israel irrespective of the strike’s consequences. While this makes sense, I don’t think that the Pentagon would be authorizing extra money for Iron Dome that was not in the original defense budget if Obama and Panetta thought that Israel was going to flout their wishes, and so my money is on Barak’s itinerary being a lot more consequential than Netanyahu’s this week.
May 8, 2012 § 10 Comments
Last night right after the news broke that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima were joining Bibi Netanyahu’s governing coalition and that the early elections that had been announced for September 4 are now off, I wrote this post on the implications of the deal for Israeli domestic politics. On the morning after, I have a few more thoughts pertaining to how the new unity government will affect changes in Israeli foreign policy. The short version is, it won’t.
The area in which some people are expecting Israeli policy to shift with the new government is Iran. Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that the larger coalition and unity government might make it easier for Netanyahu to strike Iranian nuclear sites should he be so inclined. I think it is true that it makes doing so easier since the new coalition comprises 93 out of 120 MKs, and a unity government deciding to launch an attack takes some of the bite out of the recent cascade of criticism coming from former defense and intelligence leaders. Kadima joining the coalition, however, does not alter the basic realities that were preventing Netanyahu and Barak from carrying out a strike months ago. Israeli public opinion is still ambivalent on a unilateral Israeli strike, U.S. and world pressure to wait and give sanctions more time has not disappeared, four out of the eight Shminiya (Octet) members are still opposed, and the security and intelligence establishment have raised legitimate concerns that cannot be waved away just because Kadima joined the government. Add to all this the fact that Israel has serious renewed security concerns on its southern border with Egypt and is keeping an eye on its northern border following reports that Scud missile installations being moved closer to the border in Syria, and attacking Iran appears to be a dicey proposition.
There is also the Mofaz factor, which does not necessarily weigh in favor of a strike. Looking at Mofaz’s position on Iran, a little over a month ago he blasted Netanyahu for pushing for a strike that he deemed would be premature and ineffective, and said that he would stand with any PM who ordered an attack as the last resort but that Israel was not yet at that stage. Just yesterday, he accused Netanyahu of politicizing the issue of a strike and endangering the relationship with the U.S. Now, anything Mofaz said in the guise of campaigning must be taken with a grain of salt, but that he chose to hit Bibi hard on Iran cannot just be brushed aside so easily. It is also important to remember that Mofaz was not campaigning primarily on security or defense issues but rather donned the mantle of social justice, and was particularly targeting preferential treatment for Haredim. The deal with Likud gives Mofaz and Kadima the task of leading the committee charged with coming up with a Tal Law alternative, which is again not a security-related issue. It is easy to think that bringing a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff on board must mean that Netanyahu is seeking to add another buffer against criticism should he choose to attack Iran, but the details of Mofaz’s campaign and the particulars of the unity deal do not necessarily point to this conclusion. There are now three former chiefs of staff in the cabinet – Barak, Mofaz, and Yaalon – and based on what we know, only one of them is on board for an imminent unilateral strike on Iran. Just because the cabinet is full of generals does not mean that they are all gung ho to launch a new military adventure.
There is, however, one important way in which Israeli foreign policy might change with this unity deal, and that is the renewed empowerment of the foreign minister should Avigdor Lieberman be indicted, which I expect will happen in light of Zeev Ben Arie’s indictment and plea bargain last week. If Lieberman has to leave the government, it is safe to assume that Mofaz will take his place, and Israel will then once again have a foreign minister who is actually trusted to carry out the state’s diplomacy. This would undoubtedly be a good development should it occur, since Israel’s Foreign Ministry is too important to be left in incompetent hands.
When all is said and done, I do not think this deal is about Iran. I think it was done for domestic political considerations first and foremost. Let’s remember that while Netanyahu has faced no real challenges, Likud has not been on nearly as solid footing as its party leader. It is right now the second largest party in the Knesset – and that Kadima is the largest but is only getting one minister slot out of this deal tells you all you need to know about its long term prospects – but had been facing a new threat from Yesh Atid, a Labor bump following summer social justice protests, and a rightwing revolt within its own ranks led by Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, and others who do not find Netanyahu sufficiently committed to the settlement cause. The deal with Kadima eliminates these problems or gives Netanyahu more time to deal with them. By bringing Kadima and Mofaz into the coalition, it increases the chances that an increasingly unpopular Kadima (polls had it coming in fourth or fifth were elections to be held in September) will simply merge back with Likud before October 2013 and undo the rift that Ariel Sharon created in order to pull out of Gaza. It also cuts the legs out from under Yair Lapid and his new party before it can really get off the ground, and while Yesh Atid might stick around and build support, October 2013 is a long ways away for a party that has no seats in the Knesset. A newly stabilized government gives Netanyahu more time to quell the growing backbench rebellion within Likud as well, and he can expect Kadima to now back him full-tilt on settlements once he backs Mofaz’s Tal Law alternative. In sum, this is move to bring in Kadima and cancel the early elections is a no-brainer that eliminates potential rival parties, strengthens Likud internally, and probably increases its vote share over what it would have gotten in September. Does it make it easier to attack Iran? Sure – Mofaz might now become Netanyahu’s Colin Powell inasmuch as his known reticence about a strike and his presence in the cabinet make it more credible should Netanyahu decide to act. But I don’t think that is the correct prism through which to view yesterday’s political machinations.
P.S. Related to all of this, Brent Sasley has a great post over at Mideast Matrix that is well worth a read because it gets to the root causes of Israel’s political dysfunction. The casual observer familiar only with the American form of government looks at the fact that the Israeli prime minister just decided on a whim to cancel his own call for early elections and put them off for over a year as a gross violation of democracy, when in fact it is par for the course in a parliamentary system. That does not mean, however, that all is well with Israeli politics, and Brent makes a great counter-intuitive argument that yesterday’s events actually strengthen Israel democracy by temporarily papering over some of the immense structural problems that exist in the system.
April 30, 2012 § 4 Comments
Lots of big news happened over the weekend with far-reaching consequences, so let’s start with Friday’s Yuval Diskin speech. Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, slammed Netanyahu and Barak – and did so in a particularly insulting manner tinged with class-based resentment by referring to them as the “messiahs from Akirov [the expensive high end apartment building in Tel Aviv where Barak resides] and Caesaerea” – as being unfit to lead the government and for presenting Israelis with a false choice on Iran. Diskin said that he does not trust either of them, and that they are wrong to declare that striking Iran will set back its nuclear program when in fact it might accelerate it. He also warned about right wing extremists on both sides of the Green Line and said that something like the Rabin assassination could easily happen again, and charged Netanyahu with not wanting to conduct peace talks with the Palestinians because it would break apart his coalition. Diskin’s broadside launched a round of recriminations, with the pro-Bibi camp charging Diskin of petty score-settling over the fact that he was not appointed head of the Mossad following his time as head of the Shin Bet, and ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan – himself a strident critic of Netanyahu and Barak over the Iran issue – and ex-IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi both publicly supporting Diskin.
Let’s sort this all out. What precisely is going on here? To begin with, there is no doubt that personality issues are part of this very public feud. Diskin’s strikingly sneering personal tone is unusual for a critique solely based on the merits, and he is clearly still upset about not getting the Mossad job. It is also well known that the trio of Diskin, Dagan, and Askenazi were all pushed aside and replaced by Netanyahu partially to clear the way for a strike on Iran since all three of them were opposed to such a move, and this is coming back to haunt Bibi as they are now getting their revenge. That does not mean, however, that they are wrong, although Diskin is the least qualified to register such a strong objection given that his portfolio had him dealing mainly with Palestinian issues and not with Iran.
It’s tough to say why Diskin decided to speak up now and do it so harshly, but it definitely fuels speculation that he wants to enter politics and that this was his opening salvo. I also wonder, given his area of expertise and the fact that he was critical on a host of topics, if he meant for the Iran issue to be front and center or if he instead expected his criticisms of Netanyahu’s stance toward the Palestinians to be the headline in the weekend papers. Diskin holding forth on Iran is unusual because it would be analogous to the FBI director attacking the White House over drone policy in Pakistan – he certainly knows more about it than most people, but it falls far outside his portfolio. More appropriately, Diskin went after Bibi pretty hard on the Palestinian front, essentially accusing him of negotiating in bad faith and insisting that Netanyahu rather than Abbas was the person responsible for the lack of progress due to his having no interest in altering the existing status quo. Diskin also stressed his bona fides on the topic by pointing out that he knows what is going on from being up close to the Palestinian issue and dealing with it personally, and that the West Bank is primed to explode in frustration over the lack of progress toward a Palestinian state. The news has a way of spiraling out of people’s control, and I’ll bet that Diskin did not necessarily expect his Iran comments to be the ones dominating the airwaves.
It is also interesting to see who spoke up in defense of Netanyahu and Barak and who did not. Likud ministers went after Diskin, including Yuval Steinitz (Finance), Limor Livnat (Culture and Sport), and Yisrael Katz (Transportation), but there were some mixed signals from people who actually matter when it comes to Iran. Avigdor Lieberman criticized Diskin for serving out his full Shin Bet term if he had such major issues with Netanyahu and Barak, but in the same sentence praised Diskin as an excellent Shin Bet head and stressed that the entire security cabinet and not just Bibi and Barak would be making decisions on Iran. Silvan Shalom, who is the vice PM, also praised Diskin’s tenure at the Shin Bet and stressed that the decision to strike Iran is not Netanyahu and Barak’s alone to make. Most importantly (and ominously for Netanyahu), the silence from Moshe Yaalon, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Eli Yishai was deafening. These four, as faithful readers of this blog may recall, are the members of the Shminiya believed to be opposed to attacking Iran, and they did not come out swinging in Netanyahu or Barak’s defense. Combined with the fact that current IDF head Benny Gantz is evidently bearish on the idea as well, and that Netanyahu is historically an extremely cautious political actor, it signals that Bibi is still fighting an uphill battle and confirms my longstanding belief that a strike is nowhere near imminent.
At the end of the day, no matter what Diskin’s motives or his credibility level, his speaking out is not a good development for Netanyahu and Barak’s freedom of action on Iran. Israel has great respect for its military, security, and intelligence leaders, many of whom later enter politics with great success, including current Cabinet members Barak and Yaalon and Kadima head Shaul Mofaz and Kadima MK Avi Dichter. The current and previous four IDF chiefs (Gantz, Ashkenazi, Dan Halutz, Yaalon, and Mofaz) are all on record as opposing a strike or are believed to oppose a strike at this point in time, and while Mofaz clearly has political reasons for being opposed given his status as opposition leader, the other four do not. All of this carries weight with Israelis, and it should carry weight with Netanyahu and Barak as well. This Yediot article quotes a bunch of anonymous state and defense officials trashing Diskin, including one “senior minister who has a close relationship with Netanyahu” saying that Diskin fits into a legacy of “moronic Shin Bet chiefs,” but it cannot escape notice that not one of the people questioning Diskin’s intelligence or abilities was willing to go on record. The fact that the security and military officials who matter primarily appear to view attacking Iran right now as a bad idea is not a small problem that Netanyahu and Barak can wave away. In the grand scheme of things, Yuval Diskin’s opinion might not matter, but he stands as a proxy for a larger group of people whose opinion does.
April 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Andrew Sullivan’s takeaway from the Benny Gantz interview is that the Israeli military does not view Iran as an existential threat, and he implies that much like many Israeli military leaders were opposed to the Iraq War, Gantz’s comments might mean that the same applies here too. Certainly Gantz is clear that he does not think Iran is developing nuclear weapons yet, but the quote that Andrew pulls out has to be read in its proper context, which is sorely missing. The full quote on Khamenei’s rationality is as follows:
“If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous.”
Two important points to note in here. First, Gantz is open to the possibility that because the Iranian leader is unquestionably an Islamic fundamentalist, he might at any point make a different decision that would not fall under the category of being rational. This means that Gantz does not have the same cocksure certainty about what Iran is ultimately going to do as Andrew does. It is trite to imply that Gantz does not see Iran as threatening or favor military action under the right circumstances when he leaves his reading of Khamenei’s actions open to revision. This leads to the second important point, namely that Gantz thinks Khamenei will pursue a bomb if the supreme leader believes that he can get away with it because Iran’s nuclear facilities are impervious to attack. This is in line with something that Gantz says earlier in the interview:
“The military option is the last chronologically but the first in terms of its credibility. If it’s not credible it has no meaning. We are preparing for it in a credible manner. That’s my job, as a military man.”
And on the question of whether the threat is existential for Israel as compared to America:
“We aren’t two oceans away from the problem – we live here with our civilians, our women and our children, so we interpret the extent of the urgency differently. “
The problem here, and the point that Sullivan misses, is that only the threat of serious military action transforms the threat from Iran from an existential, life-altering one into the kind of ordinary adversarial threat with which Israel is used to dealing, but Sullivan generally thinks that Israeli threats are an unquestionably bad thing. Gantz is not downplaying the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon that might be used against Israel, but stressing that just because Iran does not appear in his view to be developing nuclear arms right now does not foreclose completely the possibility that it will happen down the road. And the best way of making Iran stick to this path is by keeping the sword of Damocles hanging over its head. Does this mean that the Israeli military does not view Iran as an existential threat? I don’t think it does. It means that Gantz has a hard-eyed view of what it takes to contain this threat and ensure that it does not become unmanageable. As always, context is king. Even Abdullah Gül concedes the tough spot the Israelis are in with Iran in an interview in the current issue of Foreign Policy in which he says, “I don’t mean to in any way disregard the threat perception on the part of Israel either,” while expressing his opinion that Israel should not attack Iran.
Given all this, I think the Gantz interview actually makes me a bit more charitable toward Netanyahu, as shocking as that may be. Bibi’s constant threats and warnings certainly fulfill Gantz’s desire to make Israeli military action appear to be as credible as possible. I have written a bunch of times that I think Israel is bluffing and does not intend to strike Iran, and to the extent that this is true, it plays directly into what Gantz says has to be done to prevent Iran from trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
April 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz gave a wide-ranging interview to Haaretz that is practically pitch perfect. Everyone should go read it for yourselves, for it combines realistic and sober analysis on Iran with a measured sense of quiet confidence that will give pause to any Iranian leaders doubting Israeli capabilities or resolve. It also manages to convey the way in which Israel feels a genuine threat without resorting to the path of least possible resistance in invoking the Holocaust. All in all, it is a convincing display that the IDF is in excellent hands.
For those who want the quick summary, Gantz says that while he does not think Iran has chosen or will choose to develop nuclear weapons, the threat of a nuclear Iran should not be downplayed since it would have devastating global consequences. He reiterates that Israel is the strongest state in the region and will remain so, but that it is also a careful and measured state that does not make decisions borne out of hysteria. He is of the opinion that global pressure on Iran is working, and keeps up that pressure rhetorically by stressing that Israel’s military option must be credible in order to work and that he is doing everything in his power to ensure that Israel’s military threats are indeed credible.
The best crystallization of his thoughts on Iran is this line, which is one you are unlikely to ever hear from Netanyahu: “I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous.” Unlike Bibi, who views Iran as being led by suicidal men in the throes of religious fervor, Gantz views the Iranian leadership as religious fundamentalists who nevertheless are vulnerable to pressure and persuasion. Gantz also has thoughts on Shalom Eisner, Haredi military service, and Israeli military preparedness in the North, but like I said, I urge you to read the interview yourself.
Yom Haatzmaut begins tonight, and it is a good time to reflect on the fact that Israel’s founding leaders were not always perfect nor prescient (hello, Haredi military exemption!) but were nonetheless remarkable and awe-inspiring men who built a democratic state from nothing and managed to defend their new country from enemies all around without destroying it from within. My fervent wish is that Israel’s next generation of leaders prove themselves worthy of the mantle that they have been bequeathed. If Benny Gantz is indicative of anything, there is hope yet.
April 19, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Ehud Barak is in town today for meetings with Leon Panetta at the end of a week in which Netanyahu has criticized the P5+1 talks and given a humdinger of a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) speech equating a nuclear Iran with Nazi Germany and stating that it is not only his right but his duty as Israeli prime minister to invoke the memory of the Holocaust when speaking of current threats to Jews worldwide. In the meantime, Barak said this week that Israel has no obligation to refrain from attacking Iran while negotiations are ongoing and expressed his view that Iran is unlikely to give up enriching uranium. Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that a June attack is now possible, pointing to a recent report on Israeli TV about the IAF’s preparedness for a strike, and believes that because Barak could have blocked the report from airing and chose not to, it indicates that a strike will come soon (if one is indeed coming).
I still think that this kind of action on Barak’s part is not necessarily a sign that an attack is coming, but the latest maneuver to put pressure on the U.S. to continue holding Iran’s feet to the fire. Barak is a smart strategist and knows that such comments will put pressure on Iran and also give the next round of talks in Baghdad a greater sense of urgency if the negotiating states believe that an Israelis strike is imminent. That Barak”s warning comes this week is no coincidence, since if he is unsatisfied over the fact that the P5+1 talks last Saturday did not yield any tangible concessions from Iran, the message that Israel is becoming impatient and antsy may prompt a more fruitful conclusion to the talks in Baghdad next month. In any event, I remain convinced that Barak is the crucial figure here and that Netanyahu cannot take any action without his being completely on board, a sentiment that Andrew Exum stated as well in his World Politics Review column yesterday.
So, that leaves today’s meeting with Panetta. Israeli rhetoric is once again urgently bellicose, and the face to face discussion today between Barak and Panetta might be the best remaining opportunity for the U.S. to press its reservations about a strike and make them stick. Barak has a much cooler head than Netanyahu, and if I were Panetta, I would be using today to convince Barak that Iran is being squeezed through sanctions, covert action, and military threats, and that Israel needs to back away from gearing up its air force for a pending mission. If Barak needs convincing on this front (and I am not sure that he does, since he is far more opaque than Netanyahu) and Panetta cannot convince Barak today, in person and without the distractions that come when Bibi is around, then an Israeli strike might indeed be coming sooner rather than later.
April 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Like many of his readers, Andrew Sullivan and I have a long relationship, although he does not know it. I have been a daily Andrew Sullivan reader since my dad clued me into Andrew’s blog during my first semester of law school in September 2002. My browser bookmark has changed as he has moved from his eponymous self-hosted site to Time, then the Atlantic, and now the Daily Beast. One of my finest moments as a writer was when my response to Andrew’s request for submissions for his What Would Jesus Drive thread was filled with so many excruciating puns that he published it and then declared a unilateral ceasefire. I even donated money to his tip jar the first time he asked his readers for donations since I have always enjoyed his writing and his arguments always make me think. No, this is not the preface to a declaration that I am no longer going to read the Dish, since I don’t think there is anything that would force me to give it up. But as someone who must be part of a small group of his oldest and most loyal readers, his insistence that Israeli policy must always be viewed through the prism of the U.S. is starting to wear extremely thin.
The latest example is a post yesterday quoting Fred Kaplan on why Israel might want to strike Iran before the 2012 U.S. presidential election because President Obama will then be forced to join in out of reelection concerns. Andrew then adds, “Note that this simply implies that a foreign government would be relying on US domestic pressure to force the US administration to join a war it did not seek. I’m not sure what that is, but ‘alliance’ is not the correct word.” This is but a brief foray into Andrew’s larger and continuous argument that Netanyahu is seeking to doom Obama’s reelection and sabotage his efforts to reach out to the Muslim world. Better examples of this overarching view are here and here and especially here. This last example provides a good crystallization of Andrew’s thinking: “A global war which polarizes America and the world is exactly what Netanyahu wants. And it is exactly what the GOP needs to cut through Obama’s foreign policy advantage in this election. Because it is only through war, crisis and polarization that extremists can mobilize the emotions that keep them in power. They need war to win. Here’s a prediction. Netanyahu, in league and concert with Romney, Santorum and Gingrich, will make his move to get rid of Obama soon. And he will be more lethal to this president than any of his domestic foes.”
Obama and Netanyahu undoubtedly have a terrible relationship, with the latest datapoint being Netanyahu criticizing the P5+1 talks two days ago as giving Iran a freebie and Obama immediately firing back, while the administration leaks the fact that Netanyahu was briefed extensively before and after the talks and that the U.S. coordinated its strategy with Israel. I am sure that neither is the other’s favorite world leader, and it is certainly not a stretch to think that Netanyahu would be happier to see Mitt Romney occupying the Oval Office come January. Nevertheless, Andrew constantly insists that any action Israel might take against Iran is designed to thwart Obama and that Israel has no right to hold the U.S. hostage or embroil it in a war. All of Israeli foreign policy is reduced to the narrow question of whether it is good for the U.S. or bad for the U.S. and how it impacts American interests.
The problem with this is obvious. As Andrew likes to point out, Israel’s interests do not always perfectly overlap with those of the U.S., and Andrew’s line of argument ignores the fact that when this occurs, Israel has every right and obligation to do what it thinks is best for itself. Nobody would argue that states do not have the responsibility to protect their own interests, particularly when a state determines that it is facing an acute security threat. Yet Andrew repeatedly makes the argument that Israel should subsume its own interests to that of the U.S. and subvert its own national security decision making process to further American policy in the region. This selective blindness is particularly galling given Andrew’s position that Israel has no right to interfere with American strategic goals and his accusations that American policy in the Middle East is controlled by Netanyahu, and yet he then in the same breath insists that Israel has no right to attack a state that directs rhetorical belligerence its way (and targets its diplomats and civilians abroad) because of what it might mean for the U.S. and that the White House should have the final say over what Israel does.
The Iran issue undoubtedly implicates the U.S., but it does not then follow that it is entirely about Obama and American domestic politics. It is callous to suggest that Israel does not have legitimate concerns about Iranian threats and that the only possible rationale for an Israeli strike is to “polarize America and the world.” If Israel decides to strike Iran – and let me reiterate yet again that I think it would be both terrible and unnecessary – it will not be in order to harm Obama or to draw the U.S. into a global war or to please evangelical Christianists. It will be because Netanyahu and Barak and the rest of the security cabinet genuinely believe that Israel faces an existential threat and that it has no other alternative. Israeli security policy is not concocted as a way of spitting in America’s eye, nor should Israel always be forced to do whatever the U.S. wants it to do, since that is not an alliance either. Israel absolutely should take U.S. views seriously and under grave consideration, and I would argue that if the Obama administration is hellbent against an Israeli attack, Israel should listen and comply because of the various implications involved in not doing so. Yet this is not what Andrew is arguing – he is arguing that Israel has no right to launch an attack on Iran because of the consequences that will accrue for the U.S. This is simply not the way states should or do operate, and much as Andrew would never voice the idea that the U.S. should have an absolute veto over British foreign policy because of the special relationship or Lend-Lease, the same applies to Israel. The bottom line is that Israel is well within Iran’s striking distance, Iranian officials have repeatedly talked of their fervent wish to see the “Zionist regime” replaced, and Iran is currently operating a uranium enrichment program that the IAEA has flagged for suspicion of violating the NPT. The concerns that Israel has are far greater than those of the U.S. and for very good reason. Not everything is about America, and Andrew’s arguments would benefit from this realization.
April 17, 2012 § 1 Comment
Laura Rozen has a fun behind the scenes recap of the P5+1 Istanbul talks, but the best nugget is the reporting that Davutoğlu tried to set up a number of bilateral meetings between Iran and other states, and that Iran rebuffed him because it does not want to give Davutoğlu and Turkey a diplomatic victory in light of the newfound tension between Turkey and Iran. If this is indeed the reason why Iran would not agree to any bilateral meetings aside from one with China, then it suggests a high degree of Iranian naivete and miscalculation. Recall that as of only a couple of weeks ago, Erdoğan was describing Iran’s nuclear program as peaceful and as a purely civilian project, and criticizing reporters for focusing on Iranian nuclear efforts but not calling out Israel on its nuclear arsenal. Since then, Iran has angered Turkey by waffling on holding the talks in Istanbul which prompted Erdoğan to question Iran’s sincerity and truthfulness, and then after seemingly smoothing things over, has now decided to put playing childish games ahead of securing Turkish support. For a country that is increasingly isolated and facing devastating oil sanctions from the EU in a few months, this is a puzzling move in the extreme. It either means that Iran is very confident that it has managed to avoid a strike on its nuclear facilities, or that Iran is the little boy in a room full of grown men. There is no good reason to annoy the Turks, who will be critical in convincing the U.S. to sit tight and give negotiations a chance, or who will be valuable from a logistics and supply chain perspective should the U.S. decide to attack. Making Davutoğlu look impotent in front of a powerful international audience is only going to backfire, and it is a strange move for a state with few powerful friends left to purposely offend an influential potential supporter.
This incident also underscores the changing environment that Ankara will have to navigate going forward as it rethinks its global role and adjusts accordingly. Turkey has made a big deal under its current government of being a valuable bridge between the West and its own neighbors farther east. Part of the zero problems with neighbors strategy was to establish Turkish credibility in the region so that it could serve as a go-between and become more influential with the U.S. and Europe. That Davutoğlu would be running around trying to set up bilateral meetings is completely in character with this strategy, and the fact that he was not able to deliver is not a knock on him but an indicator of how Turkey needs to shift course. Becoming a regional power means less neutrality and more forcefulness. Turkey is now demonstrating that with regard to Syria, as it has over the past months moved away from trying to gently influence Assad to organizing efforts with an eye toward forcing him to leave. It might mean a loss of credibility as an arbiter or mediator, but the flip side is a more muscular role for Turkish power in the region. The same thing is true with Iran. Turkey may now find it more difficult to act as the middle man that brings Iran and the West together, but having a stronger independent voice and taking sides will bring with it a different array of benefits. Just as Turkey shifted course with Syria, I expect the same thing to eventually happen with Iran, since Davutoğlu is too smart to stick with an outdated policy that no longer matches Turkey’s reach or its geopolitical circumstances. The fiction that Turkey could somehow remain neutral on all issues and be friends with everybody has been exposed by the Arab Spring, the chaos in Syria, and now by Iran. It’s time for Ankara to drop the charade, acknowledge that it is not going to be able to rewrite the rules of international politics all by itself, and come up with a new grand strategy and slogan that recognizes that being a regional power means having to act like a bully sometimes.
April 15, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The P5+1 talks that took place in Istanbul yesterday involve both Turkey and Israel with varying degrees of directness, so I am loathe to let the occasion pass without commenting at all. By all accounts, the talks went better than expected, with the parties agreeing to meet again in May and the six world powers leaving satisfied that Iran is willing to engage in serious negotiations over its nuclear program. Interestingly, there was complete silence from Israel after the talks concluded, with an anonymous official saying that Jerusalem is waiting to see how everything shakes out and that commenting would not be prudent.
There are three possible ways to interpret Israeli silence, particularly given the public disagreement last week that erupted between Netanyahu and Barak over what Israel’s redline is with regard to Iran. The first option is that Israel has decided to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities at some point during the spring or summer, and the P5+1 talks are going to have no bearing on Israel’s decision. If Israel believes that Iran is determined to become a nuclear power no matter the cost, then Saturday’s events will confirm Israeli suspicions, as Iran successfully placated the six countries on the other side of the table and furthermore insisted that the U.S. and Europe hold off striking Iran while negotiations are ongoing, yet did not make any tangible concessions. If Israel thinks that Iran is engaged in nothing more than delaying tactics, yesterday lent this theory plenty of credence.
The second option is that the Obama administration’s efforts to convince Israel to hold off and give sanctions time to work has been successful. It is out of character for Israel to practice rhetorical restraint when it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, yet the public silence following the Istanbul talks can be interpreted in the simplest way possible and exactly how the unnamed Israeli spokesman explained it, which is that Israel actually does want to see how the talks play out before making any decision. Given the change in tone from the Iranian side that was reported following the talks and the sense that Iran is finally serious about negotiations, Israel may be reluctantly concluding that Obama’s strategy of forcing Iran into concessions through sanctions and diplomatic isolation is working. Erdoğan’s angry outburst directed at Iran last week also helps matters, since the loss of the only NATO member that had heretofore been neutral – if not actually leaning toward Iran – can only have helped to prod the Iranians to approach negotiations with a new attitude.
The third option is that Israel did not respond to Saturday’s talks because there is confusion at the highest levels about what the response should be. Netanyahu and Barak’s differing statements about what Israel’s position is on Iran did not reflect mere semantics, but a genuine policy dispute. Netanyahu’s position is a more hardline one, demanding that Iran give up all uranium enrichment efforts and any actual uranium that has already been enriched. Barak, in contrast, voiced his willingness to allow Iran to keep some enriched uranium and receive enriched fuel rods from an outside country if it opens up all of its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspectors and suspends (rather than permanently ends) its enrichment program. This reflects a serious disagreement between Israel’s two top decision makers on security matters, and their relationship is unusual enough that the balance of power between the two may actually tip in the defense minister’s favor rather than the prime minister’s. It may very well be that Israel’s policy on what it would require from Iran in order to avoid a strike is now up in the air and more unsettled than it has been in months, necessitating that Jerusalem keep quiet until Netanyahu and Barak are able to agree on what they want.
My view is that the answer lies mainly with the second option, with a dash of option three. I am on record as predicting that Israel is not going to strike Iran any time soon, and I think that Obama has successfully persuaded Netanyahu to give the U.S. strategy a chance, and implicitly promised that the U.S. will attack Iran if it fails. The Netanyahu-Barak argument also should not be discounted, and Israel is smart not to fall into a second situation in under a week in which it sends conflicting signals. If my reading of events is correct and Israel is publicly backing off on its threats for the time being, it will only increase pressure on the Iranian leadership by removing Israeli bellicosity as an excuse for Iranian nationalism, which has been a valuable shield for the regime.
UPDATE: It seems as if Israel’s silence was short lived, as Netanyahu has come out criticizing the talks, accusing the negotiating states of giving Iran a freebie and reiterating his position that Iran must give up all of its enriched uranium and dismantle its enrichment facilities immediately. This shifts the balance toward option 3, and as Barak Ravid notes in the Haaretz piece (and confirms what I wrote above), it means that the Netanyahu-Barak rift is growing. Netanyahu’s frustration seems to be boiling over at the prospect of his being stymied in striking Iranian nuclear sites, and it says to me that the U.S. campaign has not won him over but that it has won over his defense minister, who as I have noted previously is the more crucial figure that the U.S. needs to convince to withhold from attacking.