October 26, 2012 § 1 Comment
Building on my initial reaction yesterday to the new Likud Beiteinu party created by Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, I have one more important point to add about why I think this deal happened. It seems to me that this was about domestic politics, plain and simple. Netanyahu was nervous about polls showing Likud’s vote share slipping and Labor’s rising, and Lieberman wanted to position himself to head his former party and not have Yisrael Beiteinu suffer the fate of so many other parties like Shinui or what is about to happen to Kadima. This way the two men were able to create the perception of a strong rightwing party that will be able to withstand any challengers and give an air of inevitability to Netanyahu remaining as prime minister and Likud Beiteinu creating the next governing coalition.
Aluf Benn thinks that something else is at work though, which is the creation of a war cabinet to strike Iran. He writes, “The merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party will dissolve any domestic opposition to the war, since after the election, Netanyahu will be able to argue that he received a mandate from the people to act as he sees fit. Ministers and top defense officials will have a hard time arguing with him. From now on, only American opposition is liable to delay, or even prevent, a command to the Israel Air Force to take off for Iran.” He adds that Ehud Barak, Benny Begin, and Dan Meridor will be marginalized or pushed out completely and that Lieberman will push the cabinet into radical foreign policy positions that Netanyahu will no longer be able to disavow.
This analysis is plausible on its face, but I think there are a few problems with it. First, it’s not enough to just declare absent compelling evidence that every move Netanyahu makes is with the intent of striking Iran. Plenty of people said the same thing when Netanyahu made the deal with Kadima despite the fact that Mofaz had been on record as opposing a strike, and obviously the short-lived unity government did not make any moves on the Iran front. Bibi’s obsession with Iran is well documented, but he has other concerns as well, such as political survival and consolidating his position, and this seems so clearly aimed at doing just those things that I don’t see why the simplest explanation here is not the right one.
Second, looking at what Benn actually argues, I don’t think it is correct to assert de novo that this gives Netanyahu a mandate for anything. For that to occur, the new LB party has to win an unusually large number of seats and Netanyahu has to campaign specifically and primarily on the Iran issue. Netanyahu is probably counting on about 45 seats, which is roughly what you get from adding up where Likud and YB were in public opinion polls, but I think there is a significant chance that the number is less than that. Lieberman is a polarizing figure, to say the least, and he could easily scare away some Mizrachi and more religious Likud voters. It is also possible that Russian YB voters who were mainly voting for the party based on its advocacy for Russian olim will be disenchanted and feel that Lieberman has sold out their core interest in the pursuit of greater personal power. If that happens, then Netanyahu’s alleged mandate is not going to be quite as strong as Benn predicts, and I don’t quite understand why ministers and generals would have a hard time opposing him. Even if he does get 45 seats, that doesn’t seem like it will all of a sudden cow Likud members like Meridor, Begin, and Bogie Ya’alon into reversing their positions, or convince the IDF leadership that their reservations on Iran have been wrong.
Third, there is the fact that, like Mofaz before him, Lieberman is not necessarily an Iran hawk. The reports are that he originally opposed a strike and was then convinced to change his position, but it’s obviously not on the top of his agenda. Lieberman cares much more about undermining the Palestinan Authority and taking a hard line on peace process issues and territorial concessions, so if there is any foreign affairs implication from yesterday’s announcement, it is that the two state solution is now even more endangered. Lieberman is going to take many radical positions; of that I have no doubt. The question is whether those positions will have anything to do with Iran, and I’m not sure that they will. He may support a strike, but he is not going to be strongly and constantly advocating one. The math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised. One also must consider who the rest of the coalition is going to include, since 45 seats still means that Netanyahu is going to have to rope in Shas, where Eli Yishai is opposed to a strike, or one of the center or left parties, and Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, and Shelley Yachimovich are certainly not guaranteed to vote the way Netanyahu wants on Iran.
In looking at yesterday’s merger, does it strengthen Netanyahu’s hand by giving him a larger number of seats? Yup, it does. But he still has to contend with opposition in Likud, opposition in the IDF, opposition from other potential coalition partners, and opposition from the public. In short, aside from making generalizations about the prime minister’s increased clout and murky electoral mandates, I don’t see how this makes a strike on Iran a foregone conclusion by any means.
September 28, 2012 § 4 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu gave a widely covered and dissected speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday in which the main takeaway seems to be that he watched a lot of Warner Brothers cartoons during his time as a teenager living in the U.S. Brent Sasley and Jeffrey Goldberg both weighed in on what Netanyahu was trying to accomplish, and Ali Gharib pointed out that Bibi actually made a mistake with his cartoon bomb, so I don’t need to rehash what others have already eloquently written. Instead I’d like to pick up on a theme that Robert Wright captured, which is that Netanyahu essentially conceded that Israel will not be bombing Iran any time soon. As regular O&Z readers know, I have thought for months that an Israeli strike is unlikely to happen, and so now that the conventional wisdom has caught up with me, it is worth rehashing why most people thought that an attack was going to happen during the summer or fall.
The thinking in the DC foreign policy community on an Israeli strike has largely been shaped by the notion that the decision to attack lies with Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and so the speculation over whether Israel was on the brink of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities broke down into two camps. On one side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are deadly serious about a strike. They view Israeli saber rattling as an effort to prepare the Israeli public for war and think that the reportedly reluctant Israeli military and political leadership will line up behind the prime minister and the defense minister once they decide to order military action. On the other side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are engaged in an elaborate bluff designed to either pressure Iran into ceasing its uranium enrichment program or to convince the United States to handle the job of taking out the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli chatter about the looming threat from Iran is aimed at creating conditions under which the U.S. feels it has no choice but to do everything possible to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and convincing the Europeans to back harsher sanctions on Iran. In this reading of the situation, the rest of the Israeli military and political leadership do not matter because Netanyahu and Barak are only interested in creating the perception that they are going to attack.
The question then of what Israel is going to do turns on Netanyahu and Barak’s true mindset; if they are serious about attacking they will attack, and if they are bluffing they won’t. It is a very simple dynamic, leading to an entire cottage industry designed to ascertain what precisely the two men’s intentions are, with an increasing focus on Barak – or, per his feeble attempt at anonymity, the “decision maker” – as the key figure. In this increasingly accepted view, there are only two possibilities and two outcomes, and the only people who matter are the Netanyahu-Barak tandem.
What this discussion has entirely missed, however, is that there is a plausible third outcome, which is that Netanyahu and Barak are dead set on launching a military operation against Iranian nuclear sites but that such an operation will not occur. People have discounted this possibility because they either misread the way in which national security decision making takes place in Israel or discount the Israeli political climate.
Netanyahu and Barak are not the only people who matter in this decision. When an American president wants to go to war, he generally gets his way irrespective of what his cabinet or generals want to do, with the Iraq War a good demonstration of how the president is truly The Decider. In contrast, Netanyahu and Barak will not be able to launch a strike on Iran without the near unanimous consent of the inner security cabinet and the larger political-security cabinet, and such authorization is not assured. Four of the nine members of the smaller group are currently believed to be opposed to a strike, and the fact that Netanyahu briefed Rav Ovadia Yosef in order to flip Eli Yishai’s support speaks volumes about Netanyahu and Barak’s power to order an attack against other ministers’ wishes.
There are also important constraints on Netanyahu and Barak’s decision making. Israeli public opinion does not favor a unilateral Israeli strike, the home front is woefully unprepared for retaliation from Iran or Hizballah, a myriad of current and former IDF and intelligence officials believe an attack is a bad idea at this point, and the specter of the Winograd Commission – which blasted former prime minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF chiefs for the 2006 war in Lebanon – hangs over everything. All of this is particularly salient given Netanyahu’s historical risk aversion when it comes to ordering military operations of any sort, compounded by the fact that this is an operation whose chances of success are seen to be limited to delaying Iran’s nuclear program rather than ending it and might end up with thousands of Israeli civilian casualties as retaliation. That the Obama administration is also opposed to an Israeli strike is an enormous constraint on Netanyahu given Israeli reliance on U.S. munitions and aid.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s speech, there is a rush of commentary focusing on the fact that Obama looks increasingly likely to be elected and so Netanyahu feels like he needs to back off and not risk angering the White House any further. I am sure that is part of what is going on, but this narrative implies that Netanyahu would have ordered a strike by now if Romney were ahead in the polls. I think that is wrong, and misses the fact that there is lots going on here on the Israeli side and that the U.S. is only one of many variables in this equation, and perhaps not even the most important one. If the focus is exclusively on the argument that U.S. pressure has sufficiently convinced Netanyahu to change his plans, then analysts are guaranteed to get it wrong again in the months or years ahead when trying to figure out what Israel is going to do.
September 13, 2012 § 5 Comments
We Americans have a tendency to look at situations and think that they revolve around us. The best recent example of this has been the debate over America’s role in the Arab Spring (or Arab Awakening, Islamist Winter, or whatever other term people are using these days) and the view that the U.S. was somehow the decisive actor in determining whether or not regimes fell. We can debate all day whether President Obama was right to withdraw support for Hosni Mubarak – and I for one firmly think that he was – but there is simply no question that Mubarak would have fallen anyway even if the U.S. had backed him to the hilt. The revolution in Egypt was not about us, nor did we have the ability or wherewithal to control it. Yet this idea persists that “we needed to back our allies” and that Mubarak would still be the modern day pharaoh of Cairo had we wanted him to stay put, all stemming from this mistaken paradigm that insists on seeing all world events as revolving around the U.S. In many, if not most, instances, political events overseas have little to do with the U.S. in more than a tangential manner, and even when they do involve the U.S., it is in an indirect way.
This brings me to the latest dustup between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, which began when Netanyahu responded to Hillary Clinton’s statement that the U.S. did not see a need to issue any red lines over Iran by saying, “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” This was of course a direct reference to the U.S. and set off all sorts of reverberations, beginning with Israel letting it be known that the White House had rejected a request for a meeting between the two leaders, Obama and Netanyahu speaking on the phone for an hour late Tuesday night, and Senator Barbara Boxer releasing an astonishing letter that she sent to Netanyahu in which she wrote, “Your remarks are utterly contrary to the extraordinary United States-Israel alliance, evidenced by President Obama’s record and the record of Congress,” and “I am stunned by the remarks that you made this week regarding U.S. support for Israel. Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel?”
The fireworks between the two countries were immediately interpreted as Netanyahu’s attempt to leverage the U.S. presidential campaign season against Obama. The very first sentence of the New York Times story on the affair is “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel inserted himself into the most contentious foreign policy issue of the American presidential campaign on Tuesday, criticizing the Obama administration for refusing to set clear ‘red lines’ on Iran’s nuclear progress that would prompt the United States to undertake a military strike.” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote, “Now Netanyahu seems determined, more than ever, to alienate the President of the United States and, as an ally of Mitt Romney’s campaign, to make himself a factor in the 2012 election—one no less pivotal than the most super Super PAC.” The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu’s statement lashing out at the administration over the lack of red lines on Iran is an attempt to force Obama’s hand before the election or to create enough problems for Obama with pro-Israel voters and groups that it will swing the election to Romney. In short, Andrew Sullivan’s most dire prediction come to life.
The focus on the presidential campaign is a misreading of what is actually going on here that stems from the American pathology I laid out at the top of this post. Netanyahu’s harsh words are not aimed at the presidential race but are a result of what I imagine to be his deep and maddening frustration that he cannot force an Israeli strike on Iran. The point of Netanyahu’s verbal barrage is not to sabotage Obama or influence the 2012 vote for president, and in fact is only directed at the U.S. because he has already emptied his chamber on Israeli leaders opposed to a strike and cannot publicly criticize the person – Ehud Barak – with whom he is actually frustrated. Barak has reportedly changed his mind about the wisdom of an Israeli strike because he has come to realize what it will mean for U.S.-Israel relations, and without Barak on board any hopes Netanyahu has of taking out Iranian nuclear facilities are completely dashed. Netanyahu cannot go after Barak, however, since he cannot afford to alienate him or to let everyone know that the two men are no longer of one mind on this issue, and so he is reduced to directing his intemperate words at the U.S. and the Obama administration as the indirect causes of his current anger. Netanyahu’s outburst is not about the presidential campaign or presidential politics, but about what he views as an Israeli national security imperative that is being stymied by an array of forces. The fact that this is campaign season in the U.S. is only incidental, since Netanyahu would have issued a similar statement at the beginning or middle of a presidential term. His prism is an Israeli one, not an American one, and his focus is on Iran rather than on U.S. politics. Believe it or not, Israel has other concerns aside from the Obama-Romney contest. Yes, what is going on in the U.S. obviously impacts this entire issue, but the notion that what Bibi said yesterday is about the presidential campaign here is just the latest data point for the case that knowledge of Israeli politics on this side of the ocean remains poor.
August 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have run into the problem that they appear to be virtually alone when it comes to deciding whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. The two are so out on a limb at the moment that Shai Feldman, writing in Foreign Policy, declared the debate over attacking Iran to be over because Netanyahu and Barak lack the minimum consensus that would be required for military action. The defense and intelligence establishments are united in wanting to wait for the U.S. and not wanting to attack Iran unilaterally, and until Avi Dichter was added to the security cabinet formerly known as the Octet last week (which means that it is no longer a shminiya but a tishiya), the vote to attack Iran was reportedly split 4-4. A lot was made of the fact that Dichter is presumed to be on Netanyahu and Barak’s side and that adding him to the mix breaks the logjam, but I didn’t write anything about that last week because it is a faulty and ill-informed argument. A 5-4 vote is not going to be enough to launch a strike given the heavy opposition that exists to such a move; Netanyahu and Barak need to do some serious convincing and make real headway with the holdouts, who are Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, and Eli Yishai.
It is this last name that is perhaps the toughest to move, because Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all members of Likud and presumably Netanyahu has some more sway with them since he is their party leader (although my hunch is that Meridor, and to a lesser extent Begin, would never flip). Yishai, however, is a member of Shas, and that’s how we get to the outrageously cynical ploy that Bibi tried yesterday. For the uninitiated – although since you are reading a niche blog about Israeli politics right now, you probably don’t need this background – Shas is an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, controls how its members vote despite not being an elected official of any kind. I wrote about this dynamic back in May, when Rabbi Yosef ordered Yishai to change his opinion on being willing to consider alternatives to the Tal Law. What you have in Shas is a theocratic party, in which the elected politicians are beholden to the party’s rabbinic leadership and dare not contravene rabbinic orders when it comes to taking public positions or voting on issues in the Knesset or the cabinet. With this in mind, yesterday Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – who holds no elected or official position in the Israeli polity and has zero to do with Israeli national security – was the recipient of a national security briefing on Iran. Not only was he briefed, but it was done by Yaakov Amidror, the head of the Israeli National Security Council, lest anyone think that this was not a big deal or little more than a courtesy for a former chief rabbi of Israel.
Make no mistake about what is going on here in case it isn’t already abundantly clear: Netanyahu is trying to swing a vote to launch a strike against Iran by convincing a religious leader to order an acolyte to vote a certain way. He is not trying to convince Yishai by making a cogent case for military action – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has given up trying to do it this way – but is going above his head to Yishai’s rabbi, whom he knows Yishai is bound to follow, and telling a man with no national security experience at all and no training or education in evaluating intelligence or threat assessments that it is crucial to bomb Iran. Does anyone think that Amidror, a general and Israel’s equivalent of Tom Donilon, had any trouble at all convincing Rabbi Yosef about the urgent need to strike now in order to prevent Israel’s annihilation? For all of the outrageous things that go on in politics, and Israeli politics in particular, this represents an absolute low. It is a naked appeal to religious authority made to a theocratic party in which politicians serve as mouthpieces for rabbis. The reason that Shas has never taken an interest in foreign affairs is because its spiritual leaders don’t care about the issue, and to prey on that ignorance in order to influence a crucial position on national security is nothing short of abominable.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from this sorry and craven episode. First, Netanyahu is desperate since he realizes that he is fighting a steep uphill battle and he will resort to anything, no matter how blatantly insulting and undemocratic, to get an advantage. Second, Netanyahu and Barak’s argument for an attack is not only falling on deaf ears but is so weak on its face that they both know it cannot win on its own merits. Briefing Eli Yishai’s rabbi is not a move made out of strength, but one made out of a position that is even weaker than anyone could have realized. If this svengali routine is the best that Netanyahu can come up with, I hope for his sake that he has something better when it comes to the rest of his security cabinet, since unlike Yishai, the three Likud holdouts do not answer to a higher authority.
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.
August 13, 2012 § 2 Comments
The big news in the Middle East over the weekend was new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s sacking of the twin leaders of the SCAF, defense minister Hussein Tantawi and chief of staff Sami Anan, and annulling the SCAF’s previous constitutional declaration that gave it wide ranging legislative and executive powers. For some analysis about what all of this might mean, try Marc Lynch or Issandr El Amrani or my friend and fellow Georgetown compatriot Hesham Sallam. I have my own thoughts, but I’d instead like to make a wider point about what this tells us about American influence. One of the most notable aspects of what happened yesterday is that the president of Egypt got rid of the defense minister, chief of staff, and service heads with one fell swoop, yet the U.S. had absolutely no hint that this was coming. To give you a sense of just how much of a surprise this was, remember that last month Hillary Clinton met with Tantawi separate from her meeting with Morsi while in Egypt, and I’d wager that the meeting with Tantawi was the one that contained a more in-depth and far-ranging discussion. A couple of weeks ago Leon Panetta was in Egypt and he met with Tantawi as well and afterward said that “it’s my view, based on what I have seen and the discussions I’ve had, that President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together towards the same ends.” Doesn’t sound like a guy expecting Tantawi to be forced into early retirement just two weeks later, does it? It also doesn’t sound like a guy particularly eager for such a step to be taken.
I do not mean to suggest that Egypt has any obligation to run its policy by the U.S. before doing anything, since Egypt is a sovereign state and has the right to do whatever it likes in this regard. It is certainly curious though that Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually from the U.S. in military aid, not to mention the fact that the U.S.-Egypt relationship is largely built on military to military ties and security issues, and Morsi did not feel the need to even give the U.S. a heads up that this was coming down the road. I understand the need to keep a move like this quiet before it happens, but there’s no way this was a snap decision; it’s not like Morsi woke up yesterday morning and just felt like replacing Egypt’s entire military leadership. That the administration or DoD did not know about this beforehand – and David Ignatius is clear on the fact that they did not – says a lot about the limits of American influence these days. Clinton and Panetta just wasted a whole lot of time for nothing, and irrespective of whether Morsi did this on his own or whether it was the result of an internal military coup (after all, Tantawi and Anan were both replaced by other SCAF members), the shadow of the U.S. should be long enough that either Morsi or other senior officers would have told someone here what was about to go down. It’s tough to imagine the U.S. having zero inkling of a complete turnover of Egyptian military leadership five or ten years ago, and I think this isn’t just about Morsi but about the Egyptian military as well.
Egypt is not the only place where the limits of U.S. influence are strikingly apparent. Israel is awash in speculation that Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have made the decision to strike Iranian nuclear facilities this fall, despite the fact that the U.S. has sent a parade of officials to Jerusalem – including Panetta on that same trip two weeks ago - pleading with Israel to give sanctions some more time. Again, as with Egypt, Israel has every right to do what it wants, particularly when it has legitimate fears about Iran, but compare this to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, during which U.S. influence with Israel was so strong that it was able to convince Israel to sit tight as Saddam Hussein launched 42 Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and other Israeli populations centers. Of course, Israel has not yet launched an attack (and I plan on writing later this week about why I remain skeptical that it will), but the fact that it is being so openly contemplated and Israeli officials are saying nasty things to the press about American knowledge and intelligence capabilities demonstrates the depths to which U.S. influence with Israel has fallen. Israel is contemplating a strike despite not having the weaponry to completely eliminate Iran’s nuclear program and despite U.S. public and private assurances that it will not tolerate Iran producing a nuclear weapon, and that tells you all you need to know about waning American sway.
Power can be measured in lots of different ways. From a military/resources standpoint, the U.S. is doing perfectly fine. But power consists of many other things as well, such as persuasion or being kept in the loop. On these other measures, this weekend highlighted pretty clearly that U.S. influence could use some real strengthening.
August 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
One of the consequences of the disparities in threat perception and capabilities between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to Iran is that Israel has a strong incentive to pressure the U.S. into acting. Israel faces a graver and more imminent threat than the U.S. from an Iranian nuclear weapon given its proximity to Iran, the fact that Iran has repeatedly threatened Israel with violence and annihilation (and noting this does not automatically mean that Israel should strike at Iran, but by the same token pretending that this is not the case makes those who invoke the argument appear to be naively foolish), and the fact that Israel has been a frequent target of Iranian-sponsored terrorism that will only increase once Iran has a measure of nuclear deterrence. This is combined with the fact that by all accounts Israel is not equipped to destroy the Iranian nuclear program in its entirely but only to set it back a year or two, while the U.S. is assumed to have the aerial capability and munitions to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites in their entirety. The obvious result of all this is that Israel is engaged in a delicate dance to portray itself as willing to attack Iran at any time while working to convince the U.S. that Iran presents as large a threat to Israeli interests as it does to U.S. interests and thus is a job for the U.S. to take care of. Lest anyone accuse me of advancing pernicious theories about the Israel lobby (which would be a strange thing coming from me in light of this and this), let me state in the strongest possible terms that Israel’s actions on this front are both entirely understandable and entirely out in the open, and nothing more than run-of-the-mill statecraft.
Israel’s strategy to convince the U.S. to act has been to play up Iran’s willingness to use a bomb should it acquire one, reiterate its view that Iran is so far not being deterred by verbal threats and sanctions from ending its nuclear program, and insist that Iran has made greater progress on developing a weapon than has been realized. This strategy reached its climax yesterday when Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak first claimed that President Obama had received a new National Intelligence Estimate that was in line with Israel’s claim about Iran’s accelerated progress toward reaching nuclear capability, and then backtracked on the N.I.E. claim but said that there was an American intelligence report backing Israel’s view of the situation. John Schindler blogging at The XX Committee highlights how irregular and unprecedented it is for Barak to publicly release information about U.S. intelligence assessments, and Barak’s claims were immediately disputed by the U.S.
It is hard to overstate just how head scratching this move was by Barak. If the recent AP reporting that the CIA considers Israel to be a top counterintelligence threat is accurate, it is simply dumbfounding that Barak would go and publicly trumpet highly classified information coming from the U.S. that Washington clearly does not want getting out. It is also only going to understandably enrage the Obama administration, which has been publicly stating that Iran presents a vital threat to U.S. interests and that it will not tolerate Iran developing a nuclear weapon, all the while providing Israel with extra funds for military expenditures like Iron Dome, but keeping to its own timeline on Iran. Assuming that what Barak said is accurate, the White House is right to feel betrayed that classified intelligence it shared with Israel was blithely repeated to the press by Israel’s defense minister in an effort to pressure the U.S. into acting before it is ready to do so. If what Barak said is not accurate, then it is even worse. No matter what, it is not going to contribute to better U.S-Israeli coordination, and if anything it will make the U.S. think twice before sharing significant information with Jerusalem going forward. Barak’s leak is also not going to successfully pressure the U.S. into attacking Iran before it thinks it is necessary to do so, and one has to wonder what happened to Israel’s most decorated soldier’s penchant for strategic thinking.
On the one hand, it is surprising that Barak would do something like this considering that he appears to have a better relationship with Obama and other administration figures than Bibi Netanyahu does. Barak is the one who is constantly touting the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the U.S. under Obama, and Obama has hinted that his relationship with Barak is stronger than it is with Netanyahu, telling Jeffrey Goldberg, “I think the prime minister — and certainly the defense minister — would acknowledge that we’ve never had closer military and intelligence cooperation.” If an Israeli official was going to do something boneheaded that damaged the level of trust with the U.S., I would not have guessed that Barak would be the man to do it. On the other hand, there is a reason that Barak, despite being Israel’s most decorated soldier and a former IDF chief of staff and prime minister, is widely distrusted and even reviled in his own country. The knock on Barak is that he has no convictions and is willing to do or say anything to secure his own position, explaining his recent bolting from Labor and forming his own Atzmaut (Independence) Party in order to remain as defense minister once Labor left the government coalition. His political instincts are anything but stellar, and his military instincts have come into question in recent years as well as he has publicly feuded with a succession of IDF chiefs of staff. In many ways, the casual leak of classified American intelligence is classic Barak, as he does anything necessary to further his own goal of pressuring the U.S. to strike Iran irrespective of what relationships get burned in the process. This time, however, Barak has actually undermined his own cause, and one can only hope that he has not caused long term damage to Israel and its relationship with the U.S.
August 1, 2012 § Leave a comment
There were two articles published yesterday on the topic of Israel’s security in the wake of the Arab uprisings that arrived at polar opposite conclusions about the behavior Israel should expect from new Islamist governments. One was authored by me in the National Interest and I argue that massive economic crises and the renewed focus on quality of life issues that comes with elections have created a situation in which Israel’s Arab neighbors have too much on their plates to be thinking about causing trouble for Israel (the argument is longer and more nuanced than the one sentence summary, so please click over to the National Interest and read the whole thing). Writing in the Daily Beast at Open Zion, Benny Morris comes to the opposite conclusion, arguing that Israel is now “the most dangerous place for Jews in the world.” Looking at recent developments in the region, Morris sees things as follows:
But for Israel the “Arab Spring” represents a dramatic, abrupt tightening of the noose. The takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas; the ongoing takeover of Egypt by the Brotherhood, traditionally an advocate of Israel’s destruction; the gradual subversion by Islamists of Hashemite control in Jordan; the Hizbullah dominance of Lebanon; and the current overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria all represent a tightening of the siege.
As Jeremy Pressman breaks down in a thorough fashion at Mideast Matrix, the reason Morris and I view Israel’s security situation so differently is because I am looking at material interests and capabilities and Morris is looking at ideology. For Morris, ideology outweighs every other consideration, and Islamism is a monolithic entity, the same in Iran as it is in Egypt. No matter what else is taking place, Morris sees Islamic fundamentalists joining hands to jump at the opportunity to destroy Israel. As Pressman rightly points out, Morris’s argument is difficult to test since Islamists are not actually controlling Egypt (the military is still very much running the show), Jordan, and Syria at the moment, but there is a reason that he and I differ over how to view emerging Islamist governments in Arab states, and it has to do with how one views ideology and ideological states.
There is something ironic for me about the fact that I am downplaying the role of ideology here since the thrust of so much of my non-blog writing is about how ideology is often a controlling variable in a variety of situations. My dissertation argues that ideology operates as a constraint on successful democratic transitions, and I have theorized that the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia was pushed out the door so quickly because the military and regime softliners did not see an emerging ideological threat (although their calculation was incorrect). In the case of new Arab Islamist governments looking to confront Israel, however, ideology is not a particularly important factor, which Morris does not grasp because he fails to distinguish between variants of ideology and their purpose.
Morris looks at Iran, which is an Islamist regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and assumes that every other Islamist government is going to behave in an identical fashion. The problem with this view is that while the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed very hostile to Israel, it misses some extremely important context. The Iranian regime is one that uses ideology as a source of legitimation; it’s argument for existing is that it governs a revolutionary state, the aim of which is to spread the Islamic revolution beyond its borders. Despite its parliamentary and presidential elections, it makes no real pretense to legitimating itself through democratic institutions and is run by unelected and unaccountable officials. Ideology is both its primary purpose and primary source of legitimacy, and thus if it does not act to carry out its ideological mission at all times, it endangers its very existence; when ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, fealty to the ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. In this sense, ideology becomes its primary interest to be advanced and it can take precedence over material concerns.
Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood (to the extent that the MB actually controls anything) is theoretically also an Islamist state, but its relationship to ideology is not the same as in Iran. The MB government in Egypt does not use ideology as its source of legitimacy even though it is an ideological movement. The MB ran for office in free and fair elections and campaigned on a host of promises to improve the economy, eliminate corruption, and increase transparency. In other words, it subjected itself to the people’s will as a way of creating legitimacy and it appealed to a host of material, rather than ideological, concerns. Not only does the MB not need to justify everything it does from an ideological perspective, it would be devastating to its long term prospects if it did. When it comes to confronting Israel, the MB will do so in a number of lower grade ways since it is a popular stance and also fits in with the party’s ideology, but it is not going to launch a war at the expense of its economic and political goals.
I do not mean to downplay in any way the hostility that the Muslim Brotherhood and other related Sunni Islamist groups harbor toward Israel. I do not view the MB as a benign reformist movement (or even necessarily a democratic one at heart rather than out of convenience) and the Israeli government is correct to be vigilant in not letting down its guard. This is not the same thing though as being on constant alert for invading Islamist armies willing to sacrifice their entire existence for a chance to kills Israeli Jews. Ideology is an extremely powerful force, but in order to understand how and why, it is necessary to get a handle on the different ways that ideology operates to shape events rather than taking a Manichean worldview that sees every situation involving Islamists as identical. Iran presents a real danger to Israel arising from its ideological worldview, but new Arab Islamist governments do not.