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.
June 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
Israeli Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss released a report earlier today slamming Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak for their shoddy preparation, decision-making, and faulty assumptions in the lead up to the violence aboard the Mavi Marmara two years ago. Lindenstrauss detailed the way in which Netanyahu ignored warnings to convene the cabinet and hold a group discussion about how to prepare for the flotilla, did not consult with the National Security Council (a body first created by Netanyahu when he served as prime minister in the 1990s and with which the PM is required by law to consult), and along with Barak ignored warnings from military officials that boarding the boat would be a violent and potentially fatal enterprise. The picture painted here is one of two men making decisions in isolation without involving any other people with expertise and experience, rejecting or downplaying warnings that contradict their previously formed opinions, and forming plans without all the necessary information because they either couldn’t be bothered to obtain it or willfully ignored it. Unsurprisingly given what the report says about how he processes information contradicting what he already believes, Netanyahu’s response was to essentially ignore it by saying that Israeli security under his watch proves that there are no problems.
Amir Mizroch has a devastating critique of Netanyahu and Barak in which he points out that this behavior is not surprising given the two men’s backgrounds as elite commandos, which leads them to view everything as a military problem to be neutralized rather than looking at the wide range of security and diplomatic implications. This created a terrible problem that is ongoing with Turkey, and it does not inspire confidence on Netanyahu and Barak’s threat assessment regarding Iran, their willingness to legitimately exhaust all other options before striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, or their preparedness and sense of reality for what the aftermath of an attack on Iran will bring. Netanyahu has faced an avalanche of criticism from former defense and intelligence officials, and he or his spokesmen have brushed it all aside by denigrating their motives, their current level of knowledge, their lack of understanding of just how existential the Iranian threat is, and stressing that ultimately only he is responsible for the fate of Israel and the Jewish people. It has been widely reported for months, if not years at this point, that he and Barak are keeping their own counsel and not involving the rest of the security cabinet when it comes to national security decision-making. In short, nearly every mistake that the pair made in the run-up to the flotilla as outlined in Lindenstrauss’s report is being made a second time in the run-up to a decision on Iran. After reading this, does anyone still trust that Netanyahu and Barak have looked at all the angles, considered every possibility, and are listening to the opinions given and information presented by the IDF and the Mossad? Jeffrey Goldberg has just posted a write up of an interview he did with former Mossad chief (and strident Netanyahu critic) Meir Dagan in which the following paragraph appears:
But what angers him most is what he sees as a total lack of understanding on the part of the men who lead the Israeli government about what may come the day after an Israeli strike. Some senior Israeli officials have argued to me that a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities might actually trigger the eventual downfall of the regime. Dagan predicts the opposite: “Judging by the war Iran fought against Iraq, even people who supported the Shah, even the Communists, joined hands with (Ayatollah) Khomeini to fight Saddam,” he said, adding, “In case of an attack, political pressure on the regime will disappear. If Israel will attack, there is no doubt in my mind that this will also provide them with the justification to go ahead and move quickly to nuclear weapons.” He also predicted that the sanctions program engineered principally by President Obama may collapse as a result of an Israeli strike, which would make it easier for Iran to obtain the material necessary for it to cross the nuclear threshold.
That Netanyahu has brushed off Lindenstrauss entirely is disturbing, since it suggests that he has learned nothing from his previous mistakes and is set in the way he makes decisions. Netanyahu claimed to the comptroller that nobody ever mentioned to him the possibility that taking the Mavi Marmara would end in fighting, but the report details that at least three ministers raised objections and questions along these line and were simply ignored. How many more scathing post-mortems of failed Israeli military operations need to be issued before some lessons are learned? Apparently the Winograd Commission did not do the trick, and the Lindenstrauss flotilla report has already met the same fate less than 24 hours after being released. If Netanyahu sincerely plans on striking Iran, he had better have all of his ducks in a row, since the flotilla blowback is nothing compared to what will happen should Israel be unprepared for an Iranian or Hizballah response. Netanyahu has now used up his last credible excuse, since nobody is going to believe at this point that he has listened to every possible voice and considered a wide range of advice. He needs to firm up his decision-making process to ensure that whatever he choice he eventually makes is an informed one.
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.