November 24, 2015 § 7 Comments
Life involves tradeoffs at every turn, and so does foreign policy. The perfect often becomes the enemy of the good, and pragmatic solutions require jettisoning principles. So too in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where each side must at times set aside deeply held beliefs and principles in order to achieve a realistic balance on the ground. Yitzhak Rabin’s realization that he was going to have to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, or the PLO’s realization that it would have to recognize Israel, were not steps that were taken lightly or that came easily. However, they had salutary effects that necessitated a sacrifice of principles and for each side created the risk of moral hazard in rewarding behavior that had been deemed out of bounds.
We are now at a similar crossroads when it comes to settlements. As a result of nearly five decades of settlement policy, Israel now has over half a million Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Even if they are not the root of the conflict, there is simply no question that settlements are an enormous and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, one that is diverting Israel’s political development to a frightening place. Israeli leaders present at the creation of the settlement project, from Rabin to Moshe Dayan, recognized the folly of occupying the West Bank, let alone settling it, and what it would mean for Israel to control millions of Palestinians in a state of political limbo. Nevertheless, here we are, and the fact is that removing half a million Israelis in an eventual peace deal will be an impossible task, and one that Israel is never going to attempt. As has been clear for decades and was formally laid out in the Clinton Parameters, Israel is going to end up keeping the large settlement blocs, allowing the most settlers to remain in Israel on the least amount of land, and will eventually have to evacuate the rest.
Given that it is clear to nearly everyone what the end result will be, there are two ways to approach current settlement construction. One is to treat all settlements as the same and condemn all new building in the settlements, irrespective of where the settlement is or how large it is. This has been the policy of the U.S. government since 1967, and it treats Gilo and Alon Shvut the same as Ofra and Elon Moreh. A settlement is a settlement, and thus any further construction is problematic, no matter the particular settlement’s eventual disposition. The other approach is to differentiate between settlements, and to recognize that building in an area that everyone knows that Israel will keep in any peace deal is not the same as building in areas that effectively bisect the West Bank or cut off Palestinian contiguity or prevent access to Jerusalem. While settlements are generally problematic, not all settlements are equally so.
Proponents of the first approach argue – not without merit – that to create a distinction between settlements now, outside the parameters of negotiations, would be to reward Israeli bad behavior. After creating a network of settlements in the West Bank of dubious legality at best, for external actors to recognize them as effectively part of Israel proper by not registering any complaints over their continued growth is to incentivize Israel to keep on building anywhere it likes in the hopes that creating facts on the ground will subvert Palestinian efforts to halt the settlement project.
As I said, this approach is not without merit, and it is certainly the morally satisfying one for those who have spent decades working to counter Israeli building outside the Green Line. The problem with it is that in occupying the moral high ground, it makes a solution harder rather than easier. The reality is that if a two state solution is to happen, it will require settler buy in, for better or worse, and getting settlers to support two states means recognizing that for the majority of them, expanding their current communities does not create an impediment to a final status agreement. For many on the left, this is a wholly unsatisfying and bitter pill to swallow, but it is also a fact of life that cannot be wished away.
To take an example from the other side of the spectrum (and this in no way suggests any type of moral equivalence), Hamas currently governs Gaza and does not appear to be going away. Hamas is a terrorist group with blood on its hands, and Israel is entirely justified in refusing to deal with it or acknowledge that it has any legitimacy at all. By the same token, rational people understand that as unpalatable as it may be, accepting that Hamas is in Gaza and that it cannot be simply wished away means crafting policies that take this into account, and even communicating with Hamas through back channels, as the current Israeli government has done. Rational thinking on settlements must prevail as well.
One of the striking elements from Israel Policy Forum’s trip to Israel last week was that the people working hardest to implement a two state solution and alleviate conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank are adamant that an all or nothing approach to settlements by calling for a complete settlement freeze would be the death knell for two states. Pragmatism must win out over principle in this case, which means pushing the Israeli government to define just what it means by the blocs – since this can be a nebulous moving target at times – and then creating a policy that distinguishes between kosher and non-kosher settlement growth. The Palestinian leadership and Mahmoud Abbas advanced this approach themselves in 2007 at Annapolis in presenting a proposal that involved Israel keeping 1.9% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, and while Israel’s preference is to keep 6.5% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, there is a compromise to be had that reconciles these two positions. This is not to accept Netanyahu’s reported position of recognition of the blocs as a quid pro quo for gestures in the West Bank – gestures that he should be taking anyway – or to treat the blocs as annexed to Israel before any final status negotiations have been concluded. It is to understand that while no building in the West Bank is helpful or desirable, one kind is a lot worse than another. While a change in how the U.S. views and treats settlements will lead to frustration for many and engender resentment among Palestinians, it is also the epitome of solutionism.
November 19, 2015 § 6 Comments
There is a familiar refrain that has been coming out of Israel for some time, and it was on display during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S. last week. The refrain is that Israel must maintain the status quo – sometimes referred to in shorthand as “conflict management” – despite its desire to have peace because outside events beyond its control are hemming it in. The Palestinian refusal to negotiate without preconditions, the risk of the West Bank turning into a terrorist enclave akin to Gaza, threats to regional stability from a variety of state and non-state actors, European sympathy for the Palestinians, and the resurgence of jihadi terrorism all combine for an antediluvian environment in which Israel cannot afford to take any risks lest the flood waters come rushing in. It is a picture that portrays Israel as an ark in a stormy sea, an island of stability whose actions are constrained because of its environment.
In many ways, this picture is an accurate one. All of the above factors exist to one degree or another, and they all impact Israel’s security and economy. This notion that to act in the face of such a threat matrix would be to assume unmanageable risks was nicely explicated by Natan Sachs in Foreign Affairs recently, where he described Netanyahu’s strategy as anti-solutionism emanating from a belief that there are no current fixes for Israel’s myriad challenges. The Zionist project becomes an inward looking one that tries to passively fend off threats, rather than an outward looking one that attempts to actively solve problems. I have many quarrels with Netanyahu’s leadership of Israel, but perhaps the largest one is that I find this general philosophy to be fundamentally at odds with the Zionist ideal. The strategy of sitting back and waiting for the universe to present a more propitious moment would be unrecognizable to Israel’s founders and iconic leaders, and it reveals a Zionism of excuses rather than actions.
Like many American Jews of my generation, I was raised on a diet of stories about the Panglossian wonder of Israel. The narrative went from Israeli pioneers braving malaria and draining the swamps of Palestine, to building the institutions of a future state despite hostility from the British and the Arabs, to the unimaginable diplomatic accomplishment of having the two opposing Cold War superpowers both vote in favor of partition, to the successive military miracles of beating back the invading armies of 1948 and then achieving an unthinkable victory in a mere six days in June 1967, to the modern successes of Israel in a variety of economic and technological spheres. This was a wholly sanitized narrative that avoided many contradictions and unpleasant truths, but the running thread throughout was that Zionism meant taking action and working to better your circumstances, no matter how insurmountable the challenges may appear. Zionism did not wait for the world it inhabited to change; it changed the world it inhabited.
While the above story is an incomplete one, the point about Zionism was correct. The yishuv in Mandatory Palestine did in fact face huge challenges and nearly impossible odds, and those odds did not terribly improve with the establishment of Israel. Zionism was the personification of a can-do attitude and creating your own positive reality, and it is no accident that Israel was widely admired as a plucky underdog. The Zionist project was something to be admired because it represented the ultimate victory of hard work and persistence, and above all it was a philosophy of doing.
What Netanyahu now peddles is the polar opposite. After listening to Netanyahu last week in the U.S. and spending this week in Israel meeting with various Israeli officials and politicians, I can’t help but sink under the weight of the ingrained pessimism and various pretexts for inaction. To listen to the Israeli government is to hear about an Israel at the mercy of its military and diplomatic adversaries, an Israel that cannot act because the barely functioning Palestinian government is outmaneuvering it, an Israel that has a litany of excuses for why it is dependent on the good will of others in order to improve its own situation. If only Mahmoud Abbas would drop his preconditions for negotiating, if only Palestinians would stop incitement, if only the Palestinian Authority would acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state…if, if, if. I am not suggesting that these are not legitimate complaints, only that to allow them to bog you down and be held hostage by their very existence conveys a complete lack of imagination and confidence. It is a betrayal of Zionist ideals, pure and simple, and one that makes Israel look weak rather than strong.
It is accepted conventional wisdom that the solutions to the various elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are known to everyone, and it is just a matter of getting both sides to say yes. I think a better way of formulating this is that the solutions are simple, but they are not easy. They will involve painful concessions and even more painful actions, and neither side is going to come out of this with everything they want. The difference between the Zionism of the 20th century and Netanyahu’s 21st century Zionism is that the former understood that hardship is not the same thing as impossibility, whereas the latter conflates the two at the drop of a hat. I know which version of Zionism I favor.
November 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
Bibi Netanyahu’s highly anticipated appearance on Tuesday at the Center for American Progress did not contain many surprises. Netanyahu spent much of the hour doing a masterful job of communicating his talking points, maneuvering questions onto advantageous territory, and using the yawning chasm between his knowledge and CAP President Neera Tanden’s knowledge of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to push across his worldview largely unchallenged. There was, however, one notable moment at the very end that was immediately picked up on by those in the room and later caused a ruckus back in Israel. Circling back to an earlier question from Washington Institute fellow David Makovsky on what Netanyahu’s Plan B is to prevent Israel from becoming a bi-national state, Netanyahu stated about unilateralism, “I suppose that is possible, but it would have to meet Israeli security criteria.”
As someone who has championed unilateralism as a way to avoid having the peace process kill the two state solution, I found this ever so slight opening heartening, and indeed, an Israeli diplomat told me immediately following Netanyahu’s appearance that the line was not a throw away but something that has been the subject of recent discussion. As is so often the case with Netanyahu, however, things are not always as they seem and politics gets in the way. Politicians on the right immediately insisted that Netanyahu could not possibly have been calling for a unilateral territorial withdrawal and declared that unilateralism is great if it means annexing Area C as opposed to withdrawing from it. A Likud spokesman dubbed unilateral withdrawal as a mistake that won’t be repeated and said people misinterpreted what Netanyahu said. Then Netanyahu himself backpedaled, stating on his Facebook page that he was not talking about withdrawal and that he has no intention of uprooting any settlements. So much for that.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu should not have been so hasty to disavow in Hebrew what he said in English. Unilateral withdrawal makes sense in a lot of ways, and it can be done in a way that fulfills Netanyahu’s stated concern about meeting Israeli security criteria. Given the current environment, in which Netanyahu does not want to negotiate in the face of terrorism, Mahmoud Abbas does not want to negotiate with Netanyahu at all, and the Obama administration has now publicly thrown up its hands at the idea of getting a negotiated agreement during the remainder of Obama’s term, unilateral withdrawal may in fact be the best way to safeguard Israel’s security.
Asher Susser recently wrote about basic security versus current security in the context of the terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. Basic security seeks to safeguard the fundamentals of the Zionist enterprise in keeping Israel Jewish and democratic, while current security seeks to safeguard the basic daily well-being of Israeli citizens. On the issue of basic security, it is a nearly impossible battle to argue that keeping the West Bank indefinitely preserves the Zionist enterprise, and indeed Netanyahu himself has conceded as much. The most oft-stated objection to pulling out of the West Bank that comes from Netanyahu and others on the right – leaving aside the religious and ideological attachments to the entirety of the Land of Israel – is that a withdrawal would leave a terrorist state in the West Bank and destroy any semblance of Israel’s current security.
One of the problems that Israel faces is that Netanyahu has consistently prioritized Israel’s current security over its basic security, sacrificing the long term in service of the short term. But another is that even when it comes to basic security, Netanyahu’s views are either influenced by political calculations or are narrowly conventional. Netanyahu states without qualification that withdrawing from the West Bank would be a security disaster, but this assumes a full military withdrawal as took place in Gaza in 2005. Given what transpired in the aftermath, few people contemplate unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank as including the entirety of the IDF presence there; when people with impeccable security credentials such as Amos Yadlin advocate for unilateral disengagement, they explicitly exclude withdrawing all IDF troops or even leaving the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu’s rejection of disengagement from the West Bank by pointing to Gaza also ignores the subsequent decade of robust and successful security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the fact that even were Israel to withdraw, the PA would have every incentive to continue to keep things quiet. Not all withdrawals are of the same flavor, and in spending years ruling out a West Bank disengagement and immediately reversing course after floating a trial balloon this week at CAP, Netanyahu is missing a chance to potentially establish Israel’s basic security for good while guaranteeing its current security.
Rather than accede to the politics of his coalition partners and his ministers, Netanyahu should seriously contemplate unilaterally declaring a provisional border with the West Bank, evacuating the settlements beyond that unilateral provisional border, keeping a military presence in the Jordan Valley, and telling the Palestinian Authority that he is happy to negotiate an agreement for permanent borders any time. It would be great if negotiations toward a final status agreement were proceeding swimmingly, but there are scores of reasons why they aren’t, and aren’t destined to be for the foreseeable future. Makovsky’s question to Netanyahu about a backup plan prompted an answer that many don’t like, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good one. Some productive unilateralism would go a long way toward putting the two state solution back on solid ground.
November 9, 2015 § 3 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu is speaking before an audience at the Center for American Progress tomorrow afternoon, and many progressives are not happy about it. For a roundup of why people are upset, you can see this piece in the Huffington Post or this one in the Forward or this much more thorough discussion of the entire affair by Ali Gharib (himself a former CAP employee) in the Nation, but it boils down to an objection that by hosting Bibi – no progressive and a dedicated opponent of President Obama’s foreign policy and someone who has been accused of essentially campaigning for Republicans – CAP is giving him progressive cover or validation.
I understand why some progressives are upset and do not want to do Netanyahu any favors, but I confess to finding the position that Netanyahu should be barred from CAP bordering on ludicrous. To begin with, Netanyahu is the leader of a democracy allied with the United States that has extensive ties to the U.S. in all manner of foreign policy, military, economic, cultural, academic, and societal spheres. Israel is not a perfect democracy and Netanyahu does not always behave like an ally, but Netanyahu is no autocrat at the head of a military junta, and the notion that the prime minister of Israel, no matter who he or she may be, is unwelcome at a mainstream Washington, DC institution is absurd. Let’s set aside the distaste for Netanyahu for a moment and look at the bigger picture, and realize that when people talk about subjecting Israel to an unfair standard, this is precisely the type of behavior to which they are referring.
Second, the argument that CAP is not just a think tank but a flag bearer for progressive values simply does not cut it. Unless one thinks that Netanyahu is going to be feted like the Queen of England and subjected to no challenging questions, either from Neera Tanden or the invited audience, then the argument falls flat. I don’t think that asking Netanyahu to defend positions to which progressives take exception is validating his policies; in fact, I think it’s the opposite. Progressives should be happy to have this opportunity, since I can’t think of anywhere else in DC where Netanyahu would go with a higher likelihood of being asked some uncomfortable questions that may make him squirm. I am also not sure when it became a progressive value to ignore people and positions with which one disagrees and to only hear from your own side. CAP is first and foremost a think tank, even if it occupies a position given its lobbying arm and Democratic Party ties that creates complications that a place like Brookings does not have, and this type of event is precisely one of the primary reasons that think tanks exist. To suggest otherwise is to miss the point.
Third, it is disingenuous to one minute complain that Republicans are turning Israel into a partisan issue and using it as a cudgel to beat Democrats over the head, and the next minute complain that Netanyahu is being given a podium at a prominent Democratic-allied institution. No doubt there are some progressives who actually don’t care about Israel being turned into a wedge issue since they’d rather see support for Israel weakened, but a higher percentage of Democrats feels differently. Listening to the Israeli prime minister address progressives is not the same thing as affirming his political leadership, and for Democrats who think that Israel is worthy of being supported but would like to see it change its policies, this is a far more effective way of going about that than a Bibi boycott.
Finally, the argument that CAP should only host progressive leaders belies the fact that CAP does not only host progressive leaders. I do not have the time to go search through past CAP events, but I can guarantee that it has hosted people who leapfrog Bibi on the anti-progressive spectrum, and I am told that CAP has actually compiled such a list that it can release. I can also guarantee that if Mahmoud Abbas were in DC, the same folks who want to bar Netanyahu from walking through the door would be thrilled to have Abbas, a paragon of progressive values who has not held an election in a decade and regularly jails average Palestinians who criticize him on Facebook. There are also many critics of the Netanyahu event who would fall over themselves to be in the room were CAP to host Hassan Rouhani or even Ali Khamenei. The point here is that Netanyahu is not being singled out because he is not a progressive; he is being singled out for being Netanyahu.
I get it – people don’t like Netanyahu, don’t agree with his policies, resent his treatment of Obama and the U.S. Believe me, I am in that boat. Nevertheless, having him speak at CAP does not validate anything that he does, and it boggles my mind that we live in a time and place where it is seen as a betrayal of liberal and progressive values. It doesn’t hurt to sometimes be subjected to someone or something that you don’t like, particularly when that someone is up on a stage and at the mercy of a skeptical audience. I can’t think of anything more progressive than respectfully hearing what Netanyahu has to say, and then holding his feet to the fire in an appropriate manner.
November 5, 2015 § 5 Comments
Yitzhak Rabin was no doe-eyed peacenik. He did not believe in the Palestinians’ good intentions. He was convinced that ceding the West Bank to the Palestinians was necessary to preserve Israel as a Jewish state, but was under no illusions that doing so would cure all ills and turn the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River into Switzerland. Above all, he was a champion of incrementalism, not allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good and dictate inaction.
I bring this up during the week that we mark twenty years since Rabin’s assassination because of a much-discussed long piece in Mosaic by Daniel Polisar that looks at hundreds of polls of Palestinian attitudes to ascertain what it is that Palestinians want. Polisar cites polls showing large majorities of Palestinians supporting armed attacks against Israeli civilians; justifying and supporting violence as a means to extract Israeli concessions; convinced that Israel wants to annex the West Bank and expel all of the Arabs; asserting that Israel wants to destroy al-Aqsa and replace it with a synagogue; denying Jewish history in the land; and so on and so forth. The picture that emerges is an ugly one of Palestinians harboring ill will toward Jews, not being willing to accept Israel, and ensuring that Israel is fated to live in an eternal state of war. It is not unreasonable to read the thousands of words that Polisar dedicates to documenting Palestinian survey responses about Israel and conclude, as many have, that Israel cannot and should not ever grant the Palestinians a state of their own in the West Bank, since to do so would be to take an irreversible step that would place Israel in grave danger.
However, to reach this conclusion would be the wrong response to this data, and this perhaps more than anything else is the lesson to be gleaned from Rabin’s legacy. There are two basic ways to approach the bleak picture painted by Polisar’s review of Palestinian opinion (and this comes with the caveat that I have not read through all 330 of the polls that Polisar has analyzed, so I will have to take it on faith that the picture he paints is an accurate and contextual one). The first is to say that Palestinian hatred and rejection of Israel is immutable, not primarily driven by anything that Israel has done and implacably unresponsive to anything that Israel will do in the future. For instance, in discussing the manner in which Palestinians view Jews, Polisar cites a 2011 Pew Research Center poll in which only 4% of Palestinians held favorable views of Jews, and 52% of Palestinians claimed that some religions were more prone to violence than others with 88% of those citing Judaism as the most violent offender. This type of attitude does not seem like it will change any time soon given the incredibly lopsided numbers, and in Polisar’s conclusion he writes, “Could anything change this state of affairs? It seems highly improbable that the Palestinian masses, whose views have been relatively stable for so long, will spontaneously shift gears in the foreseeable future… Similarly farfetched, but for other reasons, is the idea that Israeli leaders, by modifying their rhetoric or restraining the reactions of the security forces, can appreciably dampen Palestinian support for violence.”
There is, however, another way to approach this data, which is that Palestinian hatred and rejection of Israel is largely a response to Palestinian historical experience, and while this never justifies the deadly targeting of civilians it has engendered, it suggests that Israeli action can indeed dampen support for Palestinian violence. As a useful exercise, let’s look at another country’s response to the same questions in that 2011 Pew poll. In this country, only 9% of non-Muslim respondents had a favorable view of Muslims, and of the 63% of respondents who agreed that some religions were more violent than others, 91% fingered Islam as the most violent. Is immutable hatred at work here as well? If you haven’t already guessed which country this is, it is Israel. The overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews, American Jews, and supporters of Israel worldwide – and I am in this category – would reject the view that these numbers are driven by anything other than Israel’s experience with Palestinian terror, rejectionism, and violence, but it is always more difficult to see the context on the other side than it is on your own. It is foolhardy to pretend that Palestinians’ experience with statelessness, Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and dual standards for Israelis and Palestinians both inside and outside the Green Line does not contribute to Palestinian attitudes in a major way.
Let’s bring this back to where we started, with the legacy of Rabin. A Rabin approach to the Palestinians – one that looks at the longterm and existential threats to Israel and shapes the strategic environment in the face of those threats – dictates a two state solution and separation from the Palestinians in the face of these survey numbers irrespective of how you interpret them. If you think that Palestinians will eternally hate Israel and want to kill Jews, then deepening a situation where Israelis and Palestinians are intertwined throughout the West Bank is sheer madness, and presents a security nightmare with no permanent solution. The only possible way out is a divorce with a heavily guarded and patrolled border in between Israel and Palestine. Likewise, if you think that Palestinian hatred of Israel is driven in some part by Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the consequent lack of a Palestinian state, then reversing course will indeed have a constructive effect on Palestinian attitudes that support violence against Israelis. Israel cannot be held captive by Palestinian attitudes or wait for them to change, but must act according to its own interests and without regard to what it sees on the other side.
I heard Dan Meridor last week repeatedly make the point that Israel is paralyzed by a lack of leadership, and he referenced the examples of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat as leaders who would not have taken the steps they did in service of peace between Israelis and Egyptians had they been enslaved to public opinion. While Israel may be facing hostile Palestinian public opinion, the fact is that the Palestinian Authority, while far from perfect, has demonstrated its willingness under Mahmoud Abbas to work with Israel and prevent violence from erupting in the West Bank. Prince Turki al-Faisal, who spent a quarter century as the Saudi Arabian intelligence minister and also served as ambassador to the U.S., told IPF last week in a meeting that the Arab world would like to engage Israel, and that the Arab Peace Initiative is not a take-it-or-leave-it offer but one that is open to negotiation and awaiting an official Israeli response. The upshot is that there is an opening here for Israel to do something constructive no matter what Palestinians think. Were Rabin still alive, he would undoubtedly take advantage of this opening and run through it.
October 29, 2015 § 4 Comments
Last weekend, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl, professors respectively at Harvard and Chicago (which has made for a dangerous combination in the past), arguing for a boycott of Israel. Levitsky and Weyl, both self-identified as progressive Jews and lifelong Zionists, argue that because their support for Israel is predicated in part on the Jewish state embracing universal values of human rights, their observation that the occupation of the West Bank has become permanent dictates a boycott. They write that the purpose of a boycott is to pressure Israel into altering its strategic calculations and change its behavior; in their words, “Until Israel seriously engages with a peace process that either establishes a sovereign Palestinian state or grants full democratic citizenship to Palestinians living in a single state, we cannot continue to subsidize governments whose actions threaten Israel’s long-term survival.”
Given the pedigree and prominence of the authors, this particular call to boycott Israel has caused some consternation and drawn a variety of harsh responses, with some points of substance but mostly loud verbiage questioning the authors’ fitness to comment on Israel or diagnosing their allegedly selfish emotional motivations behind writing the op-ed. If you are looking for another ad hominem attack against Levitsky and Weyl or an investigation into their psyches, you needn’t read any further since one will not be forthcoming in this space. I am more interested in demonstrating why I think the particular arguments they make are inapt and figuring out how they arrived at the view of Israel that they espouse.
I am passingly acquainted with Levitsky personally from my days at Harvard, but I am intimately acquainted with his influential and excellent work on competitive authoritarianism. Competitive authoritarian regimes are ones where the authoritarian government holds elections that can theoretically result in the opposition coming to power, but the process is not free and fair and is heavily weighted in the regime’s favor. This work on competitive authoritarianism is part of a wider literature in political science recognizing that not only are elections not a sufficient condition for democracy, but that in many cases elections are part of a wider system of placing a democratic veneer on authoritarian government. A competitive authoritarian regime may look like a democracy but behind the scenes is actually working to unfairly perpetuate its own rule; think about Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey for a current snapshot of what that looks like.
I bring this up because in reading Levitsky and Weyl’s argument, it jumps out at me that they are taking Levitsky’s work on competitive authoritarian regimes and superimposing it – inappropriately, in my view – on Israel. From their vantage point, Israel is denying basic rights to Palestinians in the West Bank, growing the settler population, mistreating its Arab minority, and generally using its advantage over the Palestinians to ensure that they live in permanent subjugation. Much like a competitive authoritarian regime holds elections that can theoretically result in a change in government but only if the opposition overcomes the significant hurdles and unfair disadvantages that the ruling party places in its path, Levitsky and Weyl see Israel periodically engaging in a peace process that can theoretically result in a Palestinian state but placing too many hurdles in the way of such a process being successful. In short, while never explicitly writing it, Levitsky and Weyl view Israel as engaging in competitive authoritarian behavior in a number of ways.
It is thus unsurprising given Levitsky’s research showing that competitive authoritarian regimes with strong ties to the West respond to pressure to democratize that he and Weyl came up with the prescription that they did. They are convinced that by isolating Israel from the West and placing its financial and diplomatic ties to the U.S. in jeopardy, it will create sufficient pressure to get Israel to take the peace process seriously and step back from the brink in ending the occupation. As they write, “We recognize that some boycott advocates are driven by opposition to (and even hatred of) Israel. Our motivation is precisely the opposite: love for Israel and a desire to save it.”
I take the authors’ professed love for Israel at face value, but the problem with their plan to address Israel’s behavior through boycotts and sanctions is that their misdiagnosis of the situation leads them to prescribe medicine that will not cure this particular disease. One of the defining characteristics of authoritarian states is that the power to alter course is entirely in the hands of the regimes; not only is there an extreme power imbalance with respect to the opposition, but the regime holds all of the cards in terms of opening up to democracy and competition. Levitsky and Weyl proceed based on an assumption that pressure on Israel will ipso facto lead to the creation of a Palestinian state and the end of an Israeli presence in the West Bank because it is in Israel’s power to do so at will given the right set of incentives. While many, including me, do not view the current Israeli government as in any way serious about the two state solution, the fact remains that successive Palestinian leaders and governments have turned down Israeli offers of statehood without so much as a counter response. This is not a scenario in which Israel can snap its fingers and create a new reality, or one in which Israel is solely to blame for the situation that exists. Israel can and should do better, particularly when it comes to settlement activity, but it does not automatically follow that a boycott of Israel will address the problem at hand, and that is without even factoring in Israel’s legitimate security concerns.
Levitsky and Weyl address head on the common critique that boycotting Israel constitutes a double standard by acknowledging that, no, Israel is not the world’s worst human rights violators, but that they also feel far more invested in Israel’s future fate than they do of other states. As someone who spends his time working on Israel rather than on Bulgaria or Comoros, I empathize with this position, but it again overlooks a crucial reality. While Levitsky and Weyl may be motivated by genuine concerns, their course of action ends up being discriminatory in effect if not in intent far beyond their limited scope. It’s one thing for them to care about Israel more than they do about China, but it’s another to actively work to ensure that Israel is treated worse, particularly given the international environment that seizes upon such efforts to argue that Israel is in fact the world’s worst violator of human rights. Just because Levitsky and Weyl acknowledge that Israel is not a rogue nation without parallel does not mean that such understanding will extend to those with a very different agenda who seize upon their call to action.
I understand the frustration with the Israeli government, with the settlement enterprise, with illiberal trends in Israeli society, and with a Jewish state that speaks for Jews everywhere irrespective of whether all Jews want to cede to it that authority. But Israel is still a democracy, and to view it as an authoritarian actor that is susceptible to pressures that work on authoritarian states leads to poor policy prescriptions. A boycott is the wrong approach, both morally and practically, and Levitsky and Weyl’s op-ed is an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.
October 22, 2015 § 3 Comments
Most anyone familiar with the give and take of discourse on blogs and social media knows about Godwin’s Law. Godwin’s Law is the proposition that the longer an online discussion takes place, the greater the chance of someone making an analogy to Hitler or Nazis, until at some point such an analogy becomes inevitable. It might be time to create a new corollary to this principle, which is that the more that Prime Minister Netanyahu discusses Israel’s external foes, the more inevitable the eventual Holocaust analogy becomes. In light of Netanyahu’s comments this week to the 37th Zionist Congress about Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini and his responsibility for the Final Solution, the corollary seems to be in full swing.
In his Tuesday speech, Netanyahu brought up al-Husseini’s well-known connection to the Nazis and vocal support of Hitler in warning about the dangers of Palestinian incitement regarding Israel’s alleged efforts to alter the status quo on the Temple Mount. His connection between these two seemingly disparate threads was that al-Husseini had instigated riots in the 1920s by accusing the Jews of wanting to destroy al-Aqsa, and he later met with Hitler in 1941 and – in Netanyahu’s telling – convinced Hitler to exterminate European Jewry rather than expel them. So the implication is that false warnings about Jews trying to take over al-Aqsa, or to even just change the Temple Mount status quo, lead to attempts to exterminate Jews, including the Holocaust. If the logic of this is lost on you, then you are not alone, and it certainly is not the first time that Netanyahu has used Hitler, the Nazis, or the Holocaust to make a point about legitimate dangers to Jews in situations where the Holocaust has no place in the discussion.
The condemnations have come fast and furious for reasons large and small, from trivializing the Holocaust and giving succor to Holocaust deniers, to absolving Hitler from even a single ounce of the blame that he deserves, to distorting history by overstating the mufti’s role (even if he would have carried out the Holocaust if given the chance). I am positive that it was not Netanyahu’s intention in his poorly written and even more poorly conceived speech to trivialize the Holocaust or take the blame for it away from Hitler, but in his zeal to tie current Palestinian propaganda about the Temple Mount to a larger campaign to eliminate Jews wherever they may be, his words had that unintended effect. Furthermore, in getting his history wrong and overstating the role of the mufti – who was a virulent anti-Semite and a cheerleader of genocide but who was not the inspiration for the Final Solution, which started before Hitler and al-Husseini met – and linking Palestinian accusations about the Temple Mount to the Holocaust, Netanyahu makes it seem as if his grip on reality is lost. Anyone who found Ben Carson’s comments about guns and the Holocaust earlier this month to be irresponsible demagoguery should feel the same about Netanyahu’s ahistorical stream of consciousness.
While the focus on the inappropriateness of Netanyahu’s comments is important and is taking up most of the oxygen surrounding this sorry episode, the larger issue of the real-world consequences of Netanyahu’s comments is being neglected. In misappropriating historical memory while using the Holocaust to score political points and advance Israel’s agenda, Netanyahu instead accomplishes the precise opposite. Rather than alert the world to the dangers that Israel faces, Netanyahu ensures that the world will not take them seriously. This ham-handed effort at exposing lies, as Netanyahu put it in his speech, erodes Israeli credibility and desensitizes observers to the risks inherent in the daily life of Israel’s citizens.
Not for the first time, Netanyahu risks becoming the boy who cried Holocaust, seeing the ultimate marriage of threats to Jews and ability to carry those threats out at every turn. While vigilance is a virtue for any prime minister of Israel, the constant Holocaust analogies end up trivializing legitimate threats and make it far more difficult to take Netanyahu’s warnings seriously. After all, if Netanyahu is warning that al-Husseini was the inspiration for the Holocaust and that therefore current Palestinian claims about the Temple Mount should be viewed in that light, who is going to still be paying attention when Netanyahu warns about other issues? The incitement over the Temple Mount is, in fact, a legitimately dangerous issue, but it is hard to press that point once the duo of Haj Amin al-Husseini and Hitler have been turned into a social media meme. Reducing the Holocaust to just another genocide, which is what happens when every security challenge or episode of anti-Semitism is connected back to Hitler, waters down Jewish and Israeli credibility when it comes to true threats against Israel and Jews.
Then there is the issue of misuse of historical memory for instrumental purposes. One cannot decry those who, like President Obama in Cairo in 2009, point to the Holocaust as the primary motivating factor for Israel’s legitimacy – and argue instead that Israel’s existence is rooted as much in Jewish nationalism and historical claims to the land of Israel as it is to the need for a safe haven following Hitler’s campaign of extermination – and then turn around and use the Holocaust as a shield against any attempts to attack Israel in any way. Yes, the mufti of Jerusalem was a really bad guy, and yes, he encouraged Hitler to kill Jews. If that historical truth is used to create a historical fiction about the Final Solution, which then mushrooms into a larger historical misappropriation that connects genocidal extermination of Jews to limited violence motivated by false claims about the Temple Mount, then the historical crime being committed is taking place in the here and now.
There are Palestinians who do not like Jews and who will never accept Israel, and who attack Jews for no reason other than being Jewish and living in Tel Aviv. But many Palestinians bitterly resent the occupation of the West Bank or blatant discrimination within Israeli municipalities and push back against perceived and actual threats and injustices, and that pushback can be inhumane and is frequently directed against civilians. The fact that targeting civilians is unacceptable does not mean that there isn’t a tangible motivation behind it that is connected to more than blind hatred. Trotting out the Holocaust as a worldview that explains all of the violence and incitement that happens in Israel eludes reality, and places Israel in a dangerous position by missing what is actually going on and preventing an appropriate policy response. Many are laughing at what Netanyahu said on Tuesday, but the larger consequences of his ahistorical blather are no laughing matter.