February 4, 2016 § 1 Comment
There has been much sound and fury over the past couple of weeks over labeling; more specifically, over the labeling rules for goods coming into the United States that are produced in the West Bank. There is lots of misinformation going around about the rules and even why they are now in the news, so in order to make it easier to have an informed opinion, I thought I’d write a quick and handy guide to the labeling controversy answering everyone’s questions.
Why is the Obama administration coming up with new ways to punish Israelis when there are much bigger problems going on in the Middle East? Actually, the Obama administration didn’t come up with anything new here at all. The labeling controversy erupted as a result of U.S. Customs and Border Protection issuing a reminder on January 23 about the existing rules on the books for how products made in the West Bank must be labeled. The rules, which were enacted in 1995 with the support of the Israeli government as a way to boost the Palestinian economy, state that any products made in the West Bank or Gaza shall be labeled as coming from the West Bank or Gaza but cannot be labeled with the phrases “Israel,” “Made in Israel,” “Occupied Territories-Israel,” or a similar variation. It is an open question as to why Customs decided to issue this reminder now for a rule that has been honored more by its breach than its enforcement. It could have been a matter of routine, it could have been as a result of outside complaints, it could have been due to the new EU settlement goods regulation, or it could have been because the White House or State Department asked for it to be done. For those who want to assume the worst and jump on President Obama for his perfidious treatment of Israel, however, let’s remember that the same people now calling for the president’s head over a low level bureaucratic organization issuing a policy reminder twisted themselves into knots in insisting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was entirely in the dark when a low level bureaucratic organization issued plans for new construction in Ramat Shlomo during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel in March 2010. Funny how all perceived affronts to the U.S. committed by Israel are nothing but unfortunate mistakes of timing or bureaucratic slip ups beyond the prime minister’s control, but any perceived false move toward Israel from one of the executive branch’s four and a half million employees must have been cooked up in the Oval Office by the president himself.
Who cares whether the president did this himself or not? How dare anyone allow the boycott of goods made by Israelis! Why is the president supporting BDS? I agree; economic and cultural boycotts of Israel and Israelis are odious in my view, and the BDS movement is about destroying Israel as a Jewish state rather than ending the occupation of the West Bank. Of course, we may as well be discussing the merits of the revamped Boston Red Sox starting pitching staff as discussing BDS, since they both are equally irrelevant to the topic at hand. As we all know from the Israeli government’s position over Israel’s proposed NGO bill, labeling things is about transparency and information rather than about a value judgment. In any event, whether you think that labeling things is justified or not, it is certainly a completely different animal than a boycott since it places no barriers on anyone’s ability to buy goods made in the West Bank.
Ok, fine. But the Obama administration is singling out stuff made by Jews! Isn’t that only a short skip and a jump away from the Nazis and the Nuremberg Laws? This is a popular position being expressed in my Facebook feed, but it has the unfortunate element of being not true. The key difference between U.S. labeling requirements and European labeling requirements is that the U.S. does not distinguish between goods made by Jews or Palestinians, or between goods produced in Jewish settlements versus goods produced in Palestinian towns and villages. To suggest that this is a measure targeting Jews is completely wrong, since a widget produced in Efrat is given the same label as a widget produced in Jenin. In fact, the American labeling regulation should actually appeal in many ways to the pro-Israel community, since it does not allow for a category of “Made in Palestine,” which the EU explicitly mandates as an option, and it also rules out using the phrase “Occupied Territories.” Unlike the EU regulation, the U.S. version explicitly recognizes that the West Bank is disputed territory still subject to negotiation.
Your absence of outrage over this is outrageous. Why aren’t you angry? Quite simply, this is a policy that not only makes sense to me, but comports with Israel’s official position on the West Bank. Israel has not annexed the West Bank, and the core of the defense of Israeli democracy despite the occupation is precisely that the West Bank has a different status. Mirroring Israel’s treatment of the West Bank as a distinctly separate entity without prejudicing the outcome of any future permanent status agreement is something with which I find it hard to quibble.
Furthermore, maintaining a conceptual barrier between Israel and the West Bank makes it harder to delegitimize Israel down the road. Conflation of Israel and the West Bank is precisely what the BDS movement tries to accomplish through the back door. It denounces Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but also denounces Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state by calling for a full right of return, and by relying on people not sophisticated enough to grasp the distinction between Israel and territories under Israel’s control, it marshals those who oppose the occupation into actually opposing Israel itself. The very core of the BDS argument – that Israel is an illegitimate apartheid state – rests on erasing any line between Israel and the territories under Israeli military control and then arguing that robust Israeli democracy inside of the Green Line makes no difference because of what takes place beyond it. Why should the U.S. assist in this maneuver by itself erasing the difference? People will make up their own minds as to whether the U.S. rule on labeling is innocuous or an affront, but to throw a fit over a reminder about a twenty year old law that was enacted at Israel’s behest; that in no way boycotts Israeli goods but in fact treats all goods made in the West Bank identically irrespective of who made them; that does not use the terms Palestine or occupation; and that reflects Israel’s own view of the West Bank’s status; is to my mind a waste of energy that should be directed elsewhere.
January 28, 2016 § 4 Comments
Israel has an American Jewish problem. This problem manifests itself in different ways, but it seems unquestionable that varied segments of American Jewry do not support Israel in the all-encompassing and largely uncritical way that they once did. This can be seen nearly anywhere one looks, whether it is on college campuses where J Street student groups dominate the scene, or in the string of articles by American Jews – including this American Jew – that take the Israeli government to task on a number of issues, or in the criticism from prominent Jewish intelligentsia that left former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren so disappointed in his memoir. This is not to say that there are not large segments of American Jews whose relationship with Israel has remained the same over time, and making broad characterizations about an entire group is always going to miss the nuance inherent in a detailed examination. But suffice it to say that Israel’s status with American Jewry writ large, while still very strong, is not quite as strong as it once was.
Yet, in ways large and small, the current Israeli government oftentimes gives the impression that it just doesn’t care. Take the Iran deal, for instance. The Jewish community in the U.S. was bitterly divided over its merits, but Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of his government gave the impression that anyone who cared about Israel must oppose the deal, which divided the American Jewish community even further. The prime minister then insisted on coming here to campaign against it before Congress over the objections of myriad American Jewish groups – reportedly AIPAC included – who knew that the speech and overall campaign would put American Jews in an uncomfortable position. None of this, however, managed to change Netanyahu’s calculus, and so events proceeded apace. Other examples abound as well. It would not be a stretch to suggest that Israel’s current ambassador to the U.S. is controversial, to say the least, among many American Jews, and yet Netanyahu is content with the status quo. The overwhelming preponderance of American Jews are not Orthodox and are alienated by Israel’s position on religious issues that affect them directly, from conversion to being able to pray at the Western Wall in an egalitarian tradition, but such issues are consigned to the sidelines. One of the things that was so remarkable about Netanyahu’s recent partial about-face on the NGO bill was that it came after weeks of hammering away by American Jewish groups (although there is no evidence that this was dispositive, rather than pressure from Western governments). So why doesn’t the Israeli government care what we think?
One important factor is of course the one that I wrote about last week, which is that American Jewish organizations – in contrast to ordinary American Jews – are more willing to give the government leeway on most issues. The Israeli government knows that even if support is softening among significant numbers of American Jews as individuals, the organizations are going to remain a lot less critical of the government. This is an enormous mitigating factor, and there is no question that for very practical and understandable reasons any Israeli prime minister cares more about what AIPAC’s position is on an issue than the position voiced by your representative American Jew on the street. The irony is that so long as American Jewish groups are more supportive of Israel than American Jews, the wishes of many American Jews will be subsumed to the wishes of the organizations tasked with representing them.
There is another important factor that has nothing to do with groups but with demographics. The group most supportive of Israel in the U.S. is Orthodox Jews, who have the strongest ties to Israel that are inculcated in a variety of ways, from day schools that put a premium on Zionism to students spending a gap year in Israel before college. As the Pew study demonstrates, the farther away from Jewish observance and Jewish identity one gets, the less supportive of Israel one tends to be. Israeli officials look at the rising intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews and the growing proportion of Orthodox Jews in urban centers such as New York, and assume that the numbers are on their side. What looks like a growing trend of eroding support for Israel becomes little more than a squall that Israel only needs to wait out for the next couple of decades, since the intermarried and non-observant will likely cease to have much Jewish identity and a more Orthodox American Jewry is a more supportive American Jewry. This thinking is erroneous on a number of fronts – among other things, it ignores the influence disproportionately wielded in American Jewry by pockets of non-Orthodox Jews in places like Wall Street and Hollywood and also assumes that Orthodox Jews will remain uniformly supportive of rightwing Israeli policies forever – but it does explain a lot about why American Jewish voices often go unheeded.
So is this a battle cry for American Jews to abandon Israel until the Israeli government becomes more felicitous of its desires? Absolutely not. Any Israeli government has to worry first and foremost about its own constituents – who in this case are more politically conservative and more religious than their American Jewish brethren – before it worries about Diaspora Jews. More saliently, there are some small but encouraging signs that things may be changing a bit, from Netanyahu’s new position on the NGO bill to the reports of an emerging deal on egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The relationship between American Jews and Israel has often resembled a one-way street since the state’s founding, and it is naïve to believe that this will change wholesale overnight, but if the Israeli government’s sudden responsiveness on the NGO and pluralism issues were affected by American Jewish concerns, it reiterates the importance of keeping our voices up. Even if unrequited love is more often than not going to continue to be American Jewry’s lot in life, we should make sure that we are heard in order to make a difference wherever we can and continue to give the Israeli government a way of listening to the American Jewish community’s disparate parts rather than just the ones that reinforce its current policies.
January 21, 2016 § 4 Comments
Why are American Jewish organizations predominantly silent on Israeli illiberalism? This is the question posed and answered by J.J. Goldberg in a much-discussed piece this week on Martin Luther King Day tying the American Jewish organizational voice on Israel to the breakdown of the black-Jewish partnership on civil rights. Goldberg’s theory quickly summed up – and you should really read the piece in its entirety if you haven’t yet – is that the biggest factor in how American Jewish organizations relate to Israel today is the collapse fifty years ago of the alliance between blacks and Jews on civil rights. As black activists increasingly called for blacks to fight for their civil rights by themselves, and as Jews got to a point where their own equality seemed secure, Jewish organizations that were built to fight for civil rights needed another battleground. This coincided with the Six Day War, which imparted the lesson that Israel was living in a neighborhood where its neighbors wanted it gone and could be wiped out at any time, and American Jewish organizations thus pivoted to devoting their time to supporting Israel as their primary mission. Despite the liberal bent of American Jews, they are passive on the Israel issue because they learned to live without a collective voice that was connected to group self-interest.
There is a lot to mull over in Goldberg’s piece and many typically keen insights. He makes a strong historical argument, but as strong as that argument is, I am not sure that the fracture in the civil rights movement is what is primarily driving today’s dynamic. To begin with, Goldberg rightly points out a number of organizations that do not fit into this picture of checking their liberalism at the door when it comes to Israel, and their number is not insignificant. Furthermore, the three most prominent Jewish organizations that were involved in the civil rights movement were the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League. The American Jewish Congress has all but folded and the ADL is one of the organizations that Goldberg identifies in his piece as not being afraid to speak out on Israel today, so the historical institutionalist argument that he sketches doesn’t appear to apply in scale to the organizations operating today. In addition, the organization that most people would point to as driving the American Jewish organizational stance on Israel is AIPAC, which does not fit into Goldberg’s theory.
I would instead point to two other variables that I believe are causing the dissonance between a very liberal American Jewry and a far less liberal American Jewish organizational stance toward Israel. The first fits into the structure of Goldberg’s overall argument about a crisis in mission leading to a new focus on Israel, but rather than point to civil rights, I would point to the decline of Judaism itself. As traditional religious observance waned over the course of the 20th century, Israel was elevated into a religious cause that became for many American Jews their primary way of expressing their Judaism as a religion, as opposed to their embrace of Judaism as an ethnicity or a culture. Support for the Jewish state became de rigeur at synagogues of all denominations, prayers for the Israeli government and the IDF were adopted into the Shabbat morning liturgy, and Israel itself became intertwined with Judaism so that it became a focal point of the American Jewish religious tradition. Support for Israel was the equivalent of fasting on Yom Kippur or holding a Passover seder; even if your religious observance was minimal, Israel was a part of it. For many American Jews, Israel was what bound them to Judaism, rather than the religious practices of their parents and grandparents. For Jewish organizations that needed to stay relevant, pivoting to supporting Israel was an obvious move, and naturally any organization devoted to advocating for something is going to be reluctant to be overly critical, even when there are things taking place that are particularly unpalatable.
The second variable is political trends in Israel. In the twenty years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israelis have only once voted a left of center prime minister into office, and Ehud Barak did not last even two years. Going back even further to the 1977 election of Menachem Begin, which marked a revolutionary shift in the Israeli political landscape, Rabin’s election in 1992 was the only other time since then that Israelis have voted a Labor prime minister into office (Shimon Peres’s first term in 1984 was part of a rotation agreement with Yitzhak Shamir and Likud). In other words, for nearly four decades Israelis have displayed a clear rightwing preference when it comes to their leaders. Is it any surprise then that American Jewish organizations, both those that deal primarily with Israel issues and those that don’t, take those cues and reflect what is taking place in Israel itself?
This is not, incidentally, applicable only when a rightwing government is in power in Israel. When Rabin began the Oslo process, AIPAC did in fact support it, even if begrudgingly. The major American Jewish organizations that now seemingly fall in lockstep behind the Netanyahu government were not out front challenging the Rabin government on its priorities, even though he represented a major break from the previous fifteen years of Israeli government policy. It would be fascinating to see what American Jewish organizations would look like with regard to Israel policy were Israel to spend an uninterrupted decade under the control of left of center governments; my instinct is that American Jewish organizations are shaped by the structural environment of Israeli politics in a significant way and would presumably change with the times.
There is no question that the priorities of the bulk of American Jews appear out of sync with the priorities of many American Jewish groups. I think that Goldberg is definitely onto something in looking back at historical trends and moments that shape today’s environment, but I would point to a different set than the ones that he has identified.
January 14, 2016 § 1 Comment
Much ado has been made lately over Israel’s now infamous bill regulating non-governmental organizations. This is the proposed legislation requiring Israeli NGOs receiving a majority of their funding from foreign governments to report their funding sources and their representatives to wear identifying badges while in the Knesset. The bill has drawn the ire of many, who note that it applies disproportionately to NGOs on the left rather than the right, the former receiving funding primarily from European governments and the latter receiving funding primarily from individuals, most of them Americans. It has drawn condemnation from a wide range of groups and people on both sides of the ocean, including MKs in the coalition, such as former U.S. ambassador and current Kulanu MK Michael Oren, who said that he will not vote for it. Despite all of the concern, I’m a lot less worried than most. I actually don’t see the bill itself as that big of a deal.
There’s no question that the bill is problematic. The bill is redundant, as the reporting requirements that it mandates already exist under Israeli law. I am uncomfortable with any measure targeting NGOs, let alone one with such nativist tones. The comparisons that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has made to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act are facile, as Lara Friedman has pointed out. Only someone with partisan blinders on genuinely believes that this bill is about transparency rather than a naked attempt to hamper leftwing organizations while leaving rightwing organizations untouched.
Ultimately though, the effect of the NGO bill if passed will be to subject representatives of some NGOs to unwarranted humiliation while they are visiting the Knesset building. Is that something to ideally be avoided? Of course. Is it a “danger to Israeli democracy” or “the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to squelch dissent,” as the Washington Post editorial board has written? I think that is overstating the case in a significant way. China’s NGO law forbids any funding from abroad, full stop. Russia’s NGO law allows the government at its discretion to shut down foreign-funded organizations and fine and imprison those organizations’ employees. Egypt’s NGO law requires government approval before an NGO can accept overseas funding, and the penalty for noncompliance is seizure of assets and shuttering the organization. The Israeli NGO bill is ugly and unpleasant, but it occupies a different universe than NGO laws around the globe that are genuine threats to a country’s democratic viability.
So now that I have established myself as the least popular guy in the liberal Zionist room, why should you still be worried about this bill? The reason is that the bill itself is not authoritarianism come to life, but it is part of a larger trend of things that are far worse. The NGO bill is a misdirection play that has lots of people and organizations mobilizing against it, when the graver danger is taking place elsewhere.
The strongest objection to the NGO bill is that it subsumes democracy to nationalist politics. Too often, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the current government have caused Israeli democracy to suffer for the sake of scoring political points. It has been obvious for years now – as the most radical elements of the settler movement went from establishing illegal outposts to inciting against the IDF to “price tag” attacks to firebombing houses with their occupants in them – that the decision to enforce a law depends on the identity of the perpetrators. There is the constant threat of a nation-state bill that explicitly prioritizes Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic character. There is the ongoing absurdity of arresting rabbis for performing unsanctioned wedding ceremonies, which is extremism personified and is largely still maintained so that Netanyahu can mollify his preferred coalition partners, who give him a blank check when it comes to nationalist policies.
Israel’s standing in the world is also allowed to erode for the sake of placating political allies. One of Netanyahu’s own cabinet ministers, Uri Ariel, violates Israeli law with repeated attempts to pray on the Temple Mount and nearly ignited a full blown crisis with the United States when his secret building plans for E-1 came to light, but he remains in his post untouched. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, the effective acting Foreign Minister, infuriated the Jordanians and other Arab counties by calling for the Israeli flag to fly over the Dome of the Rock, yet she remains Israel’s de facto top diplomat. The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations has disavowed the two-state solution, and Brazil is refusing to accept the credentials of Netanyahu’s ambassador-designate since he was formerly head of the settlers’ umbrella Yesha Council, but Netanyahu has not treated these glaring problems with the gravity that they deserve.
Is it any surprise then that actual extremists believe they can act with impunity in ways that genuinely challenge Israeli democracy? Ali Dawabshe’s murderer Amiram Ben Uliel and the members of HaMered that stabbed the toddler’s pictures at a wedding reception are not representative of Israeli society writ large, but neither should they be viewed as isolated random noise. When a Jewish group that perpetrated a string of murders of Palestinians, firebombings of churches, and price tag attacks was finally broken up, the government described them as unconnected to any larger political program or viewpoint. In contrast, when a sole Arab gunman with a history of mental problems went on a terrifying shooting rampage in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu spoke stridently about the unacceptable lawlessness of the entire Israeli Arab sector. There is a consistent message emanating from the top of the Israeli government down through Israeli society, and it is an ugly one.
The NGO bill is to my mind the least worrisome element in this catalog of concerns. But it is the shadow on the wall of Plato’s cave, reflecting a deeper truth that is taking place. By all means get worked up about the NGO bill, but keep it in perspective. Should it pass, Israeli democracy will not die. That doesn’t mean that Israeli democracy deserves a clean bill of health.
January 7, 2016 § 4 Comments
The discourse in Israel lately has got me thinking about my first year of law school. One of the first things we were taught was that success in the law (and on law school exams) relies on being able to distinguish cases based on different facts. You may have two similar corporations that refuse to honor similar contracts under similar circumstances, but one will be a breach of contract and one will not depending on all sorts of mitigating factors. In observing what is deemed to be acceptable or not by the Israeli government and its supporters on one side and its detractors on the other, it is handy to have a decision tree at the ready.
For example, let’s examine the issue of foreign funding for non-profit non-governmental organizations. The recent NGO bill that is causing such a stir after passing an initial vote in the cabinet is predicated on the assumption that accepting too much money from sources outside of Israel effectively makes organizations foreign agents who may have nefarious ulterior motives. Its sponsor, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, made that argument explicitly in an op-ed this week in which, after comparing the proposed bill to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, she wrote, “Like the United States, we have discovered in recent years the danger posed by the existence of forces financed by foreign money.” So the problem appears to be foreign influence, right?
Except that the bill only applies to money coming from foreign governments, not from individuals. Perhaps that is because the bill’s sponsors and supporters only view foreign influence as nefarious if it is governmental influence and not general non-Israeli influence, which is certainly a reasonable position to take. Or perhaps it is because leftwing Israeli NGOs tend to receive their funding from foreign governments while rightwing Israeli NGOs tend to receive their funding from foreign individuals. Or perhaps it is because the most prominent example of foreign funding in Israel is the country’s highest circulation newspaper, the pro-Netanyahu Yisrael Hayom, which is owned by Sheldon Adelson and distributed for free to the tune of millions of dollars lost annually, so decrying any and all foreign monetary influence would quickly become awkward. The point is, it is difficult to take a position on foreign funding without consulting your scorecard.
The same goes for labeling, which is another component of the NGO bill. Representatives from affected NGOs would be required to wear special identification badges while in the Knesset similar to the ones required of lobbyists. The bill’s supporters – which include the entire Israeli cabinet that voted for it unanimously – describe this as a victory for transparency and good government in that it only provides MKs with information without actually impeding the ability of NGOs to operate. More information leads to better and accurately informed decisions, and so there is no problem with slapping informational labels on stuff, right?
Except that this argument gets turned on its head when it applies to the European Union guidelines calling for goods produced beyond the Green Line to carry labels declaring them to come from the settlements. In that instance, proponents of the effort to label NGOs based on where their funding originates fundamentally oppose the effort to label goods based on where their production originates. Shaked, for instance, stated in response to the EU that “European hypocrisy and hatred of Israel has crossed every line” and that the move was anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist. The free speech for me but not for thee dynamic is not, of course, confined to Shaked or the Israeli right. The EU, which insists that the settlement goods labeling initiative is nothing more than an apolitical technical move, stating “The Commission is providing guidance to the EU member states and economic operators to ensure the uniform application of the rules on indication of origins of Israeli settlement produce,” unsurprisingly does not view the NGO bill in a similar light. Rather than viewing it as a mechanism to ensure uniform application of information on origins of NGO funding, the EU’s response was to warn Israel about “reigning in its prosperous democratic society with laws that are reminiscent of totalitarian regimes.” As with foreign funding, one’s perspective on labeling depends on where you happen to be sitting with regard to the particular initiative under consideration.
Other examples abound as well. When Netanyahu declared last week that he was not willing to accept pockets of citizens who do not abide by the laws of the state and who instead foment hatred and radicalism, it would have been a logical response to the indictment of Amiram Ben Ulliel, the alleged murderer of Ali Dawabshe, who is part of a larger movement of hilltop youth that are plotting to overthrow the state. Netanyahu instead was referring to the Arab Israeli sector following the shooting rampage carried out by Nashat Melhem, a lone gunman who has not been tied to any larger group or plot. While Netanyahu’s condemnation of Ben Ulliel has been unequivocal, his tarring of all Israeli Arabs for the actions of one compared to how he speaks about the radical right as isolated from any broader trends speaks volumes. Far more egregious is Joint List MK Osama Sa’adi, who refused to categorize the October murders of Eitam and Na’ama Henkin as terrorism because “Settlers are occupiers that steal the land of the Palestinian nation. We are against harming innocent civilians, but there is a difference between settlers, who are occupiers, and Tel Aviv.” Or Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich, who says that the Dawabshe firebombing was not terrorism because terrorism can only be perpetrated against Israelis, not by them.
Perhaps issues in Israel are always so divisive and subject to hypocrisy and I am falling prey to the availability heuristic, but the current period seems to be more rife with such examples than usual. It would be great if everyone could take a deep breath, acknowledge that some issues are indeed matters of life and death and others aren’t, and see that a little more consistency combined with a dose of empathy would do the entire country some good. Unfortunately, I fear that I am destined to remain frustrated.
December 23, 2015 § Leave a comment
2015 was a busy year in Israel, with elections, the Iran deal and the accompanying fiasco of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress, the return of routinized violence in the streets, and other stories big and small occupying headlines. While 2016 will (presumably) not bring another election, there will be plenty of other momentous events and slow-burning stories that occupy Israel. At the risk of opening myself up to some serious embarrassment at this time next year, here are some issues that I think will manifest themselves in a major way over the next twelve months.
Israel is a rare case when it comes to the relationship between the political and military leadership. Since most Israelis – and virtually all of the political leadership – do mandatory military service, military issues are not unfamiliar to any policymakers. On the other hand, because the IDF is Israel’s most revered institution, military leaders are accorded enormous respect and deference by the Israeli public. It means that Israel’s elected officials are in a better position than elected officials in many other countries to challenge the military leadership when disagreements arise, but are simultaneously constrained by a public that itself has firsthand familiarity with the military.
When the politicians and the generals are on the same page, this is not a problem. When they are not, the potential exists for things to get hairy. Netanyahu has famously been on the opposite side of issues with IDF chiefs of staff and Mossad and Shin Bet directors in the past, but it has seemed over the past two years that the current government is never in the same place as the upper echelon of the security and intelligence establishment. The disagreement over whether to attack Iran before the Iran deal has given way to disagreement over how to deal with the growing terrorist violence erupting from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and it almost seems inevitable that at some point down the road, the IDF is going to be asked to take actions to which it is adamantly opposed. I do not in any way mean to suggest that Israel is in danger of a military coup, since that seems about as far-fetched a possibility as Netanyahu all of a sudden embracing the BDS movement, but there is no question that the recommendations and priorities of the security leadership are clashing head on with the desires and priorities of the political leadership. Look for this to become an even bigger issue in 2016 as Palestinian violence grows and what to do in the West Bank becomes a more acute problem.
While you wouldn’t necessarily know it in the U.S. unless you regularly read beyond the headlines of the Israeli press, there are a couple of political scandals besetting Netanyahu that are ripe for explosion. The first surrounds his unusual process of appointments and suspicions that his primary criteria for evaluating whether someone is fit to lead Israel’s police force or become the next attorney general is if those appointees will turn a blind eye to the second, which is Sara Netanyahu’s household financial chicanery. It was reported this week that attorney general Yehuda Weinstein will allow the police to question Mrs. Netanyahu over allegations of misappropriating state funds in running the official Netanyahu residence, which comes on the heels of the search committee for the next attorney general recommending Avihai Mandelblit, who is seen as beholden to Netanyahu and likely to shield him and his wife from any future investigations. Possibly connected to this is Netanyahu’s strange decision to try and hold the primary for Likud chairman – which would normally happen six months before a Knesset election – as soon as two months from now in a blatant effort to forestall any challengers to his primacy. While Netanyahu’s motives may just be to get his ducks in order and catch rivals such as Gideon Sa’ar off balance well ahead of an election campaign, he also may be trying to get this out of the way before the scandals nipping at his heels catch up with him. Whatever the case, this will be a story to watch over the coming year.
Orthodox vs. Orthodox
Yedioth Ahronoth ran a feature over the weekend on the “new elites,” who are largely in the Naftali Bennett mold – young religious Zionists who are supportive of the settlement movement. While I think it is too soon to write the obituary for the secular liberal Ashkenazi elite that dominated Israel since its founding, there is no question that the fortunes of the national religious community – largely analogous to American Jewry’s modern Orthodox – are on the rise. The proportion of religious IDF officers and elite commandos has been skyrocketing for some time, and the heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Israeli police all come from the national religious camp. Bennett and Tzipi Hotovely are the political figureheads of this new elite, and there is no question that their influence is rising.
The Orthodox are not monolithic, however, and the fact that the Haredi population is on the rise as well – not to mention that Shas and UTJ are back in the coalition and are Netanyahu’s favorite political partners due to their general quiescence to his agenda – almost guarantees more intra-Orthodox friction in 2016. As it is, there is bad blood between the Haredi parties and Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, stemming from Bennett’s alliance in the last coalition with Haredi bogeyman Yair Lapid and the fight between the Haredim and the religious Zionists over the chief rabbinate, and the tension will continue to rise. The new religious Zionist elite is not willing to live with the status quo that grants the Haredi rabbinate a monopoly over the state’s religious institutions, and religious Zionist and Haredi priorities are frequently not in alignment, with the former caring first and foremost about hanging onto the West Bank and the latter caring first and foremost about stamping out secularism and continuing the state subsidies for yeshivot and other Haredi mainstays. The clashes that have so far been mostly below the radar are likely to burst into the open the longer these two camps have to coexist with each other in the same narrow coalition.
So there are some of my broad predictions for what we will see, and keep on following this space over the next year to see whether I’ll be completely wrong or just a little wrong. Happy New Year to all.
December 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
This is starting to feel like Groundhog Day. In March 2013, I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile, and here I am again nearly three years later explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile. That the two countries have had a number of false starts is instructive and provides the first lesson of the day, which is that despite yesterday’s announcement, expectations should be tempered until there is an actual signed agreement. That is not to say that this is a feint, but that there are still a lot of obstacles ahead, including President Erdoğan’s desire to use this as a domestic political win bumping against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire not to be used for Erdoğan’s political gain; a recent history of extremely difficult relations between the two governments that cannot be papered over at the drop of a hat; the Gaza blockade remaining as an extra large sticking point; and the big elephant – or more accurately, bear – in the room that is looming over this entire thing and that I’ll get to in a minute. In other words, this won’t be entirely easy so no champagne corks should be popping yet.
But assuming that this does indeed go through, it’s not terribly difficult to see why. What I wrote in March 2013 was that the two sides were being pushed together by energy needs and Syria, and that remains true today but even more acutely. Dan Arbell on Monday (exhibiting impeccable timing!) wrote about thawing relations between Turkey and Israel focusing on Turkey’s ongoing quest for energy security and Israel’s complementary ongoing quest to find an export destination for its natural gas, with the Syria situation being a factor as well. Turkey is in a serious bind now that its relationship with Russia has deteriorated in such a big way, and Israeli gas provides a way out. If Russia cancels the Turkish Stream project or even takes things one step further and halts natural gas shipments to Turkey entirely, Israeli gas won’t solve things in the short term but will provide a long term hedge against relying on Russia as a primary energy supplier. On the Israeli side, the simple truth is that no energy company is going to invest the resources to develop the Leviathan field without a viable export destination, and the two best large market options were always Egypt and Turkey. The first one is far less attractive now due to the recent Egyptian gas discoveries mitigating how much Israeli gas Egypt will want to buy over the long haul, leaving Turkey as the best destination remaining. There are still political hurdles to be overcome on both sides, and the technical hurdle of constructing a deepwater pipeline is nothing to sneeze at either, but the formal approval granted yesterday to Noble to develop Leviathan likely resulted directly from the reconciliation agreement with Turkey.
On Syria, Turkey is always desperate for more intelligence and coordination given how much it has been affected by the civil war, and Israel can benefit as well since it does not want spillover across its northern border. The Russian intervention has made this more stark for both sides, since where Israeli opinion has been divided from the start on whether it is better for Assad to stay or go, there has emerged a slightly dominant view that it is better for Assad to be deposed given his role as the linchpin of the Iran-Hizbollah axis, and Russian intervention now makes that harder (if you’re interested in the subject, I participated on a Wilson Center panel yesterday with Tamara Wittes and Yoram Peri on the subject of the Syrian crisis and Israeli security, and you can watch it here). For Turkey, which has set Assad’s downfall as its top foreign policy priority for over four years, Russia’s involvement in Syria is a disaster and so to the extent that Israeli priorities are slowly lining up on the same side, any joint cooperation is a net positive.
All of this is why the timing of rapprochement makes sense, maybe even urgently so on the Turkish side. So why do I think that in some ways it is odd? The same way that the Russia variable is driving Turkey to find alternative solutions to some of its problems and reestablish close links with its Western allies – and certainly making up with Israel is a factor in pulling the U.S. closer – the mirror image is true for Israel. Whereas in the past Israel could reconcile with Turkey and it would be cost-free in the larger geopolitical context, now it’s not quite so simple. Israel and Russia have gotten along remarkably well despite Israeli and Russian military planes both flying along the same corridor in southern Syria, and up until now Russia has respected and tolerated Israeli freedom of action to attack weapons convoys on their way to Hizballah in Lebanon. This shouldn’t be taken for granted, however, and a closer Israeli relationship with Turkey has the potential to alter this equation. Russia is undoubtedly annoyed by yesterday’s news as it has been trying to isolate Turkey as best it can, and that in itself may lead to frostier relations with Israel. But even if you take Russian pettiness out of the equation, closer coordination between the Israeli and Turkish militaries has real potential to encroach on Russian priorities in Syria, which mainly consist of ensuring Assad’s rule over at least part of the country. Should Israel be drawn into Turkey’s fight and end up striking Syrian army positions that do not directly impact Hizballah advanced weaponry, Israeli leeway in Syria will be quickly narrowed by Russia.
Furthermore, Israel has now dramatically reduced Russian leverage over Turkey by mitigating Russia’s energy blackmail strategy. This is not only a matter of economics but geopolitics as well, since Russia uses Gazprom and its energy policy as a tool for foreign policy outcomes, and in the case of Turkey, that has now been significantly undermined. I’m no Russia expert, and I don’t know that there is a Russia expert alive who can predict what Putin will or won’t do, but my casual observation of Russian behavior leads me to believe that it is not outlandish to assume that Putin won’t retaliate against Israel in some manner or another for throwing Turkey a gas lifeline. With relations with Russia as terrible as they are for Turkey, it makes sense for Ankara to risk even more Russian wrath if it means solving the energy security problem. What mystifies me a bit is why Israel, which has so far gotten along with Russia remarkably well despite working somewhat at cross purposes against Russia in Syria, would risk a downturn in relations with Russia in order to make up with Turkey, a country that cannot threaten Israel in any real way and upon whose favor Israel does not depend in order to keep on going after Hizballah in Syria. Helping Turkey out of its morass in order to realize some economic benefits while risking the chance of limiting your range of action in Syria and provoking a much stronger power is penny wise and pound foolish. On top of this, there is also the lesser but not irrelevant factor that Israel has been frantically trying to establish better ties with the “moderate” Sunni bloc that includes Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and there is no love lost for Turkey in that group of countries. When you look at the regional chess board, partnering in a closer way with Turkey brings with it some significant potential downside for Israel.
I’ll reiterate that nothing is done until it’s done, and so this post may prove to be as irrelevant as my last deep dive into this subject. From where I am sitting, this deal is a no-brainer for Turkey, but I don’t think the same can be definitively said for Israel. It will be fascinating to see where all of this leads and whether the benefits of reconciliation that both sides fantasize about end up fully materializing.