Why The NGO Bill Does And Doesn’t Matter

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.

Where You Stand Depends On Where You Sit

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.

What To Watch For In Israel In 2016

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.

Civil-military relations

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.

Political scandals

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.

All Politics Is Local, U.S. Visit Edition

December 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

Three Israeli and Palestinian politicians visiting the United States were in the news this week for choices they made about with whom or what they wished to associate. Israeli President Ruvi Rivlin came under fire for speaking at the Ha’aretz/New Israel Fund conference despite the participation of the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence; Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was criticized for speaking at the same conference but demanding the removal of an Israeli flag from the stage as a condition for providing his remarks; and leader of the Joint List MK Ayman Odeh took heat for not meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at an office that it shares with the Jewish Agency. Taken together, each of the three incidents is a reminder that there is always a story behind the story, and that it usually involves domestic political considerations.

Let’s start with Erekat, which is the most straightforward. By most accounts, Ha’aretz had no plans to have any flags on stage at its conference, but Rivlin asked for an Israeli flag for his speech, and it remained there until Erekat requested its removal. Those who are angry about the flag’s removal think it indicates that, despite official PLO recognition of Israel, Erekat was signaling that Israel’s very existence is illegitimate in his eyes. Those who find Erekat’s demand justified retort that he is not Israeli, let alone an Israeli official, and doesn’t want to be seen as supporting the country occupying the West Bank. Whatever you think of what Erekat did, it’s fairly easy to understand why he did it. Erekat has been positioning himself for some time to take over for Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority, and despite the fact that this seems to objectively be the longest of long shot possibilities, it is one that informs nearly everything that Erekat does. Having pictures splashed across Palestinian media of Erekat standing next to an Israeli flag would not do him any favors – particularly when other speakers did not have the flag next to them – and it probably wouldn’t have mitigated his problems all that much to have a Palestinian flag alongside the Israeli one. While it is perfectly understandable that Israelis were upset by his gesture given the larger issues of recognition and legitimacy involved, it is also difficult to imagine Mikhail Gorbachev during the Cold War going to a conference in Switzerland on U.S.-Soviet issues and consenting to speak with nothing next to him but an American flag, or for that matter Rivlin agreeing to give his speech at this conference next to a Palestinian flag.

Seguing to Rivlin, he has come under intense criticism from the Israeli right for his participation in the conference given the inclusion or attendance of organizations and figures such as Breaking the Silence and BDS champion Roger Waters. It is surprising to some that Rivlin so readily agreed to speak to the conference since in the past he has been more discerning with whom he is willing to associate, famously spurning Jimmy Carter in Israel last spring. To understand what is driving Rivlin, it is important to remember the dictum that where one stands depends on where one sits. While Rivlin has spent much of his adult life as a politician, as the president of Israel his considerations are now different as his career as an overtly political elected official is over. He does not have to cater to a voter base or worry about the Likud primary, and while he maintains a political rivalry with Prime Minister Netanyahu, his task is to present a public face of Israel, largely to foreign audiences. As the head of state rather than the head of government, Rivlin has displayed an acute awareness of the challenges besetting Israel’s image overseas and the frustrations of many Diaspora Jews. Going to the Ha’aretz conference would have been a political kiss of death for Rivlin when he was in the Knesset, but in some ways his most important political constituency now is not Israel’s voters but Israel’s supporters and critics outside of the country’s borders. Making Israel’s case to what was not going to be a fawning audience and presenting a different and more optimistic face to the world than what people get from Netanyahu was probably a relatively easy decision for Rivlin to make as president of Israel, but the outcome would have been different were he a Likud minister.

That brings us to Odeh, who requested to have his meeting with the Conference of Presidents moved to the offices of the Union for Reform Judaism in the same building in a bid to avoid having to interact with the Jewish Agency but was rebuffed. This came off as an extreme move to many American Jews given Odeh’s reputation for moderation and the largely good press he has received while on his U.S. visit, and the Conference of Presidents reacted with a strident statement of disappointment. For a politician touted as a new breed of Israeli Arab leader, this appeared to be a misstep borne out of inexperience, and that might be an accurate description of what took place but it also ignores Odeh’s primary consideration, which is his own political survival. The Jewish Agency is a primary bête noire of Israel’s Arab citizens given its role in land policies that prioritize Jews at Arabs’ expense, so Odeh’s redline makes perfect sense for a politician touring the U.S. whose goal for the trip is to give a voice and draw attention to those citizens. Put simply, Odeh would not be representing his constituents accurately were he to validate an institution in the U.S. that he shuns in Israel.

In addition, much of Odeh’s political power comes from the fact that he was the first MK able to unite Israel’s Arab parties into one united electoral list, magnifying their influence at the polls. This was not, however, an easy task, and it remains to be seen whether Hadash, Balad, Ra’am, and Ta’al will stay united for more than one election given the enormous variance between the parties in ideology, outlook, tactics, and their fractious history. While it might seem that Odeh’s political primacy would be safe in light of his newfound fame and name recognition, he has to contend with challengers within Hadash and the internal politics of the Joint List writ large, and damaging his credibility at home to curry favor with American Jewish leaders is ultimately a losing political move for him.

None of this is to judge the messages that any of these three politicians conveyed through their actions or say whether they were inappropriate or not, but just to keep in mind that politics is a complex game. The politics of foreign visits often compete with the politics of home, and each man’s future ambitions and current position are going to be much greater predictors of how they behave than the expectations and condemnations of their critics. That all politics is local generally explains what goes on in the world, but in Israel this often applies to an even greater degree.

The Unilateral Bibi

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.

Does What Palestinians Want Matter?

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.

A Glimmer of Light Through the Clouds

October 8, 2015 § 7 Comments

This piece can also be found on IPF’s website here.

These are not auspicious times for supporters of two states. The generally despondent mood was captured by Chemi Shalev this week in a column where he declared the death of whatever remaining optimism to which he had been clinging, and resigned himself to Israelis and Palestinians never resolving their differences and continuously battling – a “war of the cowards” in his formulation. This comes on the heels of Mahmoud Abbas’s UNGA declaration that the Palestinian Authority no longer feels bound by the Oslo Accords and will pick and choose which elements it cooperates with; the mounting terrorist attacks targeting Israelis of all stripes and ages; the unrest wracking Jerusalem and its immediate environs; and the rumbling conflict and potential wider conflagration over the Temple Mount.

The most immediately pressing problem is the intifada that is taking place in Jerusalem, despite the reluctance of most politicians and other observers to call it what it is. There are multiple attacks and arrests taking place every day, too many incidents of rock throwing to catalogue, seizures of caches of weapons and firebombs, and entire neighborhoods in Jerusalem that are rapidly becoming battle zones. This does not even take into account what is going on in the West Bank, where attacks and arrests are both up as well, or the riot in Jaffa on Tuesday night. The intelligence and security forces have assured Prime Minister Netanyahu that there is no intifada yet, only a wave of increased violence, but this is a distinction without a difference that is based on an outdated fallacy. The fallacy is that an intifada can only erupt with the complicity of the Palestinian leadership, and since Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have been cracking down and trying to prevent the violence from spinning out of control, ipso facto there must not be an intifada.

This ignores a very basic lesson in political science, which is that just because something has always happened in one particular manner does not mean it is fated to always unfold the same way. Civil uprisings have a logic of their own, which is what makes them so difficult to predict. One of the main lessons of the inaptly termed Arab Spring is that Middle Eastern authoritarian governments –which the PA most certainly is – do not have absolute control over their subjects, and this is particularly the case for regimes that are already hampered by questions of legitimacy. Just because the first and second intifadas were encouraged and planned by the Palestinian leadership does not mean that the next one must take the same path. The PA does not have a monopoly on violence in the territory under its control, and nationalist entrepreneurs seeking to foment civil unrest for their own political goals will not necessarily heed the PA’s preferences or follow its lead. In addition, Palestinian politics is more fragmented than it was fifteen years ago, and Hamas and other even more extreme groups do not have the same incentive structure as the PA. Finally, given what we have seen from seemingly leaderless social movements around the globe over the course of this decade, expecting the PA to turn the intifada switch on or off at its discretion may be foolhardy.

Adding to the tension is that the current unrest is centered around Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. While the second intifada was set off following Ariel Sharon’s Temple Mount visit but was not driven by the Mount itself, the recent increase in violence is centered almost entirely around the Temple Mount and the allegation that Israel is attempting to alter the status quo that establishes the plaza as a site exclusively for Muslim prayer. Anything having to do with the Temple Mount is inevitably explosive given that it is a symbol simultaneously religious and nationalist for both sides, and the fact that actors who should know better – such as Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan – are fanning the flames by making grossly exaggerated accusations about Israeli actions only furthers the prospects of violence spreading out of control.

It is not only the Palestinians or the Jordanians who are using attacks on Israelis to further their own political ends, but members of the Israeli government as well. The more hardline rightwingers in Netanyahu’s coalition, including ministers from Likud such as Haim Katz and Yariv Levin and Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have been agitating that Netanyahu needs to adopt harsher responses to terrorist attacks on Israelis, and some went so far as to demonstrate outside his house in protest of policies that the government in which they serve has adopted. Netanyahu batted them down earlier this week by implicitly threatening to disband the government should the friendly fire continue, but adding a dose of political unrest to the soaring civil unrest makes for a poisonous mix.

So what is the silver lining, if any, to be found in this doom and gloom? It is that Netanyahu is actually behaving like the reasonable adult in the room and doing his best to prevent the situation from spiraling further downward. Aside from appearing to finally understand the threat that expanded settlement activity poses to Israel internationally and continuing to enforce an unpublicized settlement freeze, Netanyahu is doing his best to actually maintain the status quo on the Temple Mount despite the enormous political pressure on him to establish new facts on the ground (and despite the inherent injustice of preventing Jewish prayer at Judaism’s holiest site). Furthermore, Netanyahu has ordered the police to ban all government ministers and MKs from the Temple Mount, an extraordinary step that speaks to how seriously he understands that there will be no capping the eruption should tensions over the site escalate.

Folks on the left and the center tend to come down hard on Netanyahu – and rightly so – when he does and says things for his own political gain that deepen Israel’s isolation or contribute to illiberal trends in Israeli politics and society, yet Abbas is often given a free pass due to the uncomfortable political situation in which he must operate. While the estimation of the Israeli security establishment is that Abbas is doing his best to tamp down the violence erupting throughout Jerusalem and the West Bank and that Israel is going to miss him enormously when he is gone, this is not the whole story. He certainly deserves credit for all positive steps, but the fact that he has his own political survival at stake should not inoculate him from criticism over fanning the flames on the Temple Mount, or refusing to condemn terrorist activity that can in no way be chalked up as legitimate political protest or civil disobedience or resistance against an occupying power. The Israeli occupation is not a trump card when it comes to irresponsible rhetoric that will inevitably lead to incitement or the murder of civilians, and holding Netanyahu to an exceedingly higher standard than Abbas is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

A rightwing Israeli prime minister who presides over the narrowest possible coalition in the Knesset and is under constant assault from those to his right, whose commitment to two states is in question, and who has spent decades caving to the most irredentist elements of his party and coalition, has now halted new settlement growth, banned elected officials from the Temple Mount in an effort to protect exclusive Muslim rights on the site, and has so far refrained from a large and public show of force in the West Bank in response to multiple firebomb attacks, shootings, and stonings, all in recognition of the fact that the volume must be turned down in a major way. While some of these actions may be less just than others (and the Temple Mount issue in particular is one that I will write about in depth next week), they all point to a prime minister putting pragmatism over politics for the moment. Shalev opens his otherwise depressing column by noting how anyone watching Anwar Sadat emerge from his plane at Ben Gurion Airport in November 1977 could not help but believe that miracles do happen, and that it showed how calamity could transform into opportunity. Let’s hope that Netanyahu’s new leaf demonstrates that history always holds open the possibility of new beginnings.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Israeli politics category at Ottomans and Zionists.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,769 other followers

%d bloggers like this: