May 13, 2013 § 2 Comments
The most consequential development for the long term prospects of a more stable and peaceful Middle East that took place this week was not John Kerry’s effort to move Russia closer to the American position on Syria and take steps toward negotiating a political transition, nor was it the news that Israel has quietly implemented a freeze on new settlement construction in the West Bank that may lead to new negotiations with the Palestinians. Rather, it was the lightly scoffed and derided announcement of a Chinese plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace that covered no new ground and relied on the tired formula that has been in place now for decades. The Chinese plan, presented to Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing while Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was being feted in Shanghai, recycles the ideas that are generally recognized to be the eventual key to a settlement – an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital, an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist and genuine need for security, an emphasis on land for peace and the need for any resolution to the conflict to be a negotiated one, and calls for greater international involvement in bringing both sides to the table. In essence, the Chinese plan is the equivalent of a blue-ribbon commission report that calls for the same measures as the previous blue-ribbon commission report on the same subject. The plan was dismissed by some as not mentioning anything new, and was dismissed by others as being too tilted in the Palestinians’ favor, and the widely held assumption is that this brief Chinese foray into the peace process will soon be forgotten.
While it is true that China’s four-point peace plan covers no new ground and has no greater chance at being implemented or moving the needle on negotiations than any previous U.S., European, or Quartet initiatives to date, the fact that China has even waded into these waters is monumentally significant. The Chinese peace plan is much greater than the sum of its parts, as it indicates a real willingness on China’s part to be an actual stakeholder in the international system and to begin using its status to solve problems and be a force for stability. That China has chosen to step forward on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute speaks volumes given the symbolism of this particular issue.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the Rolls Royce of international problems; it is very big and shiny and everyone wants to be seen riding in it. Not only has it lasted for decades, it is enormously high profile and solving it has been the dream of too many American presidents and U.N. secretaries general to count. Despite the fact that everyone knows how it will eventually be resolved, it plays an outsize role in diplomacy given its salience to hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people in the West and the Middle East, and it elicits strong opinions from people who have no direct connection to it other than what they see and read in the news. By choosing to offer its own plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, no matter how overworn and unoriginal, China is signaling that it understands its international responsibilities as the world’s most populous country, largest military, and second largest economy. The details of the peace plan do not particularly matter; what does matter is that China is making an effort. It is no accident of history that the Quartet tasked with solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue is made up of the U.S., U.N., European Union, and Russia, but does not include China, as China has never indicated any willingness to be involved. As a country with a reputation for caring only about its quest for natural resources while sitting on the sidelines and generally obstructing any constructive efforts to solve global problems, the fact that China is trying to be proactive in the most high-profile global problem of all is a good sign.
The cynical take on this is that China is only now getting involved in an effort to curry favor with oil-rich Gulf Arab countries, curry favor with Israel now that it has massive natural gas fields coming online, or both. Yet even if this is the case, a greater Chinese effort to take ownership of this issue will cause greater Chinese involvement on a host of global governance issues whether China wants it or not. Once China becomes involved in the Israeli-Palestinian scene, it will be harder to walk away from other areas in which China does not have an obvious stake. China might actually even be able to break a deadlock on the Israeli-Palestinian front despite having nothing new to say just by virtue of being a new party with some credibility on both sides, and a larger role in other regional issues for China that do not have an obvious impact on Chinese economic interests, even if it is being done to counter American power in the Middle East, will mean that China is at least accepting that to be a world power means not letting international problems fester.
One of the big picture problems in international relations over the past decade has been how to get China to be a responsible stakeholder in world affairs and use its influence in a way that benefits the entire globe. To the extent that China begins to insert itself into other thorny problems in the Middle East, such as the Iranian nuclear standoff or the Syrian civil war, it will hopefully portend a positive trend for tamping down upheaval in the region. As much hard and soft power the U.S. brings to bear on regional issues, it clearly cannot solve problems alone, and having another major outside power exert a responsible influence – as China seems to be doing now with North Korea – can help alleviate some of the burden on the U.S. and add another powerful impetus for warring parties to come to agreements to end conflicts. China’s particular solution for a lasting peace in the Holy Land might seem like a small and unimportant story, but the bigger story here is what its foray into peacemaking means for its larger role in the world.
February 13, 2013 § 1 Comment
I wrote about this topic last week from the U.S. perspective in light of President Obama’s forthcoming trip to Israel, but from the standpoint of Israel politics some comments yesterday from Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are worth highlighting in assessing what movement we can expect to see on the peace process from the next Israeli government. As faithful O&Z readers know, I am fairly confident that Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will be in the coalition, and I am also fairly confident that Yair Lapid cares a lot more about the military draft issue than he does about the peace process and that he should not be viewed as the great savior of the peace camp and the two state solution. In light of this, let’s consider some facts that are emerging about the coalition talks and some things that were said by Lapid and Bennett yesterday in different forums.
To begin with, Lapid and Bennett have negotiated a deal that binds their fates together so that either Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will both be in the government or both parties will stay out. While Bibi Netanyahu is frantically trying to peel Bennett away from Lapid by making him extravagant but exploding offers, so far Bennett appears to be resistant to go back on his agreement with Lapid. This is interesting, because obviously Likud is more of a natural partner for Habayit Hayehudi than Yesh Atid is as Netanyahu and Bennett are closer ideologically – despite their history of personal issues – than Bennett and Lapid are. The one issue on which HH and YA are closer on is the issue of the draft and equalizing the burden of service, which suggests that it is the issue most important to both Lapid and Bennett and the one on which both parties are most reluctant to back down. Lots of attention has been paid to Lapid’s pledge that he is guided by overhauling the draft and reanimating the peace process and that he will not join a government that does not agree to do both, but in tying his fate to Bennett’s, he is signaling that one of those issues is far more important to him than the other and that the peace process condition is more about lip service than anything else.
Then there were Lapid’s remarks yesterday before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meeting in Jerusalem, in which he said that Ehud Olmert had gone too far in his concessions toward the Palestinians while prime minister, that Jerusalem could never be divided in his view, and that the Palestinians were going to have to accept an interim semi-state within temporary borders subject to future revision. Now, none of this makes Lapid a fire-breathing Greater Israel supporter, but it also does not make him the great champion of the two state solution that some think he is. Not agreeing to a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and talking about interim agreements are both positions that probably make peace talks doomed to fail before they even begin. The interim agreement is the bigger hurdle of these two, since while Jerusalem can be negotiated over during talks, no Palestinian government at this point will even come to the table for talks that deal with anything less than a final status agreement. This is the ultimate display of someone trying to cultivate a more left-wing image without adopting any policies to match. Again, this does not make Lapid an extremist or out of line with mainstream Israeli popular opinion, but it also does not make him the next Yitzhak Rabin.
Lapid’s new best friend also had some things of his own to say about the prospects of a Palestinian state yesterday, but in a much more straightforward way. In a Knesset speech, Bennett said that “there is no room” for a Palestinian state, that it will never happen, and that the government needs to say with finality that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. Nobody has ever had any illusions about Bennett’s views on the peace process and the two state solution so this does not come as a surprise, but the important takeaway here is that Lapid knows full well what Bennett’s views are and has still hitched his wagon to Bennett’s. Irrespective of whatever his own personal views may be, it is difficult from a political perspective to think that Lapid is committed to real negotiations when he will only go into the government if Bennett goes as well. Taking all of these factors into consideration, even if Tzipi Livni bring Hatnua into the government nobody should be getting their hopes up too high for a big diplomatic push on the horizon.
February 7, 2013 § 3 Comments
I’m a day behind on writing about this, but as everyone now knows and has processed, President Obama will be visiting Israel next month. There is lots of speculation about why he is going, and most of it has focused on the peace process. The instant conventional wisdom is that Obama is going to lean hard on Prime Minister Netanyahu to restart serious talks with the Palestinians and that the focus of the new Israeli government is now going to be on diplomacy and the two-state solution rather than on the domestic issues over which the election was fought. There are even those who argue, as Dan Margalit does in Israel Hayom, that Obama’s pending arrival is going to affect which parties are in the coalition since Netanyahu will not want to welcome Obama to Israel without a center or left party included in the government.
I get why all of this makes sense on its face, but I disagree with the premise. Of course Obama cares about the peace process and assigns a large degree of importance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and without question it will be a topic of conversation between Obama and Netanyahu and will be part of whatever public comments Obama makes while there. It would be bizarre for Obama to show up and not try to create some pressure on both sides to resume negotiations. But there are a few reasons to think that this trip is not intended to be a big diplomatic push over and above whatever else the administration is currently doing on the peace process front.
First, the White House said yesterday that the trip is not going to include a rollout of any specific peace proposals. That means no roadmap, no offer to host a summit, no calls for settlement freezes, or any other approaches that we have seen in the past by this or other administrations. Second, the U.S. has not coordinated this trip with any European countries, which is strange given EU efforts to convince the administration to reinsert itself into the peace process and the reports that Britain, France, and Germany are planning on making a big push on this issue now that Israeli elections are over. Third, a presidential visit to Israel does not automatically mean pressure on the Israeli government over the Palestinians, as there was little pressure placed when President Bush went to Israel in 2008 despite Ehud Olmert being more receptive to such an approach.
As Brent Sasley pointed out yesterday, there are lots of reasons for Obama to be going to Israel, although I disagree with Brent (which is rare) about Iran, and I think that this trip is much more about foreign policy issues than domestic politics (which is even more rare for me). Obama’s travels are going to take him to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel; if that isn’t a lineup that indicates the focus will be on coordinating strategy to deal with Iran, then I don’t know what is. Now that both Obama and Netanyahu have been returned to office and both clearly have their eyes on Tehran, I think that Obama’s visit to Israel is about security issues – Iran, Syria, etc. – first and foremost. That John Kerry is going to Israel before Obama’s trip reinforces that for me, since Kerry’s visit will likely be focused on the peace process while Obama’s visit will be geared toward other things. And of course, the possibility exists that Obama is going simply because he promised he would, as Haviv Rettig Gur reminded everyone yesterday.
Finally, on the coalition politics issue, I don’t buy the argument that Obama’s visit will affect the coalition one way or the other. Once the trip was announced, all leverage in that area was gone. Bibi could put together the most rightwing coalition imaginable at this point, and it won’t alter the fact that Obama is going to Israel come hell or high-water. I don’t quite get the argument that Netanyahu won’t dare greet Obama without a center-left component in his government, or that a three day visit somehow creates such enormous pressure that an entire coalition designed to theoretically serve for five years has to be shaped around three days.
Furthermore, there is a real possibility that Netanyahu won’t form a coalition until after Obama has come and gone, in which case all of this speculation is moot. [As Chemi Shalev has helpfully pointed out in the comments below, the deadline for Bibi to form a coalition is March 16 - ed.] Let’s also not forget that Netanyahu went out of his way just this morning to reiterate that his policy on settlements has not changed. Obama coming to Israel is a new wrinkle, but if Netanyahu were not going to bend to internal and external pressure to jumpstart the peace process, I don’t think Obama’s visit would alter his calculations.
To be clear, I am sure that Obama will talk about the peace process, and I am also sure that Netanyahu will not embarrass Obama on Israeli soil so he will likely make some token concessions or promises. I do not think that this trip changes the entire thrust of the government’s policy or makeup though, and I do not think it means we are about to get a real life version of the fictional Bartlet peace plan from the second to last season of the West Wing. It was always assumed that Kerry was going to be more interested in the peace process during the second term than Obama was until there was some real movement, and I haven’t seen anything over the last two days to make me think that assumption is incorrect.
January 14, 2013 § 2 Comments
We are only two weeks into the new year, but if these two weeks are any indication of what is yet to come, then 2013 is going to mark a large shift from 2012. If 2012 was dominated by talk of Iran, 2013 is going to be dominated by talk of settlements. While the constant worries over what the government would do about bombing Iran did not always resound to Israel’s benefit, it was a conversation that at least focused on Israel’s security and the proper response for Israel to take against threats from Iran. The conversation about settlements, however, is not one that is going to focus on threats to Israel or Israeli security, but rather on Israel’s problematic behavior in the West Bank, and it is an issue that is bound to be a losing one for Israel.
Much of last year was filled with speculation about whether Israel would strike Iran until Bibi Netanyahu put an end to that with his speech at the United Nations. Lots of ink was spilled both trying to predict what would happen and analyzing whether bombing Iranian nuclear facilities would be a smart move or not. All of this undoubtedly caused some degree of negativity toward Israel because many folks – including the bulk of the Israeli defense establishment – felt that bombing Iran would be reckless and unnecessary, and in the end this pressure was at least partially responsible for derailing Netanyahu’s evident plans to do just that. Nevertheless, keeping the focus of the discussion surrounding Israel on the potential bombing of Iranian nuclear sites was in other ways good strategy, which is why Netanyahu kept on stoking the fires. Yes, it entailed observers railing against Israel for contemplating setting the region on fire with a strike on Iran, but it also forced people to think about Israel’s security, the threats that it faces, and the virulent hatred of Israel and Jews – no, not Zionists, but Jews – expressed by the Iranian government.
When it comes to settlements, Israel gains no such benefits. Despite the fact that the Israeli government claims that settlements are a security issue, nobody really buys this excuse. A bunch of settlers armed with rifles along with their families are simply not going to serve as the last line of defense against a horde of Arab tank battalions rolling over the border from Jordan, not to mention that such an assault is not coming. 350,000 Israelis scattered around the West Bank are also not a defense against Palestinian rockets, which don’t come from the West Bank because Fatah is not yet in the rocket shooting business and because the IDF – rather than settlers – is also currently positioned to stop them. In the 21st century, the line that settlements are a defense against anything is just not credible or believable. When settlements become the main issue that people focus on when it comes to Israel, the spotlight is trained not on threats to Israel but on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and desire to hang on to the West Bank. Literally nothing good comes out of this conversation for Israel, and all it does is highlight the worst possible side of Israel and its government. For an extremely small subset of people it serves as a reminder that Israel has a strong historical and cultural heritage in the West Bank, which is after all the land of the Bible, but for most people it serves as a reminder that Israel is militarily occupying the West Bank and that this situation is looking more and more permanent every day.
The response to the Bab al-Shams outpost in E1 is a perfect example of why the Israeli government is destined to lose when the focus is all settlements, all the time. After the outpost was illegally erected, the government evicted the Palestinians who had set up camp there and claimed that this was a necessary security measure and that the area was now a closed military zone. Nobody really believes that this is a security issue, and the glaring double standard in which illegal Israeli outposts are left to stand for months and years or even retroactively legalized has been noted far and wide. The domestic politics aside, this is an unambiguous losing issue for Israel, but because it has proved an effective tactic for the Palestinians, it is guaranteed to play out over and over, with Israel looking increasingly inept and even foolish in the process.
Lest you think that settlements are not going to be the talk of 2013, just take a look around. Bab al-Shams and E1 have taken on a life of their own, Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi – advocating an annexation policy – are a near lock to be in the next coalition, future Likud MK Moshe Feiglin has called for paying Palestinians to leave the West Bank, a significant swathe of Likud MKs favor annexing Area C or permanently maintaining the current status quo, and settlements and the settlement budget are expanding rather than slowing down. The craziest part about this is that on the right there is a desire to have settlements become even more of an issue rather than tamp down the settlement talk, as they see it as good politics and as a way of putting a dagger through the heart of the peace process for good.
It doesn’t matter that settlements are not the original cause of Palestinian discontent, or that there are larger obstacles to an effective two-state solution. The focus on settlements is very bad for Israel, and the longer it goes on the worse off Israel becomes. This is not an issue of public relations but of policy, and the Israeli government needs to understand that sooner rather than later. 2013 is well on its way to being a year in which the world, American Jewry, and Western policymakers hear a lot more about Israel creating a situation in which there is no Palestinian map than about Iran threatening to wipe Israel off it.
January 2, 2013 § 2 Comments
During the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s ambassadors conference on Monday, the assembled diplomats were given a tongue lashing by Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, who took exception to a question posed by UN Ambassador Ron Prosor about the decision to start the zoning and planning process for E1. After Prosor asked why the government decided to make the E1 announcement and received a round of applause from the room, Amidror responded by saying that American and British diplomats would never applaud someone who criticized the policy of their own government, and that ambassadors are merely clerks tasked with carrying out rather than questioning the government’s directives. He further suggested that any diplomats unhappy with this should either go into politics themselves or resign.
As the various anonymous quotes in the papers make abundantly clear, Israel’s ambassadors were not happy with Amidror’s reaction to Prosor’s question. They feel as if they are being thrown into the spotlight to defend unpopular policies without much assistance or explanation, and Prosor’s question was aimed at getting an idea as to why the government decided to announce building in E1 at that particular time. Divulging plans for E1 the very day of the UN Palestinian statehood vote put Israeli diplomats in a very hard position, as they now not only had to defend a policy that the U.S. and the EU had previously communicated was a redline not to be crossed, but had to do so in the context of it being viewed as a retaliatory move meant to punish the Palestinians, which made them look petulant. As someone who used to train U.S. Foreign Service Officers on how to deal with tough questioning, I know firsthand that diplomats posted overseas have about the toughest job in the world. They don’t get to shut down when they leave the office at the end of the day like most people do, since literally everywhere they go – bars, restaurants, parties, small gatherings with friends – they are representing their country, and they need to watch everything they say since a stray off-message comment might be overheard and repeated as the official position of their government. Israeli ambassadors and chiefs of mission have to deal with this problem in an even more acute way, because they are the top diplomats in their host countries representing a state that is often a target of extra scrutiny. They have a difficult enough job as it is explaining and defending Israeli policies without the added burden of dealing with surprise building announcements and not getting enough direction from the Foreign Ministry on the rationale behind certain decisions.
The additional problem in this case is that despite the Foreign Ministry’s recommendation that the government not take any actions that would be explicitly viewed as retaliation for the Palestinian statehood gambit at the UN, the government ignored this advice and did exactly that. The ambassadors’ protest on Monday reflects frustration on the part of the professionals that the politicians are doing things that are not necessarily well thought out, and that are being driven by heated emotions rather than cool analysis. It is the hallmark of a government thinking about the politics of a situation rather than the policy implications, and understandably Israeli diplomats are frustrated. I do not mean to suggest that Israel’s diplomatic corps is universally leftist and that they uniformly disagree with settlement expansion or building in E1, since I am sure that is not the case. Not having a coherent strategy that is communicated to them beforehand makes their lives a lot more difficult irrespective of whether or not they support the underlying decision, and that is what Prosor’s question and his colleagues’ applause.
There are two things that should be taken away from this incident. First, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Netanyahu government to shove aside any and all criticism of Israeli actions as motivated by hatred for Israel or closet anti-Semitism. A lot of what Israel deals with definitely does fall into this category, but not all, and when you have a senior official upbraiding Israel’s ambassadors for criticizing the government and insisting that dissent will not be tolerated, you know that there is a much larger problem at hand. The official government line has been that Israel’s image problem stems from a failure of public relations rather than a failure of policy, but this is simply not credible when it comes to complaints from your own diplomats. It is one thing to dismiss criticism from Europe or the UN as biased, but quite another to dismiss complaints from the people manning your own diplomatic front lines. This should be a serious wakeup call to Netanyahu that things are off the rails, and that policy is going to have to be recalibrated.
Second, Amidror’s response to Prosor was a real overreaction, and all the more surprising given that he was not speaking to a group that could in any way be deemed a hostile audience. One of two things, and possibly both simultaneously, are going on here. Either the government is actually feeling a lot more pressure on settlements and E1 than it lets on, which would explain Amidror’s hair triggered short temper, or the government is feeling a lot more pressure over its declining pre-election poll numbers than it lets on and was willing to use a clash with its ambassadors to score political points. My hunch is that it is the former, and I certainly hope that it is the former, but one never knows with Israeli politics. If Netanyahu and his advisers are indeed feeling squeezed on the E1 issue, hopefully it will forestall greater settlement activity and push the government back to a serious negotiating posture once the elections are over. Either way, berating your top diplomat when he asks for some clarification on a policy that he is tasked with publicly and privately defending is probably not a great way to inspire confidence in your policy planning and implementation process.
December 26, 2012 § 7 Comments
As regular O&Z readers know, if this blog has any sort of running theme it is that domestic politics is often decisive in determining foreign policy. When I wrote last week for The Atlantic about the rightwing political competition that is driving settlement activity, a close friend emailed, “So you’re saying it is local politics at work…#ImagineMySurprise.” I have pointed to domestic politics to argue that Israel and Turkey won’t be normalizing relations any time soon (and I’ll try and write about the recent NATO news tomorrow, but no, I don’t think it signals that anything is going to imminently change) and to predict that there was not going to be an Israeli strike on Iran last spring, summer, or fall. Does this mean that domestic politics is always decisive in every situation? Of course not. There are plenty of times in which other considerations are at work; the months-long push on the Turkish government’s to get NATO to intervene in Syria is one such instance. Nevertheless, I maintain that a lack of focus on domestic politics and the constraints it imposes leads to lots of shoddy analysis from both professionals and casual observers.
Over the next few months, Israel is going to be a great petri dish for watching these trends at work. On the one hand, influential and respected defense and security experts like Amos Yadlin are warning that Israel is losing its international support and status because of its footdragging on the peace process, Tzipi Livni has founded a new party devoted solely to reviving talks with the Palestinians, and there is chatter that the EU is losing so much patience that it is going to try and force Israel and the Palestinians into a deal. Last week the State Department issued a harsher than usual condemnation of Israeli settlement activity, as did the fourteen non-U.S. members of the Security Council. By any measure, Israel’s settlement policy and reticence on the creation of a Palestinian state is become increasingly costly. Looking at it from a black box perspective, you have a state living in a hostile neighborhood with an enormous qualitative military edge over its neighbors that is facing a dangerous potential dip in support from its main external allies and is facing increasing international isolation over the Palestinian statehood issue, which does not present an existential security threat by any means. The state is facing what it believes is an existential threat from Iran, and on that front it needs all the help it can get from its main allies. Given everything involved, you’d expect Israel in this situation to take moves to forestall its isolation and shore up its relationship with the U.S. and EU – which are its primary providers of military and economic aid and diplomatic support across the board – by making some serious concessions on the Palestinian front. After all, even if settlements in the West Bank are viewed as a security buffer, keeping them from a security perspective given Palestinian military capabilities pales in comparison to risking the cessation of purchases of military hardware and transfers of military technology, and enabling the risk of complete diplomatic isolation.
Given all of this, one might expect to see an Israeli coalition after the election that includes Livni’s Hatnua party and that undertakes serious initiatives on the Palestinian statehood and peace process fronts. Such a coalition would under no circumstances include Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi, as Bennett wants to annex Area C and does not support the creation of a Palestinian state. Indeed, there have been moves in that direction as far as keeping Bennett out is concerned, and there have also been reports that Netanyahu and Livni are exploring the possibility of Hatnua joining the coalition after the election, which would almost necessarily mean her return to the Foreign Ministry and a greater push for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
On the other hand, taking domestic politics into account would point to a different path. As I wrote last week, the idea behind the joint Likud-Beiteinu list was to create a right-wing monolith that would put an electoral victory out of reach for Israel’s left and to also present rightwing voters without a real alternative. Netanyahu wanted to eliminate any challenges from his right flank by co-opting Lieberman, but it now turns out that he has to deal with Bennett on his right and a swift migration of voters (so far, at least) away from Likud and to Habayit Hayehudi. It is also the case that Israeli voters do not care about the Palestinians or the peace process, which is why Hatnua is stuck in single digits, Labor and Shelley Yachimovich barely mention anything other than social issues and the economy unless absolutely forced to, and Bennett is gaining a larger following based partly on a perception that Netanyahu is actually not hawkish enough. Taking all of this into account means a coalition that includes Bennett, continues to take a hardline on a Palestinian state, and bemoans the lack of support from European states rather than constructing a policy meant to change that reality.
So which will it be? Unsurprisingly, my money is on the second option, but the first one is certainly plausible. It really just depends on how much weight you place on the domestic political calculus. Netanyahu’s history is that he pays attention to his domestic political survival above all else, and I see no evidence that he has suddenly become a changed man. To my mind, Israel’s long term health necessitates the first path, while Netanyahu’s lies with the second. Let’s hope that events in 2013 prove me wrong.
December 13, 2012 § 6 Comments
Commentaries about Hanukkah abound this year, from Hilary Krieger’s reminder in the New York Times that the holiday is about more than miraculous oil and plying children with presents to a typically obtuse Mondoweiss piece by Avigail Abarbanel decrying any celebration of Hanukkah as hypocritical because Israel is occupying the West Bank (but don’t worry, since Mondoweiss never conflates Judaism with Israel as we all know that criticism of the latter in no way ever has anything to do with the former). Tying in Krieger’s argument about what Hanukkah is really about with Abarbanel’s clumsy attempt to bash Israel over the head got me thinking that there is indeed a connection between Hanukkah and modern day Israel, but it is not the one that Abarbanel advances about Israeli behavior making Hanukkah unfit to be celebrated.
As Krieger points out, Hanukkah is actually about a revolt that paved the way for Jewish independence and freedom of worship, and the miracle of the oil burning for eight nights is only ancillary to the main story. Making Chanukkah primarily about lights burning in the Temple is the equivalent of celebrating on New Year’s Eve not because the calendar is about to change but because a giant ball is going to drop in Times Square. The reason Jews originally celebrated Hanukkah was because it represented the triumph of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel for the first time since the Babylonian expulsion four centuries earlier. Following hundreds of years of Judea being ruled by foreigners – Persians and Greeks – the Hasmoneans carried out a successful revolt against Judea’s Syrian Greek overlords and established a Jewish kingdom that lasted for a century before one side in the Judean civil war made the mistake of inviting the Roman general Pompey to settle things, which led to a Roman siege of Jerusalem and eventually Roman control over Judea. Hanukkah certainly has an important religious component in that it celebrates the end of Greek religious persecution – which, for those interested, is the only recorded instance of forced religious coercion by pagan conquerors in the ancient world – but just as vital is the celebration of Jewish political sovereignty and the establishment of a Jewish kingdom that was independent rather than a client of a larger empire. To me, Hanukkah has always been about this rather than about lights remaining kindled in the Temple.
Krieger mentions Maccabean religious zealotry and attacks on neighbors, and argues that these elements to the story require some Jewish introspection, as occurs on other Jewish holidays. The story is actually a lot more interesting than she details and requires vastly more real estate than the New York Times op-ed page provides. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Seleucids, they embarked on a mission to expand the borders of their new state. After the Seleucid empire broke apart, the Hasmoneans seized the opportunity to conquer the regions neighboring Judea, including the Galilee, Idumea, and Samaria, expanding into what is modern day Syria and Jordan. This expansion was not benign, however, as the Hasmoneans were not only looking to conquer territory but to create an explicitly Jewish kingdom. This meant forcing the local populations that they conquered to submit to conversion (which included being circumcised) or face expulsion, which was not exactly a great set of options. Over time, this enlarged kingdom became harder to defend and to govern, and the Judean political class divided into factions and civil war ensued. In many ways, what happened is reminiscent of Jack Snyder’s imperial overreach, and Jewish sovereignty was eventually snuffed out by the Romans.
So what’s the relevance of all this to modern day Israel? The reason Israel holds such meaning for many Jews around the world is because it represents the triumph of Jewish sovereignty in the historical Jewish homeland for the first time since the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks in the Hanukkah story and established the kingdom of Judea. In a sense, Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday most intimately connected to Israel and the Zionist dream, precisely because it mirrors the struggle to create the Jewish state and because it is a holiday that has powerful political meaning behind it rather than a holiday that is purely a religious one. Hanukkah represents Jewish political and military power and Jewish political independence, and it is something to be proud of and grateful for if you are Jewish and have any sense of Jewish history at all. The Hasmoneans and their fellow 2nd century BCE Judeans were able to establish a state despite the odds being heavily stacked against them, and it is tough to look at the Hanukkah story and not see the parallels to David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, and the other founding fathers of Israel.
Ultimately, however, as great as it must have been to establish Jewish sovereignty after centuries of foreign rule, the Jewish state in the Hanukkah story collapsed under its own weight due to poor decisions and infighting. So too, there are many dangers looming in Israel’s path, some of which are out of its control and some of which are very much of its own making. It should be obvious to everyone, particularly as the possible beginnings of a third intifada are just now emerging, that hanging onto the West Bank is a failed policy that is hanging around Israel’s neck like an albatross, and it is one that will continually put Israel’s status as a Jewish democratic state at risk. The more that Israeli policies anger Western states that do not have the same base of support for Israel that exists in the U.S., the more Israel will rely solely on the U.S., and that in itself will endanger Israeli sovereignty as it will become harder for Israel to chart its own independent path. Just as ancient Judea expanded beyond what it could reasonably control and descended into destructive factionalism and eventually civil war, modern day Israel does not quite appear to be in such dire straits but resembles this scenario in enough of a way as to be unsettling. Hanukkah should not prompt one to reject any celebration of the holiday because Jews once fought against foreign occupiers and Israel is now occupying the West Bank, but it should certainly prompt a recognition that there are some lessons to be learned from ancient Jewish history. Just like the Hanukkah story of the kingdom of Judea, which began so triumphantly but ended tragically, Israel is also currently headed down a path that it desperately needs to find a way around so that Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland is not once again interrupted.
December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments
Last night Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted an apt point that all supporters of Israel should think about very hard. He wrote, “Two things can be true at the same time: Israel is judged more harshly than any other nation–and, Netanyahu is behaving terribly.” Israel is subjected to double standards to which no other country is held, and if you think that isn’t true, consider the nearly single-minded focus on Israel that is the hallmark of the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, or the harsh spotlight trained upon Israel over civilian casualties relative to other countries. Israel behaves badly on plenty of occasions, but so do other countries with far less complex challenges, and yet a visitor from another planet encountering Earth for the first time would lump Israel together with North Korea based on the media coverage (and if you think that is a fair comparison, please just stop reading now since you’ll be wasting your time). Israel always starts off in any situation at a complete disadvantage, and this is something that no other country deals with on a similar scale. Yet, this does not mean that Israel is a completely blameless actor in every instance, and none of the above obviates the fact that not all criticism of the Netanyahu government is a result of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, dislike of Netanyahu personally, or driven by a hidden agenda. To take the case in point, Netanyahu’s actions since last Thursday are not only childish and puerile, they are weakening Israel to an immeasurable degree.
Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at the long term picture. Israel is now perhaps more isolated than it has ever been on a number of levels, and certainly the most isolated it has been since 1975 during the Arab oil boycotts and the falling out with the Ford administration. Looking at Israel’s traditional regional allies, Israel’s relationship with Turkey is at an all-time low, its ties with Egypt are the most strained they have been in the post-Camp David era, and Jordan is too preoccupied with its own internal problems and the wave of refugees coming over the border from Syria to give Israel much cover on anything. While Israel does not have to worry about military threats from Arab states, it is looking at a long-term stream of diplomatic pressure from Islamist governments and less cooperation from Arab states on repressing non-state actors who threaten Israel.
In Europe, Israel faces an uphill battle as well. There is generally a lot of sympathy in European capitals for the Palestinians, but Europe’s indignation over settlements is real as well. This was driven home by the lopsided UN vote on Palestinian statehood, in which the Czech Republic was the only European country to vote with Israel. New allies Cyprus and Greece, to whom Israel has pinned such high hopes, both voted to grant Palestine non-member state observer status, and stalwart Israeli ally Germany abstained due to its anger over repeatedly being dismissed by Israel over the issue of settlement expansion. This all comes on the heels of the surprising European support for Operation Pillar of Cloud, which indicates that while Israel faces a tough audience in Europe, it has some wiggle room.
Then there is the United States, which has given Israel military aid for Iron Dome, constantly goes to bat for it in the UN including last week, was unwavering in its rhetorical support during military operations in Gaza, and also has been pleading with Israel to halt settlement expansion. The U.S. is unlikely to put heat on Israel like Europe does, but it has repeatedly expressed its displeasure with settlements and is very clear that it sees settlement growth as an obstacle to peace.
Given all of this, what is Israel’s most sensible course of action? Is it to loudly announce that it is going to “punish” the Palestinians for going to the UN by building thousands of more homes in the West Bank? Or is it to look at the big picture, realize that settlements are not just an excuse trotted out by anti-Semitic Europeans and Israel-hating leftists but are actually causing Israel all sorts of problems, and come up with some other way to deal with what it views as Palestinian intransigence? Israel went in the span of weeks from being viewed sympathetically due to Palestinian rockets indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians to being denounced and having its ambassadors hauled in on the carpet over settlement expansion and being threatened with all sorts of countermeasures by the West. Please, someone make a cogent argument for me how this is somehow a brilliant strategy and how Netanyahu is ensuring Israel’s future existence, because from where I am sitting it is counterproductive, dangerous, and unwaveringly stupid. It’s all fine and good to constantly claim that Western views don’t matter and that Israel has the right to do what it wants, but that is the equivalent to burying your head in the sand. The fact is that Israel cannot exist on its own, it needs allies given the neighborhood in which it lives, and settlements are actually a problem for Israel’s allies. That’s the truth, and pretending otherwise is fiddling while Rome burns.
It has become clear to me over the past few years that contrary to the popular myth that the problems between Israel and the Palestinians stem from 1967, the parties are still fighting over 1948. Significant segments of Palestinians, with Hamas leading the way, simply will not concede the legitimacy of Israel, plain and simple. Concurrently, the constant refrains from the right about Palestinians not needing a state of their own because they have Jordan or the tired old canard that there is no land to give back to the Palestinians because it belonged to Jordan and to Egypt (always smugly spouted as if this is some brilliantly clever argument) is a vestige of 1948. Everyone loves to point out that Hamas doesn’t care about settlements, and that the PLO was founded in 1964, and both of these things are true and speak to the challenges that Israel faces that have absolutely nothing to do with settlements. But – and this a big one – settlements exacerbate the situation enormously, particularly with Western countries. Even ceding the argument that Palestinians of all stripes are never going to accept Israel in the pre-1967 borders and that Arab states will never want to make peace with Israel, Israel should then be doing everything it can to make sure it has the West on its side. You want to know what the best way to foul that up is? Proudly declaring that you don’t care what anyone else thinks and that you are going to build settlements wherever and whenever you like, and that doing so is not in any way an obstacle to a two-state solution and that in fact the blame rests solely with the other side. I am sick and tired of watching Israel’s supporters, of whom I am most definitely one, ignore the glaringly obvious facts that are right in front of their faces. Settlements are a huge problem, case closed. If you think that the benefit to expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank outweighs everything else, then I respect your argument and at least you are going into this with eyes wide open. Pretending that settlements are an ancillary side issue though is willful blindness, and if that’s what you really think, then your powers of observation and analysis are sorely lacking.