The Perfect and the Good

February 11, 2016 § 1 Comment

Labor leader Buji Herzog did something unusual this week for a man who leads Israel’s traditionally largest party on the left. He got the party of Yitzhak Rabin and Oslo, of Ehud Barak and Camp David, to temporarily throw in the towel on the peace process and negotiations, and to embrace unilateral separation from the Palestinians instead. Herzog’s plan calls for Israel to freeze all building outside the settlement blocs, retain the blocs, and complete the security fence in order to establish a provisional border; convert parts of Area C to Area B, thereby transferring administrative control to the Palestinian Authority; and separating Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem from the Jerusalem municipality. The plan is predicated on the principle that a two-state vision is currently impossible to implement under the framework of permanent status negotiations, and that the only path forward is to preserve the two-state vision while doing everything possible to separate from the Palestinians until the environment is more conducive to negotiations. As someone who wrote with Jordan Hirsch in Foreign Affairs in August 2014 that Israel should unilaterally pull out of the West Bank and kill the peace process in order to save the two-state solution, Herzog’s general approach here is one that I favor.

But the plan has many vocal critics who raise valid concerns. Within Labor itself, former Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich has come out against it and is likely to use opposition to the plan as a springboard to challenge Herzog for the party leadership. While Yachimovich is motivated as much by politics as anything else, other critics on the left have pointed to specific aspects of the plan that they contend will cut off Palestinians from the Old City of Jerusalem, or make it harder for the Palestinians to get the land swaps they want in return for Israel annexing the blocs, or doom the two-state solution by abandoning it and empowering the current government. What much of this boils down to is opposition to Herzog’s attempts at triangulation; ditching the formula of permanent status negotiations, which is the only way of arriving at a fair and equitable solution for all sides, in favor of a stopgap strategy that will make some things better and other things worse but certainly prioritize Israel’s interests at the Palestinians’ expense.

These arguments carry a lot of weight. Any temporary measure that ends up making the situation in Jerusalem worse or turns into a permanent land grab is ultimately not sustainable. Nevertheless, I think Herzog’s measure can theoretically be a good initial step if it is done right. In order to do it right, it will also have to incorporate three Ds – define, develop, and defend. Without these, its critics are correct that it will only establish facts on the ground without moving the two sides closer to a sustainable and permanent solution.

Any plan that effectively prioritizes the settlement blocs while freezing settlement activity outside of them can only work if the blocs are defined. Everyone throws the term “blocs” around as if they constitute an agreed-upon area, but it means different things to different people. The blocs that Israel will keep in any permanent status negotiation need to be identified definitively; for instance, including the Etzion bloc as part of Israel is an easy one, but Ariel juts much farther out into the West Bank, so does a settlement freeze outside the blocs include or exclude Ariel? Furthermore, once it is settled just which blocs we are talking about, the precise borders of each bloc need to be delineated so that they don’t keep on expanding and swallow up more of the land that will go to an eventual Palestinian state. Without defining the blocs, calling for a settlement freeze outside of them is an empty gesture.

Separating from the Palestinians without a plan to develop the West Bank is another necessary condition for the success of a unilateral strategy. Herzog hints at this through his recommendation to enlarge Area B at the expense of Area C, but it can’t simply be foisting more responsibility on the Palestinian Authority and then dusting off your hands. It must also include exponential expansion of the building permits granted to Palestinians in Area C – of which only one was granted in all of 2014 – while eliminating the absurd amounts of red tape that cause goods for Palestinian towns to languish in Israeli ports (such as pipes for the new reservoir that is supposed to supply Bethlehem with water). Without building up the West Bank economy and actually giving it a chance to flourish, separation will do nothing but create a boiling cauldron on the Palestinian side of the fence.

Finally and most crucially, for any unilateral separation to eventually result in a genuine two-state outcome, defense of Israel and security issues must be addressed. The reason that Bibi Netanyahu wins election after election is because, irrespective of anything else that goes on, he has his pulse on Israelis’ psyches and the genuine fear that has dominated Israeli life since the Second Intifada. Israelis are not willing to play games with security, and no Israeli government will ever be party to the creation of a Palestinian state unless and until Israelis feel assured that the West Bank will not present a permanent security threat. This means that if unilateral separation is supposed to move Israel toward two states while waiting for a more opportune moment to resume negotiations – and I don’t doubt that this is Herzog’s wish and intention – then there must be continued coordination with the PA security forces, a robust plan for how to secure the Jordan Valley, and a mechanism for correcting the currently wholly inadequate Palestinian police coverage in Areas A and B. Defending Israelis’ daily security and providing them with a sense of calm in the aftermath of any unilateral separation is the only way to build enough trust in laying the groundwork on the Israeli side for a negotiated solution in the future.

When thinking about two states, a common mistake is to conflate the peace process with the two-state solution. Tom Friedman committed this cardinal error just yesterday, writing that because the peace process is dead, the two-state solution dies with it. They aren’t the same thing. The peace process is the perfect ideal, while the two-state solution is a good result. Any viable plan has to take the politics of the moment into account, and the politics of the moment clearly dictate that pushing negotiations on two unwilling parties is an unmitigated disaster. One can take the Netanyahu approach, which is to sit on one’s hands and do nothing, or one can try to advance an alternative that is highly suboptimal but that beats the status quo. I would rather see the latter option be tried rather than continuing to sacrifice the good on the altar of the perfect.

Truth In Advertising

February 4, 2016 § 1 Comment

There has been much sound and fury over the past couple of weeks over labeling; more specifically, over the labeling rules for goods coming into the United States that are produced in the West Bank. There is lots of misinformation going around about the rules and even why they are now in the news, so in order to make it easier to have an informed opinion, I thought I’d write a quick and handy guide to the labeling controversy answering everyone’s questions.

Why is the Obama administration coming up with new ways to punish Israelis when there are much bigger problems going on in the Middle East? Actually, the Obama administration didn’t come up with anything new here at all. The labeling controversy erupted as a result of U.S. Customs and Border Protection issuing a reminder on January 23 about the existing rules on the books for how products made in the West Bank must be labeled. The rules, which were enacted in 1995 with the support of the Israeli government as a way to boost the Palestinian economy, state that any products made in the West Bank or Gaza shall be labeled as coming from the West Bank or Gaza but cannot be labeled with the phrases “Israel,” “Made in Israel,” “Occupied Territories-Israel,” or a similar variation. It is an open question as to why Customs decided to issue this reminder now for a rule that has been honored more by its breach than its enforcement. It could have been a matter of routine, it could have been as a result of outside complaints, it could have been due to the new EU settlement goods regulation, or it could have been because the White House or State Department asked for it to be done. For those who want to assume the worst and jump on President Obama for his perfidious treatment of Israel, however, let’s remember that the same people now calling for the president’s head over a low level bureaucratic organization issuing a policy reminder twisted themselves into knots in insisting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was entirely in the dark when a low level bureaucratic organization issued plans for new construction in Ramat Shlomo during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel in March 2010. Funny how all perceived affronts to the U.S. committed by Israel are nothing but unfortunate mistakes of timing or bureaucratic slip ups beyond the prime minister’s control, but any perceived false move toward Israel from one of the executive branch’s four and a half million employees must have been cooked up in the Oval Office by the president himself. 

Who cares whether the president did this himself or not? How dare anyone allow the boycott of goods made by Israelis! Why is the president supporting BDS? I agree; economic and cultural boycotts of Israel and Israelis are odious in my view, and the BDS movement is about destroying Israel as a Jewish state rather than ending the occupation of the West Bank. Of course, we may as well be discussing the merits of the revamped Boston Red Sox starting pitching staff as discussing BDS, since they both are equally irrelevant to the topic at hand. As we all know from the Israeli government’s position over Israel’s proposed NGO bill, labeling things is about transparency and information rather than about a value judgment. In any event, whether you think that labeling things is justified or not, it is certainly a completely different animal than a boycott since it places no barriers on anyone’s ability to buy goods made in the West Bank.

Ok, fine. But the Obama administration is singling out stuff made by Jews! Isn’t that only a short skip and a jump away from the Nazis and the Nuremberg Laws? This is a popular position being expressed in my Facebook feed, but it has the unfortunate element of being not true. The key difference between U.S. labeling requirements and European labeling requirements is that the U.S. does not distinguish between goods made by Jews or Palestinians, or between goods produced in Jewish settlements versus goods produced in Palestinian towns and villages. To suggest that this is a measure targeting Jews is completely wrong, since a widget produced in Efrat is given the same label as a widget produced in Jenin. In fact, the American labeling regulation should actually appeal in many ways to the pro-Israel community, since it does not allow for a category of “Made in Palestine,” which the EU explicitly mandates as an option, and it also rules out using the phrase “Occupied Territories.” Unlike the EU regulation, the U.S. version explicitly recognizes that the West Bank is disputed territory still subject to negotiation.

Your absence of outrage over this is outrageous. Why aren’t you angry? Quite simply, this is a policy that not only makes sense to me, but comports with Israel’s official position on the West Bank. Israel has not annexed the West Bank, and the core of the defense of Israeli democracy despite the occupation is precisely that the West Bank has a different status. Mirroring Israel’s treatment of the West Bank as a distinctly separate entity without prejudicing the outcome of any future permanent status agreement is something with which I find it hard to quibble.

Furthermore, maintaining a conceptual barrier between Israel and the West Bank makes it harder to delegitimize Israel down the road. Conflation of Israel and the West Bank is precisely what the BDS movement tries to accomplish through the back door. It denounces Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but also denounces Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state by calling for a full right of return, and by relying on people not sophisticated enough to grasp the distinction between Israel and territories under Israel’s control, it marshals those who oppose the occupation into actually opposing Israel itself. The very core of the BDS argument – that Israel is an illegitimate apartheid state – rests on erasing any line between Israel and the territories under Israeli military control and then arguing that robust Israeli democracy inside of the Green Line makes no difference because of what takes place beyond it. Why should the U.S. assist in this maneuver by itself erasing the difference? People will make up their own minds as to whether the U.S. rule on labeling is innocuous or an affront, but to throw a fit over a reminder about a twenty year old law that was enacted at Israel’s behest; that in no way boycotts Israeli goods but in fact treats all goods made in the West Bank identically irrespective of who made them; that does not use the terms Palestine or occupation; and that reflects Israel’s own view of the West Bank’s status; is to my mind a waste of energy that should be directed elsewhere.

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.

Solutionism on Settlements

November 24, 2015 § 8 Comments

Life involves tradeoffs at every turn, and so does foreign policy. The perfect often becomes the enemy of the good, and pragmatic solutions require jettisoning principles. So too in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where each side must at times set aside deeply held beliefs and principles in order to achieve a realistic balance on the ground. Yitzhak Rabin’s realization that he was going to have to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, or the PLO’s realization that it would have to recognize Israel, were not steps that were taken lightly or that came easily. However, they had salutary effects that necessitated a sacrifice of principles and for each side created the risk of moral hazard in rewarding behavior that had been deemed out of bounds.

We are now at a similar crossroads when it comes to settlements. As a result of nearly five decades of settlement policy, Israel now has over half a million Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Even if they are not the root of the conflict, there is simply no question that settlements are an enormous and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, one that is diverting Israel’s political development to a frightening place. Israeli leaders present at the creation of the settlement project, from Rabin to Moshe Dayan, recognized the folly of occupying the West Bank, let alone settling it, and what it would mean for Israel to control millions of Palestinians in a state of political limbo. Nevertheless, here we are, and the fact is that removing half a million Israelis in an eventual peace deal will be an impossible task, and one that Israel is never going to attempt. As has been clear for decades and was formally laid out in the Clinton Parameters, Israel is going to end up keeping the large settlement blocs, allowing the most settlers to remain in Israel on the least amount of land, and will eventually have to evacuate the rest.

Given that it is clear to nearly everyone what the end result will be, there are two ways to approach current settlement construction. One is to treat all settlements as the same and condemn all new building in the settlements, irrespective of where the settlement is or how large it is. This has been the policy of the U.S. government since 1967, and it treats Gilo and Alon Shvut the same as Ofra and Elon Moreh. A settlement is a settlement, and thus any further construction is problematic, no matter the particular settlement’s eventual disposition. The other approach is to differentiate between settlements, and to recognize that building in an area that everyone knows that Israel will keep in any peace deal is not the same as building in areas that effectively bisect the West Bank or cut off Palestinian contiguity or prevent access to Jerusalem. While settlements are generally problematic, not all settlements are equally so.

Proponents of the first approach argue – not without merit – that to create a distinction between settlements now, outside the parameters of negotiations, would be to reward Israeli bad behavior. After creating a network of settlements in the West Bank of dubious legality at best, for external actors to recognize them as effectively part of Israel proper by not registering any complaints over their continued growth is to incentivize Israel to keep on building anywhere it likes in the hopes that creating facts on the ground will subvert Palestinian efforts to halt the settlement project.

As I said, this approach is not without merit, and it is certainly the morally satisfying one for those who have spent decades working to counter Israeli building outside the Green Line. The problem with it is that in occupying the moral high ground, it makes a solution harder rather than easier. The reality is that if a two state solution is to happen, it will require settler buy in, for better or worse, and getting settlers to support two states means recognizing that for the majority of them, expanding their current communities does not create an impediment to a final status agreement. For many on the left, this is a wholly unsatisfying and bitter pill to swallow, but it is also a fact of life that cannot be wished away.

To take an example from the other side of the spectrum (and this in no way suggests any type of moral equivalence), Hamas currently governs Gaza and does not appear to be going away. Hamas is a terrorist group with blood on its hands, and Israel is entirely justified in refusing to deal with it or acknowledge that it has any legitimacy at all. By the same token, rational people understand that as unpalatable as it may be, accepting that Hamas is in Gaza and that it cannot be simply wished away means crafting policies that take this into account, and even communicating with Hamas through back channels, as the current Israeli government has done. Rational thinking on settlements must prevail as well.

One of the striking elements from Israel Policy Forum’s trip to Israel last week was that the people working hardest to implement a two state solution and alleviate conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank are adamant that an all or nothing approach to settlements by calling for a complete settlement freeze would be the death knell for two states. Pragmatism must win out over principle in this case, which means pushing the Israeli government to define just what it means by the blocs – since this can be a nebulous moving target at times – and then creating a policy that distinguishes between kosher and non-kosher settlement growth. The Palestinian leadership and Mahmoud Abbas advanced this approach themselves in 2007 at Annapolis in presenting a proposal that involved Israel keeping 1.9% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, and while Israel’s preference is to keep 6.5% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, there is a compromise to be had that reconciles these two positions. This is not to accept Netanyahu’s reported position of recognition of the blocs as a quid pro quo for gestures in the West Bank – gestures that he should be taking anyway – or to treat the blocs as annexed to Israel before any final status negotiations have been concluded. It is to understand that while no building in the West Bank is helpful or desirable, one kind is a lot worse than another. While a change in how the U.S. views and treats settlements will lead to frustration for many and engender resentment among Palestinians, it is also the epitome of solutionism.

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.

When Zionists Boycott

October 29, 2015 § 4 Comments

Last weekend, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl, professors respectively at Harvard and Chicago (which has made for a dangerous combination in the past), arguing for a boycott of Israel. Levitsky and Weyl, both self-identified as progressive Jews and lifelong Zionists, argue that because their support for Israel is predicated in part on the Jewish state embracing universal values of human rights, their observation that the occupation of the West Bank has become permanent dictates a boycott. They write that the purpose of a boycott is to pressure Israel into altering its strategic calculations and change its behavior; in their words, “Until Israel seriously engages with a peace process that either establishes a sovereign Palestinian state or grants full democratic citizenship to Palestinians living in a single state, we cannot continue to subsidize governments whose actions threaten Israel’s long-term survival.”

Given the pedigree and prominence of the authors, this particular call to boycott Israel has caused some consternation and drawn a variety of harsh responses, with some points of substance but mostly loud verbiage questioning the authors’ fitness to comment on Israel or diagnosing their allegedly selfish emotional motivations behind writing the op-ed. If you are looking for another ad hominem attack against Levitsky and Weyl or an investigation into their psyches, you needn’t read any further since one will not be forthcoming in this space. I am more interested in demonstrating why I think the particular arguments they make are inapt and figuring out how they arrived at the view of Israel that they espouse.

I am passingly acquainted with Levitsky personally from my days at Harvard, but I am intimately acquainted with his influential and excellent work on competitive authoritarianism. Competitive authoritarian regimes are ones where the authoritarian government holds elections that can theoretically result in the opposition coming to power, but the process is not free and fair and is heavily weighted in the regime’s favor. This work on competitive authoritarianism is part of a wider literature in political science recognizing that not only are elections not a sufficient condition for democracy, but that in many cases elections are part of a wider system of placing a democratic veneer on authoritarian government. A competitive authoritarian regime may look like a democracy but behind the scenes is actually working to unfairly perpetuate its own rule; think about Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey for a current snapshot of what that looks like.

I bring this up because in reading Levitsky and Weyl’s argument, it jumps out at me that they are taking Levitsky’s work on competitive authoritarian regimes and superimposing it – inappropriately, in my view – on Israel. From their vantage point, Israel is denying basic rights to Palestinians in the West Bank, growing the settler population, mistreating its Arab minority, and generally using its advantage over the Palestinians to ensure that they live in permanent subjugation. Much like a competitive authoritarian regime holds elections that can theoretically result in a change in government but only if the opposition overcomes the significant hurdles and unfair disadvantages that the ruling party places in its path, Levitsky and Weyl see Israel periodically engaging in a peace process that can theoretically result in a Palestinian state but placing too many hurdles in the way of such a process being successful. In short, while never explicitly writing it, Levitsky and Weyl view Israel as engaging in competitive authoritarian behavior in a number of ways.

It is thus unsurprising given Levitsky’s research showing that competitive authoritarian regimes with strong ties to the West respond to pressure to democratize that he and Weyl came up with the prescription that they did. They are convinced that by isolating Israel from the West and placing its financial and diplomatic ties to the U.S. in jeopardy, it will create sufficient pressure to get Israel to take the peace process seriously and step back from the brink in ending the occupation. As they write, “We recognize that some boycott advocates are driven by opposition to (and even hatred of) Israel. Our motivation is precisely the opposite: love for Israel and a desire to save it.”

I take the authors’ professed love for Israel at face value, but the problem with their plan to address Israel’s behavior through boycotts and sanctions is that their misdiagnosis of the situation leads them to prescribe medicine that will not cure this particular disease. One of the defining characteristics of authoritarian states is that the power to alter course is entirely in the hands of the regimes; not only is there an extreme power imbalance with respect to the opposition, but the regime holds all of the cards in terms of opening up to democracy and competition. Levitsky and Weyl proceed based on an assumption that pressure on Israel will ipso facto lead to the creation of a Palestinian state and the end of an Israeli presence in the West Bank because it is in Israel’s power to do so at will given the right set of incentives. While many, including me, do not view the current Israeli government as in any way serious about the two state solution, the fact remains that successive Palestinian leaders and governments have turned down Israeli offers of statehood without so much as a counter response. This is not a scenario in which Israel can snap its fingers and create a new reality, or one in which Israel is solely to blame for the situation that exists. Israel can and should do better, particularly when it comes to settlement activity, but it does not automatically follow that a boycott of Israel will address the problem at hand, and that is without even factoring in Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

Levitsky and Weyl address head on the common critique that boycotting Israel constitutes a double standard by acknowledging that, no, Israel is not the world’s worst human rights violators, but that they also feel far more invested in Israel’s future fate than they do of other states. As someone who spends his time working on Israel rather than on Bulgaria or Comoros, I empathize with this position, but it again overlooks a crucial reality. While Levitsky and Weyl may be motivated by genuine concerns, their course of action ends up being discriminatory in effect if not in intent far beyond their limited scope. It’s one thing for them to care about Israel more than they do about China, but it’s another to actively work to ensure that Israel is treated worse, particularly given the international environment that seizes upon such efforts to argue that Israel is in fact the world’s worst violator of human rights. Just because Levitsky and Weyl acknowledge that Israel is not a rogue nation without parallel does not mean that such understanding will extend to those with a very different agenda who seize upon their call to action.

I understand the frustration with the Israeli government, with the settlement enterprise, with illiberal trends in Israeli society, and with a Jewish state that speaks for Jews everywhere irrespective of whether all Jews want to cede to it that authority. But Israel is still a democracy, and to view it as an authoritarian actor that is susceptible to pressures that work on authoritarian states leads to poor policy prescriptions. A boycott is the wrong approach, both morally and practically, and Levitsky and Weyl’s op-ed is an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

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