It’s Not The Size Of Government That Matters, But How You Use It

May 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

Every so often I feel compelled to write something that has nothing to do with Israel or Turkey, the wider Middle East, or foreign policy in general, and today is one of those days. Instead of my usual fare, let me take a brief moment and use the current controversies engulfing the Obama administration to rant about how the silly debate over the size of government is entirely misplaced. Conservatives look at the IRS targeting Tea Party groups applying for non-profit status and quite naturally take away the lesson that big government is the problem and that the size of the public sector needs to be reduced. Similarly, big government is viewed as the culprit now that news has emerged that the Department of Justice secretly seized phone records from the Associated Press and email and phone records from Fox News reporter James Rosen in the pursuit of leak investigations. The argument is that were the government not so big, such abuses, mistakes, scandals, or whatever one wants to term them would not take place because the government would not have the resources to go after its enemies or people whom it feels like targeting.

This is a nice theory, but not only is it entirely inapt in these particular cases, it threatens to divert attention from a far more serious problem that is literally a threat to our system of democracy (and no, I am not being hyperbolic). To begin with, reducing the size of government would have had no impact on these cases. In the IRS case, the evidence in the New York Times reporting suggests that the problem was a severely understaffed regional office populated by under-qualified employees who were not prepared for the flood of 501(c)(4) applications that came their way, and they thus came up with the highly problematic solution of coming up with a shortcut to isolate applications from groups that they suspected were not truly socially welfare oriented. There is no evidence to date that this was a result of political pressure from above, and in fact the IRS is made up career bureaucrats who work there for years, so it would be odd to suggest that somehow the IRS is populated with partisan liberal Democrats going on witch hunts. Rather than big government being the problem here, the truth is the opposite; were the IRS sufficiently funded and staffed, applications could actually be considered properly rather than be subjected to shortcuts designed to manage an unmanageable workload in a timely fashion. (Full disclaimer here: I work for an organization whose tax-exempt status is right now under consideration by the IRS, and I am furious that it will likely be delayed even further now due to the political uproar taking place.)

Let’s move on to the AP scandal, which is actually a much bigger deal. In this case, the DOJ went on a fishing expedition to determine who leaked information to the AP after the national security threat had passed. In other words, the White House was mad that the information was going to come out at all, and so it engaged in massive overreach in trying to find out who the leaker was in targeting phone records that were likely to be outside the narrow scope that the law permits. Furthermore, the government did not even ask the AP to comply with a request for the records before subpoenaing them, which to me says that it knew that its actions were way over the line of what is reasonable. Now, in this case as well, the problem is not a government that is too big. DOJ does not require massive amounts of funding or personnel to improperly subpoena phone records. The AP case does, however, illuminate the true problem, which is not how big the government is, but what power we allow it to acquire. The AP case is not the only one in the news involving government investigations of leaks. Fox News reporters James Rosen, who reported classified information that he was leaked about North Korea, had his work and personal phone records seized, his work and personal emails searched, his visits to the State Department tracked, and even his parents’ phone records were seized. Perhaps this is not overzealous behavior given that Rosen’s reporting may have put rare intelligence assets in North Korea at risk and so finding the leaker was of paramount importance. I am open to this argument despite having my doubts as to the necessity of casting such a wide net. But even granting that is the case, the government went one step further, and actually named Rosen in a court affidavit as a “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator.” Placing a reporter who benefits from a leak in one of these categories is literally unprecedented in American history, and if you don’t think this is a big deal that leads to a very slippery slope, then all I can say is that you are simply not paying close enough attention.

For those keeping score at home, the Obama administration has now been the first to claim the right of the government to kill an American citizen without sufficient due process of law by any reasonable definition of the term, and also the first to identify a reporter doing his First Amendment-protected job as a criminal co-conspirator. Neither of these two things have anything at all to do with the size of the government, and everything to do with the powers that we accord the government – or, more accurately in this case, the powers that the government claims unopposed. I frequently take to Twitter, as I did last week, to make a variation of the following point, which is that I do not understand how more people are not up in arms about this, and particularly Democrats. Every single datapoint from political theory and history demonstrates that once the government gains the power to do something, it never gives it back. Are we supposed to trust the White House on these issues because Obama campaigned on maintaining civil liberties despite the national security challenges the country faces, or because he gave a nice speech in 2009 at the National Archives claiming that we did not have to make any trade-offs between security and freedom? While talking the talk, the government has claimed powers under his watch that not even Bush and Cheney asserted that they had. I shudder to think of what the next administration will do given the precedents set by this one, and if you don’t think that the White House knows what a problem this is, recall that a year ago they were frantically trying to set down written legal guidelines (which so far do not exist) for the drone war since they realized how out of control things might become with a potential Romney administration.

The idea that we should trust Obama on these issues because he is a Democrat is ridiculous, and in fact it should make people even more outraged and even more willing to scream and yell and pressure the administration. I keep on waiting and waiting for someone other than Rand Paul to start raising these issues, and it is high time that Democrats do so, because before you know it, the government is going to start claiming powers in the interest of national security that are even more expansive and wider in scope. That may be fine for some people while Obama is in the White House, although I don’t quite understand why, but remember that government powers once claimed live on forever no matter how big or small that government is, and pretty soon someone else is going to be sitting in the Oval Office. Please watch Obama’s speech tomorrow that is supposed to serve as a bookend to his 2009 speech and listen carefully to what he has to say, because anything short of a repudiation of what has gone on under his gaze should be considered unacceptable.

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Guest Post: Are Turks And Americans Friends?

May 17, 2013 § 5 Comments

Today’s post comes from the great mind of Alexander Slater, who aside from being a close friend and one of my all-time favorite intellectual sparring partners is also a counsel at O’Melveny & Myers, where he works in the White Collar and Corporate Investigations practice. He has degrees from Yale, Harvard, and Oxford, is a former foreign policy adviser to Chuck Schumer, and is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Network. He and I were in Turkey together in March, and as Prime Minister Erdoğan is visiting DC this week, it is a good opportunity for Ally to expound on the gap between the constant rhetoric from the U.S. and Turkish governments about the friendship between the two countries on the one hand and the reality of the public opinion numbers on the other.

When the Obama Administration originally announced yesterday’s White House meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it explained that “[t]he Prime Minister’s visit underscores the close friendship between the United States and Turkey.” But are Turkey and the United States really friends?

This is not an idle question. As the United States’ close relations with Canada and the United Kingdom show, genuine friendships among states, as opposed to alliances based on the coincidence of national interests, can be powerful strategic assets. Especially in electoral democracies, relationships based on a mutual admiration among their people, not merely their governments, can endure beyond momentary, or even lasting, differences in foreign policies. (Canada’s refusal to join the coalition of states participating in the Iraq War is a case in point.)

Given the importance that Turkey and the United States place on their bilateral relations, then, the White House’s statement should be seen as more than polite diplomatic speak. Unfortunately, it also appears to be wrong, at least if the results from Pew Research’s 2012 Global Attitudes Survey are to be believed.

According to the survey, only 15 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States. Even fewer —only 13 percent—indicated they have a “favorable view of the American people.” (This was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed. By contrast, 32 percent of Egyptians and 39 percent of Chinese—nationals of countries with arguably more contentious relations with the United States than Turkey—had a favorable view of Americans.) These results are surprising because many people from both countries have a lot in common, even if their historical, religious, and cultural backgrounds differ.

I know this because in March I spent two weeks in Turkey as a participant in the third installment of the Young Turkey, Young America program, an intercultural exchange run jointly by the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center. As part of the program, fifteen Turks and fifteen Americans, all young professionals, spent a month together traveling across the two countries, meeting with officials from their commercial, political and civil society communities. The Pew survey results paint a very different picture than what I saw and heard during our travels.

For instance, according to the Pew survey, only 14 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ways of doing business.” (Like the results discussed above, this was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed.) And yet, while in Turkey, I saw officials and executives promote commerce and conduct business in ways similar to Americans: The Izmir Chamber of Commerce advertised how the region was a great place for investment; a government official in Ankara proclaimed that Turkey would inspire other countries as a modern economic power where markets and debtors could be trusted; and, while in Istanbul, an executive at one of Turkey’s leading conglomerates sought our ideas on using social media to promote brand development.

There seems to be a similar dynamic at play on political issues. According to the Pew survey, only 13 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ideas about democracy.” (This was the second-lowest rating, ahead of only Pakistan.) However, what I observed of the practice of politics in Turkey reminded me of these activities in America. At a meeting with an AK Party official, we saw a savvy integration of public relations and religious overtones that could have come straight out of the political handbook of Karl Rove. And almost every day during the trip, newspapers carried stories about Prime Minister Erdogan’s efforts to resolve the Kurdish conflict, including a push for constitutional reform that recognizes Kurds’ minority rights, which would make Turkey’s democracy will look more, rather than less, like its American counterpart.

A sharp critic might respond that these observations are based only on visits to the urban areas of Izmir, Ankara, and Istanbul—places where one would expect there to be convergence with Western commerce and political practice. This is true. However, together, these three regions represent approximately 30 percent of Turkey’s population and 70 percent of Turks overall are city dwellers, with more moving in every day. These places are increasingly representative of what Turkey is all about.

The issue seems to be that, among large portions of the Turkish public, there are substantial misperceptions of Americans. While recent political differences over the Syrian conflict and the Iraq War may contribute to Turks’ overall negative view of the United States, these policy problems seem unrelated to their apparently unfavorable view of American ways of doing business and democracy. This negativity is all the more surprising given that President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan reportedly have a deep personal relationship.

As the survey data shows, however, a connection between leaders, no matter how popular they are, is not enough to create friendship among peoples: if the two administrations are intent on forming an American-Turkish alliance built on more than a coincidence of interests, they must also devote effort to building up its foundations. One place to start would be to add to a future agenda the development of a bilateral strategy to emphasize domestically what Turks and Americans have in common.

Netanyahu’s Outburst Is Not About The Presidential Campaign

September 13, 2012 § 5 Comments

We Americans have a tendency to look at situations and think that they revolve around us. The best recent example of this has been the debate over America’s role in the Arab Spring (or Arab Awakening, Islamist Winter, or whatever other term people are using these days) and the view that the U.S. was somehow the decisive actor in determining whether or not regimes fell. We can debate all day whether President Obama was right to withdraw support for Hosni Mubarak – and I for one firmly think that he was – but there is simply no question that Mubarak would have fallen anyway even if the U.S. had backed him to the hilt. The revolution in Egypt was not about us, nor did we have the ability or wherewithal to control it. Yet this idea persists that “we needed to back our allies” and that Mubarak would still be the modern day pharaoh of Cairo had we wanted him to stay put, all stemming from this mistaken paradigm that insists on seeing all world events as revolving around the U.S. In many, if not most, instances, political events overseas have little to do with the U.S. in more than a tangential manner, and even when they do involve the U.S., it is in an indirect way.

This brings me to the latest dustup between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, which began when Netanyahu responded to Hillary Clinton’s statement that the U.S. did not see a need to issue any red lines over Iran by saying, “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” This was of course a direct reference to the U.S. and set off all sorts of reverberations, beginning with Israel letting it be known that the White House had rejected a request for a meeting between the two leaders, Obama and Netanyahu speaking on the phone for an hour late Tuesday night, and Senator Barbara Boxer releasing an astonishing letter that she sent to Netanyahu in which she wrote, “Your remarks are utterly contrary to the extraordinary United States-Israel alliance, evidenced by President Obama’s record and the record of Congress,” and “I am stunned by the remarks that you made this week regarding U.S. support for Israel. Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel?”

The fireworks between the two countries were immediately interpreted as Netanyahu’s attempt to leverage the U.S. presidential campaign season against Obama. The very first sentence of the New York Times story on the affair is “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel inserted himself into the most contentious foreign policy issue of the American presidential campaign on Tuesday, criticizing the Obama administration for refusing to set clear ‘red lines’ on Iran’s nuclear progress that would prompt the United States to undertake a military strike.” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote, “Now Netanyahu seems determined, more than ever, to alienate the President of the United States and, as an ally of Mitt Romney’s campaign, to make himself a factor in the 2012 election—one no less pivotal than the most super Super PAC.” The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu’s statement lashing out at the administration over the lack of red lines on Iran is an attempt to force Obama’s hand before the election or to create enough problems for Obama with pro-Israel voters and groups that it will swing the election to Romney. In short, Andrew Sullivan’s most dire prediction come to life.

The focus on the presidential campaign is a misreading of what is actually going on here that stems from the American pathology I laid out at the top of this post. Netanyahu’s harsh words are not aimed at the presidential race but are a result of what I imagine to be his deep and maddening frustration that he cannot force an Israeli strike on Iran. The point of Netanyahu’s verbal barrage is not to sabotage Obama or influence the 2012 vote for president, and in fact is only directed at the U.S. because he has already emptied his chamber on Israeli leaders opposed to a strike and cannot publicly criticize the person – Ehud Barak – with whom he is actually frustrated. Barak has reportedly changed his mind about the wisdom of an Israeli strike because he has come to realize what it will mean for U.S.-Israel relations, and without Barak on board any hopes Netanyahu has of taking out Iranian nuclear facilities are completely dashed. Netanyahu cannot go after Barak, however, since he cannot afford to alienate him or to let everyone know that the two men are no longer of one mind on this issue, and so he is reduced to directing his intemperate words at the U.S. and the Obama administration as the indirect causes of his current anger. Netanyahu’s outburst is not about the presidential campaign or presidential politics, but about what he views as an Israeli national security imperative that is being stymied by an array of forces. The fact that this is campaign season in the U.S. is only incidental, since Netanyahu would have issued a similar statement at the beginning or middle of a presidential term. His prism is an Israeli one, not an American one, and his focus is on Iran rather than on U.S. politics. Believe it or not, Israel has other concerns aside from the Obama-Romney contest. Yes, what is going on in the U.S. obviously impacts this entire issue, but the notion that what Bibi said yesterday is about the presidential campaign here is just the latest data point for the case that knowledge of Israeli politics on this side of the ocean remains poor.

Obama, Erdoğan, And The Infamous Baseball Bat

August 3, 2012 § 3 Comments

For those who haven’t been paying attention, President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan spoke on the phone on Monday about the situation in Syria, but apparently far more newsworthy is the fact that, as seen in this photo, Obama was holding a baseball bat during their conversation. This has caused an uproar, with reporters asking White House press secretary Jay Carney whether there is a hidden meaning or symbolic message to be gleaned from the fact that Obama had what I assume is a Louisville Slugger in his hand. A columnist in the Asia Times summed up the message that Turks must have taken away from the picture, writing that “the Turks could see any number of reasons: Obama was likely grandstanding as a tough world leader; possibly, threatening Bashar; maybe, impressing Israel and Saudi Arabia – or, Iran and Russia. But they calmly concluded that Obama was conveying a blunt message to Erdogan to speed up the ‘regime change’ in Syria: ‘Whack Bashar, ErdoganBey’.” In fact, the baseball bat aroused so many questions in Turkey that the White House was forced to issue a statement clarifying that the sole purpose of posting the picture online was highlight the close relationship between Obama and Erdoğan.

While this appears to be nothing more than a silly incident, it actually holds some interesting lessons for the U.S.-Turkey relationship. To my American eyes, it is pretty obvious what is going on here; the administration released a photo during an election season that portrays Obama as a regular guy. He is holding a baseball bat, which shows that he is a baseball fan/sports aficionado, and it also shows him in a casual pose. A lot of times when I am working, I have a ball in my hand that I throw up and down since it helps me think, and if Obama has a similar tic, it helps voters identify with him, as silly and superficial as that may be. Had the caption on the photo informed us that Obama was talking on the phone to Harry Reid, nobody would have given it a second glance.

Obama wasn’t talking to Harry Reid though, which makes all the difference and is why it was foolish for the White House to send the photo out. To Turkish eyes, the fact that Obama was holding a bat while talking to Erdoğan about Syria might be wrought with symbolism and suggest that Obama is conveying the message to Erdoğan to get tougher with Bashar al-Assad. More likely, and quite understandably from the Turkish point of view, Obama holding a bat while talking to the Turkish prime minister is viewed as being disrespectful, and it plays on longstanding Turkish fears that the U.S. does not take Turkey seriously or view Turkey as an equal. The casual message that the White House wants to send to American voters conveys a very different and more damaging message to the Turks, and after nearly four years in office, the White House needs to be more aware of this type of stuff. The fact that the Turkish opposition saw the political utility in bringing up the bat incident is indicative that the whole thing is not just seen as a throwaway photo, but that it plays on fears that the U.S. essentially uses Turkey when it is convenient but does not accord Turkey the respect that it deserves. So in the future, the U.S. needs to be more mindful that the way things play here is not necessarily the way things play abroad, and that is particularly true when the political imagery involves a foreign country. As for Turkey? Well, sometimes a bat is just a bat.

Obama and Erdoğan

June 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

David Ignatius’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post argued that the heart of the U.S.-Turkey relationship is the one between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan. Ignatius detailed the way in which Obama has asked Erdoğan for a number of favors, such as reopening the Halki seminary and installing the X-Band radar system in Turkey, with the implication being that such moves would never have occurred had Obama not assiduously worked to develop a close friendship with his Turkish counterpart. Ignatius concludes with the following: “It seems fair to say that no world leader has a greater stake in Obama’s reelection than the Turkish prime minister.”

It’s tough to argue with the notion that the Obama-Erdoğan relationship has paid dividends for both countries. By all accounts, the two men like and trust each other, and this mutual respect and friendship definitely makes things easier. It is no coincidence, for instance, that Obama relies on Erdoğan to convey messages to Iran. I think that Ignatius takes things a bit too far though, and is ignoring important structural factors to instead tell a good story that chalks everything up to a personal relationship. The clues to what is really going on lie in Ignatius’s piece itself, where he notes that since the AKP has come to power Turkey’s annual average growth rate is 5.3% and its GDP and foreign reserves have tripled, and refers to Turkey’s regional ascendancy and the darkening of the Arab Spring. Turkey is a country that is unmistakably on the rise, and the U.S. heavily relies on it now and will continue to do so in the future because Turkey is a NATO member and has credibility in the Arab world, a vibrant economy with a large merchant class, a large and modernly equipped military, and most importantly a democratic political system. No matter who the president is come January 20, the U.S. is going to be leaning on Turkey to advance its interests in the Middle East, and Turkey has embraced its bridging role wholeheartedly.

Let’s take the two foreign policy examples Ignatius mentions, the X-Band radar and Turkey’s reversal on Libya. He says that Obama persuaded Erdoğan on both of these issues, but Turkey’s coming around on both of them likely would have happened anyway. The radar system was a NATO priority, and when push comes to shove, Turkey is not going to piss off its NATO allies or weaken its own defense umbrella by letting Iran dictate what security measures it takes. On Libya, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu quickly realized that Turkey had misread things and stumbled early on, and given that Ankara lagged behind on Syria, they aren’t going to make that same mistake again. Where the relationship between the two leaders factors in is that Obama might have convinced Erdoğan to install the NATO radar in a quicker fashion, which is certainly useful and important but also ancillary to the main point, which is that it was firmly in Turkey’s interests to do so no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office. The same goes for prying Turkey away from Iran. I have noted in the past that Turkey is looking to disentangle from Iran for economic reasons, and while Obama is certainly able to speed this process along by appealing to Erdoğan personally, it would be slowly taking place anyway. Turkey does not want to play the part with Iran that Russia is now playing with Syria of being its international patron and defender, and Erdoğan does not need Obama to convince him of that.

This is not to minimize the value of personal relationships in the conduct of foreign policy. I have heard multiple people who have served in high government positions stress that the one thing that surprised them most about their job was how much personalities and relationships matter, and I am certainly in no position to argue with this given my absence of firsthand knowledge. Yet, the fact remains that states are going to generally act within their own interests, broadly defined, and Ignatius does not point to anything that has specifically happened from a foreign policy standpoint that would have been different were Obama and Erdoğan not good buddies. No doubt Erdoğan treasures and benefits from his relationship with Obama and wants to see him reelected, but if Mitt Romney is our next president, I don’t think that Erdoğan needs to be too worried about anything.

Friday Gallimaufry

June 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Since there isn’t any one particular subject that I feel compelled to write about today, I thought I’d pay tribute to my all-time favorite website and share some brief thoughts on a bunch of interesting items in the news.

Israeli politicians this week can’t seem to keep their feet out of their mouths. First Kadima MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich called for “all human rights activists” to be arrested, imprisoned, and then “transported to camps we are building.” The camps she is referring to are detention centers the government is building for migrants who are entering Israel illegally, but Shamalov-Berkovich apparently thinks they can be put to better use for people whose views she simply doesn’t like. Not to be outdone, Shas MK and Interior Minister Eli Yishai called South Tel Aviv – which has become an African immigrant stronghold – the garbage can of the country and claimed that many Israeli women have been raped by African migrants but are not coming forward and reporting it because they are afraid of the stigma of AIDS. He did not provide any evidence for this assertion, and was immediately rebutted by those who would know better. Somehow I get the feeling that Eli Yishai might be an Antoine Dodson fan.

The New York Times has a long report on President Obama’s efforts to launch an all-out cyber war against Iran’s nuclear program, detailing his decision to accelerate the cyber attacks in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. I look forward to the spin from the usual quarters explaining how this demonstrates that Obama hates Israel, has no desire to prevent a nuclear Iran, and is selling out Israel’s security in order to curry favor with Muslims.

Also in the NYT today is a story about the Russian Orthodox Church’s opposition to intervention in Syria and how this in some ways guides Russian policy. Vladimir Putin has turned to the church for political support, and the church’s mission of protecting Christian minorities in the Middle East is bumping up against any Russian will to get rid of Assad (to the extent that any really exists at all). This is a useful reminder of what an immensely powerful religious lobby actually looks like and how it affects a state’s foreign policy, as opposed to an intellectually lazy and factually questionable argument along the same lines.

Finally, this op-ed by New York-based Turkish reporter Aydoğan Vatandaş on how U.S.-Israeli relations and its impact on American Jews affects the U.S. presidential race was interesting for a bunch of reasons. First, the reasons that Vatandaş lists for why the Israeli government is disappointed with the Obama administration includes the U.S. relationship with Turkey and focuses on Turkey’s request for Predator drones. I don’t think that Israel expects the U.S. to ditch Turkey, and I also don’t think that Israel is overly concerned about the U.S. selling Predators to Ankara for strategic reasons, since if Turkey and Israel ever actually exchanged hostilities, drones would not play a role. Israel does not, however, want the U.S. to sell Predators to Turkey simply as a way of pressuring Turkey to reconcile, and Vatandaş is strangely optimistic that the sale will occur, which has almost no chance of getting through Congress at the moment. The other thing that jumped out at me was some of the questionable or overly simplistic analysis, capped off by the conclusion, which reads, “It may sound strange, but what I have observed in America is that most American Jews today define themselves as Jews but also tend to be very secular. And, in terms of politics, they tend to be very liberal.” This is a fairly obvious point to any American who follows politics, but to a Turkish audience it might not be, and it got me wondering about whether my own analysis of Turkey reads as simplistically (or perhaps wrongly) to a Turkish audience. Something to think about…

Obama and Israeli Politics

March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

There is a lot of buzz about this Peter Beinart piece on President Obama’s mismanaging his strategy toward the Israel and the peace process. Leaving aside the larger question about what it says about whether Obama is pro-Israel or not (and for the record, I firmly believe that he is, and I think it becomes clear when looking at the substance of his actions rather than his sometimes puzzling rhetoric) a couple of things jump out at me.

First, Obama and his team criminally misread the state of Israeli politics and public opinion. Beinart reports that the White House believed that no Israeli PM could afford to alienate any U.S. president and that American pressure on Obama would force Netanyahu to back down. Yet the administration did not take into account the high levels of unpopularity and mistrust Israelis felt toward Obama in 2009. The president’s popularity rating, which had been 31% in according to a Jerusalem Post poll in May 2009, plummeted to 6% following his public push for a settlement freeze, and his Cairo speech -with its emphasis on the Holocaust as the reason for Israel’s creation despite the decades of pre-WWII Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine – did himself no favors with the Israeli electorate. Furthermore, Israelis were then and still are baffled by Obama’s trips to Ankara, Cairo, and Jakarta without a stopover in Jerusalem. So while it is generally true that Israeli PMs have suffered politically following high profile disagreements with American presidents, the deep wariness Israelis had for Obama made this situation different. The complete misreading of the situation is all the more surprising considering that one would expect Rahm Emanuel to have had a good grasp of the state of Israeli politics.

Second, the theory that Netanyahu would fold like he had during the Clinton administration completely ignored the fact that Israel has a proportional representation voting system that requires building a coalition to control the Knesset, and that Bibi’s coalition this time is different from his last one. In the late 90s, the Netanyahu coalition consisted of Likud, a religious bloc of Shas, Mafdal, and UTJ, Third Way, and Yisrael BaAliyah. While Likud was obviously not a big advocate of the peace process, it was the entity that Bibi controlled and would have gone along with any decision he made. Certainly the later example of Ariel Sharon orchestrating the Gaza pullout and the formation of Kadima demonstrates the power of the PM to carry out initiatives that run contrary to his or her previous positions. Shas and UTJ have always been concerned first and foremost with securing subsidies for their ultra-Orthodox constituents, and have in the past been part of governments that were less extreme on settlements and conducted peace negotiations. While Mafdal during the last decade of its life was largely a settler party, it was not one when it was in the Netanyahu coalition between ’96 and ’99, and also would have acquiesced to a shift in policy. Third Way was a Labor breakaway, and Yisrael BaAliyah was Natan Sharansky’s party and existed to cater to the needs of Russian olim. The point here is that Bibi’s coalition during his first stint as PM was not dependent on settler support and continued settlement growth, and thus pressure from an American president on settlements and peace process issues was able to be effective.

Fast forward a decade to 2009, and the situation was completely flipped. In 2009, Likud came in second in Knesset elections, losing to Kadima by one seat, but Kadima was not able to form a coalition precisely because of its stance on settlements and the peace process. This meant that when Netanyahu and Likud got their chance to build a coalition to control the Knesset, they were overly dependent on hawkish and settler-dominated parties, and thus the coalition was Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu (led by Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler), Shas (which has become far more hardline on settlements due to its member feeling alienated by pro-peace upper and middle class secular Ashkenazi Jews), and Labor, which served in the government so that Ehud Barak could be defense minister. For Obama’s pressure to work on Netanyahu in 2009, he would have had to reverse himself on the settlement issue, which would have fatally blown up his coalition. The only way he would have been able to stay in power would have been through an alliance with Kadima, but having won more seats than Likud did, Tzipi Livni would never have consented to joining a coalition in which she was not PM.

So while the Obama administration’s idea about Israeli PMs not being able to survive public conflicts with American presidents may be correct in theory, they neglected to think the entire strategy through and take into account the various ways in which the Israeli political climate in 2009 was going to present them with a number of insurmountable roadblocks.

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