Who’s Going To Win Tomorrow’s Israeli Election?

March 16, 2015 § 5 Comments

Israeli politics is massively entertaining and raucous under normal circumstances, but tomorrow’s election is particularly special since for the first time in awhile, the outcome is entirely up in the air. Nobody knows with any real degree of certainty who will emerge victorious or how the coalition horse trading will conclude or even who is going to get the first shot at building that coalition. Americans – me very much included – spend lots of time watching shows like House of Cards, Scandal, Game of Thrones, and others that provide twists and turns that hinge on varying degrees of political surprises, but there is nothing like the real thing, and Israel’s election is certain to provide that. If you haven’t been paying attention, you’re missing the best reality show that exists.

Anybody who is confident that they know who the ultimate winner will be is demagoguing and I do not claim any clairvoyant powers, so take everything that follows with a grain of salt as it is nothing more than my best guess based on the last polls that were published on Friday and some intuition developed after years of closely paying attention to Israeli political trends. Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable; large classes of voters are disproportionately inaccessible to pollsters (Haredim, Arabs, immigrants, working poor), Israeli voters are fickle and in many cases do not decide until the last minute, and the proportional representation system presents a fundamental dilemma of voting strategically versus voting your conscience. For instance, pretend that you are a lifelong Meretz voter stepping up to the ballot box on Tuesday. You are almost certainly secular, liberal, Ashkenazi, living in Tel Aviv or its immediate environs, and you despise Netanyahu with a burning passion. In the last election, you knew that the left had no shot at forming the government and so there was no reason not to vote for Meretz. In this election, however, the last polls gave the Machane Tziyoni (Zionist Camp) alliance led by Herzog and Livni a four point lead over Likud, and you know that at least a four point margin is likely required if Zionist Camp is to be given the first shot at forming the government. So voting for Meretz and the leftist bloc overall is actually not cost-free even though your vote for Meretz is functionally a vote for a Herzog government, as Herzog needs as much as a lead as he can get over Netanyahu in order to get a chance at building a coalition. The Habayit Hayehudi voter at the opposite end of the spectrum is faced with the same choice; voting for the far-right party that is guaranteed to be part of a Netanyahu coalition risks empowering the leftist (and yes, that is a dirty word to your typical rightwing Israeli voter), defeatist, if not outright anti-Zionist Herzog and Livni, and so do you swallow your principles and vote for Likud directly, or do you vote for Habayit Hayehudi and Naftali Bennett as the only way of keeping Netanyahu honest and guaranteeing that a Likud government will never compromise on settlements and giving up land? This is all a roundabout way of saying that Nate Silver’s sorcery would never work on the Israeli election, because the polls are a guidepost but are not entirely trustworthy.

Assuming that the final polling results hold up – and I don’t think that they necessarily will – it is going to be very hard for Herzog and Livni to form a government. The last Channel 2 poll had Zionist Camp at 25, Likud at 21, Joint Arab List at 13, Yesh Atid at 11, Habayit Hayehudi at 11, Kulanu at 9, Shas at 9, UTJ at 6, Yisrael Beiteinu at 6, Meretz at 5, and Yachad at 4. We can safely assume that Zionist Camp, Yesh Atid, and Meretz are a united bloc, which is 41 seats. Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, and Yachad will not join with that group under any circumstances and they hold 36 seats, which leaves a leftwing government needing to pick up 20 seats from the 43 remaining. The 13 seats held by the Arab list can be used to block Netanyahu and Likud, but since the Arab list is not going to sit with Zionist parties barring a momentous and unprecedented policy change, Herzog actually needs to find 20 seats from the 30 represented by Kulanu, Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas and UTJ have sat with leftwing governments in the past, but even if they are willing to do so again, neither they or Lapid will sit with each other. Yisrael Beiteinu, which is led by Avigdor Lieberman, won’t sit with Meretz (and vice versa). Herzog could potentially pick up Kulanu, but he’d still need to somehow break the logjam between Lapid and the Haredi parties in order to get to the magic number of 61. In other words, Zionist Camp can beat Likud and the ideological leftwing bloc can beat the ideological rightwing bloc, and Herzog still has an almost impossible uphill climb to form a coalition. Not many people foresaw the bizarre Lapid-Bennett alliance two years ago and so I’m not willing to say that Herzog cannot somehow work some sort of combination of magic and legalized bribery in order to cobble something together, but it would be pretty much the most unworkable coalition in Israeli history and would be on death watch from day one. The one big wrinkle would be if the Arab list decides that actual political power is worth compromising on its principles and joins the coalition, but even then Herzog is not home free as Kahlon has publicly stated that he will not sit in a government that is dependent on the Joint Arab List for seats, which means convincing the Haredi parties to sit with Lapid, Meretz, and Arab parties. In other words, I wouldn’t be putting very much money on the next prime minister being Buji Herzog.

Netanyahu’s path is also difficult, but far less so. He starts with 36 and needs another 25 out of the remaining 30, but Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beiteinu sat in Netanyahu’s 2009 coalition and are all natural Likud partners. Those three parties get him to 57, meaning that Netanyahu’s fate hinges upon Kahlon. On the one hand, Kahlon is a former Likud minister whose list includes Netanyahu’s first term ambassador to the U.S. (Michael Oren) and whose support is drawn from Mizrahi traditional Likud supporters. On the other, Kahlon left Likud for a reason, starting with the fact that his stance on socioeconomic issues – which is his raison d’être in politics – is way out of whack with Likud and the right generally, and his base of voters has become disillusioned with Likud after feeling like it has been taken for granted and leans more left on economic issues. That Kahlon has stated as his goal to be appointed finance minister also cuts both ways. Netanyahu publicly promised over the weekend that Kahlon would be finance minister in his government irrespective of the number of seats Kulanu wins (an offer that Kahlon refused to accept before the election), and this is a promise that Herzog cannot match given his pledge to appoint Manuel Trajtenberg as finance minister should Zionist Camp form the next government. Despite this, it is hard to imagine Kahlon being more empowered to implement his agenda of lowering housing costs and regulating Israel’s banking system under a Likud government than he would be under a Labor government, and Kahlon know this full well. Again, I claim no clairvoyance to know what Kahlon is thinking or what his natural inclination is before both sides start wooing him in earnest, but I do know that he appears to control the only viable path to a third consecutive Netanyahu term, and you can bet that Netanyahu will move heaven and earth to gain Kahlon’s support. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it’s good to be the king(maker).

Assuming that Kahlon does not want to enthrone Bibi, it means that Israel is headed for a national unity government. That could happen right away if Kahlon and Lieberman (natural allies in many ways given that they are both immigrants who came of age in Likud and now head parties that champion socially rightwing voters who have traditionally been poor and on the margins of Israeli society) decide that they will not recommend either Netanyahu or Herzog to President Rubi Rivlin and instead insist on a short-lived national unity government (and if they do this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Yair Lapid, with his finger perpetually to the wind, do the same). It could also happen after three or six weeks of drawn out haggling with no resolution. If this happens, it would mean Netanyahu and Herzog agreeing to a prime ministerial rotation, and I have my doubts as to whether Bibi would actually accept such a scenario or would resign instead. In any event, for those who are still following along here, the sum total of this is that I am expecting either a third Netanyahu term or a national unity government, and which one occurs hinges entirely on Moshe Kahlon.

A few other small things to watch out for if you’re keeping score at home. First is whether Meretz, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Yachad clear the new higher electoral threshold of 3.25%, up from a previous 2%. While I suspect they will all squeak in – and frankly, you almost have to be rooting for YB and Lieberman not to make it for poetic justice purposes since he engineered the higher threshold in an effort to keep the Arab parties out in a move that backfired ever so spectacularly – the one I am keeping my eye on is Meretz, since it will not surprise me if Meretz is kept out of the Knesset. Meretz has basically been on a long and slow 15 year decline, but the pressure is really on now because I expect some Meretz voters to defect to Zionist Camp now that the left smells blood in the water and is riding the momentum of the final polls putting Herzog and Livni in first place. If Meretz does not make it in, this places Herzog’s path to becoming prime minister even further out of reach.

Second is the bad blood – and that’s putting it mildly – between Yachad leader Eli Yishai and Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the man whom Yishai replaced as head of Shas and who then had his revenge by replacing Yishai. In an effort to get back at Deri, Yishai split from Shas, initiating a nasty internecine fight and invoking insults directed at Deri from beyond the grave by deceased Shas spiritual leader and founder Ovadia Yosef. Yishai and Deri are mortal enemies, and having the two of them in the same coalition might present some problems as well.

And lastly, a final word about the polls. As I indicated, I don’t particularly trust in their accuracy, and I am guessing that they will be wrong in a few ways. First, I think that Likud will gain back some votes at Habayit Hayehudi’s expense as rightwing voters are freaked out by the late Zionist Camp surge in the polls, and decide to throw their support behind Netanyahu despite their general fatigue with him. Second, socioeconomic issues are dominating people’s concerns, and that will translate into unexpectedly strong showings for Yesh Atid and Kulanu at the expense of Zionist Camp and Shas. Since I want to give everyone the opportunity to mock how far off I am, my final spot predictions for the election are as follows:

Likud – 23
Zionist Union – 22
Yesh Atid -15
Joint Arab List – 12
Kulanu – 12

Habayit Hayehudi – 11
UTJ – 7
Shas – 6
Yisrael Beiteinu – 4
Meretz – 4
Yachad – 4

My Quick Takeaway from Bibi’s Speech

March 4, 2015 § 10 Comments

I doubt there’s anyone reading this who didn’t watch (or at least read the transcript of) Bibi Netanyahu’s speech themselves yesterday, and everyone has their own well-informed opinions by now so I don’t feel the need to comment too extensively. I did want to flag just a few things though that I found interesting or significant.

1. Coming into the speech, the conventional wisdom on the right was that Netanyahu was going to inform Congress and the world of all the worrisome details in the emerging Iran nuclear deal that the administration has been withholding, and the conventional wisdom on the left was that Netanyahu was going to bash the administration and argue that nothing short of military action will halt Iran’s inevitable march to a bomb. Netanyahu actually did neither of those things, and I found his speech to be relatively tame. As I expected (which you know if you were following me on Twitter yesterday morning), he was conciliatory toward Obama and the Democrats and clearly realized that there was no further benefit to stoking the fire, and he didn’t say anything new in his speech that he hasn’t said before. I found the first half that catalogued Iran’s various sins somewhat unnecessary, as nobody to be taken seriously is arguing that Iran is a positive actor or a force for good in the world, but I also happen to agree with Bibi’s characterization of Iran as a revisionist state engaged in all sorts of unsavory and troublesome behavior around the world, so perhaps there are some who needed the reminder. I do not think that he hit a home run as nothing he said will convince anyone on the fence to change their views, but I also do not think that he struck out since predictions of a confrontational, bombastic, offensive Netanyahu were wrong.

2. I wrote yesterday that I was listening for a viable alternative to the administration’s current approach, and Netanyahu did not offer that exactly. His prescription was to negotiate a better deal, but the details of how one goes about doing that were non-existent. Is it replacing John Kerry and Wendy Sherman with negotiators more inclined to yell and throw a chair or two? Is it passing a sanctions bill now, before negotiations have concluded, to put more pressure on the Iranian side? Is it to pull out of negotiations unless Iran drops any demands that cross certain red lines, like a sunset clause (which if I were negotiating things on the U.S. side would be a deal breaker for me)? Natan Sachs makes a great point in Ha’aretz, which is that trying to torpedo this deal before things have run their course makes it much likelier that the administration will rush to sign an agreement even if it isn’t an ideal one, and that is obviously a very suboptimal outcome. I wish Netanyahu had been specific about how he thinks a better deal can be achieved, since it’s very easy to tear something down but far harder to do so constructively.

3. While I don’t think the speech will move the needle at all in terms of whether individual congressmen are in favor or opposed to talks, more sanctions, etc. I think it’s likely to have motivated more members to approve the Menendez-Corker bill in the works that will require congressional approval of any agreement. This is a good development, not a bad one. Even leaving aside that the executive branch has steadily gobbled up more and more power for decades and destroyed nearly any balance between the branches – a development sorely in need of a corrective – tacking on explicit legislative approval creates the two-level game that is required to get the better deal that Netanyahu believes is out there. If Obama or Kerry can turn to the Iranians and make the case that there are certain elements that simply will not pass Congress and that including those elements will scuttle any negotiated deal, it gives them more leverage in the negotiations since it convincingly self-binds them within a demarcated framework of what is and is not acceptable. It lets the U.S. negotiating team play good cop to Congress’s bad cop, and it can only create a better outcome for the U.S. side (assuming that Iran is serious about negotiating).

4. Far and away the most significant element to the speech is not anything that Netanyahu said, but what he left out, and I am baffled as to why this hasn’t been picked up on more widely. For the first time in awhile, Netanyahu did not insist on his oft-repeated demand that Iran be left with zero enrichment capability, and I assume that this was intentional. If Netanyahu is resigned to a deal happening and wants to make sure that it is one that Israel can live with, dropping the zero enrichment demand is the biggest and most important concession he can make since it creates a space that allows U.S. expectations and Israeli expectations to overlap, not to mention the fact that zero enrichment was a fantasy that was simply never going to happen. So long as Netanyahu was demanding no enrichment at any level, there was not going to be an outcome that he could live with. The fact that he did not repeat it suggests to me that he is taking a more realistic and more reasonable view of things, particularly since low level enrichment was always a red herring – the only number that matters is 20% and higher for breakout purposes – and for the first time, he is actually helping a deal along. I give him lots of credit for this, and I don’t particularly care whether he did it because he realized that demanding zero enrichment made no sense from a technical perspective or whether he did it because he realized that it was just not a realistic demand and hence decided to be pragmatic about things. Either way, people should take this for the positive development that it is, and hope that the aftermath of this speech is that it has created the necessary space for a better deal by enlarging the part of the Venn diagram where the U.S. and Israel overlap.

What To Listen For In Netanyahu’s Speech Today

March 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

This morning’s Bibi Netanyahu speech to Congress is must-see tv if for no other reason than to observe the culmination of all the histrionics of the past month, but there is also one key thing in my view to keep an eye out for. Netanyahu’s goal is to make the case that the Obama administration is moving down a dangerous path with the Iran nuclear negotiations (although there are signs today that Iran may be looking for excuses not to sign a deal anyway) since allowing Iran to retain any nuclear capability or the ability to enrich uranium means that a nuclear breakout is inevitable, and that the world cannot and should not tolerate a nuclear Iran. We know that Netanyahu believes that a nuclear deal will not avert this result, and that it may even hasten it by confirming Iran’s right to enrich uranium and easing sanctions that make it harder for Iran to build a bomb, but we haven’t yet heard from him what his alternative is. I agree that a nuclear Iran is a terrible outcome, and a deal with a sunset clause that imposes no restrictions on Iran past the cessation of an agreement in the hopes that a new government will be lodged in Tehran is dangerously naive, but the alternatives bandied about do not accomplish the stated goal either. I’ve written about why I think the right deal is the best shot for preventing an Iranian bomb, but for those who disagree, I haven’t yet heard a convincing argument about what should happen instead.

If negotiations break down or Iran rejects a deal, then the options left are a) do nothing; b) impose harsher sanctions and wait for Iran to come back to the table or for the regime to fall; or c) bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and/or wage a wider air and ground campaign. The first option of doing nothing may end up what happens given the difficulty of rallying already-reluctant countries for a different and more confrontational course of action, and this would certainly be a disaster, as it would allow Iran to proceed with its nuclear program uninhibited. The third option – military action – is also not going to prevent a bomb. Destroying Iranian nuclear facilities is a band-aid rather a permanent solution as they can – and will – easily be rebuilt, and it would unquestionably harden Iranian resolve to put facilities underground and go full out for a bomb as quickly as possible on the logic that the only way to deter future attacks is to become a nuclear power. There is very little chance that it will make Iran rethink its desire to gain weaponized nuclear capability, and unless the U.S., Israel, or some broader coalition is willing to make bombing runs every two years like clockwork, I can think of no more reliable way to ensure an Iranian bomb in the future. This is without even mentioning that sustained military action against Iran every few years would cause an inconceivable mess to U.S. interests and power in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria…the list goes on. As for the option of reenacting the Gulf War but this time in Iran, that is a pipe dream and will never happen; there’s no political support for it and even less military support for it.

This leaves the option that I think most deal opponents have in mind, which is harsher sanctions in an effort to get Iran to either voluntarily stop its program, force Iran into coming back to the negotiating table with a more conciliatory stance, or bring down the regime. While this sounds great in theory, I don’t see how to realistically connect the dots and turn this from theory into reality. Harsher sanctions are more likely to have the same effect as a limited bombing run given that Iran has abided by the interim deal so far according to all of the available evidence, and following up its compliance with an interim deal by imposing harsher sanctions will lead to the logical conclusion on the Iranians’ part that the only way to break the impasse is not through more concessions – as doing so may lead to yet more sanctions based on recent history – but to dash for a bomb. In other words, Iran is going to look at its expected payoffs and reasonably conclude that surviving sanctions and going nuclear yields a more certain benefit than making more concessions. Again, this may be satisfying to the U.S. and Israel in the interim as Iran’s economy crumbles even more, but it won’t achieve the ultimate outcome of preventing a nuclear Iran. The other big problem is that harsher sanctions only work with a buy-in from Europe, Russia, and China, and if the perception is that the U.S. is the unreasonable party, then a more crippling sanctions regime will be an impossible sell. This is why I still think a deal – and a good deal, rather than any deal – has to be pursued, and I don’t see that the other options on the table actually accomplish the ultimate goal.

So this is all a long way of saying that if Netanyahu gets up before Congress in an hour and gives a stemwinder trashing the deal – which I expect him to do – but does not then move to the necessary coda, which is what should come in place of a deal and what plausible and enactable ideas he has to prevent a nuclear Iran, then he will not have accomplished his objectives. It isn’t enough to say what you don’t like if you have no solution for what to do instead. There’s no question that an Iranian bomb is a disastrous outcome; there’s no question that reports about the status of the negotiations are worrisome. A serious speech from Netanyahu will suggest a way forward that is more to his liking rather than offering up a hope and a prayer.

Israel Is Now Officially A Political Football

February 25, 2015 § 3 Comments

With more odd goings on yesterday surrounding Bibi’s upcoming speech to Congress, I thought I’d give my quick take on what I think is actually taking place, as it seems to make little sense on the face of it. On Monday, Democratic senators Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein invited Netanyahu to a closed door meeting with Senate Democrats while he is in Washington next week, explicitly tying their invitation to a desire for avoiding “lasting repercussions” stemming from the damage they allege has been done to the U.S.-Israel relationship due to Netanyahu’s speech turning Israel into a partisan political issue. On Tuesday, Netanyahu declined the invitation to meet, writing to the senators, “Though I greatly appreciate your kind invitation to meet with Democratic Senators, I believe that doing so at this time could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit.” Durbin followed that with a statement saying, “We offered the Prime Minister an opportunity to balance the politically divisive invitation from Speaker Boehner with a private meeting with Democrats who are committed to keeping the bipartisan support of Israel strong. His refusal to meet is disappointing to those of us who have stood by Israel for decades.” For a lot of people, Netanyahu electing not to meet with Democratic senators and offending two senior and staunchly pro-Israel members of that group in the process is a puzzling decision at best, and a confirmation of his overt partisanship in favor of Republicans at worst. Whatever your view of Netanyahu, rejecting the offer to meet does not seem to be doing Israel any favors in terms of restoring whatever bipartisan support has been lost over the past month.

What’s really going on here is not, however, quite so cut and dry. Just as John Boehner was playing politics and using Israel to put the White House in an awkward position when he and Ron Dermer concocted the invitation for Netanyahu to speak before Congress, the Democrats are doing the same thing here to the Republicans and using Israel to score political points. By inviting Netanyahu, Durbin and Feinstein were setting him up in a way that made it impossible for him to win and impossible for them to lose. Had Netanyahu accepted the invitation to meet with Senate Democrats – and only Senate Democrats – behind closed doors, it would have been an implicit admission on his part that the speech to Congress was indeed a partisan maneuver intended to benefit Republicans and embarrass the White House, and that this was an appropriate way of belatedly balancing things out. After giving a gift to the GOP and having it backfire, meeting with Senate Democrats would have sent the message that a chastised Netanyahu had understood that he screwed things up, and that in order to set things right he’d have to give something to the Democrats in return. The benefit to the Democrats here would have been twofold: public confirmation of the what they’d been arguing since the speech was announced – namely that it was a partisan maneuver designed to put the administration in a box – and an electoral benefit in the form of being able to show their constituents that they are pro-Israel and have no problem with Netanyahu himself, but rather that their issue is solely with the timing of the speech before Congress and the way that it was handled.

Now that Netanyahu has declined, the Democrats still win. As Durbin’s statement makes clear, they are now going to double down on the argument that Netanyahu is injecting himself into partisan politics, endangering bipartisan support for Israel by favoring the Republicans, and not really interested in having a substantive conversation with Democrats. As it happens, I believe those arguments to be accurate, but it doesn’t change the facts that Senate Democrats issued the invitation to meet privately as a way of making the Republicans look bad rather than to restore any sense of real bipartisanship. Just as the Republicans were using Bibi for their own political purposes earlier, Democrats are doing so now in response. This has little to do with Israel and everything to do with the scorched earth tactics both political parties use against each other. Netanyahu loses here too in the larger sense of things, as it looks to all the world like he is favoring the Republicans and blind to the dangers of politicizing Israel as an issue with Congress. He also damages relations with two powerful Democratic senators whom he might have counted on going forward but who will not be inclined to be giving him any preferential treatment in the future.

Nevertheless, it should have been obvious from the second the invitation to meet was issued that Netanyahu would decline it. Accepting it would have meant confirming his mistake, both in openly plotting with the Republicans with no realization that there would be consequences to doing so and in making a speech that seems to be doing Israel more harm than good. Bibi is not one to admit mistakes, and he certainly cannot acknowledge this one given how high he has raised the stakes with his rhetoric on the issue and being in the final stages of an election campaign. It would mitigate whatever benefit he will get – and yes, he will benefit at home politically in some quarters – from standing before Congress and thundering about the Iranian nuclear threat and his sacred duty to protect Israel. So from Netanyahu’s perspective, it makes perfect political sense not to meet with Senate Democrats, even though to many it is a head-scratching decisions since it appears that Netanyahu just missed out on a perfect opportunity to make things right with one side of the aisle and restore some much needed bipartisan love.

And so Israel is being wielded by both sides as a cudgel in order to pummel political opponents, and Netanyahu’s mess of his own creation just keeps getting worse and worse. In the meantime, reports about the Iranian nuclear negotiations are increasingly worrisome as talk of sunset clauses is bandied about, and Democrats who might have been inclined to take a harder line are reluctant to do so as Netanyahu has set up an environment in which it will appear that they are taking his side rather than that of the president, and thus Israeli fears about Iran are compounded. Netanyahu wins at home while Israel’s political standing suffers, which could have been avoided had he just structured the timing of the speech differently. Really, is there anyone left who thinks that this speech is in any way a good idea for Israel, or that it was ever about anything but Netanyahu’s personal political ambitions?

Losing The Forest Of Iran Policy For The Trees Of A Nuclear Deal

February 10, 2015 § 9 Comments

There has been tons of discussion over the past week about Mike Doran’s recent voluminous piece in Mosaic in which he argues that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East – his approach to Syria, ISIS, Israel, Iraq, Sunni allies, etc. – can be explained through the prism of a desired rapprochement with Iran and a goal of building a new regional order in which Iran plays an integral role. According to Doran, Obama sees the U.S. and Iran as natural allies and believes that blame for enmity between the two countries rests with the U.S., and thus the president’s strategy has been to accommodate rather than confront Iran in the hopes that a nuclear deal will lead to a larger grand bargain. In other words, the nuclear deal itself is a means rather than an end, which makes the particulars of any negotiated deal less important to the White House than the fact that a deal gets done in some form or another, as a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is the only pathway to a new Middle East in which the U.S. and Iran cooperate on a set of shared interests. Doran has long and detailed sections on how American inaction in Syria and bad relations between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu were impacted by this overarching goal, and he also spends a lot of time building a case that the U.S. has made permanent concessions to Iran in return for short term and easily reversible Iranian restraint. The result, according to Doran, is that the U.S. has given Iran all of the leverage and guaranteed that any emerging nuclear deal will be a disaster. I have quibbles with some of the details and sub-arguments (more on this below), but I find the overarching thesis convincing: that the White House’s ultimate goal is to turn Iran into an ally based on the view that the U.S. and Iran are natural partners with a set of common interests.

Building off Doran’s piece and off a Washington Post editorial that takes Obama to task over the nuclear negotiations, Walter Russell Mead lays out a list of problems with a nuclear deal that he sees the White House needing to address in order to gain real support for its Iran policy. These include enhancing Iranian power in the Middle East at the expense of a regional balance, assuming that a more powerful Iran will be less hostile to the U.S., linking more engagement with Iran to eventual regime liberalization and transition, and selling out a set of current allies without any guarantee of an adequate replacement. Even more so than Doran’s, Mead’s piece resonates because he is completely focused on the end game and on challenging the assumptions underlying the Obama administration’s view of a post-deal world. I agree with Doran that the administration’s strategy on nuclear negotiations is animated by wanting a grand bargain rather than wanting to deal with Iran’s nuclear program qua nuclear program, but I part ways with him when he focuses his ire on the nuclear deal itself. Not only am I not convinced that a nuclear deal is inherently a bad thing, I think that focusing on the nuclear aspect of Iran policy is a bad tactic. Those worried about Iranian intentions and Iranian power as a force of destabilization in the Middle East – and you can firmly include me in that camp – should assume that a deal is going to happen and should start thinking now about how to then contain a nuclear Iran in every way possible instead of wasting time trying to prevent what may be a fait accompli.

Why do I think that a nuclear deal is itself not a disaster? I’ll stipulate up front that I have no expertise in the science component of this or in knowing precisely how much enriched uranium constitutes a significant quantity, a.k.a. the point of no return in terms of preventing a usable bomb. But friends and colleagues who are experts in this stuff claim that the fighting about number of centrifuges is a red herring because the real issue is the 20% enrichment level, and nobody disputes that the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action successfully diluted the enriched uranium, which is what lengthens the breakout time. The ten thousand centrifuges that Iran already has are IR-1 centrifuges, but those are not the efficient ones that will allow a quick nuclear breakout, and the more efficient IR-8 centrifuges are the ones that the JPOA addressed. So any deal that preserves this status quo, meaning continued dilution of 20% enriched uranium and a cap on IR-8 centrifuges, makes a breakout period long enough to be easily detectable in time to verify it and take required action, military or otherwise.

Let’s assume for a moment though that this is wrong, and that somehow the Iranians will figure out a way to use the old centrifuges with greater efficiency and increase their stock of 20% enriched uranium. Let’s further – and much more concretely – assume that Iran is going to do everything it can to game the system and violate nuclear agreements, since all evidence suggests that it has tried to do so with degrees of success for years (see Fordow for the most prominent example). Let’s also assume that Iran sees a nuclear deal as nothing more than a way to lift sanctions and has no intention of genuinely freezing its nuclear program. Even in this situation – and to be clear, I am not playing devil’s advocate on these last two assumptions; I presume that this is precisely what will occur – isn’t a deal that creates an inspections regime the best way of preventing Iran’s attempts at cheating from being successful? If Iran wants a nuclear bomb, I’d much rather have as many roadblocks in place as possible than having no roadblocks at all. If a deal is not reached next month and further sanctions are slapped on Iran, that’s all fine and good, but sanctions alone are not going to stop a determined wannabe nuclear state from achieving that status. The most punishing sanctions conceivable will make it harder, but will not foreclose the eventual result. North Korea has no economy to speak of and is as isolated from the rest of the world as if the country exists in a different galaxy, and somehow it managed the trick. Put more simply, option one is to allow Iran to resume its nuclear program in a hellbent manner and with no inspections or safeguards in place, and option two is to put inspections and safeguards in place to try and frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Isn’t the logical choice here option two, even if it is a less than perfect solution? Isn’t something in this case much better than nothing if the actual ambition is to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to regime change)?

The argument against a deal at this point rests on the implicit assumption that military action will be used to stop Iran’s nuclear program (and perhaps overthrow the regime), and I don’t see that happening. It’s pretty clear to me that the Obama administration won’t do it, and anything short of an Iraq War-style ground invasion (as opposed to some targeted strikes against nuclear facilities) would be a band-aid solution anyway, whether such a limited strike is carried out by the U.S. or Israel. Regular inspections and continued dilution of 20% uranium are the only possible ways of preventing a nuclear Iran given current realities, so why not just strike a deal and watch Iran like a hawk for the next few decades? I agree that the administration has been too sanguine about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, but arguing about what could have been done better in the past is pointless. If your absolute and most pressing goal is to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and you recognize that a long and sustained military campaign is just not in the cards even if you think such a move would be wise (and I don’t), then the best way of doing so is a deal that puts intrusive inspections and limits in place, as it provides the highest chance of detecting Iran’s attempts at a surreptitious breakout.

The real action right now should not be on preventing a deal, but on preventing a larger policy of trying to turn Iran into a partner and ally. To call such a policy foolhardy would be charitable, as the regime’s very legitimacy is derived from its demonization of the West generally and the U.S. in particular. I wrote about this in September so there’s no need to extensively harp on it again now, but the Iranian regime cannot and will not risk its own domestic standing by significantly decreasing its public hostility to the U.S. To do so would put its entire rule in danger, as ideological states that allow their central governing political ideology to be delegitimized end up dealing a fatal blow to their own legitimacy and ultimately to their own survival by making themselves vulnerable to challenges from the opposition. The Iranian state’s rule and political institutions are structured around a revolutionary ideology that assumes opposition to the U.S. and the West as a raison d’être and thus betraying the revolution in such a blatant manner as openly reconciling, let alone partnering, with the U.S. is not a realistic or even rational move for the Supreme Leader and his cadre. In Iran’s case, this is magnified by the fact that the first generation of ideological and revolutionary true believers are still around, and to the extent that ideological states become post-ideological, it only happens once the originators of the ideology are off the scene, as they can be expected to have a deeper and more personal connection to the ideology than successive generations of leaders who have had the ideology instilled in them but were not present at the creation.

Hoping for a change in regime and a more friendly government to come to power and embrace the U.S. is barely more likely than the current regime changing its tune. As the past four years in the Middle East have demonstrated, revolutions frequently do not lead to regime change, and in the event that they do, there should not be any reasonable expectation of a liberal or pro-American government coming to power, no matter how educated/wealthy/enlightened/secular/fill-in-your-favorite-adjective the population is. Nobody likes to remember this, but the leaders of the Green Movement in 2009 were not opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, and in fact embraced it. Assuming that engagement with Iran will quickly lead to greater liberalization, political pressure from the masses, splits among ruling elites, and eventually a transition to democratic government is destined to end with dashed hopes. Political change in this manner is glacial in its pace, and the link between economic liberalization and political liberalization is dubious. Look at China for the best datapoint, which has economically liberalized relatively rapidly in the scheme of things (and by relatively rapidly, I mean over 20 or 30 years), but has moved far more slowly on political liberalization. The point here is that anyone assuming a grand bargain with Iran leading to cooperation on a variety of fronts and a new regional order anchored by a pro-American Iranian government is taking so many leaps of faith that are contradicted by theory and evidence as to make a serious argument in its favor crumble on sight.

For as much as Obama’s critics like to paint him as a slave to reflexive liberal ideology, when it comes to foreign policy the White House focuses on interests rather than ideology to the exclusion of all other factors. Obama behaves like an ideal type of a theoretical realist, and in nearly every situation assumes that states act according to their pure rational utility maximizing interests. It has led to a miscalculation of Russian behavior, and it is leading to what will be an even costlier miscalculation of Iranian behavior. What should be happening now is preparation for a full court press to see Iran completely bottled up in the aftermath of a nuclear deal, and a plan for reassuring our allies in the region – assuming that we still want to have any – with explicit security guarantees and large public demonstrations of military cooperation. A nuclear deal is only a bad thing if it means ceding the region to Iran in the aftermath of an agreement, and that does not have to happen. Separating out the nuclear deal from Iran policy writ large is difficult as the two are obviously connected, but it’s not impossible. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier on a different topic, we should be working toward a deal as if there is no larger reason to contain and hinder Iran, and containing and hindering Iran as if there is no nuclear deal.

Is This What A Presidential Takeover Looks Like?

February 5, 2015 § 7 Comments

For political scientists interested in political development, it is in many ways more interesting to study why democracies break down than how democracies form. After all, the best predictor of whether a state is democratic at any given time is whether the state was a democracy previously, so delving into how and why authoritarian reversals occur is a fun field (for a deep dive into the subject, Jay Ulfelder does really good work, such as this). Democratic breakdowns come in a few flavors, but the two most common are military coups and incumbent takeovers (this latter category being when an elected government undermines democracy and the future electoral process). Writing in the British Journal of Political Science last year, Milan Svolik compellingly argued that we should be paying attention to the different categories of breakdown because doing so can give us a sense of where a state might be heading before breakdown occurs. The most interesting insight in Svolik’s article to me was his contention that democracies consolidate against military coups but not against incumbent takeovers. In other words, as a democracy ages and democratic rule becomes institutionalized, the risk of a military coup occurring substantially decreases at some point (according to Svolik, this happens somewhere between the 17th and 26th year of democratic government), but the risk of an incumbent takeover does not decrease. He also points to factors that make incumbent takeover a greater or lesser possibility, with a presidential system ten times more likely to break down than a parliamentary or mixed system, while having a history of past military rule makes incumbent takeover less likely because, in Svolik’s words, “In a democracy that lacks a history of military rule, an incumbent may succeed in accumulating enough power to subvert democracy, especially if aided by a presidential constitution and natural resources. But in a democracy that was preceded by a military dictatorship, these factors may be insufficient for a successful incumbent takeover because any such attempts will be preempted by a military coup.”

Why do I bring any of this stuff up? Because various happenings in Turkey make it look like the country is dangerously on the brink of an incumbent takeover, and Svolik’s piece is a useful guide in assessing what might be going on. It will come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog (or really anyone who keeps on top of international news) that things in Turkey have been going downhill for awhile. The question is not whether Turkish democracy has suffered, since it unquestionably has, but rather at what point do we cease talking about Turkey as a democracy and call it a flat out authoritarian state. I have never liked terms like illiberal democracy or quasi-democracy or troubled democracy, since I think of democracy similarly to the way I think about pregnancy: either a state is a democracy or it isn’t. Just as you can’t be sort of pregnant, you can’t be sort of democratic. So if Turkey has ceased to be a democracy, how will we know and what will that reversal look like?

My friend and erstwhile co-author Steven Cook has a piece in Politico comparing Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule to that of patrimonial Arab dictators, and laying out the ways in which Erdoğan has accumulated power and dominated politics. I’d add that since assuming the presidency, Erdoğan has done so in ways that subvert the Turkish constitution by taking over powers accorded to the prime ministry without formally amending the constitution. While it is true that the president has the constitutional power to preside over a cabinet meeting if he so chooses, this power is supposed to be reserved for extraordinary situations such as wars or other crises. And yet, there was Erdoğan last month chairing a meeting of the cabinet and purposefully not ruling out doing so again. Erdoğan has assembled a shadow cabinet of advisers around him that in many ways mimic Turkey’s actual cabinet, and he has asserted himself in all sorts of areas that are reserved for the prime minister. The biggest power play was actually symbolic but spoke volumes, when Erdoğan announced that Prime Minister Davutoğlu was to reside in the Çankaya presidential palace because Erdoğan was taking for himself the newly built, monstrously large palace that had been intended for the prime minister.

There is no question that Erdoğan is amassing power in what are unprecedented ways for Turkey since the death of the unapologetically all-powerful founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. As former AKP parliamentary foreign affairs chief Suat Kınıklıoğlu writes, “Not a day goes by when our president is not to be seen on television, sometimes three times a day. Close to a dozen TV channels broadcast his speeches live. Even a prominent music channel cuts its broadcast and televises the speech. Total control. It is rather ironic to see how a political movement that aspired to break the authoritarianism of the old order has come to establish an even more effective authoritarian regime itself.” Everyone knows what is going on, as it is taking place in broad daylight and over the vociferous opposition of anyone not connected to the AKP. It is also in many ways completely and unabashedly shameless. Look at the government’s takeover of Bank Asya just yesterday, for example, which everyone knows is being done to punish Erdoğan’s current designee as Public Enemy Number One, Fethullah Gülen. The Gülenists in Turkey have hounded their own enemies for years, and their anguished cries of complete innocence are laughable, no matter what Gülen himself claims in the opinion pages of the New York Times (for a pitch perfect takedown of the op-ed, look no further than Claire Berlinski’s rejoinder to Hocaefendi yesterday). Nevertheless, whatever the Gülenist movement’s actual sins, nobody credibly believes that the “Bank Asya decision has no political dimension, it is a completely legal decision,” as Davutoğlu claimed with a straight face. This is a bill of attainder, pure and simple, and the fact that the people and institutions being targeted are themselves unabashed power-grabbers who subvert Turkey’s legal system for their own ends does not make the government’s actions democratic or legal. In a more candid moment, Davutoğlu said at a political rally yesterday that he doesn’t see why a religious movement needs a bank. Neither do I, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

The reason Svolik points to presidential systems as being prone to takeover is because presidential systems can be dangerous. The United States is a remarkable exception to this rule, but new democracies largely try to avoid them these days because of their instability. The only presidential democracy with an extended history of constitutional continuity is the U.S., and parliamentary democracies generally last more than three times as long as presidential democracies. A presidential system promotes a strong figure at the top of the food chain with an independent power base, which can be dangerous in divided societies or states without countervailing strong legislative and judicial institutions. Part of the argument against presidential systems comes from a sort of selection bias, in that they were adopted (and failed) in states where the conditions made them especially prone to failure, but the numbers also back up the fact that they lead to more short-lived democracies. Yet, just yesterday Davutoğlu had the following to say: “There is an argument that the presidential system will create authoritarianism. What’s your proof for that?  Those who have little knowledge of politics and political science know that democracy is implemented both under presidential and parliamentary systems. These are both described as democratic systems in comparative political studies. Inclinations for authoritarianism can come from parliamentary systems as well.” Yes, it is true that democracy is implemented in both types of systems, but it is also true that one breaks down at a rate ten times that of the other. Surely the prime minister does not think this is a mere coincidence.

The transformation of Turkey to a presidential system is worrying when it comes to incumbent takeover, but so is the military component, because Svolik’s reason for why a military past tends to prevent incumbent takeover does not apply here. The threat of a military coup is supposed to deter an incumbent from amassing too much power and eroding the democratic system, but Turkey’s military has been so hollowed out and beaten down by the AKP (and its former move-along-nothing-to-see-here Gülenist allies) that the chances of a coup are close to nil. In fact, in many ways Erdoğan is primarily motivated by Turkey’s military past and sees his attainment of more and more power as the ultimate victory over the era of military tutelage. The unique history of the relationship between Erdoğan and the military in the pre-AKP era and the relationship between the AKP and the military since 2002 – and particularly since the failed coup by memorandum attempt in 2007 – actually make Turkey’s military past an exacerbating factor rather than a mitigating one. Combined with what Erdoğan has been doing since his election last summer, I don’t think any warning about what is coming down the road can possibly be strident enough.

The long and short of it is that Erdoğan is trying to institute a presidential system, and he is determined to do it one way or another. If he (meaning the AKP, his “former” party) passes the magic 330 seat threshold in the June election, he will attempt to do it by using his parliamentary supermajority to amend the constitution without a referendum, and if the AKP falls short, he will just keep on doing what he’s been doing until it is a fait accompli. But presidential systems are dangerous vehicles for shaky democracies, and that is even more so when the president is vocal and open about his contempt for liberal and democratic norms, views the entire country as something to be controlled by his personal whims, and sees checks and balances as nothing but a minor inconvenience. I don’t know if a complete incumbent takeover has yet happened, but I do know that if we ask that question again five or ten years from now, it will likely be too late.

The Bilious Bond Between Bibi, Barack, and Boehner

January 22, 2015 § 30 Comments

Anyone reading this blog knows by now that it has been a wild and wacky 24 hours in the never-ending soap opera that is Prime Minister Netanyahu and his involvement – whether direct or indirect – in American politics. The newest chapter was sparked by President Obama’s State of the Union vow to veto any new sanctions bill that Congress passes targeting Iran, and Speaker John Boehner’s response the next day of inviting Netanyahu to address Congress and speak about “the threats posed by radical Islam and Iran.” While Netanyahu is often himself accused of trying to intervene in American politics, this was a clear cut case of someone else using Netanyahu to intervene in American politics, as Boehner’s hope is that a speech to Congress by Netanyahu will rally the troops and establish enough political cover for wavering legislators to override any future veto by Obama. The White House was obviously incensed, and declared this to be a breach of protocol since Boehner had invited a foreign head of state to Washington without first checking with his own head of state. Things started to become a bit more sticky today when Nancy Pelosi confirmed that she had nothing to do with the invitation and thus it was not a bipartisan invite, and then the White House stated that Netanyahu would not be meeting with Obama while in Washington because it is longstanding policy not to meet with visiting political candidates so soon before an election, and Netanyahu’s visit is going to be two weeks before Israeli elections on March 17.

This last point is key, because contra Max Fisher, who primarily sees this whole thing as the latest Netanyahu intervention into U.S. politics, I don’t think that is what Netanyahu is actually up to here. When Boehner was the one who invited Netanyahu in a clear effort to bolster GOP thinking on Iran policy, it strikes me as strange to argue that this is somehow a Netanyahu initiative, and that this is really the GOP cheerleading an anti-Obama campaign on Netanyahu’s part rather than the GOP using Netanyahu for its own ends. No doubt Netanyahu is as eager for new sanctions on Iran as his Republican friends, but the main reason speaking before Congress at the beginning of March holds appeal for him is because it is a unique campaign rally opportunity. One of the largest criticisms the Bujie Herzog-Tzipi Livni Zionist Camp alliance has had of Netanyahu’s conduct of foreign affairs is that he has needlessly alienated the Obama administration, and in so doing damaged relations with the U.S. and Israel’s standing in the world. Given the paucity of serious security figures in the Labor-Hatnua list, not to mention the fact that Labor’s comparative advantage when it comes to Israeli voters is on social and economic issues, harping on the alleged damage that Netanyahu has caused to U.S.-Israel ties is going to be the left’s biggest security and defense campaign issue. This is even more salient in the aftermath of this summer’s fighting in Gaza and given the widespread disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority and the peace process across the political spectrum, removing Netanyahu’s foot dragging on two states as a potent campaign issue.

In such a political climate, Netanyahu would be hard pressed to come up with a better rejoinder to the left’s argument about deteriorating relations with the U.S. on his watch than being invited to speak before Congress for a third time (tying his hero, Winston Churchill) and being cheered and applauded by members of both parties as he touts the common U.S.-Israel fight against Islamic extremism. The timing here couldn’t be better for him in terms of the vote, and no doubt he will use the speech during the final two weeks of his campaign as proof that the relationship with the U.S. is still rock solid and that Herzog and Livni are off-base with their criticisms, never mind the fact that Congress does not the entire U.S. government make.

While the logic might seem sound to both Boehner and Netanyahu, there are some potentially serious pitfalls in the plan. Starting with the GOP, there is the risk that the charge Fisher raises – of it being unseemly to side with the leader of a foreign country over one’s own president – will stick, particularly given the contention that it is inappropriate for Congress to invite a foreign leader without first consulting with, or at least informing, the president in advance (as an aside, I get the head of state argument, although I don’t see why Congress needs to clear its speaking invitations with the president, no more than the White House needs congressional approval to hold a joint Rose Garden press conference or hold a state dinner – I’d be grateful if any readers with particular expertise in constitutional law could elucidate whether there is a separation of powers problem here or not). More importantly for Boehner’s purposes, the Netanyahu invite could potentially backfire from a tactical perspective if there is a backlash against invoking the strength of the pro-Israel lobby to torpedo a president’s policy priority. This is precisely what happened in the 1981 fight during the Reagan administration over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, where the role of pro-Israel lobbying became a hot button topic. After public opinion had initially been opposed to the arms sale, with 73% opposed, Israel’s strident lobbying became an issue and public opinion shifted as a result, with 53% expressing that “once the President had decided to sell the planes to Saudi Arabia, it was important that Congress not embarrass him with the rest of the world,” and 52% agreeing that “the Israeli lobby in Washington had to be taken on and defeated so it’s a good thing the U.S. Senate upheld the plane sale to Saudi Arabia.” By explicitly tying Israel to new sanctions, Boehner is hoping to capitalize on Israel’s general popularity with voters and Netanyahu’s popularity among GOP and some Democratic lawmakers, but doing it so nakedly and overtly can have some unintended consequences.

Moving to Netanyahu, I’m not sure this is a winning maneuver for him, and I think he is actually taking a substantial risk. He is already being criticized at home for trying to subvert election laws through this speech to Congress, and in fact there has already been a petition filed to judicially block the speech from being aired on Israeli television. Furthermore, he is opening himself up to a mountain of opprobrium for further damaging relations with the Obama administration – and yes, the refusal to meet with Netanyahu when he is here may be justified given the election timing, but it is also an unambiguous slap down from a furious White House – and Democrats in general. Don’t forget that Pelosi has already hung him out to dry, and other Democrats will follow suit as they do not appreciate Netanyahu’s blatant coordination with the Republicans, irrespective of how they feel about Israel or further sanctions on Iran. If Herzog, Livni, Lapid, Kahlon, and the rest of the cast of characters looking to take down Bibi are smart about it, they will also seize on the fact that Netanyahu is being used as a political football here and either not aware enough to realize that it is going on, or worse, willingly allowing it happen. It does not speak well to Netanyahu’s instincts or leadership to be manipulated by Congressional Republicans for their own purposes and possibly damaging himself in the process.

Finally, in accepting such a charged invitation to speak, Netanyahu is keeping to a pattern of putting his personal political prospects ahead of Israel’s longterm interests with regard to the U.S., and that is where the real danger comes from. It’s one thing to blame Netanyahu for bad relations with a president who will be out of office in two years; one can argue that this is a problem that will resolve itself with no residual effects. But if you view Netanyahu’s machinations in a larger context, by constantly and openly favoring the Republican Party – either himself or through Ron Dermer’s actions in Washington – he is putting Israel itself at long term risk by helping make it a wedge issue in American politics. I constantly argue that Israel’s primacy of place in the U.S. is due to popular opinion, but the caveat there is that this only works when it is bipartisan popular opinion. Netanyahu’s actions, where he sides with the Republicans in a very exaggerated manner, are having a serious effect and eroding traditional cross-spectrum popular support for Israel, and once that passes a point of no return, Israel is going to have serious problems. I don’t place the blame for wavering support in the Democratic Party for Israel solely at Netanyahu’s feet by any means, but he is a big part of the problem and has stoked the fires at many points. The GOP has an obvious political interest in making Israel a full-fledged wedge issue and using it as a cudgel to hammer the Democrats as often as it can. The burning question for me is why Netanyahu is so willing to allow himself to be used in furthering this outcome when it is so obviously not in Israel’s interests.

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