October 10, 2013 § 3 Comments
Ten days ago, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP released the details of their long-promised and long-awaited democratization package, which had been hyped for months as a major initiative aimed at correcting imbalances righting wrongs in the Turkish political system. Since I am late to the game here, I am not going to do a deep dive into everything it entails – a summary can be found here - but most commentary, as typified by this column by Amanda Paul, has focused on the fact that the new proposals are good in some ways and fall short in others. In other words, a decent start but not far enough.
This is definitely one way to view the package. Another way is to think about it through the prism of how the AKP views democracy. In June 2012, Steven Cook and I wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs in which we contended that the AKP was expanding Turkish democracy when you look at measures of participation – meaning the extent to which citizens are able to participate in democracy – but limiting Turkish democracy when you look at measures of contestation – meaning the ability to contest the government’s power. The democratization package appears to break down along this dichotomy, which is unsurprising. Much of the package makes life a little easier for Kurds by allowing Kurdish-language education in public schools; allowing the use of the letters q, w, and x, which are found in Kurdish but not in Turkish; allowing Kurdish and other languages to be used in election campaigns; restoring former Kurdish names of majority-Kurdish villages in southeastern Turkey. These measures allow Kurds to participate in Turkey’s political and civic life to a larger extent. Other measures that affect the general population do the same, such as allowing government employees to wear headscarves ( which is unabashedly a good thing, no matter how many scary columns you read about the “Islamization of Turkey”).
When it comes to contestation though, there is nothing to cheer about. The proposal to lower Turkey’s electoral threshold to enter the Grand National Assembly from 10% to 5% is not actually being proposed as a law, but is being proposed simply as a topic for debate. Furthermore, the proposal to create single-member districts (rather than keep a system of proportional representation) or to keep a system of partial representation and create districts of 5 or so members would almost certainly benefit the AKP and maintain or increase its percentage of parliamentary seats. In addition, hoped-for proposals on reforming the anti-terror law – which is increasingly used as a cudgel against journalists and government critics – were absent. If it wasn’t clear to everyone that the AKP cannot stand to be challenged in any way even after this summer’s events, it should certainly be clear now. When this government talks about expanding democracy, it only means it in a very narrow sense (and even then, it apparently doesn’t mean it if you happen to be Alevi rather than Sunni).
There is still another way to view this democratization package, which is that it actually intends to do the precise opposite of what it claims. There is a proposal to establish a hate crimes law that would impose three year prison sentences on anyone who commits a crime based on someone’s or some group’s language, ethnicity, nationality, skin color, gender, disability condition, political views, philosophical beliefs, religion, or sect. In theory this sounds like an effort to protect minorities, but given the Turkish government’s track record of prosecuting students who protest against Erdoğan or pianists who insult Islam, I would bet nearly anything that the hate crimes law will be used to go after AKP opponents and critics. Nearly any speech can be criminalized and punished at the government’s behest under this legislation, and Erdoğan has unfortunately demonstrated that he has no qualms about cracking down on things he simply doesn’t like or finds offensive. There is a good chance that the most far-reaching and significant part of this “democratization” package will be an element that does not enhance Turkish democracy but instead greatly weakens it. So yes, there are ways in which the government’s efforts to improve Turkish democracy may be a good start, but there are also ways in which “this doesn’t go far enough” is not quite the criticism that should be leveled. It’s not the absence of certain elements in this proposal that worries me so much as the inclusion of others.
October 9, 2013 § 17 Comments
Hopefully some of you will have noticed that I have not written a blog post since the last week of August. This seems like a good time to explain why.
First, the good. I successfully defended my dissertation this morning, so I am now officially no longer a Ph.D candidate but an actual Ph.D. Finishing the writing and editing took some time, as did making sure I actually knew what I had written, and so in the interests of not getting distracted by outside stuff, I figured it would be good to lay off blogging until the process was behind me. Getting a Ph.D. is a funny thing, since nothing is substantively different now than it was a few hours ago; I am no more or less knowledgeable, no better or worse a writer, no sharper or duller an analyst, yet somehow those three letters confer an added level of credibility. Whether that means that some will take me more seriously or that some will expect a higher level of analysis I can’t say, but I am certainly glad to have it behind me.
Next, the bad. On the afternoon of September 4, just a few hours before the beginning of Rosh Hashanah and the onset of the Jewish new year, my mother passed away after a far too brief eight month battle with a brain tumor. Her diagnosis came out of the blue and was a death sentence, and she hung on valiantly for as long as she could but ultimately succumbed. My blogging had been a lot lighter in 2013 for that reason, as my mom was diagnosed in early January and my family and I logged a lot of hours going back and forth to NY every two weeks to visit her. Since she passed away, I have not been in the frame of mind to devote the time and attention to the blog as it requires, and so despite all of the things going on in Turkey, Israel, and the wider world, I have kept the blog dark.
This is all to say that it is time to get back into things, and I plan on picking things back up next week. I hope that my readers forgive me for the time away, and that I actually have some readers left.
August 28, 2013 § 3 Comments
Watching what is taking place in Egypt as the military goes after the Muslim Brotherhood, I can’t help but note the parallels to Tunisia under Ben Ali’s first few years in power (which, not coincidentally, is one of the case studies in my dissertation). There too, the regime mounted a campaign against Islamists in the name of national security and anti-terrorism following Islamist electoral success, while the secular Tunisian opposition parties supported the government’s efforts on the theory that the regime would eliminate an ideologically threatening political foe and that they would benefit in the end. What happened instead is that once authoritarian methods were deployed against the Islamists, the state quickly decided that it wanted to repress any and all political opposition, no matter the ideological bent, and so the campaign that had initially only targeted Ennahda quickly morphed into a wider effort. I use this episode to argue in Foreign Affairs today that Egyptian secularists and liberals are being myopic in their cheering on the army’s fight against the Brotherhood, since that fight will quickly boomerang back in their own direction. Here is a snippet:
An Islamist political party does well at the polls, and an authoritarian regime goes after it with a vengeance, killing its activists and arresting its leaders. The party is driven underground while secularists and other political groups applaud the government’s harsh measures, all taken in the name of eliminating a terrorist threat. Meanwhile, the regime and the non-Islamist parties assure the world that once the Islamists have been dealt with, the regular political process will resume again.
So it has happened in Egypt, but it is also the story of Tunisia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when hopes for a democratic transition were smashed after a campaign of repression that first targeted Islamists but eventually grew into a much wider effort to eliminate all political opposition. Tunisia’s experience offers a glimpse of what may be yet to come in Egypt — and suggests that Egyptian secularists should think twice before supporting the army’s efforts to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood.
After replacing President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in November 1987, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a military officer, embarked on a program of liberalization and democratization that was at that point unprecedented in the region. His government released all political prisoners and gave them amnesty, revised the laws governing the press and political parties, and got every political bloc — including the Islamist Ennahda Party — to sign a national pact guaranteeing civil liberties and free elections.
Those elections were held on April 2, 1989, and were at the time the most competitive in the country’s history, if not in the entire Arab world. Although the winner-take-all system guaranteed that Ben Ali’s party would carry the day, given its organizational advantages developed over decades of unopposed rule, the president and most observers assumed that the secular opposition parties would emerge as the dominant opposition. Instead, the Islamists received the highest share of the opposition vote, 14.5 percent, a figure that was likely deflated due to fraud.
Just after the election, The New York Times declared , “Tunisia is undergoing a transition from a one-man dictatorship to a much more open society with a sleight of hand that could furnish lessons for Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader.” The article went on to quote the head of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights saying, “I am absolutely certain of Ben Ali’s good will.”
As it turned out, though, the prospect of a strong Islamist opposition, and especially of an Islamist government at some point down the road, was too much for Ben Ali and the Tunisian state to bear. The government launched a brutal crackdown, killing 1,000 Islamists, jailing another 30,000, and forcing into exile the leader of Ennahda, Rachid al-Ghannouchi. The regime justified its actions by claiming that the Islamists were terrorists out to sow discord and tear Tunisia apart. Only because of the national security threat that they presented, Ben Ali argued, were the Islamists being targeted.
To read about how the Tunisia story played out, and the specific lessons for Egypt, please head over to Foreign Affairs for the rest.
August 20, 2013 § 12 Comments
Apologies to all for the extended blog hiatus over the last few weeks. I had to go on a self-imposed blog and twitter blackout in order to finish my dissertation, since otherwise it was never going to get done. Now that a complete draft is in to my committee, it’s time to get back to the topic du jour, which is the continuing crackup of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish prime minister today accused Israel of being behind the Egyptian military coup and claimed that he has evidence, which consists of an unnamed Jewish French intellectual – and Erdoğan took pains to emphasize that this person is Jewish – telling an Israeli minister in 2011 that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be in power even if they won elections because democracy is about more than the ballot box. As it turns out, the intellectual to whom Erdoğan was referring is Bernard Henri-Levy, who was on a panel with Tzipi Livni in June 2011 and said that the military should be called out if the Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt through elections. Got that straight? A French Jew said two years ago that he does not want the Muslim Brotherhood ruling Egypt, so therefore Israel is behind the current military coup. Who can possibly argue with such sound logic?
Even for Erdoğan, this latest broadside is absurdly over the top, and make sure to keep it in mind the next time a Turkish government official insists that nobody in the government has a problem with Jews but only with Israel, and that references to Jews and Zionists are always meant to refer solely to Israelis. Erdoğan’s paranoid scapegoating of Henri-Levy ( “O da Yahudi” as Erdoğan would like to remind us) is part and parcel of his general histrionics surrounding the military coup in Egypt. Since the generals overthrew Mohamed Morsi, Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu have been raging on a daily basis against the Egyptian army, at first refusing to recognize Adly Mansour as the new Egyptian president and eventually temporarily recalling the Turkish ambassador in Cairo back to Ankara last week. With Qatar appearing to recognize the writing on the wall and working to establish a good relationship with the military government in Egypt, Turkey is now standing alone in its vociferous support of the MB and largely isolated in the measure of rage it is directing toward the generals.
The coup in Egypt touches a nerve with Erdoğan for a number of reasons. First, the downfall of Morsi and the routing of the MB exposes the emptiness of Turkish foreign policy, which had placed all of its eggs in the basket of a new MB-dominated order in the Middle East. With its Syria policy in complete shambles and the new Middle East starting to look a lot like the old Middle East, Ankara is as isolated as it has ever been. None of its initiatives have worked and not only does it not have influence with important regional actors such as the Israeli and Egyptian governments, but it has gone out of its way to offend leaders who view Turkey as trying to meddle in the internal affairs of other states. Morsi’s removal dashes Erdoğan’s hopes of building a new regional order with Turkey at its head.
Second, the specter of crowds massing in the streets and the military overthrowing the government hits a little too close to home for Erdoğan given what he was dealing with in June and the history of Turkish military coups. Erdoğan’s biggest claim to fame is his defanging of the military, and even after demonstrating that Turkish civilian control (and undemocratic intimidation) over the army is complete with the Ergenekon verdicts a couple of weeks ago, no Turkish prime minister – and certainly no Turkish prime minister with Erdoğan’s background – is ever going to feel completely safe from the long arm of the military. Erdoğan looks at what is taking place in Egypt through a distinctly Turkish prism, and in many ways his views on the Egyptian coup are actually a complex psychological projection of his fears about his own position.
Finally, the view that, despite being elected in free and fair elections, the Morsi government was not a democratic one because of its embrace of absolute majoritarian rule at the expense of all minority viewpoints is the same charge hurled at the Turkish government (including by yours truly) when the Gezi protests were brutally suppressed. Erdoğan hangs onto the idea that elections confer absolute legitimacy that can never be overridden no matter what the circumstances because that is how he legitimates all manner of questionable Turkish state action. He will never abide admitting that perhaps the Morsi government was damaging its democratic credentials because to do so would open the door to accusations of error on his part as well. Erdoğan sees the army removing an elected government amidst accusations of policy overreach and undemocratic behavior, and he imagines a nightmare alternate universe where the same could happen to him. This is the context in which his ridiculous comments today about Israel come in (although it should be said that while Israel had absolutely nothing to do with the coup, it has supported the Egyptian military in the aftermath with a zeal that is worrisome). He is so incensed and blind with rage about what went down in Egypt that he is wildly striking out and trying to hit any target that he can with anything that will stick, and Israel is always a convenient piñata.
Erdoğan is accelerating a trend that began in earnest with the government’s response to the Gezi protestors, which is sacrificing any vestige of Turkish influence internationally in order to solidify his position at home. Blaming Israel – or more accurately, Jews – for the Egyptian coup, the Gezi protests, and anything else he can think of will play well domestically, but his reaction to Egypt has just deepened Turkey’s isolation. Turkey has gone from a zero problems with neighbors policy to one in which it is hard to find any former regional ally left with whom Turkey is not feuding to one degree or another. As Erdoğan allows his worst instincts to overtake him, he is bringing Turkish foreign policy down with him as well.
July 31, 2013 § 2 Comments
The sense of renewed hope and optimism in the air surrounding the resumption of peace talks cannot be escaped. As the negotiators from the Israeli and Palestinian sides are preparing to sit across from each other and undertake real and sustained efforts to resolve the thorny issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all of the major players and influential analysts agree that this time is shaping up to be different and that successful talks are a growing possibility.
Start with the president, who has spent time with both leaders convincing them that the two state solution must be implemented. As he said right before the talks commenced, both the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president “have the vision, the knowledge, the experience and the ability and the sheer guts to do what it takes to reach an agreement and then to take it back to their people and see if they can sell it.” At the same time, the White House is not naive about the politics involved and understands that both sides are taking significant risks with domestic constituencies back home, with the president acknowledging that “it’s not easy for either to come. But they have come because they think that the price of not doing it is greater than the risk of going forward.”
Both sides also seem unusually committed to the negotiating process and, in contrast to the past when there was haggling over what could and could not be discussed, this time both sides have stated that all issues are on the table and that the final status issues such as Jerusalem, borders, and refugees will all be negotiated. As the U.S. envoy leading the talks pointed out during an interview on CNN, the Israelis and the Palestinians understand that nothing can be left out this time if there is any hope for a successful deal, which is why the secretary of state spent so much time laying the groundwork for talks. “Prior to that time, each side was very reluctant to get into those kinds of discussions because of the sensitivity of the issues,” he explained. The bad news, he said, “is that there still are significant gaps that separate the two sides.” There is also an understanding that in contrast to previous failed efforts, the talks cannot be open-ended, which is why the U.S. has set a definitive deadline for the two sides to reach an accord - ”We’re certainly looking at that as the window in which we’re going to try to produce an agreement with the parties that deals with all of the permanent status issues.”
There is also no question that this is the last chance to get a deal done, since once this window closes, the two state solution will be dead and buried as each side pursues unilateral moves. As Tom Friedman noted in the New York Times, “Trying and failing won’t be any worse than not trying, because without a framework deal for a final peace, the situation will unravel anyway — the Palestinians will unilaterally declare a state by Sept. 13 and Israel will unilaterally annex the West Bank Jewish settlements, and Lord only knows what will happen after that.” It is noteworthy as well that the Israeli PM is moving ahead with talks despite a very shaky coalition that may be on the verge of breaking up over the issue, which indicates that he feels the sense of urgency as well.
As Ecclesiastes presciently noted, there is nothing new under the sun – all of these quotes and facts are from July 2000, right before the start of the Camp David talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, but they fit in precisely with the quotes and commentary in the past couple of days about the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The optimism that both leaders are serious – Roger Cohen is already comparing Bibi Netanyahu’s peacemaking credentials to those of Menachem Begin, who signed the 1978 Camp David treaty with Egypt, before anything has even happened – in large part because the thorny issues are on the agenda and the ubiquitous observations that this is the last and only hope to preserve a two state solution are an exact replay of 2000. Things are reaching such absurd heights that without calling anyone out by name, I read multiple breathless posts yesterday expressing optimism because of remarks and promises made during the introductory press conference, which to my mind is comical. We are supposed to be encouraged because right when both sides have agreed to sit down with each other they make all sorts of hopeful promises, and Kerry in his role as process overseer has stated that there will be no leaks? It’s like a parody of the way Politico covers the horse race of domestic politics, and I think a healthy dose of perspective is in order. A number of people have asked me why I haven’t written anything since last week about the negotiations, and the answer is that there is nothing to write since nothing has happened. I happen to agree that the option of the two state solution will not be around forever, and I am hopeful that these talks will lead to some tangible success, but if you think that anything that anyone says before the two sides have even sat down in earnest makes one lick of difference, then I think you are letting your emotions get the better of your analysis. So, let’s all take a collective deep breath, realize that this round of talks is the last ditch effort before the next round of talks becomes the new last ditch effort, take reasonable stock of actual structural reasons why success or failure are likely, and stop giving the peace process the 24 hour news cycle treatment.
And now that my rant is over, feel free to go back to trying to parse how the negotiations are going based on Martin Indyk’s tie color and what Yitzhak Molcho ordered for lunch…
July 25, 2013 § 12 Comments
Now that reports are surfacing that negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians are scheduled to begin in Washington on Tuesday – although there are also conflicting reports that Saeb Erekat is going to stay home until the Israelis agree to use the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations over the final border – it seems like a good time to lay out some reasons for optimism and reasons for pessimism about whether these talks are fated to go anywhere. Since I am generally pretty cynical about such things, let’s start with the reasons why I think the talks may fail. One of the biggest obstacles is the domestic politics involved. Brent Sasley has written a thorough piece arguing that the politics right now on the Israeli side are actually favorable for meaningful negotiations and concessions, but I tend to see things differently. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not shown the willingness in the past to actually deal with the hard choices involved in coming to an agreement, and while that does not mean that he is incapable of doing so, nothing in his past indicates that he is an enthusiastic peace process negotiator. If he is being dragged to the negotiating table unwillingly through a combination of pressure and quid pro quo for past U.S. security assistance, it is not going to bode well for the final outcome. Even if he is doing it of his own volition, which is certainly in the realm of possibility, the fact that he seems unwilling to accede to measures such as relinquishing sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem – which is going to have to be in any deal that the Palestinians will accept – is a bad omen. Then there is the problem of Netanyahu’s party. The current iteration of the Likud is the most right wing in its history, and a large bloc, if not an outright majority of the party, does not trust Netanyahu and is adamantly opposed to negotiations. In fact, an increasingly large subset of Likud members, led by Danny Danon, have been openly calling for Israel to annex the West Bank and ditch the two state solution in favor of the rightwing version of a one state solution. It is also the case that the more radical Likud members now control the party’s policy apparatus and serve as deputy ministers in the government; in fact, it seems as if Netanyahu is refuting the latest nonsense from Deputy Defense Minister Danon every other week. Sasley argues that this cast of characters is aware that they cannot win without Netanyahu and will ultimately fall in line, but I am not nearly so certain. Plenty of Likud voters will vote for the party if, say, Bogie Ya’alon is the headliner, and I don’t think that the Likud ministers and back benchers are going to sit idly by if Netanyahu begins to give up territory in the West Bank or order the evacuation of settlements. They have staked their political reputations almost entirely on rejectionism of the two state solution, and just because Netanyahu asks them nicely does not mean that they would not rather have a smaller but purer version of the Likud. See the experience that John Boehner has had with his own unruly caucus of House Republican newcomers as a parallel to how this would play out. Furthermore, Netanyahu is being kept afloat by his temporary merger with Yisrael Beiteinu, which he wants to turn into a permanent one. Without the extra YB votes, Likud immediately loses 10-12 seats in the Knesset. The problem is that Avigdor Lieberman is in many ways the original rightwing one stater, and there is simply no way in which he agrees to keep the two parties together once settlements are given up. Netanyahu knows this, which provides another incentive to make sure that talks break down along their usual pattern. The same problem exists with coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi, which has repeatedly threatened to leave the government over the issue of freezing settlements and whose head, Naftali Bennett, is also an advocate of annexation. Sasley argues that pulling out of the coalition will risk breaking the party apart, leaving Bennett politically homeless, and so he can’t risk it. I think the much bigger risk to Bennett is the party folding or excommunicating him for selling out his core principles if he agrees to remain in a government that agrees to extricate itself from the West Bank. After all, the party’s very name – Jewish Home in English – is meant to refer to the entirely of the Land of Israel from the river to the sea and explicitly lay claim to all of the territory as part of the Jewish state. The idea that the greater risk in this lies in leaving the government seems to gloss over the very reason the party exists, its history, and its makeup. There is also the issue of a referendum, which Netanyahu has now promised to hold to approve any peace agreement that is struck with the Palestinians. While the latest poll in Ha’aretz indicates that 55% of Israelis would approve a peace agreement, that is in a generic sense. Once the details are factored in and various political parties and lobbying groups begin to play on Israeli fears about security, sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the Jewish character of the state, etc. it will be very easy to siphon off entire groups of voters through scare tactics and populist campaigns. That 55% number is a mirage, akin to the way in which Yair Lapid supports a two state solution but is adamantly opposed to any division of Jerusalem; lots of people support a peace deal in theory, but the devil is in the details. Bennett knows this, which is why Habayit Hayehudi has pushed to extend the Basic Law that requires a referendum to approve giving up land that Israel has annexed – East Jerusalem and the Golan – to include the West Bank as well. The hope on the right is that a referendum will doom any successful negotiations for good. Finally, there is the Palestinian side. There is no need to rehash here all of the various arguments over Mahmoud Abbas and whether he rejected Ehud Olmert’s offer of 99% of the West Bank or whether he simply did not respond because Olmert was a lame duck and out of office before he even had a chance. My own opinion is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I am not as convinced as others on the left that Abbas is a willing a peace negotiator. The insistence on preconditions to negotiating is a tactic designed to doom talks, and the fact that Abbas was not willing to jump on Netanyahu’s partial 10 month building freeze a couple of years ago as the excuse he needed to reenter talks does not bolster the case of those who want to pin all of the blame on the Israeli side. Abbas may indeed want to talk, but I do not think it is fair to portray him as champing at the bit to get started. On the flip side, there are reasons to be optimistic. While, as I noted above, Netanyahu has not shown a propensity in the past to reach an agreement that the Palestinians can reasonably accept, he certainly appears to have arrived at the realization that Israel’s international standing is becoming more precarious by the day. The EU guidelines on settlements last week seem to have been a wakeup call of sorts, and his now repeated public warnings that Israel is facing a real prospect of a binational state indicate that his attitude in 2013 is very different than it was during his tenure as prime minister in the mid-90s or during the beginning of his current stint in 2009. In addition, as Dahlia Scheindlin has pointed out, polls consistently and repeatedly show support for a two state solution, 83 out of 120 seats in the current Knesset are controlled by parties theoretically supporting two states, and the support for two states remains even when you add various line items about specific concessions into the polling questions. In this light, the referendum may turn out to be a very good thing, since it will reinforce the move toward a negotiated solution. It is also encouraging that Netanyahu is seeking political cover to do what needs to be done, since if he negotiates a deal that is then approved by the Israeli electorate, it will be difficult for the right to claim that he has overstepped his authority. Finally, there is the fact that the best way for negotiations to succeed is if the specific details are kept under wraps, and any concessions made by either side are not wielded by opponents of two states as populist cudgels designed to doom the talks. John Kerry has done a good job of this by not publicly outlining the conditions that each side have agreed to in order for talks to resume, but even more encouragingly so has Netanyahu. There is currently a purposeful cloud of ambiguity hovering over the question of whether Israel has frozen settlement construction or not, with Netanyahu denying such a freeze exists and Housing Minister Uri Ariel saying that the de facto and unannounced policy in place is not allowing for any new construction. This, more than anything, is the most hopeful sign of all, since if Netanyahu has actually frozen settlement construction while trying to trick his party and coalition into thinking that he has done no such thing, it is a more serious indication of his desire to really strike a deal than any other datapoint I have seen. P.S. To watch me talk about this more extensively, here is a link to a video of a roundtable hosted by David Halperin and the Israel Policy Forum that I did yesterday with Hussein Ibish and Dahlia Scheindlin. It’s long, but an interesting and thorough discussion of the various issues involved.
July 17, 2013 § 9 Comments
It has been a puzzling couple of days when it comes to Israel’s foreign relations. The big story dominating newspaper headlines in Israel and causing a general uproar is the new European Union guidelines setting forth the policy of the EU not to have any dealings in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or the Golan, and requiring EU agreements with Israel to contain a clause explicitly stating that the settlements are not part of Israel. This has predictably and understandably caused much angst in all reaches of the Israeli government, with Prime Minister Netanyahu angrily stating that Israel will not accept any “foreign dictates” about its borders and making clear that he thinks harping on settlements is absurd when there are more pressing regional problems such as the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear program. In the meantime, government ministers are calling for retaliation against the EU such as limiting EU diplomats’ travel in the West Bank, and despite the fact that the new regulations appear not to be quite as far reaching as first reported and are only binding on EU institutions rather than on member states individually, this is a diplomatic crisis of first-rate proportions that is unlikely to die down anytime soon.
While the Israeli government appears to have been caught off-guard by this decision – which, by the way, is what happens when you eviscerate the Foreign Ministry and don’t even bother to appoint a separate Foreign Minister other than Netanyahu himself – it should have seen this coming a mile away. As Brent Sasley noted yesterday, this is only the latest signal in a long line of them that the international community in general and the EU in particular takes settlements seriously and sees them as a real and genuine obstacle to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Now, the Israeli government and outside observers can rage all day that settlements are not the primary cause of the conflict, and there is a large measure of truth to this, but there are two important things to keep in mind. First, just because settlements may not have caused the conflict does not mean that they aren’t exacerbating it, and second, the key here is that Israel is suffering because much of the world believes that the settlements are indeed the main problem and will not be convinced otherwise. It is this second reason that is germane here, because as long as the EU, which is Israel’s largest trading partner, holds this view of things, Israel is going to deal with increasingly onerous efforts to get it to change its ways. The next step is going to be specially labeling goods produced in the settlements, or expanding these new regulations to cover trade rather than just grants, prizes, and financial instruments, or requiring settlers to get special visas to travel to EU countries. Israel can get as angry as it likes, but making reciprocal threats against the EU or loudly denouncing the Europeans as biased is going to get Israel absolutely nowhere, and it’s a shame that Netanyahu is still too blind to realize that what he is doing will not ease Israel’s burden one iota. I understand the Israeli government’s anger here, particularly when it comes to East Jerusalem, and I am certain that announcing these regulations just when it seems that John Kerry is on the verge of convincing the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table without preconditions will doom those efforts entirely. After all, if the EU is now demanding that Israel acknowledge in agreements that the settlements are not part of Israel, why should Mahmoud Abbas negotiate that point with the Israelis at all?
Nevertheless, Israel has to deal with the situation as it is, not as it wishes it to be. In a perfect world as far as the Netanyahu government is concerned, the EU would focus its ire on Tehran for the violations of international agreements it has committed in its pursuit of its nuclear program and leave the settlements on the back burner. This, however, is wishful thinking, and the over the top admonishments and hectoring of the EU accomplishes absolutely nothing. If Netanyahu were smart, he would have downplayed this entire thing, kept his head down, and resumed working toward getting back to negotiating or even unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank entirely. Instead, he made it crystal clear that Israel will not change its policies or back down in the face of pressure, and that nobody will lecture Israel on what it must do. That’s all fine and good, and Netanyahu can do whatever he pleases, but do not for one second think that Israel’s situation is going to improve absent some change of policy on its part. Netanyahu can either continue living in his fantasy land of griping and complaining about the rest of the world, or he can come to grips with the reality of things and work to improve his country’s international standing. Israel’s being singled out may not be fair and it may feel good to lash out against what the government sees as its tormentors, but being the grownup in the room means recognizing the situation for what it is, acknowledging that some things cannot be changed no matter how much you wish it otherwise, and figuring out the best solution for moving forward. This has nothing to do with blaming Israel, not recognizing the Palestinians’ agency, moral equivalence, rewarding bad behavior, or anything else; it is a simple reckoning of the world as it exists and trying to improve things within the parameters that Israel has been dealt. With regard to the dispute with the EU, let’s hope that Netanyahu has an epiphany on this sooner rather than later.