Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones, And So Will Words

October 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Frustrating the deeply held convictions of “Zionist Occupied Government” conspiracy theorists everywhere, it has not exactly been a banner week for the U.S.-Israel relationship. First there was the Bogie Ya’alon snub during his sojourn to Washington, where the Israeli defense minister met with Chuck Hagel and Samantha Power – the latter reportedly only because the White House was too late in trying to prevent it – but was not granted meetings with Joe Biden, John Kerry, or Susan Rice. Then came yesterday’s already legendary Jeff Goldberg piece in the Atlantic, henceforth known as the chickenshit article, during which an unnamed senior administration official used that moniker to describe Bibi Netanyahu. The piece, which proclaimed a crisis in U.S-Israel relations, was right and has now inflamed that crisis even further. As dedicated readers may recall, in July I wrote that despite the very bad personal relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama, the bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship was not going to be threatened in the long term, and I think that is still true. Nevertheless, what is going on now is certainly serious and can derail things in the short term. So to make up for my lack of recent blogging, and my even longer lack of blogging about Israel specifically, here are some semi-extensive thoughts about the entire contretemps.

First, just as Israeli officials are completely out of line and do damage to their own cause and interests when they make nasty comments about Obama, Kerry, and other U.S. government officials, the same goes for the inane and childish comments made to Goldberg about Netanyahu. I am and have been highly critical of Ya’alon, Naftali Bennett, and others who have launched inappropriate personal attacks; it reflects terribly upon them and does absolutely nothing to rectify whatever it is that has made them upset. This is no different, and the intensely personal nature of denigrating the courage of a former Israeli special forces commando is particularly ugly. Literally taunting an Israeli prime minister for not bombing Iran – as if the issue is a lack of guts rather than an array of barriers to doing so, from Israel’s security cabinet to intense differences of opinion about such a move across the political and military spectrum to serious pressure from the U.S. – is boorish and petty and smacks of smug, childish amateurism, not to mention a terrifyingly myopic and incomplete view of how foreign policy actually operates. I hope that the outrage expressed by some in the U.S. when Ya’alon has insulted Kerry in the press is also expressed today. On the flip side, those who found nothing wrong with Ya’alon’s remarks a few months ago should have the appropriate sense of self-perception to keep their mouths shut now as well. It’s not good when Israelis trash their American counterparts, and it’s not good when Americans trash their Israeli counterparts, but if you are a pro-Israel American, your outrage at one had better be matched by your outrage at the other.

Second, Netanyahu’s broadside in return today is a great example of a world leader who does not properly appreciate his country’s position in the international system. Israel is a regional power in its own right, but it is also largely dependent on the largesse of its great power patron – for which, by the way, it has no genuine feasible alternative replacements should that largesse ever be withdrawn. Despite the heady excitement Israelis have over increased trade ties with China and India, the optimism that this will translate into political support is misplaced, as excellently outlined by Rory Miller in Foreign Affairs, who demonstrated that both countries have completely delinked their economic relations with Israel from their political relations with Israel, and are not going to reverse that path any time soon. Were Netanyahu smart about this, he would have expressed his anger and disappointment behind closed doors, and publicly kept his mouth shut. The fact is that Israel and the U.S. will never be equal. There is an enormous power imbalance in the relationship, and the U.S. can afford to alienate Israel (although it shouldn’t and it would make things harder for U.S. initiatives in the region) but Israel can absolutely not afford to alienate the U.S. I get why Netanyahu’s impulse is to lash back out, but this is a tit-for-tat exchange that Israel will always lose. Israel’s greatest geopolitical advantage is its relationship with the U.S., and thus a well thought out plan would be to swallow whatever American insults come Israel’s way and do nothing to harm that relationship. Some Israeli leaders, including rightwing Likud politician President Ruby Rivlin, get this. Netanyahu quite obviously does not.

Third, leaving aside the damage in the day to day working relationship, the infamous chickenshit interview has potential to backfire on the U.S. when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program in two ways. One has to with Israel, and the other has to do with Iran. On the Israeli side of the equation, the White House is quite obviously happy that Jerusalem has so far sat on its hands and kept its planes far away from Fordow. In the context of an Israeli populace and political class that sees external threats rising up around it, nervousness that the U.S. is getting snookered by Iran in the nuclear negotiations and will agree to nearly any terms to just make the problem go away, and an election coming soon in which the threats to Netanyahu come not from the left but from the right, is there a better way of prompting Netanyahu into taking military action against Iran than denigrating him as a chickenshit who is too scared to use his military? It’s almost as if the person or persons who felt the need to go blabbing to Goldberg are trying to end up with egg all over their faces. I’d agree that the chances of Israeli action at this point are remote, but just listen to some of the saner and more respected security voices in Israel – Amos Yadlin and Ya’akov Amidror are two who come to mind – and you will quickly realize that Israel does not necessarily share the same view of these unnamed administration officials that a bombing run is completely off the table.

On the Iran side of the ledger, I agree with Dan Drezner that there is a component to this that involves signaling to Iran. I am not as certain that it is intentional, however; rather, my fear is that the U.S. is instead unwittingly and massively reducing its negotiating leverage by openly doubting Israel’s ability and willpower to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and by implying that it sees a nuclear Iran as a near fait accompli. Any Iranian leader reading the Goldberg interview would logically assume that there is nothing Iran can do that will invite a strike against its nuclear program, and that it really has no reason to offer any negotiating concessions at all. Irrespective of whether or not the Obama administration has privately decided that it wants a deal with Iran at any cost, this is terrible negotiating strategy and very poor strategic behavior.

Fourth, the chickenshit comments are more likely than not going to exacerbate the type of Israeli behavior that frustrates the U.S. unless the insults and vitriol are ultimately accompanied by a genuine change in policy toward Israel. If things continue along the same path, meaning that there is no real penalty for increased settlement activity in the form of reduced intelligence and military cooperation, reduced defense aid, or reduced support at the United Nations, the takeaway message for Netanyahu is going to be that the only price for driving U.S. officials to apoplexy is having to absorb personal insults. I don’t know whether policy is going to change following the November elections or not; I have read some predictions that the cover for Israel at the U.N. in particular is something that will be endangered, but I have serious doubts as to whether that will be the case. The point is, if Goldberg’s unnamed official thinks that his or her words alone are going to have any real effect on Israeli policy, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.

Finally, it is pretty clear to me that this is not just a random attempt to make Bibi look bad here, but a deliberate ploy to damage his political prospects. There is a perception among Israeli elites that picking a real fight with the U.S. is fatal for Israeli politicians, and many in various U.S. administrations believe that as well. My friend Brent Sasley has argued otherwise, although others take a different view of the Shamir loss in 1992. In this case, in the short term the fight seems to have bolstered Bibi, with people like Bennett coming out and strongly backing him against the chickenshit comments. It makes him look like a stronger leader standing up to a petty and bullying American administration. In the long term, however, I think that the White House political calculation here is correct in the sense of wanting to play up the hostility between Netanyahu and the White House in order to damage him. There are going to be elections in the next few months, and there are plenty of rightwing politicians aspiring to unseat Bibi who can claim that they will stand up to Washington when need be but do not have the baggage that Bibi has. Ya’alon is obviously not in this camp, but Bennett, Moshe Kahlon, Avigdor Lieberman, and even Yair Lapid will all try to take advantage of this dynamic to siphon votes away from Likud and toward themselves.

Ultimately, whomever it was that has now made the term chickenshit a permanent part of the foreign policy lexicon may feel a lot better today after a self-satisfied venting session, but this kind of thing is entirely counterproductive. Allies can and do disagree, but this is not the way to do it. Nobody in the Obama administration should be too pleased with themselves this afternoon.

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Abandon The Peace Process To Save The Two State Solution

August 12, 2014 § 4 Comments

My friend Jordan Hirsch and I (follow him on Twitter @jordanchirsch if you aren’t already for brilliant commentary on a whole host of topics) argue in Foreign Affairs that the recent fighting in Gaza proves the wisdom of the 2005 disengagement, and that Israel needs to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank as well. The article can be found here and here’s the opening salvo.

As the latest battle between Israel and Hamas in Gaza wears on, there are two schools of thought — one on the right and one on the left — about what Israel should do next.

The first take, on the right, is that renewed fighting in Gaza proves that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was a mistake. According to this view, the withdrawal empowered Hamas, inviting rockets from above and tunneling terrorists from below, while earning Israel no international credit for having ended its occupation of the coastal strip. That pattern, the thinking goes, would repeat itself should Israel disengage from the West Bank. For that reason, any pullout now would be dangerously misguided.

The second argument, on the left, is that Israel’s mistake was not that it disengaged from Gaza, but that it did not sufficiently support the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, thereafter. By failing to reward Abbas’ nonviolent resistance, this theory suggests, Israel robbed Palestinians of the hope that anything but Hamas’ rockets could achieve their aims. The best means of countering Hamas in Gaza, then, is to present an alternative in the West Bank and immediately return to negotiations with Abbas to demonstrate the efficacy of a nonviolent approach.

Both positions are understandable. Israel has fought a string of wars with Hamas since leaving Gaza in 2005, each more threatening to its civilians than the last. For that reason, maintaining some control in the West Bank seems to be the most sensible option. On the other hand, those hoping for more Israeli support for the PA would like Israel to bolster the notion that Palestinians can succeed without resorting to armed resistance. Yet closer examination reveals that neither of these positions is tenable. And, in fact, there is a third option. Israel correctly, if not faultlessly, disengaged from Gaza. And now, to protect itself in the long run, it must do so again from the West Bank. Israel must abandon the peace process in order to save the two-state solution.

Read the rest here at Foreign Affairs.

Domestic Politics Vs. International Politics In The Israeli Election

December 26, 2012 § 7 Comments

As regular O&Z readers know, if this blog has any sort of running theme it is that domestic politics is often decisive in determining foreign policy. When I wrote last week for The Atlantic about the rightwing political competition that is driving settlement activity, a close friend emailed, “So you’re saying it is local politics at work…#ImagineMySurprise.” I have pointed to domestic politics to argue that Israel and Turkey won’t be normalizing relations any time soon (and I’ll try and write about the recent NATO news tomorrow, but no, I don’t think it signals that anything is going to imminently change) and to predict that there was not going to be an Israeli strike on Iran last spring, summer, or fall. Does this mean that domestic politics is always decisive in every situation? Of course not. There are plenty of times in which other considerations are at work; the months-long push on the Turkish government’s to get NATO to intervene in Syria is one such instance. Nevertheless, I maintain that a lack of focus on domestic politics and the constraints it imposes leads to lots of shoddy analysis from both professionals and casual observers.

Over the next few months, Israel is going to be a great petri dish for watching these trends at work. On the one hand, influential and respected defense and security experts like Amos Yadlin are warning that Israel is losing its international support and status because of its footdragging on the peace process, Tzipi Livni has founded a new party devoted solely to reviving talks with the Palestinians, and there is chatter that the EU is losing so much patience that it is going to try and force Israel and the Palestinians into a deal. Last week the State Department issued a harsher than usual condemnation of Israeli settlement activity, as did the fourteen non-U.S. members of the Security Council. By any measure, Israel’s settlement policy and reticence on the creation of a Palestinian state is become increasingly costly. Looking at it from a black box perspective, you have a state living in a hostile neighborhood with an enormous qualitative military edge over its neighbors that is facing a dangerous potential dip in support from its main external allies and is facing increasing international isolation over the Palestinian statehood issue, which does not present an existential security threat by any means. The state is facing what it believes is an existential threat from Iran, and on that front it needs all the help it can get from its main allies. Given everything involved, you’d expect Israel in this situation to take moves to forestall its isolation and shore up its relationship with the U.S. and EU – which are its primary providers of military and economic aid and diplomatic support across the board – by making some serious concessions on the Palestinian front. After all, even if settlements in the West Bank are viewed as a security buffer, keeping them from a security perspective given Palestinian military capabilities pales in comparison to risking the cessation of purchases of military hardware and transfers of military technology, and enabling the risk of complete diplomatic isolation.

Given all of this, one might expect to see an Israeli coalition after the election that includes Livni’s Hatnua party and that undertakes serious initiatives on the Palestinian statehood and peace process fronts. Such a coalition would under no circumstances include Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi, as Bennett wants to annex Area C and does not support the creation of a Palestinian state. Indeed, there have been moves in that direction as far as keeping Bennett out is concerned, and there have also been reports that Netanyahu and Livni are exploring the possibility of Hatnua joining the coalition after the election, which would almost necessarily mean her return to the Foreign Ministry and a greater push for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, taking domestic politics into account would point to a different path. As I wrote last week, the idea behind the joint Likud-Beiteinu list was to create a right-wing monolith that would put an electoral victory out of reach for Israel’s left and to also present rightwing voters without a real alternative. Netanyahu wanted to eliminate any challenges from his right flank by co-opting Lieberman, but it now turns out that he has to deal with Bennett on his right and a swift migration of voters (so far, at least) away from Likud and to Habayit Hayehudi. It is also the case that Israeli voters do not care about the Palestinians or the peace process, which is why Hatnua is stuck in single digits, Labor and Shelley Yachimovich barely mention anything other than social issues and the economy unless absolutely forced to, and Bennett is gaining a larger following based partly on a perception that Netanyahu is actually not hawkish enough. Taking all of this into account means a coalition that includes Bennett, continues to take a hardline on a Palestinian state, and bemoans the lack of support from European states rather than constructing a policy meant to change that reality.

So which will it be? Unsurprisingly, my money is on the second option, but the first one is certainly plausible. It really just depends on how much weight you place on the domestic political calculus. Netanyahu’s history is that he pays attention to his domestic political survival above all else, and I see no evidence that he has suddenly become a changed man. To my mind, Israel’s long term health necessitates the first path, while Netanyahu’s lies with the second. Let’s hope that events in 2013 prove me wrong.

Not All Unilateral Withdrawals Are Created Equal

May 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

There has been lots of buzz in Israel lately about the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Ami Ayalon and his colleagues at Blue White Future wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in April arguing that a unilateral approach would lay the groundwork for a two state solution by allowing settlers to voluntarily relocate west of the Green Line and reducing tension on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides while establishing a preliminary border based on the security fence. Then yesterday at the annual Institute for National Security Studies conference, which draws nearly every important Israeli politician and defense heavyweight, Ehud Barak said that a unilateral withdrawal must be considered by the government if negotiations with the Palestinians remain at an impasse. Barak immediately came under fire from the Palestinian Authority, which said that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal would destroy any hopes for a negotiated two state solution, and from other Israeli government ministers such as Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who called Barak’s suggestion a dangerous idea and accused him of naivete. The prime minister’s office also distanced itself from Barak’s remarks and made it clear that Barak was speaking for himself rather than for the government.

There are two major objections to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, one from the left and one from the right. The one from the left is that Israel has committed itself to negotiations with the Palestinians on the contours of a Palestinian state, and any moves to sidestep a negotiated solution are a violation of the Oslo Accords. I find this argument to be unpersuasive for two reasons. First, the Palestinian Authority has itself embraced unilateralism when it finds it to be convenient, such as its efforts to have the UN recognize an independent state of Palestine outside any negotiating framework with Israel. If unilateralism is ok for one side, then it is ok for the other. Second, and more importantly, the party that is currently refusing to return to the negotiating table is not the Israelis but the Palestinians. I have written before about the strategic foolishness of setting negotiating preconditions but the additional problem here is that whatever one may think of Bibi Netanyahu’s policy on settlements or his actual desires regarding an independent Palestinian state, he is not currently the obstacle to restarting negotiations. If the Palestinians were willing to sit down tomorrow, the Israelis would meet with them immediately, so the PA blasting unilateral moves as an unwillingness to negotiate when they themselves are refusing to hold talks smacks of hypocrisy of the highest order. There simply cannot be a negotiation when one side refuses to enter the room.

The objection to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank from the right is that the Gaza withdrawal was a terrible mistake that created a terrorist enclave, emboldened Hamas, and subjected Israel to a constant barrage of rockets raining down on southern Israeli towns. These are all valid concerns, but I think the comparison to the Gaza withdrawal is not the correct one to make since the circumstances are different in a few important ways. To begin with, Israel withdrew from Gaza completely and not entirely on its own terms. In contrast, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would still leave Israeli soldiers in the Jordan Valley and Israel has determined the precise spot to which it would withdraw by constructing the security fence. Furthermore, while Gaza was a Hamas stronghold before Israel pulled out, the West Bank is under the firm control of the Palestinian Authority and that control has only increased in recent months as Mahmoud Abbas has cracked down on dissenters. The Palestinian Authority is far from perfect, but no serious observer would suggest that there is not a large qualitative difference between the PA and Hamas, both in terms of temperament and willingness to coexist with Israel. In addition, while Hamas has been able to smuggle rocket parts and weapons into Gaza through the Rafah tunnels along the border with Egypt, a tunnel system in the West Bank would be impossible since it shares a border with Israel and the Jordan River. Even if Hamas were to come to power in the West Bank or the Palestinian Authority reversed course and decided to launch a rocket war, the means to do so would be extremely limited as any smuggling taking place would be above ground and far easier for Israel to detect and stop.

There is also an important difference between Gaza and the West Bank in terms of environment and incentives. Gaza has always been more crowded and impoverished than the West Bank, and when Israel withdrew there was an argument embraced by many that there was little left to lose by taking the fight to Israel. There was also the fact that Israel wasn’t holding any more cards; it had withdrawn completely and Hamas was not interested in any negotiating toward a state anyway, so until Israel carried out Operation Cast Lead, there was little incentive for Hamas not to shoot rockets over the border. The West Bank, however, is not Gaza. The economy is much better, the quality of life is much higher, and Palestinians in the West Bank have a lot more to lose by risking a large scale Israeli military incursion. In addition, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal does not mean that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has nothing left to gain through negotiations. There will still be an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, and the Palestinians will still not have a state along the borders that they desire and certainly will not have any part of East Jerusalem as their capital  (and unlike Hamas, the PA’s stated goal is establishing a viable state). In short, the incentive structure for West Bank Palestinians following a hypothetical Israel withdrawal is vastly different than it was for Gazan Palestinians following the Israeli disengagement in 2005.

An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank certainly is fraught with dangers both known and unknown. That does not, however, mean that it will automatically carry with it the same consequences as the Gaza withdrawal did. Barak is right in noting that Israel at some point is going to have to do something, since holding onto the West Bank indefinitely is not a real option and Palestinian intransigence in negotiating needs to be met with some sort of response. The immediate PA attack on the idea itself gives you a good idea of whether Palestinian officials think that a unilateral withdrawal is in their best interests, and perhaps the credible threat of withdrawal will give them the kick they need to resume negotiations. In any event, the idea of unilateral withdrawal should not be so casually dismissed with facile comparisons to Gaza.

In Which I Sound Like A Broken Record

May 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago the news that Turkish indictments were forthcoming against Israeli soldiers over the Mavi Marmara flotilla. Apparently, Turkey has decided to set its sights very high by returning indictments against the top Israeli military leadership – former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Navy head Eliezer Marom, and military and air force intelligence chiefs Amos Yadlin and Avishai Levi. This is not only an exercise in futility, as none of these people stand any chance of ever appearing before a Turkish court, but a symbolic demonstration that makes Turkey look like it is not serious about justice and is rather seeking to prolong its feud with Israel. I have written before that I understand the anger felt by Turks and realize why they do not want to give Israel a free pass over the flotilla incident, but at the same time there is holding people accountable and then there is pure posturing. This falls squarely into the latter category. If Turkey had made a good faith effort to identify the actual IDF soldiers on board the ship it would be one thing, as those are the people with whom they have an actual beef. But to indict Israel’s top military and intelligence leadership? That is not a serious effort but a publicity shot across the bow. It is not designed to accomplish anything tangible or substantive, and in fact makes it that much harder for Turkey and Israel to come to an agreement acceptable to both sides that will amicably settle their differences.

As I wrote just yesterday, I am convinced that there is a power struggle of sorts going on behind the scenes at the upper echelons of Turkish government, with some pushing hard to maintain a muscular Turkish nationalism that widens the rift with Israel and with others looking to dial things back. There are too many conflicting signals being issued at the same time, and I think that there must be back channel efforts to reconcile with the Israelis while other attempts are being made to sabotage any progress that is made. There must be some high ranking Turkish officials beginning to wonder how the constant feuding with Israel is actually benefitting Turkey at this point, and it is obviously a good question for them to ask themselves. As I view things from my limited vantage point, the possible domestic politics advantage is being far outpaced by foreign policy problems that Turkey is creating for itself. Whether it is Davutoğlu or someone else who is continuing to push for a hard and unrelenting line against Israel, it is now crossing over into the absurd. Turkey is no closer to getting an Israeli apology or compensation, and wasn’t that the whole stated point to begin with?

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