What I Got Wrong

December 28, 2012 § 3 Comments

As 2012 comes to a close, I want to take a look back at the big things I got wrong this year. Crowing about what I got right is a lot more fun – and I don’t waste many opportunities to remind everyone that I was correct about an Iran strike – but it is also far less useful for me and for my readers, since it doesn’t allow me to recalibrate my thinking or give all of you a sense of when and why you should be ignoring me. I started this blog on March 13 of this year and this is my 276th post so I don’t have the time to comprehensively go through every single one, but after trying to go through the bulk of them, here are some of my biggest misfires from 2012.

Migron’s evacuation: On March 26, I wrote, “Yet, I’ll bet almost anything that Migron is not evacuated and demolished by August 1, and that Likud’s younger rightwing vanguard does everything in its power to make sure that the Migron decision is consigned to nothingness. The Knesset’s current coalition politics will not allow anything less, and Israel will continue to fight a losing battle to convince the world that it is blameless for the situation with the Palestinians and that it will be able to withdraw from part of the West Bank whenever the Palestinian leadership is interested in returning to the negotiating table.” 

While this was technically correct since Migron was still standing and fully populated on August 1, the idea behind it was wrong as Migron was evacuated by the first week in September. In this case, I did not give enough credit to the Israeli government and its willingness to carry out an unambiguous High Court decision.

Palestinian civil war: This one was a big misfire. On April 3, I wrote that Hamas and Fatah were on the brink of open armed conflict. My logic was that the Palestinian Authority moves to quash dissent in the West Bank were aimed at limiting Hamas’s ability to operate in Fatah’s stronghold, and that Hamas would do the same in Gaza in response and that eventually the entire tinder box would blow up. This has of course not happened, and I think I was too glib about just how drastic things would have to get for a civil war to take place.

Ehud Barak and Atzmaut: On May 3 I wrote that Barak and his party were going to make the threshold for getting into the next Knesset once elections happened. While this has not actually been proven wrong yet, Barak has decided not to run and Atzmaut is going to fold, so this prediction will be wrong quite soon. Let’s just all pretend that I did not write the following: “So despite the polls, remember that you read this prediction here first: Atzmaut is going to have seats in the next Knesset, will serve in the governing coalition, and Ehud Barak will continue as defense minister.”

Kadima staying in the coalition: On July 3, I predicted that the Likud-Kadima unity government was going to hold together despite the Plesner Committee – which was tasked with figuring out a solution to Haredi and Arab military exemptions –  being disbanded. When my prediction was proven incorrect, I wrote a long post taking stock of where I went wrong, so no need to rehash that again.

Turkey’s response to Operation Pillar of Cloud: On November 14, I wrote in The Atlantic that Turkey and Prime Minister Erdoğan were going to maintain a muted response to Israel’s Gaza operation because of the hypocrisy entailed in a more vocal response given Turkey’s tactics against the PKK. Here’s the relevant part:

But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.

Much like Israel’s fight against Hamas, Turkey’s fight with the PKK has not been without civilian collateral damage. Last December, the Turkish military carried out an airstrike in Uludere that killed 34 civilians who the military thought were PKK fighters attempting to cross the border into Turkey. Earlier this year, the government sealed off the Semdinli district in the Hakkari province for months while it fought the PKK, not letting any information out or any journalists in.

Turkey’s problem with PKK terrorism, combined with the inevitable civilian casualties that occur when fighting terrorist groups embedded amongst the general population, makes it harder this time around for Turkey to angrily denounce Israel as it once did. While I expected Turkey to issue a condemnation of Israeli actions, it is not surprising that it did not have the full force as it has in the past given the uncomfortable parallels that exist between Israel’s actions against Hamas and Turkey’s actions against the PKK.

Of everything that I’ve written this year, this is the prediction that was perhaps the one that was most off-base, as Erdoğan later blasted Israel repeatedly for days. My error here is pretty easy to identify, which is that I for whatever reason convinced myself that a desire to not look like a hypocrite was going to override the strong political incentives that existed for Erdoğan to continue foaming at the mouth any time Israel comes up, and to tie himself to the Palestinian cause at every opportunity. Rest assured my naiveté on this issue is done with.

So there you go. I am sure I’ve missed things, and if anyone knows what those are, please let me know in the comments. Happy New Year, and see you all back here in 2013.

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The National Security Impact Of The Likud Primary

November 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

On Sunday and Monday, Likud party members got to vote in the Likud primary and choose the list that will stand for Knesset elections in January, and what emerged was the most rightwing Likud in the party’s history. The Likud list is a catalogue of the most strident and hardline voices in the party, with Danny Danon in the 6th spot, Zeev Elkin in 9th, Yariv Levin in 10th, Tzipi Hotovely in 13th, and Moshe Feiglin – who is Bibi Netanyahu’s main intra-party challenger from his right and is not even currently an MK – in 15th. Regular O&Z readers will recognize all of these names, as their exploits make regular appearances on this blog, but in case you need a refresher, Noam Sheizaf has a rundown of their greatest hits. In addition, because of the deal with Yisrael Beiteinu that created the joint list with Likud, it is unlikely that anyone lower than 20th on the list is going to make it into the Knesset, which means that Likud princes and moderates such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Mickey Eitan are going to lose their jobs as MKs. To get a sense of just how remarkable this is, not only are Begin and Meridor currently Knesset members, they are both ministers and members of the nine person security cabinet, and yet Likud voters just unceremoniously showed them the door. This is not just a changing of the guard from the old to the new, but a serious step to the right. If there was any doubt left that Likud is first and foremost a settler party, it has just been erased.

Plenty of people will spend the next couple of days bemoaning the state of Israeli politics and noting that a Likud government in which someone like Danny Danon might actually be a minister is going to double down on settlements and treat the peace process like a relic from a bygone era. This is all true, and in my humble opinion it’s a terrible development for Israel, but I am not here to state the glaringly obvious. Instead, I’d like to think through the impact of the new Likud makeup on Israel’s defense policy outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The immediate result is going to be the involuntary hiatus of Ehud Barak, who announced yesterday that he was quitting politics and would not stand for election in January. While I found the timing of this announcement strange given that Barak’s Atzmaut party, which had been polling at zero Knesset seats, had rebounded in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud and was looking like it might return to the Knesset with the same five seats it currently has, a couple of smart observers of Israeli politics have convinced me that perhaps it makes sense given the humiliation involved for a former PM barely crossing the Knesset threshold. Amir Mizroch and Robert Danin argue that in resigning, Barak is actually plotting a course to remain as defense minister since he will be viewed as the indispensable general whom Netanyahu will have no choice but to reappoint, and the fact that he is not a member of Knesset will free from him any political constraints. I think it’s quite plausible that this was Barak’s plan yesterday morning and that he may even have been able to pull it off, but he did not count on the events of the afternoon and evening. MKs like Danon and Elkin absolutely detest Barak with every fiber of their being because they have long viewed him as the primary hurdle standing between them and unfettered settlement growth, and now that they essentially control the party, Netanyahu is not going to have the political space to keep Barak as his defense minister. Doing so will cause a riot within Likud and open Netanyahu up to a serious challenge from Feiglin or from his old nemesis (and Washington Generals-type foil) Silvan Shalom, and Bibi is not going to risk that. Instead, I think the Likud primary has guaranteed that Bogie Ya’alon becomes the next defense minister, which also puts him in the pole position to be the next Likud leader once Netanyahu decides to leave the scene.

Aside from silencing Barak and removing his all-encompassing control of Israeli defense policy, I think the new Likud list also makes an Israeli strike on Iran a lot more likely. I have been continuously arguing that one of the primary constraints on an Israeli strike is the makeup of the security cabinet, where four out of the nine members have been unwaveringly opposed to unilateral military action against Iran. Two out of those four are Begin and Meridor, who are now going to be out of the group, and they will almost certainly be replaced by ministers who are more hawkish. The third of the four is Ya’alon, who badly wants to be defense minister and who knows that the post is a potential stepping stone to eventually becoming prime minister. The fact that the defense portfolio is now going to be open might be enough incentive for him to quietly acquiesce to Netanyahu’s plans on Iran in order to get the appointment that he seeks, in which case the security cabinet flips from being divided down the middle to being nearly unanimous in favor of a strike. That does not make a war with Iran a fait accompli, but it does bring the possibility ever closer. One month ago in arguing that the Netanyahu-Lieberman deal was not going to affect the Iran calculus, I noted that “the math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised.” As it turns out, the result of this week’s Likud primary means that the math has now changed, and the impact on Israeli defense policy might be even greater than the impact on Israeli domestic politics.

 

When Rifts And Backstabbing Are Afoot, It Must Be Election Season

October 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

Days like today are my favorite kind here at O&Z, when the symmetry of politics in Israel and Turkey allows me to write one blog post that covers both countries simultaneously and satisfy all of my blog constituencies at once. Over the last 48 hours or so the prospect of elections in Israel and Turkey have caused rifts at the top of both countries with fighting and accusations of perfidy, some subtle and some decidedly unsubtle, between top government officials. Genuine friendships and relationships of convenience are both nearing the breaking point, which just goes to show you that democratic politics can be both beautiful and ugly at the same time.

Let’s start with Israel, where the Netanyahu-Barak bromance is now officially over and the fighting is out in the open in a very public and nasty way. Yesterday Netanyahu accused Barak of attempting to sabotage U.S.-Israel relations even further for the purpose of then coming across as the reasonable moderate who could repair damaged ties, a charge that Barak promptly denied (shameless plug #1: if you read O&Z last week, this news will not have surprised you). Amir Mizroch does his usual good job of summing up the situation but the upshot is that I don’t see how these two can continue to work together. I am sure that Barak did indeed try to throw Bibi under the bus while he was doing his tour around the U.S. and I am also sure that Netanyahu is busy trashing Barak behind the scenes to his friends in Likud. Barak is pretty clearly flailing around here in an attempt to increase his vote share before the elections and is just hoping that something will stick, whether it be his potshots at Avigdor Lieberman or his rapid backing away from Netanyahu. Given how little of a threat that Barak poses from a political standpoint, I’m not quite sure why Netanyahu is even engaging him rather than just ignoring him since I don’t see any potential upside for Bibi in getting dragged down into a brawl in the mud. In any event, like I wrote last week, I will be surprised if Barak finishes out his term as defense minister (and friend of O&Z Dov Friedman has one-upped me by predicting that Barak will be fired rather than quit). I should also reiterate that unless this is part of history’s most elaborate and well-executed long con, a strike on Iran is simply not in the cards right now. If it were, there would be zero public daylight between Netanyahu and Barak rather than all too public sniping.

Moving along to Turkey, the impending inaugural direct election for president is causing some interesting backstabbing as well, but in a much less public way that requires some reading between the lines. Prime Minister Erdoğan is widely believed to covet the top post, which will be infused with newfound power after the AKP replaces the current Turkish constitution with a new version, but current president Abdullah Gül has little desire to vacate the spot. Erdoğan is banking on the fact that he remains a popular figure credited with leading Turkey during a time of unprecedented economic growth and global prestige, but he also knows that he needs a way to sideline Gül so that Gül won’t stick around as prime minister. In this vein, he has been promoting his erstwhile ally (and new AKP member) Numan Kurtulmuş, adding him to the party’s Central Decision and Executive Council and is likely to name him deputy chairman as well (shameless plug #2: if you have been reading O&Z for the past few months, this news will not have surprised you). Gül, however, is showing signs that he will not be pushed aside so easily. In his opening address to parliament this week, Gül implicitly criticized Erdoğan without mentioning him by name in castigating the government on the imprisonment of elected BDP deputies, calling for more joint positions and joint contributions across political party lines (which is squarely aimed at what is taking place during the constitutional drafting process), and then taking a clear shot across the bow on the issue of press freedoms:

The reputation of a country grows when its writers, thinkers, opinion leaders are able to share their views without fear. In the same way, it is fundamental that journalists, newsmen and members of the media as a whole should face no obstacle in fulfilling their responsibility for informing the public. No one should be imprisoned because of expressing their views through the media. A clear distinction must be observed between those who incite violence and those who express an opinion.

This is the opening salvo in what I expect will be some more overt tension to come between Erdoğan and Gül. Turkey’s constitution is going to provide for a newly powerful president, and one of these two men is going to get the job. This relationship is a genuine one though of friendship and mutual respect, unlike the one between Netanyahu and Barak, and so the question that remains to be seen is how nasty things are going to get when all is said and done.

When Ehud Met Rahm

September 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Ehud Barak showed up in Chicago yesterday to meet with his old friend Rahm Emanuel amidst growing tension between the U.S. and Israel over the issue of red lines on Iran and just weeks before the presidential election. This was clearly not just a social call, and in fact Emanuel’s spokesman said that the meeting was an “official visit.” The question is what exactly Barak is up to, since Emanuel has no formal role in making foreign policy anymore now that he is the mayor of Chicago rather than President Obama’s chief of staff. Furthermore, Israeli national security advisor Yaakov Amidror has been in Washington the past couple of days for previously undisclosed meetings with the White House to smooth out differences between the U.S. and Israel over Iran, so there would be no reason for Barak to be talking national security issues with Emanuel.

According to both Ynet and Ha’aretz, Barak’s mission was to begin healing the rift between Washington and Jerusalem, although the two differed on whether Barak was here on a mission from Bibi Netanyahu or was acting on his own. According to Ynet, “it remains unclear whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was informed” of the meeting, while Ha’aretz reports that “Netanyahu sent a message of appeasement to the Obama campaign in the form of Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. The message: The Israeli leader is not meddling in the elections taking place in the United States.”

So what’s really going on here? Did Bibi dispatch Barak in order to send a message through an Obama confidante, or is Barak doing his own thing? If I had to guess, I’d go with the latter for a few reasons. First, if Netanyahu was trying to reassure Obama that he is not meddling in American presidential politics, he wouldn’t be sending Barak with that message, as the two Israelis have a partnership of strategic convenience but are not close political allies in any significant sense. Barak may be trusted in Washington to a much higher degree than Netanyahu, but the person to deliver a political message of that nature would be someone like Ron Dermer and not Barak. When the president of the United States is angry because he thinks that you are interfering in his country’s internal politics, you send one of your most trusted aides to rebut the assertion rather than send your defense minister who belongs to another party.

Second, I’m not sure that it is actually in Barak’s interests to try and help out Netanyahu with Obama, as opposed to making sure that the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong. To put it bluntly, Barak’s priority is that Israel get all the defense and security and diplomatic help from the U.S. that it can muster and not whether Netanyahu can schedule meetings with Obama whenever he wants. It seems pretty clear to me that Netanyahu’s amateurish attempt to pressure the White House is an idea that he ginned up all on his own and that the rest of the political and defense establishment wants little part of it, and there is no reason for Barak to help Netanyahu climb down from the limb as long as the administration’s anger is directed at Netanyahu rather than Israel. The story about Barak trying to make sure that the relationship between the two countries remains strong rings truer to me than the version in which he is trying to spin Netanyahu’s public comments and interviews as benign.

Which brings me to the third point, which is that Barak is looking ahead to the next Israeli elections and is trying to set himself up for a resurgence. Barak is nothing if not a smart tactician, and I think he sees the handwriting on the wall at this point, which is that an Israeli strike is unlikely to occur and that makes him expendable to Netanyahu and the governing coalition since Likud hardliners are constantly after his head. Barak is trying to distance himself from Netanyahu so that he can make a credible run with Tzipi Livni or Yair Lapid in a new center-left party, which is why it was leaked that he no longer agrees with Netanyahu on the need for a strike and why he is going to start taking a harder stance on illegal settlement building. Meeting with Emanuel makes perfect sense given Rahm’s status within the Democratic Party and Barak’s position on the center-left of the Israeli political spectrum, since Barak wants to make sure that he maintains good ties with the Democrats and is seen as a credible figure by the U.S. Barak has a reputation for looking out for himself above all else, and I think the meeting with Emanuel fits into this patter. It is about letting the White House know that he does not agree with anything that Netanyahu is doing, and that should he find himself in a stronger political position after the next election he will make the relationship with the U.S. his top priority. There is no reason in the context of Israeli domestic politics for Barak to throw Netanyahu a lifeline; in fact, given outside events, there is every reason for Barak to let him drown.

The Fate of Ehud Barak and Atzmaut

May 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

Of all the Israeli politicians affected by the call for early elections, the one whose fate is most uncertain is Ehud Barak. While he joined the coalition as defense minister by bringing in the Labor party, he ended up splitting from Labor and forming Atzmaut for the sole purpose of remaining in the government. That move allowed him to stay where he was in the short term, but it might end up costing him big in the long term. The latest polls from the Jerusalem Post, Israel Hayom, Dahaf and Maariv show Atzmaut nowhere to be found and Barak is not going to run on the Likud party list. There is the possibility that Netanyahu appoints him as defense minister anyway, but this would likely prompt a revolt unless Barak is elected to a party that is serving in the next coalition.

On the other hand, there is some evidence that all is not yet lost for Barak. Haaretz cites an unnamed poll showing that Atzmaut now has enough support to meet the Knesset threshold, and Atzmaut MK Shalom Simhon predicts that Atzmaut will four seats alone from the Druze, moshav, and kibbutz vote. In addition, Yediot reports another unnamed poll showing Atzmaut with three seats already, and there is a long time between now and the election so Barak has plenty of time to win over more potential supporters. The drop in support for Kadima over the past month alone should be enough to give Atzmaut supporters comfort in demonstrating how quickly the polls can change.

When all is said and done, I find it difficult to imagine that Atzmaut will not cross the vote threshold to win seats in the Knesset. There are a few factors at work here. First, like I said, four months is a long time, and Atzmaut has plenty of time to organize and drum up support. Barak has certainly been hard at work lately staking out positions on settlements and the Tal Law, and even taking on newcomer Yair Lapid – who might siphon off voters from Barak’s traditional center-left base – by mocking his use of a teleprompter.

Second, despite the fact that Israelis find him to be a slippery character and that his breaking away from Labor was an unpopular gambit, Barak is still a towering figure in Israeli politics. He is a former prime minister, former IDF chief of staff, the most decorated solider in Israel’s history, and is the current defense minister and second most powerful/influential politician in the country next to Bibi. I find it inconceivable that any party led by Barak won’t be able to muster the measly 2% of the vote required to win seats in the Knesset. Playing into this is the fact that Netanyahu desperately needs Barak at his side as long as the possibility of a strike on Iran still exists, and the Israeli public view Barak as a credible defense and security figure, no matter what they think of him as a politician. A new poll shows that only 25% of Israelis agree with Yuval Diskin’s criticism that Netanyahu and Barak are not equipped to deal with Iran, and no doubt Barak is going to spend the next four months reminding Israelis of how important his continued political career is to their safety and security. The last time Israel had an untested defense minister in former labor union leader Amir Peretz it was an unmitigated disaster, and Barak will be the beneficiary of the lingering memory of Peretz’s mishandling of the 2006 war with Hizballah.

So despite the polls, remember that you read this prediction here first: Atzmaut is going to have seats in the next Knesset, will serve in the governing coalition, and Ehud Barak will continue as defense minister.

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