Why I Do Not Agree With A Settlement Boycott, Cont.

March 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wrote a few days ago that one of the reasons I do not support Peter Beinart’s call for a settlement boycott is that it is unlikely to achieve the result that he believes it will since the Israeli economy does not depend on the settlements to a particularly large extent. Via the Forward, some hard facts and numbers backing up my assertion and an acknowledgement from Beinart himself that the economic impact would be limited.

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Peter Beinart’s Life Is About To Become Very Complicated

March 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

Peter Beinart has a forceful op-ed in today’s New York Times arguing that a stronger distinction needs to be made between Israel and the West Bank so that Israel’s democratic legitimacy cannot be used to legitimize its actions in the Occupied Territories and that concurrently what goes on in the West Bank cannot be used to delegitimize Israel. It as an interesting piece and I encourage everyone to read it for themselves, but here are some thoughts and some predictions.

First, anybody who does not read the op-ed itself is going to have no idea that there is anything of substance in it other than a call to boycott the settlements. The piece has been shooting around Twitter and that is the only detail being mentioned. That Beinart writes “But a settlement boycott is not enough. It must be paired with an equally vigorous embrace of democratic Israel” is a facet that is going to be glossed over entirely. Those who think that calling for any pressure on Israel over settlements is outrageous will find anything else contained in the piece to be a mere coda, and those who embrace the BDS movement will trumpet Beinart’s call for a settlement boycott as the first step on the road to a boycott of Israel proper. That there is a large group of people who fall in between these two positions will not matter in the slightest, because the debate on Israel is driven by the loudest voices on the extremes. Beinart is about to be demonized by one side and embraced by the other, and the fact that he is advocating both a settlement boycott and a redirection of any funds not spent in the settlements to Israeli goods will be completely ignored. My guess is that Beinart does not want to be used as a cudgel by the BDS folks or as a punching bag by the Greater Israel crowd, but that is precisely what will happen.

This leads to my second point, which is about Beinart’s advocacy of the term “non-democratic Israel” for the West Bank. I appreciate Beinart’s reasoning, which is that it makes a clear distinction between Israeli democracy and Israeli occupation and thus does not let either side use the West Bank in a res ipsa loquitur manner, but I do not agree that using the phrase will have the effect that he intends. I think that very few people think that the term “West Bank” automatically prioritizes its connection to the Kingdom of Jordan as Beinart contends, but rather realize that it actually reinforces the political boundary with Jordan. This does not make the term meaningless; if anything, it highlights the absurdity of those who argue that Palestinians who want a state should just go to Jordan, or who hold on to the pipe dream that Jordan will ever incorporate the West Bank into the Jordanian polity. I think that the term “non-democratic Israel” actually complicates things even further, because rather than creating the hard line that Beinart wants between the Israel and the territories, it muddies the waters even further. Those who want to maintain the status quo will seize upon the fact that someone is now referring to the West Bank as Israel, irrespective of the modifying adjective preceding it, and those who believe that Israel is not in any way a democracy will argue that this proves their case. I understand that Beinart think this will have the effect of forcing some hard decisions by clarifying the situation, but I think he is being naive on this point. It will just cause each side to dig in harder and ensure that neither ever views the other as legitimate. [ed. note: by each side, I mean Israelis and Palestinians - I do not mean to imply that I find the global BDS movement to be putting forth a legitimate good faith stance, since I don't.]

Finally, I very much identify with Beinart’s description of his agony at calling for a boycott of other Jews given his deep ties to the Jewish community. I am in a similar situation to him in belonging to an Orthodox synagogue and sending my daughter to a Jewish preschool and being outside the dominant position on Israel and the West Bank in such institutions. I have had close friends tell me that I must hate Israel since I think that Israel needs to pull out of the West Bank and let the Palestinians have a state. I have never had an op-ed in the Times calling for a settlement boycott, however, and I am terribly curious to see what reaction Beinart will get when he shows up to synagogue next Saturday. My hunch is that some people will commend him for taking a controversial but principled position, but that the overwhelming sentiment will be condemnation to the point of outright hostility.

Obama and Israeli Politics

March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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