Netanyahu Is Going To Trade One Headache For Another

December 3, 2014 § 3 Comments

The big news from Israel this week is that early elections, long predicted by many, are now officially here. Following months of bickering between Bibi Netanyahu and his various ministers, internal upheaval within Likud, and fights over legislation involving the budget and the Jewish nation-state bill, Netanyahu yesterday fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni from the cabinet, the Knesset voted to dissolve, and elections have been scheduled for March 17. This government did not even make it to the two year mark before dissolving (elections were in January 2013 and the coalition was formed in March of that year), but this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. This was in many ways the strangest and most unlikely coalition government to ever be compiled in Israeli history. You had ministers from other rightwing parties not even trying to hide their desire to at some point soon supplant Bibi by overthrowing Likud, ministers from Bibi’s own party quitting because of their distaste for him, an alliance between two parties – Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi – that had little business allying on anything but did so in an effort to box Bibi in, and such polar opposite opinions between ministers on matters ranging from Jerusalem to the peace process to the budget to Israel’s identity that the government could not credibly claim to have a unified coherent opinion on anything. So this was never a matter of if the government would spectacularly implode, but a matter of when.

Yet despite the complete dysfunction and mayhem that has marked Israel’s 33rd government, Netanyahu’s move to fire his ministers now and to hold new elections is a misstep for him. Netanyahu’s thinking seems rather straightforward here, and theoretically makes sense; the polls indicate a bigger share of votes for rightwing parties in general, so he can go to new elections, construct a coalition that leaves out Lapid and Livni and thus eliminates his budgetary nemesis and his peace process nemesis, and bring in the Haredi parties instead – who will do whatever Bibi wants provided they get their usual buy-offs in the form of subsidies and benefits – and have a much easier time managing his government. It seems simple enough to trade in the current coalition for a more rightwing and pliable one, but Netanyahu may find in the end that he is going to get more than he bargained for, because while this plan makes sense on paper, the path to getting there is not quite so easy.

For starters, a more rightwing coalition doesn’t necessarily mean a more pliable one. The truth is that for varying reasons, Netanyahu has very few allies left on the right aside from Yuval Steinitz and Bogie Ya’alon. Not only is he without allies, but leading rightwing politicians actively and openly despise him. President Ruvi Rivlin, whose Likud credentials are unimpeachable, would love nothing more than to see Bibi toppled following the prime minister’s failed attempt to prevent Rivlin from replacing Shimon Peres as Israel’s president and views Bibi as unnecessarily inflaming relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Gideon Sa’ar, who is enormously popular among the rank and file and who was the leading vote getter in the last Likud primary, resigned his ministerial and Knesset posts in September, but gave a “retirement” speech in which he made plain his disdain for Netanyahu and that he would be returning to politics in the near future. Moshe Kahlon, another popular Likud politician who was a main driver of Mizrahi votes for the party, suddenly quit the party right before the last election over reported differences with Bibi and has now formed his own party with the aim of siphoning more votes away from Netanyahu. The enmity between Netanyahu and the ascendant radical Likudniks such as Danny Danon and Moshe Feiglin is well-documented and this group smells blood in the water as an isolated Netanyahu now sits on an island occupying the left pole of the party. Then there is Avigdor Lieberman, who is zigging and zagging – including releasing his own peace plan last week – and trying to be all things to all people in hopes of fulfilling his long held dream of becoming prime minister one day himself. He is only going to cooperate with Netanyahu to the extent that it furthers his own career interests, and given that the best way of positioning himself is to differentiate himself from the current prime minister, I don’t anticipate much altruism from Lieberman being directed Bibi’s way.

Finally there is Naftali Bennett, who is slated to take over Yair Lapid’s role as Bibi’s bete noire in the next government. Despite appearing to have reached a detente in recent months, Bennett and Netanyahu are still at odds, still have personal issues with each other (thanks to Sara Netanyahu), and are natural political rivals. Unlike Lapid though, Bennett represents an actual threat to Bibi, because he has the ability to hit Bibi where it hurts by stealing the prime minister’s own base. I have been arguing for years that the real political threat to Netanyahu comes not from his left but from his right, and Bennett is the personification of that threat. He is more appealing to the settler right and to nationalists – and let there be no doubt that Netanyahu’s championing of the Jewish nation-state bill is primarily an effort to win back the mantle of Israel’s most vigilant nationalist – and more appealing to the economically conservative technology and entrepreneur class as he is one of them. The right trusts him in a way that they don’t trust Bibi, and this goes double for religious voters. Bennett has also made a naked play at broadening Habayit Hayehudi’s electoral appeal by amending the party’s constitution in September to allow him to directly appoint every fifth candidate to the party’s electoral list in order to get more secular and Russian candidates into Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset bloc. The upshot of all this is that Bennet doesn’t want to help Netanyahu; he wants to replace Netanyahu. He knows that it is unlikely to happen outright in this election, but if Bennett emerges from elections with the second most mandates in the Knesset, he is going to spend his time either pulling Netanyahu rightward  – and loudly taking the credit for the results – or setting up showdowns designed to expose Netanyahu as a fraud to Israeli rightwing voters. Either way, Netanyahu may end up longing for the types of battles that he had with Lapid rather than those that will be orchestrated by Bennett.

Then there is Netanyahu’s assumption that the result of elections in March will be more overall Knesset seats for the rightwing bloc, and I’m not so sure about this one either. The current polls certainly reflect this to be the case, but the election is three months away and Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable. If Lapid and Livni band together, which by all indications is going to happen, it is going to pull the combined party to the left as Lapid will bring Livni along with the socially oriented economic program that he cares most about while Livni brings Lapid along with the peace process program that she cares most about, and such a party has a good shot of picking up more votes than the individual sum of its parts. In addition, Kahlon is polling well despite having literally no platform or real public positions yet, and that may dissipate very quickly once he is held to the fire. Even if it doesn’t, Kahlon’s party may end up being more leftwing than rightwing given his historical focus on socioeconomic issues for Israel’s more underprivileged sectors. The Israeli economy has suffered since the Gaza war, and if Netanyahu’s economic stewardship becomes a loud campaign issue, which Lapid and Labor are both trying to make happen, it does not bode well for any of the parties on the right given Netanyahu’s reputation as the godfather of unbridled Israeli capitalism.

Leaving aside the right more generally, Likud itself may not even match its current nineteen seats despite the early polls. Voters are wary about the state of the economy, and for the first time in a decade there is a real sense of unease over the domestic security situation given the spate of attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Netanyahu’s choice of making such a big deal over the nation-state bill is also an odd one, as his traditional appeal is as the only experienced grownup in the room who can truly protect Israel in a time of growing threats. There is risk in pursuing this battle-tested strategy coming on the heels of a mixed performance in Gaza and new upheaval on the Palestinian front, but it is also true that many more Israelis are inclined to support Netanyahu’s no-nonsense rhetorical approach when they are feeling less safe. There is far less consensus on the nation-state Jewish identity issue than there is on being vigilant with Israel’s security, and by seizing upon the nation-state bill to benefit his own campaign, Bibi is taking a risk that he is actually using a wedge issue that will harm him. Likud is more likely to draw votes by primarily projecting itself as the ultimate guarantor of Israelis’ safety than by primarily projecting itself as the ultimate guarantor of Jewish identity. There is also the fact that a not insignificant chunk of voters seems to be annoyed that Netanyahu is going to early elections and don’t quite see the point beyond political expediency, which could hurt Likud. Finally, it is looking like with everyone gunning for Netanyahu personally, this campaign may end up being a referendum on the man himself, and while he has been popular enough to slide by with a plurality of votes in a very divided political system, he is not universally popular in any objective sense of the word.

A lot can happen in the three months between now and the election that will affect votes in unanticipated ways, be it rock throwers on the Temple Mount or Sara Netanyahu’s Haagen Dazs budget, but my educated guess this far out is that the right’s share is not going to be too much above 60-65 votes and that Likud is going to lose ground relative to Habayit Hayehudi so that the power imbalance between Netanyahu and Bennett narrows further. Netanyahu is living in a cocoon and has been at the top for so long that his instincts are off. If he ends up with a narrower margin above the leftwing parties than he is expecting along with a further empowered Bennett looking to stick a knife in his back at every opportunity, Netanyahu may just end up wishing that he had left well enough alone and stuck with his current low-grade headache rather than trading up for a migraine.

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.

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.

Dealing With The World That Is Rather Than The One We Want

July 31, 2014 § 61 Comments

I’ve been purposely keeping quiet as Operation Protective Edge rages on, which for someone who writes about Israel seems like a counterproductive move. The problem is, I have seen very little to convince me that writing anything will actually be productive in a real sense because everyone is living in a bubble. I have rarely been so disheartened by anything as much as I have by reading what friends and acquaintances are expressing as Israel and Hamas go at each other. My Facebook feed is a good illustration of this, being split between very different demographics.

On group is comprised of lots of Jewish friends from growing up in New York in an Orthodox community, attending Jewish day schools, currently living in a place with a large and engaged Jewish community, etc. and nearly all of them subscribe to the view that Israel is entirely blameless for its current predicament, the IDF is the most moral army in the world, and that Palestinians of every stripe are ceaselessly working toward Israel’s destruction. Among this well-intentioned group (and I am not saying that sarcastically or facetiously) there is a smaller subset of people who express extreme and odious views. Some examples from the past couple of days have been friends ruminating that perhaps Meir Kahane was right and shouldn’t have been demonized; a refusal to refer to Palestinians or use any word that has Palestine as a root and to instead only refer to Gazans or pro-Gazan rallies “because Palestinian is a made up word;” a conviction that the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas and so deserve anything that happens to them as a result; and deep concern over the fact that there is an Islamic center in the neighborhood which might present a physical danger because any and all Muslims are presumed to hate Jews.

Another group is comprised of very liberal friends from various educational stops and Turkish friends and colleagues, and nearly all of them subscribe to the view that Israel is the party most at fault for the fighting in Gaza, the IDF does not take any care at all to avoid civilians, Netanyahu is a liar who used the kidnapping and murder of the three Israelis as an excuse to execute a war that he had been planning all along, and that Israel intends to subjugate the Palestinians forever. Among this well-intentioned group (and again, I am not saying it sarcastically or facetiously), there is a smaller subset of people whose views are more extreme and odious. Some examples are that Israel is committing genocide; Israeli behavior is no different than that of Nazi Germany; and that Hamas is not in any way a terrorist group and is not even targeting civilians but is instead intentionally only using WWII-era rockets that it knows will fall into empty fields. Amidst all of this, I just throw up my hands in despair. I mean it when I call these friends and acquaintances well-intentioned; the first group is genuinely and legitimately concerned with Israel’s safety and survival and is terrified by the anti-Semitic outbursts and attacks around the world under the cover of the Palestinian cause and sees no other rational response to the nihilistic and eliminationist rhetoric from Hamas but IDF operations in Gaza, while the second group genuinely cannot abide to see hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed and images of dead children on the beach and blames the Israelis for bringing a tank to a knife fight and using it in ways that cause indiscriminate death despite Israeli civilians being relatively safe from Hamas rocket fire. Neither group is going to ever come over the other side or change its views, but that is to be expected. The despair comes from the fact that neither group even empathizes with the other side or remotely understands how someone can possibly arrive at a position different from its own. There is barely any acknowledgement that there are two sides to every story and that, without creating a false moral equivalence, there is indeed some gray involved here. It is cliche to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict creating polarization, but never have I seen it worse than this. So I have kept my mouth shut and hoped that the fighting will end and everyone can go back to posting pictures of their kids and videos of baby animals.

Nevertheless, there is a point that I am itching to make, which is that this deep ideological bubble that so many are in leads to unrealistic expectations on all sides, because everybody wants to deal with a world that they want rather than the world as it is. Possibly my all-time favorite quote is the Pat Moynihan line that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts, and there is a worrisome trend going on of people ignoring reality in favor of ideology and attempting to make policy as if the world can be bended to their will, or suggesting that either Israel or Hamas act in a certain way that disregards facts on the ground.

One example of wishing for a reality that doesn’t exist is the hope of many of Israel’s supporters that the world will all of a sudden wake up to the fact that Hamas hides behind hospitals and schools and thus forgive Israel for piling up the Palestinian civilian casualty count. The fact that Hamas noxiously puts civilians in harm’s way knowing that its actions will inevitably lead to their deaths is revolting and should be called out by anyone and everyone. Yet, pictures of dead children and leveled neighborhoods are always going to blow back in Israel’s face no matter how many Hamas bunkers or strongholds are contained under the rubble. The Israeli government keeps repeating the same talking points about civilian shield ad infinitum as if it expects to convince anyone rather than just preach to the choir. I wish this weren’t the case, but it is, and the longer the fighting goes on, the worse off Israel is going to be, whether it be Israel’s rejuvenation of Hamas (a subject for another post, but yes, that is precisely what Israel has done) or the inevitable Goldstone Report redux and the eventual imposition of EU sanctions (which believe me are coming). None of this is to excuse Hamas’s disgusting and criminal behavior in any way, but just to recognize what the world sees in Gaza, which is dead women and children and UN schools being shelled rather than command bunkers under hospitals and UN schools being used as rocket storage depots.

Another is this meme that Hamas’s problem is solely with the occupation, and that if Israel were to end the blockade, then Hamas would leave the Israelis alone. Hamas does not like Jews and is anti-Israel, not anti-occupation. Anyone who can’t see that sorely needs to examine their internal analytical process. Does Hamas want to get rid of the occupation? Yup. Is it true that Hamas did not shoot any rockets at Israel from the 2012 ceasefire until just before Protective Edge? Yup. Also true is that Hamas’s charter calls for the destruction of Israel in its entirely, Hamas political leaders repeatedly call for the same thing while inciting against Jews (not just “Zionists”), and Hamas build a huge network of tunnels into Israel for the purpose of kidnapping and killing civilians while it was respecting the ceasefire with regard to rockets, so one has to be willfully blind or colossally stupid to argue that its intentions were benign until Israel provoked it. I don’t doubt that Hamas is capable of an actual ceasefire, and I think that under certain circumstances it could abide by a longterm truce, but nothing that Hamas has said or done points to it quietly going away if Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to sign a final status agreement ending the occupation.

A third example of not accepting the world as it is can be seen in the debate on the role of Turkey and Qatar in any ceasefire. I wrote three weeks ago that I thought any ceasefire would have to include Turkey and/or Qatar, not because I think that either of them have been responsible foreign policy actors – in fact, they have been the opposite – but because of the simple reality that unlike in 2012, Hamas has an acrimonious relationship with the current Egyptian government to say the least, and will not agree to a ceasefire entirely brokered by parties it does not trust and with whom it has no relationship. Jonathan Schanzer and David Weinberg – both super smart and insightful analysts who do not fall under the category of ignoring reality or substituting opinions for facts – argue that Turkey and Qatar need to be kept out because otherwise it will create the moral hazard of rewarding the two countries that have sponsored Hamas terrorism. I am sympathetic to this argument, and they are right; Qatar shouldn’t be rewarded for funneling money to Hamas and providing a home for Hamas’s leadership in Doha, and Turkey shouldn’t be rewarded for harboring the Hamas leader behind the kidnapping strategy or constantly undermining Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority in order to burnish Hamas’s position. Nevertheless, the problem comes from a line that Schanzer and Weinberg themselves write, which is, “A cease-fire is obviously desirable, but not if the cost is honoring terror sponsors. There must be others who can mediate.” I’m not sure in fact that there are others who can mediate, as evidenced by the disaster of a few weeks ago when Egypt was involved. If someone can point me to another potential Hamas interlocutor, then great, but so far no one has. Any deal will have to involve the U.S. and Egypt, but Turkey or Qatar as well, and that’s just the reality of things. I wish it weren’t so, but it is, and ignoring the basic structure of the players involved won’t get Israel and Gaza any closer to a ceasefire. John Kerry’s mistake last weekend wasn’t that he involved Turkey and Qatar in the process, but that he did so to the exclusion of Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority. It’s the mirror image mistake of the original ceasefire attempt, and thus was just as doomed to fail.

Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, there is the idea taking hold on the right that if given just enough time to keep fighting, Israel can end Hamas rule in Gaza. The fact is that there is no military solution to dealing with Hamas – as opposed to mitigating its military effectiveness – and the only way to neutralize Hamas is through political means. Hamas is in control of Gaza and not going anywhere. Fatah is extraordinarily weak there, and there is no other credible party with enough strength to take over. Israel could go into Gaza and completely reoccupy it and it wouldn’t matter, because the second Israel left Hamas would resume control. Israel made this mistake before in 1982 when it went into Lebanon based on the fantasy of destroying the PLO once and for all. All that happened was the PLO got kicked out of Lebanon and regrouped in Tunis, and Israel ended up permanently damaging its own credibility and public image. The Israeli government seems smart enough to know this and a reoccupation of Gaza is not imminent, but it’s a fantasy to think that Israel can hammer Hamas for a few more weeks and then somehow install Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza. The military component is necessary for an eventual political component, but without that second part, Israel will just be fighting in Gaza again in two or three years. For some people that might be fine, but every time it happens, Israel emerges damaged and one step closer to genuine isolation. The quicker that everyone realizes that a political solution is the only long-term one, the better everyone will be. Let’s deal with the world as it is, not the world as we want it.

Why A Gaza Ceasefire Is So Difficult

July 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

There was a strong expectation in Israel yesterday once the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire terms were announced that Hamas was going to accept the deal. Even after Hamas rejected the terms and launched 80 more rockets at Israel yesterday morning, some prominent voices, such as former Israel national security adviser Giora Eiland, were predicting that Hamas would ultimately accept the deal today. While anything may still happen, it is highly unlikely given Hamas’s vociferous objections to terms that are essentially a replica of the 2012 ceasefire agreement and Hamas’s release of its own offer this morning, which calls for an end to the Gaza blockade, the release of any prisoners swept up over the last month who had been released in the Gilad Shalit deal in 2011, building an airport and seaport in Gaza, expansion of the Gaza fishing zone, and the opening of all crossings into Gaza, including the Refah crossing into Egypt. Like the Egyptian deal was to Hamas, these terms are unpalatable to Israel and will not be accepted. Unlike in 2012, when a ceasefire was brokered relatively easily and put an end to hostilities, this time around things are proving to be far more difficult, and it isn’t just a matter of Israel and Hamas meeting halfway.

For starters, there are no good brokers for a truce. The problems with Egypt are well-known; Sisi and the Egyptian government want to isolate Hamas, and Hamas does not trust Sisi any more than they trust Bibi Netanyahu. Egypt’s ceasefire deal was negotiated without any Hamas input or even prior notification to Hamas before the terms were made public, and was likely more of an effort on Egypt’s part to isolate and weaken Hamas even further by having the entire Arab League and Western countries line up behind a deal that Hamas was almost certainly going to reject rather than a true effort at brokering an end to fighting. At this point, it is difficult to envision a situation in which Egypt plays a role in mediating between the two sides. The U.S. cannot do it alone given that it has no ties to Hamas, and that leaves aside the reporting in Haaretz that Israel specifically asked Kerry to stay out of it to avoid the impression that the U.S. was pressuring Israel and thus granting Hamas a win. I wrote last week about the potential for Turkey and Qatar to step in so no need to rehash the variables there – and indeed Mahmoud Abbas and Meshal are meeting with President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan in Turkey on Friday –  but both countries are deeply flawed due to their lack of successful experience in wading into Israeli-Palestinian fights, and Israel for good reason does not exactly trust either of them (particularly after Erdoğan yesterday compared Habayit Hayehudi MK Ayelet Shaked to Hitler).

Second, Hamas is an organization fractured between the Gaza leadership and the international leadership based in Qatar, and so it is unclear what it actually wants and who has the authority to make a deal. Signs point to Khaled Meshal following the military leaders right now than the other way around, and the military guys in Gaza appear to be averse to ending the fighting anytime soon. The atmosphere is very different now than it was in 2012, and while I will for the second time in a week emphasize that internal Palestinian politics are not my expertise, I have the sense that Meshal will be subject to the Gaza leadership’s veto on any deal he is involved in brokering. There is also the complicating factor of Gazans wanting a ceasefire and whether this will create any pressure on Hamas’s Gaza wing to at some point acquiesce.

Next, there is the fact that there is enormous political pressure on Bibi coming from his right flank to not accept any ceasefire – even one, like yesterday’s proposal, that is almost entirely on Israel’s terms – and to instead send the already-mobilized ground forces into Gaza. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday gave a press conference during which he advocated the IDF invading and retaking Gaza, and after Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon – who has long been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side within Likud – trashed Netanyahu for supporting the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, Netanyahu immediately fired him from his ministerial post. The ostensible reason was that it is unacceptable for a deputy defense minister to so harshly criticize the government’s defense policy in the midst of a war, but Netanyahu has been looking for ways to cut Danon down to size for awhile, and so he seized the opportunity once it presented itself. The larger point here is that Netanyahu has been isolated within his own party for some time as it moves further and further to the right, and his instinctual conservative behavior when it comes to sending troops into battle is not lauded by Likud members but is instead distrusted and viewed as weakness. I don’t think that Bibi wants to get involved in a ground war in Gaza, which entails lots of messy fighting, larger casualty numbers on both sides, guaranteed international opprobrium, and which last time led to the Goldstone Report following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. Nevertheless, the longer that rockets come flying from Gaza and the longer ground troops sit idly by waiting for orders, the more the rightwing is going to yell and howl about the need to take stronger military action rather than accepting a ceasefire deal that will only guarantee a few years of quiet at best.

There is also the factor of international support, and each side’s delusions about where it will lie as this drags further on. Israel made it very clear in the aftermath of the Hamas rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire that it views Hamas’s refusal to lay down arms as granting legitimacy to an eventual Israeli ground invasion, and the Israeli government believes that much of the world agrees with this position. I find it hard to believe that this logic will hold up in the face of mounting Palestinian deaths and a continued lopsided body count, even if the one-sided casualty numbers need to be viewed in the context of Hamas’s failure at killing Israelis not being for a lack of trying. It is also generally the case that world opinion does not work in Israel’s favor, and I do not think that structural feature is going to change as Operation Protective Edge continues. On Hamas’s side, it believes that world opinion will turn against Israel as things progress, which is in my view correct, and that the Israeli public will eventually get fed up and pressure Netanyahu to stop fighting, which in my view is comically incorrect. Furthermore, world opinion and international support are two different things, and at the moment Israel does not lack for support. In fact, yesterday Congress approved more funding for Iron Dome, and Hamas underestimates how much support in 2012 was driven by Arab countries that have since abandoned Hamas wholesale.

Finally, there is the balancing act that Israel is trying to play with the eventual outcome regarding Hamas itself. Israel’s goals are delicately balanced between weakening Hamas and taking out its capabilities to launch long-range missiles at Israeli cities while still keeping Hamas alive and viable to the point of it maintaining its rule over Gaza. Israel recognizes that while Hamas used to look like the most radical group in the neighborhood when compared to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas now routinely gets pressured from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other even scarier jihadi groups. That basic fact is what led Hamas to escalate things in the first place, as it has its own internal politics with which to contend. The Israeli government knows that until last week, Hamas has largely been trying to keep rockets from being launched out of Gaza rather than themselves doing the launching since the 2012 ceasefire, and it also knows that it is a pipe dream to hope for the PA to regain control of Gaza. Israel needs Hamas to run Gaza and keep it from spiraling even further out of control, so any ceasefire agreement that Israel signs will have to keep Hamas in power but assure Israel that Hamas’s military capabilities remain degraded following the fighting.

The upshot of all this is that Gaza in 2014 is a lot more complicated than Gaza in 2012, and assuming that the U.S. or Egypt can just swoop in and put an end to things when both sides have had enough is naive. There is lots of politics, both international and domestic, involved here, and while I still hold out hope of some combination of the U.S. and Turkey/Qatar being able to bridge the various gaps, the problem is that the gaps look more like chasms.

Will Turkey Have Any Role In Brokering A Gaza Ceasefire?

July 10, 2014 § 5 Comments

As Hamas continues firing rockets (and allowing other groups to fire rockets) at Israel from Gaza, and Israel responds with airstrikes, people are beginning to wonder how this round of fighting will end. During Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, a ceasefire was brokered with U.S. and Egyptian intervention – and we can debate all day about how much Mohamed Morsi himself had to do with that, although my sense is that his role was overstated – but this time around such intervention does not seem to be coming. The U.S. does not want to put pressure on Israel to stand down while rockets are flying against civilian targets, including heretofore untargeted locations such as Jerusalem, Ben Gurion Airport, and the nuclear reactor in Dimona, and it also does not want to be seen as bailing Hamas out of its self-made mess after furious criticism that U.S. backing of the PA-Hamas unity deal strengthened the terrorist group. On the Egyptian side, the government has been doing all it can to squeeze Hamas, which is unsurprising given the prevalent feelings about the Muslim Brotherhood, and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has largely kept quiet on the subject of Israeli airstrikes and has sealed the border to prevent Hamas members from escaping into Egypt.

There is increasing chatter that Hamas is looking for a way out of its miscalculated escalation – and yes, every available shred of evidence indicates that this was initially escalated by Hamas and not Israel – and while internal Palestinian politics is not my expertise so I am reluctant to go too far down this analytical path, I am not so convinced that Hamas does indeed want a way out just yet. Hamas’s unpopularity and economic isolation is what forced it into the unity agreement with the Palestinian Authority in the first place, and one sure way to bolster its standing is by reasserting its “resistance” bona fides. Unless Israel is willing to undergo a sustained ground invasion and reoccupation of Gaza, Hamas’s military domination there vis a vis other Palestinian armed groups  is not going to be threatened, and continuing to fire rockets at Israel ensures its political future. But let’s concede that whether it is now or later on down the road, at some point both sides will be looking for a way to end the fighting. With the U.S. having no influence with Hamas and Egypt seemingly uninterested, who is left to step in?

The only two plausible parties are Turkey and Qatar, whose motives and standing are similar. Both Qatar and Turkey have spent years either openly or tacitly backing Hamas at the expense of the PA, and they are also the only two countries left – not including Iran – that are still providing support and cover to Hamas now that Egypt and Syria are out of Hamas’s corner. Both Qatar and Turkey have also seen their foreign policies, which seemed so ascendant a couple of short years ago, crash and burn and are looking for a win anyway they can get it. Due to its own missteps, Turkey has found itself mired in the breakdown of the Arab Spring and particularly the fallout from the Syrian civil war, and Qatar’s support of Islamist groups around the region led to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates all withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha  in March as a protest against Qatari meddling in their internal affairs, i.e. supporting various Muslim Brotherhood groups. If either Turkey or Qatar can step in as a mediator and use its influence with Hamas to get a ceasefire deal, it will demonstrate their regional value and show that they can put their foreign policy to productive use. It will also in some measure rehabilitate both in the eyes of the other Sunni governments in the region, who view Turkey to a lesser extent and Qatar to a greater extent with increasing suspicion.

Prime Minister Erdoğan has been relatively quiet on Gaza so far given his track record, although I should note that when I pointed this same dynamic out in 2012, it immediately backfired on me in a spectacular way. So this time I won’t make any hard predictions about Erdoğan keeping his mouth shut, and in fact I expect him to be more vociferous at some point given the presidential election next month. Nevertheless, I am sure that Turkey would like to play a role this time in mediating some kind of agreement, and with the dearth of other candidates who have working relationships with both Israel and Hamas, this time it is actually a possibility. Turkey wants to cooperate with Israel on Mediterranean energy issues, has still been waiting for Israel to sign a reconciliation agreement, and also wants to get back into the good graces of the U.S. Domestic politics are always at the forefront in Ankara and Erdoğan has the temperament of a ticking time bomb, so you can cue the nasty rhetoric at some point, but the fact remains that Turkey hates the fact that nobody outside of its own Foreign Ministry, SETA, and the staff of Daily Sabah care about anything the government says on foreign policy these days, and it is desperate to reclaim some regional role. All of these factors point to a small possibility of a U.S.-Turkey initiative at a ceasefire when both sides are ready. Let’s just hope that Erdoğan, Davutoğlu, and the rest of the AKP crew can keep their feelings about Israel enough in check to maintain some shred of credibility with Jerusalem as a potential go-between.

Are The U.S. and Israel Really Headed For A Split?

July 3, 2014 § 5 Comments

Michael Cohen published an article in Foreign Policy a couple of days ago in which he argues that the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship will be marked by “less cooperation, more disagreements, and greater tension.” The piece is headlined “The Democrats Are Finally Turning Away From Israel” with the inflammatory subhead “And it’s high time they did,” but this does not reflect Cohen’s core arguments, and I am 100% confident that he had nothing to do with the title in any way (having been published in FP on numerous occasions, I can say from personal experience that the editors choose the title on their own and the first time the writer even knows about it is when it goes live on the website). What Cohen argues is that the relationship is being strained and slowly pulled apart by bad personal relationships between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel actively trying to prevent a deal between the U.S. and Iran by working Congressional channels, differing strategic priorities in the region, and a widening gap between the two countries’ worldviews.

In Cohen’s analysis, all of these factors mean that support for Israel in the U.S. will wane as the U.S. government finds it increasingly difficult to justify or explain bad Israeli behavior – particularly on the Palestinian front – and that the U.S. will no longer rush to defend Israel from pressure coming from Europe. Furthermore, Cohen foresees the politics of Israel changing in the U.S. as support for Israeli behavior among American Jews wanes and as Israel identifies more and more with Republicans, making support for Israel less politically important for Democrats.

Cohen astutely identifies a number of points of tension between the U.S. and Israel, and he is not exaggerating things such as the distrust between the elected leaders or the frustration among administration officials over Israel’s handling of settlements and peace negotiations. Nevertheless, I do not entirely agree with the analysis, and I think there are some angles that Cohen either misreads or leaves out, particularly on the strategic front.

First, while Obama and Bibi have long been and likely always will be at odds, this duo only has two more years to go, and that means that the relationship can be reset in a heartbeat. The low point of the George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir pairing was followed by the apex brought about by Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin, so I am reluctant to predict any longterm trends based on the two men currently in office. If Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden end up winning the White House in 2016, their track records and both public and private comments indicate that the relationship with Israel will improve irrespective of what happens with settlements and the peace process, and that goes double for any Republican not named Rand Paul. That is not to say that U.S. frustration with Israeli settlement policy is a mirage or only resides in the minds of Obama White House officials, since it absolutely permeates a much deeper group of politicians and foreign policy bureaucrats who rightly worry about the consequences of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Rather, it is a problem that must be considered in light of a larger strategic context (more on that below), which makes it important but not necessarily an ultimate driver of U.S. policy toward Israel.

Second, while it is absolutely true that support for Israeli policies among younger American Jews seems to be on the decline, the jury is out as to whether that support will increase as younger American Jews get older, and more saliently there is a question as to whether support for Israeli policies directly overlaps with support for Israel more generally. Furthermore, none of this may matter anyway if support for Israel among the general public remains strong, or if within the Democratic Party there is a gap between grassroots progressives and elite policymakers and opinion leaders. On the question of support among the general public, favorable views of Israel are at historical highs with a clear 55% majority of Democrats still holding favorable views, and historically Americans tend to sympathize with Israel versus the Palestinians at even higher than normal levels when Israelis are the victims of terrorism and violence, as was tragically the case this week. I am also not convinced from conversations with progressive politicians and thought leaders that they are on the verge of abandoning Israel wholesale, and there is a strong recognition among Democratic elites that Israel is not and should not be entirely defined by its settlement project, as deeply problematic as that project is.

Most importantly though, in his focus on divergent strategic goals, Cohen glosses over a newly strengthened recognition that Israel’s strategic value as an ally is going up. It’s clear that Israel and the U.S. differ on their respective threat perceptions of Iran, whether Iran should be contained, and whether Iran can be contained, but in seeking to contain the fallout coming from the rest of the region as it implodes, Israel is pretty much the only reliable ally left standing. Despite an American desire to pivot to Asia, the Middle East cannot be ignored just because the U.S. finds it thorny, as the recent crisis in Iraq demonstrates all too well. The U.S. is going to be involved to a greater extent than it desires, and as I heard from multiple Israeli foreign policy and security professionals and experts when I was there last month, the Israeli government is well aware that the country is an island of stability amid the chaos. Iraq is a mess, Syria is in the middle of a civil war, Egypt is teetering dangerously on the brink of becoming a failed state, Saudi Arabia is dealing with massive uncertainty amidst a succession crisis, Jordan has been in constant crisis management mode since 2011 and now has to worry about being overrun by ISIS, Turkey is dealing with all sorts of internal problems and has proven itself to be a notoriously unreliable and myopic ally with its disastrous flirtations with jihadi groups in Syria…the list goes on and on. Israelis are of the view that the U.S. almost needs them more than they need the U.S., and while this is overconfident hyperbole, it is based on a foundation of truth. U.S.-Israeli coordination is now more vital than ever, and this is a variable that is not going to change for the remainder of this decade given the Middle East’s unraveling. When I wrote two years ago that Israel was going to benefit from the Arab Spring as a result of its neighbors being too busy with their own domestic unrest to worry about making trouble for Israel, I didn’t anticipate the positive externality of Israel becoming an even more crucial American ally, but that dynamic has arrived.

I share Cohen’s concerns about Israeli policies, and anecdotally there seems to be softening support for Israel among younger Democrats. Ultimately, however, I think the political tension in the relationship is fleeting, and the genuine and widespread disappointment at Israeli settlement building is a long term problem that needs to be addressed but that for next few years will be outweighed by larger strategic concerns. Surveying the state of things, I am not nearly so confident as Cohen that the U.S.-Israel relationship is destined to be remade.

 

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