A Zionism of Excuses

November 19, 2015 § 6 Comments

There is a familiar refrain that has been coming out of Israel for some time, and it was on display during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S. last week. The refrain is that Israel must maintain the status quo – sometimes referred to in shorthand as “conflict management” – despite its desire to have peace because outside events beyond its control are hemming it in. The Palestinian refusal to negotiate without preconditions, the risk of the West Bank turning into a terrorist enclave akin to Gaza, threats to regional stability from a variety of state and non-state actors, European sympathy for the Palestinians, and the resurgence of jihadi terrorism all combine for an antediluvian environment in which Israel cannot afford to take any risks lest the flood waters come rushing in. It is a picture that portrays Israel as an ark in a stormy sea, an island of stability whose actions are constrained because of its environment.

In many ways, this picture is an accurate one. All of the above factors exist to one degree or another, and they all impact Israel’s security and economy. This notion that to act in the face of such a threat matrix would be to assume unmanageable risks was nicely explicated by Natan Sachs in Foreign Affairs recently, where he described Netanyahu’s strategy as anti-solutionism emanating from a belief that there are no current fixes for Israel’s myriad challenges. The Zionist project becomes an inward looking one that tries to passively fend off threats, rather than an outward looking one that attempts to actively solve problems. I have many quarrels with Netanyahu’s leadership of Israel, but perhaps the largest one is that I find this general philosophy to be fundamentally at odds with the Zionist ideal. The strategy of sitting back and waiting for the universe to present a more propitious moment would be unrecognizable to Israel’s founders and iconic leaders, and it reveals a Zionism of excuses rather than actions.

Like many American Jews of my generation, I was raised on a diet of stories about the Panglossian wonder of Israel. The narrative went from Israeli pioneers braving malaria and draining the swamps of Palestine, to building the institutions of a future state despite hostility from the British and the Arabs, to the unimaginable diplomatic accomplishment of having the two opposing Cold War superpowers both vote in favor of partition, to the successive military miracles of beating back the invading armies of 1948 and then achieving an unthinkable victory in a mere six days in June 1967, to the modern successes of Israel in a variety of economic and technological spheres. This was a wholly sanitized narrative that avoided many contradictions and unpleasant truths, but the running thread throughout was that Zionism meant taking action and working to better your circumstances, no matter how insurmountable the challenges may appear. Zionism did not wait for the world it inhabited to change; it changed the world it inhabited.

While the above story is an incomplete one, the point about Zionism was correct. The yishuv in Mandatory Palestine did in fact face huge challenges and nearly impossible odds, and those odds did not terribly improve with the establishment of Israel. Zionism was the personification of a can-do attitude and creating your own positive reality, and it is no accident that Israel was widely admired as a plucky underdog. The Zionist project was something to be admired because it represented the ultimate victory of hard work and persistence, and above all it was a philosophy of doing.

What Netanyahu now peddles is the polar opposite. After listening to Netanyahu last week in the U.S. and spending this week in Israel meeting with various Israeli officials and politicians, I can’t help but sink under the weight of the ingrained pessimism and various pretexts for inaction. To listen to the Israeli government is to hear about an Israel at the mercy of its military and diplomatic adversaries, an Israel that cannot act because the barely functioning Palestinian government is outmaneuvering it, an Israel that has a litany of excuses for why it is dependent on the good will of others in order to improve its own situation. If only Mahmoud Abbas would drop his preconditions for negotiating, if only Palestinians would stop incitement, if only the Palestinian Authority would acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state…if, if, if. I am not suggesting that these are not legitimate complaints, only that to allow them to bog you down and be held hostage by their very existence conveys a complete lack of imagination and confidence. It is a betrayal of Zionist ideals, pure and simple, and one that makes Israel look weak rather than strong.

It is accepted conventional wisdom that the solutions to the various elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are known to everyone, and it is just a matter of getting both sides to say yes. I think a better way of formulating this is that the solutions are simple, but they are not easy. They will involve painful concessions and even more painful actions, and neither side is going to come out of this with everything they want. The difference between the Zionism of the 20th century and Netanyahu’s 21st century Zionism is that the former understood that hardship is not the same thing as impossibility, whereas the latter conflates the two at the drop of a hat. I know which version of Zionism I favor.

The Unilateral Bibi

November 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Bibi Netanyahu’s highly anticipated appearance on Tuesday at the Center for American Progress did not contain many surprises. Netanyahu spent much of the hour doing a masterful job of communicating his talking points, maneuvering questions onto advantageous territory, and using the yawning chasm between his knowledge and CAP President Neera Tanden’s knowledge of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to push across his worldview largely unchallenged. There was, however, one notable moment at the very end that was immediately picked up on by those in the room and later caused a ruckus back in Israel. Circling back to an earlier question from Washington Institute fellow David Makovsky on what Netanyahu’s Plan B is to prevent Israel from becoming a bi-national state, Netanyahu stated about unilateralism, “I suppose that is possible, but it would have to meet Israeli security criteria.”

As someone who has championed unilateralism as a way to avoid having the peace process kill the two state solution, I found this ever so slight opening heartening, and indeed, an Israeli diplomat told me immediately following Netanyahu’s appearance that the line was not a throw away but something that has been the subject of recent discussion. As is so often the case with Netanyahu, however, things are not always as they seem and politics gets in the way. Politicians on the right immediately insisted that Netanyahu could not possibly have been calling for a unilateral territorial withdrawal and declared that unilateralism is great if it means annexing Area C as opposed to withdrawing from it. A Likud spokesman dubbed unilateral withdrawal as a mistake that won’t be repeated and said people misinterpreted what Netanyahu said. Then Netanyahu himself backpedaled, stating on his Facebook page that he was not talking about withdrawal and that he has no intention of uprooting any settlements. So much for that.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu should not have been so hasty to disavow in Hebrew what he said in English. Unilateral withdrawal makes sense in a lot of ways, and it can be done in a way that fulfills Netanyahu’s stated concern about meeting Israeli security criteria. Given the current environment, in which Netanyahu does not want to negotiate in the face of terrorism, Mahmoud Abbas does not want to negotiate with Netanyahu at all, and the Obama administration has now publicly thrown up its hands at the idea of getting a negotiated agreement during the remainder of Obama’s term, unilateral withdrawal may in fact be the best way to safeguard Israel’s security.

Asher Susser recently wrote about basic security versus current security in the context of the terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. Basic security seeks to safeguard the fundamentals of the Zionist enterprise in keeping Israel Jewish and democratic, while current security seeks to safeguard the basic daily well-being of Israeli citizens. On the issue of basic security, it is a nearly impossible battle to argue that keeping the West Bank indefinitely preserves the Zionist enterprise, and indeed Netanyahu himself has conceded as much. The most oft-stated objection to pulling out of the West Bank that comes from Netanyahu and others on the right – leaving aside the religious and ideological attachments to the entirety of the Land of Israel – is that a withdrawal would leave a terrorist state in the West Bank and destroy any semblance of Israel’s current security.

One of the problems that Israel faces is that Netanyahu has consistently prioritized Israel’s current security over its basic security, sacrificing the long term in service of the short term. But another is that even when it comes to basic security, Netanyahu’s views are either influenced by political calculations or are narrowly conventional. Netanyahu states without qualification that withdrawing from the West Bank would be a security disaster, but this assumes a full military withdrawal as took place in Gaza in 2005. Given what transpired in the aftermath, few people contemplate unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank as including the entirety of the IDF presence there; when people with impeccable security credentials such as Amos Yadlin advocate for unilateral disengagement, they explicitly exclude withdrawing all IDF troops or even leaving the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu’s rejection of disengagement from the West Bank by pointing to Gaza also ignores the subsequent decade of robust and successful security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the fact that even were Israel to withdraw, the PA would have every incentive to continue to keep things quiet. Not all withdrawals are of the same flavor, and in spending years ruling out a West Bank disengagement and immediately reversing course after floating a trial balloon this week at CAP, Netanyahu is missing a chance to potentially establish Israel’s basic security for good while guaranteeing its current security.

Rather than accede to the politics of his coalition partners and his ministers, Netanyahu should seriously contemplate unilaterally declaring a provisional border with the West Bank, evacuating the settlements beyond that unilateral provisional border, keeping a military presence in the Jordan Valley, and telling the Palestinian Authority that he is happy to negotiate an agreement for permanent borders any time. It would be great if negotiations toward a final status agreement were proceeding swimmingly, but there are scores of reasons why they aren’t, and aren’t destined to be for the foreseeable future. Makovsky’s question to Netanyahu about a backup plan prompted an answer that many don’t like, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good one. Some productive unilateralism would go a long way toward putting the two state solution back on solid ground.

Is Shunning Netanyahu Actually Progressive?

November 9, 2015 § 3 Comments

Bibi Netanyahu is speaking before an audience at the Center for American Progress tomorrow afternoon, and many progressives are not happy about it. For a roundup of why people are upset, you can see this piece in the Huffington Post or this one in the Forward or this much more thorough discussion of the entire affair by Ali Gharib (himself a former CAP employee) in the Nation, but it boils down to an objection that by hosting Bibi – no progressive and a dedicated opponent of President Obama’s foreign policy and someone who has been accused of essentially campaigning for Republicans – CAP is giving him progressive cover or validation.

I understand why some progressives are upset and do not want to do Netanyahu any favors, but I confess to finding the position that Netanyahu should be barred from CAP bordering on ludicrous. To begin with, Netanyahu is the leader of a democracy allied with the United States that has extensive ties to the U.S. in all manner of foreign policy, military, economic, cultural, academic, and societal spheres. Israel is not a perfect democracy and Netanyahu does not always behave like an ally, but Netanyahu is no autocrat at the head of a military junta, and the notion that the prime minister of Israel, no matter who he or she may be, is unwelcome at a mainstream Washington, DC institution is absurd. Let’s set aside the distaste for Netanyahu for a moment and look at the bigger picture, and realize that when people talk about subjecting Israel to an unfair standard, this is precisely the type of behavior to which they are referring.

Second, the argument that CAP is not just a think tank but a flag bearer for progressive values simply does not cut it. Unless one thinks that Netanyahu is going to be feted like the Queen of England and subjected to no challenging questions, either from Neera Tanden or the invited audience, then the argument falls flat. I don’t think that asking Netanyahu to defend positions to which progressives take exception is validating his policies; in fact, I think it’s the opposite. Progressives should be happy to have this opportunity, since I can’t think of anywhere else in DC where Netanyahu would go with a higher likelihood of being asked some uncomfortable questions that may make him squirm. I am also not sure when it became a progressive value to ignore people and positions with which one disagrees and to only hear from your own side. CAP is first and foremost a think tank, even if it occupies a position given its lobbying arm and Democratic Party ties that creates complications that a place like Brookings does not have, and this type of event is precisely one of the primary reasons that think tanks exist. To suggest otherwise is to miss the point.

Third, it is disingenuous to one minute complain that Republicans are turning Israel into a partisan issue and using it as a cudgel to beat Democrats over the head, and the next minute complain that Netanyahu is being given a podium at a prominent Democratic-allied institution. No doubt there are some progressives who actually don’t care about Israel being turned into a wedge issue since they’d rather see support for Israel weakened, but a higher percentage of Democrats feels differently. Listening to the Israeli prime minister address progressives is not the same thing as affirming his political leadership, and for Democrats who think that Israel is worthy of being supported but would like to see it change its policies, this is a far more effective way of going about that than a Bibi boycott.

Finally, the argument that CAP should only host progressive leaders belies the fact that CAP does not only host progressive leaders. I do not have the time to go search through past CAP events, but I can guarantee that it has hosted people who leapfrog Bibi on the anti-progressive spectrum, and I am told that CAP has actually compiled such a list that it can release. I can also guarantee that if Mahmoud Abbas were in DC, the same folks who want to bar Netanyahu from walking through the door would be thrilled to have Abbas, a paragon of progressive values who has not held an election in a decade and regularly jails average Palestinians who criticize him on Facebook. There are also many critics of the Netanyahu event who would fall over themselves to be in the room were CAP to host Hassan Rouhani or even Ali Khamenei. The point here is that Netanyahu is not being singled out because he is not a progressive; he is being singled out for being Netanyahu.

I get it – people don’t like Netanyahu, don’t agree with his policies, resent his treatment of Obama and the U.S. Believe me, I am in that boat. Nevertheless, having him speak at CAP does not validate anything that he does, and it boggles my mind that we live in a time and place where it is seen as a betrayal of liberal and progressive values. It doesn’t hurt to sometimes be subjected to someone or something that you don’t like, particularly when that someone is up on a stage and at the mercy of a skeptical audience. I can’t think of anything more progressive than respectfully hearing what Netanyahu has to say, and then holding his feet to the fire in an appropriate manner.

Haj Al-Husseini and Holocaust Hucksterism

October 22, 2015 § 3 Comments

Most anyone familiar with the give and take of discourse on blogs and social media knows about Godwin’s Law. Godwin’s Law is the proposition that the longer an online discussion takes place, the greater the chance of someone making an analogy to Hitler or Nazis, until at some point such an analogy becomes inevitable. It might be time to create a new corollary to this principle, which is that the more that Prime Minister Netanyahu discusses Israel’s external foes, the more inevitable the eventual Holocaust analogy becomes. In light of Netanyahu’s comments this week to the 37th Zionist Congress about Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini and his responsibility for the Final Solution, the corollary seems to be in full swing.

In his Tuesday speech, Netanyahu brought up al-Husseini’s well-known connection to the Nazis and vocal support of Hitler in warning about the dangers of Palestinian incitement regarding Israel’s alleged efforts to alter the status quo on the Temple Mount. His connection between these two seemingly disparate threads was that al-Husseini had instigated riots in the 1920s by accusing the Jews of wanting to destroy al-Aqsa, and he later met with Hitler in 1941 and – in Netanyahu’s telling – convinced Hitler to exterminate European Jewry rather than expel them. So the implication is that false warnings about Jews trying to take over al-Aqsa, or to even just change the Temple Mount status quo, lead to attempts to exterminate Jews, including the Holocaust. If the logic of this is lost on you, then you are not alone, and it certainly is not the first time that Netanyahu has used Hitler, the Nazis, or the Holocaust to make a point about legitimate dangers to Jews in situations where the Holocaust has no place in the discussion.

The condemnations have come fast and furious for reasons large and small, from trivializing the Holocaust and giving succor to Holocaust deniers, to absolving Hitler from even a single ounce of the blame that he deserves, to distorting history by overstating the mufti’s role (even if he would have carried out the Holocaust if given the chance). I am positive that it was not Netanyahu’s intention in his poorly written and even more poorly conceived speech to trivialize the Holocaust or take the blame for it away from Hitler, but in his zeal to tie current Palestinian propaganda about the Temple Mount to a larger campaign to eliminate Jews wherever they may be, his words had that unintended effect. Furthermore, in getting his history wrong and overstating the role of the mufti – who was a virulent anti-Semite and a cheerleader of genocide but who was not the inspiration for the Final Solution, which started before Hitler and al-Husseini met – and linking Palestinian accusations about the Temple Mount to the Holocaust, Netanyahu makes it seem as if his grip on reality is lost. Anyone who found Ben Carson’s comments about guns and the Holocaust earlier this month to be irresponsible demagoguery should feel the same about Netanyahu’s ahistorical stream of consciousness.

While the focus on the inappropriateness of Netanyahu’s comments is important and is taking up most of the oxygen surrounding this sorry episode, the larger issue of the real-world consequences of Netanyahu’s comments is being neglected. In misappropriating historical memory while using the Holocaust to score political points and advance Israel’s agenda, Netanyahu instead accomplishes the precise opposite. Rather than alert the world to the dangers that Israel faces, Netanyahu ensures that the world will not take them seriously. This ham-handed effort at exposing lies, as Netanyahu put it in his speech, erodes Israeli credibility and desensitizes observers to the risks inherent in the daily life of Israel’s citizens.

Not for the first time, Netanyahu risks becoming the boy who cried Holocaust, seeing the ultimate marriage of threats to Jews and ability to carry those threats out at every turn. While vigilance is a virtue for any prime minister of Israel, the constant Holocaust analogies end up trivializing legitimate threats and make it far more difficult to take Netanyahu’s warnings seriously. After all, if Netanyahu is warning that al-Husseini was the inspiration for the Holocaust and that therefore current Palestinian claims about the Temple Mount should be viewed in that light, who is going to still be paying attention when Netanyahu warns about other issues? The incitement over the Temple Mount is, in fact, a legitimately dangerous issue, but it is hard to press that point once the duo of Haj Amin al-Husseini and Hitler have been turned into a social media meme. Reducing the Holocaust to just another genocide, which is what happens when every security challenge or episode of anti-Semitism is connected back to Hitler, waters down Jewish and Israeli credibility when it comes to true threats against Israel and Jews.

Then there is the issue of misuse of historical memory for instrumental purposes. One cannot decry those who, like President Obama in Cairo in 2009, point to the Holocaust as the primary motivating factor for Israel’s legitimacy – and argue instead that Israel’s existence is rooted as much in Jewish nationalism and historical claims to the land of Israel as it is to the need for a safe haven following Hitler’s campaign of extermination – and then turn around and use the Holocaust as a shield against any attempts to attack Israel in any way. Yes, the mufti of Jerusalem was a really bad guy, and yes, he encouraged Hitler to kill Jews. If that historical truth is used to create a historical fiction about the Final Solution, which then mushrooms into a larger historical misappropriation that connects genocidal extermination of Jews to limited violence motivated by false claims about the Temple Mount, then the historical crime being committed is taking place in the here and now.

There are Palestinians who do not like Jews and who will never accept Israel, and who attack Jews for no reason other than being Jewish and living in Tel Aviv. But many Palestinians bitterly resent the occupation of the West Bank or blatant discrimination within Israeli municipalities and push back against perceived and actual threats and injustices, and that pushback can be inhumane and is frequently directed against civilians. The fact that targeting civilians is unacceptable does not mean that there isn’t a tangible motivation behind it that is connected to more than blind hatred. Trotting out the Holocaust as a worldview that explains all of the violence and incitement that happens in Israel eludes reality, and places Israel in a dangerous position by missing what is actually going on and preventing an appropriate policy response. Many are laughing at what Netanyahu said on Tuesday, but the larger consequences of his ahistorical blather are no laughing matter.

Unholy Fire on the Temple Mount

October 15, 2015 § 5 Comments

As terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians proliferate across Jerusalem and other Israeli cities, everyone seems to be hoping that a combination of a greater Israeli military and police presence on the streets and the Palestinian Authority holding the line on larger organized attacks will prevent further violence. While everyone recognizes that there are no perfect solutions, the nature of this nascent uprising is more dangerous than those that have come before because of the fusion of political nationalism and religious nationalism. The Temple Mount has always been in the background imagery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but now it is front and center and it does not bode well for what is to come.

The PA is largely impotent here because the attacks are being carried out by Palestinians from East Jerusalem, who are not under the PA’s jurisdiction, and the primary motivation is the most dangerous one of all, which is a perceived threat to Muslim dominance of the Temple Mount. Palestinians (and Jordanians, and the Arab League, and the Turkish government) accuse Israel of altering the status quo on the Temple Mount, and Abbas, the PA, Hamas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, Joint List Arab MKs, and nearly every other actor on the Palestinian side are whipping the Palestinian public into a frenzy over the issue. Because the status quo is an unwritten agreement and because the margins of what precisely it means have shifted over time, there is no consensus as to what precisely it entails, but the basic parameters are solely Muslim prayer on the Temple Mount and some form of access to the Mount for non-Muslims so long as prayer is not involved. From a technical standpoint, and in line with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s constant claims on the subject, the Israeli government has not altered the status quo, as it maintains an official policy of prohibiting Jews from praying on the Temple Mount. Indeed, Netanyahu has gone so far as to ban MKs from the site entirely so as not to risk a potentially explosive incident.

Nevertheless, Palestinians and Muslims worldwide refuse to believe that Israel is not in the midst of violating and attempting to alter the arrangement that has held since 1967. The reasons for this suspicion are that in the past half decade, and even more markedly this year, there have been increased Jewish visits and in larger numbers, along with visits from rightwing government ministers – Uri Ariel most prominent among them – who have prayed on the Mount and publicly demanded that the status quo be changed. This is part of a trend within religious Zionism to embrace the Temple Mount – as opposed to solely the Western Wall – as a site for prayer and a way of asserting Jewish nationalism in contrast to what was once a nearly universal religious prohibition from ascending to the Temple Mount plaza.

Given the involvement of government ministers in this changed dynamic and new restrictions on Muslim access to the Temple Mount during the High Holidays this year for security reasons, it is easy to understand why Palestinians are literally up in arms when their leaders demagogue about a mortal threat to Al-Aqsa. The fact that what Israel has given up in agreeing to this status quo – creating a blatantly discriminatory religious double standard against Jews at the holiest site in all of Judaism – or that by all objective accounts Netanyahu desperately does want to maintain the status quo seems not to matter. Also overlooked is that weapons and explosives were seized from Al-Aqsa by the Israeli police last month after having been stockpiled right under the noses of the Waqf in charge of administering the site, which seems to be quite the violation of the status quo given that weapons stockpiled atop the Temple Mount would almost certainly be used as part of a campaign to deny access to non-Muslims.

Despite the fact that the incitement taking place on social media is centered around the Temple Mount, that Abbas and other Palestinian leaders keep on raging about the Temple Mount, and that attackers who have been apprehended have given defending the Temple Mount as their primary motivation, some refuse to accept the reality of what is taking place. In a widely shared column in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens characterized the wave of terrorist attacks as a Palestinian communal psychosis with no motivation behind it other than to kill Jews. Stephens is absolutely and unreservedly correct that knifing Israelis on the streets is indeed a psychotic and evil act and that there is no rational justification for it. But his dismissal of the Temple Mount status quo motivation wholesale because “Benjamin Netanyahu denies it and has barred Israeli politicians from visiting the site” rings a bit hollow, and not only because in the very next paragraph he quotes Abbas saying, “Al Aqsa Mosque is ours. They [Jews] have no right to defile it with their filthy feet.” It ignores the fact that irrespective of what Netanyahu has actually done to preserve the status quo – something that State Department spokesman John Kirby yesterday confirmed – the perception among Palestinians, including those killing and maiming Israelis, is very different.

Which brings me to the final point, which is the wider context beyond the Temple Mount. To deny the role of the occupation of the West Bank and the second class status of Palestinians in Jerusalem in all of this is to be willfully blind, just as blaming the occupation for this completely is to be dangerously naïve and enables more and uglier violence. There is a middle ground between “the occupation causes terrorism” and “terrorism isn’t related to the occupation at all” and it is vital to keep this in mind, as there are no easy answers or parsimonious narratives that can entirely account for the terrible events happening in Israel. Humans are complex animals and we are capable of processing complex thoughts. Incitement from Palestinian leaders and false claims about the Temple Mount and even outright murderous hatred of Jews may be the spark for the current violence, but it can also simultaneously be true that a nearly half-century long military occupation of the West Bank and blatant mistreatment of Arabs living in a supposedly undivided Jerusalem is the propane supply for the current explosion. To deny the lessons of history on the awesome and destructive power of nationalism and to not see it on display among Palestinians as their nationalist dreams go unrealized is to defy logic, even when there are other factors at play as well.

If there is one lesson to take away from all of this, it is that separation for Israel from the Palestinians is more important than ever, as this is only a taste of things to come. The current violence is being driven by Palestinian women, teenagers, and children who could not care less about the PA leadership, the Oslo Accords, or the PA’s desire to maintain some sense of quiet in order to preserve its own hold on the West Bank. While the PA security forces may be able to keep the lid on organized terror attacks planned by cells in the West Bank, the lone wolf and unorganized attacks taking place on Israeli streets are beyond its control. The disappearance of a sense of safety and security for Israelis during their daily routines illuminates the chimerical fantasy of a one-state solution and provides a glimpse into what ethnic strife in a bi-national state might look like. Terror cannot and should not be rewarded, but there also needs to be a greater sense of urgency to come up with a solution that will ameliorate this situation for good.

A Glimmer of Light Through the Clouds

October 8, 2015 § 7 Comments

This piece can also be found on IPF’s website here.

These are not auspicious times for supporters of two states. The generally despondent mood was captured by Chemi Shalev this week in a column where he declared the death of whatever remaining optimism to which he had been clinging, and resigned himself to Israelis and Palestinians never resolving their differences and continuously battling – a “war of the cowards” in his formulation. This comes on the heels of Mahmoud Abbas’s UNGA declaration that the Palestinian Authority no longer feels bound by the Oslo Accords and will pick and choose which elements it cooperates with; the mounting terrorist attacks targeting Israelis of all stripes and ages; the unrest wracking Jerusalem and its immediate environs; and the rumbling conflict and potential wider conflagration over the Temple Mount.

The most immediately pressing problem is the intifada that is taking place in Jerusalem, despite the reluctance of most politicians and other observers to call it what it is. There are multiple attacks and arrests taking place every day, too many incidents of rock throwing to catalogue, seizures of caches of weapons and firebombs, and entire neighborhoods in Jerusalem that are rapidly becoming battle zones. This does not even take into account what is going on in the West Bank, where attacks and arrests are both up as well, or the riot in Jaffa on Tuesday night. The intelligence and security forces have assured Prime Minister Netanyahu that there is no intifada yet, only a wave of increased violence, but this is a distinction without a difference that is based on an outdated fallacy. The fallacy is that an intifada can only erupt with the complicity of the Palestinian leadership, and since Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have been cracking down and trying to prevent the violence from spinning out of control, ipso facto there must not be an intifada.

This ignores a very basic lesson in political science, which is that just because something has always happened in one particular manner does not mean it is fated to always unfold the same way. Civil uprisings have a logic of their own, which is what makes them so difficult to predict. One of the main lessons of the inaptly termed Arab Spring is that Middle Eastern authoritarian governments –which the PA most certainly is – do not have absolute control over their subjects, and this is particularly the case for regimes that are already hampered by questions of legitimacy. Just because the first and second intifadas were encouraged and planned by the Palestinian leadership does not mean that the next one must take the same path. The PA does not have a monopoly on violence in the territory under its control, and nationalist entrepreneurs seeking to foment civil unrest for their own political goals will not necessarily heed the PA’s preferences or follow its lead. In addition, Palestinian politics is more fragmented than it was fifteen years ago, and Hamas and other even more extreme groups do not have the same incentive structure as the PA. Finally, given what we have seen from seemingly leaderless social movements around the globe over the course of this decade, expecting the PA to turn the intifada switch on or off at its discretion may be foolhardy.

Adding to the tension is that the current unrest is centered around Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. While the second intifada was set off following Ariel Sharon’s Temple Mount visit but was not driven by the Mount itself, the recent increase in violence is centered almost entirely around the Temple Mount and the allegation that Israel is attempting to alter the status quo that establishes the plaza as a site exclusively for Muslim prayer. Anything having to do with the Temple Mount is inevitably explosive given that it is a symbol simultaneously religious and nationalist for both sides, and the fact that actors who should know better – such as Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan – are fanning the flames by making grossly exaggerated accusations about Israeli actions only furthers the prospects of violence spreading out of control.

It is not only the Palestinians or the Jordanians who are using attacks on Israelis to further their own political ends, but members of the Israeli government as well. The more hardline rightwingers in Netanyahu’s coalition, including ministers from Likud such as Haim Katz and Yariv Levin and Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have been agitating that Netanyahu needs to adopt harsher responses to terrorist attacks on Israelis, and some went so far as to demonstrate outside his house in protest of policies that the government in which they serve has adopted. Netanyahu batted them down earlier this week by implicitly threatening to disband the government should the friendly fire continue, but adding a dose of political unrest to the soaring civil unrest makes for a poisonous mix.

So what is the silver lining, if any, to be found in this doom and gloom? It is that Netanyahu is actually behaving like the reasonable adult in the room and doing his best to prevent the situation from spiraling further downward. Aside from appearing to finally understand the threat that expanded settlement activity poses to Israel internationally and continuing to enforce an unpublicized settlement freeze, Netanyahu is doing his best to actually maintain the status quo on the Temple Mount despite the enormous political pressure on him to establish new facts on the ground (and despite the inherent injustice of preventing Jewish prayer at Judaism’s holiest site). Furthermore, Netanyahu has ordered the police to ban all government ministers and MKs from the Temple Mount, an extraordinary step that speaks to how seriously he understands that there will be no capping the eruption should tensions over the site escalate.

Folks on the left and the center tend to come down hard on Netanyahu – and rightly so – when he does and says things for his own political gain that deepen Israel’s isolation or contribute to illiberal trends in Israeli politics and society, yet Abbas is often given a free pass due to the uncomfortable political situation in which he must operate. While the estimation of the Israeli security establishment is that Abbas is doing his best to tamp down the violence erupting throughout Jerusalem and the West Bank and that Israel is going to miss him enormously when he is gone, this is not the whole story. He certainly deserves credit for all positive steps, but the fact that he has his own political survival at stake should not inoculate him from criticism over fanning the flames on the Temple Mount, or refusing to condemn terrorist activity that can in no way be chalked up as legitimate political protest or civil disobedience or resistance against an occupying power. The Israeli occupation is not a trump card when it comes to irresponsible rhetoric that will inevitably lead to incitement or the murder of civilians, and holding Netanyahu to an exceedingly higher standard than Abbas is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

A rightwing Israeli prime minister who presides over the narrowest possible coalition in the Knesset and is under constant assault from those to his right, whose commitment to two states is in question, and who has spent decades caving to the most irredentist elements of his party and coalition, has now halted new settlement growth, banned elected officials from the Temple Mount in an effort to protect exclusive Muslim rights on the site, and has so far refrained from a large and public show of force in the West Bank in response to multiple firebomb attacks, shootings, and stonings, all in recognition of the fact that the volume must be turned down in a major way. While some of these actions may be less just than others (and the Temple Mount issue in particular is one that I will write about in depth next week), they all point to a prime minister putting pragmatism over politics for the moment. Shalev opens his otherwise depressing column by noting how anyone watching Anwar Sadat emerge from his plane at Ben Gurion Airport in November 1977 could not help but believe that miracles do happen, and that it showed how calamity could transform into opportunity. Let’s hope that Netanyahu’s new leaf demonstrates that history always holds open the possibility of new beginnings.

IPF Column: Why IPF Is Important

October 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ll be writing an Israel Policy Forum column every Thursday and cross-posting it here. The first one just went up and the original can be found here.

For my first column as IPF’s new policy director, I thought I’d explain why I decided to join IPF and what I hope to do with this space in the weeks and months ahead. Some readers may know me from my writing and analysis in other places, but for those who don’t, before coming to IPF I was the program director of the Israel Institute, an organization dedicated to expanding the study of Israel in universities and think tanks around the globe, and I have been writing about Israel in a variety of academic and policy journals, magazines, and blogs for years. Having seen the full array of research and approaches to analyzing Israel in both the academic and policy worlds, I have a strong sense of the diverse views people of all stripes have about Israel’s challenges, policies, and decision making. There is little question in my mind that we are at an enormously important moment for two crucial issues – the direction of Israel’s future identity and the direction of the U.S.-Israel relationship – and IPF is a perfect organization from which to explain and analyze these trends, and to influence the direction in which they head.

For years now there has been lots of overwrought analysis about the death of the two state solution. Each passing year brings new facts on the ground, new attacks on Israeli civilians from Gaza, newly expanded or constructed settlements, and newly hardened attitudes on both sides to compromise and empathy for the other party. We frequently hear about each ignominious milestone marking the last chance for two states and that Israel and the Palestinians are at the point of no return. I do not, and never have believed, that this is true, for the simple reason that as bad as things get – and I don’t mean to imply that the situation is not dire on many fronts – the two state solution is the only viable one that exists. A bi-national state would devolve instantly into civil war and mass violence, and a state in which Israel annexes the West Bank but does not grant full rights to its non-Jewish citizens will collapse under the weight of international sanctions and opprobrium. In the long term, the only possible path is separation from the Palestinians, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Nevertheless, the short term is still a frightening thing to ponder, and I am not nearly so confident about precisely how Israel manages to right the ship. Just because two states is the only viable solution does not automatically mean that it will come to pass. Taking stock of the current environment, Israel is becoming increasingly nervous about its regional security environment (in some ways that I think are justified and in others that I think are not) and thus more reluctant to make any concessions that upend the status quo; becoming more entrenched in the West Bank both physically and attitudinally; facing what looks to me to be the beginnings of a third intifada brewing in Jerusalem over the status of the Temple Mount, which is the most nightmarish of scenarios; experiencing more political gridlock with each successive election and attempt to build a sustainable coalition; undergoing largescale social changes that are transforming the makeup of the IDF and society at large and causing new conflicts over the religious-secular balance, military and national service, immigration, and what it means to be a Jewish state, among other things; and facing the most serious international push in Israel’s relatively brief history to delegitimize the state and turn Israel into a pariah subject to sanctions and boycotts in a variety of forums. Given all of these pressures and the multitude of responses from the Israeli government and different actors within the system, I don’t know anyone who can say with any definitive certainty what Israel will look like in ten years, and whether the balance of being a Jewish and democratic state will tilt in one direction or another. Israel’s very identity is in flux, and tracking where it goes is going to be one of the most engrossing issues of the next decade.

Not only is Israel at a crossroads internally, it is also in the midst of real upheaval regarding its ties with the United States. The U.S. has been Israel’s patron for decades and oftentimes seems like its only true friend in the international arena, and the relationship has been beneficial to both sides on a variety of fronts. The Obama-Netanyahu relationship has been rocky, to put it charitably, and it has influenced the ways in which political elites in both countries view bilateral ties, and the way in which American Jews view Israel. No serious observer without a partisan axe to grind believes that strong U.S.-Israel ties are going away anytime soon, but certainly there are different degrees of strength, and it is an open question as to what the future holds. While bad blood between the president and the prime minister is often blamed for the hiccups in the relationship, the truth is that there are real and serious policy differences between the two governments that transcend the current occupants of the White House and Beit Agion. What does the U.S.-Israel relationship look like if there is robust military and security cooperation but the political relationship suffers? What happens if Israel is subject to a sustained campaign of boycotts from the European Union? How are bilateral ties affected as Israel develops closer ties with China and as Russia increasingly becomes an assertive player in the Middle East? What will be the effect of Israel rapidly becoming a partisan issue in Congress? Most crucially and interestingly, what does the U.S.-Israel relationship look like as the relationship between Israel and American Jews is transformed? None of these questions are easy, and they are going to consume those who care about the U.S.-Israel alliance and those who have spent their lives both in and out of government sustaining it.

While I have spent, and will continue to spend, much time writing about these issues as objectively as I can, I have always been open in my view that Israel must remain both democratic and Jewish, that the U.S.-Israel relationship must remain strong for both sides’ benefit, and that the only way to ensure these outcomes is via the two state solution. IPF is an organization that is dedicated to these principles and has advocated for them through educational initiatives and marshaling the American Jewish community to get behind them. I am excited to be part of an organization that has the ability to influence the direction of these issues about which I feel so strongly.

I hope to use this space going forward for a number of things, from arguing in favor of the solutions that I and IPF as an organization believe are the most viable, to opining on Israeli politics and the American Jewish scene, to analyzing American foreign policy in the Middle East. We will also be launching a blog that will be updated more frequently than this weekly column, and featuring voices that are newer and perhaps not as familiar to some, along with more timely posts on issues in the news. IPF has the infrastructure and resources to be a unique and credible source for information, analysis, and commentary on Israel, American Jewry, and the U.S.-Israel relationship, and I want to help strengthen and expand IPF’s reach and credibility. So if you’ve read this far and like what you’ve seen, please keep coming back and stay tuned for much more ahead.

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