February 10, 2015 § 9 Comments
There has been tons of discussion over the past week about Mike Doran’s recent voluminous piece in Mosaic in which he argues that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East – his approach to Syria, ISIS, Israel, Iraq, Sunni allies, etc. – can be explained through the prism of a desired rapprochement with Iran and a goal of building a new regional order in which Iran plays an integral role. According to Doran, Obama sees the U.S. and Iran as natural allies and believes that blame for enmity between the two countries rests with the U.S., and thus the president’s strategy has been to accommodate rather than confront Iran in the hopes that a nuclear deal will lead to a larger grand bargain. In other words, the nuclear deal itself is a means rather than an end, which makes the particulars of any negotiated deal less important to the White House than the fact that a deal gets done in some form or another, as a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is the only pathway to a new Middle East in which the U.S. and Iran cooperate on a set of shared interests. Doran has long and detailed sections on how American inaction in Syria and bad relations between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu were impacted by this overarching goal, and he also spends a lot of time building a case that the U.S. has made permanent concessions to Iran in return for short term and easily reversible Iranian restraint. The result, according to Doran, is that the U.S. has given Iran all of the leverage and guaranteed that any emerging nuclear deal will be a disaster. I have quibbles with some of the details and sub-arguments (more on this below), but I find the overarching thesis convincing: that the White House’s ultimate goal is to turn Iran into an ally based on the view that the U.S. and Iran are natural partners with a set of common interests.
Building off Doran’s piece and off a Washington Post editorial that takes Obama to task over the nuclear negotiations, Walter Russell Mead lays out a list of problems with a nuclear deal that he sees the White House needing to address in order to gain real support for its Iran policy. These include enhancing Iranian power in the Middle East at the expense of a regional balance, assuming that a more powerful Iran will be less hostile to the U.S., linking more engagement with Iran to eventual regime liberalization and transition, and selling out a set of current allies without any guarantee of an adequate replacement. Even more so than Doran’s, Mead’s piece resonates because he is completely focused on the end game and on challenging the assumptions underlying the Obama administration’s view of a post-deal world. I agree with Doran that the administration’s strategy on nuclear negotiations is animated by wanting a grand bargain rather than wanting to deal with Iran’s nuclear program qua nuclear program, but I part ways with him when he focuses his ire on the nuclear deal itself. Not only am I not convinced that a nuclear deal is inherently a bad thing, I think that focusing on the nuclear aspect of Iran policy is a bad tactic. Those worried about Iranian intentions and Iranian power as a force of destabilization in the Middle East – and you can firmly include me in that camp – should assume that a deal is going to happen and should start thinking now about how to then contain a nuclear Iran in every way possible instead of wasting time trying to prevent what may be a fait accompli.
Why do I think that a nuclear deal is itself not a disaster? I’ll stipulate up front that I have no expertise in the science component of this or in knowing precisely how much enriched uranium constitutes a significant quantity, a.k.a. the point of no return in terms of preventing a usable bomb. But friends and colleagues who are experts in this stuff claim that the fighting about number of centrifuges is a red herring because the real issue is the 20% enrichment level, and nobody disputes that the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action successfully diluted the enriched uranium, which is what lengthens the breakout time. The ten thousand centrifuges that Iran already has are IR-1 centrifuges, but those are not the efficient ones that will allow a quick nuclear breakout, and the more efficient IR-8 centrifuges are the ones that the JPOA addressed. So any deal that preserves this status quo, meaning continued dilution of 20% enriched uranium and a cap on IR-8 centrifuges, makes a breakout period long enough to be easily detectable in time to verify it and take required action, military or otherwise.
Let’s assume for a moment though that this is wrong, and that somehow the Iranians will figure out a way to use the old centrifuges with greater efficiency and increase their stock of 20% enriched uranium. Let’s further – and much more concretely – assume that Iran is going to do everything it can to game the system and violate nuclear agreements, since all evidence suggests that it has tried to do so with degrees of success for years (see Fordow for the most prominent example). Let’s also assume that Iran sees a nuclear deal as nothing more than a way to lift sanctions and has no intention of genuinely freezing its nuclear program. Even in this situation – and to be clear, I am not playing devil’s advocate on these last two assumptions; I presume that this is precisely what will occur – isn’t a deal that creates an inspections regime the best way of preventing Iran’s attempts at cheating from being successful? If Iran wants a nuclear bomb, I’d much rather have as many roadblocks in place as possible than having no roadblocks at all. If a deal is not reached next month and further sanctions are slapped on Iran, that’s all fine and good, but sanctions alone are not going to stop a determined wannabe nuclear state from achieving that status. The most punishing sanctions conceivable will make it harder, but will not foreclose the eventual result. North Korea has no economy to speak of and is as isolated from the rest of the world as if the country exists in a different galaxy, and somehow it managed the trick. Put more simply, option one is to allow Iran to resume its nuclear program in a hellbent manner and with no inspections or safeguards in place, and option two is to put inspections and safeguards in place to try and frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Isn’t the logical choice here option two, even if it is a less than perfect solution? Isn’t something in this case much better than nothing if the actual ambition is to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to regime change)?
The argument against a deal at this point rests on the implicit assumption that military action will be used to stop Iran’s nuclear program (and perhaps overthrow the regime), and I don’t see that happening. It’s pretty clear to me that the Obama administration won’t do it, and anything short of an Iraq War-style ground invasion (as opposed to some targeted strikes against nuclear facilities) would be a band-aid solution anyway, whether such a limited strike is carried out by the U.S. or Israel. Regular inspections and continued dilution of 20% uranium are the only possible ways of preventing a nuclear Iran given current realities, so why not just strike a deal and watch Iran like a hawk for the next few decades? I agree that the administration has been too sanguine about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, but arguing about what could have been done better in the past is pointless. If your absolute and most pressing goal is to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and you recognize that a long and sustained military campaign is just not in the cards even if you think such a move would be wise (and I don’t), then the best way of doing so is a deal that puts intrusive inspections and limits in place, as it provides the highest chance of detecting Iran’s attempts at a surreptitious breakout.
The real action right now should not be on preventing a deal, but on preventing a larger policy of trying to turn Iran into a partner and ally. To call such a policy foolhardy would be charitable, as the regime’s very legitimacy is derived from its demonization of the West generally and the U.S. in particular. I wrote about this in September so there’s no need to extensively harp on it again now, but the Iranian regime cannot and will not risk its own domestic standing by significantly decreasing its public hostility to the U.S. To do so would put its entire rule in danger, as ideological states that allow their central governing political ideology to be delegitimized end up dealing a fatal blow to their own legitimacy and ultimately to their own survival by making themselves vulnerable to challenges from the opposition. The Iranian state’s rule and political institutions are structured around a revolutionary ideology that assumes opposition to the U.S. and the West as a raison d’être and thus betraying the revolution in such a blatant manner as openly reconciling, let alone partnering, with the U.S. is not a realistic or even rational move for the Supreme Leader and his cadre. In Iran’s case, this is magnified by the fact that the first generation of ideological and revolutionary true believers are still around, and to the extent that ideological states become post-ideological, it only happens once the originators of the ideology are off the scene, as they can be expected to have a deeper and more personal connection to the ideology than successive generations of leaders who have had the ideology instilled in them but were not present at the creation.
Hoping for a change in regime and a more friendly government to come to power and embrace the U.S. is barely more likely than the current regime changing its tune. As the past four years in the Middle East have demonstrated, revolutions frequently do not lead to regime change, and in the event that they do, there should not be any reasonable expectation of a liberal or pro-American government coming to power, no matter how educated/wealthy/enlightened/secular/fill-in-your-favorite-adjective the population is. Nobody likes to remember this, but the leaders of the Green Movement in 2009 were not opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, and in fact embraced it. Assuming that engagement with Iran will quickly lead to greater liberalization, political pressure from the masses, splits among ruling elites, and eventually a transition to democratic government is destined to end with dashed hopes. Political change in this manner is glacial in its pace, and the link between economic liberalization and political liberalization is dubious. Look at China for the best datapoint, which has economically liberalized relatively rapidly in the scheme of things (and by relatively rapidly, I mean over 20 or 30 years), but has moved far more slowly on political liberalization. The point here is that anyone assuming a grand bargain with Iran leading to cooperation on a variety of fronts and a new regional order anchored by a pro-American Iranian government is taking so many leaps of faith that are contradicted by theory and evidence as to make a serious argument in its favor crumble on sight.
For as much as Obama’s critics like to paint him as a slave to reflexive liberal ideology, when it comes to foreign policy the White House focuses on interests rather than ideology to the exclusion of all other factors. Obama behaves like an ideal type of a theoretical realist, and in nearly every situation assumes that states act according to their pure rational utility maximizing interests. It has led to a miscalculation of Russian behavior, and it is leading to what will be an even costlier miscalculation of Iranian behavior. What should be happening now is preparation for a full court press to see Iran completely bottled up in the aftermath of a nuclear deal, and a plan for reassuring our allies in the region – assuming that we still want to have any – with explicit security guarantees and large public demonstrations of military cooperation. A nuclear deal is only a bad thing if it means ceding the region to Iran in the aftermath of an agreement, and that does not have to happen. Separating out the nuclear deal from Iran policy writ large is difficult as the two are obviously connected, but it’s not impossible. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier on a different topic, we should be working toward a deal as if there is no larger reason to contain and hinder Iran, and containing and hindering Iran as if there is no nuclear deal.
January 22, 2015 § 30 Comments
Anyone reading this blog knows by now that it has been a wild and wacky 24 hours in the never-ending soap opera that is Prime Minister Netanyahu and his involvement – whether direct or indirect – in American politics. The newest chapter was sparked by President Obama’s State of the Union vow to veto any new sanctions bill that Congress passes targeting Iran, and Speaker John Boehner’s response the next day of inviting Netanyahu to address Congress and speak about “the threats posed by radical Islam and Iran.” While Netanyahu is often himself accused of trying to intervene in American politics, this was a clear cut case of someone else using Netanyahu to intervene in American politics, as Boehner’s hope is that a speech to Congress by Netanyahu will rally the troops and establish enough political cover for wavering legislators to override any future veto by Obama. The White House was obviously incensed, and declared this to be a breach of protocol since Boehner had invited a foreign head of state to Washington without first checking with his own head of state. Things started to become a bit more sticky today when Nancy Pelosi confirmed that she had nothing to do with the invitation and thus it was not a bipartisan invite, and then the White House stated that Netanyahu would not be meeting with Obama while in Washington because it is longstanding policy not to meet with visiting political candidates so soon before an election, and Netanyahu’s visit is going to be two weeks before Israeli elections on March 17.
This last point is key, because contra Max Fisher, who primarily sees this whole thing as the latest Netanyahu intervention into U.S. politics, I don’t think that is what Netanyahu is actually up to here. When Boehner was the one who invited Netanyahu in a clear effort to bolster GOP thinking on Iran policy, it strikes me as strange to argue that this is somehow a Netanyahu initiative, and that this is really the GOP cheerleading an anti-Obama campaign on Netanyahu’s part rather than the GOP using Netanyahu for its own ends. No doubt Netanyahu is as eager for new sanctions on Iran as his Republican friends, but the main reason speaking before Congress at the beginning of March holds appeal for him is because it is a unique campaign rally opportunity. One of the largest criticisms the Bujie Herzog-Tzipi Livni Zionist Camp alliance has had of Netanyahu’s conduct of foreign affairs is that he has needlessly alienated the Obama administration, and in so doing damaged relations with the U.S. and Israel’s standing in the world. Given the paucity of serious security figures in the Labor-Hatnua list, not to mention the fact that Labor’s comparative advantage when it comes to Israeli voters is on social and economic issues, harping on the alleged damage that Netanyahu has caused to U.S.-Israel ties is going to be the left’s biggest security and defense campaign issue. This is even more salient in the aftermath of this summer’s fighting in Gaza and given the widespread disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority and the peace process across the political spectrum, removing Netanyahu’s foot dragging on two states as a potent campaign issue.
In such a political climate, Netanyahu would be hard pressed to come up with a better rejoinder to the left’s argument about deteriorating relations with the U.S. on his watch than being invited to speak before Congress for a third time (tying his hero, Winston Churchill) and being cheered and applauded by members of both parties as he touts the common U.S.-Israel fight against Islamic extremism. The timing here couldn’t be better for him in terms of the vote, and no doubt he will use the speech during the final two weeks of his campaign as proof that the relationship with the U.S. is still rock solid and that Herzog and Livni are off-base with their criticisms, never mind the fact that Congress does not the entire U.S. government make.
While the logic might seem sound to both Boehner and Netanyahu, there are some potentially serious pitfalls in the plan. Starting with the GOP, there is the risk that the charge Fisher raises – of it being unseemly to side with the leader of a foreign country over one’s own president – will stick, particularly given the contention that it is inappropriate for Congress to invite a foreign leader without first consulting with, or at least informing, the president in advance (as an aside, I get the head of state argument, although I don’t see why Congress needs to clear its speaking invitations with the president, no more than the White House needs congressional approval to hold a joint Rose Garden press conference or hold a state dinner – I’d be grateful if any readers with particular expertise in constitutional law could elucidate whether there is a separation of powers problem here or not). More importantly for Boehner’s purposes, the Netanyahu invite could potentially backfire from a tactical perspective if there is a backlash against invoking the strength of the pro-Israel lobby to torpedo a president’s policy priority. This is precisely what happened in the 1981 fight during the Reagan administration over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, where the role of pro-Israel lobbying became a hot button topic. After public opinion had initially been opposed to the arms sale, with 73% opposed, Israel’s strident lobbying became an issue and public opinion shifted as a result, with 53% expressing that “once the President had decided to sell the planes to Saudi Arabia, it was important that Congress not embarrass him with the rest of the world,” and 52% agreeing that “the Israeli lobby in Washington had to be taken on and defeated so it’s a good thing the U.S. Senate upheld the plane sale to Saudi Arabia.” By explicitly tying Israel to new sanctions, Boehner is hoping to capitalize on Israel’s general popularity with voters and Netanyahu’s popularity among GOP and some Democratic lawmakers, but doing it so nakedly and overtly can have some unintended consequences.
Moving to Netanyahu, I’m not sure this is a winning maneuver for him, and I think he is actually taking a substantial risk. He is already being criticized at home for trying to subvert election laws through this speech to Congress, and in fact there has already been a petition filed to judicially block the speech from being aired on Israeli television. Furthermore, he is opening himself up to a mountain of opprobrium for further damaging relations with the Obama administration – and yes, the refusal to meet with Netanyahu when he is here may be justified given the election timing, but it is also an unambiguous slap down from a furious White House – and Democrats in general. Don’t forget that Pelosi has already hung him out to dry, and other Democrats will follow suit as they do not appreciate Netanyahu’s blatant coordination with the Republicans, irrespective of how they feel about Israel or further sanctions on Iran. If Herzog, Livni, Lapid, Kahlon, and the rest of the cast of characters looking to take down Bibi are smart about it, they will also seize on the fact that Netanyahu is being used as a political football here and either not aware enough to realize that it is going on, or worse, willingly allowing it happen. It does not speak well to Netanyahu’s instincts or leadership to be manipulated by Congressional Republicans for their own purposes and possibly damaging himself in the process.
Finally, in accepting such a charged invitation to speak, Netanyahu is keeping to a pattern of putting his personal political prospects ahead of Israel’s longterm interests with regard to the U.S., and that is where the real danger comes from. It’s one thing to blame Netanyahu for bad relations with a president who will be out of office in two years; one can argue that this is a problem that will resolve itself with no residual effects. But if you view Netanyahu’s machinations in a larger context, by constantly and openly favoring the Republican Party – either himself or through Ron Dermer’s actions in Washington – he is putting Israel itself at long term risk by helping make it a wedge issue in American politics. I constantly argue that Israel’s primacy of place in the U.S. is due to popular opinion, but the caveat there is that this only works when it is bipartisan popular opinion. Netanyahu’s actions, where he sides with the Republicans in a very exaggerated manner, are having a serious effect and eroding traditional cross-spectrum popular support for Israel, and once that passes a point of no return, Israel is going to have serious problems. I don’t place the blame for wavering support in the Democratic Party for Israel solely at Netanyahu’s feet by any means, but he is a big part of the problem and has stoked the fires at many points. The GOP has an obvious political interest in making Israel a full-fledged wedge issue and using it as a cudgel to hammer the Democrats as often as it can. The burning question for me is why Netanyahu is so willing to allow himself to be used in furthering this outcome when it is so obviously not in Israel’s interests.
December 3, 2014 § 4 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.
October 29, 2014 § 4 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.