What I Got Wrong, 2013 Edition

December 30, 2013 § 4 Comments

As it’s the end of the year, it’s time to revisit my 12 months of screw-ups (last year’s mea culpa is here). There don’t seem to be as many big ones this year as last year, but that is not a function of my improving analysis and is rather a function of my increasingly neglectful blogging habits; last year I wrote 276 posts, this year only 65. Thankfully for all of you though, there’s still plenty of material for you to use in heaping scorn upon my head. Here are some of the lowlights.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: On February 13, I wrote a post entitled “The Prospects For Real Peace Talks” in which I downplayed the idea that Israel would enter into substantive talks with the Palestinians. I didn’t think the makeup of what I expected to be the new Israeli coalition government would allow for real negotiations to take place, and I wrote, “even if Tzipi Livni brings Hatnua into the government nobody should be getting their hopes up too high for a big diplomatic push on the horizon.” We can debate whether the current talks are going to lead anywhere real, but certainly the process is taking place and there have been enough signs that the talks have been substantive and are going well that this call was wrong on my part.

Erdoğan’s relative reasonableness: This seems destined to become a permanently recurring theme, as a similar prediction made this list last year too. Last year it was about Erdoğan realizing that his interests should override his harsh rhetoric on Israel, and this year it was about Erdoğan realizing that his interests should override his harsh stance toward the Gezi protestors. In trying to figure out how Gezi was going to resolve itself, I wrote on June 7, “Erdoğan does not want to back down, but my instincts tell me that as he is reminded of just how much his popularity depends on the economy and as he faces the prospect of losing the bid for the 2020 Turkish Olympics, he will try to come up with some sort of solution to end the chaos in the streets without having to go so far as to issue a formal full-blown apology. The fact that there is no opposition party poised to take advantage of the situation makes backing down slightly easier for him to do, and even Erdoğan understands just how crucial it is for his and his party’s longterm political future to make sure the Turkish economy keeps humming along. Only the prospect of serious economic damage will get him to back down, since giving in to the protestors in any way is completely anathema to his general philosophy and outlook. How long it will take for him to get to this point is way beyond my prognostication skills, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get there at one point or another.”

Oops. Erdoğan did not ease up on his rhetoric in any measurable way, and he in fact actually became increasingly harsher and waited for the protests’ momentum to peter out over time, which it did. Eleven days after my prediction, I was forced to write another post dealing with Erdoğan’s even more over-the-top responses to Gezi, as the prospect of economic losses clearly had not moved him. It’s worth remembering now as the corruption scandal is raging around him, since unlike last year, this time I really have learned my lesson. The only way Erdoğan is backing down this time, economic crisis be damned, is if his party forces him to do so by default in replacing him.

Bibi’s position in Likud: I don’t know why I am so insistent on this point, but every few months I seem to write a post predicting trouble on the horizon for Netanyahu within Likud to the point that he will be split the party or be ousted. While I am going to stubbornly insist that events will at some point vindicate my point of view, they haven’t yet. On June 27 in a post called “The Likud Bell Is Tolling For Bibi” I ran through some of Netanyahu’s recent troubles and then denigrated an op-ed my Mati Tuchfeld in which he predicted that Netanyahu could retake the party pretty much any time he wanted. I wrote, “I think this is a bad misreading of the situation that does not take into account just how much things have changed. Likud members used to venerate their prime minister, but at last year’s Likud convention, Netanyahu was being disparaged left and right in a way that had never occurred before. In addition, much like the younger generation of Congressional Republicans here, folks like Danon have little desire to stand on tradition and do not venerate Netanyahu, and are not going to “fall at his feet” just because he wishes it….There is a new coterie of deputy ministers and up and coming backbenchers who not only do not like or trust Netanyahu, they don’t feel as if they owe him anything. He did not mentor them and they got to where they are now via the Likud primary, which Netanyahu now wants to get rid of, and so they are not going to back him just because he asks. And unlike a year ago, they are no longer revolutionaries and they speak for a larger percentage of the party.”

While my assessment of the dynamic was correct, my assessment of Netanyahu’s grip on the party and power to influence outcomes was not. Earlier this month, three proposed Likud constitutional amendments whose aim was to weaken Netanyahu were withdrawn under pressure before they could even be brought up for a vote. It seems clear that the new deputy ministers do not like or trust Netanyahu a great deal, but it seems equally clear that Netanyahu is still very much in control of the party and is not going anywhere.

I’m sure there is more, and please feel free to point out any other things that I got egregiously or embarrassingly wrong this year. Here’s hoping to a great 2014.

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Structural U.S.-Turkey Tension Isn’t Going Away

December 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

Ahmet Davutoğlu this week implicitly acknowledged that the U.S. and Turkey have seen better days in their relationship, saying that “relations are proceeding on a dynamic and honest ground,” which is not exactly the “model partnership” that the Turkish foreign minister was so fond of touting a couple of years ago. Whatever “dynamic and honest ground” means, unquestionably things are not going nearly so well as during President Obama’s first term, when Prime Minister Erdoğan was on Obama’s Oval Office speed dial and Turkey was viewed by U.S. policymakers as the key to a new Middle East. Many events have conspired to shatter that vision, and Turkey is no longer through such rose-colored glasses as it was. To my mind, the new status quo is not just a temporary blip in an otherwise robustly healthy relationship; there are major structural forces that are putting the U.S. and Turkey increasingly at odds over issues large and small, and three in particular stand out.

The first is that the U.S. perceives Turkey to be pursuing short term aims, oftentimes explicitly political ones, at the expense of long term goals, and the pursuit of these short term aims often conflicts with U.S. interests in the region. For instance, the rift that the Turkish government opened up with the Egyptian government following the military coup that dislodged Mohamed Morsi when Erdoğan not only insisted that Morsi be reinstated but refused to even acknowledge the new Egyptian officials as legitimate was an example of Turkey pursuing a policy that caused long term harm (to wit, the Turkish ambassador to Egypt was expelled last month) for no purpose other than domestic politics. Another obvious example is the continuing feud with Israel, where Turkey has continuously blocked Israeli participation in NATO summits, sold out Israeli intelligence assets in Iran to the Iranian government, bolstered Hamas and given it as much international credibility as it can at the Palestinian Authority’s expense, and dragged its feet in every way possible to avoid true reconciliation with Israel following Bibi Netanyahu’s apology last March for the Mavi Marmara deaths. In both of these cases, the U.S. would strongly prefer that Turkey work with its other allies in the region, and Turkey’s intransigence in both instances is not the result of any bigger plan or in the pursuit of foreign policy aims, but is rather almost entirely for domestic political consumption.

More serious than these two cases is the shortsighted Turkish policy of allowing jihadi fighters to stream across the border into Syria in order to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad – a policy that even Turkey now seems to realize was dangerously myopic – and the agreement to purchase an anti-missile defense system from China, about which I have already written at length. Turkey’s Syria policy has been an unmitigated disaster, and the Chinese anti-missile decision has caused huge waves with the U.S. and Turkey’s other NATO allies, and both are examples of Turkey pursuing what it perceives to be easy short term gains to the great detriment of long term strategic goals. While Turkey is, of course, free to do as it pleases, both of these decisions have created great fallout for the U.S. and thus cannot be simply ignored by the Obama administration or chalked up to internal Turkish business. They fit into a general pattern of Turkey rushing headlong into foreign policy decisions without taking a minute to look at the big picture and assess the impact of its actions on other parties, specifically the U.S. in this case, which is bound to cause some friction.

The second structural force driving the two apart is that their priorities in the Middle East are moving in divergent directions. Just as Turkey was deciding to ramp up its involvement in the region and become more active and vocal, the U.S. was deciding to ramp down, pivot to Asia, and leave the Middle East behind to the greatest extent possible. The U.S. has a couple of core things it wants to be involved in, such as coming to some resolution over Iran’s nuclear program and pushing Israel and the Palestinians to work out a comprehensive peace agreement, but otherwise it wants to bow out as much as feasible. This is why the U.S. basically threw its hands up at the Egyptian coup and looked for any way out of getting military involved in the Syrian civil war. Turkey, in contrast, wanted to be deeply involved in reshaping the region in the wake of the Arab Spring (or whatever it is we are calling it these days), and was particularly assertive when it came to loudly insisting that Assad had to go. The problem is that Turkey could not force Assad out on its own and so assumed that the U.S. or NATO would eventually take care of the job, and after it became apparent that this was not going to happen, Turkey felt a sense of betrayal. In essence, the problem is that Turkey wants to see certain outcomes, but those outcomes require the U.S. to make them happen, and the U.S. has absolutely zero desire to get any more involved than it already is. So you have a hyper-involved Turkey that wants more active U.S. involvement on certain fronts, and a U.S. that just wants to be left alone.

The third structural force contributing to tension is the basic power imbalance that exists between the two countries. The U.S. has its own set of interests and oftentimes Turkey’s wishes and views rank low down on the list of American priorities, but at the same time Turkey tends to interpret U.S. action through a distinctly Turkish prism. Thus, the U.S. instinct to stay out of Syria was a result of war-weariness after Afghanistan and Iraq, sequestration and other budgetary problems, politics leading up to the 2012 election, a desire not to increase tensions with Russia, a growing sense that the Syrian opposition was extremely problematic…I could keep on going, but Turkey was not part of the equation. In Turkey, however, U.S. inaction in Syria despite months and months of Turkish demands for NATO involvement and strident Turkish calls for Assad to leave has been interpreted as a purposeful slap in the face to Turkey. Many Turks believe that the U.S. led them down the garden path and implied that help would be coming, and the fact that Assad is still in power is because the U.S. wanted to humiliate Turkey. The best example of this overall general dynamic was the controversy in Turkey in August of last year over the photo of Obama holding a baseball bat while on the phone with Erdoğan. As I wrote at the time, this had nothing to do with Erdoğan and was nothing more than the White House releasing a photo in the midst of a presidential campaign designed to reinforce the image of Obama as a regular guy, but in Turkey it was imbued with all sorts of deeper meanings over the type of hidden message that Obama was trying to send to his Turkish counterpart. Because it is Turkey’s most powerful and most important ally, the U.S. will always have an outsized image in Turkey and Turks will imagine that anything the U.S. is doing is directed at them, when in reality many Americans probably couldn’t even tell you what language is spoken in Turkey (you have no idea how many times I have had someone ask me if I know Arabic after hearing that I study Turkey), place it on a map, or identity Ankara as its capital. This imbalance, where Turkey always has the U.S. on its mind but does not get reciprocal attention, is another source of tension.

Of these three forces, the first one can easily dissipate, and in fact there are signs that it is already happening, particularly when it comes to Turkey’s Syria policy. The other two, however, are here to stay, and are not easily overcome. Does it mean a major rift between the two allies? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the halcyon days of Barack and Tayyip’s late night gabfests and both public and private talk of model partnerships is over, and unlikely to return anytime soon.

Turkey: Spies Like Us

October 17, 2013 § 3 Comments

This post is a co-production with my close friend and colleague Steven Cook, and is cross-posted on his blog From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

Ehud Barak’s political instincts have never been great, but his security instincts are generally top-notch. So when he warned in 2010 that any intelligence information shared with Turkey might be passed on to Iran, his fears may not have been completely unfounded. David Ignatius reported yesterday that in 2012, Turkey deliberately blew the cover of ten Iranians who were working as Israeli agents and exposed their identities to the Iranian government. Ignatius also wrote that in the wake of the incident, which was obviously a large intelligence setback for efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program, the United States did not protest directly to Turkey and instead walled off intelligence issues from broader policymaking.

There are lots of questions that Ignatius’s report raises, and it will take some time to parse them out and figure out the answers. First and foremost is the report completely accurate? This is a very big deal if true, and it casts increasingly cool U.S. behavior toward Turkey over the past year in a more interesting light, yet it also makes it puzzling to figure out how something like this was kept quiet. Likewise, it is tough to see how and why the United States would separate intelligence issues from larger policy issues in the wake of such a huge betrayal of an important U.S. intelligence ally. Especially when such duplicity amounts to a purposeful blow to joint American-Israeli aims to slow down Iran’s nuclear program.

Next, who are the sources for this story, and why leak the story now? If this new information came from the United States, then it indicates that someone has finally had it with Turkey turning a blind eye to (if not actively enabling) a growing al-Qaida presence in Syria, and anger over Turkey’s deal to buy a missile defense system from a Chinese firm already under sanctions rather than from NATO. The flip side to this is that if it is a U.S. government source fed up with Turkish behavior, it also does not cast the United States in a great light given the lack of an official reaction following Turkey’s exposure of Israeli intelligence assets. If the leak came from the Israeli side, then the timing is strange since there would have been little reason to hold this information until now, as Israeli-Turkish relations were at their absolute low point. The only plausible reason for Israel to leak this now would be if it came from someone who is disenchanted with Bibi Netanyahu’s efforts to patch things up with Turkey, as these allegations are deeply embarrassing in light of the Mavi Marmara apology.

Questions aside, and assuming that the veracity of the report– and so far no American or Israeli official has publicly denied it – the bigger picture here is not the future of Israel-Turkey ties, but how the United States views Turkey. It is important to remember that from its earliest days the Obama administration sought to rebuild and strengthen ties with Ankara during a particularly difficult period that coincided with the American occupation of Iraq and the return of PKK terrorism. The Turks got a presidential visit and speech to the Grand National Assembly, Obama punted on his promise to recognize the Armenian genocide, and more broadly brought a new energy and urgency to a partnership that American officials hoped would work to achieve common goals in a swath of the globe from the Balkans to Central Asia.

What started off well-enough quickly ran into trouble. By the spring of 2010, the Turks had negotiated a separate nuclear deal with Iran (and the Brazilians) that the administration claimed it had not authorized and voted against additional UN Security Council sanctions on Tehran.  Then the Mavi Marmara incident happened, further complicating Washington’s relations with both Ankara and Jerusalem.  A “reset” of sorts occurred on the sidelines of the September 2010 G-20 summit in Toronto with a meeting in which President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan talked tough with each other and cleared the air, setting the stage for what Turkish officials like to describe as a “golden age” in relations.  Even so, despite the apparent mutual respect—even friendship—between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan, there was a sense that the Turks did not share interests and goals as much as advertised.  For example, there was Erdoğan’s visit to Tehran in June 2010 when he implicitly justified Iran’s nuclear program. There were also difficult negotiations over a NATO early warning radar system on Turkish territory and after Ankara finally agreed, last minute needless wrangling over Israeli access to the data from the system .

More recently, Turkey has spurned its NATO allies in order to build a missile defense system with China.  Ankara has also been enormously unhelpful on Syria, even working at cross-purposes against current U.S. aims.  The Turks have complicated efforts to solve the political crisis in Egypt by insisting that deposed President Mohammed Morsi be returned to office and thus only further destabilizing Egyptian politics.  In addition, these new revelations (along with ongoing efforts to get around sanctions on Iranian oil and gas) make it clear that Turkey has been actively assisting Iran in flouting American attempts to set back Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The state-owned Halk Bank was, until recently, involved in clearing financial transactions for Iranian counterparts, though Istanbul’s gold traders continue to do a robust business with Iran. And this all comes on top of the general fallout that has ensued as a result of Turkey doing everything in its power to take shots at Israel (which, no matter if some Turkish analysts want to argue that Ankara is more strategically valuable to the U.S. than Jerusalem, is a critical U.S. ally), whether it be absurdly blaming Israel for the coup in Egypt or preventing Israel from participating in NATO forums.

Considering Turkey’s record, how can the Obama administration continue to tout Turkey as a “model partner” or even treat it as an ally? Not a single one of its goals for Turkey—anchoring Turkey in NATO and the West; advancing U.S. national security goals such as non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and promoting democracy; and holding Turkey out a “model” of a secular democracy—have been met. Ignatius’s recent revelation, if true, undermine the first two goals. As for the third, Erdoğan’s continuing harsh crackdown on protesters resulting from last summer’s Gezi Park demonstrations, pressure on journalists, efforts to intimidate civil society organizations, and other efforts to silence critics makes Turkey a negative example for countries struggling to build more just and open societies. We have crossed the line of reasonable disagreement and arrived at a point where Turkey is very clearly and very actively working to subvert American aims in the Middle East on a host of issues. That Erdoğan and/or his intelligence chief Hakan Fidan were willing to undermine a broad Western effort to stop Iran’s nuclear development for no other reason than to stick it to Israel should be a wake-up call as to whether the current Turkish government can be trusted as a partner on anything.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

July 31, 2013 § 3 Comments

The sense of renewed hope and optimism in the air surrounding the resumption of peace talks cannot be escaped. As the negotiators from the Israeli and Palestinian sides are preparing to sit across from each other and undertake real and sustained efforts to resolve the thorny issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all of the major players and influential analysts agree that this time is shaping up to be different and that successful talks are a growing possibility.

Start with the president, who has spent time with both leaders convincing them that the two state solution must be implemented. As he said right before the talks commenced, both the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president “have the vision, the knowledge, the experience and the ability and the sheer guts to do what it takes to reach an agreement and then to take it back to their people and see if they can sell it.” At the same time, the White House is not naive about the politics involved and understands that both sides are taking significant risks with domestic constituencies back home, with the president acknowledging that “it’s not easy for either to come. But they have come because they think that the price of not doing it is greater than the risk of going forward.”

Both sides also seem unusually committed to the negotiating process and, in contrast to the past when there was haggling over what could and could not be discussed, this time both sides have stated that all issues are on the table and that the final status issues such as Jerusalem, borders, and refugees will all be negotiated. As the U.S. envoy leading the talks pointed out during an interview on CNN, the Israelis and the Palestinians understand that nothing can be left out this time if there is any hope for a successful deal, which is why the secretary of state spent so much time laying the groundwork for talks. “Prior to that time, each side was very reluctant to get into those kinds of discussions because of the sensitivity of the issues,” he explained. The bad news, he said, “is that there still are significant gaps that separate the two sides.” There is also an understanding that in contrast to previous failed efforts, the talks cannot be open-ended, which is why the U.S. has set a definitive deadline for the two sides to reach an accord – “We’re certainly looking at that as the window in which we’re going to try to produce an agreement with the parties that deals with all of the permanent status issues.”

There is also no question that this is the last chance to get a deal done, since once this window closes, the two state solution will be dead and buried as each side pursues unilateral moves. As Tom Friedman noted in the New York Times, “Trying and failing won’t be any worse than not trying, because without a framework deal for a final peace, the situation will unravel anyway — the Palestinians will unilaterally declare a state by Sept. 13 and Israel will unilaterally annex the West Bank Jewish settlements, and Lord only knows what will happen after that.” It is noteworthy as well that the Israeli PM is moving ahead with talks despite a very shaky coalition that may be on the verge of breaking up over the issue, which indicates that he feels the sense of urgency as well.

As Ecclesiastes presciently noted, there is nothing new under the sun – all of these quotes and facts are from July 2000, right before the start of the Camp David talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, but they fit in precisely with the quotes and commentary in the past couple of days about the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The optimism that both leaders are serious – Roger Cohen is already comparing Bibi Netanyahu’s peacemaking credentials to those of Menachem Begin, who signed the 1978 Camp David treaty with Egypt, before anything has even happened – in large part because the thorny issues are on the agenda and the ubiquitous observations that this is the last and only hope to preserve a two state solution are an exact replay of 2000. Things are reaching such absurd heights that without calling anyone out by name, I read multiple breathless posts yesterday expressing optimism because of remarks and promises made during the introductory press conference, which to my mind is comical. We are supposed to be encouraged because right when both sides have agreed to sit down with each other they make all sorts of hopeful promises, and Kerry in his role as process overseer has stated that there will be no leaks? It’s like a parody of the way Politico covers the horse race of domestic politics, and I think a healthy dose of perspective is in order. A number of people have asked me why I haven’t written anything since last week about the negotiations, and the answer is that there is nothing to write since nothing has happened. I happen to agree that the option of the two state solution will not be around forever, and I am hopeful that these talks will lead to some tangible success, but if you think that anything that anyone says before the two sides have even sat down in earnest makes one lick of difference, then I think you are letting your emotions get the better of your analysis. So, let’s all take a collective deep breath, realize that this round of talks is the last ditch effort before the next round of talks becomes the new last ditch effort, take reasonable stock of actual structural reasons why success or failure are likely, and stop giving the peace process the 24 hour news cycle treatment.

And now that my rant is over, feel free to go back to trying to parse how the negotiations are going based on Martin Indyk’s tie color and what Yitzhak Molcho ordered for lunch…

Optimism and Pessimism On The New Round Of Peace Talks

July 25, 2013 § 13 Comments

Now that reports are surfacing that negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians are scheduled to begin in Washington on Tuesday – although there are also conflicting reports that Saeb Erekat is going to stay home until the Israelis agree to use the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations over the final border – it seems like a good time to lay out some reasons for optimism and reasons for pessimism about whether these talks are fated to go anywhere. Since I am generally pretty cynical about such things, let’s start with the reasons why I think the talks may fail. One of the biggest obstacles is the domestic politics involved. Brent Sasley has written a thorough piece arguing that the politics right now on the Israeli side are actually favorable for meaningful negotiations and concessions, but I tend to see things differently. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not shown the willingness in the past to actually deal with the hard choices involved in coming to an agreement, and while that does not mean that he is incapable of doing so, nothing in his past indicates that he is an enthusiastic peace process negotiator. If he is being dragged to the negotiating table unwillingly through a combination of pressure and quid pro quo for past U.S. security assistance, it is not going to bode well for the final outcome. Even if he is doing it of his own volition, which is certainly in the realm of possibility, the fact that he seems unwilling to accede to measures such as relinquishing sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem – which is going to have to be in any deal that the Palestinians will accept – is a bad omen. Then there is the problem of Netanyahu’s party. The current iteration of the Likud is the most right wing in its history, and a large bloc, if not an outright majority of the party, does not trust Netanyahu and is adamantly opposed to negotiations. In fact, an increasingly large subset of Likud members, led by Danny Danon, have been openly calling for Israel to annex the West Bank and ditch the two state solution in favor of the rightwing version of a one state solution. It is also the case that the more radical Likud members now control the party’s policy apparatus and serve as deputy ministers in the government; in fact, it seems as if Netanyahu is refuting the latest nonsense from Deputy Defense Minister Danon every other week. Sasley argues that this cast of characters is aware that they cannot win without Netanyahu and will ultimately fall in line, but I am not nearly so certain. Plenty of Likud voters will vote for the party if, say, Bogie Ya’alon is the headliner, and I don’t think that the Likud ministers and back benchers are going to sit idly by if Netanyahu begins to give up territory in the West Bank or order the evacuation of settlements. They have staked their political reputations almost entirely on rejectionism of the two state solution, and just because Netanyahu asks them nicely does not mean that they would not rather have a smaller but purer version of the Likud. See the experience that John Boehner has had with his own unruly caucus of House Republican newcomers as a parallel to how this would play out. Furthermore, Netanyahu is being kept afloat by his temporary merger with Yisrael Beiteinu, which he wants to turn into a permanent one. Without the extra YB votes, Likud immediately loses 10-12 seats in the Knesset. The problem is that Avigdor Lieberman is in many ways the original rightwing one stater, and there is simply no way in which he agrees to keep the two parties together once settlements are given up. Netanyahu knows this, which provides another incentive to make sure that talks break down along their usual pattern. The same problem exists with coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi, which has repeatedly threatened to leave the government over the issue of freezing settlements and whose head, Naftali Bennett, is also an advocate of annexation. Sasley argues that pulling out of the coalition will risk breaking the party apart, leaving Bennett politically homeless, and so he can’t risk it. I think the much bigger risk to Bennett is the party folding or excommunicating him for selling out his core principles if he agrees to remain in a government that agrees to extricate itself from the West Bank. After all, the party’s very name – Jewish Home in English – is meant to refer to the entirely of the Land of Israel from the river to the sea and explicitly lay claim to all of the territory as part of the Jewish state. The idea that the greater risk in this lies in leaving the government seems to gloss over the very reason the party exists, its history, and its makeup. There is also the issue of a referendum, which Netanyahu has now promised to hold to approve any peace agreement that is struck with the Palestinians. While the latest poll in Ha’aretz indicates that 55% of Israelis would approve a peace agreement, that is in a generic sense. Once the details are factored in and various political parties and lobbying groups begin to play on Israeli fears about security, sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the Jewish character of the state, etc. it will be very easy to siphon off entire groups of voters through scare tactics and populist campaigns. That 55% number is a mirage, akin to the way in which Yair Lapid supports a two state solution but is adamantly opposed to any division of Jerusalem; lots of people support a peace deal in theory, but the devil is in the details. Bennett knows this, which is why Habayit Hayehudi has pushed to extend the Basic Law that requires a referendum to approve giving up land that Israel has annexed – East Jerusalem and the Golan – to include the West Bank as well. The hope on the right is that a referendum will doom any successful negotiations for good. Finally, there is the Palestinian side. There is no need to rehash here all of the various arguments over Mahmoud Abbas and whether he rejected Ehud Olmert’s offer of 99% of the West Bank or whether he simply did not respond because Olmert was a lame duck and out of office before he even had a chance. My own opinion is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I am not as convinced as others on the left that Abbas is a willing a peace negotiator. The insistence on preconditions to negotiating is a tactic designed to doom talks, and the fact that Abbas was not willing to jump on Netanyahu’s partial 10 month building freeze a couple of years ago as the excuse he needed to reenter talks does not bolster the case of those who want to pin all of the blame on the Israeli side. Abbas may indeed want to talk, but I do not think it is fair to portray him as champing at the bit to get started. On the flip side, there are reasons to be optimistic. While, as I noted above, Netanyahu has not shown a propensity in the past to reach an agreement that the Palestinians can reasonably accept, he certainly appears to have arrived at the realization that Israel’s international standing is becoming more precarious by the day. The EU guidelines on settlements last week seem to have been a wakeup call of sorts, and his now repeated public warnings that Israel is facing a real prospect of a binational state indicate that his attitude in 2013 is very different than it was during his tenure as prime minister in the mid-90s or during the beginning of his current stint in 2009. In addition, as Dahlia Scheindlin has pointed out, polls consistently and repeatedly show support for a two state solution, 83 out of 120 seats in the current Knesset are controlled by parties theoretically supporting two states, and the support for two states remains even when you add various line items about specific concessions into the polling questions. In this light, the referendum may turn out to be a very good thing, since it will reinforce the move toward a negotiated solution. It is also encouraging that Netanyahu is seeking political cover to do what needs to be done, since if he negotiates a deal that is then approved by the Israeli electorate, it will be difficult for the right to claim that he has overstepped his authority. Finally, there is the fact that the best way for negotiations to succeed is if the specific details are kept under wraps, and any concessions made by either side are not wielded by opponents of two states as populist cudgels designed to doom the talks. John Kerry has done a good job of this by not publicly outlining the conditions that each side have agreed to in order for talks to resume, but even more encouragingly so has Netanyahu. There is currently a purposeful cloud of ambiguity hovering over the question of whether Israel has frozen settlement construction or not, with Netanyahu denying such a freeze exists and Housing Minister Uri Ariel saying that the de facto and unannounced policy in place is not allowing for any new construction. This, more than anything, is the most hopeful sign of all, since if Netanyahu has actually frozen settlement construction while trying to trick his party and coalition into thinking that he has done no such thing, it is a more serious indication of his desire to really strike a deal than any other datapoint I have seen. P.S. To watch me talk about this more extensively, here is a link to a video of a roundtable hosted by David Halperin and the Israel Policy Forum that I did yesterday with Hussein Ibish and Dahlia Scheindlin. It’s long, but an interesting and thorough discussion of the various issues involved.

Israel’s Head-Scratching Response To The EU

July 17, 2013 § 9 Comments

It has been a puzzling couple of days when it comes to Israel’s foreign relations. The big story dominating newspaper headlines in Israel and causing a general uproar is the new European Union guidelines setting forth the policy of the EU not to have any dealings in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or the Golan, and requiring EU agreements with Israel to contain a clause explicitly stating that the settlements are not part of Israel. This has predictably and understandably caused much angst in all reaches of the Israeli government, with Prime Minister Netanyahu angrily stating that Israel will not accept any “foreign dictates” about its borders and making clear that he thinks harping on settlements is absurd when there are more pressing regional problems such as the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear program. In the meantime, government ministers are calling for retaliation against the EU such as limiting EU diplomats’ travel in the West Bank, and despite the fact that the new regulations appear not to be quite as far reaching as first reported and are only binding on EU institutions rather than on member states individually, this is a diplomatic crisis of first-rate proportions that is unlikely to die down anytime soon.

While the Israeli government appears to have been caught off-guard by this decision – which, by the way, is what happens when you eviscerate the Foreign Ministry and don’t even bother to appoint a separate Foreign Minister other than Netanyahu himself – it should have seen this coming a mile away. As Brent Sasley noted yesterday, this is only the latest signal in a long line of them that the international community in general and the EU in particular takes settlements seriously and sees them as a real and genuine obstacle to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Now, the Israeli government and outside observers can rage all day that settlements are not the primary cause of the conflict, and there is a large measure of truth to this, but there are two important things to keep in mind. First, just because settlements may not have caused the conflict does not mean that they aren’t exacerbating it, and second, the key here is that Israel is suffering because much of the world believes that the settlements are indeed the main problem and will not be convinced otherwise. It is this second reason that is germane here, because as long as the EU, which is Israel’s largest trading partner, holds this view of things, Israel is going to deal with increasingly onerous efforts to get it to change its ways. The next step is going to be specially labeling goods produced in the settlements, or expanding these new regulations to cover trade rather than just grants, prizes, and financial instruments, or requiring settlers to get special visas to travel to EU countries. Israel can get as angry as it likes, but making reciprocal threats against the EU or loudly denouncing the Europeans as biased is going to get Israel absolutely nowhere, and it’s a shame that Netanyahu is still too blind to realize that what he is doing will not ease Israel’s burden one iota. I understand the Israeli government’s anger here, particularly when it comes to East Jerusalem, and I am certain that announcing these regulations just when it seems that John Kerry is on the verge of convincing the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table without preconditions will doom those efforts entirely. After all, if the EU is now demanding that Israel acknowledge in agreements that the settlements are not part of Israel, why should Mahmoud Abbas negotiate that point with the Israelis at all?

Nevertheless, Israel has to deal with the situation as it is, not as it wishes it to be. In a perfect world as far as the Netanyahu government is concerned, the EU would focus its ire on Tehran for the violations of international agreements it has committed in its pursuit of its nuclear program and leave the settlements on the back burner. This, however, is wishful thinking, and the over the top admonishments and hectoring of the EU accomplishes absolutely nothing. If Netanyahu were smart, he would have downplayed this entire thing, kept his head down, and resumed working toward getting back to negotiating or even unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank entirely. Instead, he made it crystal clear that Israel will not change its policies or back down in the face of pressure, and that nobody will lecture Israel on what it must do. That’s all fine and good, and Netanyahu can do whatever he pleases, but do not for one second think that Israel’s situation is going to improve absent some change of policy on its part. Netanyahu can either continue living in his fantasy land of griping and complaining about the rest of the world, or he can come to grips with the reality of things and work to improve his country’s international standing. Israel’s being singled out may not be fair and it may feel good to lash out against what the government sees as its tormentors, but being the grownup in the room means recognizing the situation for what it is, acknowledging that some things cannot be changed no matter how much you wish it otherwise, and figuring out the best solution for moving forward. This has nothing to do with blaming Israel, not recognizing the Palestinians’ agency, moral equivalence, rewarding bad behavior, or anything else; it is a simple reckoning of the world as it exists and trying to improve things within the parameters that Israel has been dealt. With regard to the dispute with the EU, let’s hope that Netanyahu has an epiphany on this sooner rather than later.

Exit Michael Oren, Enter Ron Dermer

July 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

On Tuesday, Bibi Netanyahu announced that his top aide, Ron Dermer, will be replacing Michael Oren as Israeli ambassador to the U.S. in the fall. Oren has to my mind been an excellent ambassador, and I’m not just saying that because he is a friend and former professor. He has served during a uniquely difficult time for Israel, and Dermer has a tough job ahead of him. Despite Dermer’s reputation for being on the far right of Israeli politics, I actually think he may be able to shunt aside some of the distrust he has built up in the administration and be successful. I wrote about Oren’s legacy and Dermer’s prospect for Foreign Policy yesterday:

There’s a new big macher in town. On Tuesday, July 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially named Ron Dermer to be his next ambassador to Washington, formally bringing current ambassador Michael Oren’s four-year tenure to an end in the fall. In replacing Oren with Dermer (full disclosure: Oren was my professor in graduate school at Harvard University, and we have maintained a good relationship), Netanyahu is replacing one American-turned-Israeli with another, but that is where the similarities end. Dermer will have big shoes to fill, as Oren has done an admirable job as Israel’s ambassador to the United States during a time that has been fraught with potential peril for the special relationship between the two countries. Although Dermer will have some advantages that Oren did not, he also has a history of his own that must be overcome.

While Israeli envoys have traditionally reported to the Foreign Ministry, Oren has been in the unique position of bypassing traditional channels and reporting directly to Netanyahu. This is because Oren didn’t come from within the ranks of the Foreign Ministry and so wasn’t in any way beholden to former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But it’s also an indication of how far the Foreign Ministry has fallen out of favor under Netanyahu’s purview. Netanyahu has sidelined the Foreign Ministry and has run Israeli foreign policy directly out of his office, using personal aides for important diplomatic tasks. While some analysts, such as Aaron David Miller, claim that Oren is outside Netanyahu’s inner circle and thus has had a diminished role, there is no doubt that the outgoing ambassador has played a crucial role in serving as a critical communicator between U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.

One need only look at the results of the past four years to see how well Oren has comported himself in his position. During Obama’s and Netanyahu’s respective first terms, all manner of analysts were predicting an Israeli strike on Iran and a policy of unfettered settlement building, both of which were going to lead to terrible clashes between Washington and Jerusalem. Indeed, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was embarrassed during a trip to Israel by a surprise announcement of new building in East Jerusalem, the immediate fallout was swift. Yet the fears over Iran and exploding settlement growth were never realized, and the actual working relationship between the United States and Israel is as strong as it has ever been in terms of security cooperation and coordination. One has to assume that Oren has played a key role in all this by communicating to the Israeli government the mood in Washington and the dangers inherent in moving unilaterally against Iran or sabotaging the peace process.

One of the Israeli ambassador’s primary tasks is making sure that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem is as smooth as possible, and not only is the institutional relationship humming along, but the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has immeasurably improved over time. During Obama’s first term, low points included Netanyahu publicly lecturing the U.S. president while the cameras were rolling during Netanyahu’s visit to the White House in May 2011, and Obama later returning the favor by denigrating Netanyahu over an open microphone while talking privately to then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In contrast, during Obama’s trip to Israel this past March, the two men joked with each other, smiled, and seemed far more comfortable than they ever had before. Although the credit for this cannot be laid entirely at Oren’s feet, one should not overlook his part in it either after four years of his public insistence that Obama and Netanyahu have a solid working relationship.

To read the rest of my thoughts on Oren, including the biggest way in which he has been successful, and why I think that Dermer has disadvantages that must be overcome but also advantages that Oren did not have, please click over to Foreign Policy.

The Likud Bell Is Tolling For Bibi

June 27, 2013 § 6 Comments

A little over a year ago, the Likud party was going through a tug of war between the old Likud princes – Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and their ilk – and a younger and more hardline group consisting of people like Danny Danon, Moshe Feiglin, Ze’ev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Tzipi Hotovely, and Miri Regev. At the time, the latter group were upstarts who were farther down on the party list – or in the case of Feiglin, not even an MKs – while the Likud princes were cabinet ministers. It was clear that the genuine fervor within the party lay with the hardliners but they did not yet control things, and so the party was exhibiting all kinds of strains while still holding together. The hardline group did not trust or even like Bibi Netanyahu at all, but he was the prime minister and his allies were in the top ranks of the party and so there was little they could do about it.

The came the Likud convention in May 2012, where Netanyahu was booed and subjected to rampant criticism, and unable to even secure the ceremonial post of convention chairman, which was deeply embarrassing. Next was the Likud primary in November, in which Danon came in 6th – ensuring that he would end up not only high in the Likud but as a deputy minister in the next government – and Feiglin made it into the Knesset, and Netanyahu allies Meridor and Begin lost their MK status entirely. Completing the trifecta, Danon won the chairmanship of the Likud convention this week with 85% of the vote after Netanyahu didn’t even try to challenge him for fear of being humiliated, and much more importantly is about to win the vote for chair of the Likud Central Committee, which is a powerful and consequential post. He has already stated his intentions to block Netanyahu’s plans to make the unity deal with Yisrael Beiteinu permanent and to subject any peace agreement to a Likud vote, which will never approve any deal with the Palestinians. Overall, things are looking bleaker for Netanyahu within Likud than they ever have before. He is presiding over an unruly caucus where his deputy ministers repeatedly undermine him, his old allies are gone from the scene, his party members do not respect him, and he is busy making plans to resume negotiations with the Palestinians while his own party warns him that it will not acquiesce to a deal under any circumstances.

Mati Tuchfeld today argues that the picture is not actually quite so bleak and that Netanyahu can retake Likud if he desires. His argument boils down to this:

Likud members venerate their prime ministers. Since Israel was established, there have been only four Likud prime ministers. If Netanyahu decides to return to the field, it’s safe to assume that everyone will again fall at his feet. If Netanyahu makes an effort, however small, to show that he wants another term as prime minister, the rebellious voices within Likud will likely die down at once. Unlike Livni, who fought tooth and nail to survive as Kadima leader and lost, or Barak, who was forced to leave Labor, all Netanyahu needs to do is make a decision — return to the field or retire. It’s likely that he’ll ultimately prefer the first option.

I think this is a bad misreading of the situation that does not take into account just how much things have changed. Likud members used to venerate their prime minister, but at last year’s Likud convention, Netanyahu was being disparaged left and right in a way that had never occurred before. In addition, much like the younger generation of Congressional Republicans here, folks like Danon have little desire to stand on tradition and do not venerate Netanyahu, and are not going to “fall at his feet” just because he wishes it. In fact, from their perspective, the sooner he is gone the better. Netanyahu has not made any attempts to court them, as opposed to other senior Likud members like Bogie Ya’alon, and while there is evidence that he is just now waking up to the problem he has within the grassroots of his party, it’s likely too little, too late. There is a new coterie of deputy ministers and up and coming backbenchers who not only do not like or trust Netanyahu, they don’t feel as if they owe him anything. He did not mentor them and they got to where they are now via the Likud primary, which Netanyahu now wants to get rid of, and so they are not going to back him just because he asks. And unlike a year ago, they are no longer revolutionaries and they speak for a larger percentage of the party.

So what are Netanyahu’s options? He appears to have three. First, he can finish him term as prime minister and retire. That is exceedingly unlikely, as by many accounts Netanyahu is more obsessed with being PM than he is with actually doing anything as PM, and even were that not the case, he has never given any indication that he is ready to be done. Second, he can start to fight a little to regain control of Likud and ultimately hope, as Shmuel Sandler argues in the last paragraph of this Jerusalem Post piece, that Likud members believe that they are incapable of winning an election without Netanyahu at the helm and so his position will always be safe. This is more plausible than the first option, but it’s a gamble since Netanyahu is currently caving to the enormous pressure being placed on him on settlements and the peace process, and any real initiatives on that front are going to bring a serious Likud backlash and a threat from Habayit Hayehudi to exit the coalition (which is why I argued back in January that the current government was doomed to fail). If Netanyahu assumes that his position in Likud will be safe after resuming negotiations with the Palestinians, irrespective of the outcome, I think he is fated to be surprised the next time around when Ya’alon or Gideon Sa’ar emerges to try and take his place.

That leaves option three, which is pulling an Arik Sharon and breaking away from Likud to form a new party. Netanyahu is historically risk-averse and is not operating from a position of strength at the moment, and unlike Ben Gurion breaking Mapai to ultimately form Labor, he is not immensely popular, nor does he have a single coalescing issue like Sharon. He also has a number of people, like Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, waiting in the wings to take him down. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is bleeding support within his own party every hour, and that is before he has even taken any real steps on the Israeli-Palestinian front. If he is actually serious about doing something and making sure that this is not his last term as prime minister, the only way around that is to form a new party. Formulating it around the idea of keeping all of the large blocs plus a multi-decade IDF presence in the Jordan Valley and selling it as a necessary security measure in the wake of Arab Spring upheaval in Egypt and Syria would attract enough support to make it a viable party, and would let Netanyahu shed the Likud thorns in his side. I wouldn’t bet on him actually going ahead and doing it, but it would be the smart move at this juncture. If he doesn’t, I am not nearly as sanguine as Tuchfeld on his future within his current political home.

What Comes After The Turkish Protests

June 5, 2013 § 15 Comments

Events in Turkey are still taking their course and so it is obviously premature to write any type of postscript, but I thought it might be useful to try and look ahead and game out some of the longer term consequences of the protests. First though, it is important to dispense with two quick points that I have seen floating around in various places. First, the Turkish government unquestionably displays some authoritarian tendencies and even more unquestionably has a distinct illiberal and majoritarian bent, and the excessive use of teargas on peaceful protestors is nothing short of shameful. Turkey is not, however, a fascist state and neither is it a dictatorship, and throwing those charges around in a vociferous manner won’t make them any less inaccurate. Second, Prime Minister Erdoğan is not going to resign, no matter what some stunningly ignorant folks might speculate. The AKP was elected with 50% of the vote in the last election, which was more than double than the share received by the second place CHP, and Erdoğan does not have any serious challengers in the party who would even think about trying to depose him. When these protests die down, Erdoğan will still be the prime minister, albeit a weakened one and maybe – but not likely – a chastened one, and the AKP will still be Turkey’s governing party. And furthermore, if I had to wager today, I’d bet with a large degree of confidence that the AKP will be Turkey’s governing party after the next election as well.

So how does this thing end? As Claire Sadar noted among other points in an excellent post, the comparisons to the Arab Spring are particularly inapt for a few reasons. The first and most obvious one is that, as I pointed out above, Turkey has free and fair democratic elections by even the strictest standard, and Erdoğan is not an unelected autocrat. The thousands of protestors in the street are shouting for Erdoğan to resign because they are unhappy and it is a convenient slogan to use, but I highly doubt that many of them – and this is certainly the case with my own friends currently manning the barricades in Istanbul and Izmir – have any reasonable expectation that this will happen. Everyone knows that Erdoğan will leave government the same way by which he entered, which is through elections, and because this is his last term as prime minister anyway, the protests are not going to change the timeline of his departure.

Another way in which this differs from the Arab Spring protests in Egypt and Tunisia in particular is that the military is highly unlikely to get involved. The Turkish armed forces have been brought to heel, first by the democratic reforms that placed the military under true civilian control for the first time in Turkey’s history, and then by the far less democratic witch hunt that jailed over 20% of Turkey’s active and retired officers for alleged coup plots against the government. Civil-military relations in Turkey have been transformed in a way that cannot be overstated, and while I would never go so far as to say that a military coup is absolutely impossible given Turkey’s history, the chances of one happening are infinitesimal.

Finally, the situation in Egypt was marked by scenes of non-uniformed government thugs attacking protestors, armed clashes between supporters of the government and opponents of the government, and a general violent breakdown along sectarian and ideological lines pitting civilians against other civilians. Despite the abhorrent police behavior – and reports indicate that police brutality seems to be slowing down as well – so far we have not seen bands of AKP supporters attacking protestors, and this is a good thing on many levels. When something along those lines occurs, it creates the likelihood of the situation spiraling out of control in unpredictable ways, and hopefully the fact that it has not happened yet means that Turkey is going to avoid large scale violent unrest.

What the situation in Turkey does remind me of in some ways is the J14 social protests in Israel in the summer of 2011, during which hundreds of thousands of Israelis were in the streets protesting over the high cost of living for everything from housing to cottage cheese. Many predicted that this was going to mean the downfall of the government and a radical sea change in Israeli politics, but what actually happened was that Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Likud government were reelected less than two years later. The primary reasons for this were that Netanyahu and Likud still remained popular with a large segment of the population, and perhaps more importantly there was no strong opposition party able to take advantage of the situation and unseat Netanyahu. Labor, which was the main party on the left, was fractured and disorganized, and Kadima’s constituency was not one that had social justice concerns as its main priority as Kadima had never embraced such a platform in any way. Similarly, it’s important to remember that the AKP has enormous support in Turkey, and this might diminish that support but it will not undo it. The economy is strong, many Turks have conservative values that the AKP embodies, and if you are not an educated urbanite or a persecuted minority (such as a Kurd or an Alevi), you are still relatively happy with the job the government is doing. Even more crucially, Turkey has no viable opposition at all. The CHP is little more than a joke, completely feckless and politically tone deaf and with no vision at all other than opposing anything the AKP does out of spite. There seems to be a constituency of Turks who crave a more liberal party that will be a bit more humble and protect the rights of all Turks while keeping in mind that differences of opinion do exist. There is no party currently in existence that can fill that role though, as the CHP is Turkish political equivalent of the Washington Generals and the BDP is too narrowly focused as a party representing Kurdish interests to attract true widespread support. The upshot of this is that when the next elections roll around, I expect the AKP to win again handily, albeit with a smaller total vote share than it received in 2011.

That does not mean that the path of Turkish politics will not be altered. The new presidential system that Erdoğan has been trying to push through is now, in my opinion, dead and buried. Nobody, and that includes people within the AKP, is going to be supporting a system in which Erdoğan gets to be a powerful president, particularly after he has complained that the American presidency is inadequate for his needs because the U.S. president has insufficient power due to having to deal with Congressional checks. This means that President Gül may continue as president without a hitch, but I think what this actually brings about is Gül as the next Turkish prime minister. Gül likely has no desire at all to serve as PM under a President Erdoğan who actually holds the real political power in Turkey, but serving as prime minister in the current system is an attractive proposition. In the last few days Gül has been distancing himself from Erdoğan, first disagreeing with Erdoğan’s contention that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases, and then implying that he might not approve Erdoğan’s new law restricting the sale of alcohol. These are moves designed to shore up his support within the party and to appeal to AKP members for whom Erdoğan’s scorched earth approach is wearing thin.

The irony in all of this is that the likelihood of the party splitting apart is now lessened than it was even a week ago. When Erdoğan stood the chance of becoming the president in a new presidential system, which would have meant unseating Gül in 2014, it would have led to a clash between the two men and the distinct possibility that the AKP would divide into two camps. If the system remain as it is, however, Gül can become a prime minister who actually has real political power, and so despite what appears to be growing enmity between the two longtime friends and political partners, I think the AKP actually stands a better chance now of remaining united, even as it is will be weaker following the damage that Erdoğan has wrought over the past week.

Israel’s Russian Roulette

May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

A year ago I wrote about the way in which Israeli domestic politics was coloring its foreign policy toward Russia on account of Israel’s large Russian population – over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union now live in Israel, making up somewhere between 10-15% of the total population – and noted that the government was doing its best to cozy up to Putin on account of the domestic political benefits despite the fact that there were obvious foreign policy pitfalls for Israel in pursuing such a strategy. In light of the violence in Syria, it is time to revisit this issue. The topic has taken on greater urgency now that Bashar al-Assad has claimed that Russia has already sent a shipment of S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries to Syria. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon had warned Russia not to arm the Assad regime with these missiles, considered to be a significant upgrade to existing Syrian air defense capabilities, and said that if the shipment of weapons left for Syria, Israel would “know how to act.” While Russia had postponed the initial shipment of missiles at Israel’s request, all signs point to further Israeli requests to delay delivering the SAM batteries being likely to fall on deaf ears. Russia’s interest in propping up the Assad regime has only grown, and the increasing calls for Western intervention and hints of U.S. plans for a no-fly zone in Syria have only seemed to strengthen Russian resolve as it turns the fight in Syria into a proxy battle against the West.

As Jordan Hirsch and Sam Kleiner smartly argued a couple of weeks ago, the chaos in Syria is in some ways restoring a Cold War dynamic between the U.S. and Israel that is focused on Israel as a proxy and strategic ally against a larger adversary, which in this case is Iran. However, the past couple of weeks have added a twist to this observation, which is that in some ways we are actually returning to the original Cold War dynamic of the U.S. against Russia and Israel caught in the middle. While the relationship between Israel and Russia has been strong, full of state visits and Israeli officials fawning over their Russian counterparts, the situation in Syria has put the brakes on what was in many ways a friendship built on a mirage. Israeli politicians have wanted to reap the low-hanging political fruit of being seen as having close ties with Russia, but Russia never gave Israel any indication of being willing to budge on its support for Iran or its backing of Assad. In fact, fostering a close relationship with Russia might have actually backfired, as when Israel hit Syrian military sites in Damascus earlier in May, it infuriated the Russian government, which was taken by surprise by the Israeli raid. Close ties between Jerusalem and Moscow may have created an expectation in Russia’s mind of notification by Israel, or perhaps some level of leeway on Russian priorities that Israel is unwilling to give.

The entire situation demonstrates the strategic quandary in which Israel finds itself due to its relatively small stature. Israel is not enough of a heavyweight to do much of anything to change the direction of Russian foreign policy, and its threats are not credible when dealing with a country the size and strength of Russia. Israel has spent years cultivating Putin and other Russian leaders, and Avigdor Lieberman played up his Russian connection while serving as foreign minister to an unprecedented degree, but when push comes to shove, all of this falls by the wayside in the face of larger Russian geostrategic priorities. Keeping Assad as an ally and maintaining the Russian naval base in Tartus, and in the big picture frustrating Western efforts to get Assad to exit power, is just worth much more to Moscow than anything Israel can offer and any benefits that accrue to Russia as a result of closer ties with Israel. Furthermore, Russia even has good cause to start intimidating Israel if it believes that Israeli natural gas exports  – if they ever happen, which is a big if – might in any way cut into Russian market share in Europe. Israel just does not measure up when it comes to ordering Russian priorities, and Israel is learning this the hard way in the context of the Syrian morass.

There is another element at play here, which is how Israeli domestic politics require Israel to tread carefully in its dealings with Russia. As I noted a year ago, the Russian population in Israel feels a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward its previous home even as its connection there wanes, much like American Jews feel strongly about Israel and Irish-Americans feel strongly about Ireland. Were the U.S. ever to have tense relations with Ireland, it would actually raise a serious problem in Congress and make for an extremely tricky political environment. Domestic politics affects every move the Israeli government makes, and if the connection between the large population of Russian origin and Israel’s foreign policy maneuvering has not already been taken into account by the more insightful politicians, I’d be surprised. Note that Israel has not yet directly threatened Russia, but has instead made veiled threats toward Syria on the issue of missile shipments, which is a counterintuitive move when you consider the supply chain here and that the party that needs to be prevented from moving is Moscow rather than Damascus. Part of that is, as I noted above, that Israel just does not have the heft to make any credible threats against Russia, but I think part of it is also the domestic political angle of trying not to pick a public fight with the Russian government any more than is absolutely necessary. Whatever the outcomes of the spat over the S-300 missile batteries, it will be very difficult going forward for Israel to pretend that its relationship with Russia is as cozy as it has portrayed in the past.

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