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.
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.
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.
June 3, 2013 § 2 Comments
As anyone who has been casually following the news knows by now, Istanbul, Ankara, and other cities across Turkey are awash in protests, with calls for Prime Minister Erdoğan to resign and scenes of Turkish police using massive amounts of tear gas against protestors throwing up barricades in the streets. The protests began with a few hundred people rallying in an Occupy-type scene in an effort to save Gezi Park, a small green space bordering the northern side of Taksim Square in Istanbul. The government has announced plans to replace the park with a replica of the Ottoman-era barracks that used to exist on the site, replete with a shopping mall and museum. While I have always found Gezi Park to be relatively drab and unimpressive, there are many Istanbullus who see it as a small haven in the middle of a sprawling city, and when the government began to uproot trees in the park last week and then responded to protestors with violence, Istanbul exploded. For some good summaries of what has gone on, read Hugh Pope, Claire Sadar, and Agent L. To see what Istanbul looks like in the aftermath of an unprecedented outburst against the government, check out the array of pictures here.
So how did some angst over the cutting down of some trees turn into such a huge eruption of protest? Brent Sasley has correctly pointed out that there are long term processes at work and that any government in power for a decade is bound to cause frustration. This is particularly true when the government in question has been acting less and less democratic with each passing year. Last June, Steven Cook and I argued in Foreign Affairs that the AKP had been increasing opportunities for Turks to participate in political and civic life while making it far more difficult for anyone to contest the government’s power. In the time since we wrote that piece, however, Erdoğan and the government have actually reversed course on the participation front in a number of ways and become far less responsive to many social concerns on the theory that being elected with such huge vote margins entitle the government to do anything it pleases, no matter how vociferous the opposition or how many Turks feel disenfranchised in the process. The heavy-handedness of Turkish majoritarian democracy has led to frustration under the surface, which is now boiling over thanks to the Gezi spark. All of this leads to the question of how democratic Turkey actually is, and whether the Obama administration has been wise to rely so heavily on Turkey to help forge a new and more democratic Middle East. Steven and I tackled this topic yesterday in Foreign Policy, and argue that Turkish democracy is not nearly as strong as is widely perceived in Washington. Here is a teaser, and for the rest please click over to Foreign Policy:
It seems strange that the biggest challenge to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authority during more than a decade in power would begin as a small environmental rally, but as thousands of Turks pour into the streets in cities across Turkey, it is clear that something much larger than the destruction of trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park — an underwhelming patch of green space close to Taksim Square — is driving the unrest.
The Gezi protests, which have been marked by incredible scenes of demonstrators shouting for Erdogan and the government to resign as Turkish police respond with tear gas and truncheons, are the culmination of growing popular discontent over the recent direction of Turkish politics. The actual issue at hand is the tearing down of a park that is not more than six square blocks so that the government can replace it with a shopping mall but the whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Turkey under the AKP has become the textbook case of a hollow democracy.
The ferocity of the protests and police response in Istanbul’s Gezi Park is no doubt a surprise to many in Washington. Turkey, that “excellent model” or “model partner,” is also, as many put it, “more democratic than it was a decade ago.” There is a certain amount of truth to these assertions, though the latter, which is repeated ad nauseum, misrepresents the complex and often contradictory political processes underway in Turkey. Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous — the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power. Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. In fact, the opposite is the case, paving the way for the AKP to cement its hold on power and turn Turkey into a single-party state. The irony is that the AKP was building an illiberal system just as Washington was holding up Turkey as a model for the post-uprising states of the Arab world.
For the rest, see here.
February 7, 2013 § 3 Comments
I’m a day behind on writing about this, but as everyone now knows and has processed, President Obama will be visiting Israel next month. There is lots of speculation about why he is going, and most of it has focused on the peace process. The instant conventional wisdom is that Obama is going to lean hard on Prime Minister Netanyahu to restart serious talks with the Palestinians and that the focus of the new Israeli government is now going to be on diplomacy and the two-state solution rather than on the domestic issues over which the election was fought. There are even those who argue, as Dan Margalit does in Israel Hayom, that Obama’s pending arrival is going to affect which parties are in the coalition since Netanyahu will not want to welcome Obama to Israel without a center or left party included in the government.
I get why all of this makes sense on its face, but I disagree with the premise. Of course Obama cares about the peace process and assigns a large degree of importance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and without question it will be a topic of conversation between Obama and Netanyahu and will be part of whatever public comments Obama makes while there. It would be bizarre for Obama to show up and not try to create some pressure on both sides to resume negotiations. But there are a few reasons to think that this trip is not intended to be a big diplomatic push over and above whatever else the administration is currently doing on the peace process front.
First, the White House said yesterday that the trip is not going to include a rollout of any specific peace proposals. That means no roadmap, no offer to host a summit, no calls for settlement freezes, or any other approaches that we have seen in the past by this or other administrations. Second, the U.S. has not coordinated this trip with any European countries, which is strange given EU efforts to convince the administration to reinsert itself into the peace process and the reports that Britain, France, and Germany are planning on making a big push on this issue now that Israeli elections are over. Third, a presidential visit to Israel does not automatically mean pressure on the Israeli government over the Palestinians, as there was little pressure placed when President Bush went to Israel in 2008 despite Ehud Olmert being more receptive to such an approach.
As Brent Sasley pointed out yesterday, there are lots of reasons for Obama to be going to Israel, although I disagree with Brent (which is rare) about Iran, and I think that this trip is much more about foreign policy issues than domestic politics (which is even more rare for me). Obama’s travels are going to take him to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel; if that isn’t a lineup that indicates the focus will be on coordinating strategy to deal with Iran, then I don’t know what is. Now that both Obama and Netanyahu have been returned to office and both clearly have their eyes on Tehran, I think that Obama’s visit to Israel is about security issues – Iran, Syria, etc. – first and foremost. That John Kerry is going to Israel before Obama’s trip reinforces that for me, since Kerry’s visit will likely be focused on the peace process while Obama’s visit will be geared toward other things. And of course, the possibility exists that Obama is going simply because he promised he would, as Haviv Rettig Gur reminded everyone yesterday.
Finally, on the coalition politics issue, I don’t buy the argument that Obama’s visit will affect the coalition one way or the other. Once the trip was announced, all leverage in that area was gone. Bibi could put together the most rightwing coalition imaginable at this point, and it won’t alter the fact that Obama is going to Israel come hell or high-water. I don’t quite get the argument that Netanyahu won’t dare greet Obama without a center-left component in his government, or that a three day visit somehow creates such enormous pressure that an entire coalition designed to theoretically serve for five years has to be shaped around three days.
Furthermore, there is a real possibility that Netanyahu won’t form a coalition until after Obama has come and gone, in which case all of this speculation is moot. [As Chemi Shalev has helpfully pointed out in the comments below, the deadline for Bibi to form a coalition is March 16 - ed.] Let’s also not forget that Netanyahu went out of his way just this morning to reiterate that his policy on settlements has not changed. Obama coming to Israel is a new wrinkle, but if Netanyahu were not going to bend to internal and external pressure to jumpstart the peace process, I don’t think Obama’s visit would alter his calculations.
To be clear, I am sure that Obama will talk about the peace process, and I am also sure that Netanyahu will not embarrass Obama on Israeli soil so he will likely make some token concessions or promises. I do not think that this trip changes the entire thrust of the government’s policy or makeup though, and I do not think it means we are about to get a real life version of the fictional Bartlet peace plan from the second to last season of the West Wing. It was always assumed that Kerry was going to be more interested in the peace process during the second term than Obama was until there was some real movement, and I haven’t seen anything over the last two days to make me think that assumption is incorrect.
November 7, 2012 § 5 Comments
As it became clear last night that President Obama was headed for an easy victory, a bunch of people on my twitter feed began speculating – or more accurately, making jokes – about what this would mean for Bibi Netanyahu. The joking actually turned into a serious conversation about whether Obama will somehow punish Netanyahu for his perceived support of Romney and clashes with the president, with some going so far as to speculate that he will tell Netanyahu that no help on Iran is forthcoming. It seems that Netanyahu is worried himself, as he is already clamping down on Likud members who are expressing negative reactions to Obama’s reelection out of fear that it will damage his standing with the White House even further.
Despite what is obviously not a great relationship between the two men, I don’t quite see how Obama’s reelection is going to have much of a negative effect on Netanyahu or the U.S.-Israel relationship at large. This is true for a few reasons. First, as Steven Cook persuasively argued last month, the relationship is institutionalized to the point that personal animosity between the countries’ leaders is not going to have much of an effect, if any. Let’s assume that Obama decides this morning that he wants to put the screws on Netanyahu – what precisely is he going to do? Aid to Israel is controlled by Congress, the joint military and intelligence cooperation is so deeply ingrained that it would take a long time to reverse, and there are deep ties between the two countries at all levels of government, business, and society. There are smaller things that Obama could do on the margins, but the immediate consequences are close to zero.
Second, and I cannot stress this enough, if you think that the myriad of ways in which Obama supported Israel during his first term was just a feint to win an election, then you are falling victim to the same delusion that said Nate Silver and all of the polls predicting an Obama win were deliberately skewing the evidence. Quite simply, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that all of a sudden funding for Iron Dome, joint military exercises, vetoing of anti-Israel UN resolutions, and other similar actions are going to stop now that Obama doesn’t have to worry about senior citizens’ votes in Florida. I will bet any amount of money that there is no drop-off in the administration’s support of Israel in the security and diplomatic spheres, and the folks who think otherwise have a large burden of proof to overcome that cannot be swept away merely by shouting “but he didn’t visit Israel” or “he left Netanyahu waiting while he ate dinner with his family.”
Third, Obama is not very popular among Israelis, and so even if he wanted to punish Netanyahu by trying to interfere in the Israeli election, it just wouldn’t work. Bill Clinton might have been able to sway Israelis when he was president, but Obama does not have the popularity, credibility, or familiarity with Israeli voters to pull of such a move. The fact that Obama was reelected is not going to factor into Israelis’ calculations when they go to the polls, as Brent Sasley helpfully pointed out previously. The idea that Netanyahu now has to be running scared because his hopes to have Romney elected did not pan out is a pretty flimsy one.
Finally, the suggestion that Obama is now going to tell Netanyahu that the U.S. has no interest in confronting Iran makes little sense to me based on previous U.S. actions and Obama’s long record of statements indicating that he views an Iranian nuclear bomb as a real problem. Aside from Stuxnet, crippling sanctions, and an increased carrier presence in the Gulf, Obama has made clear that preventing nuclear proliferation is perhaps the foreign policy issue that he holds most dear. The disagreement between he and Netanyahu over the red line of nuclear capability vs. nuclear weapons is still going to be there, but Obama has held firm to his own timeline so far and he is not going to now somehow make it even more firm because he has been reelected. The bottom line here is that Obama is worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon as well, and he is not going to drop his concerns just because he and Netanyahu do not get along very well.
P.S. For another argument on why the Obama revenge meme is an ill-informed one that focuses on different variables than mine, check out Peter Beinart this morning.
October 18, 2012 § 5 Comments
Dan Ephron, who is Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief, wrote a piece on Monday about the Israeli right wing’s dominance of that country’s politics. Ephron quoted Noam Sheizaf as predicting that the election in January will create a “total collapse of the center-left, both as a political power and as an ideologically coherent idea,” and Ephron appears to agree that this is a likely scenario. The reason Ephron provides is that the fastest growing groups in Israel are the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox, and that “both groups lean heavily to the right.” Furthermore, “Since the core motivation for their political hawkishness is largely unchanging—a biblical injunction to maintain Israeli control over Judea and Samaria (their term for the West Bank)—it’s hard to imagine them ever shifting alliances. The upshot: with each passing year, the Israeli right grows stronger.”
This seems plausible on its face, but there are a few major problems with this analysis. First, conflating the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim) is a rookie mistake. Orthodox voters and Haredi voters have different motivations and vote based on different issues. The idea that a party like Shas speaks for, say, Israelis attending hesder yeshivot (where draft-eligible Israeli men split their time between army service and Torah study) is nonsense. It is also analytically lazy to contend that Orthodox Jews who serve in the IDF and go on to careers of various sorts are no different than Haredi Jews who do not perform army service and are largely dependent on state subsidies. Lumping their positions and ideologies together makes Ephron’s argument automatically suspect.
Second, it is simply not accurate to describe Haredi rightwing tendencies as being motivated by a desire to hold on to Greater Israel. As my friend Brent Sasley has pointed out, Haredim are generally anti-Zionist or non-Zionist. Not only do they not care about maintaining all of Greater Israel, as Ephron contends, but many Haredim are actually opposed to the idea of Israel at all, let alone an Israel that encompasses the West Bank. Haredi parties in the Knesset recognize the existence of the state, but they do not care about any biblical injunction regarding the land of Israel. In fact, as Brent usefully noted, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the founder and current spiritual leader of Shas (which is the Knesset’s largest Orthodox party of any stripe), held for years that it was acceptable to give up land if it would save Jewish lives, which is certainly not in line with Ephron’s dubious claim that Haredi rightwing positions stem first and foremost from a desire to hang on to the West Bank. Haredi parties generally – although historically not always – band together with other rightwing parties because they are very socially conservative and they feel most at home on the right. Issues surrounding the West Bank or the Palestinians have very little to do with it.
Third, throwing Likud’s politics in together with Haredi politics and pretending that it all stems from the same rightwing ideology is inaccurate. Both segments are conservative and ideological in their own way, but their conservatism and ideology are not shared. Likud is economically conservative and extremely devoted to the settler cause, and if any party has an ideology based on settling the entire land of Greater Israel, Likud is it. There is, of course, the inconvenient fact that Likud leaders are not themselves religious, including Likud founder Menachem Begin and current Likud prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, but certainly a sizable percentage of Likud voters are Orthodox (but not Haredi). Haredi parties are ideological and conservative as well, but their conservatism is social rather than economic – not surprising given how many Haredim survive on state largesse – and their ideology is one of fealty to Torah and Jewish law as a way of structuring daily life, rather than anything surrounding settling or holding onto the land. Likud is rightwing, and Shas and UTJ are rightwing, but they are rightwingers in the same way the Club for Growth and the Christian Coalition are rightwing – they inhabit the same general political universe but for vastly different reasons.
It is true that the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox both lean heavily to the right, but that is about the only part of Ephron’s analysis that isn’t stunningly ill-informed. Just because both groups have the word “Orthodox” in their names does not mean that they share the same core motivations. The Israeli right may be growing stronger, but that doesn’t mean that Haredi parties wouldn’t shift their allegiance to the left if they were promised a better deal on subsidies and control of Israel’s religious institutions. Ephron’s permanent majority theory is based on some serious basic factual errors, and given that he is the Jerusalem bureau chief for one of America’s most prominent newsweeklies, I expect some more rigor from him.
September 28, 2012 § 4 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu gave a widely covered and dissected speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday in which the main takeaway seems to be that he watched a lot of Warner Brothers cartoons during his time as a teenager living in the U.S. Brent Sasley and Jeffrey Goldberg both weighed in on what Netanyahu was trying to accomplish, and Ali Gharib pointed out that Bibi actually made a mistake with his cartoon bomb, so I don’t need to rehash what others have already eloquently written. Instead I’d like to pick up on a theme that Robert Wright captured, which is that Netanyahu essentially conceded that Israel will not be bombing Iran any time soon. As regular O&Z readers know, I have thought for months that an Israeli strike is unlikely to happen, and so now that the conventional wisdom has caught up with me, it is worth rehashing why most people thought that an attack was going to happen during the summer or fall.
The thinking in the DC foreign policy community on an Israeli strike has largely been shaped by the notion that the decision to attack lies with Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and so the speculation over whether Israel was on the brink of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities broke down into two camps. On one side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are deadly serious about a strike. They view Israeli saber rattling as an effort to prepare the Israeli public for war and think that the reportedly reluctant Israeli military and political leadership will line up behind the prime minister and the defense minister once they decide to order military action. On the other side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are engaged in an elaborate bluff designed to either pressure Iran into ceasing its uranium enrichment program or to convince the United States to handle the job of taking out the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli chatter about the looming threat from Iran is aimed at creating conditions under which the U.S. feels it has no choice but to do everything possible to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and convincing the Europeans to back harsher sanctions on Iran. In this reading of the situation, the rest of the Israeli military and political leadership do not matter because Netanyahu and Barak are only interested in creating the perception that they are going to attack.
The question then of what Israel is going to do turns on Netanyahu and Barak’s true mindset; if they are serious about attacking they will attack, and if they are bluffing they won’t. It is a very simple dynamic, leading to an entire cottage industry designed to ascertain what precisely the two men’s intentions are, with an increasing focus on Barak – or, per his feeble attempt at anonymity, the “decision maker” – as the key figure. In this increasingly accepted view, there are only two possibilities and two outcomes, and the only people who matter are the Netanyahu-Barak tandem.
What this discussion has entirely missed, however, is that there is a plausible third outcome, which is that Netanyahu and Barak are dead set on launching a military operation against Iranian nuclear sites but that such an operation will not occur. People have discounted this possibility because they either misread the way in which national security decision making takes place in Israel or discount the Israeli political climate.
Netanyahu and Barak are not the only people who matter in this decision. When an American president wants to go to war, he generally gets his way irrespective of what his cabinet or generals want to do, with the Iraq War a good demonstration of how the president is truly The Decider. In contrast, Netanyahu and Barak will not be able to launch a strike on Iran without the near unanimous consent of the inner security cabinet and the larger political-security cabinet, and such authorization is not assured. Four of the nine members of the smaller group are currently believed to be opposed to a strike, and the fact that Netanyahu briefed Rav Ovadia Yosef in order to flip Eli Yishai’s support speaks volumes about Netanyahu and Barak’s power to order an attack against other ministers’ wishes.
There are also important constraints on Netanyahu and Barak’s decision making. Israeli public opinion does not favor a unilateral Israeli strike, the home front is woefully unprepared for retaliation from Iran or Hizballah, a myriad of current and former IDF and intelligence officials believe an attack is a bad idea at this point, and the specter of the Winograd Commission – which blasted former prime minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF chiefs for the 2006 war in Lebanon – hangs over everything. All of this is particularly salient given Netanyahu’s historical risk aversion when it comes to ordering military operations of any sort, compounded by the fact that this is an operation whose chances of success are seen to be limited to delaying Iran’s nuclear program rather than ending it and might end up with thousands of Israeli civilian casualties as retaliation. That the Obama administration is also opposed to an Israeli strike is an enormous constraint on Netanyahu given Israeli reliance on U.S. munitions and aid.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s speech, there is a rush of commentary focusing on the fact that Obama looks increasingly likely to be elected and so Netanyahu feels like he needs to back off and not risk angering the White House any further. I am sure that is part of what is going on, but this narrative implies that Netanyahu would have ordered a strike by now if Romney were ahead in the polls. I think that is wrong, and misses the fact that there is lots going on here on the Israeli side and that the U.S. is only one of many variables in this equation, and perhaps not even the most important one. If the focus is exclusively on the argument that U.S. pressure has sufficiently convinced Netanyahu to change his plans, then analysts are guaranteed to get it wrong again in the months or years ahead when trying to figure out what Israel is going to do.