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.
July 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
Shimon Peres gave a speech this week in which he warned about the danger that settlements pose to Israel’s Jewish majority. He spoke about a “threatening demographic change” and pointed out that without a Jewish majority, Israel will cease to be a Jewish state. This prompted predictable outrage from the right, with Yesha head Dani Dayan inveighing that the only danger to the Jewish state is conceding the right to the West Bank and 350 rabbis sending Peres a letter in which they said he should beg for forgiveness for the peace process and criticized his “hallucinatory ideas.” Peres’s speech also, however, brought opprobrium from the left, as various people were upset that Peres framed the problem with settlements as a strategic problem rather than an ethical or moral one. In this view, the primary problem with the settlements is that they are furthering the occupation and preventing a Palestinian state, and thus the argument against them should be that Israel is perpetrating an unethical policy in the West Bank and settlements should be denounced primarily as conflicting with the value of a democratic state and a Jewish state.
I am sympathetic to this argument, but it ignores the politics of the situation and misses the long view. The left and center-left do not need any convincing on the need for Israel to abandon the settlement enterprise outside of the major settlement blocs that Israel will presumably keep in a peace deal. If there is to ever be real movement on this issue, it is the right that needs to be brought around, and arguments about Palestinian rights are unlikely to be convincing. I do not mean to suggest that everybody on the right is completely unconcerned with the status of the Palestinians on the West Bank, but this has historically not been a winning argument on the right. If the right is to be swayed, it will be by arguments about Israel’s security and future, and in that sense, the demographic argument is the only one in town. I’ve heard that people in the upper ranks of the government don’t take the demographic threat seriously and believe that time is actually on Israel’s side, and I have had similar impressions in talking to friends and colleagues who are more rightwing on Israel issues than I am. When I was in Turkey two years ago, I got into what turned into a heated discussion with an older American Jewish couple whom I met while their cruise ship was docked in Istanbul for the weekend. During a conversation about Israel where I brought up the argument that Israel was running out of time to separate from the West Bank, the wife heatedly insisted that I had no idea what I was talking about because her daughter lives in Israel and has five kids, and so she absolutely refuses to believe that in 20 years there will be just as many Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank as there are Jews. The only way to convince rightwingers and conservatives that settlements need to be dealt with is to keep on pushing the demographic argument and make people realize that every day that passes increases the possibility of a binational one state Israeli future. This is why Peres’s speech was the correct response to the Levy Report, and while it might make folks on the left upset, a little more strategic thinking on this issue is required.
On a similar note, this is why I think that the Levy Report is so dangerous and why I disagree with Brent Sasley’s argument that Levy does not represent anything new. Has Israel been extending its control over the West Bank? Yes, it has. But that doesn’t mean that the Levy Report is not a dangerous development, because by legally eviscerating the line between Tel Aviv in Israel proper and Efrat over the Green Line, and between authorized settlement bloc Ariel and unauthorized outpost Migron, it brings a one state solution ever closer (for those whose Hebrew is less than stellar, Elder of Ziyon has a useful translation of the legal reasoning section of the Levy Report). The report’s significance is not in what it signals about past Israeli intention in the West Bank, but in what it signals about Israel’s political future and survival as a Jewish state. Brent and others think that the report is simply more of the same and that the declaration that there is no occupation is just the Israeli right showing its true colors in a more public manner, but this loses sight of the fact that Levy represents the opening salvo in the growing calls for a rightwing one state solution. Quite simply, this will be the end of Israel as we know it, and the right needs to be convinced that this is a path to oblivion. If this requires hammering away at the demographic argument and dropping language steeped in morality and ethics, so be it. Peres is on to the right idea here, and people on the left and the center should start thinking along these lines as well.