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.

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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…

Guest Post: The Yesha Council’s One State Plan

March 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

Today’s guest post is brought to you by my friend Joel Braunold, who heads up Strategic Partnerships for the OneVoice Movement. Joel is a keen observer of Israeli politics and a passionate advocate for a two state solution, and he has been keeping his eye on Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party and its efforts to carry out the settlement movement’s aims. The Yesha Council, which is the most prominent settler group, has released a new strategy paper coinciding with President Obama’s visit to Israel, and Joel has an extended take (see his quick take at Open Zion here) on what it portends for the new Knesset and government. You can read more of Joel’s work on his blog at Haaretz.com and his Twitter handle is @braunold.

With President Obama visiting Israel, many groups are trying to get his attention so they can let the president know what they think he should do. Included within the pleas from the peace camp and the ‘Free Pollard’ camp is a document prepared by the Yesha council titled, “Judea and Samaria – It’s Jewish, It’s Vital, It’s Realistic.”

Questions answered within this Kafkaesque document include: why the demographics are on the settlers’ side, why the Palestinians are stealing water from Israel, and what is the legal history of Israel’s settlement enterprise. Most interesting, however, is the nine-step plan that the Yesha council has created at the end of the document to fulfill their vision.

The main tool that the Yesha council has to achieve its vision are its political advocates in the Knesset and in the government. Their building in the West Bank happens through the good graces of the state authorities. Of course the main party for the Yesha council is Habayit Hayehudi, but they also have representation through Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu and a scattering of MKs in some of the center parties. Members of their communities operate across the center and right of the Israeli political spectrum.

Looking at the nine steps we can see the underlying Habayit Hayehudi strategy during the coalition talks. Additionally we can start to make sense of some of the other Knesset moves and statements by members of the settler community on the national stage.

Step 1: Renewing the strong belief in the supremacy of the Jewish claim to the Jewish Homeland and the justness of taking measures to maintain control of it

In the coalition agreement between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi was a bill to make the Jewishness of the state supreme. This is a redo of the Avi Dichter bill from the last Knesset. No one is quite sure of which version will hit the Knesset, if it gets through Tzipi Livni, but it is part of a big move to decouple the concepts of Jewish and democratic state as equal and promote the former at the expense of the latter. The motivations behind this become clear in a strategy that is tied into biblical land claims and preparing for a situation where the civil rights of millions of Palestinians are going to have to be restricted.

Step 2: Uniting the nation and its leadership

Throughout the coalition talks, Bennett was the peacemaker between Yair Lapid and Bibi Netanyahu and has pledged to be a leader for all of Israel, not just the settlers. His party has also taken over key ministries that can affect the cost of living across Israel. Bennett has been very keen to be seen as responding to the J14 protests and be a transformative politician who can transcend the tribal politics of the moment and be one of the new leaders of Israel alongside Lapid. By also slipping in the raising of the electoral threshold into the coalition agreement, he can ride the wave of Habayit Hayehudi current popularity and force others from his camp to work with him if they want any representation at all. By forcing people into a broad tent he gives himself a broader appeal and solidifies himself and by extension the Yesha council firmly into the mainstream.

Step 3: Military strength and control of the territory by the security establishment

Though many ex-military and security men veer to the left after they retire from service (just see The Gatekeepers), the new Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, most definitely veers to the right and was the first choice of the settler community. Though the security establishment is pretty much entrenched in the West Bank already, Ehud Barak had been the thorn in the side of the Yesha council. With him removed the security establishment can work in concert with the Yesha council in helping it expand both from the Knesset and on the ground itself.

Step 4: The elimination of terror and cessation of incitement in Palestinian schools

While all Israelis want to see an end to terror and incitement, the previous government’s flat-out rejection of the State Department’s school textbook report demonstrates a complete unwillingness to examine the issue of incitement on both sides of the border. It is essential to demonize the Palestinian national narrative while maintaining that individual Palestinians are ok and stating that the settlements actually have had great relationships with the communities pre the first intifada.

Step 5: Creating a situation where it becomes clear to the international community that another state west of the Jordan River is not viable

The serious policy community is split about whether the two-state solution has already been killed by the settlements and the Yesha council or if it is merely on life support. Needless to say, the Yesha council is well on its way to pulling the plug. The new Deputy Foreign Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, already ascribes to this point of view. Though many advocates of one-state agree that the settlements have killed the two-state solution they do not share the Yesha council’s vision of what a one-state solution would look like. The power and establishment will be with the Yesha council and in doing so it will have a tremendous momentum on the ground when two-states is officially abandoned to fulfill its vision before anyone else gets a look in. Yes, Israel will lose friends and allies and there might be a brain drain that could seriously affect the economy. But I sadly have less faith that pressure will force Israel to give up its raison d’état of providing the Jewish people with self-defense and power by giving those they have been occupying full civic rights. The death of the two-state solution will mean the Yesha council has won, and read the rest of their document to see how they view Palestinians.

Step 6: The further immigration of one million Jews to Israel to secure a permanent Jewish majority in Israel

In the coalition talks, Bennett managed to carve the Diaspora portfolio out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and into his own portfolio. The reason for this now becomes crystal clear, as he is desperate to get more Jews to immigrate. Bennett demanding this portfolio always seemed odd. The settlements are often the largest bone of contention between Israel and her Diaspora (amongst Jews who are engaged at least). Passing on this responsibility to the former general secretary of the Yesha council looks on the surface to be a recipe for disaster. This step helps us understand the real consequence of why this demand was made. What will be interesting to see is how Bennett attempts to bring Diaspora Jews to Israel and how their aliyah will be tied to step 7. Is the aim just to lock in the demographics regardless of where the Jews live or to get them to move to the West Bank and lock in the settlements? We will have to wait and see but watch to see where new job incentives will be made for new immigrants, as Bennett has the ability through Trade and Industry to create incentives where he chooses.

Step 7: One million Jews in Judea and Samaria, tripling its Jewish population

With the housing and trade ministries, Habayit Hayehudi can now start working on this. The proof will be in where the new low-income housing is built. Even if just restricted into the settlement blocs, if this plan is being followed the aim will be a massive increase in settlers. As with step 6, we will have to see if alyiah and settlement are linked. President Bush (41) conditioned the aid to help resettle the Russian Jews on them not being housed in the West Bank. One other important step to remember is that Bennett received the public diplomacy portfolio as well. Through this he can push the settlements into the official Israeli government narrative both at home and abroad.

Step 8: The creation of large residential areas surrounding the current communities of Judea and Samaria

Housing, Trade, Knesset Finance chair – between these three portfolios and a willing defense minister the sky is the limit on step 8. I predict the concept of settlement bloc will expand and large scale projects will begin to be planned as expansions in key areas. Even more so then Yaalon, Danny Danon is a particular fan of the Yesha council and he is Deputy Defense Minister.

Step 9: The execution of a construction, development and economic plan for the million residents of Judea and Samaria

Habayit Hayehudi has already indicated that they would rather release prisoners and transfer taxes to the PA than freeze settlement construction. Looking at this nine-step plan, it is easy to see why Bennett would rather give any other ‘confidence building measure’ than allow the slowing of the settler population. The one thing that the party cannot allow is a settlement freeze as it destroys the plan above.

All of this should be seen as nothing less than a strategic effort to kill the two-state solution. Keep in mind that Prime Minister Netanyahu just committed his new government to two states for two peoples in his joint press conference with President Obama on Wednesday. Looking at how this is planned out, it is clear that the only thing that could stop this from happening is freezing settlement construction. The sad fact is that a settlement freeze has already been tossed by the US administration as a failed attempt.

The Yesha council is very open about its aims, objectives and methods. If people want to do more than pay lip service to the idea of two-states, they must not only oppose the Yesha council at every turn of this plan but offer their own step by step approach to how to create a two-state reality today. Though it is the establishment opinion that two-states will happen, those opposing it literally are executing on a plan to kill it. Those of us who wish to see it come about must equally set out a plan and today start building facts on the ground to make it so.

What I Got Wrong

December 28, 2012 § 3 Comments

As 2012 comes to a close, I want to take a look back at the big things I got wrong this year. Crowing about what I got right is a lot more fun – and I don’t waste many opportunities to remind everyone that I was correct about an Iran strike – but it is also far less useful for me and for my readers, since it doesn’t allow me to recalibrate my thinking or give all of you a sense of when and why you should be ignoring me. I started this blog on March 13 of this year and this is my 276th post so I don’t have the time to comprehensively go through every single one, but after trying to go through the bulk of them, here are some of my biggest misfires from 2012.

Migron’s evacuation: On March 26, I wrote, “Yet, I’ll bet almost anything that Migron is not evacuated and demolished by August 1, and that Likud’s younger rightwing vanguard does everything in its power to make sure that the Migron decision is consigned to nothingness. The Knesset’s current coalition politics will not allow anything less, and Israel will continue to fight a losing battle to convince the world that it is blameless for the situation with the Palestinians and that it will be able to withdraw from part of the West Bank whenever the Palestinian leadership is interested in returning to the negotiating table.” 

While this was technically correct since Migron was still standing and fully populated on August 1, the idea behind it was wrong as Migron was evacuated by the first week in September. In this case, I did not give enough credit to the Israeli government and its willingness to carry out an unambiguous High Court decision.

Palestinian civil war: This one was a big misfire. On April 3, I wrote that Hamas and Fatah were on the brink of open armed conflict. My logic was that the Palestinian Authority moves to quash dissent in the West Bank were aimed at limiting Hamas’s ability to operate in Fatah’s stronghold, and that Hamas would do the same in Gaza in response and that eventually the entire tinder box would blow up. This has of course not happened, and I think I was too glib about just how drastic things would have to get for a civil war to take place.

Ehud Barak and Atzmaut: On May 3 I wrote that Barak and his party were going to make the threshold for getting into the next Knesset once elections happened. While this has not actually been proven wrong yet, Barak has decided not to run and Atzmaut is going to fold, so this prediction will be wrong quite soon. Let’s just all pretend that I did not write the following: “So despite the polls, remember that you read this prediction here first: Atzmaut is going to have seats in the next Knesset, will serve in the governing coalition, and Ehud Barak will continue as defense minister.”

Kadima staying in the coalition: On July 3, I predicted that the Likud-Kadima unity government was going to hold together despite the Plesner Committee – which was tasked with figuring out a solution to Haredi and Arab military exemptions –  being disbanded. When my prediction was proven incorrect, I wrote a long post taking stock of where I went wrong, so no need to rehash that again.

Turkey’s response to Operation Pillar of Cloud: On November 14, I wrote in The Atlantic that Turkey and Prime Minister Erdoğan were going to maintain a muted response to Israel’s Gaza operation because of the hypocrisy entailed in a more vocal response given Turkey’s tactics against the PKK. Here’s the relevant part:

But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.

Much like Israel’s fight against Hamas, Turkey’s fight with the PKK has not been without civilian collateral damage. Last December, the Turkish military carried out an airstrike in Uludere that killed 34 civilians who the military thought were PKK fighters attempting to cross the border into Turkey. Earlier this year, the government sealed off the Semdinli district in the Hakkari province for months while it fought the PKK, not letting any information out or any journalists in.

Turkey’s problem with PKK terrorism, combined with the inevitable civilian casualties that occur when fighting terrorist groups embedded amongst the general population, makes it harder this time around for Turkey to angrily denounce Israel as it once did. While I expected Turkey to issue a condemnation of Israeli actions, it is not surprising that it did not have the full force as it has in the past given the uncomfortable parallels that exist between Israel’s actions against Hamas and Turkey’s actions against the PKK.

Of everything that I’ve written this year, this is the prediction that was perhaps the one that was most off-base, as Erdoğan later blasted Israel repeatedly for days. My error here is pretty easy to identify, which is that I for whatever reason convinced myself that a desire to not look like a hypocrite was going to override the strong political incentives that existed for Erdoğan to continue foaming at the mouth any time Israel comes up, and to tie himself to the Palestinian cause at every opportunity. Rest assured my naiveté on this issue is done with.

So there you go. I am sure I’ve missed things, and if anyone knows what those are, please let me know in the comments. Happy New Year, and see you all back here in 2013.

Why Avigdor Lieberman’s Resignation Really Matters

December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

In an announcement that has long been anticipated, Israel’s attorney general yesterday said that Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman will be indicted for fraud and breach of trust stemming from his efforts to help former ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben Aryeh become ambassador to Latvia after Ben Aryeh leaked information to Lieberman about the government’s investigation into his dealings. While the breach of trust charge was not a surprise, the fraud charge was, and after saying that he was not going to resign, Lieberman just announced that he will be resigning as foreign minister although he remains as YB party chief and will be running in the elections on the joint Likud Beiteinu list.

When it looked like Lieberman was not going to resign yesterday, there was a lot of commentary on what the indictments would mean for him politically. Brent Sasley called the indictments a distraction and argued that it wouldn’t have much impact on the upcoming election or on Lieberman’s long term goal of eventually becoming prime minister, and I think this is right even after the news that he is stepping down from his cabinet post. Lieberman is still going to get a lot of votes for his party as part of the joint list with Likud, and I think he is also likely to return to his post as foreign minister, even possibly before the election should he work out a plea bargain in time. The short term impact of the indictment and resignation is going to be minimal, and for all of those hoping that Lieberman was going to disappear from public life, you are bound to be very disappointed. Nevertheless, there is an important way in which Lieberman’s indictment and his decision to (temporarily) vacate his FM post matters, but it isn’t about short term politics.

For much of Israel’s history, Israeli politics was dominated by great men who had accomplished substantial things. In some instances they were achievements to be proud of, such as Yitzhak Rabin commanding the IDF to victory in 1967 (at least when he wasn’t suffering a nervous breakdown) and then signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, and in other instances they were (to my mind, at least) not, such as decisions by multiple prime ministers to settle and then settle more the West Bank. Israeli leaders were known for their accomplishments, whether it be creating the institutions of the state, fighting wars against hostile enemies bent on Israel’s destruction, or carving out diplomatic space and cementing alliances. In some ways this was inevitable, as the founding fathers of any state are going to be more accomplished than those that come after them given the nature of the trial by fire that is involved. Yet, even the current generation of Israeli leaders includes seriously accomplished military officers like Ehud Barak, or those with a long history of real diplomatic experience such as Bibi Netanyahu, or people who have grappled with the administrative difficulties of running the world’s most complicated and sensitive city such as Ehud Olmert. Is there a serious drop off from Ben Gurion and Rabin to Netanyahu and Barak? Sure. But Avigdor Lieberman represents a crass and disturbing trend that makes the latter group look like veritably Jeffersonian.

Lieberman has no tangible accomplishments to speak of other than being a thuggish party hack. He went from being a student who stirred up tensions between Jews and Arabs at Hebrew University to being a bouncer to being a Likud functionary beholden to Netanyahu. He has become the leader of his party not because of any substantial accomplishments but because of his Russian background. He has been an embarrassment as foreign minister who has complicated Israel’s relations with a number of countries, contributed to the Palestinian Authority’s losing ground to Hamas, and is frequently sidelined by his own government when it comes to carrying out important diplomacy with the United States that cannot be left in his untrustworthy hands. He has gotten to where he is solely because it has become politically beneficial for Netanyahu to cynically rely on him for political cover and because his party is a solid bloc of reliable Knesset votes. I cannot envision a situation in which anyone turns to Lieberman for real advice on issues of diplomacy or security, or where they feel that his sage counsel is necessary. He is the embodiment of everything that is currently wrong with Israeli politics, from his lack of any tact or moderation to his trail of corrupt and unsavory behavior. My fervent wish is that his resigning as foreign minister in the wake of this indictment will cast a new light on him, and that Netanyahu and the Israeli political class realize how much better off Israel is without Lieberman as its face to the world, even if the hiatus is a temporary one. The more that someone like Lieberman – who, let me be clear, I am going after not because of his political views but because of his utter mediocrity – is marginalized rather than elevated to senior cabinet level posts, the better off Israel will be.

The National Security Impact Of The Likud Primary

November 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

On Sunday and Monday, Likud party members got to vote in the Likud primary and choose the list that will stand for Knesset elections in January, and what emerged was the most rightwing Likud in the party’s history. The Likud list is a catalogue of the most strident and hardline voices in the party, with Danny Danon in the 6th spot, Zeev Elkin in 9th, Yariv Levin in 10th, Tzipi Hotovely in 13th, and Moshe Feiglin – who is Bibi Netanyahu’s main intra-party challenger from his right and is not even currently an MK – in 15th. Regular O&Z readers will recognize all of these names, as their exploits make regular appearances on this blog, but in case you need a refresher, Noam Sheizaf has a rundown of their greatest hits. In addition, because of the deal with Yisrael Beiteinu that created the joint list with Likud, it is unlikely that anyone lower than 20th on the list is going to make it into the Knesset, which means that Likud princes and moderates such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Mickey Eitan are going to lose their jobs as MKs. To get a sense of just how remarkable this is, not only are Begin and Meridor currently Knesset members, they are both ministers and members of the nine person security cabinet, and yet Likud voters just unceremoniously showed them the door. This is not just a changing of the guard from the old to the new, but a serious step to the right. If there was any doubt left that Likud is first and foremost a settler party, it has just been erased.

Plenty of people will spend the next couple of days bemoaning the state of Israeli politics and noting that a Likud government in which someone like Danny Danon might actually be a minister is going to double down on settlements and treat the peace process like a relic from a bygone era. This is all true, and in my humble opinion it’s a terrible development for Israel, but I am not here to state the glaringly obvious. Instead, I’d like to think through the impact of the new Likud makeup on Israel’s defense policy outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The immediate result is going to be the involuntary hiatus of Ehud Barak, who announced yesterday that he was quitting politics and would not stand for election in January. While I found the timing of this announcement strange given that Barak’s Atzmaut party, which had been polling at zero Knesset seats, had rebounded in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud and was looking like it might return to the Knesset with the same five seats it currently has, a couple of smart observers of Israeli politics have convinced me that perhaps it makes sense given the humiliation involved for a former PM barely crossing the Knesset threshold. Amir Mizroch and Robert Danin argue that in resigning, Barak is actually plotting a course to remain as defense minister since he will be viewed as the indispensable general whom Netanyahu will have no choice but to reappoint, and the fact that he is not a member of Knesset will free from him any political constraints. I think it’s quite plausible that this was Barak’s plan yesterday morning and that he may even have been able to pull it off, but he did not count on the events of the afternoon and evening. MKs like Danon and Elkin absolutely detest Barak with every fiber of their being because they have long viewed him as the primary hurdle standing between them and unfettered settlement growth, and now that they essentially control the party, Netanyahu is not going to have the political space to keep Barak as his defense minister. Doing so will cause a riot within Likud and open Netanyahu up to a serious challenge from Feiglin or from his old nemesis (and Washington Generals-type foil) Silvan Shalom, and Bibi is not going to risk that. Instead, I think the Likud primary has guaranteed that Bogie Ya’alon becomes the next defense minister, which also puts him in the pole position to be the next Likud leader once Netanyahu decides to leave the scene.

Aside from silencing Barak and removing his all-encompassing control of Israeli defense policy, I think the new Likud list also makes an Israeli strike on Iran a lot more likely. I have been continuously arguing that one of the primary constraints on an Israeli strike is the makeup of the security cabinet, where four out of the nine members have been unwaveringly opposed to unilateral military action against Iran. Two out of those four are Begin and Meridor, who are now going to be out of the group, and they will almost certainly be replaced by ministers who are more hawkish. The third of the four is Ya’alon, who badly wants to be defense minister and who knows that the post is a potential stepping stone to eventually becoming prime minister. The fact that the defense portfolio is now going to be open might be enough incentive for him to quietly acquiesce to Netanyahu’s plans on Iran in order to get the appointment that he seeks, in which case the security cabinet flips from being divided down the middle to being nearly unanimous in favor of a strike. That does not make a war with Iran a fait accompli, but it does bring the possibility ever closer. One month ago in arguing that the Netanyahu-Lieberman deal was not going to affect the Iran calculus, I noted that “the math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised.” As it turns out, the result of this week’s Likud primary means that the math has now changed, and the impact on Israeli defense policy might be even greater than the impact on Israeli domestic politics.

 

The Big Picture In Gaza

November 19, 2012 § 7 Comments

Since my focus last week was mostly on the particulars of the fighting between Israel and Hamas, I thought I’d try and take a step back and look at some of the larger issues at play here, both present and future. Today’s post is really three condensed into one, and I might expand on some or all of these at length later this week, but it is useful for me to think out loud a bit here and assess what I have been right about, what I have been wrong about, and try and figure out where this whole thing will lead.

First up is Turkey. I noted Turkey’s initial silence over Operation Pillar of Cloud last week, and argued that we should expect to see a tempered response from Turkey and one that is driven by Egypt more than anything else going forward. It looks like one of those predictions was correct, and it wasn’t the one about a tempered response. It took him a couple of days, but Prime Minister Erdoğan opened up on Israel with both barrels on Friday, calling Israel barbaric, accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu of bombing Gaza for “fabricated reasons,” and bringing back his old charge that Israel knows how to kill children very well. As I wrote last week, I expected a Turkish response but I thought it would be a quieter one. I think my analysis was actually correct – and let me reiterate that it took Erdoğan two days to say a thing, which is as out of character as it gets – but what I wasn’t thinking about was that at some point Erdoğan was going to feel the need to respond in a forceful way. Domestic politics and Turkey’s past statements on Israel weren’t going to let Erdoğan just sit this out, and I was too focused on the immediate short term rather than on the pressures that were going to build up the longer this went on. Nevertheless, Erdoğan so far has been deferring to Morsi and the Egyptians, and is sending Ahmet Davutoğlu to Gaza on Tuesday (in contrast to Morsi sending Egyptian PM Hesham Qandil last Friday) with a group of Arab foreign ministers. The point is that despite Erdoğan’s verbal bombast, which I should have anticipated, Turkey is not at all out front on this but is content to be following the crowd, and that is significant.

Next topic is what this whole mess does to the prospects of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. I have argued for awhile that opposition from the cabinet, the IDF, and the Israeli public meant that a strike on Iran was not going to happen. I think this might now change for two reasons. First, the rockets from Gaza underscore the threat of missile attacks on Israel, and this is only enhanced by the fact that Hamas has obviously been supplied by Iran with Fajr-5 missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv. If Iran is giving Fajr-5 missiles to Hamas, many Israelis are going to ask themselves whether the assumption that Iran would never supply Hamas with a nuclear missile is perhaps wishful thinking. It was much easier to not feel it necessary to launch a preemptive strike on Iran when there weren’t Iranian missiles being launched at Israeli cities, and my hunch is that the Iranian component to this is going to make Israelis more hawkish on the subject and think about how crowding in stairwells and bomb shelters is one thing for poorly made rockets and a whole different can of worms for Iranian nuclear missiles. Second, when it comes to the security cabinet and the IDF top brass in particular, the reporting on the subject has left the distinct impression that many of the generals and perhaps Ehud Barak as well believe that Iran is rational in the sense of being deterrable and that Iran would never nuke Israel. The problem now is that Hamas is being pounded by the IDF and from a rational deterrence perspective should have ceased firing rockets long ago, but clearly hasn’t got that message. The people who argue that extreme anti-Israel Islamist groups, irrespective of whether they are Sunni Palestinian nationalists or Shia Islamic revolutionaries, are irrational now have a pretty big datapoint in their favor and will be making their argument loudly and often, and I’d think this will have some effect on the upper echelons of the Israeli security establishment. My own view is that there are significant differences between Hamas and Iran that make a parallel comparison inapt, but the point is not what I think but what many Israelis will think after having gone through the experience of air raid sirens and rockets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Don’t be surprised to see public opinion polls on a unilateral Israeli strike shift in the months ahead.

Saving the most important point for last, there is the question of what Israel hopes to gain long term from the current war with Hamas. The Israelis talk a lot about reestablishing deterrence, although it is certainly an open question whether deterrence in this case is long gone. Jeffrey Goldberg asked on Friday what Israel’s long term strategy is here and argued that there is no way out militarily and that the only viable path is for Israel to demonstrate that it is serious about a two state solution. As it happens, I agree with this completely, but I also recognize that plenty of people find this argument to be naive. After all, Israel has withdrawn from Lebanon and from Gaza, and been met both times with rockets from Hizballah and Hamas. Furthermore, Hamas’s stated goal is not a two state solution but the elimination of Israel, and thus settlements are really ancillary to the picture when it comes to Hamas. These are facts that are tough to get around, particularly in one blog post, so let me reframe this another way. In the last four decades, Israel went from dealing mainly with plane hijackings and stone throwing, to suicide bombs on buses and in pizzerias and hotels, to a constant stream of hundreds of rockets a year on southern Israel and now on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well. Over that same period, Israel went from dealing with a stateless and non-governmental Palestine Liberation Organization to a quasi-governmental Palestinian Authority with autonomy over certain areas of the West Bank to a terrorist Hamas controlling Gaza in its entirety, and despite the current military operation Israel is desperately hoping that Hamas does not fall because it is viewed as far more pragmatic than the other fanatical Islamist groups operating in Gaza. Despite Israel’s massive military advantage, by any measure this is not a track record of long term success. It is rather a record of abysmal and abject failure. As awful as Hamas and rocket attacks are, the thrust of recent history suggests that whatever comes next will be that much worse. A new approach is needed that focuses on a political solution rather than a military one and anyone arguing otherwise is being willfully blind to the limits of what the IDF can reasonably accomplish.

I Don’t Think This Is About Iran, Redux

October 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

Building on my initial reaction yesterday to the new Likud Beiteinu party created by Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, I have one more important point to add about why I think this deal happened. It seems to me that this was about domestic politics, plain and simple. Netanyahu was nervous about polls showing Likud’s vote share slipping and Labor’s rising, and Lieberman wanted to position himself to head his former party and not have Yisrael Beiteinu suffer the fate of so many other parties like Shinui or what is about to happen to Kadima. This way the two men were able to create the perception of a strong rightwing party that will be able to withstand any challengers and give an air of inevitability to Netanyahu remaining as prime minister and Likud Beiteinu creating the next governing coalition.

Aluf Benn thinks that something else is at work though, which is the creation of a war cabinet to strike Iran. He writes, “The merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party will dissolve any domestic opposition to the war, since after the election, Netanyahu will be able to argue that he received a mandate from the people to act as he sees fit. Ministers and top defense officials will have a hard time arguing with him. From now on, only American opposition is liable to delay, or even prevent, a command to the Israel Air Force to take off for Iran.” He adds that Ehud Barak, Benny Begin, and Dan Meridor will be marginalized or pushed out completely and that Lieberman will push the cabinet into radical foreign policy positions that Netanyahu will no longer be able to disavow.

This analysis is plausible on its face, but I think there are a few problems with it. First, it’s not enough to just declare absent compelling evidence that every move Netanyahu makes is with the intent of striking Iran. Plenty of people said the same thing when Netanyahu made the deal with Kadima despite the fact that Mofaz had been on record as opposing a strike, and obviously the short-lived unity government did not make any moves on the Iran front. Bibi’s obsession with Iran is well documented, but he has other concerns as well, such as political survival and consolidating his position, and this seems so clearly aimed at doing just those things that I don’t see why the simplest explanation here is not the right one.

Second, looking at what Benn actually argues, I don’t think it is correct to assert de novo that this gives Netanyahu a mandate for anything. For that to occur, the new LB party has to win an unusually large number of seats and Netanyahu has to campaign specifically and primarily on the Iran issue. Netanyahu is probably counting on about 45 seats, which is roughly what you get from adding up where Likud and YB were in public opinion polls, but I think there is a significant chance that the number is less than that. Lieberman is a polarizing figure, to say the least, and he could easily scare away some Mizrachi and more religious Likud voters. It is also possible that Russian YB voters who were mainly voting for the party based on its advocacy for Russian olim will be disenchanted and feel that Lieberman has sold out their core interest in the pursuit of greater personal power. If that happens, then Netanyahu’s alleged mandate is not going to be quite as strong as Benn predicts, and I don’t quite understand why ministers and generals would have a hard time opposing him. Even if he does get 45 seats, that doesn’t seem like it will all of a sudden cow Likud members like Meridor, Begin, and Bogie Ya’alon into reversing their positions, or convince the IDF leadership that their reservations on Iran have been wrong.

Third, there is the fact that, like Mofaz before him, Lieberman is not necessarily an Iran hawk. The reports are that he originally opposed a strike and was then convinced to change his position, but it’s obviously not on the top of his agenda. Lieberman cares much more about undermining the Palestinan Authority and taking a hard line on peace process issues and territorial concessions, so if there is any foreign affairs implication from yesterday’s announcement, it is that the two state solution is now even more endangered. Lieberman is going to take many radical positions; of that I have no doubt. The question is whether those positions will have anything to do with Iran, and I’m not sure that they will. He may support a strike, but he is not going to be strongly and constantly advocating one. The math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised. One also must consider who the rest of the coalition is going to include, since 45 seats still means that Netanyahu is going to have to rope in Shas, where Eli Yishai is opposed to a strike, or one of the center or left parties, and Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, and Shelley Yachimovich are certainly not guaranteed to vote the way Netanyahu wants on Iran.

In looking at yesterday’s merger, does it strengthen Netanyahu’s hand by giving him a larger number of seats? Yup, it does. But he still has to contend with opposition in Likud, opposition in the IDF, opposition from other potential coalition partners, and opposition from the public. In short, aside from making generalizations about the prime minister’s increased clout and murky electoral mandates, I don’t see how this makes a strike on Iran a foregone conclusion by any means.

To Bibi, Or Not To Bibi

October 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

As anyone who watched the vice-presidential debate on Thursday night may have noticed – and as I noted myself on Friday – Joe Biden repeatedly brought up Prime Minister Netanyahu but always referred to him by his nickname, Bibi. On Friday I wrote, “I get that Biden was trying to push how well he knows Netanyahu and that informality is part of Biden’s natural shtick, but can you imagine Biden talking about any other foreign leader in such an informal manner? Not sure if this says more about Biden, Netanyahu, or the U.S.-Israel relationship more broadly, but it’s worth thinking about.”

I actually did spend some time thinking about it for The Atlantic, and here’s what I came up with:

When the subject of Iran’s nuclear program came up during last night’s vice presidential debate, Joe Biden began talking about his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Biden likes to play up his long-standing connections with foreign leaders, so mentioning Netanyahu by name was not in itself surprising. The odd part is that Biden never referred to Netanyahu in any way but “Bibi,” which is Netanyahu’s often-used nickname.

While Netanyahu is referred to as Bibi in a number of settings (in line with Israelis’ proclivity toward nicknames, especially in the military), Biden’s use of his friend’s nickname stood out in a formal political debate. Even more noticeable is that Biden initially referred to “Bibi” without even providing his last name or his position as prime minister of Israel. It is impossible to imagine this happening with any other world leader, but Biden did it repeatedly and with ease when it came to Netanyahu.

It is easy to chalk this up to Biden’s generally informal nature, or his desire to create a contrast between his own decades of foreign policy experience and Ryan’s relative dearth of foreign policy chops. Yet even if Biden did so unintentionally, there are some lessons to be learned from the vice president’s colloquialism about Netanyahu and the current state of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The rest of the article can be found on The Atlantic’s website here, and as always please let me know what you think.

When Rifts And Backstabbing Are Afoot, It Must Be Election Season

October 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

Days like today are my favorite kind here at O&Z, when the symmetry of politics in Israel and Turkey allows me to write one blog post that covers both countries simultaneously and satisfy all of my blog constituencies at once. Over the last 48 hours or so the prospect of elections in Israel and Turkey have caused rifts at the top of both countries with fighting and accusations of perfidy, some subtle and some decidedly unsubtle, between top government officials. Genuine friendships and relationships of convenience are both nearing the breaking point, which just goes to show you that democratic politics can be both beautiful and ugly at the same time.

Let’s start with Israel, where the Netanyahu-Barak bromance is now officially over and the fighting is out in the open in a very public and nasty way. Yesterday Netanyahu accused Barak of attempting to sabotage U.S.-Israel relations even further for the purpose of then coming across as the reasonable moderate who could repair damaged ties, a charge that Barak promptly denied (shameless plug #1: if you read O&Z last week, this news will not have surprised you). Amir Mizroch does his usual good job of summing up the situation but the upshot is that I don’t see how these two can continue to work together. I am sure that Barak did indeed try to throw Bibi under the bus while he was doing his tour around the U.S. and I am also sure that Netanyahu is busy trashing Barak behind the scenes to his friends in Likud. Barak is pretty clearly flailing around here in an attempt to increase his vote share before the elections and is just hoping that something will stick, whether it be his potshots at Avigdor Lieberman or his rapid backing away from Netanyahu. Given how little of a threat that Barak poses from a political standpoint, I’m not quite sure why Netanyahu is even engaging him rather than just ignoring him since I don’t see any potential upside for Bibi in getting dragged down into a brawl in the mud. In any event, like I wrote last week, I will be surprised if Barak finishes out his term as defense minister (and friend of O&Z Dov Friedman has one-upped me by predicting that Barak will be fired rather than quit). I should also reiterate that unless this is part of history’s most elaborate and well-executed long con, a strike on Iran is simply not in the cards right now. If it were, there would be zero public daylight between Netanyahu and Barak rather than all too public sniping.

Moving along to Turkey, the impending inaugural direct election for president is causing some interesting backstabbing as well, but in a much less public way that requires some reading between the lines. Prime Minister Erdoğan is widely believed to covet the top post, which will be infused with newfound power after the AKP replaces the current Turkish constitution with a new version, but current president Abdullah Gül has little desire to vacate the spot. Erdoğan is banking on the fact that he remains a popular figure credited with leading Turkey during a time of unprecedented economic growth and global prestige, but he also knows that he needs a way to sideline Gül so that Gül won’t stick around as prime minister. In this vein, he has been promoting his erstwhile ally (and new AKP member) Numan Kurtulmuş, adding him to the party’s Central Decision and Executive Council and is likely to name him deputy chairman as well (shameless plug #2: if you have been reading O&Z for the past few months, this news will not have surprised you). Gül, however, is showing signs that he will not be pushed aside so easily. In his opening address to parliament this week, Gül implicitly criticized Erdoğan without mentioning him by name in castigating the government on the imprisonment of elected BDP deputies, calling for more joint positions and joint contributions across political party lines (which is squarely aimed at what is taking place during the constitutional drafting process), and then taking a clear shot across the bow on the issue of press freedoms:

The reputation of a country grows when its writers, thinkers, opinion leaders are able to share their views without fear. In the same way, it is fundamental that journalists, newsmen and members of the media as a whole should face no obstacle in fulfilling their responsibility for informing the public. No one should be imprisoned because of expressing their views through the media. A clear distinction must be observed between those who incite violence and those who express an opinion.

This is the opening salvo in what I expect will be some more overt tension to come between Erdoğan and Gül. Turkey’s constitution is going to provide for a newly powerful president, and one of these two men is going to get the job. This relationship is a genuine one though of friendship and mutual respect, unlike the one between Netanyahu and Barak, and so the question that remains to be seen is how nasty things are going to get when all is said and done.

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