August 12, 2014 § 3 Comments
My friend Jordan Hirsch and I (follow him on Twitter @jordanchirsch if you aren’t already for brilliant commentary on a whole host of topics) argue in Foreign Affairs that the recent fighting in Gaza proves the wisdom of the 2005 disengagement, and that Israel needs to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank as well. The article can be found here and here’s the opening salvo.
As the latest battle between Israel and Hamas in Gaza wears on, there are two schools of thought — one on the right and one on the left — about what Israel should do next.
The first take, on the right, is that renewed fighting in Gaza proves that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was a mistake. According to this view, the withdrawal empowered Hamas, inviting rockets from above and tunneling terrorists from below, while earning Israel no international credit for having ended its occupation of the coastal strip. That pattern, the thinking goes, would repeat itself should Israel disengage from the West Bank. For that reason, any pullout now would be dangerously misguided.
The second argument, on the left, is that Israel’s mistake was not that it disengaged from Gaza, but that it did not sufficiently support the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, thereafter. By failing to reward Abbas’ nonviolent resistance, this theory suggests, Israel robbed Palestinians of the hope that anything but Hamas’ rockets could achieve their aims. The best means of countering Hamas in Gaza, then, is to present an alternative in the West Bank and immediately return to negotiations with Abbas to demonstrate the efficacy of a nonviolent approach.
Both positions are understandable. Israel has fought a string of wars with Hamas since leaving Gaza in 2005, each more threatening to its civilians than the last. For that reason, maintaining some control in the West Bank seems to be the most sensible option. On the other hand, those hoping for more Israeli support for the PA would like Israel to bolster the notion that Palestinians can succeed without resorting to armed resistance. Yet closer examination reveals that neither of these positions is tenable. And, in fact, there is a third option. Israel correctly, if not faultlessly, disengaged from Gaza. And now, to protect itself in the long run, it must do so again from the West Bank. Israel must abandon the peace process in order to save the two-state solution.
Read the rest here at Foreign Affairs.
July 31, 2014 § 60 Comments
I’ve been purposely keeping quiet as Operation Protective Edge rages on, which for someone who writes about Israel seems like a counterproductive move. The problem is, I have seen very little to convince me that writing anything will actually be productive in a real sense because everyone is living in a bubble. I have rarely been so disheartened by anything as much as I have by reading what friends and acquaintances are expressing as Israel and Hamas go at each other. My Facebook feed is a good illustration of this, being split between very different demographics.
On group is comprised of lots of Jewish friends from growing up in New York in an Orthodox community, attending Jewish day schools, currently living in a place with a large and engaged Jewish community, etc. and nearly all of them subscribe to the view that Israel is entirely blameless for its current predicament, the IDF is the most moral army in the world, and that Palestinians of every stripe are ceaselessly working toward Israel’s destruction. Among this well-intentioned group (and I am not saying that sarcastically or facetiously) there is a smaller subset of people who express extreme and odious views. Some examples from the past couple of days have been friends ruminating that perhaps Meir Kahane was right and shouldn’t have been demonized; a refusal to refer to Palestinians or use any word that has Palestine as a root and to instead only refer to Gazans or pro-Gazan rallies “because Palestinian is a made up word;” a conviction that the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas and so deserve anything that happens to them as a result; and deep concern over the fact that there is an Islamic center in the neighborhood which might present a physical danger because any and all Muslims are presumed to hate Jews.
Another group is comprised of very liberal friends from various educational stops and Turkish friends and colleagues, and nearly all of them subscribe to the view that Israel is the party most at fault for the fighting in Gaza, the IDF does not take any care at all to avoid civilians, Netanyahu is a liar who used the kidnapping and murder of the three Israelis as an excuse to execute a war that he had been planning all along, and that Israel intends to subjugate the Palestinians forever. Among this well-intentioned group (and again, I am not saying it sarcastically or facetiously), there is a smaller subset of people whose views are more extreme and odious. Some examples are that Israel is committing genocide; Israeli behavior is no different than that of Nazi Germany; and that Hamas is not in any way a terrorist group and is not even targeting civilians but is instead intentionally only using WWII-era rockets that it knows will fall into empty fields. Amidst all of this, I just throw up my hands in despair. I mean it when I call these friends and acquaintances well-intentioned; the first group is genuinely and legitimately concerned with Israel’s safety and survival and is terrified by the anti-Semitic outbursts and attacks around the world under the cover of the Palestinian cause and sees no other rational response to the nihilistic and eliminationist rhetoric from Hamas but IDF operations in Gaza, while the second group genuinely cannot abide to see hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed and images of dead children on the beach and blames the Israelis for bringing a tank to a knife fight and using it in ways that cause indiscriminate death despite Israeli civilians being relatively safe from Hamas rocket fire. Neither group is going to ever come over the other side or change its views, but that is to be expected. The despair comes from the fact that neither group even empathizes with the other side or remotely understands how someone can possibly arrive at a position different from its own. There is barely any acknowledgement that there are two sides to every story and that, without creating a false moral equivalence, there is indeed some gray involved here. It is cliche to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict creating polarization, but never have I seen it worse than this. So I have kept my mouth shut and hoped that the fighting will end and everyone can go back to posting pictures of their kids and videos of baby animals.
Nevertheless, there is a point that I am itching to make, which is that this deep ideological bubble that so many are in leads to unrealistic expectations on all sides, because everybody wants to deal with a world that they want rather than the world as it is. Possibly my all-time favorite quote is the Pat Moynihan line that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts, and there is a worrisome trend going on of people ignoring reality in favor of ideology and attempting to make policy as if the world can be bended to their will, or suggesting that either Israel or Hamas act in a certain way that disregards facts on the ground.
One example of wishing for a reality that doesn’t exist is the hope of many of Israel’s supporters that the world will all of a sudden wake up to the fact that Hamas hides behind hospitals and schools and thus forgive Israel for piling up the Palestinian civilian casualty count. The fact that Hamas noxiously puts civilians in harm’s way knowing that its actions will inevitably lead to their deaths is revolting and should be called out by anyone and everyone. Yet, pictures of dead children and leveled neighborhoods are always going to blow back in Israel’s face no matter how many Hamas bunkers or strongholds are contained under the rubble. The Israeli government keeps repeating the same talking points about civilian shield ad infinitum as if it expects to convince anyone rather than just preach to the choir. I wish this weren’t the case, but it is, and the longer the fighting goes on, the worse off Israel is going to be, whether it be Israel’s rejuvenation of Hamas (a subject for another post, but yes, that is precisely what Israel has done) or the inevitable Goldstone Report redux and the eventual imposition of EU sanctions (which believe me are coming). None of this is to excuse Hamas’s disgusting and criminal behavior in any way, but just to recognize what the world sees in Gaza, which is dead women and children and UN schools being shelled rather than command bunkers under hospitals and UN schools being used as rocket storage depots.
Another is this meme that Hamas’s problem is solely with the occupation, and that if Israel were to end the blockade, then Hamas would leave the Israelis alone. Hamas does not like Jews and is anti-Israel, not anti-occupation. Anyone who can’t see that sorely needs to examine their internal analytical process. Does Hamas want to get rid of the occupation? Yup. Is it true that Hamas did not shoot any rockets at Israel from the 2012 ceasefire until just before Protective Edge? Yup. Also true is that Hamas’s charter calls for the destruction of Israel in its entirely, Hamas political leaders repeatedly call for the same thing while inciting against Jews (not just “Zionists”), and Hamas build a huge network of tunnels into Israel for the purpose of kidnapping and killing civilians while it was respecting the ceasefire with regard to rockets, so one has to be willfully blind or colossally stupid to argue that its intentions were benign until Israel provoked it. I don’t doubt that Hamas is capable of an actual ceasefire, and I think that under certain circumstances it could abide by a longterm truce, but nothing that Hamas has said or done points to it quietly going away if Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to sign a final status agreement ending the occupation.
A third example of not accepting the world as it is can be seen in the debate on the role of Turkey and Qatar in any ceasefire. I wrote three weeks ago that I thought any ceasefire would have to include Turkey and/or Qatar, not because I think that either of them have been responsible foreign policy actors – in fact, they have been the opposite – but because of the simple reality that unlike in 2012, Hamas has an acrimonious relationship with the current Egyptian government to say the least, and will not agree to a ceasefire entirely brokered by parties it does not trust and with whom it has no relationship. Jonathan Schanzer and David Weinberg – both super smart and insightful analysts who do not fall under the category of ignoring reality or substituting opinions for facts – argue that Turkey and Qatar need to be kept out because otherwise it will create the moral hazard of rewarding the two countries that have sponsored Hamas terrorism. I am sympathetic to this argument, and they are right; Qatar shouldn’t be rewarded for funneling money to Hamas and providing a home for Hamas’s leadership in Doha, and Turkey shouldn’t be rewarded for harboring the Hamas leader behind the kidnapping strategy or constantly undermining Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority in order to burnish Hamas’s position. Nevertheless, the problem comes from a line that Schanzer and Weinberg themselves write, which is, “A cease-fire is obviously desirable, but not if the cost is honoring terror sponsors. There must be others who can mediate.” I’m not sure in fact that there are others who can mediate, as evidenced by the disaster of a few weeks ago when Egypt was involved. If someone can point me to another potential Hamas interlocutor, then great, but so far no one has. Any deal will have to involve the U.S. and Egypt, but Turkey or Qatar as well, and that’s just the reality of things. I wish it weren’t so, but it is, and ignoring the basic structure of the players involved won’t get Israel and Gaza any closer to a ceasefire. John Kerry’s mistake last weekend wasn’t that he involved Turkey and Qatar in the process, but that he did so to the exclusion of Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority. It’s the mirror image mistake of the original ceasefire attempt, and thus was just as doomed to fail.
Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, there is the idea taking hold on the right that if given just enough time to keep fighting, Israel can end Hamas rule in Gaza. The fact is that there is no military solution to dealing with Hamas – as opposed to mitigating its military effectiveness – and the only way to neutralize Hamas is through political means. Hamas is in control of Gaza and not going anywhere. Fatah is extraordinarily weak there, and there is no other credible party with enough strength to take over. Israel could go into Gaza and completely reoccupy it and it wouldn’t matter, because the second Israel left Hamas would resume control. Israel made this mistake before in 1982 when it went into Lebanon based on the fantasy of destroying the PLO once and for all. All that happened was the PLO got kicked out of Lebanon and regrouped in Tunis, and Israel ended up permanently damaging its own credibility and public image. The Israeli government seems smart enough to know this and a reoccupation of Gaza is not imminent, but it’s a fantasy to think that Israel can hammer Hamas for a few more weeks and then somehow install Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza. The military component is necessary for an eventual political component, but without that second part, Israel will just be fighting in Gaza again in two or three years. For some people that might be fine, but every time it happens, Israel emerges damaged and one step closer to genuine isolation. The quicker that everyone realizes that a political solution is the only long-term one, the better everyone will be. Let’s deal with the world as it is, not the world as we want it.
July 18, 2014 § 9 Comments
If Prime Minister Erdoğan is to be taken at his word, we can officially declare Israeli-Turkish rapprochement dead. Speaking this morning, Erdoğan announced that under no circumstances will Turkey’s relationship with Israel improve as long as he is in power – which after the presidential elections next month, will be for a long time – and that the West can protest all it likes to no avail. Erdoğan also accused Israel of committing genocide and of knowing best how to kill children, which was a repeat performance from yesterday when he alleged that Israel has been committing systematic genocide against Palestinians during every Ramadan since 1948. This comes after more delightful outbursts earlier this week, during which Erdoğan claimed that there have been no rockets fired into Israel since there have been no Israeli deaths and compared Israeli MK Ayelet Shaked to Hitler, among other things.
Never one to be left out of the action, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu accused Israel of crimes against humanity and revealed that he has never taken Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman seriously (although to be fair, that last point bolsters the case for Davutoğlu’s good sense). Ankara’s mayor Melih Gökçek, fresh off the heels of tweeting out pro-Hitler sentiments, urged his government yesterday to shut down the Israeli embassy in Ankara, referring to it as “the despicable murderers’ consulate” and stating that “they are 100 times more murderous than Hitler.” Not to be outdone, Bülent Yıldırım, the odious head of the “humanitarian relief NGO” IHH – the same NGO that organized the Mavi Marmara flotilla – warned Jewish tourists (yes, he said Jewish rather than Israeli, and yes, that was deliberate on his part) not to show their faces in Turkey and threatened Turkish Jews that they would pay dearly for Israel’s actions in Gaza.
While Yıldırım may have come to the conclusion of collective Jewish guilt on his own, he also could have been influenced by Yeni Akit reporter Faruk Köse. Köse wrote an open letter in his newspaper on Tuesday to the chief rabbi of Turkey in which the phrase “Siyonist/Yahudi Terör Üssü” – which translates to Zionist/Jewish terror base and is his oh-so-clever term for Israel – appeared seven times while he demanded that the rabbi and his flock apologize for Gaza because Turkey’s Jews have lived among Turks for 500 years and gotten rich off them and now support the terrorist Israeli state. Or perhaps Yıldırım is a dedicated reader of Daily Sabah, the English language AKP propaganda organ where Melih Altınok argued yesterday that not only Turkish Jews but Jews everywhere need to, in his words, “make a historic gesture” and denounce Israel publicly. According to his logic, Israel’s actions are solely responsible for increasing anti-Semitism in the world, and “hence, nationalist Jews as well as the humanist and anti-war Jews have to calculate the situation” and do what is necessary in order to stem the inevitable backlash against them. Lovely, no?
What a surprise and shock it must have been then when last night, mobs that included MPs from the AKP attacked the Israeli embassy in Ankara and consulate in Istanbul, leading Israel to reduce its diplomatic staff in the country and to send the families of diplomatic staff home. The police in Ankara, who are never hesitant to break out the tear gas, truncheons, and water cannons against Turkish civilians protesting things like government corruption, were mysteriously somehow powerless this time as they stood on the sidelines and watched. Of course, there can’t possibly be a connection between the rhetoric of high government officials lambasting Israel as a genocidal terror state and mobs attacking Israel’s diplomatic missions and chanting for murder, right? This is clearly all a misunderstanding and emanates not from Erdoğan using ugly and hateful tactics to improve his political standing but completely and entirely from Israel’s actions. Now please excuse me while I go wash off the sarcasm dripping from my keyboard.
I understand why Turks are upset about the images and news reports coming out of Gaza. Just as Diaspora Jews feel a deep sense of kinship and brotherhood with their Jewish brethren in Israel, there is a genuine sense of pan-Muslim solidarity between Turks and Palestinians. While I believe that Israel tries in good faith to minimize civilian casualties, not only do mistakes happen but sometimes Israel makes intentional decisions – like every other country in the history of the world that has ever fought a war – that it knows will lead to civilian deaths. I get the anger and frustration, and I see it personally from Turkish friends on my Facebook feed and my Twitter stream, who are furious with Israel not because they are Jew-hating anti-Semites but because they deplore the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza, which they see as disproportionate and excessive. And it isn’t just the AKP; anger at Israel is widespread among all segments of the population, as evidenced by the multiple leftist Gaza solidarity rallies taking place in Turkey today and by joint CHP/MHP presidential candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu bashing Israel’s actions in Gaza and the CHP generally trying to score points over the last few days by absurdly trying to paint the AKP as in bed with Israel and complicit with its actions. Israel isn’t exactly popular in Turkey, to make the understatement of the decade, and to expect Turkish politicians to hold their tongues completely or to support Israel’s actions in Gaza is unreasonably naive.
But there is a world of difference between criticizing Israel out of a deeply held difference of opinion versus comparing Israelis to Hitler, equating Israel with Nazi Germany, throwing around the term genocide, openly advocating violence against Israeli nationals and property, and threatening Jews over Israel’s behavior. It is completely beyond the pale, and anyone who cares a lick about liberal values should be denouncing it loud and clear without qualification. Erdoğan is appealing to the darkest forces imaginable in order to win a presidential election and bolster his laughably pathetic standing in the Arab world, and let’s not forget that he said straight out today that he will never normalize or even improve relations with Israel while he is in office. He has dropped the charade that this has anything to do with the Mavi Marmara or even a set of fulfillable demands that Israel is not meeting, so let’s all remember that the next time someone blames Israel for the impasse in the bilateral relationship. Erdoğan is anti-Israel because he does not like Israel, full stop. If Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza, stopped responding to Hamas rockets with missiles, ended the blockade, and awarded Khaled Meshaal the Israel Prize, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu would just find some other reason not to normalize relations. Yes, the situation in Gaza undoubtedly plays a big role in all of this – just look at Israeli-Turkish relations under the Erdoğan government between 2002 and 2008, which were cordial and cooperative – but it’s about more than that at this point. Erdoğan and the AKP have gone too far down the garden path of anti-Israel rhetoric at this point to ever turn back.
July 16, 2014 § 1 Comment
There was a strong expectation in Israel yesterday once the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire terms were announced that Hamas was going to accept the deal. Even after Hamas rejected the terms and launched 80 more rockets at Israel yesterday morning, some prominent voices, such as former Israel national security adviser Giora Eiland, were predicting that Hamas would ultimately accept the deal today. While anything may still happen, it is highly unlikely given Hamas’s vociferous objections to terms that are essentially a replica of the 2012 ceasefire agreement and Hamas’s release of its own offer this morning, which calls for an end to the Gaza blockade, the release of any prisoners swept up over the last month who had been released in the Gilad Shalit deal in 2011, building an airport and seaport in Gaza, expansion of the Gaza fishing zone, and the opening of all crossings into Gaza, including the Refah crossing into Egypt. Like the Egyptian deal was to Hamas, these terms are unpalatable to Israel and will not be accepted. Unlike in 2012, when a ceasefire was brokered relatively easily and put an end to hostilities, this time around things are proving to be far more difficult, and it isn’t just a matter of Israel and Hamas meeting halfway.
For starters, there are no good brokers for a truce. The problems with Egypt are well-known; Sisi and the Egyptian government want to isolate Hamas, and Hamas does not trust Sisi any more than they trust Bibi Netanyahu. Egypt’s ceasefire deal was negotiated without any Hamas input or even prior notification to Hamas before the terms were made public, and was likely more of an effort on Egypt’s part to isolate and weaken Hamas even further by having the entire Arab League and Western countries line up behind a deal that Hamas was almost certainly going to reject rather than a true effort at brokering an end to fighting. At this point, it is difficult to envision a situation in which Egypt plays a role in mediating between the two sides. The U.S. cannot do it alone given that it has no ties to Hamas, and that leaves aside the reporting in Haaretz that Israel specifically asked Kerry to stay out of it to avoid the impression that the U.S. was pressuring Israel and thus granting Hamas a win. I wrote last week about the potential for Turkey and Qatar to step in so no need to rehash the variables there – and indeed Mahmoud Abbas and Meshal are meeting with President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan in Turkey on Friday – but both countries are deeply flawed due to their lack of successful experience in wading into Israeli-Palestinian fights, and Israel for good reason does not exactly trust either of them (particularly after Erdoğan yesterday compared Habayit Hayehudi MK Ayelet Shaked to Hitler).
Second, Hamas is an organization fractured between the Gaza leadership and the international leadership based in Qatar, and so it is unclear what it actually wants and who has the authority to make a deal. Signs point to Khaled Meshal following the military leaders right now than the other way around, and the military guys in Gaza appear to be averse to ending the fighting anytime soon. The atmosphere is very different now than it was in 2012, and while I will for the second time in a week emphasize that internal Palestinian politics are not my expertise, I have the sense that Meshal will be subject to the Gaza leadership’s veto on any deal he is involved in brokering. There is also the complicating factor of Gazans wanting a ceasefire and whether this will create any pressure on Hamas’s Gaza wing to at some point acquiesce.
Next, there is the fact that there is enormous political pressure on Bibi coming from his right flank to not accept any ceasefire – even one, like yesterday’s proposal, that is almost entirely on Israel’s terms – and to instead send the already-mobilized ground forces into Gaza. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday gave a press conference during which he advocated the IDF invading and retaking Gaza, and after Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon – who has long been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side within Likud – trashed Netanyahu for supporting the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, Netanyahu immediately fired him from his ministerial post. The ostensible reason was that it is unacceptable for a deputy defense minister to so harshly criticize the government’s defense policy in the midst of a war, but Netanyahu has been looking for ways to cut Danon down to size for awhile, and so he seized the opportunity once it presented itself. The larger point here is that Netanyahu has been isolated within his own party for some time as it moves further and further to the right, and his instinctual conservative behavior when it comes to sending troops into battle is not lauded by Likud members but is instead distrusted and viewed as weakness. I don’t think that Bibi wants to get involved in a ground war in Gaza, which entails lots of messy fighting, larger casualty numbers on both sides, guaranteed international opprobrium, and which last time led to the Goldstone Report following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. Nevertheless, the longer that rockets come flying from Gaza and the longer ground troops sit idly by waiting for orders, the more the rightwing is going to yell and howl about the need to take stronger military action rather than accepting a ceasefire deal that will only guarantee a few years of quiet at best.
There is also the factor of international support, and each side’s delusions about where it will lie as this drags further on. Israel made it very clear in the aftermath of the Hamas rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire that it views Hamas’s refusal to lay down arms as granting legitimacy to an eventual Israeli ground invasion, and the Israeli government believes that much of the world agrees with this position. I find it hard to believe that this logic will hold up in the face of mounting Palestinian deaths and a continued lopsided body count, even if the one-sided casualty numbers need to be viewed in the context of Hamas’s failure at killing Israelis not being for a lack of trying. It is also generally the case that world opinion does not work in Israel’s favor, and I do not think that structural feature is going to change as Operation Protective Edge continues. On Hamas’s side, it believes that world opinion will turn against Israel as things progress, which is in my view correct, and that the Israeli public will eventually get fed up and pressure Netanyahu to stop fighting, which in my view is comically incorrect. Furthermore, world opinion and international support are two different things, and at the moment Israel does not lack for support. In fact, yesterday Congress approved more funding for Iron Dome, and Hamas underestimates how much support in 2012 was driven by Arab countries that have since abandoned Hamas wholesale.
Finally, there is the balancing act that Israel is trying to play with the eventual outcome regarding Hamas itself. Israel’s goals are delicately balanced between weakening Hamas and taking out its capabilities to launch long-range missiles at Israeli cities while still keeping Hamas alive and viable to the point of it maintaining its rule over Gaza. Israel recognizes that while Hamas used to look like the most radical group in the neighborhood when compared to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas now routinely gets pressured from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other even scarier jihadi groups. That basic fact is what led Hamas to escalate things in the first place, as it has its own internal politics with which to contend. The Israeli government knows that until last week, Hamas has largely been trying to keep rockets from being launched out of Gaza rather than themselves doing the launching since the 2012 ceasefire, and it also knows that it is a pipe dream to hope for the PA to regain control of Gaza. Israel needs Hamas to run Gaza and keep it from spiraling even further out of control, so any ceasefire agreement that Israel signs will have to keep Hamas in power but assure Israel that Hamas’s military capabilities remain degraded following the fighting.
The upshot of all this is that Gaza in 2014 is a lot more complicated than Gaza in 2012, and assuming that the U.S. or Egypt can just swoop in and put an end to things when both sides have had enough is naive. There is lots of politics, both international and domestic, involved here, and while I still hold out hope of some combination of the U.S. and Turkey/Qatar being able to bridge the various gaps, the problem is that the gaps look more like chasms.
July 10, 2014 § 5 Comments
As Hamas continues firing rockets (and allowing other groups to fire rockets) at Israel from Gaza, and Israel responds with airstrikes, people are beginning to wonder how this round of fighting will end. During Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, a ceasefire was brokered with U.S. and Egyptian intervention – and we can debate all day about how much Mohamed Morsi himself had to do with that, although my sense is that his role was overstated – but this time around such intervention does not seem to be coming. The U.S. does not want to put pressure on Israel to stand down while rockets are flying against civilian targets, including heretofore untargeted locations such as Jerusalem, Ben Gurion Airport, and the nuclear reactor in Dimona, and it also does not want to be seen as bailing Hamas out of its self-made mess after furious criticism that U.S. backing of the PA-Hamas unity deal strengthened the terrorist group. On the Egyptian side, the government has been doing all it can to squeeze Hamas, which is unsurprising given the prevalent feelings about the Muslim Brotherhood, and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has largely kept quiet on the subject of Israeli airstrikes and has sealed the border to prevent Hamas members from escaping into Egypt.
There is increasing chatter that Hamas is looking for a way out of its miscalculated escalation – and yes, every available shred of evidence indicates that this was initially escalated by Hamas and not Israel – and while internal Palestinian politics is not my expertise so I am reluctant to go too far down this analytical path, I am not so convinced that Hamas does indeed want a way out just yet. Hamas’s unpopularity and economic isolation is what forced it into the unity agreement with the Palestinian Authority in the first place, and one sure way to bolster its standing is by reasserting its “resistance” bona fides. Unless Israel is willing to undergo a sustained ground invasion and reoccupation of Gaza, Hamas’s military domination there vis a vis other Palestinian armed groups is not going to be threatened, and continuing to fire rockets at Israel ensures its political future. But let’s concede that whether it is now or later on down the road, at some point both sides will be looking for a way to end the fighting. With the U.S. having no influence with Hamas and Egypt seemingly uninterested, who is left to step in?
The only two plausible parties are Turkey and Qatar, whose motives and standing are similar. Both Qatar and Turkey have spent years either openly or tacitly backing Hamas at the expense of the PA, and they are also the only two countries left – not including Iran – that are still providing support and cover to Hamas now that Egypt and Syria are out of Hamas’s corner. Both Qatar and Turkey have also seen their foreign policies, which seemed so ascendant a couple of short years ago, crash and burn and are looking for a win anyway they can get it. Due to its own missteps, Turkey has found itself mired in the breakdown of the Arab Spring and particularly the fallout from the Syrian civil war, and Qatar’s support of Islamist groups around the region led to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates all withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha in March as a protest against Qatari meddling in their internal affairs, i.e. supporting various Muslim Brotherhood groups. If either Turkey or Qatar can step in as a mediator and use its influence with Hamas to get a ceasefire deal, it will demonstrate their regional value and show that they can put their foreign policy to productive use. It will also in some measure rehabilitate both in the eyes of the other Sunni governments in the region, who view Turkey to a lesser extent and Qatar to a greater extent with increasing suspicion.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has been relatively quiet on Gaza so far given his track record, although I should note that when I pointed this same dynamic out in 2012, it immediately backfired on me in a spectacular way. So this time I won’t make any hard predictions about Erdoğan keeping his mouth shut, and in fact I expect him to be more vociferous at some point given the presidential election next month. Nevertheless, I am sure that Turkey would like to play a role this time in mediating some kind of agreement, and with the dearth of other candidates who have working relationships with both Israel and Hamas, this time it is actually a possibility. Turkey wants to cooperate with Israel on Mediterranean energy issues, has still been waiting for Israel to sign a reconciliation agreement, and also wants to get back into the good graces of the U.S. Domestic politics are always at the forefront in Ankara and Erdoğan has the temperament of a ticking time bomb, so you can cue the nasty rhetoric at some point, but the fact remains that Turkey hates the fact that nobody outside of its own Foreign Ministry, SETA, and the staff of Daily Sabah care about anything the government says on foreign policy these days, and it is desperate to reclaim some regional role. All of these factors point to a small possibility of a U.S.-Turkey initiative at a ceasefire when both sides are ready. Let’s just hope that Erdoğan, Davutoğlu, and the rest of the AKP crew can keep their feelings about Israel enough in check to maintain some shred of credibility with Jerusalem as a potential go-between.
April 28, 2014 § 4 Comments
Today is Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day fraught with the worst types of historical memory for many Jews around the world. In a reversal of Abba Eban’s famous witticism about the Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has seized the opportunity presented by the day to dub the Holocaust the most heinous crime in modern history, which is significant given his extensive history of Holocaust denial, most prominently in his doctoral dissertation. In the past, Abbas has written that fewer than one million Jews were killed by the Nazis and that the Holocaust was enabled by the Zionists, who plotted with the Nazis to exterminate European Jewry in order to encourage Jewish immigration to Palestine. The New York Times portrays Abbas’s new statement as a significant shift in his thinking, while Yair Rosenberg over at Tablet argues that Abbas has not actually said anything to indicate that his views have changed, as Abbas can simultaneously believe that the Holocaust is the most heinous crime in modern history and that Zionist Jews were themselves responsible for it.
Whatever one’s views are of Abbas’s latest statement and whether it is indeed an evolution or simply artful obfuscation, the big takeaway is that Abbas’s take on the Holocaust is being widely interpreted through the prism of the peace process. For optimists – in what can only be termed as the soft bigotry of low expectations – Abbas’s willingness to condemn the Holocaust is a signal that he is a true partner for peace. For pessimists – in what can only be termed as shifting the goalposts – Abbas’s condemnation of the Holocaust no longer matters because he has agreed to a reconciliation deal with Hamas, which certainly does not recognize or acknowledge the singular evil of the Holocaust. Bibi Netanyahu, for instance, yesterday explicitly used Abbas’s pact with Hamas to negate his Holocaust declaration, and dismissed the entire thing as a public relations stunt.
I myself fall somewhere in the middle here. On the one hand, I welcome any reversal – no matter how illusory, qualified, or legalistic – of previously stated odious views about the scope of the Holocaust and am not willing to be curtly dismissive just because of something else that Abbas has done. On the other hand, let’s not act as if this makes Abbas some great humanitarian or a candidate to be the next executive director of Yad Vashem. People can, and will, debate this until they have exhausted themselves, but the real question for me is, why does it matter? Who cares what Abbas thinks about the Holocaust? What practical effect does it have on anything?
Let’s assume Abbas actually has the willingness and capacity to eventually come to a fair deal with Israel. I don’t see how his views on the Holocaust affect that in any way. Those views don’t make him any more likely to agree to conditions that he views as unfair, or to endanger his own political situation and agree to a fair but unpopular deal. If he is willing to come to an agreement, then quite frankly I don’t care if he considers Mein Kampf to be light bedtime reading. Conversely, let’s assume that Abbas does not have the willingness and capacity to eventually come to a fair deal with Israel. Do his new acceptable views on the Holocaust somehow make up for the fact that he is not a true negotiating partner? Israelis do not need Abbas to be a moral leader or a paragon of virtue; they only need him to negotiate an agreement that is acceptable to them and one whose details he can execute. His importance for Israelis or Jews around the world is not as a moral philosopher or historian, but as a political leader, and all that should matter is his capacity for politics and not his personal views. It is a delusion to see Abbas’s views on the Holocaust as a stand-in for his propensity to make a deal; there are plenty of data points suggesting that he will and plenty that he won’t, but this is not one of them.
In many ways, I view this as an unhelpful distraction similar to the debate over whether the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. If the Palestinians come to an agreement with Israel that both sides can live with and that makes a final determination on borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees, then it doesn’t matter whether the Palestinians call Israel a Jewish state or not. Israel is a Jewish state and will remain so in the aftermath of any deal agreed to by any Israeli government, and so the official opinions of the Palestinian Authority, Palestine Liberation Organization, and average Palestinians have no bearing on the equation. All that matters in this case are the actual facts, and what is important is the world as it is rather than the world as we want it to be. Would it be nice if the Palestinians recognized an obviously Jewish state for what it is? Sure. Would it be nice if the Palestinian president acknowledged a terribly calamitous atrocity for what is is? Of course. Do either of these things matter in the context of a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Not a whit. On this Yom Hashoah, let’s focus on things that matter rather than those that don’t.
April 1, 2014 § 19 Comments
The last time I wrote about Jonathan Pollard was two years ago after Shimon Peres made a personal appeal to President Obama for Pollard’s release, an appeal that was thankfully turned down. I had hoped to never have to waste even a minute of my time on the subject again, but the U.S. is now reportedly considering releasing Pollard in exchange for Israel agreeing to extend the current peace talks through 2015 and to enact a partial settlement freeze. Pollard’s release would also be accompanied by Israel releasing an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners on top of the ones whom they already agreed to release.
Let’s start with Pollard himself. What directly prompted my blog post last time was Gilad Shalit’s father publicly offering his support for Pollard’s cause to Pollard’s wife, and now Gilad Shalit himself has sent a letter to Obama requesting clemency for the unrepentant spy. While I understand Shalit’s personal sympathy for someone who has spent an extended period under lock and key, the comparison between Pollard and Shalit is odious. What I wrote two years ago has not changed one iota, and so I am going to reproduce it once again in the next paragraph as a handy reminder of why Pollard and Shalit do not belong in the same universe, let alone the same sentence.
Shalit was a 19 year old conscript captured by a terrorist organization that illegally breached the border fence and abducted him on Israeli territory. Pollard was a 31 year old civilian analyst who committed espionage in exchange for cash and jewelry and pled guilty to spying against his own country. Shalit’s actions were in no way responsible for his abduction (and please, spare me the noxious theory that all Israeli soldiers everywhere are legitimate targets no matter the circumstance) and he was not engaged in any hostilities against his captors at the time of his being taken hostage. Pollard’s actions are directly responsible for his imprisonment, as he stole classified information and passed on thousands of documents to a foreign government. Shalit was held in terrible conditions in violation of the Geneva Conventions and despite calls from the U.N., the Red Cross, the G-8, and individual countries for his immediate and unconditional release. Pollard is a legitimate prisoner under the laws of the United States and in accordance with international norms, is housed in safe and sanitary conditions in a medium security federal prison, and no international governmental organizations or human rights groups have called for his release. Shalit was illegally held by Hamas as a hostage for the sole purpose of extorting Israel into complying with Hamas demands and not because Shalit had any information or intelligence that would be of value to his abductors. Pollard is alleged by the U.S. to have an unacknowledged accomplice (according to former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon) and the precise details of everything that Pollard passed on are still unclear. Shalit did not have to express remorse for his actions because he took no actions at all. Pollard remains unrepentant for spying against his own country. Shalit has been an Israeli citizen from birth, embraced both de facto and de jure by his country by virtue of being unambiguously and openly sent by Israel to serve in the military. Pollard did not become an Israeli citizen until 1995 after he had been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned, and Israel did not admit until 1998 that he was working on Israel’s behalf with its full knowledge and authorization. Shalit’s abduction did not subject any of his fellow citizens to additional danger or peril, nor did it damage Israel’s relations with any other country. Pollard’s spying cast serious aspersions on every Jewish citizen of the United States and created a backlash against Israel in the U.S. intelligence community. Shalit is an innocent kid who was held hostage by terrorists. Pollard is a traitorous spy who is wholly deserving of remaining in jail.
Even all of this aside, which should be more than enough reason to leave Pollard exactly where he is, releasing Pollard in the context of current negotiations is a terrible mistake. Pollard himself has nothing to do with an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He is not being held by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, his actions were in no way related to the conflict, and his status should be completely unrelated to the talks. That the Israeli government would link his release to its own willingness to resolving a wholly separate issue is shameful. If Israel does not think that it is in its own best interests to continue negotiating or if it genuinely believes that it has no reliable partner across the table, then it should end the negotiations irrespective of what the U.S. offers since to do otherwise would be to take a concession in bad faith. Conversely, if the Israeli government believes that negotiations stand a good chance of success and that a deal with the Palestinians would be in Israel’s best interests, then it is monstrously dumb to link the willingness to keep on talking to Pollard’s release. Pollard is a factor that has no impact at all on the substance of a deal. His remaining in prison or his walking out a free man will not make Israel any safer or any more trustful of the Palestinians, and so using him as a reason to either keep negotiating or cease negotiating makes absolutely no sense at all from a substantive perspective. Were I the U.S., I would call this bluff without blinking.
Furthermore, if the negotiations are going so poorly that Israel will only agree to keep them going if Pollard is let out, then the two sides stand very little chance of coming to an agreement. That being the case, why release Pollard for such an ephemeral concession? Were the talks in their end stages and Israel needed a small push to get over the finish line, then the logic would make more sense, but Israel agreeing to extend the talks for another nine months and not issuing any new housing tenders in the West Bank in return for Pollard more likely than not means that the two sides will waste another nine months and then return to the status quo ante. This is a move that absolutely reeks of desperation on the Obama administration’s part, and it shows. John Kerry pretty clearly wants this to succeed more badly than either of the two actual parties to the conflict, and he is willing to do anything to advance the ball inches down the field. That is admirable tenacity, but in this case his tactic is a mistake that is not going to lead to any long term success.
I have no inside information as to how close Pollard’s release is to actually happening, but my best guess is that the administration leaked this as a trial balloon to gauge the reaction from the national security community and from the American Jewish community. I hope that the people at the Pentagon, CIA, and other agencies freak out over the news, make a big public stink, and Pollard remains locked up. His release will only cause problems for the American Jewish community, will not advance the cause of peace, and will create a terrible set of incentives for both the Israelis and the Palestinians that as long as they commit to a process, irrespective of any real progress, they can ask for any outrageous concession they want and will likely get it.
February 4, 2014 § 8 Comments
As regular readers know (although since I have been so neglectful about blogging, I’m not sure I can legitimately claim to have any regular readers anymore), I am never optimistic that a successful Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is on the horizon. For some reasons why not, you can read this or this or this or this. The two sides are way too far apart on core issues, don’t even necessarily agree about what the most important core issues are, make demands that the other side will not meet, and feel that they have better options available to them, not to mention the fact that the negotiations are designed to rectify the problems of 1967 when in reality the issue is 1948. There is no sense of urgency and the two sides are completely talking past each other. Despite all of this, the reports from the Kerry camp have been consistently optimistic, the team led by Martin Indyk has been beefing up staff, and it actually seems like maybe both sides will accept a framework agreement. So despite my conviction that none of this will lead to anything permanent or concrete, maybe it all demonstrates that there is some light at the end of a very far tunnel.
And then I read Tom Friedman’s column this week in the New York Times, and I am now even more pessimistic than before. Entitled “Abbas’s NATO Proposal,” it turns on the idea that NATO will have to keep troops in the West Bank indefinitely in order to have the security arrangements for a peace deal fulfilled. In Abbas’s words, NATO troops “can stay to reassure the Israelis, and to protect us. We will be demilitarized. … Do you think we have any illusion that we can have any security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?” Friedman argues that this is a suggestion worthy of consideration because it meets Israeli security needs and meets Palestinians needs to not have an Israeli military presence in the West Bank after an initial five year period, and presumably only NATO can bridge this gap.
It all sounds very nice, but the fact that Abbas is pushing it says to me that he is either fundamentally unserious or knows just how desperate the situation is, and neither of those possibilities is encouraging. None of the three constituencies involved in this scenario would ever actually accept the parameters as Friedman lays them out. Start with the Palestinians, for whom it would be a hard sell having some security force confined to the Jordan Valley, and then think about the idea of having foreign troops spread throughout an entire Palestinian state forever. It is one thing to have foreign troops confined to a very distinct area, as is the case with American troops in South Korea, and quite another to have them literally anywhere and everywhere. I find it hard to believe that Abbas speaks for his own constituency in opening up this possibility, let alone for groups like Hamas that don’t accept his authority at all. The loss of sovereignty that comes with a demilitarized state is a hard enough obstacle to overcome, and throwing this additional factor on top blows the whole thing up. Troops for a finite number of years, or confined to a specific location, or with limited authority; these are all things that are potentially workable from the perspective of what the Palestinian side might reasonably accept. What Abbas suggests is not, plain and simple, and it makes me wonder whether he has any credibility left on his own side.
Next come the Israelis, who as Abbas relayed via Friedman do not want to have any third party overseeing their own security, and rightly so. UN troops based in Sinai literally cleared out of the way in 1967 when Nasser ordered them out in preparation for a strike against Israel (a strike that the Israelis preempted with the Six Day War), and the UN force in Lebanon hasn’t exactly been effective at preventing Hizballah from shooting rockets across the border, abducting soldiers, or conducting sniper attacks. That Friedman brings these examples up as something that Israel has tolerated before is completely removed from the reality of what Israel will accept when it comes to territory right on Tel Aviv’s doorstep. In both of these instances, foreign forces meant to in some measure safeguard Israeli security have been complete and unmitigated failures. Furthermore, Friedman is talking about NATO troops, and in case you haven’t been paying attention, Israel and various European NATO countries aren’t always on the best of terms. Israel is convinced that Europe is out to get it and that Europeans side with the Palestinians over the Israelis in every instance – convictions, by the way, that are not entirely unrooted in fact – and accepting American troops as guarantors of Israeli security would maybe, maybe eventually be ok with the Israelis. But NATO troops as the first line of defense against Palestinian rockets? I find it very hard to see an Israeli government that can be elected in the current climate ever acceding to that condition.
Finally comes NATO itself. Think about the reaction the vast majority of Americans have right now to sending U.S. troops to another location overseas in order to fight a war or safeguard vital American interests. Then think about the reaction people will have to sending U.S. troops to police a political and territorial dispute in which we are not involved in any way. Then realize that nearly every other NATO country is even more reticent than we are to put troops into harm’s way, particularly when it will involve those troops being stationed in a Muslim-majority country. I could keep going, but it seems unnecessary at this point. No elected politician will be able to justify any type of real commitment to such an operation, and quite frankly, why would they even if they could get away with it politically? I care about Israeli-Palestinian peace as much as anyone, but this is not something that NATO countries will be eagerly signing up for, not to mention that it is well, well beyond NATO’s mandate. Is Abbas or Friedman suggesting that a NATO country is at risk, necessitating placing NATO troops inside the West Bank? Or that NATO has somehow evolved into an organization that is willing to send its resources anywhere in the world for the sake of peace?
The bottom line is that if this proposal is what a peace agreement will hinge upon, you can forget seeing anything resembling a permanent agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians for decades. I hope Abbas has something else up his sleeve.
December 4, 2013 § 2 Comments
Ahmet Davutoğlu this week implicitly acknowledged that the U.S. and Turkey have seen better days in their relationship, saying that “relations are proceeding on a dynamic and honest ground,” which is not exactly the “model partnership” that the Turkish foreign minister was so fond of touting a couple of years ago. Whatever “dynamic and honest ground” means, unquestionably things are not going nearly so well as during President Obama’s first term, when Prime Minister Erdoğan was on Obama’s Oval Office speed dial and Turkey was viewed by U.S. policymakers as the key to a new Middle East. Many events have conspired to shatter that vision, and Turkey is no longer through such rose-colored glasses as it was. To my mind, the new status quo is not just a temporary blip in an otherwise robustly healthy relationship; there are major structural forces that are putting the U.S. and Turkey increasingly at odds over issues large and small, and three in particular stand out.
The first is that the U.S. perceives Turkey to be pursuing short term aims, oftentimes explicitly political ones, at the expense of long term goals, and the pursuit of these short term aims often conflicts with U.S. interests in the region. For instance, the rift that the Turkish government opened up with the Egyptian government following the military coup that dislodged Mohamed Morsi when Erdoğan not only insisted that Morsi be reinstated but refused to even acknowledge the new Egyptian officials as legitimate was an example of Turkey pursuing a policy that caused long term harm (to wit, the Turkish ambassador to Egypt was expelled last month) for no purpose other than domestic politics. Another obvious example is the continuing feud with Israel, where Turkey has continuously blocked Israeli participation in NATO summits, sold out Israeli intelligence assets in Iran to the Iranian government, bolstered Hamas and given it as much international credibility as it can at the Palestinian Authority’s expense, and dragged its feet in every way possible to avoid true reconciliation with Israel following Bibi Netanyahu’s apology last March for the Mavi Marmara deaths. In both of these cases, the U.S. would strongly prefer that Turkey work with its other allies in the region, and Turkey’s intransigence in both instances is not the result of any bigger plan or in the pursuit of foreign policy aims, but is rather almost entirely for domestic political consumption.
More serious than these two cases is the shortsighted Turkish policy of allowing jihadi fighters to stream across the border into Syria in order to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad – a policy that even Turkey now seems to realize was dangerously myopic – and the agreement to purchase an anti-missile defense system from China, about which I have already written at length. Turkey’s Syria policy has been an unmitigated disaster, and the Chinese anti-missile decision has caused huge waves with the U.S. and Turkey’s other NATO allies, and both are examples of Turkey pursuing what it perceives to be easy short term gains to the great detriment of long term strategic goals. While Turkey is, of course, free to do as it pleases, both of these decisions have created great fallout for the U.S. and thus cannot be simply ignored by the Obama administration or chalked up to internal Turkish business. They fit into a general pattern of Turkey rushing headlong into foreign policy decisions without taking a minute to look at the big picture and assess the impact of its actions on other parties, specifically the U.S. in this case, which is bound to cause some friction.
The second structural force driving the two apart is that their priorities in the Middle East are moving in divergent directions. Just as Turkey was deciding to ramp up its involvement in the region and become more active and vocal, the U.S. was deciding to ramp down, pivot to Asia, and leave the Middle East behind to the greatest extent possible. The U.S. has a couple of core things it wants to be involved in, such as coming to some resolution over Iran’s nuclear program and pushing Israel and the Palestinians to work out a comprehensive peace agreement, but otherwise it wants to bow out as much as feasible. This is why the U.S. basically threw its hands up at the Egyptian coup and looked for any way out of getting military involved in the Syrian civil war. Turkey, in contrast, wanted to be deeply involved in reshaping the region in the wake of the Arab Spring (or whatever it is we are calling it these days), and was particularly assertive when it came to loudly insisting that Assad had to go. The problem is that Turkey could not force Assad out on its own and so assumed that the U.S. or NATO would eventually take care of the job, and after it became apparent that this was not going to happen, Turkey felt a sense of betrayal. In essence, the problem is that Turkey wants to see certain outcomes, but those outcomes require the U.S. to make them happen, and the U.S. has absolutely zero desire to get any more involved than it already is. So you have a hyper-involved Turkey that wants more active U.S. involvement on certain fronts, and a U.S. that just wants to be left alone.
The third structural force contributing to tension is the basic power imbalance that exists between the two countries. The U.S. has its own set of interests and oftentimes Turkey’s wishes and views rank low down on the list of American priorities, but at the same time Turkey tends to interpret U.S. action through a distinctly Turkish prism. Thus, the U.S. instinct to stay out of Syria was a result of war-weariness after Afghanistan and Iraq, sequestration and other budgetary problems, politics leading up to the 2012 election, a desire not to increase tensions with Russia, a growing sense that the Syrian opposition was extremely problematic…I could keep on going, but Turkey was not part of the equation. In Turkey, however, U.S. inaction in Syria despite months and months of Turkish demands for NATO involvement and strident Turkish calls for Assad to leave has been interpreted as a purposeful slap in the face to Turkey. Many Turks believe that the U.S. led them down the garden path and implied that help would be coming, and the fact that Assad is still in power is because the U.S. wanted to humiliate Turkey. The best example of this overall general dynamic was the controversy in Turkey in August of last year over the photo of Obama holding a baseball bat while on the phone with Erdoğan. As I wrote at the time, this had nothing to do with Erdoğan and was nothing more than the White House releasing a photo in the midst of a presidential campaign designed to reinforce the image of Obama as a regular guy, but in Turkey it was imbued with all sorts of deeper meanings over the type of hidden message that Obama was trying to send to his Turkish counterpart. Because it is Turkey’s most powerful and most important ally, the U.S. will always have an outsized image in Turkey and Turks will imagine that anything the U.S. is doing is directed at them, when in reality many Americans probably couldn’t even tell you what language is spoken in Turkey (you have no idea how many times I have had someone ask me if I know Arabic after hearing that I study Turkey), place it on a map, or identity Ankara as its capital. This imbalance, where Turkey always has the U.S. on its mind but does not get reciprocal attention, is another source of tension.
Of these three forces, the first one can easily dissipate, and in fact there are signs that it is already happening, particularly when it comes to Turkey’s Syria policy. The other two, however, are here to stay, and are not easily overcome. Does it mean a major rift between the two allies? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the halcyon days of Barack and Tayyip’s late night gabfests and both public and private talk of model partnerships is over, and unlikely to return anytime soon.
July 3, 2013 § 10 Comments
We here in the U.S. tend to fetishize elections. For many people, elections and democracy are synonymous with each other, and there is a tendency – particularly among the non-political scientist set – to assume that any country that holds free elections must be democratic. This mindset has been out in full force over the past decade as genuine elections have become more common in the Arab world. When Iraq held its first free elections after the American-led ouster of Saddam Hussein, supporters of the Iraq War (and in the interests of full disclosure, I was firmly in that group) rushed to dub the war a success because Iraq was now deemed to be a democracy. Time and again we are reminded that Hamas is the legitimate government in Gaza because it was democratically elected (never mind that those elections happened in 2006 and have not been repeated since). When Egypt elected Mohamed Morsi a year ago, Egypt was immediately declared a new or emerging democracy by dint of those elections. For many people, elections are what matter to the exclusion of all else.
For a long time, this view of elections being the dividing line between democracies and non-democracies held sway in political science as well for the simple fact that non-democratic regimes did not bother to conduct elections. When Juan Linz wrote his groundbreaking and still seminal work on non-democratic regimes in the 1970s, he did not even consider that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes would hold elections; trying to distinguish free and fair elections from illegitimate elections did not factor into his analysis because it was not an issue that ever came up. When he updated his work two decades later in book form, elections still not did make it into his exhaustive typologies of non-democratic regimes. Nevertheless, because the West had placed such a priority on the legitimizing power of elections, authoritarian regimes began to catch up and elections became a permanent feature of all manner of non-democratic states. In some cases, such as Saddam-era Iraq, they were complete shams where the dictator routinely won 99% of the vote, and in other cases, such as parliamentary elections in Egypt and Jordan, the parliaments held no real power and the election outcomes were predetermined, albeit not to the absurd extent in places like Iraq or Tunisia. Political science quickly caught up to what was going in the real world and came up with a new category of regimes, typically called competitive authoritarian or hybrid regimes. These regimes were recognized to fall somewhere in a gray zone, as they held competitive elections but not ones that were free and fair, and so while there was the possibility of a transfer of power post-elections, it was a difficult feat to pull off. Research was also done on regimes, oftentimes called hegemonic authoritarian regimes, where non-competitive elections were held so that the regime could claim the mantle of electoral legitimacy but where the outcome was never in any way in doubt. Because elections themselves are a powerful tool, we now live in a world where there are elections all over the globe, but in many instances they mean next to nothing.
We are now moving into an interesting phase, where elections are not only being used by authoritarian regimes to justify their existence, but are being used by a wide class of states to justify any specific action they take. Examples A and B in this regard are Turkey and Egypt, where elected leaders repeatedly refer to their elected status as justification not just for their continuation in office but for any actions the government wants to take. In Turkey, which is a problematic democracy but still to my mind meets the criteria for being an electoral democracy (even if it is looking increasingly shaky), Prime Minister Erdoğan has spent the last month dismissing any and all concerns on the part of the protestors because, as he likes to remind everyone, the AKP was elected in 2011 with an overwhelming plurality of the vote, and if people don’t like what he’s doing, they can go back to the ballot box in a couple of years. Erdoğan fiercely believes that elections confer absolute power, and his view of majoritarian democracy states that the majority can do as it pleases, no matter the consequences or the nature of the opposition. Never mind that democracy is about much more than elections, or that massive numbers of people are protesting in the streets against specific policies. For Erdoğan, all that matters is what happens on election day, and the party that finds itself in government has four or five years to pursue any manner of policies that it chooses to implement. If people don’t like it, than they can voice their displeasure in the next election, and it is as simple as that. Elections confer blanket authority.
In Egypt, which is not yet a democracy no matter how many people would like to believe otherwise, Morsi became president following democratic elections, and has ever since pursued a narrow, sectarian policy in which he has made clear that he believes he is the president of the Muslim Brotherhood rather than all Egyptians. He too has fallen back on the fact that there were elections to justify all sorts of policies that rankle most Egyptians, and the fact that Egypt this week saw what were likely the largest demonstrations in human history makes no difference to him. He cloaked himself in the mantle of elections in order to shunt aside Egypt’s courts and force through a new constitution six months ago, and during the crisis of the last two days, he has refused to acknowledge having made mistakes or grant that changes need to be made because he insists that his policies have the ultimate legitimacy emanating from the fact that he was elected. Morsi is using elections not only to justify his position, but to justify any actions that he takes.
To be clear, if the military moves in and deposes Morsi by force, it will be a disaster. As I pointed out during the constitutional crisis in December, such a move will doom any real hope for democracy in Egypt for decades:
The Egyptian army has already stepped in once to try and steer the ship of the state on a temporary basis. The logic in doing so at the time was in many ways justifiable, and while the results were less than ideal, it was a popular move with many Egyptians who saw no good alternative. This time, however, if the army gets in the middle of the various parties and tries to intervene and sort things out, the long term results will be even more disastrous. Creating a pattern in which the military is expected to act as a referee and step in any time things get hairy will doom any hope for civilian rule or the semblance of democratic politics in Egypt.
Free and fair elections need to be respected, and no matter how poor of a president Morsi has been and no matter how wrongheaded and disastrous his government’s policies, the millions of people in the streets should be heeded by the government in terms of changing course but not in allowing mob rule. Egyptians have legitimate grievances, but by the same token a military coup to get rid of Morsi is not the answer. Nevertheless, Erdoğan, Morsi, and heads of state everywhere need to unlearn the lesson that they have taken away, which is that elections are all that matter and that what happens between elections does not. Voting for one’s leaders is an important and necessary component of democracy, but elections alone do not a democracy make. This idea of an absolute majoritarian mandate conferred based on election results is enormously damaging, and it harms democracy rather than furthers it. We went through a period in which elections were emphasized as the primary component of democracy promotion, but perhaps now it is time for a switch in which elections are deemphasized in favor of other things, such as checks and balances, horizontal accountability, respect for minority rights, and other similar factors that have been lost in the shuffle. Elections are needed to usher in democracy, but in a disturbing number of cases elections are now being used to choke off the democracy that they allegedly heralded.