Getting the U.S. and Israel Back On Track

April 21, 2015 § 2 Comments

Now that the Israeli elections are in the rearview mirror – although coalition negotiations are still ongoing – it is time to assess the damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and figure out how to avoid clashes going forward such as those that have marred the past few years. There is no doubt that the relationship is at a low point politically, perhaps even historically low. But it is also the case that it will certainly recover and that we are not seeing the beginning of the end, but are rather going through the sort of blip that happened under Ford in 1975, Reagan in 1981, Bush in 1990, etc. The relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu is the worst between any two presidents and prime ministers, and there is also wide distrust and dislike of ministers such as Bogie Ya’alon and Naftali Bennett in the White House with a corresponding disdain for people like John Kerry and Susan Rice in the prime minister’s office. Ultimately, Obama and Netanyahu are going to move on from the scene, and the robust institutional relationship that still exists at all other levels will be paramount. That said, this fighting at the top levels is ugly and counterproductive, and at some point threatens to become a lasting acrimonious trend rather than a temporary occurrence, so each side needs to think about what can and should be done to prevent future misunderstandings big and small.

Starting with the Israeli side, this government and all future governments need to understand that support from the U.S. is predicated on a number of things, but first and foremost on the idea of shared democratic values. I have written about this at length in academic form and the post-9/11 picture is a bit more complicated, but the executive summary is that it is easy to draw a direct line from public preferences to foreign policy formation in this particular case, and Americans don’t care whether or not Israel is a strategic asset or liability but do care whether or not Israel is a liberal democracy. Furthermore, the erosion of support for Israel on the left and among younger voters is even more tightly tied to this (whether Israel could do anything that would be able to satisfy some of this segment is a separate question). Netanyahu’s lackluster moves toward creating a Palestinian state and his ugly election day display thus matter hugely in this regard, and all of the “yes, but” arguments that seek to mitigate these things don’t matter, even if they are true. Maybe a Palestinian negotiating partner that was more serious and responsive to Israeli concessions or an altered security environment would prompt Netanyahu to leave the West Bank, and maybe Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state on his watch really was meant to be qualified and his warning that Arabs are coming to the polls in droves wasn’t about Arabs specifically but just shorthand for leftwing voters. Even if you fervently believe these things – and, for what it’s worth, I am hugely skeptical – it doesn’t matter when it comes to the relationship with the U.S., because they both chip away at the vision in the American mind of Israel as a like-minded country that we can easily understand and with which we can sympathize. What Israeli governments need to understand is that 99% of people outside of Israel are not following the daily back and forth of Israeli politics and policy, and so the rapidly spreading perception of Israel as an increasingly illiberal country seeking to shout down minorities and keep the Palestinians in a state of perpetual occupied statelessness doesn’t have to be true in order to be damaging. Once Israel is seen as abandoning the two state solution and the peace process, the game is over and Israel becomes like any other country when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. The only priority the Israeli government should have going forward when it comes to the U.S. is preserving the possibility of an eventual two state solution, even if such an outcome is currently impossible.

The Israel Policy Forum released a statement of principles last week that is dead-on in this regard. It explicitly recognizes that a negotiated two state solution is not imminent for a variety of reasons, but that preserving the possibility of two states happening at some point down the road is critical. It recognizes the security bind that Israel is in and thus does not demand that Israel simply pull out of the West Bank tomorrow, and unqualifiedly states that Palestinian moves to encourage the BDS movement or to use the ICC are counterproductive. At the same time, the statement is clear that advancing the goal of two states for two people is the key to U.S.-Israel relations, among other things, and that this means rethinking settlement policy and embracing ways out of the bind such as the Arab Peace Initiative. This is on target because it displays an understanding of the fact that just because Israel may not be able to create a Palestinian state at this point in time due to circumstances both of its own doing and beyond its control does not obviate the necessity to keep this goal alive, if for no other reason than to preserve the crucial relationship with the U.S.

For a variety of historical reasons, no matter what it does Israel is never going to be a normal country accepted by everyone. Anti-Semitism is a very real phenomenon and it underpins much (although not all) of anti-Zionism, and the strain of anti-imperial ideology that exists in many places is never going to be comfortable with Israel whether it pulls out of the West Bank or not. Israel does not and never will live a completely normal life. But this fact makes it even more important for Israel to have completely clean hands and to not give anyone any excuse to condemn her, since double standards when it comes to Israel are a permanent fact of life. The U.S. is a country that actually does sympathize with Israel for many reasons, whether it be because of a frontier mentality or Christian Zionism or respect for democracy or solidarity with a Westernized state in the Middle East. Even the U.S., however, is not going to give Israel a blank check, and needs to see that Israel is doing what it can within reason to live up to its ideals. Obama and Netanyahu will continue to loathe each other, and better Israeli behavior on settlements would have had absolutely zero bearing on mitigating West Wing retaliation in the aftermath of the Netanyahu speech to Congress, but looking at a longer time horizon and anticipating what happens once the principals change, Israel needs to do a better job on always acting like a country that values its democracy first and foremost, and that is ready to live next to a Palestinian state when the Palestinians are ready to live next to Israel. When you rule out that possibility entirely, what the Palestinians are or are not doing simply doesn’t matter when it comes to better relations with the U.S.

On the U.S. side, just as Israel needs to understand what is important to the U.S., the U.S. needs to better understand what is important to Israel. As a political scientist, one of the things that I think the Obama administration has gotten right is an understanding that countries have their own internal politics and that this cannot be simply brushed away as an inconvenient fact to be ignored. Public opinion matters, in authoritarian states as well as in democracies (in fact, it may be even more important in authoritarian states where the only outlet for dissatisfaction is violence in the streets), and even a government in a country like Iran with a Supreme Leader ironically has to take politics into account when taking action like selling a nuclear deal. Yet, when it comes to Israel, the Obama White House seems to forget this lesson and grants Netanyahu zero leeway. If the U.S. wants the Israeli government to stop acting so hostile, it needs to get a better sense of when to push and when to lay off, since not all perceived Israeli misdeeds are created equal.

To take an important example, the Obama administration’s views on the moral and practical problems with settlements are strident, but in expressing this, it rarely takes into account the fact that Israelis do not view all settlement activity as equal, and so putting all settlements into the same boat makes Israelis feel as if the U.S. does not understand Israeli realities. For instance, 90% of Israelis, if not more, do not view building in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as settlement activity, and are deeply resentful of efforts to prevent building in their own capital. Every time Marie Harf or Jen Psaki says something negative about Israeli construction in neighborhoods like Gilo or Har Homa, Netanyahu seizes the opportunity to slam the U.S. government, and not only is he not wrong to do so in the minds of the vast majority of Israelis, it wins him points in their eyes. Within the West Bank as well, many Israelis make distinctions between building in settlement blocs that will be part of Israel in any eventual deal and building in areas outside of the blocs, but the U.S. publicly does not recognize any distinction between an apartment in French Hill or Efrat and one in Kiryat Arba, and this is a problem. Just as Israel needs to recognize U.S. realities, the U.S. needs to do the same with Israeli realities, and one of these realities is that not all building outside the Green Line is equal by a long shot. When the administration treats all building as the same, it makes the Israeli government throw its hands in the air in frustration and assume that since it will get criticism no matter what it does, it may as well do whatever it likes. If this administration or any future one wants to get the Israeli government to crack down on the problematic settlements and to stop expanding blocs like Ma’ale Adumim or Ariel that legitimately cut into the West Bank so as to threaten its territorial continuity, then it has to be very clear with the Israeli government that it understands that Gilo and similar neighborhoods are always going to be a part of Israel. Without acknowledging where Israeli politics are on this issue, the U.S. will never have the trust of either the Israeli government or the Israeli public when it comes to territorial concessions. Even if the U.S. does not publicly acknowledge Israel’s right to build in Ramot or Alon Shvut, it needs to privately concede the point and pick its public battles more carefully if it wants an Israeli prime minister to ever be able to sell a deal with the Palestinians.

Relatedly, Netanyahu has obviously born the brunt of the anger coming from the White House and has been raked over the coals numerous times, and I think that in many instances it is deserved, but to give the man credit where it it due, he is capable of instituting a policy of doing no harm. He has not expanded settlements at a faster pace than his predecessors, and he has initiated new ones on a much reduced scale than his predecessors. He also instituted a building freeze outside of Jerusalem for nine months when asked, and has very quietly instituted a freeze on new settlement projects even in Jerusalem this year. The point is not that Netanyahu is a peacenik, but that even he is capable of doing things that will make the U.S. happy, and that giving the Israeli government a little bit of breathing space may do wonders for American priorities.

For both sides, it is imperative in the future to keep disputes behind closed doors rather than air them in public. This applies to the U.S. taking Netanyahu to task for a wide variety of real and perceived misdeeds, and it applies even more heavily to Israel doing things like trying to sabotage an Iran deal by embarrassing the White House in very public ways. Aside from the fact that it poisons the relationship, it ends up being massively counterproductive for everyone involved. Is there really anyone left who thinks that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress moved the needle in the direction he wanted rather than doing the opposite by forcing Democrats to publicly side with the president even if their inclination was to do otherwise? Does anyone really believe that publicly threatening to withhold American vetoes in the United Nations Security Council is going to have a salutary effect on Israel’s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians? On issues like settlements, it is in fact vital that the U.S. try to accomplish what it wants in private, since if Netanyahu or any rightwing prime minister is going to give on territorial issues, they will not be able to loudly broadcast it and will need to maintain plausible deniability. The public sniping back and forth is bad for both sides and needs to stop, no matter how cathartic it may be for two parties that could use some couples therapy.

Despite the policy disputes, American and Israeli long term interests still align in many ways. Even on Iran, which is of course the most high profile and deepest disagreement that has caused the most acrimony, the issue may now be working to Israel’s benefit. The White House’s apparent desire to strike a deal at nearly any cost likely means that it will not want to rock the boat in any way with Congress, which makes Israel’s position at the UN a lot safer. Both sides have to learn from past mistakes, such as the U.S. not creating unreasonable expectations for Israel that can’t be met, like a total settlement freeze, and Israel not trying to win fights with an administration when it has no leverage and little influence. The personalities at the top will not be there forever, but if the U.S. continues to use Israel as a wedge issue to score points, or if Israel keeps on behaving as if it is an equal partner – such as when it makes very public demands from U.S. nuclear negotiators that are completely unrelated to the nuclear deal – when it is in fact very much a junior partner, then U.S.-Israel ties really will suffer a blow that is not so easily recoverable. Both sides need to step back, realize what is important to the other, what is doable within the confines of the political and security environment, and recalibrate things.

The Bilious Bond Between Bibi, Barack, and Boehner

January 22, 2015 § 30 Comments

Anyone reading this blog knows by now that it has been a wild and wacky 24 hours in the never-ending soap opera that is Prime Minister Netanyahu and his involvement – whether direct or indirect – in American politics. The newest chapter was sparked by President Obama’s State of the Union vow to veto any new sanctions bill that Congress passes targeting Iran, and Speaker John Boehner’s response the next day of inviting Netanyahu to address Congress and speak about “the threats posed by radical Islam and Iran.” While Netanyahu is often himself accused of trying to intervene in American politics, this was a clear cut case of someone else using Netanyahu to intervene in American politics, as Boehner’s hope is that a speech to Congress by Netanyahu will rally the troops and establish enough political cover for wavering legislators to override any future veto by Obama. The White House was obviously incensed, and declared this to be a breach of protocol since Boehner had invited a foreign head of state to Washington without first checking with his own head of state. Things started to become a bit more sticky today when Nancy Pelosi confirmed that she had nothing to do with the invitation and thus it was not a bipartisan invite, and then the White House stated that Netanyahu would not be meeting with Obama while in Washington because it is longstanding policy not to meet with visiting political candidates so soon before an election, and Netanyahu’s visit is going to be two weeks before Israeli elections on March 17.

This last point is key, because contra Max Fisher, who primarily sees this whole thing as the latest Netanyahu intervention into U.S. politics, I don’t think that is what Netanyahu is actually up to here. When Boehner was the one who invited Netanyahu in a clear effort to bolster GOP thinking on Iran policy, it strikes me as strange to argue that this is somehow a Netanyahu initiative, and that this is really the GOP cheerleading an anti-Obama campaign on Netanyahu’s part rather than the GOP using Netanyahu for its own ends. No doubt Netanyahu is as eager for new sanctions on Iran as his Republican friends, but the main reason speaking before Congress at the beginning of March holds appeal for him is because it is a unique campaign rally opportunity. One of the largest criticisms the Bujie Herzog-Tzipi Livni Zionist Camp alliance has had of Netanyahu’s conduct of foreign affairs is that he has needlessly alienated the Obama administration, and in so doing damaged relations with the U.S. and Israel’s standing in the world. Given the paucity of serious security figures in the Labor-Hatnua list, not to mention the fact that Labor’s comparative advantage when it comes to Israeli voters is on social and economic issues, harping on the alleged damage that Netanyahu has caused to U.S.-Israel ties is going to be the left’s biggest security and defense campaign issue. This is even more salient in the aftermath of this summer’s fighting in Gaza and given the widespread disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority and the peace process across the political spectrum, removing Netanyahu’s foot dragging on two states as a potent campaign issue.

In such a political climate, Netanyahu would be hard pressed to come up with a better rejoinder to the left’s argument about deteriorating relations with the U.S. on his watch than being invited to speak before Congress for a third time (tying his hero, Winston Churchill) and being cheered and applauded by members of both parties as he touts the common U.S.-Israel fight against Islamic extremism. The timing here couldn’t be better for him in terms of the vote, and no doubt he will use the speech during the final two weeks of his campaign as proof that the relationship with the U.S. is still rock solid and that Herzog and Livni are off-base with their criticisms, never mind the fact that Congress does not the entire U.S. government make.

While the logic might seem sound to both Boehner and Netanyahu, there are some potentially serious pitfalls in the plan. Starting with the GOP, there is the risk that the charge Fisher raises – of it being unseemly to side with the leader of a foreign country over one’s own president – will stick, particularly given the contention that it is inappropriate for Congress to invite a foreign leader without first consulting with, or at least informing, the president in advance (as an aside, I get the head of state argument, although I don’t see why Congress needs to clear its speaking invitations with the president, no more than the White House needs congressional approval to hold a joint Rose Garden press conference or hold a state dinner – I’d be grateful if any readers with particular expertise in constitutional law could elucidate whether there is a separation of powers problem here or not). More importantly for Boehner’s purposes, the Netanyahu invite could potentially backfire from a tactical perspective if there is a backlash against invoking the strength of the pro-Israel lobby to torpedo a president’s policy priority. This is precisely what happened in the 1981 fight during the Reagan administration over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, where the role of pro-Israel lobbying became a hot button topic. After public opinion had initially been opposed to the arms sale, with 73% opposed, Israel’s strident lobbying became an issue and public opinion shifted as a result, with 53% expressing that “once the President had decided to sell the planes to Saudi Arabia, it was important that Congress not embarrass him with the rest of the world,” and 52% agreeing that “the Israeli lobby in Washington had to be taken on and defeated so it’s a good thing the U.S. Senate upheld the plane sale to Saudi Arabia.” By explicitly tying Israel to new sanctions, Boehner is hoping to capitalize on Israel’s general popularity with voters and Netanyahu’s popularity among GOP and some Democratic lawmakers, but doing it so nakedly and overtly can have some unintended consequences.

Moving to Netanyahu, I’m not sure this is a winning maneuver for him, and I think he is actually taking a substantial risk. He is already being criticized at home for trying to subvert election laws through this speech to Congress, and in fact there has already been a petition filed to judicially block the speech from being aired on Israeli television. Furthermore, he is opening himself up to a mountain of opprobrium for further damaging relations with the Obama administration – and yes, the refusal to meet with Netanyahu when he is here may be justified given the election timing, but it is also an unambiguous slap down from a furious White House – and Democrats in general. Don’t forget that Pelosi has already hung him out to dry, and other Democrats will follow suit as they do not appreciate Netanyahu’s blatant coordination with the Republicans, irrespective of how they feel about Israel or further sanctions on Iran. If Herzog, Livni, Lapid, Kahlon, and the rest of the cast of characters looking to take down Bibi are smart about it, they will also seize on the fact that Netanyahu is being used as a political football here and either not aware enough to realize that it is going on, or worse, willingly allowing it happen. It does not speak well to Netanyahu’s instincts or leadership to be manipulated by Congressional Republicans for their own purposes and possibly damaging himself in the process.

Finally, in accepting such a charged invitation to speak, Netanyahu is keeping to a pattern of putting his personal political prospects ahead of Israel’s longterm interests with regard to the U.S., and that is where the real danger comes from. It’s one thing to blame Netanyahu for bad relations with a president who will be out of office in two years; one can argue that this is a problem that will resolve itself with no residual effects. But if you view Netanyahu’s machinations in a larger context, by constantly and openly favoring the Republican Party – either himself or through Ron Dermer’s actions in Washington – he is putting Israel itself at long term risk by helping make it a wedge issue in American politics. I constantly argue that Israel’s primacy of place in the U.S. is due to popular opinion, but the caveat there is that this only works when it is bipartisan popular opinion. Netanyahu’s actions, where he sides with the Republicans in a very exaggerated manner, are having a serious effect and eroding traditional cross-spectrum popular support for Israel, and once that passes a point of no return, Israel is going to have serious problems. I don’t place the blame for wavering support in the Democratic Party for Israel solely at Netanyahu’s feet by any means, but he is a big part of the problem and has stoked the fires at many points. The GOP has an obvious political interest in making Israel a full-fledged wedge issue and using it as a cudgel to hammer the Democrats as often as it can. The burning question for me is why Netanyahu is so willing to allow himself to be used in furthering this outcome when it is so obviously not in Israel’s interests.

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

December 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: Zero Problems But Few Common Interests

November 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today’s post comes to you courtesy of O&Z favorite and veteran guest poster Dov Friedman, and examines the reasons behind Turkey’s apparent shift back to its Zero Problems With Neighbors policy and why the strategy is unlikely to be too successful the second time around.

Turkey’s foreign policy activity appears resurgent of late.  In early November, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu hosted his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for bilateral talks in Ankara.  Zarif, picking up on a cherished Davutoğlu theme, emphasized the countries’ shared ability to promote dialogue in service of regional peace and stability.  Two weeks ago, reciprocating Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari’s October visit to Ankara, Davutoğlu visited his counterpart in Iraq—where he extolled his own regional policy in vivid, splendid fashion.

Taken together, they at least signal an end to the oppositional forcefulness of Turkey’s Syria policy.  They may also indicate a broader effort by Turkey to reset regional relations.

The problem, Turkey may find, is akin to the one Alvy Singer faces in the lobster scenes in Annie Hall—that of trying to recreate a particular, wildly successful moment from the past.  The efforts to improve relations with Iran and Iraq are transparent and a bit clumsy—a sort of ersatz Zero Problems with Neighbors tactic.

In the years prior to the Arab Uprisings, Zero Problems was at its most effective as an aspect of a wider foreign policy strategy—one that leveraged regional relationships to facilitate, and at times mediate, among powers.  For a brief moment, that foreign policy vision raised the prospect that Turkey might be a vital presence in facilitating international political negotiations—a “central power” of sorts, to borrow Davutoğlu’s own conception.

Whether by fault or circumstance, that moment is gone.  Its evanescence explains Turkey’s efforts to recapture the magic of Zero Problems—and why that effort now appears futile.

Take, to begin, Egypt’s decision over the weekend to send off Turkey’s ambassador and downgrade relations.  The obvious immediate cause—as Steven Cook noted in a strong post yesterday—was Turkey’s ostentatious condemnation of the Egyptian military coup.  Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan foolhardily insisted on continuing to recognize the Mohamed Morsi government as Egypt’s legitimate rulers, and rarely passed up jabs at the military regime.  He did so because he believed vocal support of democratically elected governments bolstered Turkey’s regional influence.  The result is an embarrassing diplomatic fiasco for Turkey.

Yet, the interactions between Turkey and Egypt during Morsi’s year in power should have communicated to AK Party’s leadership the potential limits of Turkey’s regional influence.  After the Freedom and Justice Party’s victory, the AK Party government offered friendly—and wise—advice to its political Islamist brethren on the merits of blending conservative values with a secular constitution.  Morsi’s FJP politely told them to bug off.  Support from Turkey for the Muslim Brotherhood’s cause was one thing; advice on its political program for Egypt was another entirely.

In hindsight, that was the moment for serious Turkish introspection.  Regional actors might welcome Turkey’s support and collaborate to mutual benefit, but they were wholly uninterested in domestic political advice. Turkey’s facilitation- and mediation-focused foreign policy had clear benefits for Turkey’s role in both the international sphere and in relations with the U.S. and Europe, but it purchased little in the way of regional leadership.  At the very least, the FJP’s wakeup should have pushed Turkey to consider its core regional interests and work quietly to implement as many of them as possible.

But Turkey pursued misguided policies in Syria and now faces serious internal problems as a result.  Believing the regional trend would move toward conservative democratic movements—and believing in an opportunity for lasting Turkish influence—Turkey was bullish on the Syrian opposition. To support the protracted fight against Bashar Assad, Turkey tacitly facilitated the Saudi-backed jihadists, enabling free movement through Gaziantep’s airport and on to the Syrian border, while turning a blind eye to Gulf-funded safe houses on the Turkish side of the border—ones it publicly denies exist.

At the same time, Turkey refused for far too long to engage politically with the PYD—the PKK offshoot in northern Syria—, backing Massoud Barzani’s heavy-handed and futile efforts to extend his influence by sending KRG-affiliated peshmerga forces across the border.  This despite the PYD’s demonstrated commitment to fighting both al-Qaeda and Assad regime forces.

The result of these Syria policies?  This terrifying item on jihadi recruitment in Turkey’s southeast from the Guardian‘s excellent Istanbul-based correspondent, Connie Letsch.  It is a problem Turkey may contend with for years to come.

Which returns us to the recent visits with the Iraqi and Iranian foreign ministers.  As the Syrian civil war grinds on, and as Turkey bears the economic and social costs of 600,000 refugees, the government recalls its momentarily exalted international standing and seeks to diminish problems and mend relations with its neighbors to the east.

How deep can these ties possibly run?  On nearly every issue facing the region today, Turkey and Iran—and Iraq, by extension—are at odds.  Their divergence over Syria is well known.  Meanwhile, Turkey continues to foster close relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government, with the recent Erdoğan-Barzani meeting in Diyarbakır only the latest indicator.  Despite fears that the Turkey-PKK peace process was on life support, Erdoğan—to his credit—has renewed the push to move it forward.

On each of these issues, Iran’s and Iraq’s interests run counter to Turkey’s.  The KRG-Turkey partnership markedly increases the likelihood of an eventual bid for independence from Iraq.  Turkey is already on record supporting Kurdish oil claims and its constitutional interpretation.  Historically, Iran has fomented the PKK-Turkey conflict, which preoccupied Turkish military forces in the east and diminished the potential for PJAK mischief.  If Turkey truly ends the decades-long conflict with the PKK, Iran may face a more concerted, focused Kurdish opposition.

Despite the glaring reality that Turkey’s and Iran’s interests run at cross-purposes, Turkey petulantly lashed out in its diplomatic feud with Israel by gift-wrapping 10 Mossad agents for the Iranian regime.  At the moment it should have been recalibrating its strategic approach, Turkey simultaneously aided a country with the greatest capacity to upset its regional interests while irrevocably losing the trust of a country whose strengths complement Turkey’s well.

Undoubtedly, Turkey will continue to proclaim, in every way imaginable, a return to normalcy in foreign policy.  But through a mix of well-intentioned miscalculations and ill-advised, rash decisions, Turkey faces some troublingly intractable problems.  If only assuaging conflicts with its eastern neighbors were the solution.  But Erdoğan and Davutoğlu must understand as well as anyone that Zero Problems was effective not as an end in and of itself, but as a platform.  Perhaps they would be better off finding their diplomatic rhythm with those who share even the most basic of common regional interests.

The Year Of The Settlement

January 14, 2013 § 2 Comments

We are only two weeks into the new year, but if these two weeks are any indication of what is yet to come, then 2013 is going to mark a large shift from 2012. If 2012 was dominated by talk of Iran, 2013 is going to be dominated by talk of settlements. While the constant worries over what the government would do about bombing Iran did not always resound to Israel’s benefit, it was a conversation that at least focused on Israel’s security and the proper response for Israel to take against threats from Iran. The conversation about settlements, however, is not one that is going to focus on threats to Israel or Israeli security, but rather on Israel’s problematic behavior in the West Bank, and it is an issue that is bound to be a losing one for Israel.

Much of last year was filled with speculation about whether Israel would strike Iran until Bibi Netanyahu put an end to that with his speech at the United Nations. Lots of ink was spilled both trying to predict what would happen and analyzing whether bombing Iranian nuclear facilities would be a smart move or not. All of this undoubtedly caused some degree of negativity toward Israel because many folks – including the bulk of the Israeli defense establishment – felt that bombing Iran would be reckless and unnecessary, and in the end this pressure was at least partially responsible for derailing Netanyahu’s evident plans to do just that. Nevertheless, keeping the focus of the discussion surrounding Israel on the potential bombing of Iranian nuclear sites was in other ways good strategy, which is why Netanyahu kept on stoking the fires. Yes, it entailed observers railing against Israel for contemplating setting the region on fire with a strike on Iran, but it also forced people to think about Israel’s security, the threats that it faces, and the virulent hatred of Israel and Jews – no, not Zionists, but Jews – expressed by the Iranian government.

When it comes to settlements, Israel gains no such benefits. Despite the fact that the Israeli government claims that settlements are a security issue, nobody really buys this excuse. A bunch of settlers armed with rifles along with their families are simply not going to serve as the last line of defense against a horde of Arab tank battalions rolling over the border from Jordan, not to mention that such an assault is not coming. 350,000 Israelis scattered around the West Bank are also not a defense against Palestinian rockets, which don’t come from the West Bank because Fatah is not yet in the rocket shooting business and because the IDF – rather than settlers – is also currently positioned to stop them. In the 21st century, the line that settlements are a defense against anything is just not credible or believable. When settlements become the main issue that people focus on when it comes to Israel, the spotlight is trained not on threats to Israel but on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and desire to hang on to the West Bank. Literally nothing good comes out of this conversation for Israel, and all it does is highlight the worst possible side of Israel and its government. For an extremely small subset of people it serves as a reminder that Israel has a strong historical and cultural heritage in the West Bank, which is after all the land of the Bible, but for most people it serves as a reminder that Israel is militarily occupying the West Bank and that this situation is looking more and more permanent every day.

The response to the Bab al-Shams outpost in E1 is a perfect example of why the Israeli government is destined to lose when the focus is all settlements, all the time. After the outpost was illegally erected, the government evicted the Palestinians who had set up camp there and claimed that this was a necessary security measure and that the area was now a closed military zone. Nobody really believes that this is a security issue, and the glaring double standard in which illegal Israeli outposts are left to stand for months and years or even retroactively legalized has been noted far and wide. The domestic politics aside, this is an unambiguous losing issue for Israel, but because it has proved an effective tactic for the Palestinians, it is guaranteed to play out over and over, with Israel looking increasingly inept and even foolish in the process.

Lest you think that settlements are not going to be the talk of 2013, just take a look around. Bab al-Shams and E1 have taken on a life of their own, Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi – advocating an annexation policy – are a near lock to be in the next coalition, future Likud MK Moshe Feiglin has called for paying Palestinians to leave the West Bank, a significant swathe of Likud MKs favor annexing Area C or permanently maintaining the current status quo, and settlements and the settlement budget are expanding rather than slowing down. The craziest part about this is that on the right there is a desire to have settlements become even more of an issue rather than tamp down the settlement talk, as they see it as good politics and as a way of putting a dagger through the heart of the peace process for good.

It doesn’t matter that settlements are not the original cause of Palestinian discontent, or that there are larger obstacles to an effective two-state solution. The focus on settlements is very bad for Israel, and the longer it goes on the worse off Israel becomes. This is not an issue of public relations but of policy, and the Israeli government needs to understand that sooner rather than later. 2013 is well on its way to being a year in which the world, American Jewry, and Western policymakers hear a lot more about Israel creating a situation in which there is no Palestinian map than about Iran threatening to wipe Israel off it.

Israel And Distinguishing Between Hostile States

August 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

There were two articles published yesterday on the topic of Israel’s security in the wake of the Arab uprisings that arrived at polar opposite conclusions about the behavior Israel should expect from new Islamist governments. One was authored by me in the National Interest and I argue that massive economic crises and the renewed focus on quality of life issues that comes with elections have created a situation in which Israel’s Arab neighbors have too much on their plates to be thinking about causing trouble for Israel (the argument is longer and more nuanced than the one sentence summary, so please click over to the National Interest and read the whole thing). Writing in the Daily Beast at Open Zion, Benny Morris comes to the opposite conclusion, arguing that Israel is now “the most dangerous place for Jews in the world.” Looking at recent developments in the region, Morris sees things as follows:

But for Israel the “Arab Spring” represents  a dramatic, abrupt tightening of the noose. The takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas; the ongoing takeover of Egypt by the Brotherhood, traditionally an advocate of Israel’s destruction; the gradual subversion by Islamists of Hashemite control in Jordan; the Hizbullah dominance of Lebanon; and the current overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria all represent a tightening of the siege.

As Jeremy Pressman breaks down in a thorough fashion at Mideast Matrix, the reason Morris and I view Israel’s security situation so differently is because I am looking at material interests and capabilities and Morris is looking at ideology. For Morris, ideology outweighs every other consideration, and Islamism is a monolithic entity, the same in Iran as it is in Egypt. No matter what else is taking place, Morris sees Islamic fundamentalists joining hands to jump at the opportunity to destroy Israel. As Pressman rightly points out, Morris’s argument is difficult to test since Islamists are not actually controlling Egypt (the military is still very much running the show), Jordan, and Syria at the moment, but there is a reason that he and I differ over how to view emerging Islamist governments in Arab states, and it has to do with how one views ideology and ideological states.

There is something ironic for me about the fact that I am downplaying the role of ideology here since the thrust of so much of my non-blog writing is about how ideology is often a controlling variable in a variety of situations. My dissertation argues that ideology operates as a constraint on successful democratic transitions, and I have theorized that the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia was pushed out the door so quickly because the military and regime softliners did not see an emerging ideological threat (although their calculation was incorrect). In the case of new Arab Islamist governments looking to confront Israel, however, ideology is not a particularly important factor, which Morris does not grasp because he fails to distinguish between variants of ideology and their purpose.

Morris looks at Iran, which is an Islamist regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and assumes that every other Islamist government is going to behave in an identical fashion. The problem with this view is that while the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed very hostile to Israel, it misses some extremely important context. The Iranian regime is one that uses ideology as a source of legitimation; it’s argument for existing is that it governs a revolutionary state, the aim of which is to spread the Islamic revolution beyond its borders. Despite its parliamentary and presidential elections, it makes no real pretense to legitimating itself through democratic institutions and is run by unelected and unaccountable officials. Ideology is both its primary purpose and primary source of legitimacy, and thus if it does not act to carry out its ideological mission at all times, it endangers its very existence; when ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, fealty to the ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. In this sense, ideology becomes its primary interest to be advanced and it can take precedence over material concerns.

Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood (to the extent that the MB actually controls anything) is theoretically also an Islamist state, but its relationship to ideology is not the same as in Iran. The MB government in Egypt does not use ideology as its source of legitimacy even though it is an ideological movement. The MB ran for office in free and fair elections and campaigned on a host of promises to improve the economy, eliminate corruption, and increase transparency. In other words, it subjected itself to the people’s will as a way of creating legitimacy and it appealed to a host of material, rather than ideological, concerns. Not only does the MB not need to justify everything it does from an ideological perspective, it would be devastating to its long term prospects if it did. When it comes to confronting Israel, the MB will do so in a number of lower grade ways since it is a popular stance and also fits in with the party’s ideology, but it is not going to launch a war at the expense of its economic and political goals.

I do not mean to downplay in any way the hostility that the Muslim Brotherhood and other related Sunni Islamist groups harbor toward Israel. I do not view the MB as a benign reformist movement (or even necessarily a democratic one at heart rather than out of convenience) and the Israeli government is correct to be vigilant in not letting down its guard. This is not the same thing though as being on constant alert for invading Islamist armies willing to sacrifice their entire existence for a chance to kills Israeli Jews. Ideology is an extremely powerful force, but in order to understand how and why, it is necessary to get a handle on the different ways that ideology operates to shape events rather than taking a Manichean worldview that sees every situation involving Islamists as identical. Iran presents a real danger to Israel arising from its ideological worldview, but new Arab Islamist governments do not.

The Politics of Russia in Israel

June 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

Vladimir Putin was in Israel this week, and the government rolled out the red carpet for him. Shimon Peres hosted a state dinner for him and he held meetings with Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and he inaugurated a memorial in Netanya to Soviet soldiers who were killed in WWII. The Israeli welcoming embrace might seem strange given that Israel and the Soviet Union had an acrimonious relationship and that Putin is not exactly seen as a paragon of virtue these days, but it is actually a no-brainer from a domestic political standpoint. There are over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel out of a total population of 7.6 million, and there are many prominent Russian-Jewish politicians, from Natan Sharansky to current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many of these Russian olim no longer feel as acrimonious toward their former homeland as they once did, and they still have deep ties to Russia that make the Russian issue a political winner.

This point was really driven home for me this morning reading Marc Tracy’s post-Birthright thoughts on how his trip to Israel has made him feel more viscerally connected and emotionally attached to Israel even though he is an American Jew and not an Israeli. This connection felt by American Jews is one of the primary drivers behind the U.S.-Israel bond, as a particularly active and vocal (and yes, influential – let’s not sell ourselves short) segment of Americans feel so strongly about Israel. In Israel, the same holds true about the Russian population, who are Israeli citizens and may have not been to Russia or other former Soviet countries since they left but nevertheless feel a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward their previous home. This relationship goes both ways, as the new annual $1 million prize that Israel is going to bestow on recipients whose contributions to sciences or the arts reflect Jewish values is being funded by a group of Jewish Russian oligarchs. It makes sense for Israeli politicians to take advantage of this sentiment through stronger ties with Russia and wanting to have their pictures taken with Putin when he visits.

The question for me is whether this is a good idea for Israel geostrategically once you set aside the domestic political benefits, and my answer is no. To begin with, as Elise Labott points out, Israel and Russia do not see eye to eye on many foreign policy issues these days. The two countries are working at cross purposes when it comes to Iran and Syria, and yesterday Putin met with Mahmoud Abbas and implicitly backed the Palestinian president’s view that Israel is the party responsible for the deadlock in peace negotiations. Peres spent much of the visit publicly pressuring Putin to come around to the Israeli view of things, commenting during the memorial dedication ceremony that the country that defeated fascism will not tolerate similarly odious regimes in Iran and Syria, and expressing his view during the state dinner that Russia will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. This seems more like wishful thinking than an expression of confidence, since Russia has so far shown little inclination to budge on these issues and did not hint at any changes in policy during Putin’s meetings with Israeli leaders. Netanyahu, Barak, Lieberman, and other Israeli officials are assiduously working to court Russia, but to no avail. At some point, the closer relationship with Russia is going to come to a head, and it will be easier if there are fewer messy entanglements at that point.

Aside from the fact that Israel is destined to endlessly bang its head against the wall when it comes to Russian policy, there is another good reason for Israel to distance itself from Russia. Putin under Russia has evidenced an increasingly authoritarian bent, with Putin’s domestic opponents harassed and jailed, opposition political parties eviscerated, and charges of election rigging and voter fraud. Russia today is no longer a democracy, and Freedom House this year assigned it a 6 for political rights and a 5 for civil liberties (with 7 being the worst score a state can achieve). In short, Israel is trying to tighten its relationship with a deeply illiberal state, and one with which it foten disagrees on matters of foreign policy. In doing so, it risks damaging its relationship with other democracies and European states that do not look kindly upon Russian intransigence. Israel often evinces a view that any friend is a good one, but cozying up to Russia is not going to advance Israel’s international standing or leave it feeling less isolated. This is a classic example of losing sight of what is strategically prudent in the long term in favor of short term tactical political gain. Israel does not have to publicly repudiate Russia or Putin or lead the Mitt Romney vanguard that views Russia as the top geopolitical threat in the world today, but it also does not need to spend its time trying to be Russia’s best friend. Israel should work to keep its relationship with Russia as non-acrimonious as it can while holding Russia at arm’s length.

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