May 1, 2013 § 7 Comments
Ben Alter (who has done yeoman’s work editing the last couple of pieces I’ve written for Foreign Affairs) and Ed Fishman wrote an insightful op-ed for the New York Times this past Sunday in which they argued that American energy independence – which may be a reality by the end of the next decade – will have a downside too, which is that it will lead to massive destabilization in states that rely on high global energy prices. States like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain depend on revenues from oil and natural gas to maintain to dole out patronage and co-opt the opposition, but the introduction of U.S. shale gas into the global marketplace will lower energy prices worldwide, and Alter and Fishman argue that it will create domestic unrest and even regime change in petrostates, which will in turn put shipping lanes in harm’s way, endanger counterterrorism cooperation and efforts to deal with Iran between the U.S. and Arab Gulf monarchies, and force Russia into a more aggressive and territorial foreign policy. The upshot here is that energy independence will not allow the U.S. to withdraw from the world as it is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil producing states, but rather the U.S. will still have to act as the liberal hegemon guaranteeing the safety of global trade, maintaining great power stability, and working to spread democracy so that the international system remains relatively stable.
Writing in Forbes in response, Christopher Helman says that Alter and Fishman baked a faulty assumption into their argument since the price of oil will never get as low as $50 a barrel (and he accuses them of taking liberties with the report that they presumably cite), and that even if the global price did hit that floor, it wouldn’t remain there as unrest in petrostates would cause global prices to skyrocket once more. Another scenario is that OPEC states would cut their production in order to inflate prices back up to $90-$100 per barrel in order to maintain their current levels of government spending. While this criticism may be accurate, Helman is misreading the important takeaway from Alter and Fishman’s piece, which is that there are unintended consequences that emanate from even what appear to be the rosiest of scenarios. In short, U.S. energy independence and lower energy prices will be a great development for the U.S. in many respects, but it will also create a host of negative externalities that will require the U.S. to stay on its toes.
While reading the Alter/Fishman piece, I couldn’t help but think about how their argument applies to Iran and the question of whether a nuclear arms race in the Middle East will ensue should Iran achieve nuclear status. There is a wide-ranging debate over whether this scenario is a realistic one, with no less than President Obama (and thus presumably the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) warning that a nuclear Iran will set off a regional nuclear arms race, and analysts such as my close friend Steven Cook arguing that nuclear dominoes will not fall in the Middle East as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia either don’t have the scientific capability and infrastructure or the cash on hand to build their own bombs. I do not claim to have any expertise in this area at all, and Steven certainly knows his stuff, but let’s assume for a moment that of these three candidates, Saudi Arabia could conceivably go nuclear given that the Saudis have the cash to buy the technology and build the infrastructure they would need in a hurry. Let’s also assume that Alter and Fishman’s predictions unfold, and U.S. energy independence destabilizes Saudi Arabia in fifteen years and leads to the fall of the ruling family and the government. Isn’t this in many ways the ultimate nightmare scenario – not that the current governments in the Middle East will become nuclear powers, but that whomever or whatever replaces them will be nuclear powers?
Anyone who knows anything about U.S. foreign and defense policy knows that the most pressing problem facing the U.S. right now is not the rise of China or the fight against al-Qaida. It is the possibility that the Pakistani government will fall and that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will be taken over by extremists. Only slightly less worrisome is that the lax command and control structure that exists for Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile – and for those who don’t pay close attention to these things, it turns out that the Pakistani government moves its nukes in and out of traffic in barely guarded civilian vans so that we won’t steal them – will lead to a nuke being stolen or even accidentally launched. This is the reason that the U.S. keeps on propping up the Pakistani government and throwing money into a Pakistani black hole despite mountains of evidence that Pakistan is not our ally and actually works to undermine the U.S. in Afghanistan and other places.
Now let’s replicate this situation in Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or any other slightly shaky Middle Eastern state that may be inclined to try and acquire nuclear weapons in response to Iran, and that later falls due to the instability unleashed by the Arab Spring or the instability unleashed by falling oil prices. Or imagine the nightmare that we would be dealing with right now in Syria if Israel had not bombed the Syrian reactor a few years ago and Syria had somehow made a successful mad dash for a nuke, and that instead of worrying about missing Syrian chemical weapons, we were worrying about missing Syrian nuclear weapons. I am not someone who worries about the current Iranian regime actually using a nuke should it develop the capability to build one – although I do worry about the cascade effects of Iran having the bomb and thus making its support for international terrorism and groups like Hizballah largely untouchable – but I certainly worry enormously about what would happen to an Iranian nuke in the chaos following the current regime falling, or a Saudi nuke in the chaos of the monarchy falling. Maybe I have missed the conversation on this issue, which would be understandable since I am not a nuclear policy person, but shouldn’t the conversation surrounding Iran and its nuclear program be a little more focused on the Pakistanization of this problem in a regional context when energy prices fall rather than solely on whether the Iranian regime can be trusted not to nuke Tel Aviv?
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.
November 7, 2012 § 5 Comments
As it became clear last night that President Obama was headed for an easy victory, a bunch of people on my twitter feed began speculating – or more accurately, making jokes – about what this would mean for Bibi Netanyahu. The joking actually turned into a serious conversation about whether Obama will somehow punish Netanyahu for his perceived support of Romney and clashes with the president, with some going so far as to speculate that he will tell Netanyahu that no help on Iran is forthcoming. It seems that Netanyahu is worried himself, as he is already clamping down on Likud members who are expressing negative reactions to Obama’s reelection out of fear that it will damage his standing with the White House even further.
Despite what is obviously not a great relationship between the two men, I don’t quite see how Obama’s reelection is going to have much of a negative effect on Netanyahu or the U.S.-Israel relationship at large. This is true for a few reasons. First, as Steven Cook persuasively argued last month, the relationship is institutionalized to the point that personal animosity between the countries’ leaders is not going to have much of an effect, if any. Let’s assume that Obama decides this morning that he wants to put the screws on Netanyahu – what precisely is he going to do? Aid to Israel is controlled by Congress, the joint military and intelligence cooperation is so deeply ingrained that it would take a long time to reverse, and there are deep ties between the two countries at all levels of government, business, and society. There are smaller things that Obama could do on the margins, but the immediate consequences are close to zero.
Second, and I cannot stress this enough, if you think that the myriad of ways in which Obama supported Israel during his first term was just a feint to win an election, then you are falling victim to the same delusion that said Nate Silver and all of the polls predicting an Obama win were deliberately skewing the evidence. Quite simply, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that all of a sudden funding for Iron Dome, joint military exercises, vetoing of anti-Israel UN resolutions, and other similar actions are going to stop now that Obama doesn’t have to worry about senior citizens’ votes in Florida. I will bet any amount of money that there is no drop-off in the administration’s support of Israel in the security and diplomatic spheres, and the folks who think otherwise have a large burden of proof to overcome that cannot be swept away merely by shouting “but he didn’t visit Israel” or “he left Netanyahu waiting while he ate dinner with his family.”
Third, Obama is not very popular among Israelis, and so even if he wanted to punish Netanyahu by trying to interfere in the Israeli election, it just wouldn’t work. Bill Clinton might have been able to sway Israelis when he was president, but Obama does not have the popularity, credibility, or familiarity with Israeli voters to pull of such a move. The fact that Obama was reelected is not going to factor into Israelis’ calculations when they go to the polls, as Brent Sasley helpfully pointed out previously. The idea that Netanyahu now has to be running scared because his hopes to have Romney elected did not pan out is a pretty flimsy one.
Finally, the suggestion that Obama is now going to tell Netanyahu that the U.S. has no interest in confronting Iran makes little sense to me based on previous U.S. actions and Obama’s long record of statements indicating that he views an Iranian nuclear bomb as a real problem. Aside from Stuxnet, crippling sanctions, and an increased carrier presence in the Gulf, Obama has made clear that preventing nuclear proliferation is perhaps the foreign policy issue that he holds most dear. The disagreement between he and Netanyahu over the red line of nuclear capability vs. nuclear weapons is still going to be there, but Obama has held firm to his own timeline so far and he is not going to now somehow make it even more firm because he has been reelected. The bottom line here is that Obama is worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon as well, and he is not going to drop his concerns just because he and Netanyahu do not get along very well.
P.S. For another argument on why the Obama revenge meme is an ill-informed one that focuses on different variables than mine, check out Peter Beinart this morning.
October 15, 2012 § 1 Comment
As anyone who watched the vice-presidential debate on Thursday night may have noticed – and as I noted myself on Friday – Joe Biden repeatedly brought up Prime Minister Netanyahu but always referred to him by his nickname, Bibi. On Friday I wrote, “I get that Biden was trying to push how well he knows Netanyahu and that informality is part of Biden’s natural shtick, but can you imagine Biden talking about any other foreign leader in such an informal manner? Not sure if this says more about Biden, Netanyahu, or the U.S.-Israel relationship more broadly, but it’s worth thinking about.”
I actually did spend some time thinking about it for The Atlantic, and here’s what I came up with:
When the subject of Iran’s nuclear program came up during last night’s vice presidential debate, Joe Biden began talking about his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Biden likes to play up his long-standing connections with foreign leaders, so mentioning Netanyahu by name was not in itself surprising. The odd part is that Biden never referred to Netanyahu in any way but “Bibi,” which is Netanyahu’s often-used nickname.
While Netanyahu is referred to as Bibi in a number of settings (in line with Israelis’ proclivity toward nicknames, especially in the military), Biden’s use of his friend’s nickname stood out in a formal political debate. Even more noticeable is that Biden initially referred to “Bibi” without even providing his last name or his position as prime minister of Israel. It is impossible to imagine this happening with any other world leader, but Biden did it repeatedly and with ease when it came to Netanyahu.
It is easy to chalk this up to Biden’s generally informal nature, or his desire to create a contrast between his own decades of foreign policy experience and Ryan’s relative dearth of foreign policy chops. Yet even if Biden did so unintentionally, there are some lessons to be learned from the vice president’s colloquialism about Netanyahu and the current state of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The rest of the article can be found on The Atlantic’s website here, and as always please let me know what you think.
October 12, 2012 § 4 Comments
Unlike the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, last night’s vice presidential debate had plenty of talk about foreign policy (thank you, Martha Raddatz!). As I had hoped, both Israel and Turkey got mentioned during the mix of topics, and there are some conclusions that can be drawn from what both Joe Biden and Paul Ryan had to say.
On Israel, unsurprisingly both candidates were climbing over each other to note their support. Israel is popular with the American public, so this was a smart move for both sides. The strategy for each man was slightly different though; Ryan noted a couple of times that he and Romney have adopted a policy of stopping Iran from gaining nuclear capability rather than building a nuclear weapon, which is official Israeli policy as well, while Biden went out of his way to emphasize how closely the administration has worked with Israel and how he himself has a close and longstanding personal relationship with Bibi Netanyahu. Biden’s approach might reflect one of two things: either that he generally likes to brag about his relationships with other world leaders and knows that he has an advantage in this area since Ryan is a foreign affairs neophyte and cannot make a similar claim, or that the Obama campaign has numbers suggesting that Netanyahu is popular with Americans at large and also within the American Jewish community.
On a related note, I do have to say that it was a bit strange to hear Biden repeatedly refer in a televised debate to “Bibi” as if he were some random childhood buddy or family member. I get that Biden was trying to push how well he knows Netanyahu and that informality is part of Biden’s natural shtick, but can you imagine Biden talking about any other foreign leader in such an informal manner? Not sure if this says more about Biden, Netanyahu, or the U.S.-Israel relationship more broadly, but it’s worth thinking about.
Also significant is that Raddatz did not actually ask a question about Israel, but the candidates brought it up in conjunction with talking about the Iranian nuclear program. This suggests to me that despite Netanyahu being stymied so far by his own domestic politics and by the U.S. on striking Iranian nuclear facilities, his constant barrage on the issue has still had a large effect, in that he has managed to make Israeli concerns an important part of the debate around Iran here in the U.S. I am in no way suggesting that the U.S. is in thrall to Israeli interests and will do anything solely because Israel wants it to (hear that, Mearsheimer and Walt?), but Netanyahu has done a good job of making sure that Israel’s concerns are duly noted at the upper echelons of the U.S. national security apparatus.
There was less mention of Turkey than there was of Israel last night, but it did come up in the context of Syria. Biden mentioned that we are working “hand in glove” with a number of countries, including Turkey, which is technically true, but I doubt that Erdoğan and the Turks would describe things the same way. We are certainly working with them, but the implication is that we are on the same page, which is not the case since the Turks would love to have us support an outside intervention. Of course we are trying to coordinate with Turkey, but U.S. goals and Turkish goals are very different in this case. The U.S. wants to manage the situation and keep Syria from exploding outside its borders without having to do anything particularly active, whereas Turkey wants the U.S. to ultimately get involved militarily, whether it be in establishing a no-fly zone or even to go as far as contributing troops and air support for a ground invasion to get rid of Assad. The last scenario will never happen and I am deeply skeptical that the first one will happen either, but Biden did a nifty job of glossing over these differences in pretending that the U.S. and Turkey are of one mind on this. As for Ryan, he said we should have deferred to “our allies the Turks” in coming up with a better plan for Syria. I found Ryan’s remarks on foreign policy last night to sound as if he had read from a briefing book without really thinking through the issues, and I thought his comments on Syria were far and away his weakest and most unintelligible, but hopefully somewhere Rick Perry is sitting around dazed and confused that the GOP nominee for vice president recognizes that Turkey is our ally and not run by “Islamic terrorists.”
September 28, 2012 § 4 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu gave a widely covered and dissected speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday in which the main takeaway seems to be that he watched a lot of Warner Brothers cartoons during his time as a teenager living in the U.S. Brent Sasley and Jeffrey Goldberg both weighed in on what Netanyahu was trying to accomplish, and Ali Gharib pointed out that Bibi actually made a mistake with his cartoon bomb, so I don’t need to rehash what others have already eloquently written. Instead I’d like to pick up on a theme that Robert Wright captured, which is that Netanyahu essentially conceded that Israel will not be bombing Iran any time soon. As regular O&Z readers know, I have thought for months that an Israeli strike is unlikely to happen, and so now that the conventional wisdom has caught up with me, it is worth rehashing why most people thought that an attack was going to happen during the summer or fall.
The thinking in the DC foreign policy community on an Israeli strike has largely been shaped by the notion that the decision to attack lies with Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and so the speculation over whether Israel was on the brink of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities broke down into two camps. On one side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are deadly serious about a strike. They view Israeli saber rattling as an effort to prepare the Israeli public for war and think that the reportedly reluctant Israeli military and political leadership will line up behind the prime minister and the defense minister once they decide to order military action. On the other side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are engaged in an elaborate bluff designed to either pressure Iran into ceasing its uranium enrichment program or to convince the United States to handle the job of taking out the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli chatter about the looming threat from Iran is aimed at creating conditions under which the U.S. feels it has no choice but to do everything possible to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and convincing the Europeans to back harsher sanctions on Iran. In this reading of the situation, the rest of the Israeli military and political leadership do not matter because Netanyahu and Barak are only interested in creating the perception that they are going to attack.
The question then of what Israel is going to do turns on Netanyahu and Barak’s true mindset; if they are serious about attacking they will attack, and if they are bluffing they won’t. It is a very simple dynamic, leading to an entire cottage industry designed to ascertain what precisely the two men’s intentions are, with an increasing focus on Barak – or, per his feeble attempt at anonymity, the “decision maker” – as the key figure. In this increasingly accepted view, there are only two possibilities and two outcomes, and the only people who matter are the Netanyahu-Barak tandem.
What this discussion has entirely missed, however, is that there is a plausible third outcome, which is that Netanyahu and Barak are dead set on launching a military operation against Iranian nuclear sites but that such an operation will not occur. People have discounted this possibility because they either misread the way in which national security decision making takes place in Israel or discount the Israeli political climate.
Netanyahu and Barak are not the only people who matter in this decision. When an American president wants to go to war, he generally gets his way irrespective of what his cabinet or generals want to do, with the Iraq War a good demonstration of how the president is truly The Decider. In contrast, Netanyahu and Barak will not be able to launch a strike on Iran without the near unanimous consent of the inner security cabinet and the larger political-security cabinet, and such authorization is not assured. Four of the nine members of the smaller group are currently believed to be opposed to a strike, and the fact that Netanyahu briefed Rav Ovadia Yosef in order to flip Eli Yishai’s support speaks volumes about Netanyahu and Barak’s power to order an attack against other ministers’ wishes.
There are also important constraints on Netanyahu and Barak’s decision making. Israeli public opinion does not favor a unilateral Israeli strike, the home front is woefully unprepared for retaliation from Iran or Hizballah, a myriad of current and former IDF and intelligence officials believe an attack is a bad idea at this point, and the specter of the Winograd Commission – which blasted former prime minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF chiefs for the 2006 war in Lebanon – hangs over everything. All of this is particularly salient given Netanyahu’s historical risk aversion when it comes to ordering military operations of any sort, compounded by the fact that this is an operation whose chances of success are seen to be limited to delaying Iran’s nuclear program rather than ending it and might end up with thousands of Israeli civilian casualties as retaliation. That the Obama administration is also opposed to an Israeli strike is an enormous constraint on Netanyahu given Israeli reliance on U.S. munitions and aid.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s speech, there is a rush of commentary focusing on the fact that Obama looks increasingly likely to be elected and so Netanyahu feels like he needs to back off and not risk angering the White House any further. I am sure that is part of what is going on, but this narrative implies that Netanyahu would have ordered a strike by now if Romney were ahead in the polls. I think that is wrong, and misses the fact that there is lots going on here on the Israeli side and that the U.S. is only one of many variables in this equation, and perhaps not even the most important one. If the focus is exclusively on the argument that U.S. pressure has sufficiently convinced Netanyahu to change his plans, then analysts are guaranteed to get it wrong again in the months or years ahead when trying to figure out what Israel is going to do.
September 13, 2012 § 5 Comments
We Americans have a tendency to look at situations and think that they revolve around us. The best recent example of this has been the debate over America’s role in the Arab Spring (or Arab Awakening, Islamist Winter, or whatever other term people are using these days) and the view that the U.S. was somehow the decisive actor in determining whether or not regimes fell. We can debate all day whether President Obama was right to withdraw support for Hosni Mubarak – and I for one firmly think that he was – but there is simply no question that Mubarak would have fallen anyway even if the U.S. had backed him to the hilt. The revolution in Egypt was not about us, nor did we have the ability or wherewithal to control it. Yet this idea persists that “we needed to back our allies” and that Mubarak would still be the modern day pharaoh of Cairo had we wanted him to stay put, all stemming from this mistaken paradigm that insists on seeing all world events as revolving around the U.S. In many, if not most, instances, political events overseas have little to do with the U.S. in more than a tangential manner, and even when they do involve the U.S., it is in an indirect way.
This brings me to the latest dustup between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, which began when Netanyahu responded to Hillary Clinton’s statement that the U.S. did not see a need to issue any red lines over Iran by saying, “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” This was of course a direct reference to the U.S. and set off all sorts of reverberations, beginning with Israel letting it be known that the White House had rejected a request for a meeting between the two leaders, Obama and Netanyahu speaking on the phone for an hour late Tuesday night, and Senator Barbara Boxer releasing an astonishing letter that she sent to Netanyahu in which she wrote, “Your remarks are utterly contrary to the extraordinary United States-Israel alliance, evidenced by President Obama’s record and the record of Congress,” and “I am stunned by the remarks that you made this week regarding U.S. support for Israel. Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel?”
The fireworks between the two countries were immediately interpreted as Netanyahu’s attempt to leverage the U.S. presidential campaign season against Obama. The very first sentence of the New York Times story on the affair is “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel inserted himself into the most contentious foreign policy issue of the American presidential campaign on Tuesday, criticizing the Obama administration for refusing to set clear ‘red lines’ on Iran’s nuclear progress that would prompt the United States to undertake a military strike.” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote, ”Now Netanyahu seems determined, more than ever, to alienate the President of the United States and, as an ally of Mitt Romney’s campaign, to make himself a factor in the 2012 election—one no less pivotal than the most super Super PAC.” The conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu’s statement lashing out at the administration over the lack of red lines on Iran is an attempt to force Obama’s hand before the election or to create enough problems for Obama with pro-Israel voters and groups that it will swing the election to Romney. In short, Andrew Sullivan’s most dire prediction come to life.
The focus on the presidential campaign is a misreading of what is actually going on here that stems from the American pathology I laid out at the top of this post. Netanyahu’s harsh words are not aimed at the presidential race but are a result of what I imagine to be his deep and maddening frustration that he cannot force an Israeli strike on Iran. The point of Netanyahu’s verbal barrage is not to sabotage Obama or influence the 2012 vote for president, and in fact is only directed at the U.S. because he has already emptied his chamber on Israeli leaders opposed to a strike and cannot publicly criticize the person – Ehud Barak – with whom he is actually frustrated. Barak has reportedly changed his mind about the wisdom of an Israeli strike because he has come to realize what it will mean for U.S.-Israel relations, and without Barak on board any hopes Netanyahu has of taking out Iranian nuclear facilities are completely dashed. Netanyahu cannot go after Barak, however, since he cannot afford to alienate him or to let everyone know that the two men are no longer of one mind on this issue, and so he is reduced to directing his intemperate words at the U.S. and the Obama administration as the indirect causes of his current anger. Netanyahu’s outburst is not about the presidential campaign or presidential politics, but about what he views as an Israeli national security imperative that is being stymied by an array of forces. The fact that this is campaign season in the U.S. is only incidental, since Netanyahu would have issued a similar statement at the beginning or middle of a presidential term. His prism is an Israeli one, not an American one, and his focus is on Iran rather than on U.S. politics. Believe it or not, Israel has other concerns aside from the Obama-Romney contest. Yes, what is going on in the U.S. obviously impacts this entire issue, but the notion that what Bibi said yesterday is about the presidential campaign here is just the latest data point for the case that knowledge of Israeli politics on this side of the ocean remains poor.
August 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have run into the problem that they appear to be virtually alone when it comes to deciding whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. The two are so out on a limb at the moment that Shai Feldman, writing in Foreign Policy, declared the debate over attacking Iran to be over because Netanyahu and Barak lack the minimum consensus that would be required for military action. The defense and intelligence establishments are united in wanting to wait for the U.S. and not wanting to attack Iran unilaterally, and until Avi Dichter was added to the security cabinet formerly known as the Octet last week (which means that it is no longer a shminiya but a tishiya), the vote to attack Iran was reportedly split 4-4. A lot was made of the fact that Dichter is presumed to be on Netanyahu and Barak’s side and that adding him to the mix breaks the logjam, but I didn’t write anything about that last week because it is a faulty and ill-informed argument. A 5-4 vote is not going to be enough to launch a strike given the heavy opposition that exists to such a move; Netanyahu and Barak need to do some serious convincing and make real headway with the holdouts, who are Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, and Eli Yishai.
It is this last name that is perhaps the toughest to move, because Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all members of Likud and presumably Netanyahu has some more sway with them since he is their party leader (although my hunch is that Meridor, and to a lesser extent Begin, would never flip). Yishai, however, is a member of Shas, and that’s how we get to the outrageously cynical ploy that Bibi tried yesterday. For the uninitiated – although since you are reading a niche blog about Israeli politics right now, you probably don’t need this background – Shas is an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, controls how its members vote despite not being an elected official of any kind. I wrote about this dynamic back in May, when Rabbi Yosef ordered Yishai to change his opinion on being willing to consider alternatives to the Tal Law. What you have in Shas is a theocratic party, in which the elected politicians are beholden to the party’s rabbinic leadership and dare not contravene rabbinic orders when it comes to taking public positions or voting on issues in the Knesset or the cabinet. With this in mind, yesterday Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – who holds no elected or official position in the Israeli polity and has zero to do with Israeli national security – was the recipient of a national security briefing on Iran. Not only was he briefed, but it was done by Yaakov Amidror, the head of the Israeli National Security Council, lest anyone think that this was not a big deal or little more than a courtesy for a former chief rabbi of Israel.
Make no mistake about what is going on here in case it isn’t already abundantly clear: Netanyahu is trying to swing a vote to launch a strike against Iran by convincing a religious leader to order an acolyte to vote a certain way. He is not trying to convince Yishai by making a cogent case for military action – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has given up trying to do it this way – but is going above his head to Yishai’s rabbi, whom he knows Yishai is bound to follow, and telling a man with no national security experience at all and no training or education in evaluating intelligence or threat assessments that it is crucial to bomb Iran. Does anyone think that Amidror, a general and Israel’s equivalent of Tom Donilon, had any trouble at all convincing Rabbi Yosef about the urgent need to strike now in order to prevent Israel’s annihilation? For all of the outrageous things that go on in politics, and Israeli politics in particular, this represents an absolute low. It is a naked appeal to religious authority made to a theocratic party in which politicians serve as mouthpieces for rabbis. The reason that Shas has never taken an interest in foreign affairs is because its spiritual leaders don’t care about the issue, and to prey on that ignorance in order to influence a crucial position on national security is nothing short of abominable.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from this sorry and craven episode. First, Netanyahu is desperate since he realizes that he is fighting a steep uphill battle and he will resort to anything, no matter how blatantly insulting and undemocratic, to get an advantage. Second, Netanyahu and Barak’s argument for an attack is not only falling on deaf ears but is so weak on its face that they both know it cannot win on its own merits. Briefing Eli Yishai’s rabbi is not a move made out of strength, but one made out of a position that is even weaker than anyone could have realized. If this svengali routine is the best that Netanyahu can come up with, I hope for his sake that he has something better when it comes to the rest of his security cabinet, since unlike Yishai, the three Likud holdouts do not answer to a higher authority.