December 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
On many Fridays I highlight some of the more ridiculous things that I have read over the past week, but today there is no need to link to or comment on specific articles and op-eds because the most entertaining spectacle of the week has been the maneuvering, pettiness, backstabbing, and theater of the absurd that is Israeli politics. At the heart of all the shifting back and forth are a number of personal relationships characterized by deep animosity that are manifesting themselves as shifts in political loyalties, and it is all making for the most mesmerizing election season that I can remember, in Israel or anywhere else.
First up is the curious case of Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister and previously the number two person behind Avigdor Lieberman on Yisrael Beiteinu’s party list. On Tuesday, while he was on his way to the press conference announcing YB’s party list and just two hours before it was scheduled to begin, Ayalon received a call from Lieberman informing him that he was leaving Ayalon off YB’s Knesset slate for the January 22 election. Leaving aside the Night of the Long Knives quality to all of this in terms of its suddenness, the move to sideline Ayalon is puzzling in the extreme. Not only is Ayalon a top Foreign Ministry official and a former ambassador to the U.S., there was little hint that relations between him and Lieberman were so bad as to warrant this type of excommunication. In fact, Ayalon’s increasingly extreme rhetoric and behavior, such as his purposeful humiliation of the Turkish ambassador in January 2010 by making him sit on a low chair before television cameras and not displaying the Turkish flag and for which Ayalon was later forced to publicly apologize, seemed to be driven by the need to placate his boss. While Ayalon has reverted to his former more diplomatic self and has refused to make a scene, his father did not take the news terribly well and gave an interview in which he called Lieberman a “little Stalin.” Rumors abound as to why Ayalon was dumped, and the most likely explanation seems to be that Lieberman thought Ayalon had a history of leaking to the press and that he might not have been a fan of Ayalon’s high public profile. In any event, it is difficult to see how this makes Yisrael Beiteinu any stronger or inspires much confidence in Lieberman’s leadership.
Next is the fallout between Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich and former party head Amir Peretz, who was third on Labor’s list until yesterday, when he announced that he was leaving Labor and joining up with Tzipi Livni and her new Hatnua party. Is Peretz leaving because he feels that Labor is no longer a suitable ideological home for him, or because he has a close and longstanding relationship with Livni, or because he thinks that boosting Hatnua is in his country’s best interests? If you guessed any of these options, you’d be wrong. Peretz is bolting from Labor at the last minute, and literally only one week after Labor’s members deemed him to be such an important member of the party that he got the second most votes in the party’s primary, because he is jealous of Yachimovich and felt that she wasn’t giving him, a former defense minister and the man who is in some ways the godfather of the Iron Dome missile defense system, the requisite amount of respect. To put this into perspective, the former head of Israel’s largest trade union and Israel’s largest and most prominent leftwing party has just left his longtime political home despite its current laserlike focus on social and economic issues - Peretz’s bread and butter – to join a party led by a former Likudnik and erstwhile Kadima head whose track record of commitment to liberal social causes is tenuous at best. The personal rivalry between Peretz and Yachimovich is so intense that he is actively hoping that Labor will go down in flames so that he can oust Yachimovich from the party leadership the next time around, and is willing to join up with a party and a politician with whom he shares no common cause other than a hatred of Bibi Netanyahu just so that he can punish Yachimovich. Isn’t it a shame that Shakespeare isn’t around to catalogue all of this?
Finally we have Tzipi Livni and her various hangups with her former allies and fellow travelers on the right. The relationship between her and Shaul Mofaz, who only months ago launched a palace coup and replaced her as head of Kadima, is obviously terrible, and so she undoubtedly took extra special joy in siphoning off seven members from Kadima on Monday. The reason this matters is that seven is the magic number that allows a faction to break off from a party and bring campaign funds with them, so now not only has Livni taken her revenge on Mofaz by guaranteeing Kadima’s electoral death, she is likely saddling him with debt as well by taking campaign money too. Then there is her longstanding refusal to join up with Netanyahu in a coalition following the elections no matter the outcome. While such declarations in Israeli politics obviously must be taken with a grain of salt – see Shaul Mofaz’s rhetoric right before banding together with Likud earlier this year as Exhibit A – Livni’s stance can probably be viewed as ironclad given the various opportunities she had to form a unity government following the 2009 elections that she turned down. She seems determined to spend the rest of her life trying to topple her former Likud buddy Bibi, and she doesn’t care how long or how many elections it takes. So we are left with the prospect of former Labor leaders Peretz and Amram Mitzna flocking to a party led by a right-winger claiming to be undergoing a conversion later in life, and the possible eventuality of the former Likud and Kadima official Livni refusing to join a coalition with Netanyahu after the elections while Labor under Yachimovich jumps at the chance. Is any of this logical? Nope, not really. But there’s Israeli politics for you, and if you’re not watching this drama as it unfolds, you’re missing the world’s greatest show.
December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments
Last night Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted an apt point that all supporters of Israel should think about very hard. He wrote, “Two things can be true at the same time: Israel is judged more harshly than any other nation–and, Netanyahu is behaving terribly.” Israel is subjected to double standards to which no other country is held, and if you think that isn’t true, consider the nearly single-minded focus on Israel that is the hallmark of the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, or the harsh spotlight trained upon Israel over civilian casualties relative to other countries. Israel behaves badly on plenty of occasions, but so do other countries with far less complex challenges, and yet a visitor from another planet encountering Earth for the first time would lump Israel together with North Korea based on the media coverage (and if you think that is a fair comparison, please just stop reading now since you’ll be wasting your time). Israel always starts off in any situation at a complete disadvantage, and this is something that no other country deals with on a similar scale. Yet, this does not mean that Israel is a completely blameless actor in every instance, and none of the above obviates the fact that not all criticism of the Netanyahu government is a result of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, dislike of Netanyahu personally, or driven by a hidden agenda. To take the case in point, Netanyahu’s actions since last Thursday are not only childish and puerile, they are weakening Israel to an immeasurable degree.
Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at the long term picture. Israel is now perhaps more isolated than it has ever been on a number of levels, and certainly the most isolated it has been since 1975 during the Arab oil boycotts and the falling out with the Ford administration. Looking at Israel’s traditional regional allies, Israel’s relationship with Turkey is at an all-time low, its ties with Egypt are the most strained they have been in the post-Camp David era, and Jordan is too preoccupied with its own internal problems and the wave of refugees coming over the border from Syria to give Israel much cover on anything. While Israel does not have to worry about military threats from Arab states, it is looking at a long-term stream of diplomatic pressure from Islamist governments and less cooperation from Arab states on repressing non-state actors who threaten Israel.
In Europe, Israel faces an uphill battle as well. There is generally a lot of sympathy in European capitals for the Palestinians, but Europe’s indignation over settlements is real as well. This was driven home by the lopsided UN vote on Palestinian statehood, in which the Czech Republic was the only European country to vote with Israel. New allies Cyprus and Greece, to whom Israel has pinned such high hopes, both voted to grant Palestine non-member state observer status, and stalwart Israeli ally Germany abstained due to its anger over repeatedly being dismissed by Israel over the issue of settlement expansion. This all comes on the heels of the surprising European support for Operation Pillar of Cloud, which indicates that while Israel faces a tough audience in Europe, it has some wiggle room.
Then there is the United States, which has given Israel military aid for Iron Dome, constantly goes to bat for it in the UN including last week, was unwavering in its rhetorical support during military operations in Gaza, and also has been pleading with Israel to halt settlement expansion. The U.S. is unlikely to put heat on Israel like Europe does, but it has repeatedly expressed its displeasure with settlements and is very clear that it sees settlement growth as an obstacle to peace.
Given all of this, what is Israel’s most sensible course of action? Is it to loudly announce that it is going to “punish” the Palestinians for going to the UN by building thousands of more homes in the West Bank? Or is it to look at the big picture, realize that settlements are not just an excuse trotted out by anti-Semitic Europeans and Israel-hating leftists but are actually causing Israel all sorts of problems, and come up with some other way to deal with what it views as Palestinian intransigence? Israel went in the span of weeks from being viewed sympathetically due to Palestinian rockets indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians to being denounced and having its ambassadors hauled in on the carpet over settlement expansion and being threatened with all sorts of countermeasures by the West. Please, someone make a cogent argument for me how this is somehow a brilliant strategy and how Netanyahu is ensuring Israel’s future existence, because from where I am sitting it is counterproductive, dangerous, and unwaveringly stupid. It’s all fine and good to constantly claim that Western views don’t matter and that Israel has the right to do what it wants, but that is the equivalent to burying your head in the sand. The fact is that Israel cannot exist on its own, it needs allies given the neighborhood in which it lives, and settlements are actually a problem for Israel’s allies. That’s the truth, and pretending otherwise is fiddling while Rome burns.
It has become clear to me over the past few years that contrary to the popular myth that the problems between Israel and the Palestinians stem from 1967, the parties are still fighting over 1948. Significant segments of Palestinians, with Hamas leading the way, simply will not concede the legitimacy of Israel, plain and simple. Concurrently, the constant refrains from the right about Palestinians not needing a state of their own because they have Jordan or the tired old canard that there is no land to give back to the Palestinians because it belonged to Jordan and to Egypt (always smugly spouted as if this is some brilliantly clever argument) is a vestige of 1948. Everyone loves to point out that Hamas doesn’t care about settlements, and that the PLO was founded in 1964, and both of these things are true and speak to the challenges that Israel faces that have absolutely nothing to do with settlements. But – and this a big one – settlements exacerbate the situation enormously, particularly with Western countries. Even ceding the argument that Palestinians of all stripes are never going to accept Israel in the pre-1967 borders and that Arab states will never want to make peace with Israel, Israel should then be doing everything it can to make sure it has the West on its side. You want to know what the best way to foul that up is? Proudly declaring that you don’t care what anyone else thinks and that you are going to build settlements wherever and whenever you like, and that doing so is not in any way an obstacle to a two-state solution and that in fact the blame rests solely with the other side. I am sick and tired of watching Israel’s supporters, of whom I am most definitely one, ignore the glaringly obvious facts that are right in front of their faces. Settlements are a huge problem, case closed. If you think that the benefit to expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank outweighs everything else, then I respect your argument and at least you are going into this with eyes wide open. Pretending that settlements are an ancillary side issue though is willful blindness, and if that’s what you really think, then your powers of observation and analysis are sorely lacking.
August 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
One of the consequences of the disparities in threat perception and capabilities between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to Iran is that Israel has a strong incentive to pressure the U.S. into acting. Israel faces a graver and more imminent threat than the U.S. from an Iranian nuclear weapon given its proximity to Iran, the fact that Iran has repeatedly threatened Israel with violence and annihilation (and noting this does not automatically mean that Israel should strike at Iran, but by the same token pretending that this is not the case makes those who invoke the argument appear to be naively foolish), and the fact that Israel has been a frequent target of Iranian-sponsored terrorism that will only increase once Iran has a measure of nuclear deterrence. This is combined with the fact that by all accounts Israel is not equipped to destroy the Iranian nuclear program in its entirely but only to set it back a year or two, while the U.S. is assumed to have the aerial capability and munitions to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites in their entirety. The obvious result of all this is that Israel is engaged in a delicate dance to portray itself as willing to attack Iran at any time while working to convince the U.S. that Iran presents as large a threat to Israeli interests as it does to U.S. interests and thus is a job for the U.S. to take care of. Lest anyone accuse me of advancing pernicious theories about the Israel lobby (which would be a strange thing coming from me in light of this and this), let me state in the strongest possible terms that Israel’s actions on this front are both entirely understandable and entirely out in the open, and nothing more than run-of-the-mill statecraft.
Israel’s strategy to convince the U.S. to act has been to play up Iran’s willingness to use a bomb should it acquire one, reiterate its view that Iran is so far not being deterred by verbal threats and sanctions from ending its nuclear program, and insist that Iran has made greater progress on developing a weapon than has been realized. This strategy reached its climax yesterday when Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak first claimed that President Obama had received a new National Intelligence Estimate that was in line with Israel’s claim about Iran’s accelerated progress toward reaching nuclear capability, and then backtracked on the N.I.E. claim but said that there was an American intelligence report backing Israel’s view of the situation. John Schindler blogging at The XX Committee highlights how irregular and unprecedented it is for Barak to publicly release information about U.S. intelligence assessments, and Barak’s claims were immediately disputed by the U.S.
It is hard to overstate just how head scratching this move was by Barak. If the recent AP reporting that the CIA considers Israel to be a top counterintelligence threat is accurate, it is simply dumbfounding that Barak would go and publicly trumpet highly classified information coming from the U.S. that Washington clearly does not want getting out. It is also only going to understandably enrage the Obama administration, which has been publicly stating that Iran presents a vital threat to U.S. interests and that it will not tolerate Iran developing a nuclear weapon, all the while providing Israel with extra funds for military expenditures like Iron Dome, but keeping to its own timeline on Iran. Assuming that what Barak said is accurate, the White House is right to feel betrayed that classified intelligence it shared with Israel was blithely repeated to the press by Israel’s defense minister in an effort to pressure the U.S. into acting before it is ready to do so. If what Barak said is not accurate, then it is even worse. No matter what, it is not going to contribute to better U.S-Israeli coordination, and if anything it will make the U.S. think twice before sharing significant information with Jerusalem going forward. Barak’s leak is also not going to successfully pressure the U.S. into attacking Iran before it thinks it is necessary to do so, and one has to wonder what happened to Israel’s most decorated soldier’s penchant for strategic thinking.
On the one hand, it is surprising that Barak would do something like this considering that he appears to have a better relationship with Obama and other administration figures than Bibi Netanyahu does. Barak is the one who is constantly touting the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the U.S. under Obama, and Obama has hinted that his relationship with Barak is stronger than it is with Netanyahu, telling Jeffrey Goldberg, “I think the prime minister — and certainly the defense minister — would acknowledge that we’ve never had closer military and intelligence cooperation.” If an Israeli official was going to do something boneheaded that damaged the level of trust with the U.S., I would not have guessed that Barak would be the man to do it. On the other hand, there is a reason that Barak, despite being Israel’s most decorated soldier and a former IDF chief of staff and prime minister, is widely distrusted and even reviled in his own country. The knock on Barak is that he has no convictions and is willing to do or say anything to secure his own position, explaining his recent bolting from Labor and forming his own Atzmaut (Independence) Party in order to remain as defense minister once Labor left the government coalition. His political instincts are anything but stellar, and his military instincts have come into question in recent years as well as he has publicly feuded with a succession of IDF chiefs of staff. In many ways, the casual leak of classified American intelligence is classic Barak, as he does anything necessary to further his own goal of pressuring the U.S. to strike Iran irrespective of what relationships get burned in the process. This time, however, Barak has actually undermined his own cause, and one can only hope that he has not caused long term damage to Israel and its relationship with the U.S.
July 30, 2012 § 4 Comments
With Mitt Romney visiting Israel this weekend and giving speeches and making statements about his policy toward Israel, it seems like a good time to think about how his approach as president would be different from what we have seen under President Obama. Romney’s Jewish supporters, noting that a significant number of American Jews appear to be uncomfortable or disappointed with the way that Obama has interacted with Israel, have been pushing the notion that there will be a sea change if Romney is in office, and Romney himself has played up this idea as well. So, if Romney is sitting in the Oval Office come January 20, what can we expect to change?
The first big issue is military and intelligence cooperation and assistance, and almost nobody disputes the fact that these are at an all time high under Obama. Whether it be funding for Iron Dome, coordination on Stuxnet and other measures meant to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, or the sale of advanced weaponry, Israel and the U.S. enjoy a closer relationship now than at any other time in the last 60 years. Indeed, last year Ehud Barak remarked, “I can hardly remember a better period of support, American support and backing and cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.” This type of cooperation is sure to continue should Romney win in November.
Another big policy area is the peace process. Despite concerns over whether Romney supports a two state solution, which largely stem from the backing he is receiving from Palestinian state opponent Sheldon Adelson, I find it difficult to imagine that Romney will buck the strong bipartisan consensus and actually come out in favor of the rightwing one state solution favored by Joe Walsh and Danny Danon. Bibi Netanyahu himself is on record as being in favor of a Palestinian state, and even if you think this is mere lip service, it demonstrates just how far outside the mainstream abandoning the two state solution would place Romney. On the issue of whether he would push the Israelis on settlements and making concessions to the Palestinians, my guess is that Romney will occupy the same position as George W. Bush, which is to have an official policy against continued Israeli settlement expansion but to do nothing about it in practice. Obama famously pushed the Israelis on the issue of settlements earlier in his term, but has since backed off either due to a realization that his initial strategy was a bad one or in order to calm Jewish voters who were uncomfortable with his pressuring Israel but not the Palestinians, or perhaps a little bit of both. Whatever the case, Romney will likely not make the peace process a priority, but it is an open question as to whether a second term Obama would make a strong effort to force the two parties into a peace deal, and my own view is that he is going to let it drop. Between getting burned once and announcing a pivot toward Asia, I think that Obama’s heavy involvement in the peace process is a thing of the past.
Romney’s visit to Israel raised two other issues of American policy after he issued statements addressing each, and these are American support for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On the Iran issue, there was initially some confusion as to whether Romney would commit U.S. troops after the fact were Israel to strike Iran, but Romney himself made clear in an interview in Ha’aretz that he and Obama hold the same position on Iran, saying, “President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.” While Romney has criticized Obama over his Iran policy and suggested that he would be more forceful with the Iranian regime, his actual policy is identical when it comes to tactics – namely, increased sanctions and keeping the military option on the table. Where the two men differ is over what constitutes the precise red line; for Obama it is Iran developing a nuclear weapon, while for Romney it is the attainment of nuclear capability.
Another place where Romney drew a clear distinction with Obama over the past two days was on the embassy question, but it is the emptiest of distinctions. Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, Romney pledged to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and like Bush and Clinton before him, it is a virtual guarantee that should Romney be elected the embassy will remain right where it is. Since Jerusalem’s status is an issue to be negotiated under an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, no American government will actually move the embassy to Jerusalem so as to not act in a prejudicial way. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply knows very little about the politics of Israel in the U.S., and Romney himself knows full well that calling for the embassy to be moved is low hanging political fruit that will never see the light of day once he is in office.
Romney famously said earlier this year that he would do the opposite of what Obama has done on Israel, but this will plainly not be the case. When it comes to hard policy, the differences between the two men are negligible at best. The one place where Romney may differ from Obama is that, as pointed out in this excellent Aaron David Miller column, Obama does not seem to connect with Israel on an emotional level and this impacts the way he speaks about it and the way American Jews perceive Obama on the issue. Romney will not have this same problem, and while I think that looking at actual policies is the best way to judge the two on the Israel question, I understand the concerns that some Jewish voters have when it comes to Obama’s rhetoric. This divide on how one views Obama on Israel was captured in an instructive Twitter exchange yesterday between CFR’s Steven Cook (who is a friend and recent co-author) and Emergency Committee For Israel executive director Noah Pollak. After Pollak referenced “Obama’s abuse of Israel,” Steven queried how Iron Dome, Stuxnet, sanctions on Iran, and ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge could be considered abuse. Pollak’s response was, “Diplomatic ambushes, tirade @ UNSC, joining HRC, WH snubs, going nuclear on settlements, isolating Isr to please Erdogan.” The bottom line here is that Obama supporters are convinced that he could not possibly be any more pro-Israel, and Romney supporters are convinced that Obama is anything but and that a President Romney would usher in a massive shift in Israel policy. From where I am standing, it seems pretty clear that, rhetoric aside, there is little daylight between the two when it comes to actual policies on Israel with the limited exception of what threshold will trigger military action against Iran, and that no matter who our next president is, we are bound to have almost complete continuity on policy toward Israel.