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 27, 2012 § 3 Comments
On Sunday and Monday, Likud party members got to vote in the Likud primary and choose the list that will stand for Knesset elections in January, and what emerged was the most rightwing Likud in the party’s history. The Likud list is a catalogue of the most strident and hardline voices in the party, with Danny Danon in the 6th spot, Zeev Elkin in 9th, Yariv Levin in 10th, Tzipi Hotovely in 13th, and Moshe Feiglin – who is Bibi Netanyahu’s main intra-party challenger from his right and is not even currently an MK – in 15th. Regular O&Z readers will recognize all of these names, as their exploits make regular appearances on this blog, but in case you need a refresher, Noam Sheizaf has a rundown of their greatest hits. In addition, because of the deal with Yisrael Beiteinu that created the joint list with Likud, it is unlikely that anyone lower than 20th on the list is going to make it into the Knesset, which means that Likud princes and moderates such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Mickey Eitan are going to lose their jobs as MKs. To get a sense of just how remarkable this is, not only are Begin and Meridor currently Knesset members, they are both ministers and members of the nine person security cabinet, and yet Likud voters just unceremoniously showed them the door. This is not just a changing of the guard from the old to the new, but a serious step to the right. If there was any doubt left that Likud is first and foremost a settler party, it has just been erased.
Plenty of people will spend the next couple of days bemoaning the state of Israeli politics and noting that a Likud government in which someone like Danny Danon might actually be a minister is going to double down on settlements and treat the peace process like a relic from a bygone era. This is all true, and in my humble opinion it’s a terrible development for Israel, but I am not here to state the glaringly obvious. Instead, I’d like to think through the impact of the new Likud makeup on Israel’s defense policy outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The immediate result is going to be the involuntary hiatus of Ehud Barak, who announced yesterday that he was quitting politics and would not stand for election in January. While I found the timing of this announcement strange given that Barak’s Atzmaut party, which had been polling at zero Knesset seats, had rebounded in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud and was looking like it might return to the Knesset with the same five seats it currently has, a couple of smart observers of Israeli politics have convinced me that perhaps it makes sense given the humiliation involved for a former PM barely crossing the Knesset threshold. Amir Mizroch and Robert Danin argue that in resigning, Barak is actually plotting a course to remain as defense minister since he will be viewed as the indispensable general whom Netanyahu will have no choice but to reappoint, and the fact that he is not a member of Knesset will free from him any political constraints. I think it’s quite plausible that this was Barak’s plan yesterday morning and that he may even have been able to pull it off, but he did not count on the events of the afternoon and evening. MKs like Danon and Elkin absolutely detest Barak with every fiber of their being because they have long viewed him as the primary hurdle standing between them and unfettered settlement growth, and now that they essentially control the party, Netanyahu is not going to have the political space to keep Barak as his defense minister. Doing so will cause a riot within Likud and open Netanyahu up to a serious challenge from Feiglin or from his old nemesis (and Washington Generals-type foil) Silvan Shalom, and Bibi is not going to risk that. Instead, I think the Likud primary has guaranteed that Bogie Ya’alon becomes the next defense minister, which also puts him in the pole position to be the next Likud leader once Netanyahu decides to leave the scene.
Aside from silencing Barak and removing his all-encompassing control of Israeli defense policy, I think the new Likud list also makes an Israeli strike on Iran a lot more likely. I have been continuously arguing that one of the primary constraints on an Israeli strike is the makeup of the security cabinet, where four out of the nine members have been unwaveringly opposed to unilateral military action against Iran. Two out of those four are Begin and Meridor, who are now going to be out of the group, and they will almost certainly be replaced by ministers who are more hawkish. The third of the four is Ya’alon, who badly wants to be defense minister and who knows that the post is a potential stepping stone to eventually becoming prime minister. The fact that the defense portfolio is now going to be open might be enough incentive for him to quietly acquiesce to Netanyahu’s plans on Iran in order to get the appointment that he seeks, in which case the security cabinet flips from being divided down the middle to being nearly unanimous in favor of a strike. That does not make a war with Iran a fait accompli, but it does bring the possibility ever closer. One month ago in arguing that the Netanyahu-Lieberman deal was not going to affect the Iran calculus, I noted that “the math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised.” As it turns out, the result of this week’s Likud primary means that the math has now changed, and the impact on Israeli defense policy might be even greater than the impact on Israeli domestic politics.
October 26, 2012 § 1 Comment
Building on my initial reaction yesterday to the new Likud Beiteinu party created by Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, I have one more important point to add about why I think this deal happened. It seems to me that this was about domestic politics, plain and simple. Netanyahu was nervous about polls showing Likud’s vote share slipping and Labor’s rising, and Lieberman wanted to position himself to head his former party and not have Yisrael Beiteinu suffer the fate of so many other parties like Shinui or what is about to happen to Kadima. This way the two men were able to create the perception of a strong rightwing party that will be able to withstand any challengers and give an air of inevitability to Netanyahu remaining as prime minister and Likud Beiteinu creating the next governing coalition.
Aluf Benn thinks that something else is at work though, which is the creation of a war cabinet to strike Iran. He writes, “The merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party will dissolve any domestic opposition to the war, since after the election, Netanyahu will be able to argue that he received a mandate from the people to act as he sees fit. Ministers and top defense officials will have a hard time arguing with him. From now on, only American opposition is liable to delay, or even prevent, a command to the Israel Air Force to take off for Iran.” He adds that Ehud Barak, Benny Begin, and Dan Meridor will be marginalized or pushed out completely and that Lieberman will push the cabinet into radical foreign policy positions that Netanyahu will no longer be able to disavow.
This analysis is plausible on its face, but I think there are a few problems with it. First, it’s not enough to just declare absent compelling evidence that every move Netanyahu makes is with the intent of striking Iran. Plenty of people said the same thing when Netanyahu made the deal with Kadima despite the fact that Mofaz had been on record as opposing a strike, and obviously the short-lived unity government did not make any moves on the Iran front. Bibi’s obsession with Iran is well documented, but he has other concerns as well, such as political survival and consolidating his position, and this seems so clearly aimed at doing just those things that I don’t see why the simplest explanation here is not the right one.
Second, looking at what Benn actually argues, I don’t think it is correct to assert de novo that this gives Netanyahu a mandate for anything. For that to occur, the new LB party has to win an unusually large number of seats and Netanyahu has to campaign specifically and primarily on the Iran issue. Netanyahu is probably counting on about 45 seats, which is roughly what you get from adding up where Likud and YB were in public opinion polls, but I think there is a significant chance that the number is less than that. Lieberman is a polarizing figure, to say the least, and he could easily scare away some Mizrachi and more religious Likud voters. It is also possible that Russian YB voters who were mainly voting for the party based on its advocacy for Russian olim will be disenchanted and feel that Lieberman has sold out their core interest in the pursuit of greater personal power. If that happens, then Netanyahu’s alleged mandate is not going to be quite as strong as Benn predicts, and I don’t quite understand why ministers and generals would have a hard time opposing him. Even if he does get 45 seats, that doesn’t seem like it will all of a sudden cow Likud members like Meridor, Begin, and Bogie Ya’alon into reversing their positions, or convince the IDF leadership that their reservations on Iran have been wrong.
Third, there is the fact that, like Mofaz before him, Lieberman is not necessarily an Iran hawk. The reports are that he originally opposed a strike and was then convinced to change his position, but it’s obviously not on the top of his agenda. Lieberman cares much more about undermining the Palestinan Authority and taking a hard line on peace process issues and territorial concessions, so if there is any foreign affairs implication from yesterday’s announcement, it is that the two state solution is now even more endangered. Lieberman is going to take many radical positions; of that I have no doubt. The question is whether those positions will have anything to do with Iran, and I’m not sure that they will. He may support a strike, but he is not going to be strongly and constantly advocating one. The math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised. One also must consider who the rest of the coalition is going to include, since 45 seats still means that Netanyahu is going to have to rope in Shas, where Eli Yishai is opposed to a strike, or one of the center or left parties, and Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, and Shelley Yachimovich are certainly not guaranteed to vote the way Netanyahu wants on Iran.
In looking at yesterday’s merger, does it strengthen Netanyahu’s hand by giving him a larger number of seats? Yup, it does. But he still has to contend with opposition in Likud, opposition in the IDF, opposition from other potential coalition partners, and opposition from the public. In short, aside from making generalizations about the prime minister’s increased clout and murky electoral mandates, I don’t see how this makes a strike on Iran a foregone conclusion by any means.
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.”
October 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
Days like today are my favorite kind here at O&Z, when the symmetry of politics in Israel and Turkey allows me to write one blog post that covers both countries simultaneously and satisfy all of my blog constituencies at once. Over the last 48 hours or so the prospect of elections in Israel and Turkey have caused rifts at the top of both countries with fighting and accusations of perfidy, some subtle and some decidedly unsubtle, between top government officials. Genuine friendships and relationships of convenience are both nearing the breaking point, which just goes to show you that democratic politics can be both beautiful and ugly at the same time.
Let’s start with Israel, where the Netanyahu-Barak bromance is now officially over and the fighting is out in the open in a very public and nasty way. Yesterday Netanyahu accused Barak of attempting to sabotage U.S.-Israel relations even further for the purpose of then coming across as the reasonable moderate who could repair damaged ties, a charge that Barak promptly denied (shameless plug #1: if you read O&Z last week, this news will not have surprised you). Amir Mizroch does his usual good job of summing up the situation but the upshot is that I don’t see how these two can continue to work together. I am sure that Barak did indeed try to throw Bibi under the bus while he was doing his tour around the U.S. and I am also sure that Netanyahu is busy trashing Barak behind the scenes to his friends in Likud. Barak is pretty clearly flailing around here in an attempt to increase his vote share before the elections and is just hoping that something will stick, whether it be his potshots at Avigdor Lieberman or his rapid backing away from Netanyahu. Given how little of a threat that Barak poses from a political standpoint, I’m not quite sure why Netanyahu is even engaging him rather than just ignoring him since I don’t see any potential upside for Bibi in getting dragged down into a brawl in the mud. In any event, like I wrote last week, I will be surprised if Barak finishes out his term as defense minister (and friend of O&Z Dov Friedman has one-upped me by predicting that Barak will be fired rather than quit). I should also reiterate that unless this is part of history’s most elaborate and well-executed long con, a strike on Iran is simply not in the cards right now. If it were, there would be zero public daylight between Netanyahu and Barak rather than all too public sniping.
Moving along to Turkey, the impending inaugural direct election for president is causing some interesting backstabbing as well, but in a much less public way that requires some reading between the lines. Prime Minister Erdoğan is widely believed to covet the top post, which will be infused with newfound power after the AKP replaces the current Turkish constitution with a new version, but current president Abdullah Gül has little desire to vacate the spot. Erdoğan is banking on the fact that he remains a popular figure credited with leading Turkey during a time of unprecedented economic growth and global prestige, but he also knows that he needs a way to sideline Gül so that Gül won’t stick around as prime minister. In this vein, he has been promoting his erstwhile ally (and new AKP member) Numan Kurtulmuş, adding him to the party’s Central Decision and Executive Council and is likely to name him deputy chairman as well (shameless plug #2: if you have been reading O&Z for the past few months, this news will not have surprised you). Gül, however, is showing signs that he will not be pushed aside so easily. In his opening address to parliament this week, Gül implicitly criticized Erdoğan without mentioning him by name in castigating the government on the imprisonment of elected BDP deputies, calling for more joint positions and joint contributions across political party lines (which is squarely aimed at what is taking place during the constitutional drafting process), and then taking a clear shot across the bow on the issue of press freedoms:
The reputation of a country grows when its writers, thinkers, opinion leaders are able to share their views without fear. In the same way, it is fundamental that journalists, newsmen and members of the media as a whole should face no obstacle in fulfilling their responsibility for informing the public. No one should be imprisoned because of expressing their views through the media. A clear distinction must be observed between those who incite violence and those who express an opinion.
This is the opening salvo in what I expect will be some more overt tension to come between Erdoğan and Gül. Turkey’s constitution is going to provide for a newly powerful president, and one of these two men is going to get the job. This relationship is a genuine one though of friendship and mutual respect, unlike the one between Netanyahu and Barak, and so the question that remains to be seen is how nasty things are going to get when all is said and done.
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.