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.
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.
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 4, 2012 § 1 Comment
Dov Friedman (whose previous guest post can be found here) is taking over the reins of O&Z once again for an insightful counterfactual of what might have been had Shaul Mofaz used his time in the Israeli coalition to mend ties with Turkey. Dov thinks that Israel missed a golden opportunity with the release of the Lindenstrauss Report, and here’s why:
Though few realized it at the time, the day Israeli Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss released his highly critical report detailing the government’s mishandling of the Mavi Marmara raid—June 13th of this year—doubled as the best chance for Israel and Turkey to repair the countries’ damaged relations. Only four weeks prior, Shaul Mofaz had led Kadima into Netanyahu’s government. The expanded coalition had weakened the power of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a chief opponent of an Israeli apology. The Lindenstrauss Report revealed new information that would have made an apology credible—and restored relations possible. But Netanyahu dismissed the report, the public discourse faded, and a key opportunity was missed, the effects of which are still being felt by Israel—and by Turkey.
Upon the grand coalition’s forming, analysts offered various explanations for the surprise Netanyahu-Mofaz partnership. Many observers—including Jeffrey Goldberg, Amir Oren of Ha’aretz, and Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin—viewed the deal as increasing the likelihood of an Iran strike. David Horovitz argued optimistically that Netanyahu could use the coalition to advance talks with the Palestinians. Here at O&Z, Michael saw the deal as motivated by domestic issues, specifically the unconstitutional Tal Law.
Frozen relations with Turkey were an afterthought. The most recent attempt to broker a deal between the recalcitrant sides had dissolved the previous summer. The Lindenstrauss Report created an opening. Netanyahu was still motivated to protect his expanded coalition, and Likud-Kadima unity on an apology could marginalize radical coalition opponents.
Yet, Mofaz exerted no pressure to reengage Turkey. Turkey had spent the previous six months going out of its way to needle Israel, reminding it that the freeze had costs. In February, Turkey demanded that Israel not receive data from the NATO missile defense system housed by Turkey. In late April, Turkey rejected Israel’s participation in NATO’s May summit in Chicago. Unquestionably, rapprochement with Turkey would eliminate a considerable—and unnecessary—headache for Israel.
If Mofaz had pressured Netanyahu to resume negotiations with Turkey, the outlines of a deal were clear. Netanyahu’s government would have said that in light of its own internal report, Israel regretted the poor planning and lack of preparation that contributed to the loss of life, and it recognizes that the circumstances could have—and should have—been prevented. Turkey could then have returned its ambassador and pledged aid ships to Gaza—ships that would conveniently dock in Ashqelon, tacitly reaffirming Israel’s security interest in managing the flow of aid into the Strip.
Of course, that deal never materialized. Not three months after entering the coalition, Mofaz led Kadima out ashen-faced. Netanyahu balked at confronting the religious parties over the Tal Law, refusing to implement Yohanan Plesner’s recommendations for haredi national service. Mofaz—having cried wolf one too many times—had no appealing options.
While analysis of the collapse focused on the domestic political implications, it overlooked lost international opportunities. Undoubtedly, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu will seek—and relish—further opportunities to poke Israel in the eye. Israel wisely refrains from comment, but that hardly means it doesn’t smart from the blows. Turkey is still a NATO member, and it can create problems for Israel indefinitely.
However, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu err if they believe the standoff has not detrimentally affected Turkey. If the Netanyahu-Mofaz coalition and Turkey had hammered out a deal, the downed Turkish F-4 jet may never have flown. As friend of O&Z Aaron Stein noted in an incisive piece in World Politics Review, Turkey’s intelligence capabilities are decidedly limited. Israel’s are significantly less so. Israel maintains a fleet of satellites with broad intelligence-gathering capabilities. The Mossad is active in Syria, and the IDF has experience flying aircraft in and out unscathed.
The theory prevails that Turkey’s jet was testing Syria’s air defenses. One need not theorize that Turkey was out of its depth. If Israel and Turkey had ended their superficial feud, Turkey’s pilots might never have been asked to broach Syrian airspace.
Israel has suffered publicly from the downgraded relationship; however, Turkey has lost out as well, albeit less obviously. Because trade relations between the countries remain strong, neither has felt pressure to alter the status quo. Nevertheless, the sides continue missing opportunities to collaborate to mutual benefit. This alternate history merely illustrates that the full extent of the shared loss may be continually underestimated.
April 19, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Ehud Barak is in town today for meetings with Leon Panetta at the end of a week in which Netanyahu has criticized the P5+1 talks and given a humdinger of a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) speech equating a nuclear Iran with Nazi Germany and stating that it is not only his right but his duty as Israeli prime minister to invoke the memory of the Holocaust when speaking of current threats to Jews worldwide. In the meantime, Barak said this week that Israel has no obligation to refrain from attacking Iran while negotiations are ongoing and expressed his view that Iran is unlikely to give up enriching uranium. Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that a June attack is now possible, pointing to a recent report on Israeli TV about the IAF’s preparedness for a strike, and believes that because Barak could have blocked the report from airing and chose not to, it indicates that a strike will come soon (if one is indeed coming).
I still think that this kind of action on Barak’s part is not necessarily a sign that an attack is coming, but the latest maneuver to put pressure on the U.S. to continue holding Iran’s feet to the fire. Barak is a smart strategist and knows that such comments will put pressure on Iran and also give the next round of talks in Baghdad a greater sense of urgency if the negotiating states believe that an Israelis strike is imminent. That Barak”s warning comes this week is no coincidence, since if he is unsatisfied over the fact that the P5+1 talks last Saturday did not yield any tangible concessions from Iran, the message that Israel is becoming impatient and antsy may prompt a more fruitful conclusion to the talks in Baghdad next month. In any event, I remain convinced that Barak is the crucial figure here and that Netanyahu cannot take any action without his being completely on board, a sentiment that Andrew Exum stated as well in his World Politics Review column yesterday.
So, that leaves today’s meeting with Panetta. Israeli rhetoric is once again urgently bellicose, and the face to face discussion today between Barak and Panetta might be the best remaining opportunity for the U.S. to press its reservations about a strike and make them stick. Barak has a much cooler head than Netanyahu, and if I were Panetta, I would be using today to convince Barak that Iran is being squeezed through sanctions, covert action, and military threats, and that Israel needs to back away from gearing up its air force for a pending mission. If Barak needs convincing on this front (and I am not sure that he does, since he is far more opaque than Netanyahu) and Panetta cannot convince Barak today, in person and without the distractions that come when Bibi is around, then an Israeli strike might indeed be coming sooner rather than later.
March 19, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Last week I wrote about the puzzling fact that Israel does not seem to be preparing for any retaliation from Iran in the aftermath of an Israeli strike on their nuclear facilities, leading me to conclude that Netanyahu and Barak are engaging in a giant bluff. Via Jeffrey Goldberg’s Bloomberg column, it seems like there is another disturbing possibility, which is that the Israeli security establishment is convincing itself that any Iranian retaliation would be minimal, or perhaps even nonexistent. Goldberg also reports that Israeli officials think that Iran might cover up an Israeli strike in order to avoid the humiliation, and that Iran will not retaliate against American targets should Israel attack.
Setting aside the possibility that this is all part of the Israeli bluff and that Goldberg is being used by the Israelis to increase the odds of a U.S. strike, this is an extremely disheartening piece of reporting. Goldberg recounts hearing a number of best-case scenarios about the consequences of an Israeli attack, yet this is precisely the type of thinking that Israel needs to avoid if they are actually contemplating a raid on Iranian nuclear sites. On the contrary, the Israeli security establishment needs to assume that the absolute worst case scenario will occur before making a decision on Iran, because anything less will lead to irresponsible decision making and the potential for catastrophe. One need only hark so far back to 2006 and the war with Hizballah, where Israel was caught negligently unprepared after badly underestimating Hizballah’s capabilities and responses to Israeli military action, and did not take the necessary or even adequate steps to protect and support residents in the north. The Winograd Commission detailed a host of military, intelligence, and civil defense failures, all of which stemmed from the precise mistake it seems like the Israelis are making again, which was to assume the best-case scenario rather than assume the worst. Israel assumed that its air force could take out Hizballah and was wrong. It then sent in tanks and infantry to finish the job but was shocked by Hizballah’s anti-tank missiles and mines. Millions of Israelis did not have gas masks, adequate shelters, or emergency supplies because the Israeli government simply did not plan for the eventuality that these things would be required. Israel assumed that very little would go wrong, and instead the entire enterprise blew up its face beyond anything that it had imagined.
And so now on the heels of reports that Israel does not have the military capability to do the job on its own and that the U.S. military believes that an Israeli attack on Iran will result in American deaths and the U.S. being drawn into a regional war, Israel is actually assuming both of these facts away as mere inconveniences? Can this really happen again a mere six years later? Are Netanyahu, Barak, and other high-ranking Israeli military officials actually going to once again launch a significant military operation without making adequate civil defense arrangements first or considering the possibility that their rosy assumptions might not work out? This strikes me as the height of irresponsibility, if not outright insanity. I sincerely hope with every fiber of my being that if Israel ends up attacking Iran (and I hope that they do not), they do it with eyes wide open rather than with eyes wide shut.