March 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli government have had the same two important decisions regarding the U.S. hanging over them for over a year, and they aren’t going away. The first is whether to cooperate with the U.S. to the hilt on the peace process and agree to anything the Obama administration asks them to do. The second is whether to cooperate with the U.S. to the hilt on Iran and agree to refrain from striking Iran, which is a commitment that the Obama administration clearly seems to want. The question is, if Israel does not deliver on either of these issues to the fullest extent, what will the fallout be, and which one is the higher priority for the U.S.?
There’s a lot of chatter recently about this being Israel’s last chance for peace with the Palestinians along with dark warnings about what will happen if the talks break down. In an interview with Jeff Goldberg last week, President Obama spoke at length about what he thinks the negative ramifications will be. Echoing John Kerry, he said that demographics, settlement growth, and the possibility that Mahmoud Abbas will be gone from the scene in the near future make this the last best chance for a deal, and that should a deal not happen, Israel will face increasing isolation and the end of its status as both Jewish and democratic. He also warned of a decreased ability on the part of the U.S. to protect Israel in international institutions and from the growing hostility of the international community. Goldberg interpreted this last point as (in his words) “a veiled threat” which would suggest that the U.S. may at some point stop using its veto to shield Israel from unfavorable UN Security Council resolutions.
This comes on the heels of months of Israeli-perceived threats from Kerry, including his prediction of a third intifada if talks fail, his denouncement of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank, and most recently his observation that efforts to boycott Israel are only growing. Never mind that none of these statements were threats but were rather predictions of how other actors will behave should the two state solution disappear; the important point is that Israeli leaders have interpreted these statements as a warning that the U.S. will abandon Israel should these talks not produce results. There is also the news that Israeli defense and intelligence officials have had visas to the U.S. denied at a much higher rate over the past year, which could be an effort to warn the Israeli government about what lies ahead should U.S. wishes be defied.
For whatever reason, there is much less talk – both here and in Israel – about what will happen to the relationship with the U.S. if Israel goes and strikes Iranian nuclear sites. This strikes me as strange for two reasons. First, I think that the possibility of this happening is at least 50% and yet there is a lot more speculation about Israel not doing its best to come to an agreement with the Palestinians. Second, I strongly believe that compared to a peace process failure, Israel defying U.S. wishes on Iran will be far more harmful to the relationship and will bring a higher degree of fallout.
I have always been clear in my belief that the consequences for Israel should the two state solution evaporate will be similar to what the White House describes: isolation, boycotts, and a far more difficult dance on maintaining Israel’s democratic character along with a Jewish majority. I am not quite sure that this is the absolute last opportunity, but were I the prime minister of Israel, I would be making plans for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank in the eventuality that a deal cannot be reached. But that is another post for another day; the main point here is that should the talks fail, I do not think that the consequences from the U.S. will be much to fear. For starters, this show is not new. The Israelis and Palestinians have spent decades talking to each other or not talking to each other, all to no result, and the American-Israeli relationship has proceeded apace with no real ruptures. If these talks fail despite intense American intervention, it will be no different than Camp David, Wye River, Taba, the vaunted road map…you get the point. The U.S. and Israel have a long history of getting over peace process failures no matter if the administration puts the onus on Israel or on the Palestinians, and I suspect this time will be no different. The U.S. interest in getting this resolved has not grown more than it was under Clinton, and the damage to the U.S. should the talks fail does not present a vital threat. Furthermore, the peace process requires not just Israeli acquiescence but Palestinian acquiescence as well, and if reports are to be believed, the Palestinians have no intention of acceding to the security plan formulated by the U.S. and General John Allen. What this means is that if the Palestinian side is intransigent to a larger degree than the Israeli side (and so far reports indicate that to be the case), any failure will not be pinned on Israel. So for a number of reasons, this Israeli fear of a rupture is far-fetched. This is not an attempt to provide an excuse for Israel not to make a deal, since I think that Israel should agree to any and every U.S. request if it means getting an actual permanent agreement, but just an observation that the global consequences of failure will be a lot harsher than those emanating from the U.S.
In contrast, I think that Israel might want to tread more carefully when it comes to Iran, because an Israeli strike will be harder than a half-hearted peace process negotiation effort for the U.S. to shrug off. For one thing, there is not much recent history of Israel carrying out military operations that will clearly upset the U.S. and thus less of a history of getting over it for Israel to draw upon. Two examples would be the Suez crisis in 1956 and the bombing of the Osirak reactor in 1981, but neither of those are truly comparable. On Suez, Israel was operating in conjunction with Britain and France, which blunted the reaction as Israel was not seen as a sole rogue party, and on Osirak, Iraq was not viewed as such a vital interest for the U.S. and it did not embroil the U.S. in any messy aftermath. In the case of a hypothetical future Israeli strike on Iran, these conditions do not apply. Israel will be doing it alone, in defiance of U.S. wishes ahead of time, and it will affect what is likely the number one American foreign policy goal at the moment, which is a nuclear deal with Iran that leads to a more general rapprochement. Not to mention that many will view the U.S. as somehow complicit, and there is a chance of blowback directed against U.S. interests in the region. Also in contrast to the Palestinian issue, there will be no other party to blame; if things get hairy afterwards, Israel cannot share the burden of blame with someone else. It will not blow up the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is far too institutionalized and based on public affinity, but I can imagine a variety of unpleasant consequences, such as arms shipments being halted, intelligence and security cooperation suffering, the visa situation becoming even more difficult, etc.
I fully recognize that in Netanyahu’s eyes, these situations are not equal. Iran targets Israel in a variety of ways, with the seizure of the ship carrying missiles yesterday as just the latest exhibit in a mountain of evidence. Bibi views Iran as an existential threat whereas he views the Palestinian issue as one that can be managed. I disagree with his assessment, but it being what it is, his motivation and incentive structure is likely to go it alone on Iran. If Israel does that, however, it should at least factor in the costs of defying the U.S. and not assume that everything will be copacetic in the aftermath.
July 31, 2013 § 3 Comments
The sense of renewed hope and optimism in the air surrounding the resumption of peace talks cannot be escaped. As the negotiators from the Israeli and Palestinian sides are preparing to sit across from each other and undertake real and sustained efforts to resolve the thorny issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all of the major players and influential analysts agree that this time is shaping up to be different and that successful talks are a growing possibility.
Start with the president, who has spent time with both leaders convincing them that the two state solution must be implemented. As he said right before the talks commenced, both the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president “have the vision, the knowledge, the experience and the ability and the sheer guts to do what it takes to reach an agreement and then to take it back to their people and see if they can sell it.” At the same time, the White House is not naive about the politics involved and understands that both sides are taking significant risks with domestic constituencies back home, with the president acknowledging that “it’s not easy for either to come. But they have come because they think that the price of not doing it is greater than the risk of going forward.”
Both sides also seem unusually committed to the negotiating process and, in contrast to the past when there was haggling over what could and could not be discussed, this time both sides have stated that all issues are on the table and that the final status issues such as Jerusalem, borders, and refugees will all be negotiated. As the U.S. envoy leading the talks pointed out during an interview on CNN, the Israelis and the Palestinians understand that nothing can be left out this time if there is any hope for a successful deal, which is why the secretary of state spent so much time laying the groundwork for talks. “Prior to that time, each side was very reluctant to get into those kinds of discussions because of the sensitivity of the issues,” he explained. The bad news, he said, “is that there still are significant gaps that separate the two sides.” There is also an understanding that in contrast to previous failed efforts, the talks cannot be open-ended, which is why the U.S. has set a definitive deadline for the two sides to reach an accord – “We’re certainly looking at that as the window in which we’re going to try to produce an agreement with the parties that deals with all of the permanent status issues.”
There is also no question that this is the last chance to get a deal done, since once this window closes, the two state solution will be dead and buried as each side pursues unilateral moves. As Tom Friedman noted in the New York Times, “Trying and failing won’t be any worse than not trying, because without a framework deal for a final peace, the situation will unravel anyway — the Palestinians will unilaterally declare a state by Sept. 13 and Israel will unilaterally annex the West Bank Jewish settlements, and Lord only knows what will happen after that.” It is noteworthy as well that the Israeli PM is moving ahead with talks despite a very shaky coalition that may be on the verge of breaking up over the issue, which indicates that he feels the sense of urgency as well.
As Ecclesiastes presciently noted, there is nothing new under the sun – all of these quotes and facts are from July 2000, right before the start of the Camp David talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, but they fit in precisely with the quotes and commentary in the past couple of days about the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The optimism that both leaders are serious – Roger Cohen is already comparing Bibi Netanyahu’s peacemaking credentials to those of Menachem Begin, who signed the 1978 Camp David treaty with Egypt, before anything has even happened – in large part because the thorny issues are on the agenda and the ubiquitous observations that this is the last and only hope to preserve a two state solution are an exact replay of 2000. Things are reaching such absurd heights that without calling anyone out by name, I read multiple breathless posts yesterday expressing optimism because of remarks and promises made during the introductory press conference, which to my mind is comical. We are supposed to be encouraged because right when both sides have agreed to sit down with each other they make all sorts of hopeful promises, and Kerry in his role as process overseer has stated that there will be no leaks? It’s like a parody of the way Politico covers the horse race of domestic politics, and I think a healthy dose of perspective is in order. A number of people have asked me why I haven’t written anything since last week about the negotiations, and the answer is that there is nothing to write since nothing has happened. I happen to agree that the option of the two state solution will not be around forever, and I am hopeful that these talks will lead to some tangible success, but if you think that anything that anyone says before the two sides have even sat down in earnest makes one lick of difference, then I think you are letting your emotions get the better of your analysis. So, let’s all take a collective deep breath, realize that this round of talks is the last ditch effort before the next round of talks becomes the new last ditch effort, take reasonable stock of actual structural reasons why success or failure are likely, and stop giving the peace process the 24 hour news cycle treatment.
And now that my rant is over, feel free to go back to trying to parse how the negotiations are going based on Martin Indyk’s tie color and what Yitzhak Molcho ordered for lunch…
July 25, 2013 § 13 Comments
Now that reports are surfacing that negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians are scheduled to begin in Washington on Tuesday – although there are also conflicting reports that Saeb Erekat is going to stay home until the Israelis agree to use the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations over the final border – it seems like a good time to lay out some reasons for optimism and reasons for pessimism about whether these talks are fated to go anywhere. Since I am generally pretty cynical about such things, let’s start with the reasons why I think the talks may fail. One of the biggest obstacles is the domestic politics involved. Brent Sasley has written a thorough piece arguing that the politics right now on the Israeli side are actually favorable for meaningful negotiations and concessions, but I tend to see things differently. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not shown the willingness in the past to actually deal with the hard choices involved in coming to an agreement, and while that does not mean that he is incapable of doing so, nothing in his past indicates that he is an enthusiastic peace process negotiator. If he is being dragged to the negotiating table unwillingly through a combination of pressure and quid pro quo for past U.S. security assistance, it is not going to bode well for the final outcome. Even if he is doing it of his own volition, which is certainly in the realm of possibility, the fact that he seems unwilling to accede to measures such as relinquishing sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem – which is going to have to be in any deal that the Palestinians will accept – is a bad omen. Then there is the problem of Netanyahu’s party. The current iteration of the Likud is the most right wing in its history, and a large bloc, if not an outright majority of the party, does not trust Netanyahu and is adamantly opposed to negotiations. In fact, an increasingly large subset of Likud members, led by Danny Danon, have been openly calling for Israel to annex the West Bank and ditch the two state solution in favor of the rightwing version of a one state solution. It is also the case that the more radical Likud members now control the party’s policy apparatus and serve as deputy ministers in the government; in fact, it seems as if Netanyahu is refuting the latest nonsense from Deputy Defense Minister Danon every other week. Sasley argues that this cast of characters is aware that they cannot win without Netanyahu and will ultimately fall in line, but I am not nearly so certain. Plenty of Likud voters will vote for the party if, say, Bogie Ya’alon is the headliner, and I don’t think that the Likud ministers and back benchers are going to sit idly by if Netanyahu begins to give up territory in the West Bank or order the evacuation of settlements. They have staked their political reputations almost entirely on rejectionism of the two state solution, and just because Netanyahu asks them nicely does not mean that they would not rather have a smaller but purer version of the Likud. See the experience that John Boehner has had with his own unruly caucus of House Republican newcomers as a parallel to how this would play out. Furthermore, Netanyahu is being kept afloat by his temporary merger with Yisrael Beiteinu, which he wants to turn into a permanent one. Without the extra YB votes, Likud immediately loses 10-12 seats in the Knesset. The problem is that Avigdor Lieberman is in many ways the original rightwing one stater, and there is simply no way in which he agrees to keep the two parties together once settlements are given up. Netanyahu knows this, which provides another incentive to make sure that talks break down along their usual pattern. The same problem exists with coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi, which has repeatedly threatened to leave the government over the issue of freezing settlements and whose head, Naftali Bennett, is also an advocate of annexation. Sasley argues that pulling out of the coalition will risk breaking the party apart, leaving Bennett politically homeless, and so he can’t risk it. I think the much bigger risk to Bennett is the party folding or excommunicating him for selling out his core principles if he agrees to remain in a government that agrees to extricate itself from the West Bank. After all, the party’s very name – Jewish Home in English – is meant to refer to the entirely of the Land of Israel from the river to the sea and explicitly lay claim to all of the territory as part of the Jewish state. The idea that the greater risk in this lies in leaving the government seems to gloss over the very reason the party exists, its history, and its makeup. There is also the issue of a referendum, which Netanyahu has now promised to hold to approve any peace agreement that is struck with the Palestinians. While the latest poll in Ha’aretz indicates that 55% of Israelis would approve a peace agreement, that is in a generic sense. Once the details are factored in and various political parties and lobbying groups begin to play on Israeli fears about security, sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the Jewish character of the state, etc. it will be very easy to siphon off entire groups of voters through scare tactics and populist campaigns. That 55% number is a mirage, akin to the way in which Yair Lapid supports a two state solution but is adamantly opposed to any division of Jerusalem; lots of people support a peace deal in theory, but the devil is in the details. Bennett knows this, which is why Habayit Hayehudi has pushed to extend the Basic Law that requires a referendum to approve giving up land that Israel has annexed – East Jerusalem and the Golan – to include the West Bank as well. The hope on the right is that a referendum will doom any successful negotiations for good. Finally, there is the Palestinian side. There is no need to rehash here all of the various arguments over Mahmoud Abbas and whether he rejected Ehud Olmert’s offer of 99% of the West Bank or whether he simply did not respond because Olmert was a lame duck and out of office before he even had a chance. My own opinion is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I am not as convinced as others on the left that Abbas is a willing a peace negotiator. The insistence on preconditions to negotiating is a tactic designed to doom talks, and the fact that Abbas was not willing to jump on Netanyahu’s partial 10 month building freeze a couple of years ago as the excuse he needed to reenter talks does not bolster the case of those who want to pin all of the blame on the Israeli side. Abbas may indeed want to talk, but I do not think it is fair to portray him as champing at the bit to get started. On the flip side, there are reasons to be optimistic. While, as I noted above, Netanyahu has not shown a propensity in the past to reach an agreement that the Palestinians can reasonably accept, he certainly appears to have arrived at the realization that Israel’s international standing is becoming more precarious by the day. The EU guidelines on settlements last week seem to have been a wakeup call of sorts, and his now repeated public warnings that Israel is facing a real prospect of a binational state indicate that his attitude in 2013 is very different than it was during his tenure as prime minister in the mid-90s or during the beginning of his current stint in 2009. In addition, as Dahlia Scheindlin has pointed out, polls consistently and repeatedly show support for a two state solution, 83 out of 120 seats in the current Knesset are controlled by parties theoretically supporting two states, and the support for two states remains even when you add various line items about specific concessions into the polling questions. In this light, the referendum may turn out to be a very good thing, since it will reinforce the move toward a negotiated solution. It is also encouraging that Netanyahu is seeking political cover to do what needs to be done, since if he negotiates a deal that is then approved by the Israeli electorate, it will be difficult for the right to claim that he has overstepped his authority. Finally, there is the fact that the best way for negotiations to succeed is if the specific details are kept under wraps, and any concessions made by either side are not wielded by opponents of two states as populist cudgels designed to doom the talks. John Kerry has done a good job of this by not publicly outlining the conditions that each side have agreed to in order for talks to resume, but even more encouragingly so has Netanyahu. There is currently a purposeful cloud of ambiguity hovering over the question of whether Israel has frozen settlement construction or not, with Netanyahu denying such a freeze exists and Housing Minister Uri Ariel saying that the de facto and unannounced policy in place is not allowing for any new construction. This, more than anything, is the most hopeful sign of all, since if Netanyahu has actually frozen settlement construction while trying to trick his party and coalition into thinking that he has done no such thing, it is a more serious indication of his desire to really strike a deal than any other datapoint I have seen. P.S. To watch me talk about this more extensively, here is a link to a video of a roundtable hosted by David Halperin and the Israel Policy Forum that I did yesterday with Hussein Ibish and Dahlia Scheindlin. It’s long, but an interesting and thorough discussion of the various issues involved.
July 17, 2013 § 9 Comments
It has been a puzzling couple of days when it comes to Israel’s foreign relations. The big story dominating newspaper headlines in Israel and causing a general uproar is the new European Union guidelines setting forth the policy of the EU not to have any dealings in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or the Golan, and requiring EU agreements with Israel to contain a clause explicitly stating that the settlements are not part of Israel. This has predictably and understandably caused much angst in all reaches of the Israeli government, with Prime Minister Netanyahu angrily stating that Israel will not accept any “foreign dictates” about its borders and making clear that he thinks harping on settlements is absurd when there are more pressing regional problems such as the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear program. In the meantime, government ministers are calling for retaliation against the EU such as limiting EU diplomats’ travel in the West Bank, and despite the fact that the new regulations appear not to be quite as far reaching as first reported and are only binding on EU institutions rather than on member states individually, this is a diplomatic crisis of first-rate proportions that is unlikely to die down anytime soon.
While the Israeli government appears to have been caught off-guard by this decision – which, by the way, is what happens when you eviscerate the Foreign Ministry and don’t even bother to appoint a separate Foreign Minister other than Netanyahu himself – it should have seen this coming a mile away. As Brent Sasley noted yesterday, this is only the latest signal in a long line of them that the international community in general and the EU in particular takes settlements seriously and sees them as a real and genuine obstacle to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Now, the Israeli government and outside observers can rage all day that settlements are not the primary cause of the conflict, and there is a large measure of truth to this, but there are two important things to keep in mind. First, just because settlements may not have caused the conflict does not mean that they aren’t exacerbating it, and second, the key here is that Israel is suffering because much of the world believes that the settlements are indeed the main problem and will not be convinced otherwise. It is this second reason that is germane here, because as long as the EU, which is Israel’s largest trading partner, holds this view of things, Israel is going to deal with increasingly onerous efforts to get it to change its ways. The next step is going to be specially labeling goods produced in the settlements, or expanding these new regulations to cover trade rather than just grants, prizes, and financial instruments, or requiring settlers to get special visas to travel to EU countries. Israel can get as angry as it likes, but making reciprocal threats against the EU or loudly denouncing the Europeans as biased is going to get Israel absolutely nowhere, and it’s a shame that Netanyahu is still too blind to realize that what he is doing will not ease Israel’s burden one iota. I understand the Israeli government’s anger here, particularly when it comes to East Jerusalem, and I am certain that announcing these regulations just when it seems that John Kerry is on the verge of convincing the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table without preconditions will doom those efforts entirely. After all, if the EU is now demanding that Israel acknowledge in agreements that the settlements are not part of Israel, why should Mahmoud Abbas negotiate that point with the Israelis at all?
Nevertheless, Israel has to deal with the situation as it is, not as it wishes it to be. In a perfect world as far as the Netanyahu government is concerned, the EU would focus its ire on Tehran for the violations of international agreements it has committed in its pursuit of its nuclear program and leave the settlements on the back burner. This, however, is wishful thinking, and the over the top admonishments and hectoring of the EU accomplishes absolutely nothing. If Netanyahu were smart, he would have downplayed this entire thing, kept his head down, and resumed working toward getting back to negotiating or even unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank entirely. Instead, he made it crystal clear that Israel will not change its policies or back down in the face of pressure, and that nobody will lecture Israel on what it must do. That’s all fine and good, and Netanyahu can do whatever he pleases, but do not for one second think that Israel’s situation is going to improve absent some change of policy on its part. Netanyahu can either continue living in his fantasy land of griping and complaining about the rest of the world, or he can come to grips with the reality of things and work to improve his country’s international standing. Israel’s being singled out may not be fair and it may feel good to lash out against what the government sees as its tormentors, but being the grownup in the room means recognizing the situation for what it is, acknowledging that some things cannot be changed no matter how much you wish it otherwise, and figuring out the best solution for moving forward. This has nothing to do with blaming Israel, not recognizing the Palestinians’ agency, moral equivalence, rewarding bad behavior, or anything else; it is a simple reckoning of the world as it exists and trying to improve things within the parameters that Israel has been dealt. With regard to the dispute with the EU, let’s hope that Netanyahu has an epiphany on this sooner rather than later.