October 29, 2014 § 3 Comments
Frustrating the deeply held convictions of “Zionist Occupied Government” conspiracy theorists everywhere, it has not exactly been a banner week for the U.S.-Israel relationship. First there was the Bogie Ya’alon snub during his sojourn to Washington, where the Israeli defense minister met with Chuck Hagel and Samantha Power – the latter reportedly only because the White House was too late in trying to prevent it – but was not granted meetings with Joe Biden, John Kerry, or Susan Rice. Then came yesterday’s already legendary Jeff Goldberg piece in the Atlantic, henceforth known as the chickenshit article, during which an unnamed senior administration official used that moniker to describe Bibi Netanyahu. The piece, which proclaimed a crisis in U.S-Israel relations, was right and has now inflamed that crisis even further. As dedicated readers may recall, in July I wrote that despite the very bad personal relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama, the bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship was not going to be threatened in the long term, and I think that is still true. Nevertheless, what is going on now is certainly serious and can derail things in the short term. So to make up for my lack of recent blogging, and my even longer lack of blogging about Israel specifically, here are some semi-extensive thoughts about the entire contretemps.
First, just as Israeli officials are completely out of line and do damage to their own cause and interests when they make nasty comments about Obama, Kerry, and other U.S. government officials, the same goes for the inane and childish comments made to Goldberg about Netanyahu. I am and have been highly critical of Ya’alon, Naftali Bennett, and others who have launched inappropriate personal attacks; it reflects terribly upon them and does absolutely nothing to rectify whatever it is that has made them upset. This is no different, and the intensely personal nature of denigrating the courage of a former Israeli special forces commando is particularly ugly. Literally taunting an Israeli prime minister for not bombing Iran – as if the issue is a lack of guts rather than an array of barriers to doing so, from Israel’s security cabinet to intense differences of opinion about such a move across the political and military spectrum to serious pressure from the U.S. – is boorish and petty and smacks of smug, childish amateurism, not to mention a terrifyingly myopic and incomplete view of how foreign policy actually operates. I hope that the outrage expressed by some in the U.S. when Ya’alon has insulted Kerry in the press is also expressed today. On the flip side, those who found nothing wrong with Ya’alon’s remarks a few months ago should have the appropriate sense of self-perception to keep their mouths shut now as well. It’s not good when Israelis trash their American counterparts, and it’s not good when Americans trash their Israeli counterparts, but if you are a pro-Israel American, your outrage at one had better be matched by your outrage at the other.
Second, Netanyahu’s broadside in return today is a great example of a world leader who does not properly appreciate his country’s position in the international system. Israel is a regional power in its own right, but it is also largely dependent on the largesse of its great power patron – for which, by the way, it has no genuine feasible alternative replacements should that largesse ever be withdrawn. Despite the heady excitement Israelis have over increased trade ties with China and India, the optimism that this will translate into political support is misplaced, as excellently outlined by Rory Miller in Foreign Affairs, who demonstrated that both countries have completely delinked their economic relations with Israel from their political relations with Israel, and are not going to reverse that path any time soon. Were Netanyahu smart about this, he would have expressed his anger and disappointment behind closed doors, and publicly kept his mouth shut. The fact is that Israel and the U.S. will never be equal. There is an enormous power imbalance in the relationship, and the U.S. can afford to alienate Israel (although it shouldn’t and it would make things harder for U.S. initiatives in the region) but Israel can absolutely not afford to alienate the U.S. I get why Netanyahu’s impulse is to lash back out, but this is a tit-for-tat exchange that Israel will always lose. Israel’s greatest geopolitical advantage is its relationship with the U.S., and thus a well thought out plan would be to swallow whatever American insults come Israel’s way and do nothing to harm that relationship. Some Israeli leaders, including rightwing Likud politician President Ruby Rivlin, get this. Netanyahu quite obviously does not.
Third, leaving aside the damage in the day to day working relationship, the infamous chickenshit interview has potential to backfire on the U.S. when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program in two ways. One has to with Israel, and the other has to do with Iran. On the Israeli side of the equation, the White House is quite obviously happy that Jerusalem has so far sat on its hands and kept its planes far away from Fordow. In the context of an Israeli populace and political class that sees external threats rising up around it, nervousness that the U.S. is getting snookered by Iran in the nuclear negotiations and will agree to nearly any terms to just make the problem go away, and an election coming soon in which the threats to Netanyahu come not from the left but from the right, is there a better way of prompting Netanyahu into taking military action against Iran than denigrating him as a chickenshit who is too scared to use his military? It’s almost as if the person or persons who felt the need to go blabbing to Goldberg are trying to end up with egg all over their faces. I’d agree that the chances of Israeli action at this point are remote, but just listen to some of the saner and more respected security voices in Israel – Amos Yadlin and Ya’akov Amidror are two who come to mind – and you will quickly realize that Israel does not necessarily share the same view of these unnamed administration officials that a bombing run is completely off the table.
On the Iran side of the ledger, I agree with Dan Drezner that there is a component to this that involves signaling to Iran. I am not as certain that it is intentional, however; rather, my fear is that the U.S. is instead unwittingly and massively reducing its negotiating leverage by openly doubting Israel’s ability and willpower to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and by implying that it sees a nuclear Iran as a near fait accompli. Any Iranian leader reading the Goldberg interview would logically assume that there is nothing Iran can do that will invite a strike against its nuclear program, and that it really has no reason to offer any negotiating concessions at all. Irrespective of whether or not the Obama administration has privately decided that it wants a deal with Iran at any cost, this is terrible negotiating strategy and very poor strategic behavior.
Fourth, the chickenshit comments are more likely than not going to exacerbate the type of Israeli behavior that frustrates the U.S. unless the insults and vitriol are ultimately accompanied by a genuine change in policy toward Israel. If things continue along the same path, meaning that there is no real penalty for increased settlement activity in the form of reduced intelligence and military cooperation, reduced defense aid, or reduced support at the United Nations, the takeaway message for Netanyahu is going to be that the only price for driving U.S. officials to apoplexy is having to absorb personal insults. I don’t know whether policy is going to change following the November elections or not; I have read some predictions that the cover for Israel at the U.N. in particular is something that will be endangered, but I have serious doubts as to whether that will be the case. The point is, if Goldberg’s unnamed official thinks that his or her words alone are going to have any real effect on Israeli policy, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.
Finally, it is pretty clear to me that this is not just a random attempt to make Bibi look bad here, but a deliberate ploy to damage his political prospects. There is a perception among Israeli elites that picking a real fight with the U.S. is fatal for Israeli politicians, and many in various U.S. administrations believe that as well. My friend Brent Sasley has argued otherwise, although others take a different view of the Shamir loss in 1992. In this case, in the short term the fight seems to have bolstered Bibi, with people like Bennett coming out and strongly backing him against the chickenshit comments. It makes him look like a stronger leader standing up to a petty and bullying American administration. In the long term, however, I think that the White House political calculation here is correct in the sense of wanting to play up the hostility between Netanyahu and the White House in order to damage him. There are going to be elections in the next few months, and there are plenty of rightwing politicians aspiring to unseat Bibi who can claim that they will stand up to Washington when need be but do not have the baggage that Bibi has. Ya’alon is obviously not in this camp, but Bennett, Moshe Kahlon, Avigdor Lieberman, and even Yair Lapid will all try to take advantage of this dynamic to siphon votes away from Likud and toward themselves.
Ultimately, whomever it was that has now made the term chickenshit a permanent part of the foreign policy lexicon may feel a lot better today after a self-satisfied venting session, but this kind of thing is entirely counterproductive. Allies can and do disagree, but this is not the way to do it. Nobody in the Obama administration should be too pleased with themselves this afternoon.
November 2, 2012 § Leave a comment
Today’s post is not a straight Friday gallimaufry, but does deal with disparate topics that all have a connecting theme. There are a couple of political relationships under serious stress that were in the news this week, and you should be keeping an eye on them in the months ahead because how the tensions are resolved will majorly impact politics in both Turkey and Israel.
The first pair is Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Gül. I’ve been predicting a clash between these two for awhile, and this week brought new tensions over their conflicting approaches to the Kemalist Republic Day rallies. After the governor of Ankara, presumably on Erdoğan’s orders, had banned a separate CHP-led rally outside the old Grand National Assembly building that was to coincide with the official government military parade, Gül told the governor to ignore the ban and remove police barriers from the site. This information prompted Erdoğan to strongly criticize Gül indirectly by denouncing “double-headed rule” and saying that if people want a strong presidential system, he is happy to oblige. Gül then fired back, stating that the president should make sure that government officials and police are allowing people to celebrate Republic Day in whatever manner they see fit and that there is no double-headed rule in Turkey. This fight is about more than just who ordered what with regard to Republic Day, and rather is the latest proxy battle over who is going to be Turkey’s next president. Once the new constitution creating an empowered president is in place, Erdoğan fully intends to be the first directly elected president in a presidential system and wants to push Gül out early. Naturally, Gül has no intention of leaving without a fight, and so this is the latest salvo in the fight that will determine both men’s political futures. As I’ve written before, expect to see lots more of this type of stuff going forward, and should the skirmishes get nastier, this has the potential to grind Turkey’s politics to a halt and rip the AKP apart.
The second pair in the news this week is Likud minister Moshe Kahlon and his long-time political home. Kahlon, who is Minister of Communications and Minister of Social Welfare and the most prominent Sephardi member of Likud, announced a few weeks that he would be stepping down from his post and not running in the Knesset elections in January. Kahlon is wildly popular for reducing fees on all sorts of things from cell phones to bank transactions to electricity bills, not to mention he is the face of Likud’s Sephardi base, and so his announcement was bad news for Likud. Now it turns out that Kahlon might not be leaving politics after all, but is flirting with the idea of creating a new party, which is even worse news for the new Likud Beiteinu list. In many ways this makes sense, since Kahlon’s socioeconomic views clash with much of the official Likud party line, and his views on security issues and the Palestinians don’t exactly make him a Laborite. Bibi Netanyahu, realizing the threat that Kahlon poses, is now racing to keep him in Likud while a poll commissioned by Labor that shows it winning the most Knesset seats should Kahlon join the party means that Shelley Yachimovich is after him too. I don’t see Kahlon going to Labor, and my hunch is that he is not going to form his own party but is rather using the polls showing him damaging Likud Beiteinu should he run alone as leverage to return to Likud in a more powerful position. In any event, the Kahlon-Likud dance also has the possibility to alter the trajectory of Israeli politics depending on the outcome, so keep a close eye on how it is resolved.
Finally, there is the domestic dispute between San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins and his brain, which apparently decided to leave Jenkins’ body and take with it any cognitive capacity for logic and reasoning that Jenkins had. That is the obvious conclusion to be drawn after reading this brilliant paean to ignorance in which Jenkins claims that the world champion San Francisco Giants won the World Series because the members of the Giants front office “look at the face, the demeanor, the background, the ability to play one’s best under suffocating pressure” rather than even take a glance at players’ statistics – otherwise known as the way one actually measures whether a player is good or not – and that “if you throw a binder full of numbers on their desk, they don’t quite get the point.” I know I have made this plea before, but Michael Schur (aka Ken Tremendous) and crew really need to come out of retirement and start up Fire Joe Morgan again. Where does one even begin with this mind-blowing example of imbecilic dreck that would have been more believable had it appeared in the Onion? Yes Bruce Jenkins, I am sure that the team that drafted and developed such classic physical specimens as Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum relies only on scouting reports and never looks at stats. The way to win two World Series in three seasons is to completely ignore a huge resource of evidence and to just rely on your gut. Yup, that must be how it was done, since there is no way that Brian Sabean even knows how to do long division, let alone figure out what VORP stands for. There are two possibilities here. The first is that Jenkins is seriously delusional to the point that he is becoming a danger to the people around him. The second is that he is perpetrating an elaborate Joaquin Phoenix piece of performance art. Irrespective of which of these two options is the correct answer, Bruce Jenkins’ family might want to get him to a mental health professional as soon as possible.