March 22, 2012 § 1 Comment
The quick answer is only partially. In undertaking such a big decision, the Prime Minister needs to gain approval of a larger group of ministers. Eli Lake reported on the smaller group called the Octet (Shminiya in Hebrew) that is comprised of an informal group of seven officials aside from Netanyahu – Ehud Barak (Defense), Avigdor Lieberman (Foreign), Eli Yishai (Interior), Dan Meridor (Intelligence), Moshe Yaalon (Strategic Affairs), Yuval Steinitz (Finance), and Benny Begin (minister without a profile).
However, Lake’s take is not entirely accurate, since there is a Lake focuses on the Octet, but also mentions the larger official security-political cabinet of fourteen that would probably have to give the official go-ahead before Netanyahu undertakes a decision. There is a lot of speculation on where people fall on the issue with some waffling, and Lake contends that Lieberman has switched his position from being against a strike to being in favor of a strike. There was a report in Maariv last week (Hebrew language only) that in the group of fourteen, eight are in favor of an attack and six are against. Of perhaps greater consequence though is that four members of the Octet – Yaalon, Yishai, Meridor, and Begin – are currently opposed to Israel carrying out a strike, and if Lake is correct that this is the group that actually needs to come to an informal consensus, it contributes more evidence to my argument that an attack on Iran is not imminent. Other people to watch are high ranking IDF officials, with Chief of Staff Benny Gantz having to be on board for a strike irrespective of the cabinet’s views. Pay attention to the speculation that you read arguing that Israel will or will not go ahead with a strike, and remember that anyone who paints it simplistically as being solely up to Bibi and his mood does not have any real idea how the Israeli political system works. Netanyahu is in favor of an attack, but unlike George W. Bush he is not The Decider.
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.
March 15, 2012 § Leave a Comment
…let it be this. I clearly do not share Steven’s reluctance to write about Israel, but he should do it more often since he is dead on about a one-sided view that has taken hold among center-left intellectuals and commentators about Israeli leadership. Do I think that Netanyahu is a particularly good prime minister? No, I don’t. Would I vote for Likud were I an Israeli citizen? Absolutely not. But there needs to be a greater recognition among those who tend to pen critiques of the current Israeli government that to some extent it is trapped into a corner by coalition politics and the Israeli electoral system.
This does not excuse a host of wrong-headed Israeli policies that restrict speech or minority rights, and it certainly does not excuse much of what takes place in the West Bank. It does, however, mean that Israel is like any other democracy that uses a proportional representation system of voting and that requires coalition building. For a variety of reasons, Knesset coalitions increasingly rely on smaller parties to sustain them as the traditional powerhouse parties no longer command the share of votes that they once did, and this means that shifts in policy can more easily bring down a government and that extremist parties and figures can hold the government hostage.
In 1992, Labor won 44 seats and Likud won 32. In 1996, Labor won 34 and the Likud alliance won 32. In 1999, the Labor alliance won 26 and Likud 19. You can obviously see the developing trend, bringing us to 2009 when Kadima won 28, Likud 27, and Labor was a distant fourth with 13. It takes 61 seats to control the Knesset, and the percentage of seats that the winning party controls has nosedived. As I pointed out yesterday, there is no slack at all in Netanyahu’s current coalition and so whether he is inclined to moderate on some issues or not, he is for all intents and purposes stuck.
In addition, it cannot escape notice that the Israeli populace is a lot more hardline these days in light of the Palestinian response to the Gaza disengagement (and yes, I know the withdrawal was and still is in many ways incomplete, but rockets aimed at civilians are still rockets aimed at civilians), the 2006 war with Hizballah, the global BDS movement, and last but certainly not least an imminent nuclear Iran. It is easy to blame everything on right wing reactionary politicians, but in democracies politicians reflect their constituent populations, and Israelis have many good reasons to feel shell-shocked these days. Sure, Bibi is rightwing and hawkish by nature, but attributing illiberal trends in Israeli politics to nothing more than “Bibi is a fascist” is lazy analysis that does not capture even a smidgen of what is going on in Israel today.
March 15, 2012 § Leave a Comment
March 15, 2012 § 2 Comments
It seems irresponsible to write a blog about Israel without at all addressing the biggest question regarding Israel these days, which is of course whether or not Israel is going to launch an attack on Iran. I will leave the wisdom of such a move for another post, but examining what is going on in Israeli domestic politics yields conflicting answers as to whether or not it is going to happen.
Aluf Benn argues in today’s Haaretz that Netanyahu is preparing Israelis for war by trying to convince them that attacking Iranian nuclear sites is the only way to prevent another Holocaust and that Israel is capable enough to do the job on its own. Certainly Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech was in the same vein, with its exhortation that Israel cannot afford to wait much longer and cannot depend on other states to guarantee its security. The fact that Bibi and Ehud Barak – according to various reporting the two most vocal proponents of an attack – appear to be freezing out the rest of the Security Cabinet while making decisions on how to respond to rockets from Gaza does not bode well for any restraint on Iran down the road. There is a speculation that Netanyahu is simply bluffing in an effort to get the U.S. to bomb Iran on its own and thus ensure that the job is done well while blunting any international condemnation that will rain down on Israel should it go alone, but to paraphrase Jeffrey Goldberg, such a gambit would make Netanyahu the favorite to win next year’s World Series of Poker main event.
On the other hand, Daniel Levy makes a strong argument that Israel will not attack Iran because Bibi’s history shows him to be risk-averse, likely to avoid military confrontation, and bombing Iran risks Netanyahu’s high popularity should the mission go wrong. Opinion polls indicate that there is not a majority of Israelis in favor of an attack, and Bibi does not want to endanger a third term, particularly if he decides to capitalize on his current status and call early Knesset elections. Furthermore, Levy points out that the Netanyahu coalition is based on expanding Israel’s hold over the West Bank, not getting into a war with Iran. It is also striking that very little has been done from a civil defense perspective to prepare for retaliations from Iran or Hizballah in the event of an Israeli raid. Matan Vilnai, the cabinet minister in charge of civil defense abruptly resigned in February to become the new ambassador to China, homefront drills have been canceled due to budget shortfalls, and gas masks have not been nationally distributed nor have bomb shelters been designated. In short, aside from a lot of overheated rhetoric, Israel does not appear to be a country busily preparing itself for war and the various repercussions that might accrue.
So what’s going on here? Option A is that Bibi is incompetent and rushing into a war without making the vital preparations first, but that does not ring true to me. I think Option B is the answer: Bibi wants someone to take out Iranian nuclear sites but does not want to be the one to do it, and this is all one enormous act for the benefit of the U.S. and other international players. It’s a variation on Richard Nixon’s Madman Theory, or an example of Robert Putnam’s two-level game, in which Netanyahu commits himself domestically to war so that he can then turn to Obama and say that his hands are tied unless the U.S. does the dirty work for him. The question that now bears watching is whether it will work.
March 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Last month I wrote about the systemic pressures that might cause Israel and Turkey to reconcile and resume their history of military and diplomatic cooperation. Nimrod Goren has an op-ed today in Haaretz assessing Israel-Turkey ties and arguing – similarly to me – that the two countries have a bevy of shared interests that should theoretically provide a good opportunity for them to get over their feud. I am obviously sympathetic to this argument and hopeful that it will indeed occur, but this is a good place to assess some different theories about what makes states cooperate and what it means for Turkey and Israel.
Political scientists tend to focus on the larger structural forces that shape states’ foreign policies. In the case of Israel and Turkey, the two have a shared interest in balancing against Iran. A nuclear Iran immediately upsets the balance of power in the region and while it evidently presents Israel with the larger threat, Turkey and Iran are in many ways natural rivals. Despite Turkey’s seemingly lackadaisical approach to preventing a nuclear Iran, my hunch is that their softer public stance is a result of Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy and that behind the scenes they are not eager to see Iran become a nuclear power. On Syria as well, Israel and Turkey both have an interest in making sure that the country does not explode across their borders, and Turkey in particular does not want to see Syria’s Kurds attempt to break away and join up with Kurdish populations in Turkey and Iraq. Goren quotes Tarık Oğuzlu as believing that realpolitik will bring Turkey and Israel closer together, and as anyone who read my guest post on Steven Cook’s blog knows, I agree with this analysis of the geopolitical environment.
There is another strain within international relations, however, and this one is the type of analysis that one almost always sees in the press, which is to focus on individuals rather than the larger system. Read nearly any news analysis in a prominent newspaper or current events magazine and there is almost always an outsized focus on the personalities involved, whether it is a breakdown of Obama and Netanyahu’s relationship and how this drives the U.S.-Israeli relationship or how U Thein Sein’s helicopter tour of his flooded boyhood village turned him into a reformer. Looking at it from this perspective, Israel and Turkey are nowhere close to mending their differences. Both countries are led by nationalist leaders who despise each other and make their feelings perfectly clear, and waste no chance to demonize each other’s respective states. Erdoğan’s latest gem is to accuse Israel of attempted genocide during its recent air strikes in Gaza, while Netanyahu and members of his cabinet like Avigdor Lieberman go entirely overboard and describe Turkey’s government as radical Islamic extremist supporters of terror. Viewed in this light, Israel and Turkey will never make up, and as each side goes tit-for-tat in the war of words, the possibility of reconciliation becomes more remote.
I am a big fan of structural explanations for how the world works. But in this case I worry that structural forces are not enough. Even taking into consideration Israel’s mistrust of any foreign government sympathetic to Hamas and Turkey’s bid to increase its soft power in the Middle East, Israel and Turkey’s spat cannot be explained by structure alone. I think it is crucial for them to get over their differences for a host of reasons, but I am currently bearish on it actually happening.
March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
There is a lot of buzz about this Peter Beinart piece on President Obama’s mismanaging his strategy toward the Israel and the peace process. Leaving aside the larger question about what it says about whether Obama is pro-Israel or not (and for the record, I firmly believe that he is, and I think it becomes clear when looking at the substance of his actions rather than his sometimes puzzling rhetoric) a couple of things jump out at me.
First, Obama and his team criminally misread the state of Israeli politics and public opinion. Beinart reports that the White House believed that no Israeli PM could afford to alienate any U.S. president and that American pressure on Obama would force Netanyahu to back down. Yet the administration did not take into account the high levels of unpopularity and mistrust Israelis felt toward Obama in 2009. The president’s popularity rating, which had been 31% in according to a Jerusalem Post poll in May 2009, plummeted to 6% following his public push for a settlement freeze, and his Cairo speech -with its emphasis on the Holocaust as the reason for Israel’s creation despite the decades of pre-WWII Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine – did himself no favors with the Israeli electorate. Furthermore, Israelis were then and still are baffled by Obama’s trips to Ankara, Cairo, and Jakarta without a stopover in Jerusalem. So while it is generally true that Israeli PMs have suffered politically following high profile disagreements with American presidents, the deep wariness Israelis had for Obama made this situation different. The complete misreading of the situation is all the more surprising considering that one would expect Rahm Emanuel to have had a good grasp of the state of Israeli politics.
Second, the theory that Netanyahu would fold like he had during the Clinton administration completely ignored the fact that Israel has a proportional representation voting system that requires building a coalition to control the Knesset, and that Bibi’s coalition this time is different from his last one. In the late 90s, the Netanyahu coalition consisted of Likud, a religious bloc of Shas, Mafdal, and UTJ, Third Way, and Yisrael BaAliyah. While Likud was obviously not a big advocate of the peace process, it was the entity that Bibi controlled and would have gone along with any decision he made. Certainly the later example of Ariel Sharon orchestrating the Gaza pullout and the formation of Kadima demonstrates the power of the PM to carry out initiatives that run contrary to his or her previous positions. Shas and UTJ have always been concerned first and foremost with securing subsidies for their ultra-Orthodox constituents, and have in the past been part of governments that were less extreme on settlements and conducted peace negotiations. While Mafdal during the last decade of its life was largely a settler party, it was not one when it was in the Netanyahu coalition between ’96 and ’99, and also would have acquiesced to a shift in policy. Third Way was a Labor breakaway, and Yisrael BaAliyah was Natan Sharansky’s party and existed to cater to the needs of Russian olim. The point here is that Bibi’s coalition during his first stint as PM was not dependent on settler support and continued settlement growth, and thus pressure from an American president on settlements and peace process issues was able to be effective.
Fast forward a decade to 2009, and the situation was completely flipped. In 2009, Likud came in second in Knesset elections, losing to Kadima by one seat, but Kadima was not able to form a coalition precisely because of its stance on settlements and the peace process. This meant that when Netanyahu and Likud got their chance to build a coalition to control the Knesset, they were overly dependent on hawkish and settler-dominated parties, and thus the coalition was Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu (led by Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler), Shas (which has become far more hardline on settlements due to its member feeling alienated by pro-peace upper and middle class secular Ashkenazi Jews), and Labor, which served in the government so that Ehud Barak could be defense minister. For Obama’s pressure to work on Netanyahu in 2009, he would have had to reverse himself on the settlement issue, which would have fatally blown up his coalition. The only way he would have been able to stay in power would have been through an alliance with Kadima, but having won more seats than Likud did, Tzipi Livni would never have consented to joining a coalition in which she was not PM.
So while the Obama administration’s idea about Israeli PMs not being able to survive public conflicts with American presidents may be correct in theory, they neglected to think the entire strategy through and take into account the various ways in which the Israeli political climate in 2009 was going to present them with a number of insurmountable roadblocks.