February 11, 2016 § 2 Comments
Labor leader Buji Herzog did something unusual this week for a man who leads Israel’s traditionally largest party on the left. He got the party of Yitzhak Rabin and Oslo, of Ehud Barak and Camp David, to temporarily throw in the towel on the peace process and negotiations, and to embrace unilateral separation from the Palestinians instead. Herzog’s plan calls for Israel to freeze all building outside the settlement blocs, retain the blocs, and complete the security fence in order to establish a provisional border; convert parts of Area C to Area B, thereby transferring administrative control to the Palestinian Authority; and separating Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem from the Jerusalem municipality. The plan is predicated on the principle that a two-state vision is currently impossible to implement under the framework of permanent status negotiations, and that the only path forward is to preserve the two-state vision while doing everything possible to separate from the Palestinians until the environment is more conducive to negotiations. As someone who wrote with Jordan Hirsch in Foreign Affairs in August 2014 that Israel should unilaterally pull out of the West Bank and kill the peace process in order to save the two-state solution, Herzog’s general approach here is one that I favor.
But the plan has many vocal critics who raise valid concerns. Within Labor itself, former Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich has come out against it and is likely to use opposition to the plan as a springboard to challenge Herzog for the party leadership. While Yachimovich is motivated as much by politics as anything else, other critics on the left have pointed to specific aspects of the plan that they contend will cut off Palestinians from the Old City of Jerusalem, or make it harder for the Palestinians to get the land swaps they want in return for Israel annexing the blocs, or doom the two-state solution by abandoning it and empowering the current government. What much of this boils down to is opposition to Herzog’s attempts at triangulation; ditching the formula of permanent status negotiations, which is the only way of arriving at a fair and equitable solution for all sides, in favor of a stopgap strategy that will make some things better and other things worse but certainly prioritize Israel’s interests at the Palestinians’ expense.
These arguments carry a lot of weight. Any temporary measure that ends up making the situation in Jerusalem worse or turns into a permanent land grab is ultimately not sustainable. Nevertheless, I think Herzog’s measure can theoretically be a good initial step if it is done right. In order to do it right, it will also have to incorporate three Ds – define, develop, and defend. Without these, its critics are correct that it will only establish facts on the ground without moving the two sides closer to a sustainable and permanent solution.
Any plan that effectively prioritizes the settlement blocs while freezing settlement activity outside of them can only work if the blocs are defined. Everyone throws the term “blocs” around as if they constitute an agreed-upon area, but it means different things to different people. The blocs that Israel will keep in any permanent status negotiation need to be identified definitively; for instance, including the Etzion bloc as part of Israel is an easy one, but Ariel juts much farther out into the West Bank, so does a settlement freeze outside the blocs include or exclude Ariel? Furthermore, once it is settled just which blocs we are talking about, the precise borders of each bloc need to be delineated so that they don’t keep on expanding and swallow up more of the land that will go to an eventual Palestinian state. Without defining the blocs, calling for a settlement freeze outside of them is an empty gesture.
Separating from the Palestinians without a plan to develop the West Bank is another necessary condition for the success of a unilateral strategy. Herzog hints at this through his recommendation to enlarge Area B at the expense of Area C, but it can’t simply be foisting more responsibility on the Palestinian Authority and then dusting off your hands. It must also include exponential expansion of the building permits granted to Palestinians in Area C – of which only one was granted in all of 2014 – while eliminating the absurd amounts of red tape that cause goods for Palestinian towns to languish in Israeli ports (such as pipes for the new reservoir that is supposed to supply Bethlehem with water). Without building up the West Bank economy and actually giving it a chance to flourish, separation will do nothing but create a boiling cauldron on the Palestinian side of the fence.
Finally and most crucially, for any unilateral separation to eventually result in a genuine two-state outcome, defense of Israel and security issues must be addressed. The reason that Bibi Netanyahu wins election after election is because, irrespective of anything else that goes on, he has his pulse on Israelis’ psyches and the genuine fear that has dominated Israeli life since the Second Intifada. Israelis are not willing to play games with security, and no Israeli government will ever be party to the creation of a Palestinian state unless and until Israelis feel assured that the West Bank will not present a permanent security threat. This means that if unilateral separation is supposed to move Israel toward two states while waiting for a more opportune moment to resume negotiations – and I don’t doubt that this is Herzog’s wish and intention – then there must be continued coordination with the PA security forces, a robust plan for how to secure the Jordan Valley, and a mechanism for correcting the currently wholly inadequate Palestinian police coverage in Areas A and B. Defending Israelis’ daily security and providing them with a sense of calm in the aftermath of any unilateral separation is the only way to build enough trust in laying the groundwork on the Israeli side for a negotiated solution in the future.
When thinking about two states, a common mistake is to conflate the peace process with the two-state solution. Tom Friedman committed this cardinal error just yesterday, writing that because the peace process is dead, the two-state solution dies with it. They aren’t the same thing. The peace process is the perfect ideal, while the two-state solution is a good result. Any viable plan has to take the politics of the moment into account, and the politics of the moment clearly dictate that pushing negotiations on two unwilling parties is an unmitigated disaster. One can take the Netanyahu approach, which is to sit on one’s hands and do nothing, or one can try to advance an alternative that is highly suboptimal but that beats the status quo. I would rather see the latter option be tried rather than continuing to sacrifice the good on the altar of the perfect.
March 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
Two high profile speeches were delivered in Israel and Turkey yesterday, each inspiring and giving cause for hope, but only one of them is likely to be transformed from rhetoric into tangible gains. The two speeches of course were the ones given by President Obama in Jerusalem and by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan (via Pervin Buldan and Sırrı Süreyya Önder) in Diyarbakır. Let’s begin with Obama, who gave what was in many ways (although not all) the perfect speech when it comes to Israel. To begin with, he made it crystal clear that the Jewish connection to Israel and the path to establishing a state did not begin with the Holocaust, which was the crucial error he made in his 2009 speech in Cairo, and he also rooted the relationship between Israel and the U.S. in both interests and values, which will make many Israelis happy. He left no doubt that he understands the security problems faced by Israelis every day, from Hamas rockets to Hizballah terrorism targeting Israelis around the world to the Iranian nuclear program, and in the most memorable line of the speech said, “Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist — they might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel’s not going anywhere.”
At the same time, however, he spoke forcefully about the need to make peace and establish a Palestinian state while acknowledging that doing so is a difficult thing for Israelis given past rejection of peace proposals by Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas and the violent aftermath of Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza. Obama approached this topic in a smart way by linking peace to security and economic success, but did not ignore the basic fact that peace is also just and that some empathy for Palestinians is necessary. Of course the violence and terrorism that all too often has come from the Palestinian side is absolutely unjustifiable, but Israel has to overcome that and not tar all Palestinians with the same broad brush. Is there some naivete inherent in a speech that in some way links the U.S. civil rights movement, which was a completely non-violent grassroots movement for equality, to the Palestinian national struggle, which has never been a non-violent one in any widespread or meaningful way? Absolutely. But the Ben Gurion quote that Obama trotted out on believing in miracles in order to be a realist applies here, and if there is a winning combination of reassurance and prodding that Israelis need to hear, I think Obama hit on it. As Rob Danin points out, Israelis and Palestinians yearn for peace irrespective of everything that has taken place between the two sides and the cynicism that many feel, and Obama’s speech played on those emotions.
Of no less consequence was Öcalan’s Nevruz message, which stands in stark contrast to last year’s Nevruz marked by tear gas, water cannons, and civilian deaths. This year, over a million people gathered in the streets of Diyarbakır to hear Öcalan proclaim a PKK ceasefire, call for a move toward finding a political solution rather than a military one, echo the Turkish government’s language from the day before about fraternity, and link Turks and Kurds together as peoples united in one country. Öcalan dropped his call for an independent Kurdistan as well, which is in some ways even more remarkable than his call for a cessation of armed struggle, and his exhortation to let ideas rather than guns rule is similar to what Tayyip Erdoğan has been saying every time he talks about Kurdish issues. At heart, this speech appears to recognize that there is in fact no military solution to solving the impasse between Turkey and its Kurdish citizens and that the only way forward is through politics. While Obama’s speech got more attention in the U.S. and around the world yesterday, it is actually Öcalan’s speech that is the more consequential and revolutionary one, and I’d go so far to say that it is one of the most important political developments in Turkey during the entirety of the AKP’s time in government. Öcalan does not speak for all Kurds or even all elements of the PKK, so it remains to be seen whether this speech will actually significantly alter the PKK’s behavior, but given the enormous shift in language and the Nevruz setting, I am cautiously optimistic that it will and that Öcalan did not write this speech without some assurances that it would translate into action. I am also certain that this speech only came about following a private agreement between Öcalan and the government, and that BDP support for Erdoğan’s constitutional initiatives is now assured. If yesterday marks the end of PKK terrorism, it also marks the beginning of the Erdoğan presidency.
In contrast, I fear that Obama’s speech is going to end up being a rhetorical highlight but little more. As I have detailed before, the makeup of the new Israeli government makes a serious diplomatic initiative impossible, and Bibi Netanyahu is simply not going to risk having his government fall. Furthermore, despite the lofty words, Obama is not going to spend too much time and effort pushing an Israeli government that is unwilling to be pushed. It is no accident that Obama did not come to Israel with a peace plan of his own, since that was not the point of the trip and will not be the point of his second term. The reality of the situation is that Obama does not want to fight a losing battle, the current Israeli government is not going to move on implementing a two-state solution without some serious outside pressure, and the current Palestinian government is completely inept and unable to deliver on anything. So in sum, two great speeches to mark the first day of spring, but only one of them will ultimately be remembered as anything more than that.
December 26, 2012 § 7 Comments
As regular O&Z readers know, if this blog has any sort of running theme it is that domestic politics is often decisive in determining foreign policy. When I wrote last week for The Atlantic about the rightwing political competition that is driving settlement activity, a close friend emailed, “So you’re saying it is local politics at work…#ImagineMySurprise.” I have pointed to domestic politics to argue that Israel and Turkey won’t be normalizing relations any time soon (and I’ll try and write about the recent NATO news tomorrow, but no, I don’t think it signals that anything is going to imminently change) and to predict that there was not going to be an Israeli strike on Iran last spring, summer, or fall. Does this mean that domestic politics is always decisive in every situation? Of course not. There are plenty of times in which other considerations are at work; the months-long push on the Turkish government’s to get NATO to intervene in Syria is one such instance. Nevertheless, I maintain that a lack of focus on domestic politics and the constraints it imposes leads to lots of shoddy analysis from both professionals and casual observers.
Over the next few months, Israel is going to be a great petri dish for watching these trends at work. On the one hand, influential and respected defense and security experts like Amos Yadlin are warning that Israel is losing its international support and status because of its footdragging on the peace process, Tzipi Livni has founded a new party devoted solely to reviving talks with the Palestinians, and there is chatter that the EU is losing so much patience that it is going to try and force Israel and the Palestinians into a deal. Last week the State Department issued a harsher than usual condemnation of Israeli settlement activity, as did the fourteen non-U.S. members of the Security Council. By any measure, Israel’s settlement policy and reticence on the creation of a Palestinian state is become increasingly costly. Looking at it from a black box perspective, you have a state living in a hostile neighborhood with an enormous qualitative military edge over its neighbors that is facing a dangerous potential dip in support from its main external allies and is facing increasing international isolation over the Palestinian statehood issue, which does not present an existential security threat by any means. The state is facing what it believes is an existential threat from Iran, and on that front it needs all the help it can get from its main allies. Given everything involved, you’d expect Israel in this situation to take moves to forestall its isolation and shore up its relationship with the U.S. and EU – which are its primary providers of military and economic aid and diplomatic support across the board – by making some serious concessions on the Palestinian front. After all, even if settlements in the West Bank are viewed as a security buffer, keeping them from a security perspective given Palestinian military capabilities pales in comparison to risking the cessation of purchases of military hardware and transfers of military technology, and enabling the risk of complete diplomatic isolation.
Given all of this, one might expect to see an Israeli coalition after the election that includes Livni’s Hatnua party and that undertakes serious initiatives on the Palestinian statehood and peace process fronts. Such a coalition would under no circumstances include Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi, as Bennett wants to annex Area C and does not support the creation of a Palestinian state. Indeed, there have been moves in that direction as far as keeping Bennett out is concerned, and there have also been reports that Netanyahu and Livni are exploring the possibility of Hatnua joining the coalition after the election, which would almost necessarily mean her return to the Foreign Ministry and a greater push for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
On the other hand, taking domestic politics into account would point to a different path. As I wrote last week, the idea behind the joint Likud-Beiteinu list was to create a right-wing monolith that would put an electoral victory out of reach for Israel’s left and to also present rightwing voters without a real alternative. Netanyahu wanted to eliminate any challenges from his right flank by co-opting Lieberman, but it now turns out that he has to deal with Bennett on his right and a swift migration of voters (so far, at least) away from Likud and to Habayit Hayehudi. It is also the case that Israeli voters do not care about the Palestinians or the peace process, which is why Hatnua is stuck in single digits, Labor and Shelley Yachimovich barely mention anything other than social issues and the economy unless absolutely forced to, and Bennett is gaining a larger following based partly on a perception that Netanyahu is actually not hawkish enough. Taking all of this into account means a coalition that includes Bennett, continues to take a hardline on a Palestinian state, and bemoans the lack of support from European states rather than constructing a policy meant to change that reality.
So which will it be? Unsurprisingly, my money is on the second option, but the first one is certainly plausible. It really just depends on how much weight you place on the domestic political calculus. Netanyahu’s history is that he pays attention to his domestic political survival above all else, and I see no evidence that he has suddenly become a changed man. To my mind, Israel’s long term health necessitates the first path, while Netanyahu’s lies with the second. Let’s hope that events in 2013 prove me wrong.
November 29, 2012 § 8 Comments
Since the topic du jour is the UN vote to grant observer-state status to Palestine, I thought I’d weigh in with my two cents. Former Israeli deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh argues at Foreign Policy that the Palestinian UN bid is actually a good thing for Israel by foreclosing a one-state solution, and I agree with much of what he says in his piece (although I think he is letting his politics get in the way of his objective judgement in blaming Bibi Netanyahu for placing conditions on negotiations rather than acknowledging that it was actually Mahmoud Abbas who imposed a set of preconditions that ended up freezing talks). Whether the Palestinian UN bid is good for Israel or bad for Israel though is in many ways academic, because the reality of the situation is that the UN vote today has almost no relevance to either side. If Israel or the Palestinian Authority thinks that this will mark any type of turning point in how the world conceives of Palestinian statehood, they are both delusional.
To begin with, the most important element for Palestinian statehood is whether or not people think of Palestine as being an independent state-like entity, and the world crossed the Rubicon on that issue long ago. A couple of decades ago, the West Bank and Gaza were almost uniformly referred to as the Palestinian Territories or the Occupied Territories, and only the most ardent partisan supporters of Palestinian statehood referred to Palestine. After the Oslo Accords, which were intended to be the first step on the road to Palestinian autonomy and which created the Palestinian Authority, the discourse began to change a bit and the term Palestine began gaining more currency, but most importantly people began to view the West Bank and Gaza as resembling a state since there was a Palestinian legislature, a president, and other political institutions that one associates with a state. In the subsequent two decades since Oslo, the term Palestine has gone from being a loaded political term to one that most of the world uses in a casually obvious manner, and it is difficult for me to recall the last time I heard the West Bank or Gaza called the Palestinian Territories in any ubiquitous way. What matters for Palestinian statehood is whether people think of the West Bank as constituting a Palestinian state rather than whether an entity called Palestine is a “permanent observer” or “non-member state permanent observer” at the UN. In this case, the dominant casual discourse is more important than international institution legalese.
Second, in 2012 the facts on the ground carry more weight than a UN declaration. Like I said, the Palestinian Authority has a president, a police force, the ability to collect and disburse revenues, ministers with different cabinet portfolios, and a host of other institutions that we associate with states. Partisans aside, most casual observers would look at the West Bank and dub it a separate state irrespective of what the UN thinks. I’ll let you in on another inconvenient fact, which is that Hamas is well on its way to a similar situation in Gaza. Hamas rules Gaza under the auspices of a prime minister, it runs a government with its own headquarters that levies taxes and issues permits, and it ostensibly participates in the Palestinian Legislative Council. As I pointed out last week, Hamas runs Gaza like a separate state and that situation is here to stay, and despite the fact that the UN is unlikely to ever recognize a Hamas-run state in Gaza, plenty of other countries already have. The Qatari emir and Egyptian prime minister have traveled to Gaza on official state visits, and Turkish PM Erdoğan has announced that he might do the same at any time. As much as nobody wants to admit it, Gaza is being treated in some quarters like a de facto state and this trend is only going to grow, and it illustrates again how perception and actions matter a lot more than a UN blessing.
There is an argument to be made that Israel’s primary concern here is that granting Palestine non-member state status will open the door toward prosecution of Israeli officials at the International Criminal Court, but Mark Goldberg has convincingly thrown cold water on that theory by pointing out the ICC prosecutor’s leeway in accepting or declining cases and highlighting the types of cases that have currently been brought before the court. I’m not as sure as he is that prosecuting Israelis would lead to European states withholding funding for the ICC, but I’d throw in the fact that if Palestinians go after Israel at the ICC, Palestinian officials are then opening themselves up to their own charges before the ICC as well, so it is very much a double edged sword. Given all of the above, if I were Israel not only would I not waste any time or effort trying to fight today’s vote, I would actually vote for Palestinian statehood as well. Doing so would go a long way toward rebutting criticism that Israel is not genuinely interested in allowing for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, it would remove from the table an easy issue that people use to bash Israel, and it would create one less headache for the U.S. Israel is fighting a losing uphill battle on the statehood issue, and a meaningless UN vote is not going to change that one way or the other. The only way out is to begin serious negotiations with the PA and get out of the West Bank as soon as is humanly possible, and by dragging things out and losing one public relations battle after another, Israel is not doing itself any good.
August 8, 2012 § 2 Comments
No introductions needed this time. Here is Gabe Scheinmann’s half of Round Two on the implications for U.S. policy toward Israel if Mitt Romney is elected in November (for the previous three installations, go here, here, and here.
Well, I think I’ve gotten Michael to move the needle a little bit (from “little daylight between the two men” to “Gabe is undoubtedly correct that differences exist between Romney and Obama” to saying Michael is “on board with the notion that Romney’s rhetoric and personal convictions on Israel are more friendly than Obama’s”. However, if the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over again expecting different results, here I go.
First, on Iran, Michael somewhat jumbled my argument. Forget the exact chronological predictions for the moment as neither Michael nor I, nor Washington, London, or Jerusalem truly know how far along Iran is. However, my overall point remains unchanged. It’s the Israelis, not us Americans, that have a shorter window for military action should it come to that. Large differences in capabilities between the two countries means that the U.S. can afford to allow the Iranian program to develop much farther than Israel can. Moreover, the gravitas of that difference is magnified by how much Israel trusts Obama’s promises. So, when the Obama Administration draws a red line that is the furthest possible down the road, it makes a massive difference to Israel. So, for the Israelis, a broken U.S. commitment to stop a “nuclear Iran” could mean that it would be too late for Israel to take out the program. Whereas a broken U.S. commitment to stop an Iran with “nuclear weapons capability” would still gives Jerusalem an opportunity to take care of the program itself if need be. As to “walking back” the “respect” quote, maybe we are splitting hairs here, but Senor clarified and did not retract his statement. He said that he hopes diplomacy and sanctions succeed—a position agreed to by all—but in the likely event that they don’t, Romney “recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it.” Even if the “respect” language hadn’t been initially used, the Romney camp is saying in no uncertain terms that America will support Israel if Israel chooses to exercise its right to self-defense. In conclusion, the differences in policies here are still quite large: Obama is actively trying to restrain Israeli action—Panetta at one point even telegraphed the date of a possible attack which really hemmed in the Israelis—whereas Romney is merely saying that he will support our ally if push comes to shove.
Second, on the Palestinian portfolio, let me bring a little more evidence to bear. The Obama Administration is on the record as stating that not only is Jerusalem not Israel’s capital, but that it is not even in Israel. It is Obama’s policy, not Romney’s position, that marks a large change in the American position. See Omri Ceren’s cataloguing of efforts by the Obama Administration to scrub “Jerusalem, Israel” from the archives of past administrations, literally rewriting some history. (You can see the differences in the photo captions.) All previous presidents have recognized Israeli sovereignty over at least pre-1967 Jerusalem, where all Israeli government institutions reside.Nixon (see the September 5, 1972 entry), Carter, Clinton, and Bush43 have all had no problem admitting that Jerusalem was in Israel. Lastly, while candidate Obama stated that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and that it will remain undivided”—two positions he has now backtracked on—candidate Romney has actually not said the “undivided” part. While this could merely be an unintended omission, it could also be an astute recognition that while Jerusalem is obviously in Israel and obviously Israel’s capital, the final borders of Jerusalem could change in line with the decisions of an Israeli government. It lends more weight to Romney’s other statements because his silence naturally defers any decision to its rightful place: the Israeli government.
On borders, Michael has misquoted the joint Netanyahu-Clinton statement, which in turn demonstrates that the Obama position on borders is unprecedented. The relevant parts of the statement says that the “the United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps…” which is actually quite different than what Michael wrote. It merely commits the U.S. to a negotiated outcome and states that those borders are a Palestinian goal. Obama went further in his May 2011 State Department speech, converting the Palestinian goal into the U.S. position. But nowhere in the statement does it say Israel believes this. In fact, a quick search of “1967 lines” or “1967 borders” on the American Presidency Project, an eminently useful archive of presidential speeches, demonstrates that Obama is the first to ever use the formulation in this way. Contrast that with this nifty Reagan quote: “In the pre-1967 borders Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile Arab armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.” Even President Carter said that while he expected there to be “minor adjustments to the 1967, pre-1967 borders” that it was “a matter for Israel and her neighbors to decide.” To summarize, Obama believes that Jerusalem is neither the capital of Israel, nor in Israel, and that the borders of a future Palestinian state should be based on the 1967 lines with mutual agreed swaps. Romney believes that Jerusalem is both in Israel and is Israel’s capital, a position more in line with most U.S. presidents, and has not commented on what he believes Israel’s final borders to be. In doing so, he has deferred to Israel’s own evaluation of its objectives as well as the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Obama, meanwhile, has prejudged those negotiations by putting down the starting point as the Palestinian position. Those are fairly stark policy differences.
Third, on the overall regional approach, Michael points to Zvika Krieger’s article, where Zvika argues that the U.S. did Israel a favor by not including it in a counterterrorism forum because it made Arab and Turkish participation easier. Overlooking the fact that the sole source of the article is an Obama Administration official who presumably drew the short straw of trying to explain the exclusion by saying it was in Israel’s interests, I would argue that reinforcing the Arab diplomatic boycott of Israel, especially in regards to a forum that Israel is a leading expert, as a way of being “pro-Israel” verges on delusion. Unless the Obama Administration thinks it can whisper sweet nothings in Arab ears that will alter their decades-long boycott of Israel, I don’t see how this is productive for Israel in the long run. But, even if Michael buys Zvika’s story, the story confirms what I wrote: the Administration purposefully excluded Israel from the forum, though the Obama line is that in the hopes that it will make cooperation easier down the road. I’ll let the readers decide whether they think that is a good strategy. As per Israel’s non-attendance at the NATO summit in Chicago, Michael refers to his own post on the issue, whereby he cites Administration officials saying that Israel was never invited in the first place, and Israeli officials that it was never going to attend anyways. I would merely submit that this is a diplomatic waltz, a way for the two countries to avoid making an issue out of something that was unlikely to be changed.
I’ll end with a question for Michael—I’ll defer to him as to whether his silence on the numerous other points (calling on Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, desiring to fund UNESCO in contravention of U.S. law, making the peace process a “vital national security interest”) constitutes agreement. By telling Jewish leaders that he intended to put “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel because he thought that the lack of daylight during the Bush years did not lead to peace process progress, was Obama himself not therefore stating that he intended to pursue a different policy than the Bush Administration?
In conclusion, I want to make the case that rhetoric and personal conviction do end up having an important policy impact. There’s no magic formula that explains how convictions translate into policies, but many policymakers will easily attest that a president’s priorities, convictions, personal history, and relationships end up having a greater impact on policy than stand-alone statements. As such, I’d like to link to President Bush’s speech to the Israeli Knesset upon his attendance of Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebration. For a man that was not known for his oratory, the speech is a wonderful expression of the deep, personal convictions of the leader of the free world. “I have been fortunate,” Bush said, “to see the character of Israel up close. I’ve touched the Western Wall; I’ve seen the sun reflected in the Sea of Galilee; I have prayed at Yad Vashem. And earlier today I visited Masada, an inspiring monument to courage and sacrifice. At this historic site, Israeli soldiers swear an oath: “Masada shall never fall again.” Citizens of Israel, Masada shall never fall again, and America will be at your side.” Contrast that language with that of Obama’s in his 2009 Cairo speech, where he implied that the “aspiration for a Jewish homeland” was a result of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and not its Biblical existence.
August 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
Gabe Scheinmann wrote a great guest post last week responding to my contention that U.S. policy toward Israel is going to remain largely the same irrespective of who wins the election in November. In short, Gabe argues that there is a world of difference between Obama and Romney and that it will have a significant impact on U.S. policy regarding Iran, the peace process, and Mideast regional politics and security. I don’t disagree with Gabe that Obama and Romney have different views on various issues related to Israel, but I think where Gabe goes awry is in his contention that it’s going to matter for U.S. policy. Looking at what has gone on under Obama and the history of presidential candidates and campaigns saying things that get walked back later on (including by Romney just last week), I think that a Romney administration will hew to much the same line that the Obama administration has.
On Iran, Gabe argues that the difference between the U.S. drawing a red line at nuclear capability versus drawing a red line at a nuclear weapon is a drastic one, and that by taking the former position Romney is aligned with the Israeli stance. Gabe also thinks that Romney’s position means that the U.S. is looking at a multi-month window, rather than multi-year window under Obama, to strike Iran. There are, however, a couple of factors that Gabe is overlooking. First, we don’t know that the U.S. and Israel are necessarily in agreement as to how long before Iran develops nuclear capability; the British estimate is that Iran is two years away from nuclear capability, while Israeli officials have at times estimated that Iran is only months away. If U.S. intelligence agencies are in line with the British view, then it means we are still looking at a multi-year window for U.S. action. Second, Gabe claims that the Romney campaign has said he will “respect” an Israeli decision to unilaterally attack Iran and he contrasts this with Obama’s efforts to prevent Israel from launching at attack, but Gabe must know that this is misleading. The link that he provides for the “respect” claim is an article detailing how the Romney campaign walked back aide Dan Senor’s respect position – widely interpreted as giving Israel a green light – just hours after he made it, and instead clarified that Romney simply “recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself.” The idea that Obama is constraining the Israelis from striking Iran but that Romney would tell them to go right ahead, or even assist them in doing so, is one that was consciously contradicted by the Romney campaign. As I wrote in my original post, the difference between capability and an actual weapon is a real one, but the effect this has on what actions the U.S. will take and when is not as large as Gabe suggests.
On the issue of the West Bank and the peace process, Gabe says that Obama does not believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that Romney does, and that Obama has endorsed the Palestinian position on negotiations with regard to Jerusalem and borders and that Romney has not. Again, this is a highly selective reading of events. Much like Romney now, when Obama was a candidate in 2008 he famously said that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” and when he attracted a storm of criticism for the “undivided” part of the comment, he walked back that portion but pointedly did not refute the part of the comment calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Once in office, his administration’s official position was the exact same as literally every president before him since – including George W. Bush, widely seen as the most pro-Israel president in history – that Jerusalem’s final status should be subject to negotiations. This is, in fact, the position that Israel agreed to when it signed the Oslo Accords, so when Gabe refers to this as the Palestinian position in negotiations, it is unclear to me why he implies that Israel has never agreed to negotiation Jerusalem’s final status. It is also unclear to me why Gabe believes that Romney will be the first president in history to overturn the U.S. position on Jerusalem, and why he thinks that Romney is not doing the exact same thing that Obama did when campaigning in 2008. On the issue of borders, Netanyahu issued a joint statement with Hillary Clinton in November 2010 using the phrase “1967 lines, with agreed swaps,” which is the same formulation Obama has used. It is also the same position that the U.S. and Israel have taken in every single negotiation with the Palestinians during the Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations, so I’d again be curious to know why Gabe thinks Romney will do things differently. This is furthered by the fact that the Romney campaign website is completely silent on this issue and Romney has, as Gabe note, “issued no such positions” because he has been silent on specifics with regard to Israel, instead relying on empty platitudes. This is not a coincidence, since Romney does not want to upset Jewish voters but also does not want to box himself in by taking positions he will have to repudiate in office. No matter what Romney believes, the fact is that if he wades into the peace process morass, he is – like every president before him irrespective of party – also going to endorse the 1967 lines with swaps and refuse to prejudice the outcomes of negotiations over Jerusalem.
Finally, on the issue of the approach to Middle East regional issues, Gabe says that Obama has excluded Israel from the new Global Counterterrrorism Forum, although I would direct my readers to Zvika Krieger’s excellent reporting on the subject which makes clear that this has nothing to do with the administration trying to isolate Israel. Gabe also contends that Israel is being sold out to placate Turkey, but his claim about allowing Turkey to block Israel from the recent NATO summit is incorrect (as I have written about before), not to mention that I don’t think Gabe would suggest that the U.S. not attend NATO summits if Turkey does indeed exercise its right under the NATO bylaws to block non-members from attending. It should also be pointed out that Israel has never once attended a NATO summit in its history, so the idea that this can be pinned on Obama and that Romney would somehow change that is quite a stretch. Similarly, I think it is questionable to imply, as Gabe does, that the decision not to back Egypt’s autocratic dictator once the handwriting was on the wall was directed at Israel and that Romney would have done things differently.
In sum, Gabe is undoubtedly correct that differences exist between Romney and Obama, but I think he overstates the extent to which this will affect much of anything. Unless you think that Romney is going to upend the bipartisan consensus on the peace process that has existed for decades, or that he is going to destroy ties with Turkey rather than trying to work a middle ground that preserves the relationship with Israel while simultaneously preserving the relationship with another important regional ally, what we are left is with a difference on Iran, but one that still puts Romney at odds with the Israeli position. I am on board with the notion that Romney’s rhetoric and even personal convictions on Israel are more friendly toward Israel than Obama’s, but despite making a host of important points, I don’t think Gabe meets the burden of proof in demonstrating that this will ultimately matter when it comes to U.S. policy.
August 3, 2012 § 5 Comments
On Monday I wrote a post arguing that irrespective of who wins the presidential election in November, American policy toward Israel is unlikely to change very much. My friend Gabe Scheinmann (whose previous guest post differed with me on which side is politicizing the Israel debate) is now here to present an opposing view, since he believes that I have downplayed the differences between Obama and Romney when it comes to Israel policy.
Michael argues that, outside of rhetorical flourish intended for the election season, the sole policy difference with regards to Israel between a Romney Administration and a second Obama term is the “limited exception of what threshold will trigger [U.S.] military action against Iran”. While I respect Michael’s analysis, I have to say that the differences between the two are far, far starker. Whether it be the U.S. approach to the peace process, the status of Jerusalem, relations with regional countries, or dealing with Iran, the policy priorities and principles between the two potential leaders will be vastly different.
First, I concede that, under Obama, the military relationship has strengthened, mostly attributable to the nearly $300mil the Administration has granted to Israel to purchase additional Iron Dome batteries. While this is absolutely commendable, I would surmise that this would have also occurred during a hypothetical McCain Administration and would continue under Romney as well. Moreover, while this is my own opinion, the rhetorical echo chamber nurtured by both the White House and the Israeli government when it comes to security ties has been a way for both governments to claim “Situation Normal” without having to add the AFU part. The nature of military-to-military ties makes it difficult for Congress, interest groups, or the public to know what is concrete and what isn’t. By touting “the closest ever” security ties, both sides are able to mask the deep political and diplomatic problems that do exist.
First, on Iran. The difference between “nuclear weapon capability”, which is the Romney and Israeli position, and a “nuclear Iran”, which is the Obama position, is drastic. While Michael admits that this is the sole point of difference, I think that he undervalues the importance of the difference, which could be a multi-year window for the U.S., a multi-month window for Israel. Moreover, while Obama’s efforts have been focused on constraining, preventing, and even preemptively condemning potential unilateral Israeli military action, the Romney campaign has now said that it will “respect” Israeli action should it come to that. Lastly, Romney supports aiding the Iranian opposition in an attempt to remove the current regime, a notable contrast with the president, who was notoriously silent at the most opportune moment in 2009 for such support. Put simply, Obama’s Plan A is negotiations/sanctions, Plan B is simply “trust me” a few years from now. If he burns your trust, it’s too late. Romney’s Plan A is negotiations/sanctions/regime change from within or “trust me” a few months from now. If he burns your trust, it is still not too late to act unilaterally.
Second, on the West Bank portfolio. On settlements, Obama believes that Jerusalem, including the Old City, is a settlement and should be treated no differently than everything else in the West Bank. The Administration does not believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. (Note: One could still not move the Embassy, state that final borders are subject to negotiation, but still believe that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The Administration has gone out of its way to not do that.) Romney believes that Jerusalem is not a settlement and that it is Israel’s capital. That is a fairly significant difference. Romney has been silent on West Bank settlements, a marked contrast with Obama who made it the focus of his Israel policy for nearly a year, souring the U.S.-Israel relationship and setting back Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Whereas Obama has endorsed the Palestinian negotiating position (Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel and is subject to negotiation, borders (not negotiations on borders, but borders) should be based on the 1949 armistice (he called them 1967 lines), Romney issued no such positions and condemned the president for doing so. Whereas Romney has promised to defund the Palestinian Authority if it enters into a unity government with Hamas or seeks unilateral statehood recognition at the UN, the Obama Administration has gone to great lengths to keep bankrolling the PA, even though Abu Mazen has crossed both those red lines. It also upgraded the diplomatic representation of the Palestinian mission very early on.
Third, Obama and Romney regional policies would be different with different effects on Israel. The Obama Administration has excluded Israel from the first two meetings of a new major counterterrorism forum, has endorsed a conference statement calling for Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, has pushed Israel to apologize to Turkey for the flotilla affair, and has given Turkey a veto on Israeli participation in NATO exercises. Moreover, while it swiftly called for Mubarak, a longtime American and Israeli ally, to step down in the wake of domestic protests, it resisted doing the same in Iran, an American and Israeli enemy, despite its more brutal oppression and troublemaking.
Fourth, the semiotics of Obama’s approach to Israel have been somewhere between wrong-footed, disingenuous, and appalling. The president snubbed the democratically elected Israeli leader at the White House two years ago, denying him a perfunctory photo-op and abandoning him to eat dinner with his family, equated the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering, visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, but not Israel, made his first foreign phone call as president to PA president Abu Mazen, and purposefully put “daylight” between the two countries, as he openly told Jewish leaders. In contrast, Romney has promised to make Israel his first foreign visit.
To conclude, the differences between the two men’s policies are glaring. On Iran, Romney has said that he respects an Israeli strike if it comes to that, but more importantly the threshold for what constitutes as “unacceptable” is a lot lower than what Obama has said. On the Palestinians, the two men see Jerusalem, settlements, and the basis of negotiations in far different lights. Overall, whereas Obama believes that the best way to stop an Iranian nuclear program and to increase U.S. popularity in the Arab world is to loosen its political support of Israel, Romney believes that only by tightening the U.S.-Israel relationship will the U.S. stop the Iranian nuclear drive and enhance Arab-Israeli peacemaking. (The Obama Administration even elevated Palestinian-Israeli peace to a U.S. “vital national security interest”.) The evidence suggests that a Romney Administration’s Israel policy would represent a distinct departure from the policies of the last four years.