The Israeli Government Vs. Its Diplomats

January 2, 2013 § 2 Comments

During the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s ambassadors conference on Monday, the assembled diplomats were given a tongue lashing by Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, who took exception to a question posed by UN Ambassador Ron Prosor about the decision to start the zoning and planning process for E1. After Prosor asked why the government decided to make the E1 announcement and received a round of applause from the room, Amidror responded by saying that American and British diplomats would never applaud someone who criticized the policy of their own government, and that ambassadors are merely clerks tasked with carrying out rather than questioning the government’s directives. He further suggested that any diplomats unhappy with this should either go into politics themselves or resign.

As the various anonymous quotes in the papers make abundantly clear, Israel’s ambassadors were not happy with Amidror’s reaction to Prosor’s question. They feel as if they are being thrown into the spotlight to defend unpopular policies without much assistance or explanation, and Prosor’s question was aimed at getting an idea as to why the government decided to announce building in E1 at that particular time. Divulging plans for E1 the very day of the UN Palestinian statehood vote put Israeli diplomats in a very hard position, as they now not only had to defend a policy that the U.S. and the EU had previously communicated was a redline not to be crossed, but had to do so in the context of it being viewed as a retaliatory move meant to punish the Palestinians, which made them look petulant. As someone who used to train U.S. Foreign Service Officers on how to deal with tough questioning, I know firsthand that diplomats posted overseas have about the toughest job in the world. They don’t get to shut down when they leave the office at the end of the day like most people do, since literally everywhere they go – bars, restaurants, parties, small gatherings with friends – they are representing their country, and they need to watch everything they say since a stray off-message comment might be overheard and repeated as the official position of their government. Israeli ambassadors and chiefs of mission have to deal with this problem in an even more acute way, because they are the top diplomats in their host countries representing a state that is often a target of extra scrutiny. They have a difficult enough job as it is explaining and defending Israeli policies without the added burden of dealing with surprise building announcements and not getting enough direction from the Foreign Ministry on the rationale behind certain decisions.

The additional problem in this case is that despite the Foreign Ministry’s recommendation that the government not take any actions that would be explicitly viewed as retaliation for the Palestinian statehood gambit at the UN, the government ignored this advice and did exactly that. The ambassadors’ protest on Monday reflects frustration on the part of the professionals that the politicians are doing things that are not necessarily well thought out, and that are being driven by heated emotions rather than cool analysis. It is the hallmark of a government thinking about the politics of a situation rather than the policy implications, and understandably Israeli diplomats are frustrated. I do not mean to suggest that Israel’s diplomatic corps is universally leftist and that they uniformly disagree with settlement expansion or building in E1, since I am sure that is not the case. Not having a coherent strategy that is communicated to them beforehand makes their lives a lot more difficult irrespective of whether or not they support the underlying decision, and that is what Prosor’s question and his colleagues’ applause.

There are two things that should be taken away from this incident. First, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Netanyahu government to shove aside any and all criticism of Israeli actions as motivated by hatred for Israel or closet anti-Semitism. A lot of what Israel deals with definitely does fall into this category, but not all, and when you have a senior official upbraiding Israel’s ambassadors for criticizing the government and insisting that dissent will not be tolerated, you know that there is a much larger problem at hand. The official government line has been that Israel’s image problem stems from a failure of public relations rather than a failure of policy, but this is simply not credible when it comes to complaints from your own diplomats. It is one thing to dismiss criticism from Europe or the UN as biased, but quite another to dismiss complaints from the people manning your own diplomatic front lines. This should be a serious wakeup call to Netanyahu that things are off the rails, and that policy is going to have to be recalibrated.

Second, Amidror’s response to Prosor was a real overreaction, and all the more surprising given that he was not speaking to a group that could in any way be deemed a hostile audience. One of two things, and possibly both simultaneously, are going on here. Either the government is actually feeling a lot more pressure on settlements and E1 than it lets on, which would explain Amidror’s hair triggered short temper, or the government is feeling a lot more pressure over its declining pre-election poll numbers than it lets on and was willing to use a clash with its ambassadors to score political points. My hunch is that it is the former, and I certainly hope that it is the former, but one never knows with Israeli politics. If Netanyahu and his advisers are indeed feeling squeezed on the E1 issue, hopefully it will forestall greater settlement activity and push the government back to a serious negotiating posture once the elections are over. Either way, berating your top diplomat when he asks for some clarification on a policy that he is tasked with publicly and privately defending is probably not a great way to inspire confidence in your policy planning and implementation process.

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Rightwing Competition And Settlements

December 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wrote a piece for the Atlantic yesterday about how Israel’s recent announcements on settlements in the West Bank and building in East Jerusalem is widely viewed as an effort to punish the Palestinians in the wake of their statehood bid at the UN, but that’s not the only thing driving Israeli policy. The sudden emergence of serious competitors on Bibi Netanyahu’s right flank accounts for much of what is going on as well. Here’s a teaser:

Over the past few weeks, the Israeli government has been on a building spree. First came word that planning and zoning would begin for E1, a controversial move that would further encircle East Jerusalem with settlements — cutting off from the West Bank the part of the city Palestinians demand to be the capital of their future state. As part of the same announcement, Israel said that it was going to build more housing in other parts of the West Bank as well.

This week, the government approved 1500 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem — the same housing units whose initial announcement in 2010 during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel caused a temporary rift between the United States and Israel and Hilary Clinton’s chewing-out of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem Local Committee are also expected to approve plans to build in Givat Hamatos and Gilo this week, both of which are new Jerusalem neighborhoods that are also across the 1967 armistice line that divides East and West Jerusalem.

This is all taking place despite enormous pressure and condemnation from Western countries, who are not happy with the escalation of Israeli plans to expand settlements or to build up Jerusalem neighborhoods that challenge the viability of a future Palestinian state. Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal are about to formally condemn Israel over its East Jerusalem building plans, and the 14 non-American members of the United Nations Security Council are going to do the same. Even the United States seems to have lost its usual patience with the Israeli government, deeming the new building announcements part of a “pattern of provocative action” that endangers the peace process and the two-state solution. Israel seems hell-bent on isolating itself over the settlement issue, and appears determined to move ahead with plans for both the West Bank and East Jerusalem no matter the cost.

It is easy to chalk this up to Israel’s fury with the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid at the United Nations, as the E1 announcement came the day after the vote, amidst stated determination on Israel’s part to punish the Palestinians for pursuing unilateral moves outside of the Oslo framework. “We felt if the Palestinians were taking unilateral action in the UN, we had to also send the message that we could take unilateral actions,” Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren said this week, making the connection explicit.

Yet, this does not account for the scope of the recent Israeli announcements, or for the seeming recklessness of drawing real anger and censure from Israel’s Western allies immediately following American and EU support during Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza. There is indeed something else going on here, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinians and everything to do with the political jockeying taking place on the right of Israel’s political spectrum before Israelis go to the polls on January 22 to elect their next government.

To read the article in its entirety, please click over to the Atlantic’s website.

The Irrelevant Distraction That Is The Palestinian UN Bid

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.

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