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.

Wieseltier Is Right About The Lost Cause That Is The Peace Process

December 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

Leon Wieseltier has penned a eulogy for peace between Israel and the Palestinians in his lifetime, and while this is not going to surprise anyone save the most Pollyannaish dead-enders, it is difficult to conclude that he is wrong. I’ll take it even further and say that absent armed U.S. intervention with the purpose of imposing a solution on the two parties, or concurrent Israeli and Palestinian civil wars, it is unlikely to happen in my lifetime either (and Wieseltier has almost three decades on me). Wieseltier describes peace between Israelis and Palestinians as a lost cause, and he refers to a number of recent events that bolster his case – Hamas rockets, Mahmoud Abbas’s overheated rhetoric at the UN, the E1 settlement announcement, and the alliance between Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, among others. There is no doubt that the particulars of the last few years, or even the last few months, provide little reason for optimism, and Wieseltier recounts, “People assure me that all this can change if there is the political will to change it; but I do not detect the political will.” This is actually where I disagree with Wieseltier, because he frames the issue as a lack of will or courage, but I think it runs much deeper. We are rapidly getting to the point, if we have not passed it already, where structural conditions make a genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians impossible without an outside shock to the system, irrespective of who each side’s leaders are and whether they have the will of Rabin, Ghandi, and the Dalai Lama rolled into one.

Not only is the peace process stagnant, the situation is actually getting worse by the day rather than just cruising in a holding pattern. The reason for this is that each side’s position is hardening, but in different ways. On the Israeli side, the problem is literally a structural one, in that Israel is too intertwined in the West Bank to be able to exit it in any comprehensive manner. Let’s say the Israeli government struck a deal tomorrow and agreed to keep a few of the largest settlement blocs in return for proportional land swaps within Israel, and all that needed to be done was to evacuate the rest of the settlements (and to figure out the precise parameters of such a deal, check out this amazing new tool from the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and the Atlantic that lets you draw borders and see the precise implications in terms of population and percentage of the West Bank). There is just no way that the government could ever carry this out anymore. Gaza was a cakewalk compared to what will be when Israel orders settlers to pick up their stakes and move, and partially this is because the promises that Israel made to Gaza’s settlers on compensation and resettlement have gone unfulfilled. Just look at what happened with Migron, which is a tiny outpost, or the gnashing of teeth over settlers having to evacuate the neighborhood of Ulpana and literally move just down the street. The idea that Israel will be able to just pick up and leave when it finds a suitable negotiating partner on the other side would be a joke if people didn’t actually think it was true. Furthermore, the argument that Israel was able to pull out of Gaza or Yamit and so it will be able to pull out of the West Bank when push comes to shove is at this point hopelessly naive, as if those instances have any real bearing on the situation in the West Bank, or as if Israeli politics and public opinion can just be overcome with a government order to evacuate. This is not a question of political will in the near horizon, but one of whether a certain action can ever be accomplished under any circumstances. I hate to say that I don’t think it can, and trying to do so would ignite a full blown civil war in Israel, with settlers fighting the IDF tooth and nail and a significant portion of Israelis sympathizing with the settlers who were urged and incentivized by their government for decades to go put down roots in the West Bank.

On the Palestinian side, what is being hardened is not necessarily the physical situation on the ground but the ideological situation. For every poll showing a majority of Palestinians supporting peace negotiations there is a poll showing a majority rejecting a two state solution. More worrying than any specific poll is that Hamas now controls Gaza, is making inroads in the West Bank, and smart money is that ten years from now Hamas will be the face of the Palestinians rather than Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (unless Hamas comes to control the PA). Lest you think that Hamas’s views toward Israel and accepting Israel inside the 1967 borders are moderating, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal wants to make sure that you are aware that Hamas is as radical as ever, as he reiterated to hundreds of thousands of cheering Gazans over the weekend that Hamas will literally fight to the death until Israel is gone. In addition, the apparent decision on the part of Sunni states such as Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey to prop up Hamas and the trend of emerging Islamist governments in the region means that Hamas is only going to grow stronger and be seen as more legitimate, and it follows that the same will happen to its views on negotiating a real two-state solution. Make no mistake, this is even more of a problem – and one that is just as intractable – as the problem I highlighted on the Israeli side, and once again making the problem disappear probably requires a Palestinian civil war, in which a Palestinian Authority led by a committed two-stater like Salam Fayyad defeats Hamas in open warfare.

So, is Wieseltier’s recent essay a depressing one? It is, and not just because one man has decided that the peace process is an irrevocably lost cause. It is depressing because it might be even more of a lost cause than Wieseltier acknowledges, and from where I’m sitting, I don’t see a good way out of the morass absent some terrible infighting and bloodshed on both sides. Ehud Olmert might have convinced some people that all he needed was a few more months and everything would have been solved, but a more realistic assessment suggests otherwise. That doesn’t mean that anyone should stop trying to work toward a two-state solution but it is as much of an uphill battle as exists anywhere.

Guest Post: Should Rabbis Be Political?

December 7, 2012 § 3 Comments

After the controversy that erupted this week over the email sent by the rabbis of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun to their congregants celebrating the Palestinian statehood vote at the United Nations and their subsequent apology for the email’s tone, I was talking about it with my close friend and college roommate Ephraim Pelcovits and I asked him to write a guest post for me on the proper role of rabbis in politics. Ephraim is uniquely qualified to speak on this issue since not only is he one of the smartest and most erudite people I know, he is also the rabbi of the East 55th Street Conservative Synagogue in Manhattan, and so this is an issue with which he grapples on a daily basis. He has an interesting take on the larger picture at play here, and so without further ado here is Ephraim:

Behind my desk in my synagogue study sit three photographs: The first is of my two little boys, three year old Alexander giving his infant brother Lev a kiss on the cheek. That picture reminds me to hurry up and get my work done at the synagogue so that I can spend time with the two of them.  The second photo on that shelf is of the sanctuary of a tiny, but wonderfully warm, Buffalo synagogue – Congregation B’nai Shalom – where I served as student rabbi my senior year of rabbinical school, and it reminds me of the enormous potential for rich communal life with incredibly limited resources. And finally, there is a third photograph, of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – the great 20th century theologian and activist – marching in Arlington National Cemetery in 1968 together with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath. While many American Jews recognize the famous photograph of Heschel and King marching arm in arm during the Selma-Montgomery March in 1965, I have deliberately chosen to display a more obscure photograph of these American heroes, protesting yet again, this time against the Vietnam War.

The reason that lesser known photograph speaks to me is because it shows these great religious leaders willing to speak out a second time – breaking with some of their closest allies – when their consciences told them that their country faced a second moral crisis. While many of Rabbi Heschel’s colleague’s supported his heroic efforts on behalf of the Civil Rights movement, quite a few of them – including his disciple and right hand man on his trip to Selma in 1965, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman –  disagreed vehemently and publicly with his opposition to Vietnam. Heschel’s appearance at that rally in Arlington in Febuary of 1968 caused an uproar, when photographs of his Reform colleague Rabbi Eisendrath holding a Torah scroll in a cemetery, in contravention of Jewish religious law, appeared in the press. Heschel did not cower from these attacks, and instead argued that under these circumstances a Torah most certainly belonged in Arlington National Cemetery. In response, Heschel quoted a noted 18th century rabbi who had argued that, “a Torah should be taken by the community to the cemetery to pray…to stop a plague.” For King too, opposition to Vietnam was not easy, and he waited until his famous “A Time to Break the Silence” address at Riverside Church on April 1, 1967 to speak out against the war. That public attack on the Johnson administration tore apart his alliance with a president who had worked so hard to pass the Civil and Voting Rights Acts through Congress just a few years before. But as King put it in that address, “Men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy… We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

Last Friday, my esteemed colleagues, the rabbinic leadership of New York’s second oldest congregation, B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) issued a letter in support of the Palestinian Authorities approved bid for enhanced status at the United Nations. My own feelings about the Palestinian delegation’s status change are more subdued and less celebratory then theirs were, but I certainly followed this vote with hopes and prayers that this latest diplomatic gesture would, against the odds, advance the cause of a peaceful Palestinian state for its people in the West Bank and Gaza, alongside the Jewish people’s homeland, the State of Israel. While neither the BJ letter nor the excitement about it in the press were particularly surprising to me, I was surprised at the reaction of my own congregants and family to the coverage of the letter in the New York Times. What I heard from them was dismay that these rabbis had spoken out on what they dubbed a “political” issue, one which they argued was beyond the purview of clergy. That repeated theme left me pondering Heschel and King, and why and whether their support for civil rights or Vietnam might be different than this situation? Was this rabbinic stance any different?

The US Tax code allows a far wider range of political activity by houses of worship than many people understand, including speaking out on specific social issues and organizing congregants to vote. But synagogues, churches and mosques may not endorse specific candidates nor engage in partisan advocacy, or risk losing their 501(c)(3) charitable status. Clearly the statement by BJ rabbis will not affect their synagogue’s tax status, yet there are several other questions, more important (or at least interesting to me) than parsing the intricacies of our tax code, which I try to consider before taking such a public stand on a controversial moral issue.

1. “Do I have a broad and deep understanding of the issue I wish to comment upon, and can I clearly filter my thinking about the issue through the prism of traditional Jewish study – which is my specialty as a religious leader?”

Here I look to Heschel’s example yet again, this time in his essay explaining his involvement in the anti-war movement, which he carefully grounds in Biblical and Rabbinic text. “There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.”

2. After considering this first question, I then ponder, “Will I be able to best address this issue via a public statement – a community letter or sermon – or might I do a better job of persuasion by discussing the problem with a smaller, more informal group, or simply by setting an example of the conduct I think is best?” Most of the time this is the course that makes the most sense to me, and which I choose to pursue

3. Finally, and this is most critical as I consider a thorny issue like Israel and Palestine, I ask myself, “Am I getting too far ahead of my community?” As a mentor once pointed out to me, “A rabbi should always be one or two steps ahead of his or her community – to keep pulling them forward – but if he or she gets further ahead than that, the community will be left behind.  They’ll never be able to catch up with you.”

The rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun are deep thinkers whom I have no doubt asked these, or similar, questions of themselves before writing their letter to their community. While it is not a letter I could or would have chosen to sign and send to my community, I have no doubt that they wrote that letter with the same conviction that Dr. King had when he decided to speak out against the Vietnam War, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” May the hopes and aspirations that were expressed in that letter for peace and prosperity for all of the inhabitants of the Holy Land be speedily accomplished.

Turning Lemons Into Rotten Lemons

December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments

Last night Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted an apt point that all supporters of Israel should think about very hard. He wrote, “Two things can be true at the same time: Israel is judged more harshly than any other nation–and, Netanyahu is behaving terribly.” Israel is subjected to double standards to which no other country is held, and if you think that isn’t true, consider the nearly single-minded focus on Israel that is the hallmark of the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, or the harsh spotlight trained upon Israel over civilian casualties relative to other countries. Israel behaves badly on plenty of occasions, but so do other countries with far less complex challenges, and yet a visitor from another planet encountering Earth for the first time would lump Israel together with North Korea based on the media coverage (and if you think that is a fair comparison, please just stop reading now since you’ll be wasting your time). Israel always starts off in any situation at a complete disadvantage, and this is something that no other country deals with on a similar scale. Yet, this does not mean that Israel is a completely blameless actor in every instance, and none of the above obviates the fact that not all criticism of the Netanyahu government is a result of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, dislike of Netanyahu personally, or driven by a hidden agenda. To take the case in point, Netanyahu’s actions since last Thursday are not only childish and puerile, they are weakening Israel to an immeasurable degree.

Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at the long term picture. Israel is now perhaps more isolated than it has ever been on a number of levels, and certainly the most isolated it has been since 1975 during the Arab oil boycotts and the falling out with the Ford administration. Looking at Israel’s traditional regional allies, Israel’s relationship with Turkey is at an all-time low, its ties with Egypt are the most strained they have been in the post-Camp David era, and Jordan is too preoccupied with its own internal problems and the wave of refugees coming over the border from Syria to give Israel much cover on anything. While Israel does not have to worry about military threats from Arab states, it is looking at a long-term stream of diplomatic pressure from Islamist governments and less cooperation from Arab states on repressing non-state actors who threaten Israel.

In Europe, Israel faces an uphill battle as well. There is generally a lot of sympathy in European capitals for the Palestinians, but Europe’s indignation over settlements is real as well. This was driven home by the lopsided UN vote on Palestinian statehood, in which the Czech Republic was the only European country to vote with Israel. New allies Cyprus and Greece, to whom Israel has pinned such high hopes, both voted to grant Palestine non-member state observer status, and stalwart Israeli ally Germany abstained due to its anger over repeatedly being dismissed by Israel over the issue of settlement expansion. This all comes on the heels of the surprising European support for Operation Pillar of Cloud, which indicates that while Israel faces a tough audience in Europe, it has some wiggle room.

Then there is the United States, which has given Israel military aid for Iron Dome, constantly goes to bat for it in the UN including last week, was unwavering in its rhetorical support during military operations in Gaza, and also has been pleading with Israel to halt settlement expansion. The U.S. is unlikely to put heat on Israel like Europe does, but it has repeatedly expressed its displeasure with settlements and is very clear that it sees settlement growth as an obstacle to peace.

Given all of this, what is Israel’s most sensible course of action? Is it to loudly announce that it is going to “punish” the Palestinians for going to the UN by building thousands of more homes in the West Bank? Or is it to look at the big picture, realize that settlements are not just an excuse trotted out by anti-Semitic Europeans and Israel-hating leftists but are actually causing Israel all sorts of problems, and come up with some other way to deal with what it views as Palestinian intransigence? Israel went in the span of weeks from being viewed sympathetically due to Palestinian rockets indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians to being denounced and having its ambassadors hauled in on the carpet over settlement expansion and being threatened with all sorts of countermeasures by the West. Please, someone make a cogent argument for me how this is somehow a brilliant strategy and how Netanyahu is ensuring Israel’s future existence, because from where I am sitting it is counterproductive, dangerous, and unwaveringly stupid. It’s all fine and good to constantly claim that Western views don’t matter and that Israel has the right to do what it wants, but that is the equivalent to burying your head in the sand. The fact is that Israel cannot exist on its own, it needs allies given the neighborhood in which it lives, and settlements are actually a problem for Israel’s allies. That’s the truth, and pretending otherwise is fiddling while Rome burns.

It has become clear to me over the past few years that contrary to the popular myth that the problems between Israel and the Palestinians stem from 1967, the parties are still fighting over 1948. Significant segments of Palestinians, with Hamas leading the way, simply will not concede the legitimacy of Israel, plain and simple. Concurrently, the constant refrains from the right about Palestinians not needing a state of their own because they have Jordan or the tired old canard that there is no land to give back to the Palestinians because it belonged to Jordan and to Egypt (always smugly spouted as if this is some brilliantly clever argument) is a vestige of 1948. Everyone loves to point out that Hamas doesn’t care about settlements, and that the PLO was founded in 1964, and both of these things are true and speak to the challenges that Israel faces that have absolutely nothing to do with settlements. But – and this a big one – settlements exacerbate the situation enormously, particularly with Western countries. Even ceding the argument that Palestinians of all stripes are never going to accept Israel in the pre-1967 borders and that Arab states will never want to make peace with Israel, Israel should then be doing everything it can to make sure it has the West on its side. You want to know what the best way to foul that up is? Proudly declaring that you don’t care what anyone else thinks and that you are going to build settlements wherever and whenever you like, and that doing so is not in any way an obstacle to a two-state solution and that in fact the blame rests solely with the other side. I am sick and tired of watching Israel’s supporters, of whom I am most definitely one, ignore the glaringly obvious facts that are right in front of their faces. Settlements are a huge problem, case closed. If you think that the benefit to expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank outweighs everything else, then I respect your argument and at least you are going into this with eyes wide open. Pretending that settlements are an ancillary side issue though is willful blindness, and if that’s what you really think, then your powers of observation and analysis are sorely lacking.

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.

Why Palestinian Reconciliation Would Be Bad

November 20, 2012 § 4 Comments

At some point Israel and Hamas are going to negotiate a ceasefire, and the question then becomes how to ensure that it holds and, more importantly, that Israel and Hamas move away from fighting a war every few years and toward a viable long term political solution. One of the sacred cows of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is that in order for there to be a lasting peace there needs to be Palestinian unity so that Palestinians can speak with one voice. Israel has used the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as an excuse in the past not to negotiate because it viewed negotiations under those circumstances as a pointless exercise, and certainly having Hamas and the PA as separate and adversarial entities has complicated matters. Writing in the New Republic, Nathan Brown examines the ways in which Hamas might eventually moderate and lands on the issue of reconciliation as paramount:

The most promising way to force Hamas to become more moderate is to force it to be more responsive to its own public. (As a leading Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian in neighboring Egypt told me when I asked him whether Hamas would ever accept a two-state solution: “They will have to. Their people will make them.”) And the most promising way to ensure such responsiveness is to speed up the reconciliation between the governments in the West Bank and Gaza, so that those governments can agree to hold elections rather than jealously hold on to their own fiefdoms in a fit of paranoia. But that, in turn, will require that Israel and the international community show a greater willingness to countenance Palestinian reconciliation.

The thing is, it seems increasingly clear to me that Hamas moderation belongs in the same category as the yeti and the Loch Ness monster; its existence has long been rumored and many have claimed to have spotted it but no proof of it actually exists. Brown himself grants that the reconciliation gambit is a long shot but that it is the only option left as all the others have been exhausted, as he catalogs how the lack of Palestinian elections, the Hamas-Fatah civil war in 2007, and Hamas’s desire to keep an iron grip on Gaza have combined to destroy any hopes for Hamas moderation. If the fact that Hamas for much of this year was not itself shooting rockets at Israel but was allowing other more extreme groups to do so is touted as a sign of moderate pragmatism, then the term has lost all semblance of real meaning. The challenges from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and smaller Salafi groups in Gaza mean that Hamas must remain an intransigent foe of Israel in order not to lose credibility, as has happened to the PA in the West Bank, and outside of Hamas mounting a large scale military campaign to destroy these groups and risking a civil war in Gaza, this domestic political environment is not going to be altered. Everyone can hope that having to govern Gaza is eventually going to turn Hamas into a more moderate group, but it seems to be foolish to have any remaining reasonable expectation that this will occur.

So this being the case, what happens if Hamas and the PA reconcile? Rather than Hamas moderating, the likely scenario is that it transforms the PA rather than the PA transforms it. The PA’s credibility is gone, it is viewed as inept and incompetent, and as violent protests break out across the West Bank despite Mahmoud Abbas calling for peaceful demonstrations, it is difficult to conclude anything other than that the PA is out of touch and on the brink of collapse. While Hamas shoots rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and generally terrorizes southern Israel, Abbas spends his time trying to eliminate domestic opponents, feuds with his own prime minister Salam Fayyad, and mounts ineffective and symbolic Palestinian statehood bids at the United Nations. While the PA has basically delivered nothing but deferred promises, Hamas is seen as the hero of the Palestinian resistance standing up to Israel, and its popularity in the West Bank is naturally growing as a result.  This is, of course, partially Israel’s doing as it has done little to prop up Abbas and has not made much of an effort to give West Bank Palestinians hope that the peace process is still alive. If these two groups reconcile, is there really much doubt which one is going to have the upper hand and swallow the other? I think that this is a recipe for a stronger non-pragmatic Hamas rather than a more pragmatic and conciliatory Hamas. This is compounded by the support Hamas receives from Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt, who have yet to demonstrate that they have actual sway over the group, or that even if they do that they want it to moderate its stance toward Israel.

Given all of the above, I think rather than encourage a rapprochement and then hope to deal with a newly pragmatic Hamas, Israel’s best bet is to actually discourage reconciliation at all and officially recognize the reality on the ground, which is that we are dealing with two separate and independent Palestinian entities, each with their own territory and set of political institutions. Up until now, Israel has essentially taken the position that Hamas is an illegitimate entity and that it hopes the PA eventually returns to power in Gaza, but it’s time to drop this fantasy. Hamas is here to stay, and acknowledging that and then coming up with long term strategies to deal with the West Bank and Gaza separately is the next step. This then leads to a two-fold strategy that only works if both parts are carried out. First, rather than threaten to collapse the PA if it goes to the UN again and treat Abbas and Fayyad as if they are mere inconveniences to be ignored, actually work to establish a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority so that the PA can claim to have accomplished something by working with Israel. Second, treat Gaza as a completely separate entity and have the U.S. lean on Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar – all of whom are ostensibly U.S. allies in the region – to keep Hamas in line, but this time with the added force of arguing that Israel actually is willing to truly work with a peaceful Palestinian partner. This second part only works if the first part is there too, since otherwise the argument to keep Hamas isolated falls apart. If the Turks and the Egyptians can actually work to change Hamas’s behavior, great. If not, hopefully an actual Palestinian state in the West Bank will lead Palestinians in Gaza to reject the Hamas approach on their own once they see that there is a genuine alternative.

Is this actually viable? I honestly don’t know. It requires Abbas to come to the negotiating table without a list of preconditions and demands, requires Israel to actually do something about the settlements in the West Bank, and requires Hamas’s Sunni patrons to exert what sway they have and actually be more convincing and forceful than the prospect of amassing more Iranian Fajr-5 missiles. That’s a lot of big ifs, but if the Palestinians living in Gaza can actually see that there are tangible benefits to the more pragmatic PA approach, then maybe Hamas actually will be forced to be more responsive to its own public and Israel can finally stop pretending that there is a permanent military solution to dealing with Hamas.

Random Thoughts, Gaza Edition

November 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

I have a bunch of interconnected things to say about Gaza and Operation Pillar of Cloud, so here we go.

First, on Monday I wrote that I thought Israel was likely to go into Gaza eventually with ground forces, and three days later I see no reason to alter that prediction. Taking out Ahmed al-Jabari was guaranteed to elicit a response from Hamas, and now that three Israeli civilians were killed when a rocket from Gaza hit their apartment building in Kiryat Malachi, the IDF is going  to ramp up military operations even further. Over 200 rockets were fired out of Gaza yesterday, and the Israeli cabinet has authorized the army to call up any reserve units that it needs, on top of the earlier authorization to call up reservists serving in the Home Front Command, so I am relatively confident that it is only a matter of time before ground forces are ordered into Gaza.

Second, nobody should be shedding any tears for al-Jabari, and I do not begrudge for a second Israel’s right to kill terrorist leaders who target civilians. That said, the Hamas problem is not going to be solved militarily. Cast Lead was not able to do away with Hamas, and Pillar of Cloud is likely to meet the same fate of quieting things down in the immediate aftermath but not solving the overarching problem of Hamas controlling Gaza and still not being willing to negotiate a permanent end to its war with Israel. As Jeffrey Goldberg and Brent Sasley have both pointed out, this type of operation is all about short term tactics in an attempt to ignore a long term strategic conundrum, and until Israel figures out a way to address this, the next Cast Lead or Pillar of Cloud is only four or five years away. Already there have been Palestinian civilian casualties, and much like Israel faced the Goldstone Report and a renewed BDS push following its last incursion into Gaza, no doubt it is going to deal with a fresh round of condemnations and pressures when this is over. As much as Israel can hit Hamas where it hurts, this is no successful way to operate.

Third, Pillar of Cloud makes the Foreign Ministry’s threats earlier this week to collapse the Palestinian Authority over its UN bid an even stranger move than it already was. The fact that Israel is now engaged in its second major military operation against Hamas in four years while collaborating with the PA security forces in the West Bank over the same time period demonstrates the absurdity of Avigdor Lieberman’s position that the PA is just as bad, or even worse, for Israeli interests than Hamas. If the PA collapses in the West Bank, it is a near guarantee that Hamas takes over, and then Israel’s security situation is vastly worse. Pillar of Cloud is going to damage Hamas militarily but may very well strengthen it politically, and so in tandem with a strategy of weakening the PA, it means that a Hamas-controlled West Bank is ever more likely. Lieberman obviously knew Pillar of Cloud was coming and just didn’t care, and it is also evident that Bibi Netanyahu either has limited control over what Lieberman is doing at the Foreign Ministry or doesn’t see it as a problem. The operations in Gaza make reneging on the UN bid impossible for Mahmoud Abbas, since he cannot back down in the face of Israel pressure while Palestinians are being killed in Gaza and retain any shred of credibility. What this all means is that Israel’s right hand and left hand are essentially working at cross purposes, trying to forestall a UN bid while also making it more likely, and trying to eliminate Hamas while giving it the West Bank on a silver platter. Someone in the upper echelons of Israel’s decision making hierarchy needs to take a step back and look at the big picture here.

Finally, Turkey’s response to all of this has been interesting. It was well behind Egypt and the Arab League in condemning Israel yesterday, waiting hours to say anything and then issuing a Foreign Ministry statement close to midnight (and one that has still not been posted on the ministry’s English language website). Ahmet Davutoğlu had some harsh words for Israel when talking to reporters but the overall Turkish response was not as fast and furious as one might have expected. Egypt, in contrast, was way out in front and has been keeping up the pressure rhetorically while recalling its ambassador back to Cairo. I have some thoughts at the Atlantic on why this might be and what we can expect from Turkey and Egypt going forward, and here is a teaser:

Since Israel’s last major foray into Gaza with Operation Cast Lead in 2008, no country has been more vocal about the plight of the Palestinians than Turkey. Prime Minister Erdoğan has made it a priority to keep the world’s attention on Gaza and has repeatedly called out Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians while attempting to bolster Hamas. The Palestinian issue has been so important to the Turkish government that it has made ending the Gaza blockade one of its three conditions, along with an apology and compensation, for restoring full ties with Israel following the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara. Erdoğan recently announced plans to visit Gaza, which would undoubtedly go a long way in the campaign to legitimize Hamas.

Becoming the champion of the Palestinian cause is one of the primary reasons that Erdoğan has had such high approval ratings in the Arab world. It has not only made Erdoğan personally popular but also enhanced Turkey’s international stature, contributing to Turkey’s efforts to be seen not only as a regional leader but as a leader of the wider Sunni world as well. In essence, the resulting deterioration in relations with Israel has in some sense been well worth the cost as Turkey’s reputation and soft power has been enhanced. In light of all this, the expectation following Israel’s new military operations in Gaza today is that Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are going to be leading the charge to condemn Israeli military actions, which would be consistent with Turkey’s position over the past few years.

But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.

For the rest, please click over to the original at the Atlantic’s website.

 

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