Getting the U.S. and Israel Back On Track

April 21, 2015 § 2 Comments

Now that the Israeli elections are in the rearview mirror – although coalition negotiations are still ongoing – it is time to assess the damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and figure out how to avoid clashes going forward such as those that have marred the past few years. There is no doubt that the relationship is at a low point politically, perhaps even historically low. But it is also the case that it will certainly recover and that we are not seeing the beginning of the end, but are rather going through the sort of blip that happened under Ford in 1975, Reagan in 1981, Bush in 1990, etc. The relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu is the worst between any two presidents and prime ministers, and there is also wide distrust and dislike of ministers such as Bogie Ya’alon and Naftali Bennett in the White House with a corresponding disdain for people like John Kerry and Susan Rice in the prime minister’s office. Ultimately, Obama and Netanyahu are going to move on from the scene, and the robust institutional relationship that still exists at all other levels will be paramount. That said, this fighting at the top levels is ugly and counterproductive, and at some point threatens to become a lasting acrimonious trend rather than a temporary occurrence, so each side needs to think about what can and should be done to prevent future misunderstandings big and small.

Starting with the Israeli side, this government and all future governments need to understand that support from the U.S. is predicated on a number of things, but first and foremost on the idea of shared democratic values. I have written about this at length in academic form and the post-9/11 picture is a bit more complicated, but the executive summary is that it is easy to draw a direct line from public preferences to foreign policy formation in this particular case, and Americans don’t care whether or not Israel is a strategic asset or liability but do care whether or not Israel is a liberal democracy. Furthermore, the erosion of support for Israel on the left and among younger voters is even more tightly tied to this (whether Israel could do anything that would be able to satisfy some of this segment is a separate question). Netanyahu’s lackluster moves toward creating a Palestinian state and his ugly election day display thus matter hugely in this regard, and all of the “yes, but” arguments that seek to mitigate these things don’t matter, even if they are true. Maybe a Palestinian negotiating partner that was more serious and responsive to Israeli concessions or an altered security environment would prompt Netanyahu to leave the West Bank, and maybe Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state on his watch really was meant to be qualified and his warning that Arabs are coming to the polls in droves wasn’t about Arabs specifically but just shorthand for leftwing voters. Even if you fervently believe these things – and, for what it’s worth, I am hugely skeptical – it doesn’t matter when it comes to the relationship with the U.S., because they both chip away at the vision in the American mind of Israel as a like-minded country that we can easily understand and with which we can sympathize. What Israeli governments need to understand is that 99% of people outside of Israel are not following the daily back and forth of Israeli politics and policy, and so the rapidly spreading perception of Israel as an increasingly illiberal country seeking to shout down minorities and keep the Palestinians in a state of perpetual occupied statelessness doesn’t have to be true in order to be damaging. Once Israel is seen as abandoning the two state solution and the peace process, the game is over and Israel becomes like any other country when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. The only priority the Israeli government should have going forward when it comes to the U.S. is preserving the possibility of an eventual two state solution, even if such an outcome is currently impossible.

The Israel Policy Forum released a statement of principles last week that is dead-on in this regard. It explicitly recognizes that a negotiated two state solution is not imminent for a variety of reasons, but that preserving the possibility of two states happening at some point down the road is critical. It recognizes the security bind that Israel is in and thus does not demand that Israel simply pull out of the West Bank tomorrow, and unqualifiedly states that Palestinian moves to encourage the BDS movement or to use the ICC are counterproductive. At the same time, the statement is clear that advancing the goal of two states for two people is the key to U.S.-Israel relations, among other things, and that this means rethinking settlement policy and embracing ways out of the bind such as the Arab Peace Initiative. This is on target because it displays an understanding of the fact that just because Israel may not be able to create a Palestinian state at this point in time due to circumstances both of its own doing and beyond its control does not obviate the necessity to keep this goal alive, if for no other reason than to preserve the crucial relationship with the U.S.

For a variety of historical reasons, no matter what it does Israel is never going to be a normal country accepted by everyone. Anti-Semitism is a very real phenomenon and it underpins much (although not all) of anti-Zionism, and the strain of anti-imperial ideology that exists in many places is never going to be comfortable with Israel whether it pulls out of the West Bank or not. Israel does not and never will live a completely normal life. But this fact makes it even more important for Israel to have completely clean hands and to not give anyone any excuse to condemn her, since double standards when it comes to Israel are a permanent fact of life. The U.S. is a country that actually does sympathize with Israel for many reasons, whether it be because of a frontier mentality or Christian Zionism or respect for democracy or solidarity with a Westernized state in the Middle East. Even the U.S., however, is not going to give Israel a blank check, and needs to see that Israel is doing what it can within reason to live up to its ideals. Obama and Netanyahu will continue to loathe each other, and better Israeli behavior on settlements would have had absolutely zero bearing on mitigating West Wing retaliation in the aftermath of the Netanyahu speech to Congress, but looking at a longer time horizon and anticipating what happens once the principals change, Israel needs to do a better job on always acting like a country that values its democracy first and foremost, and that is ready to live next to a Palestinian state when the Palestinians are ready to live next to Israel. When you rule out that possibility entirely, what the Palestinians are or are not doing simply doesn’t matter when it comes to better relations with the U.S.

On the U.S. side, just as Israel needs to understand what is important to the U.S., the U.S. needs to better understand what is important to Israel. As a political scientist, one of the things that I think the Obama administration has gotten right is an understanding that countries have their own internal politics and that this cannot be simply brushed away as an inconvenient fact to be ignored. Public opinion matters, in authoritarian states as well as in democracies (in fact, it may be even more important in authoritarian states where the only outlet for dissatisfaction is violence in the streets), and even a government in a country like Iran with a Supreme Leader ironically has to take politics into account when taking action like selling a nuclear deal. Yet, when it comes to Israel, the Obama White House seems to forget this lesson and grants Netanyahu zero leeway. If the U.S. wants the Israeli government to stop acting so hostile, it needs to get a better sense of when to push and when to lay off, since not all perceived Israeli misdeeds are created equal.

To take an important example, the Obama administration’s views on the moral and practical problems with settlements are strident, but in expressing this, it rarely takes into account the fact that Israelis do not view all settlement activity as equal, and so putting all settlements into the same boat makes Israelis feel as if the U.S. does not understand Israeli realities. For instance, 90% of Israelis, if not more, do not view building in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as settlement activity, and are deeply resentful of efforts to prevent building in their own capital. Every time Marie Harf or Jen Psaki says something negative about Israeli construction in neighborhoods like Gilo or Har Homa, Netanyahu seizes the opportunity to slam the U.S. government, and not only is he not wrong to do so in the minds of the vast majority of Israelis, it wins him points in their eyes. Within the West Bank as well, many Israelis make distinctions between building in settlement blocs that will be part of Israel in any eventual deal and building in areas outside of the blocs, but the U.S. publicly does not recognize any distinction between an apartment in French Hill or Efrat and one in Kiryat Arba, and this is a problem. Just as Israel needs to recognize U.S. realities, the U.S. needs to do the same with Israeli realities, and one of these realities is that not all building outside the Green Line is equal by a long shot. When the administration treats all building as the same, it makes the Israeli government throw its hands in the air in frustration and assume that since it will get criticism no matter what it does, it may as well do whatever it likes. If this administration or any future one wants to get the Israeli government to crack down on the problematic settlements and to stop expanding blocs like Ma’ale Adumim or Ariel that legitimately cut into the West Bank so as to threaten its territorial continuity, then it has to be very clear with the Israeli government that it understands that Gilo and similar neighborhoods are always going to be a part of Israel. Without acknowledging where Israeli politics are on this issue, the U.S. will never have the trust of either the Israeli government or the Israeli public when it comes to territorial concessions. Even if the U.S. does not publicly acknowledge Israel’s right to build in Ramot or Alon Shvut, it needs to privately concede the point and pick its public battles more carefully if it wants an Israeli prime minister to ever be able to sell a deal with the Palestinians.

Relatedly, Netanyahu has obviously born the brunt of the anger coming from the White House and has been raked over the coals numerous times, and I think that in many instances it is deserved, but to give the man credit where it it due, he is capable of instituting a policy of doing no harm. He has not expanded settlements at a faster pace than his predecessors, and he has initiated new ones on a much reduced scale than his predecessors. He also instituted a building freeze outside of Jerusalem for nine months when asked, and has very quietly instituted a freeze on new settlement projects even in Jerusalem this year. The point is not that Netanyahu is a peacenik, but that even he is capable of doing things that will make the U.S. happy, and that giving the Israeli government a little bit of breathing space may do wonders for American priorities.

For both sides, it is imperative in the future to keep disputes behind closed doors rather than air them in public. This applies to the U.S. taking Netanyahu to task for a wide variety of real and perceived misdeeds, and it applies even more heavily to Israel doing things like trying to sabotage an Iran deal by embarrassing the White House in very public ways. Aside from the fact that it poisons the relationship, it ends up being massively counterproductive for everyone involved. Is there really anyone left who thinks that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress moved the needle in the direction he wanted rather than doing the opposite by forcing Democrats to publicly side with the president even if their inclination was to do otherwise? Does anyone really believe that publicly threatening to withhold American vetoes in the United Nations Security Council is going to have a salutary effect on Israel’s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians? On issues like settlements, it is in fact vital that the U.S. try to accomplish what it wants in private, since if Netanyahu or any rightwing prime minister is going to give on territorial issues, they will not be able to loudly broadcast it and will need to maintain plausible deniability. The public sniping back and forth is bad for both sides and needs to stop, no matter how cathartic it may be for two parties that could use some couples therapy.

Despite the policy disputes, American and Israeli long term interests still align in many ways. Even on Iran, which is of course the most high profile and deepest disagreement that has caused the most acrimony, the issue may now be working to Israel’s benefit. The White House’s apparent desire to strike a deal at nearly any cost likely means that it will not want to rock the boat in any way with Congress, which makes Israel’s position at the UN a lot safer. Both sides have to learn from past mistakes, such as the U.S. not creating unreasonable expectations for Israel that can’t be met, like a total settlement freeze, and Israel not trying to win fights with an administration when it has no leverage and little influence. The personalities at the top will not be there forever, but if the U.S. continues to use Israel as a wedge issue to score points, or if Israel keeps on behaving as if it is an equal partner – such as when it makes very public demands from U.S. nuclear negotiators that are completely unrelated to the nuclear deal – when it is in fact very much a junior partner, then U.S.-Israel ties really will suffer a blow that is not so easily recoverable. Both sides need to step back, realize what is important to the other, what is doable within the confines of the political and security environment, and recalibrate things.

Does the Outcome of the Election Even Matter for Israeli Foreign Policy?

March 17, 2015 § 3 Comments

I have a piece in Foreign Affairs today in which I argue that on foreign and security issues – Iran, the peace process, settlements, fighting with Hamas, etc. – a Herzog prime ministership will look very much like Netanyahu’s prime ministership has. Here is the setup to my argument:

These days, Israeli opposition leader Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog is on everyone’s mind, and for good reason. Herzog’s Zionist Camp electoral bloc is the clear leader in the last polls allowed to be published before Tuesday’s election, raising the prospect of an opposition candidate unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who is coming off two consecutive terms following his first term nearly two decades ago.

Herzog’s electoral prospects are not the only thing creating buzz, however. For those opposed to Netanyahu’s hawkish positions on Iran and the Palestinians—and his general worldview of an Israel beset on all sides by enemies (including, in some iterations, the Obama administration and the European Union), Herzog seems to represent the possibility of genuine change. He has been described as Netanyahu’s “polar opposite” and would be Israel’s first truly left-wing prime minister since Ehud Barak in 1999. Many thus hope that his election could bring a significant turn in Israeli foreign and defense policies, including an end to Israeli opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran and a renewed push toward Palestinian statehood.

Those hoping to see a momentous shift in Israeli foreign policy, however, will be disappointed. No matter who emerges as the prime minister following the election and the inevitable weeks of haggling and horse-trading that go into forming a coalition, Israel’s foreign policy on the big issues will be marked by consistency rather than transformation. Although no one should casually dismiss Herzog’s markedly different tone and approach to the world, his and Netanyahu’s areas of disagreement are not as large as one might think. Further, in office, both would be similarly boxed in by circumstances beyond their control.

It is no accident that Herzog’s campaign, like the previous Labor campaign in 2013, has been largely run on domestic issues. Not only are economic and social issues the most pressing items on voters’ minds, the space between Likud and Labor on foreign policy can be measured in inches rather than miles. The big foreign policy matter that Herzog has seized upon is the faltering relationship between the Untied States and Israel, which he vows to improve. There is no doubt that the White House would immediately warm to a Prime Minister Herzog, given that he is far less abrasive than Netanyahu and would work to ease tensions, but that would be the case with nearly any other candidate. The personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is so cold that an improvement in bilateral ties will be more about Netanyahu’s absence than about his replacement.

On the biggest policy issue dividing the United States and Israel, however, Netanyahu and Herzog speak with the same voice. Herzog’s denouncement of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress should not obscure the fact that, like Netanyahu, Herzog would never accept a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli and that Herzog’s perception of the Iranian threat is far more acute than Obama’s. The likelihood that Herzog would certainly work to keep his disagreements with the White House behind closed doors does not mean that there would be no disagreements and that Herzog would clear the path for a nuclear deal. In fact, he would not bring about a change in Israel’s fear of Iranian nuclear ambitions or the country’s correspondingly hawkish stance.

To read the rest of the price, please head over to Foreign Affairs.

Dealing With The World That Is Rather Than The One We Want

July 31, 2014 § 61 Comments

I’ve been purposely keeping quiet as Operation Protective Edge rages on, which for someone who writes about Israel seems like a counterproductive move. The problem is, I have seen very little to convince me that writing anything will actually be productive in a real sense because everyone is living in a bubble. I have rarely been so disheartened by anything as much as I have by reading what friends and acquaintances are expressing as Israel and Hamas go at each other. My Facebook feed is a good illustration of this, being split between very different demographics.

On group is comprised of lots of Jewish friends from growing up in New York in an Orthodox community, attending Jewish day schools, currently living in a place with a large and engaged Jewish community, etc. and nearly all of them subscribe to the view that Israel is entirely blameless for its current predicament, the IDF is the most moral army in the world, and that Palestinians of every stripe are ceaselessly working toward Israel’s destruction. Among this well-intentioned group (and I am not saying that sarcastically or facetiously) there is a smaller subset of people who express extreme and odious views. Some examples from the past couple of days have been friends ruminating that perhaps Meir Kahane was right and shouldn’t have been demonized; a refusal to refer to Palestinians or use any word that has Palestine as a root and to instead only refer to Gazans or pro-Gazan rallies “because Palestinian is a made up word;” a conviction that the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas and so deserve anything that happens to them as a result; and deep concern over the fact that there is an Islamic center in the neighborhood which might present a physical danger because any and all Muslims are presumed to hate Jews.

Another group is comprised of very liberal friends from various educational stops and Turkish friends and colleagues, and nearly all of them subscribe to the view that Israel is the party most at fault for the fighting in Gaza, the IDF does not take any care at all to avoid civilians, Netanyahu is a liar who used the kidnapping and murder of the three Israelis as an excuse to execute a war that he had been planning all along, and that Israel intends to subjugate the Palestinians forever. Among this well-intentioned group (and again, I am not saying it sarcastically or facetiously), there is a smaller subset of people whose views are more extreme and odious. Some examples are that Israel is committing genocide; Israeli behavior is no different than that of Nazi Germany; and that Hamas is not in any way a terrorist group and is not even targeting civilians but is instead intentionally only using WWII-era rockets that it knows will fall into empty fields. Amidst all of this, I just throw up my hands in despair. I mean it when I call these friends and acquaintances well-intentioned; the first group is genuinely and legitimately concerned with Israel’s safety and survival and is terrified by the anti-Semitic outbursts and attacks around the world under the cover of the Palestinian cause and sees no other rational response to the nihilistic and eliminationist rhetoric from Hamas but IDF operations in Gaza, while the second group genuinely cannot abide to see hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed and images of dead children on the beach and blames the Israelis for bringing a tank to a knife fight and using it in ways that cause indiscriminate death despite Israeli civilians being relatively safe from Hamas rocket fire. Neither group is going to ever come over the other side or change its views, but that is to be expected. The despair comes from the fact that neither group even empathizes with the other side or remotely understands how someone can possibly arrive at a position different from its own. There is barely any acknowledgement that there are two sides to every story and that, without creating a false moral equivalence, there is indeed some gray involved here. It is cliche to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict creating polarization, but never have I seen it worse than this. So I have kept my mouth shut and hoped that the fighting will end and everyone can go back to posting pictures of their kids and videos of baby animals.

Nevertheless, there is a point that I am itching to make, which is that this deep ideological bubble that so many are in leads to unrealistic expectations on all sides, because everybody wants to deal with a world that they want rather than the world as it is. Possibly my all-time favorite quote is the Pat Moynihan line that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts, and there is a worrisome trend going on of people ignoring reality in favor of ideology and attempting to make policy as if the world can be bended to their will, or suggesting that either Israel or Hamas act in a certain way that disregards facts on the ground.

One example of wishing for a reality that doesn’t exist is the hope of many of Israel’s supporters that the world will all of a sudden wake up to the fact that Hamas hides behind hospitals and schools and thus forgive Israel for piling up the Palestinian civilian casualty count. The fact that Hamas noxiously puts civilians in harm’s way knowing that its actions will inevitably lead to their deaths is revolting and should be called out by anyone and everyone. Yet, pictures of dead children and leveled neighborhoods are always going to blow back in Israel’s face no matter how many Hamas bunkers or strongholds are contained under the rubble. The Israeli government keeps repeating the same talking points about civilian shield ad infinitum as if it expects to convince anyone rather than just preach to the choir. I wish this weren’t the case, but it is, and the longer the fighting goes on, the worse off Israel is going to be, whether it be Israel’s rejuvenation of Hamas (a subject for another post, but yes, that is precisely what Israel has done) or the inevitable Goldstone Report redux and the eventual imposition of EU sanctions (which believe me are coming). None of this is to excuse Hamas’s disgusting and criminal behavior in any way, but just to recognize what the world sees in Gaza, which is dead women and children and UN schools being shelled rather than command bunkers under hospitals and UN schools being used as rocket storage depots.

Another is this meme that Hamas’s problem is solely with the occupation, and that if Israel were to end the blockade, then Hamas would leave the Israelis alone. Hamas does not like Jews and is anti-Israel, not anti-occupation. Anyone who can’t see that sorely needs to examine their internal analytical process. Does Hamas want to get rid of the occupation? Yup. Is it true that Hamas did not shoot any rockets at Israel from the 2012 ceasefire until just before Protective Edge? Yup. Also true is that Hamas’s charter calls for the destruction of Israel in its entirely, Hamas political leaders repeatedly call for the same thing while inciting against Jews (not just “Zionists”), and Hamas build a huge network of tunnels into Israel for the purpose of kidnapping and killing civilians while it was respecting the ceasefire with regard to rockets, so one has to be willfully blind or colossally stupid to argue that its intentions were benign until Israel provoked it. I don’t doubt that Hamas is capable of an actual ceasefire, and I think that under certain circumstances it could abide by a longterm truce, but nothing that Hamas has said or done points to it quietly going away if Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to sign a final status agreement ending the occupation.

A third example of not accepting the world as it is can be seen in the debate on the role of Turkey and Qatar in any ceasefire. I wrote three weeks ago that I thought any ceasefire would have to include Turkey and/or Qatar, not because I think that either of them have been responsible foreign policy actors – in fact, they have been the opposite – but because of the simple reality that unlike in 2012, Hamas has an acrimonious relationship with the current Egyptian government to say the least, and will not agree to a ceasefire entirely brokered by parties it does not trust and with whom it has no relationship. Jonathan Schanzer and David Weinberg – both super smart and insightful analysts who do not fall under the category of ignoring reality or substituting opinions for facts – argue that Turkey and Qatar need to be kept out because otherwise it will create the moral hazard of rewarding the two countries that have sponsored Hamas terrorism. I am sympathetic to this argument, and they are right; Qatar shouldn’t be rewarded for funneling money to Hamas and providing a home for Hamas’s leadership in Doha, and Turkey shouldn’t be rewarded for harboring the Hamas leader behind the kidnapping strategy or constantly undermining Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority in order to burnish Hamas’s position. Nevertheless, the problem comes from a line that Schanzer and Weinberg themselves write, which is, “A cease-fire is obviously desirable, but not if the cost is honoring terror sponsors. There must be others who can mediate.” I’m not sure in fact that there are others who can mediate, as evidenced by the disaster of a few weeks ago when Egypt was involved. If someone can point me to another potential Hamas interlocutor, then great, but so far no one has. Any deal will have to involve the U.S. and Egypt, but Turkey or Qatar as well, and that’s just the reality of things. I wish it weren’t so, but it is, and ignoring the basic structure of the players involved won’t get Israel and Gaza any closer to a ceasefire. John Kerry’s mistake last weekend wasn’t that he involved Turkey and Qatar in the process, but that he did so to the exclusion of Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority. It’s the mirror image mistake of the original ceasefire attempt, and thus was just as doomed to fail.

Finally, and perhaps most damagingly, there is the idea taking hold on the right that if given just enough time to keep fighting, Israel can end Hamas rule in Gaza. The fact is that there is no military solution to dealing with Hamas – as opposed to mitigating its military effectiveness – and the only way to neutralize Hamas is through political means. Hamas is in control of Gaza and not going anywhere. Fatah is extraordinarily weak there, and there is no other credible party with enough strength to take over. Israel could go into Gaza and completely reoccupy it and it wouldn’t matter, because the second Israel left Hamas would resume control. Israel made this mistake before in 1982 when it went into Lebanon based on the fantasy of destroying the PLO once and for all. All that happened was the PLO got kicked out of Lebanon and regrouped in Tunis, and Israel ended up permanently damaging its own credibility and public image. The Israeli government seems smart enough to know this and a reoccupation of Gaza is not imminent, but it’s a fantasy to think that Israel can hammer Hamas for a few more weeks and then somehow install Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza. The military component is necessary for an eventual political component, but without that second part, Israel will just be fighting in Gaza again in two or three years. For some people that might be fine, but every time it happens, Israel emerges damaged and one step closer to genuine isolation. The quicker that everyone realizes that a political solution is the only long-term one, the better everyone will be. Let’s deal with the world as it is, not the world as we want it.

Are The U.S. and Israel Really Headed For A Split?

July 3, 2014 § 5 Comments

Michael Cohen published an article in Foreign Policy a couple of days ago in which he argues that the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship will be marked by “less cooperation, more disagreements, and greater tension.” The piece is headlined “The Democrats Are Finally Turning Away From Israel” with the inflammatory subhead “And it’s high time they did,” but this does not reflect Cohen’s core arguments, and I am 100% confident that he had nothing to do with the title in any way (having been published in FP on numerous occasions, I can say from personal experience that the editors choose the title on their own and the first time the writer even knows about it is when it goes live on the website). What Cohen argues is that the relationship is being strained and slowly pulled apart by bad personal relationships between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel actively trying to prevent a deal between the U.S. and Iran by working Congressional channels, differing strategic priorities in the region, and a widening gap between the two countries’ worldviews.

In Cohen’s analysis, all of these factors mean that support for Israel in the U.S. will wane as the U.S. government finds it increasingly difficult to justify or explain bad Israeli behavior – particularly on the Palestinian front – and that the U.S. will no longer rush to defend Israel from pressure coming from Europe. Furthermore, Cohen foresees the politics of Israel changing in the U.S. as support for Israeli behavior among American Jews wanes and as Israel identifies more and more with Republicans, making support for Israel less politically important for Democrats.

Cohen astutely identifies a number of points of tension between the U.S. and Israel, and he is not exaggerating things such as the distrust between the elected leaders or the frustration among administration officials over Israel’s handling of settlements and peace negotiations. Nevertheless, I do not entirely agree with the analysis, and I think there are some angles that Cohen either misreads or leaves out, particularly on the strategic front.

First, while Obama and Bibi have long been and likely always will be at odds, this duo only has two more years to go, and that means that the relationship can be reset in a heartbeat. The low point of the George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir pairing was followed by the apex brought about by Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin, so I am reluctant to predict any longterm trends based on the two men currently in office. If Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden end up winning the White House in 2016, their track records and both public and private comments indicate that the relationship with Israel will improve irrespective of what happens with settlements and the peace process, and that goes double for any Republican not named Rand Paul. That is not to say that U.S. frustration with Israeli settlement policy is a mirage or only resides in the minds of Obama White House officials, since it absolutely permeates a much deeper group of politicians and foreign policy bureaucrats who rightly worry about the consequences of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Rather, it is a problem that must be considered in light of a larger strategic context (more on that below), which makes it important but not necessarily an ultimate driver of U.S. policy toward Israel.

Second, while it is absolutely true that support for Israeli policies among younger American Jews seems to be on the decline, the jury is out as to whether that support will increase as younger American Jews get older, and more saliently there is a question as to whether support for Israeli policies directly overlaps with support for Israel more generally. Furthermore, none of this may matter anyway if support for Israel among the general public remains strong, or if within the Democratic Party there is a gap between grassroots progressives and elite policymakers and opinion leaders. On the question of support among the general public, favorable views of Israel are at historical highs with a clear 55% majority of Democrats still holding favorable views, and historically Americans tend to sympathize with Israel versus the Palestinians at even higher than normal levels when Israelis are the victims of terrorism and violence, as was tragically the case this week. I am also not convinced from conversations with progressive politicians and thought leaders that they are on the verge of abandoning Israel wholesale, and there is a strong recognition among Democratic elites that Israel is not and should not be entirely defined by its settlement project, as deeply problematic as that project is.

Most importantly though, in his focus on divergent strategic goals, Cohen glosses over a newly strengthened recognition that Israel’s strategic value as an ally is going up. It’s clear that Israel and the U.S. differ on their respective threat perceptions of Iran, whether Iran should be contained, and whether Iran can be contained, but in seeking to contain the fallout coming from the rest of the region as it implodes, Israel is pretty much the only reliable ally left standing. Despite an American desire to pivot to Asia, the Middle East cannot be ignored just because the U.S. finds it thorny, as the recent crisis in Iraq demonstrates all too well. The U.S. is going to be involved to a greater extent than it desires, and as I heard from multiple Israeli foreign policy and security professionals and experts when I was there last month, the Israeli government is well aware that the country is an island of stability amid the chaos. Iraq is a mess, Syria is in the middle of a civil war, Egypt is teetering dangerously on the brink of becoming a failed state, Saudi Arabia is dealing with massive uncertainty amidst a succession crisis, Jordan has been in constant crisis management mode since 2011 and now has to worry about being overrun by ISIS, Turkey is dealing with all sorts of internal problems and has proven itself to be a notoriously unreliable and myopic ally with its disastrous flirtations with jihadi groups in Syria…the list goes on and on. Israelis are of the view that the U.S. almost needs them more than they need the U.S., and while this is overconfident hyperbole, it is based on a foundation of truth. U.S.-Israeli coordination is now more vital than ever, and this is a variable that is not going to change for the remainder of this decade given the Middle East’s unraveling. When I wrote two years ago that Israel was going to benefit from the Arab Spring as a result of its neighbors being too busy with their own domestic unrest to worry about making trouble for Israel, I didn’t anticipate the positive externality of Israel becoming an even more crucial American ally, but that dynamic has arrived.

I share Cohen’s concerns about Israeli policies, and anecdotally there seems to be softening support for Israel among younger Democrats. Ultimately, however, I think the political tension in the relationship is fleeting, and the genuine and widespread disappointment at Israeli settlement building is a long term problem that needs to be addressed but that for next few years will be outweighed by larger strategic concerns. Surveying the state of things, I am not nearly so confident as Cohen that the U.S.-Israel relationship is destined to be remade.

 

Why Does Anyone Care What Mahmoud Abbas Thinks About The Holocaust?

April 28, 2014 § 4 Comments

Today is Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day fraught with the worst types of historical memory for many Jews around the world. In a reversal of Abba Eban’s famous witticism about the Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has seized the opportunity presented by the day to dub the Holocaust the most heinous crime in modern history, which is significant given his extensive history of Holocaust denial, most prominently in his doctoral dissertation. In the past, Abbas has written that fewer than one million Jews were killed by the Nazis and that the Holocaust was enabled by the Zionists, who plotted with the Nazis to exterminate European Jewry in order to encourage Jewish immigration to Palestine. The New York Times portrays Abbas’s new statement as a significant shift in his thinking, while Yair Rosenberg over at Tablet argues that Abbas has not actually said anything to indicate that his views have changed, as Abbas can simultaneously believe that the Holocaust is the most heinous crime in modern history and that Zionist Jews were themselves responsible for it.

Whatever one’s views are of Abbas’s latest statement and whether it is indeed an evolution or simply artful obfuscation, the big takeaway is that Abbas’s take on the Holocaust is being widely interpreted through the prism of the peace process. For optimists – in what can only be termed as the soft bigotry of low expectations – Abbas’s willingness to condemn the Holocaust is a signal that he is a true partner for peace. For pessimists – in what can only be termed as shifting the goalposts – Abbas’s condemnation of the Holocaust no longer matters because he has agreed to a reconciliation deal with Hamas, which certainly does not recognize or acknowledge the singular evil of the Holocaust. Bibi Netanyahu, for instance, yesterday explicitly used Abbas’s pact with Hamas to negate his Holocaust declaration, and dismissed the entire thing as a public relations stunt.

I myself fall somewhere in the middle here. On the one hand, I welcome any reversal – no matter how illusory, qualified, or legalistic – of previously stated odious views about the scope of the Holocaust and am not willing to be curtly dismissive just because of something else that Abbas has done. On the other hand, let’s not act as if this makes Abbas some great humanitarian or a candidate to be the next executive director of Yad Vashem. People can, and will, debate this until they have exhausted themselves, but the real question for me is, why does it matter? Who cares what Abbas thinks about the Holocaust? What practical effect does it have on anything?

Let’s assume Abbas actually has the willingness and capacity to eventually come to a fair deal with Israel. I don’t see how his views on the Holocaust affect that in any way. Those views don’t make him any more likely to agree to conditions that he views as unfair, or to endanger his own political situation and agree to a fair but unpopular deal. If he is willing to come to an agreement, then quite frankly I don’t care if he considers Mein Kampf to be light bedtime reading. Conversely, let’s assume that Abbas does not have the willingness and capacity to eventually come to a fair deal with Israel. Do his new acceptable views on the Holocaust somehow make up for the fact that he is not a true negotiating partner? Israelis do not need Abbas to be a moral leader or a paragon of virtue; they only need him to negotiate an agreement that is acceptable to them and one whose details he can execute. His importance for Israelis or Jews around the world is not as a moral philosopher or historian, but as a political leader, and all that should matter is his capacity for politics and not his personal views. It is a delusion to see Abbas’s views on the Holocaust as a stand-in for his propensity to make a deal; there are plenty of data points suggesting that he will and plenty that he won’t, but this is not one of them.

In many ways, I view this as an unhelpful distraction similar to the debate over whether the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. If the Palestinians come to an agreement with Israel that both sides can live with and that makes a final determination on borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees, then it doesn’t matter whether the Palestinians call Israel a Jewish state or not. Israel is a Jewish state and will remain so in the aftermath of any deal agreed to by any Israeli government, and so the official opinions of the Palestinian Authority, Palestine Liberation Organization, and average Palestinians have no bearing on the equation. All that matters in this case are the actual facts, and what is important is the world as it is rather than the world as we want it to be. Would it be nice if the Palestinians recognized an obviously Jewish state for what it is? Sure. Would it be nice if the Palestinian president acknowledged a terribly calamitous atrocity for what is is? Of course. Do either of these things matter in the context of a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Not a whit. On this Yom Hashoah, let’s focus on things that matter rather than those that don’t.

Leave Pollard Where He Is

April 1, 2014 § 19 Comments

The last time I wrote about Jonathan Pollard was two years ago after Shimon Peres made a personal appeal to President Obama for Pollard’s release, an appeal that was thankfully turned down. I had hoped to never have to waste even a minute of my time on the subject again, but the U.S. is now reportedly considering releasing Pollard in exchange for Israel agreeing to extend the current peace talks through 2015 and to enact a partial settlement freeze. Pollard’s release would also be accompanied by Israel releasing an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners on top of the ones whom they already agreed to release.

Let’s start with Pollard himself. What directly prompted my blog post last time was Gilad Shalit’s father publicly offering his support for Pollard’s cause to Pollard’s wife, and now Gilad Shalit himself has sent a letter to Obama requesting clemency for the unrepentant spy. While I understand Shalit’s personal sympathy for someone who has spent an extended period under lock and key, the comparison between Pollard and Shalit is odious. What I wrote two years ago has not changed one iota, and so I am going to reproduce it once again in the next paragraph as a handy reminder of why Pollard and Shalit do not belong in the same universe, let alone the same sentence.

Shalit was a 19 year old conscript captured by a terrorist organization that illegally breached the border fence and abducted him on Israeli territory. Pollard was a 31 year old civilian analyst who committed espionage in exchange for cash and jewelry and pled guilty to spying against his own country. Shalit’s actions were in no way responsible for his abduction (and please, spare me the noxious theory that all Israeli soldiers everywhere are legitimate targets no matter the circumstance) and he was not engaged in any hostilities against his captors at the time of his being taken hostage. Pollard’s actions are directly responsible for his imprisonment, as he stole classified information and passed on thousands of documents to a foreign government. Shalit was held in terrible conditions in violation of the Geneva Conventions and despite calls from the U.N., the Red Cross, the G-8, and individual countries for his immediate and unconditional release. Pollard is a legitimate prisoner under the laws of the United States and in accordance with international norms, is housed in safe and sanitary conditions in a medium security federal prison, and no international governmental organizations or human rights groups have called for his release. Shalit was illegally held by Hamas as a hostage for the sole purpose of extorting Israel into complying with Hamas demands and not because Shalit had any information or intelligence that would be of value to his abductors. Pollard is alleged by the U.S. to have an unacknowledged accomplice (according to former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon) and the precise details of everything that Pollard passed on are still unclear. Shalit did not have to express remorse for his actions because he took no actions at all. Pollard remains unrepentant for spying against his own country. Shalit has been an Israeli citizen from birth, embraced both de facto and de jure by his country by virtue of being unambiguously and openly sent by Israel to serve in the military. Pollard did not become an Israeli citizen until 1995 after he had been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned, and Israel did not admit until 1998 that he was working on Israel’s behalf with its full knowledge and authorization. Shalit’s abduction did not subject any of his fellow citizens to additional danger or peril, nor did it damage Israel’s relations with any other country. Pollard’s spying cast serious aspersions on every Jewish citizen of the United States and created a backlash against Israel in the U.S. intelligence community. Shalit is an innocent kid who was held hostage by terrorists. Pollard is a traitorous spy who is wholly deserving of remaining in jail.

Even all of this aside, which should be more than enough reason to leave Pollard exactly where he is, releasing Pollard in the context of current negotiations is a terrible mistake. Pollard himself has nothing to do with an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He is not being held by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, his actions were in no way related to the conflict, and his status should be completely unrelated to the talks. That the Israeli government would link his release to its own willingness to resolving a wholly separate issue is shameful. If Israel does not think that it is in its own best interests to continue negotiating or if it genuinely believes that it has no reliable partner across the table, then it should end the negotiations irrespective of what the U.S. offers since to do otherwise would be to take a concession in bad faith. Conversely, if the Israeli government believes that negotiations stand a good chance of success and that a deal with the Palestinians would be in Israel’s best interests, then it is monstrously dumb to link the willingness to keep on talking to Pollard’s release. Pollard is a factor that has no impact at all on the substance of a deal. His remaining in prison or his walking out a free man will not make Israel any safer or any more trustful of the Palestinians, and so using him as a reason to either keep negotiating or cease negotiating makes absolutely no sense at all from a substantive perspective. Were I the U.S., I would call this bluff without blinking.

Furthermore, if the negotiations are going so poorly that Israel will only agree to keep them going if Pollard is let out, then the two sides stand very little chance of coming to an agreement. That being the case, why release Pollard for such an ephemeral concession? Were the talks in their end stages and Israel needed a small push to get over the finish line, then the logic would make more sense, but Israel agreeing to extend the talks for another nine months and not issuing any new housing tenders in the West Bank in return for Pollard more likely than not means that the two sides will waste another nine months and then return to the status quo ante. This is a move that absolutely reeks of desperation on the Obama administration’s part, and it shows. John Kerry pretty clearly wants this to succeed more badly than either of the two actual parties to the conflict, and he is willing to do anything to advance the ball inches down the field. That is admirable tenacity, but in this case his tactic is a mistake that is not going to lead to any long term success.

I have no inside information as to how close Pollard’s release is to actually happening, but my best guess is that the administration leaked this as a trial balloon to gauge the reaction from the national security community and from the American Jewish community. I hope that the people at the Pentagon, CIA, and other agencies freak out over the news, make a big public stink, and Pollard remains locked up. His release will only cause problems for the American Jewish community, will not advance the cause of peace, and will create a terrible set of incentives for both the Israelis and the Palestinians that as long as they commit to a process, irrespective of any real progress, they can ask for any outrageous concession they want and will likely get it.

What Is Bogie Ya’alon Up To?

March 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon gave a speech yesterday at Tel Aviv University during which he said some things that have got the White House pretty annoyed. Ya’alon inferred that President Obama wants to play out the clock and punt dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue to the next president, fingered the U.S. for demonstrating weakness in a variety of areas including in its response to the Crimean crisis, pointed out that U.S. military aid to Israel is not entirely altruistic but operates to American benefit as well in the areas of intelligence and technology, and finally predicted that U.S. weakness will come back to haunt it in the form of terrorism and direct challenges from revisionist powers. All in all, it was quite the rhetorical broadside. I will refrain from extensively commenting on Ya’alon’s last point except to note that by the standards of many of Ya’alon’s ideological compatriots and Likud fellow travelers who excoriated John Kerry when he predicted that the failure of the peace process will lead to greater international isolation of Israel and accused him of advocating for Israel to be treated as a pariah, Ya’alon has now done something far more serious than offer a prediction that the U.S. will suffer future attacks.

In response, an unnamed senior Obama administration official hit back at Ya’alon for undermining security ties between the U.S. and Israel and calling the entire relationship into question. To quote, “We were shocked by Moshe Ya’alon’s comments, which seriously call into question his commitment to Israel’s relationship with the United States. Moreover, this is part of a disturbing pattern in which the defense minister disparages the U.S. administration, and insults its most senior officials. Given the unprecedented commitment that this administration has made to Israel’s security, we are mystified why the defense minister seems intent on undermining the relationship.” This is not the first time this year that the White House has responded to comments from Ya’alon that it deemed to be over the line, as in January it was leaked that Ya’alon had disparaged John Kerry, which drew a disappointed, albeit less harsh, American response.

What is driving Ya’alon here? Ultimately, causing a rift with the U.S. is not going to benefit Israel in any way, and Ya’alon is presumably smart enough to know that trying to rhetorically peer pressure the U.S. into taking a more confrontational approach with Iran is not going to work. Furthermore, Ya’alon knows from intimate firsthand experience, first as IDF chief of staff and now as defense minister, just how close security cooperation between the two countries is, and so pretending that it’s not such a big deal rings hollow. In addition, the timing of going after Obama personally just as the U.S. is actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and figuring out the security parameters of a longterm presence for IDF troops in the Jordan Valley is an awful strategy. If Ya’alon wants to ensure that the White House becomes more sympathetic to Palestinians complaints about Israeli intransigence, this would be one good way to go about it.

Certainly some of Ya’alon’s frustration is real. It is no secret that Israeli officials are worried about the direction of events in the Middle East, particularly with regard to Iran, and fear the U.S. stepping back from the region. What looks like cautious realism in the West Wing is viewed by Israelis as weak-kneed appeasement and wavering, whether it be negotiations with Tehran, an unwillingness to intervene in Syria despite repeated threats to do so, not bolstering Hosni Mubarak or dealing more harshly with the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. In addition, as Jonathan Schanzer points out, Ya’alon is upset about the U.S. not giving Israel weapons systems that would help in an Iran strike. Perhaps all of this boiled over at once and Ya’alon just couldn’t contain himself.

Or, perhaps there is more at work here, and Ya’alon’s outburst was a bit more politically strategic. Bibi Netanyahu has long had a real problem within his own party, and it is only compounded by the current peace negotiations. The younger and more hardline Likud members don’t trust him, and they have sought to embarrass him countless times, whether it be at Likud conventions, Likud primaries, or looking to amend the party’s constitution. Some of these efforts have been more successful than others, but if Netanyahu makes any real concessions with regard to the West Bank, the party is fated to split apart and there are no two ways about it. All of that is assuming that Netanyahu does not do the deed himself at some point and go the route of Arik Sharon, forming a new party and leaving a rump Likud behind (which would be deeply ironic since Netanyahu was the one who took the helm of the badly weakened Likud when Sharon formed Kadima). Ya’alon has been doing a good job of courting the Danny Danons, Yariv Levins, and Miri Regevs of the world, and they trust him a lot more than they trust the prime minister. Should it come down to needing a replacement for Netanyahu, Ya’alon seems like an obvious choice, and he can keep it that way by consistently espousing hawkish views such as the ones he did yesterday.

On top of this, the mood among Israel’s rightwing is no longer as uniformly pro-U.S. as it has been. There is a deep distrust of the Obama administration of course, but also a sense that the U.S. is moving in a very different direction than Israel. Netanyahu and his circle were genuinely surprised by the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, and simply did not grasp the internal American political dynamics, the changing demographics, or the war weariness of the American public. Throw on top of this the pressure coming from the White House on the peace process, and it just compounds the notion for some that the U.S. is harming more than it is helping. Many Israelis are for the first time in awhile openly questioning whether the U.S. can be reliably counted on, and nowhere is this more prevalent than among the younger Likud ideological vanguard who are the party’s future. Ya’alon recognizes this, and has been subtly playing into it for some time, which is why I think his comments about Kerry in January and his speech yesterday were more coldly calculating than he may want to let on. The other component to this is that Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to be prime minister one day and can only do so through Likud and is thus engaging in some jockeying for position of his own, has been criticizing the anti-American tone since his acquittal of fraud charges and his return to politics and publicly reminding Israelis that they should be wary of ruining the relationship with Washington. To the extent that Ya’alon views Lieberman – a hawkish nationalist who is very at home among the younger Likud folks – as a potential future rival, setting himself apart from Lieberman in a way that the Likud base favors is only smart politics.

At first glance, Ya’alon’s comments certainly seem puzzling, and they will not do any good for Israel itself. The question is whether Ya’alon was directing them toward Israel’s future or his own, and as usual, I think there is a heavy dose of internal domestic politics that is being overlooked. Yes, the frustration is real and is not entirely manufactured, but there is a method to the madness inasmuch as Ya’alon is thinking instrumentally about his political prospects down the line.

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