Netanyahu’s Conundrum

January 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Yesterday morning before any of the election results were in, I had a piece up at the Atlantic arguing that the coalition stability that was a hallmark of the current government was destined to end. In my view, the choices that Bibi Netanyahu was likely to end up with were going to create pressures from one side or another no matter which path he decided to go down. Here is the relevant passage:

There are two factors that are going to contribute to detonating Netanyahu’s coveted stability. The first is that unlike during the past three plus years, Netanyahu is going to have a significant presence on his right flank both within his party and outside, creating constant pressure to take a harder line on settlements and the peace process. The Likud primary in November created the most right-wing version of the party that has ever existed. For instance, among the returning Likud MKs in the new Knesset will be the inciters of May’s anti-immigrant race riot, a mass of supporters for annexing the West Bank, and new MK Moshe Feiglin who wants to be the Mohamed Morsi of anti-Arab remarks. This group largely distrusts Netanyahu and will be waiting to pounce at even the slightest digression from their preferred policy of holding on to the West Bank forever.

In addition, Netanyahu will be dealing with the newly empowered nationalist Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party, which is poised to become the third largest party in the Knesset. This party is led by Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Naftali Bennett, who also advocates unilaterally annexing Area C of the West Bank and recently got into trouble for saying that he would refuse orders to evacuate settlements. ( He recanted after the predictable furor that arose.) Either as part of the coalition or as a constant thorn in Netanyahu’s side, the large Habayit Hayehudi bloc will be pushing Netanyahu constantly to the right.

The second new factor, which operates at complete cross-purposes to the first, is that Netanyahu will be looking at a renewed push by outside actors on the peace process at a time in which international pressure on Israel is beginning to reach a critical mass. John Kerry is going to want to tackle the peace process as one of his priorities as Secretary of State, and Britain and France intend to present their own plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the support of Germany and possibly the full European Union. Anger toward Israel over settlements and the breakdown of the peace process has lately intensified. Whether this is justified or not, given Palestinian foot-dragging, the anger exists to the point that even Israeli diplomats are beginning to get frustrated over the heat they are taking over West Bank construction.

Now that the results are in, I think this analysis still holds, and is perhaps even more salient to understanding what will happen next. Netanyahu is almost certainly going to have to build a coalition that includes Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, and this means foot-dragging on the peace process and a storm of international pressure. The option of trying to pivot to the center on security and peace process issues is a lot more difficult today than it was yesterday. Netanyahu had some serious problems within Likud before, since the newly empowered crop of hardliners did not really trust him to begin with, but now he has to deal with the fact that he has led his party to the hollowest of victories. His gambit of merging with Yisrael Beiteinu backfired badly, particularly since only 20 of the 31 Likud Beiteinu MKs hail from Likud because of the seat allocation deal he worked out with Avigdor Lieberman, and undoubtedly Likud members are not very happy this morning. If Yisrael Beiteinu separates from Likud in thirty days as the merger agreement allows, Likud will be the largest party by only one seat. In order to prevent this from happening, Netanyahu is going to have to promise Lieberman the moon and the stars, which also does not bode well for any new push to slow down settlement growth or fast track negotiations with the Palestinians. Any moves that Netanyahu makes in that direction will imperil his leadership as head of Likud and prompt a rebellion within the ranks. Nobody should underestimate just how much pressure Netanyahu is now under from his own side, let alone from the parties on the left of the spectrum that would like nothing more than to bring him down. Netanyahu is in a very difficult spot, and while I am relatively sure he will be able to form a coalition and serve as prime minister, don’t expect it to last very long.

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.

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.

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.

Guest Post: Rhetoric On Israel Matters

August 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

No introductions needed this time. Here is Gabe Scheinmann’s half of Round Two on the implications for U.S. policy toward Israel if Mitt Romney is elected in November (for the previous three installations, go here, here, and here.

Well, I think I’ve gotten Michael to move the needle a little bit (from “little daylight between the two men” to “Gabe is undoubtedly correct that differences exist between Romney and Obama” to saying Michael is “on board with the notion that Romney’s rhetoric and personal convictions on Israel are more friendly than Obama’s”. However, if the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over again expecting different results, here I go.

First, on Iran, Michael somewhat jumbled my argument. Forget the exact chronological predictions for the moment as neither Michael nor I, nor Washington, London, or Jerusalem truly know how far along Iran is. However, my overall point remains unchanged. It’s the Israelis, not us Americans, that have a shorter window for military action should it come to that. Large differences in capabilities between the two countries means that the U.S. can afford to allow the Iranian program to develop much farther than Israel can. Moreover, the gravitas of that difference is magnified by how much Israel trusts Obama’s promises. So, when the Obama Administration draws a red line that is the furthest possible down the road, it makes a massive difference to Israel. So, for the Israelis, a broken U.S. commitment to stop a “nuclear Iran” could mean that it would be too late for Israel to take out the program. Whereas a broken U.S. commitment to stop an Iran with “nuclear weapons capability” would still gives Jerusalem an opportunity to take care of the program itself if need be. As to “walking back” the “respect” quote, maybe we are splitting hairs here, but Senor clarified and did not retract his statement. He said that he hopes diplomacy and sanctions succeed—a position agreed to by all—but in the likely event that they don’t, Romney “recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it.” Even if the “respect” language hadn’t been initially used, the Romney camp is saying in no uncertain terms that America will support Israel if Israel chooses to exercise its right to self-defense. In conclusion, the differences in policies here are still quite large: Obama is actively trying to restrain Israeli action—Panetta at one point even telegraphed the date of a possible attack which really hemmed in the Israelis—whereas Romney is merely saying that he will support our ally if push comes to shove.

Second, on the Palestinian portfolio, let me bring a little more evidence to bear. The Obama Administration is on the record as stating that not only is Jerusalem not Israel’s capital, but that it is not even in Israel. It is Obama’s policy, not Romney’s position, that marks a large change in the American position. See Omri Ceren’s cataloguing of efforts by the Obama Administration to scrub “Jerusalem, Israel” from the archives of past administrations, literally rewriting some history. (You can see the differences in the photo captions.) All previous presidents have recognized Israeli sovereignty over at least pre-1967 Jerusalem, where all Israeli government institutions reside.Nixon (see the September 5, 1972 entry), CarterClinton, and Bush43 have all had no problem admitting that Jerusalem was in Israel. Lastly, while candidate Obama stated that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and that it will remain undivided”—two positions he has now backtracked on—candidate Romney has actually not said the “undivided” part. While this could merely be an unintended omission, it could also be an astute recognition that while Jerusalem is obviously in Israel and obviously Israel’s capital, the final borders of Jerusalem could change in line with the decisions of an Israeli government. It lends more weight to Romney’s other statements because his silence naturally defers any decision to its rightful place: the Israeli government.

On borders, Michael has misquoted the joint Netanyahu-Clinton statement, which in turn demonstrates that the Obama position on borders is unprecedented. The relevant parts of the statement says that the “the United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps…” which is actually quite different than what Michael wrote. It merely commits the U.S. to a negotiated outcome and states that those borders are a Palestinian goal. Obama went further in his May 2011 State Department speech, converting the Palestinian goal into the U.S. position. But nowhere in the statement does it say Israel believes this. In fact, a quick search of “1967 lines” or “1967 borders” on the American Presidency Project, an eminently useful archive of presidential speeches, demonstrates that Obama is the first to ever use the formulation in this way. Contrast that with this nifty Reagan quote: “In the pre-1967 borders Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile Arab armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.” Even President Carter said that while he expected there to be “minor adjustments to the 1967, pre-1967 borders” that it was “a matter for Israel and her neighbors to decide.” To summarize, Obama believes that Jerusalem is neither the capital of Israel, nor in Israel, and that the borders of a future Palestinian state should be based on the 1967 lines with mutual agreed swaps. Romney believes that Jerusalem is both in Israel and is Israel’s capital, a position more in line with most U.S. presidents, and has not commented on what he believes Israel’s final borders to be. In doing so, he has deferred to Israel’s own evaluation of its objectives as well as the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Obama, meanwhile, has prejudged those negotiations by putting down the starting point as the Palestinian position. Those are fairly stark policy differences.

Third, on the overall regional approach, Michael points to Zvika Krieger’s article, where Zvika argues that the U.S. did Israel a favor by not including it in a counterterrorism forum because it made Arab and Turkish participation easier. Overlooking the fact that the sole source of the article is an Obama Administration official who presumably drew the short straw of trying to explain the exclusion by saying it was in Israel’s interests, I would argue that reinforcing the Arab diplomatic boycott of Israel, especially in regards to a forum that Israel is a leading expert, as a way of being “pro-Israel” verges on delusion. Unless the Obama Administration thinks it can whisper sweet nothings in Arab ears that will alter their decades-long boycott of Israel, I don’t see how this is productive for Israel in the long run. But, even if Michael buys Zvika’s story, the story confirms what I wrote: the Administration purposefully excluded Israel from the forum, though the Obama line is that in the hopes that it will make cooperation easier down the road. I’ll let the readers decide whether they think that is a good strategy. As per Israel’s non-attendance at the NATO summit in Chicago, Michael refers to his own post on the issue, whereby he cites Administration officials saying that Israel was never invited in the first place, and Israeli officials that it was never going to attend anyways. I would merely submit that this is a diplomatic waltz, a way for the two countries to avoid making an issue out of something that was unlikely to be changed.

I’ll end with a question for Michael—I’ll defer to him as to whether his silence on the numerous other points (calling on Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, desiring to fund UNESCO in contravention of U.S. law, making the peace process a “vital national security interest”) constitutes agreement. By telling Jewish leaders that he intended to put “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel because he thought that the lack of daylight during the Bush years did not lead to peace process progress, was Obama himself not therefore stating that he intended to pursue a different policy than the Bush Administration?

In conclusion, I want to make the case that rhetoric and personal conviction do end up having an important policy impact. There’s no magic formula that explains how convictions translate into policies, but many policymakers will easily attest that a president’s priorities, convictions, personal history, and relationships end up having a greater impact on policy than stand-alone statements. As such, I’d like to link to President Bush’s speech to the Israeli Knesset upon his attendance of Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebration. For a man that was not known for his oratory, the speech is a wonderful expression of the deep, personal convictions of the leader of the free world. “I have been fortunate,” Bush said, “to see the character of Israel up close. I’ve touched the Western Wall; I’ve seen the sun reflected in the Sea of Galilee; I have prayed at Yad Vashem. And earlier today I visited Masada, an inspiring monument to courage and sacrifice. At this historic site, Israeli soldiers swear an oath: “Masada shall never fall again.” Citizens of Israel, Masada shall never fall again, and America will be at your side.” Contrast that language with that of Obama’s in his 2009 Cairo speech, where he implied that the “aspiration for a Jewish homeland” was a result of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and not its Biblical existence.

Policy Vs. Campaign Rhetoric on Israel

August 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

Gabe Scheinmann wrote a great guest post last week responding to my contention that U.S. policy toward Israel is going to remain largely the same irrespective of who wins the election in November. In short, Gabe argues that there is a world of difference between Obama and Romney and that it will have a significant impact on U.S. policy regarding Iran, the peace process, and Mideast regional politics and security. I don’t disagree with Gabe that Obama and Romney have different views on various issues related to Israel, but I think where Gabe goes awry is in his contention that it’s going to matter for U.S. policy. Looking at what has gone on under Obama and the history of presidential candidates and campaigns saying things that get walked back later on (including by Romney just last week), I think that a Romney administration will hew to much the same line that the Obama administration has.

On Iran, Gabe argues that the difference between the U.S. drawing a red line at nuclear capability versus drawing a red line at a nuclear weapon is a drastic one, and that by taking the former position Romney is aligned with the Israeli stance. Gabe also thinks that Romney’s position means that the U.S. is looking at a multi-month window, rather than multi-year window under Obama, to strike Iran. There are, however, a couple of factors that Gabe is overlooking. First, we don’t know that the U.S. and Israel are necessarily in agreement as to how long before Iran develops nuclear capability; the British estimate is that Iran is two years away from nuclear capability, while Israeli officials have at times estimated that Iran is only months away. If U.S. intelligence agencies are in line with the British view, then it means we are still looking at a multi-year window for U.S. action. Second, Gabe claims that the Romney campaign has said he will “respect” an Israeli decision to unilaterally attack Iran and he contrasts this with Obama’s efforts to prevent Israel from launching at attack, but Gabe must know that this is misleading. The link that he provides for the “respect” claim is an article detailing how the Romney campaign walked back aide Dan Senor’s respect position – widely interpreted as giving Israel a green light – just hours after he made it, and instead clarified that Romney simply “recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself.” The idea that Obama is constraining the Israelis from striking Iran but that Romney would tell them to go right ahead, or even assist them in doing so, is one that was consciously contradicted by the Romney campaign. As I wrote in my original post, the difference between capability and an actual weapon is a real one, but the effect this has on what actions the U.S. will take and when is not as large as Gabe suggests.

On the issue of the West Bank and the peace process, Gabe says that Obama does not believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that Romney does, and that Obama has endorsed the Palestinian position on negotiations with regard to Jerusalem and borders and that Romney has not. Again, this is a highly selective reading of events. Much like Romney now, when Obama was a candidate in 2008 he famously said that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” and when he attracted a storm of criticism for the “undivided” part of the comment, he walked back that portion but pointedly did not refute the part of the comment calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Once in office, his administration’s official position was the exact same as literally every president before him since – including George W. Bush, widely seen as the most pro-Israel president in history – that Jerusalem’s final status should be subject to negotiations. This is, in fact, the position that Israel agreed to when it signed the Oslo Accords, so when Gabe refers to this as the Palestinian position in negotiations, it is unclear to me why he implies that Israel has never agreed to negotiation Jerusalem’s final status. It is also unclear to me why Gabe believes that Romney will be the first president in history to overturn the U.S. position on Jerusalem, and why he thinks that Romney is not doing the exact same thing that Obama did when campaigning in 2008. On the issue of borders, Netanyahu issued a joint statement with Hillary Clinton in November 2010 using the phrase “1967 lines, with agreed swaps,” which is the same formulation Obama has used. It is also the same position that the U.S. and Israel have taken in every single negotiation with the Palestinians during the Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations, so I’d again be curious to know why Gabe thinks Romney will do things differently. This is furthered by the fact that the Romney campaign website is completely silent on this issue and Romney has, as Gabe note, “issued no such positions” because he has been silent on specifics with regard to Israel, instead relying on empty platitudes. This is not a coincidence, since Romney does not want to upset Jewish voters but also does not want to box himself in by taking positions he will have to repudiate in office. No matter what Romney believes, the fact is that if he wades into the peace process morass, he is – like every president before him irrespective of party – also going to endorse the 1967 lines with swaps and refuse to prejudice the outcomes of negotiations over Jerusalem.

Finally, on the issue of the approach to Middle East regional issues, Gabe says that Obama has excluded Israel from the new Global Counterterrrorism Forum, although I would direct my readers to Zvika Krieger’s excellent reporting on the subject which makes clear that this has nothing to do with the administration trying to isolate Israel. Gabe also contends that Israel is being sold out to placate Turkey, but his claim about allowing Turkey to block Israel from the recent NATO summit is incorrect (as I have written about before), not to mention that I don’t think Gabe would suggest that the U.S. not attend NATO summits if Turkey does indeed exercise its right under the NATO bylaws to block non-members from attending. It should also be pointed out that Israel has never once attended a NATO summit in its history, so the idea that this can be pinned on Obama and that Romney would somehow change that is quite a stretch. Similarly, I think it is questionable to imply, as Gabe does, that the decision not to back Egypt’s autocratic dictator once the handwriting was on the wall was directed at Israel and that Romney would have done things differently.

In sum, Gabe is undoubtedly correct that differences exist between Romney and Obama, but I think he overstates the extent to which this will affect much of anything. Unless you think that Romney is going to upend the bipartisan consensus on the peace process that has existed for decades, or that he is going to destroy ties with Turkey rather than trying to work a middle ground that preserves the relationship with Israel while simultaneously preserving the relationship with another important regional ally, what we are left is with a difference on Iran, but one that still puts Romney at odds with the Israeli position. I am on board with the notion that Romney’s rhetoric and even personal convictions on Israel are more friendly toward Israel than Obama’s, but despite making a host of important points, I don’t think Gabe meets the burden of proof in demonstrating that this will ultimately matter when it comes to U.S. policy.

Guest Post: Romney and Obama Differ On More Than Just Iran

August 3, 2012 § 5 Comments

On Monday I wrote a post arguing that irrespective of who wins the presidential election in November, American policy toward Israel is unlikely to change very much. My friend Gabe Scheinmann (whose previous guest post differed with me on which side is politicizing the Israel debate) is now here to present an opposing view, since he believes that I have downplayed the differences between Obama and Romney when it comes to Israel policy.

Michael argues that, outside of rhetorical flourish intended for the election season, the sole policy difference with regards to Israel between a Romney Administration and a second Obama term is the “limited exception of what threshold will trigger [U.S.] military action against Iran”. While I respect Michael’s analysis, I have to say that the differences between the two are far, far starker. Whether it be the U.S. approach to the peace process, the status of Jerusalem, relations with regional countries, or dealing with Iran, the policy priorities and principles between the two potential leaders will be vastly different.

First, I concede that, under Obama, the military relationship has strengthened, mostly attributable to the nearly $300mil the Administration has granted to Israel to purchase additional Iron Dome batteries. While this is absolutely commendable, I would surmise that this would have also occurred during a hypothetical McCain Administration and would continue under Romney as well. Moreover, while this is my own opinion, the rhetorical echo chamber nurtured by both the White House and the Israeli government when it comes to security ties has been a way for both governments to claim “Situation Normal” without having to add the AFU part. The nature of military-to-military ties makes it difficult for Congress, interest groups, or the public to know what is concrete and what isn’t. By touting “the closest ever” security ties, both sides are able to mask the deep political and diplomatic problems that do exist.

First, on Iran. The difference between “nuclear weapon capability”, which is the Romney and Israeli position, and a “nuclear Iran”, which is the Obama position, is drastic. While Michael admits that this is the sole point of difference, I think that he undervalues the importance of the difference, which could be a multi-year window for the U.S., a multi-month window for Israel. Moreover, while Obama’s efforts have been focused on constraining, preventing, and even preemptively condemning potential unilateral Israeli military action, the Romney campaign has now said that it will “respect” Israeli action should it come to that. Lastly, Romney supports aiding the Iranian opposition in an attempt to remove the current regime, a notable contrast with the president, who was notoriously silent at the most opportune moment in 2009 for such support. Put simply, Obama’s Plan A is negotiations/sanctions, Plan B is simply “trust me” a few years from now. If he burns your trust, it’s too late. Romney’s Plan A is negotiations/sanctions/regime change from within or “trust me” a few months from now. If he burns your trust, it is still not too late to act unilaterally.

Second, on the West Bank portfolio. On settlements, Obama believes that Jerusalem, including the Old City, is a settlement and should be treated no differently than everything else in the West Bank. The Administration does not believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. (Note: One could still not move the Embassy, state that final borders are subject to negotiation, but still believe that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The Administration has gone out of its way to not do that.) Romney believes that Jerusalem is not a settlement and that it is Israel’s capital. That is a fairly significant difference. Romney has been silent on West Bank settlements, a marked contrast with Obama who made it the focus of his Israel policy for nearly a year, souring the U.S.-Israel relationship and setting back Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Whereas Obama has endorsed the Palestinian negotiating position (Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel and is subject to negotiation, borders (not negotiations on borders, but borders) should be based on the 1949 armistice (he called them 1967 lines), Romney issued no such positions and condemned the president for doing so. Whereas Romney has promised to defund the Palestinian Authority if it enters into a unity government with Hamas or seeks unilateral statehood recognition at the UN, the Obama Administration has gone to great lengths to keep bankrolling the PA, even though Abu Mazen has crossed both those red lines. It also upgraded the diplomatic representation of the Palestinian mission very early on.

Third, Obama and Romney regional policies would be different with different effects on Israel.  The Obama Administration has excluded Israel from the first two meetings of a new major counterterrorism forum, has endorsed a conference statement calling for Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, has pushed Israel to apologize to Turkey for the flotilla affair, and has given Turkey a veto on Israeli participation in NATO exercises. Moreover, while it swiftly called for Mubarak, a longtime American and Israeli ally, to step down in the wake of domestic protests, it resisted doing the same in Iran, an American and Israeli enemy, despite its more brutal oppression and troublemaking.

Fourth, the semiotics of Obama’s approach to Israel have been somewhere between wrong-footed, disingenuous, and appalling. The president snubbed the democratically elected Israeli leader at the White House two years ago, denying him a perfunctory photo-op and abandoning him to eat dinner with his family, equated the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering, visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, but not Israel, made his first foreign phone call as president to PA president Abu Mazen, and purposefully put “daylight” between the two countries, as he openly told Jewish leaders. In contrast, Romney has promised to make Israel his first foreign visit.

To conclude, the differences between the two men’s policies are glaring. On Iran, Romney has said that he respects an Israeli strike if it comes to that, but more importantly the threshold for what constitutes as “unacceptable” is a lot lower than what Obama has said. On the Palestinians, the two men see Jerusalem, settlements, and the basis of negotiations in far different lights. Overall, whereas Obama believes that the best way to stop an Iranian nuclear program and to increase U.S. popularity in the Arab world is to loosen its political support of Israel, Romney believes that only by tightening the U.S.-Israel relationship will the U.S. stop the Iranian nuclear drive and enhance Arab-Israeli peacemaking. (The Obama Administration even elevated Palestinian-Israeli peace to a U.S. “vital national security interest”.) The evidence suggests that a Romney Administration’s Israel policy would represent a distinct departure from the policies of the last four years.

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