Solutionism on Settlements

November 24, 2015 § 5 Comments

Life involves tradeoffs at every turn, and so does foreign policy. The perfect often becomes the enemy of the good, and pragmatic solutions require jettisoning principles. So too in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where each side must at times set aside deeply held beliefs and principles in order to achieve a realistic balance on the ground. Yitzhak Rabin’s realization that he was going to have to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, or the PLO’s realization that it would have to recognize Israel, were not steps that were taken lightly or that came easily. However, they had salutary effects that necessitated a sacrifice of principles and for each side created the risk of moral hazard in rewarding behavior that had been deemed out of bounds.

We are now at a similar crossroads when it comes to settlements. As a result of nearly five decades of settlement policy, Israel now has over half a million Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Even if they are not the root of the conflict, there is simply no question that settlements are an enormous and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, one that is diverting Israel’s political development to a frightening place. Israeli leaders present at the creation of the settlement project, from Rabin to Moshe Dayan, recognized the folly of occupying the West Bank, let alone settling it, and what it would mean for Israel to control millions of Palestinians in a state of political limbo. Nevertheless, here we are, and the fact is that removing half a million Israelis in an eventual peace deal will be an impossible task, and one that Israel is never going to attempt. As has been clear for decades and was formally laid out in the Clinton Parameters, Israel is going to end up keeping the large settlement blocs, allowing the most settlers to remain in Israel on the least amount of land, and will eventually have to evacuate the rest.

Given that it is clear to nearly everyone what the end result will be, there are two ways to approach current settlement construction. One is to treat all settlements as the same and condemn all new building in the settlements, irrespective of where the settlement is or how large it is. This has been the policy of the U.S. government since 1967, and it treats Gilo and Alon Shvut the same as Ofra and Elon Moreh. A settlement is a settlement, and thus any further construction is problematic, no matter the particular settlement’s eventual disposition. The other approach is to differentiate between settlements, and to recognize that building in an area that everyone knows that Israel will keep in any peace deal is not the same as building in areas that effectively bisect the West Bank or cut off Palestinian contiguity or prevent access to Jerusalem. While settlements are generally problematic, not all settlements are equally so.

Proponents of the first approach argue – not without merit – that to create a distinction between settlements now, outside the parameters of negotiations, would be to reward Israeli bad behavior. After creating a network of settlements in the West Bank of dubious legality at best, for external actors to recognize them as effectively part of Israel proper by not registering any complaints over their continued growth is to incentivize Israel to keep on building anywhere it likes in the hopes that creating facts on the ground will subvert Palestinian efforts to halt the settlement project.

As I said, this approach is not without merit, and it is certainly the morally satisfying one for those who have spent decades working to counter Israeli building outside the Green Line. The problem with it is that in occupying the moral high ground, it makes a solution harder rather than easier. The reality is that if a two state solution is to happen, it will require settler buy in, for better or worse, and getting settlers to support two states means recognizing that for the majority of them, expanding their current communities does not create an impediment to a final status agreement. For many on the left, this is a wholly unsatisfying and bitter pill to swallow, but it is also a fact of life that cannot be wished away.

To take an example from the other side of the spectrum (and this in no way suggests any type of moral equivalence), Hamas currently governs Gaza and does not appear to be going away. Hamas is a terrorist group with blood on its hands, and Israel is entirely justified in refusing to deal with it or acknowledge that it has any legitimacy at all. By the same token, rational people understand that as unpalatable as it may be, accepting that Hamas is in Gaza and that it cannot be simply wished away means crafting policies that take this into account, and even communicating with Hamas through back channels, as the current Israeli government has done. Rational thinking on settlements must prevail as well.

One of the striking elements from Israel Policy Forum’s trip to Israel last week was that the people working hardest to implement a two state solution and alleviate conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank are adamant that an all or nothing approach to settlements by calling for a complete settlement freeze would be the death knell for two states. Pragmatism must win out over principle in this case, which means pushing the Israeli government to define just what it means by the blocs – since this can be a nebulous moving target at times – and then creating a policy that distinguishes between kosher and non-kosher settlement growth. The Palestinian leadership and Mahmoud Abbas advanced this approach themselves in 2007 at Annapolis in presenting a proposal that involved Israel keeping 1.9% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, and while Israel’s preference is to keep 6.5% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, there is a compromise to be had that reconciles these two positions. This is not to accept Netanyahu’s reported position of recognition of the blocs as a quid pro quo for gestures in the West Bank – gestures that he should be taking anyway – or to treat the blocs as annexed to Israel before any final status negotiations have been concluded. It is to understand that while no building in the West Bank is helpful or desirable, one kind is a lot worse than another. While a change in how the U.S. views and treats settlements will lead to frustration for many and engender resentment among Palestinians, it is also the epitome of solutionism.

Diaspora Jews Are Not Israel’s ATM

October 9, 2015 § 4 Comments

The eminent Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri published a long essay in Ha’aretz last week arguing that the failure of Oslo can be attributed to the fact that Israel views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle between two national movements while the Palestinians view it as a struggle against colonialism, explaining the inevitable failure of negotiations. The piece deserves a long response of its own as there is much to unpack, but Avineri published a companion op-ed yesterday arguing, among other things, that given how negotiations are doomed to fail, Israel should ask Diaspora Jews to shoulder the costs of relocating and compensating settlers inside the Green Line. I am very much on board with relocating and even compensating settlers in order to get them out of the West Bank as expeditiously as possible. It is the other part of this formulation with which I take issue. To quote Avineri directly:

One could initiate, possibly with the support of Diaspora Jews, a generous plan for evacuation and compensation for settlers in the West Bank who would be willing to return to Israel in its pre-1967 borders. The right in Israel has managed to recruit Jewish donors around the world for expansion of settlements and for purchasing land and buildings in East Jerusalem. Why can’t the left follow suit and mobilize moderate Diaspora Jews in order to achieve something concrete – not just declarative – in order to further alternative policies? Perhaps even J Street could help in achieving something positive, not just criticizing Israel’s policies?

In 2010, as a forest fire spread out from Mount Carmel and caused enormous devastation, the Jewish National Fund called on American Jews to donate money for firetrucks and basic fire fighting equipment. Jeff Goldberg wrote an excellent post pushing back on this campaign, asking “What sort of country — what sort of wealthy country — schnorrs for basic public safety equipment?  At some point, Israel is going to have to learn to stand on its own, and fund its national security and public safety needs without the help of Diaspora Jewry.” Goldberg’s point was that some causes are legitimate and just – such as schools and hospitals, or aiding the victims displaced by the fire – and others are Israel asking someone else to cover for its self-imposed mistakes, a category to which chronic underfunding of firefighting services most certainly belongs.

I couldn’t help but recall this episode when reading Avineri’s call for Jews around the world to bail Israel out of its predicament. I find his suggestion to be both morally and practically problematic and downright offensive. It speaks to the worst of Israeli instincts, and illuminates the crux of the divide between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry.

I believe that American Jews should support Israel to the extent that they believe strongly in the need for a Jewish state (which I certainly do), and that a strong and healthy Israel benefits not only Israelis but Jews worldwide. Nevertheless, there is a distinction between supporting Israel and Israeli Jews in need, particularly in the early days of the state when Israel was not in good economic shape, versus funneling money to a state that brands itself as the Start-Up Nation and boasts of its economic strength and innovation in order for it to disentangle itself from a set of self-imposed policy disasters. The former, which would include things such as JNF campaigns to plant trees, assist in resettling Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, and donating to victims of terror, are clear cut examples of supporting the Zionist vision. They involve building a Jewish homeland and helping Jewish brethren in need who have been placed in situations beyond their or the Israeli government’s control, and I have no problem at all with Israel turning to Diaspora communities to help support such initiatives.

In contrast, the latter is a clear cut example of American Jews being used as suckers. As it is (and you will excuse the simplified stereotype here), oftentimes Israelis view American Jews as little more than piggybanks who should provide money but keep their mouths shut. Asking Diaspora Jewry to provide the funding for an overtly political predetermined course of action only reinforces that corrosive dynamic, particularly given that Israel is an OECD country that ranks 19th on the UN’s Human Development Index and 25th in GDP per capita according to the World Bank and can more than afford to cover the costs of its own internal policy decisions. More saliently, asking non-Israeli Jews to shoulder the financial burden for the evacuation of the West Bank encourages the Israeli government to pursue bad policies such as settling the West Bank under the assumption that there will always be a safety net from American Jews who won’t abandon the state under any circumstances and will pay to reverse Israeli mistakes. It creates a dangerous moral hazard that incentivizes risky behavior, and perpetuates a culture of dependency on outsiders. It is a terrible idea that makes Israel look like a third world country and diminishes the vision of a strong and independent state.

Furthermore, there is a logic of unintended consequences involved that Avineri fails to consider. From my perspective, the support of rightwing American Jews in the settlement project has been an unmitigated disaster that has only perpetuated bad policies, and in some ways has even rendered the Israeli government impotent. There is little to prevent Sheldon Adelson or Irving Moskowitz from pursuing their own goals precisely because the Israeli right has relied on outside money, and a government that wanted to prevent further building in the West Bank or Silwan would have a difficult time shutting things down because funding is coming from other sources besides the government. Just because Avineri wants to gin up financial support from Diaspora Jews for a policy that is in my view a good one doesn’t make it a good idea. There is no predicting how these types of things develop down the line, and there are likely to be unforeseen consequences that arise. Introducing more outside funding into the equation in response to unhelpful outside funding on the other side isn’t going to balance the ledger, but will instead contribute to a further spiral out of control.

I agree with Avineri that Israel should be evacuating the West Bank and relocating settlers. I agree that marshaling the moral and rhetorical support of Diaspora Jews would hasten that along. But treating Diaspora Jews as dollar signs and watering down Israeli ownership of its own policies is an unwise suggestion.

A Glimmer of Light Through the Clouds

October 8, 2015 § 7 Comments

This piece can also be found on IPF’s website here.

These are not auspicious times for supporters of two states. The generally despondent mood was captured by Chemi Shalev this week in a column where he declared the death of whatever remaining optimism to which he had been clinging, and resigned himself to Israelis and Palestinians never resolving their differences and continuously battling – a “war of the cowards” in his formulation. This comes on the heels of Mahmoud Abbas’s UNGA declaration that the Palestinian Authority no longer feels bound by the Oslo Accords and will pick and choose which elements it cooperates with; the mounting terrorist attacks targeting Israelis of all stripes and ages; the unrest wracking Jerusalem and its immediate environs; and the rumbling conflict and potential wider conflagration over the Temple Mount.

The most immediately pressing problem is the intifada that is taking place in Jerusalem, despite the reluctance of most politicians and other observers to call it what it is. There are multiple attacks and arrests taking place every day, too many incidents of rock throwing to catalogue, seizures of caches of weapons and firebombs, and entire neighborhoods in Jerusalem that are rapidly becoming battle zones. This does not even take into account what is going on in the West Bank, where attacks and arrests are both up as well, or the riot in Jaffa on Tuesday night. The intelligence and security forces have assured Prime Minister Netanyahu that there is no intifada yet, only a wave of increased violence, but this is a distinction without a difference that is based on an outdated fallacy. The fallacy is that an intifada can only erupt with the complicity of the Palestinian leadership, and since Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have been cracking down and trying to prevent the violence from spinning out of control, ipso facto there must not be an intifada.

This ignores a very basic lesson in political science, which is that just because something has always happened in one particular manner does not mean it is fated to always unfold the same way. Civil uprisings have a logic of their own, which is what makes them so difficult to predict. One of the main lessons of the inaptly termed Arab Spring is that Middle Eastern authoritarian governments –which the PA most certainly is – do not have absolute control over their subjects, and this is particularly the case for regimes that are already hampered by questions of legitimacy. Just because the first and second intifadas were encouraged and planned by the Palestinian leadership does not mean that the next one must take the same path. The PA does not have a monopoly on violence in the territory under its control, and nationalist entrepreneurs seeking to foment civil unrest for their own political goals will not necessarily heed the PA’s preferences or follow its lead. In addition, Palestinian politics is more fragmented than it was fifteen years ago, and Hamas and other even more extreme groups do not have the same incentive structure as the PA. Finally, given what we have seen from seemingly leaderless social movements around the globe over the course of this decade, expecting the PA to turn the intifada switch on or off at its discretion may be foolhardy.

Adding to the tension is that the current unrest is centered around Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. While the second intifada was set off following Ariel Sharon’s Temple Mount visit but was not driven by the Mount itself, the recent increase in violence is centered almost entirely around the Temple Mount and the allegation that Israel is attempting to alter the status quo that establishes the plaza as a site exclusively for Muslim prayer. Anything having to do with the Temple Mount is inevitably explosive given that it is a symbol simultaneously religious and nationalist for both sides, and the fact that actors who should know better – such as Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan – are fanning the flames by making grossly exaggerated accusations about Israeli actions only furthers the prospects of violence spreading out of control.

It is not only the Palestinians or the Jordanians who are using attacks on Israelis to further their own political ends, but members of the Israeli government as well. The more hardline rightwingers in Netanyahu’s coalition, including ministers from Likud such as Haim Katz and Yariv Levin and Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have been agitating that Netanyahu needs to adopt harsher responses to terrorist attacks on Israelis, and some went so far as to demonstrate outside his house in protest of policies that the government in which they serve has adopted. Netanyahu batted them down earlier this week by implicitly threatening to disband the government should the friendly fire continue, but adding a dose of political unrest to the soaring civil unrest makes for a poisonous mix.

So what is the silver lining, if any, to be found in this doom and gloom? It is that Netanyahu is actually behaving like the reasonable adult in the room and doing his best to prevent the situation from spiraling further downward. Aside from appearing to finally understand the threat that expanded settlement activity poses to Israel internationally and continuing to enforce an unpublicized settlement freeze, Netanyahu is doing his best to actually maintain the status quo on the Temple Mount despite the enormous political pressure on him to establish new facts on the ground (and despite the inherent injustice of preventing Jewish prayer at Judaism’s holiest site). Furthermore, Netanyahu has ordered the police to ban all government ministers and MKs from the Temple Mount, an extraordinary step that speaks to how seriously he understands that there will be no capping the eruption should tensions over the site escalate.

Folks on the left and the center tend to come down hard on Netanyahu – and rightly so – when he does and says things for his own political gain that deepen Israel’s isolation or contribute to illiberal trends in Israeli politics and society, yet Abbas is often given a free pass due to the uncomfortable political situation in which he must operate. While the estimation of the Israeli security establishment is that Abbas is doing his best to tamp down the violence erupting throughout Jerusalem and the West Bank and that Israel is going to miss him enormously when he is gone, this is not the whole story. He certainly deserves credit for all positive steps, but the fact that he has his own political survival at stake should not inoculate him from criticism over fanning the flames on the Temple Mount, or refusing to condemn terrorist activity that can in no way be chalked up as legitimate political protest or civil disobedience or resistance against an occupying power. The Israeli occupation is not a trump card when it comes to irresponsible rhetoric that will inevitably lead to incitement or the murder of civilians, and holding Netanyahu to an exceedingly higher standard than Abbas is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

A rightwing Israeli prime minister who presides over the narrowest possible coalition in the Knesset and is under constant assault from those to his right, whose commitment to two states is in question, and who has spent decades caving to the most irredentist elements of his party and coalition, has now halted new settlement growth, banned elected officials from the Temple Mount in an effort to protect exclusive Muslim rights on the site, and has so far refrained from a large and public show of force in the West Bank in response to multiple firebomb attacks, shootings, and stonings, all in recognition of the fact that the volume must be turned down in a major way. While some of these actions may be less just than others (and the Temple Mount issue in particular is one that I will write about in depth next week), they all point to a prime minister putting pragmatism over politics for the moment. Shalev opens his otherwise depressing column by noting how anyone watching Anwar Sadat emerge from his plane at Ben Gurion Airport in November 1977 could not help but believe that miracles do happen, and that it showed how calamity could transform into opportunity. Let’s hope that Netanyahu’s new leaf demonstrates that history always holds open the possibility of new beginnings.

Getting the U.S. and Israel Back On Track

April 21, 2015 § 3 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.

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.

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