Leave Pollard Where He Is

April 1, 2014 § 19 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bibi’s Coalition Gamble

February 20, 2013 § 6 Comments

It has been almost a month since the Israeli election, and yesterday finally brought us the first move to form a coalition as Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party agreed to join up with Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu. I have been skeptical throughout the campaign and the election’s aftermath that Livni would come to an agreement with Netanyahu given her efforts to convince Ehud Olmert and even Shimon Peres to run; her failed maneuvering at uniting Hatnua, Labor, and Yesh Atid into an anti-Bibi bloc; her constant railing against Netanyahu as a danger and a failed prime minister; the fact that Hatnua includes former Labor leaders Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna, neither of whom are exactly Netanyahu cheerleaders; and finally, her refusal to join with Bibi after the last election when her party – which was then Kadima – had the most seats in the Knesset and she would have been able to work out a deal in which she served as co-prime minister. Nevertheless, Livni has now reversed course and has accepted the positions of Justice Minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, and she will be reporting to Netanyahu rather than the eventual Foreign Minister in this latter gig.

Many people are now speculating on what this means for the peace process and whether Livni’s overseeing negotiations means that we can expect some real movement ahead. I don’t think this changes anything and I wouldn’t be taking any investment advice from people who think that Livni is going to pull Netanyahu along rather than the reverse, but the really interesting angle here is the political one. Bringing Livni into the coalition is not about Netanyahu signaling anything on the peace process, but about putting pressure on Naftali Bennett to join the government. The thinking on Netanyahu’s part goes as follows: he now has 37 seats lined up and getting Kadima and its 2 seats is a given, and he is on the verge of adding Shas (his real goal all along) and its 11 seats, which means that he can then turn to Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi and use their 12 seats to get past the magic number of 61. Netanyahu is gambling that once he adds Kadima and Shas, he will present Bennett with an ultimatum of joining the government or calling new elections, and that Bennett will not be able to withstand the pressure ensuing from calls for him to join a rightwing coalition and so he will crack. Essentially, Netanyahu is betting on Bennett’s alliance with Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid not being strong enough to buck the rightwing nationalist forces in HH who want to band together with Likud and the religious forces in HH who don’t see why serving in a government with Shas is the end of the world. Hence the immediate rumors that negotiations with Shas are proceeding and that it too will join the coalition imminently.

This plan of Bibi’s seems nicely formulated, but ultimately I don’t think it will work. More importantly, if Bennett is smart he will make sure that it doesn’t. The success of Bibi’s strategy turns on the idea that Bennett will do anything to avoid going to another round of elections, but much as I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that Netanyahu miscalculated in allying with Yisrael Beiteinu, I think he is miscalculating here as well. Netanyahu’s gamble is that new elections will cost Bennett seats and weaken his position, and that might have been true before yesterday, but bringing in Livni changes things in a big way. If I am a HH voter, I am not going to punish the party for not joining with its natural Likud partner by fleeing and and now voting for Likud since bringing Tzipi Livni on board to deal with peace process issues makes Likud untrustworthy. Looking at this map of election results and seeing where HH got votes makes this point abundantly clear; voters in Elon Moreh and Karnei Shomron are not now going to give up on Bennett and vote for Bibi given his most recent coalition choice.

In addition, many Likud voters are not going to be terribly happy now that Netanyahu has banded together with Livni, and I don’t see how doing so possibly increases his share of votes at all in a hypothetical new round of elections. If anything, it drives even more people away and into the arms of Bennett, and if you need some further proof, just look at Moshe Feiglin’s crack today that he hopes Likud will be in the coalition too. Furthermore, by trying to repeat history and bring Shas – his most pliable partners – into the coalition, Netanyahu is turning his back on the draft issue, which is one of the most popular issues in Israel today and which Lapid rode to his stunning success. Not only is Netanyahu potentially angering his base by bringing Livni in, he is angering many other voters who don’t understand why he insists on bringing Shas into the government despite the massive popular will for reforming the draft. Given what has transpired, if new elections were held today, I think that Likud would drop even further while Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid would pick up some new mandates.

Netanyahu is behaving as if bringing first Livni and then Shas into the government gives him all the leverage he needs over Bennett to break up the YA-HH alliance, but I think he has things wrong. If he brings in Shas, he will then be unable to form a government without Lapid or Bennett (I am operating on the assumption that Labor is not joining at this point), and so in reality Bennett will be the one with the leverage over Netanyahu. Reports are that Bennett is feeling heat from within his party over his footdragging to run to Likud and his head-scratching unbreakable bond with Lapid, but by brining Livni into the government, Netanyahu actually did Bennett a favor. He now has a good excuse to sit tight, and once Netanyahu strikes a deal with Shas, he benefits further from sticking to his guns on the draft issue and staying out. If I were Bennett and Netanyahu presented me with the ultimatum to join the coalition with Shas or go to new elections, I would be printing up new campaign posters before even getting off the phone.

Welcome to Israeli Election Day

January 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

Finally, the day we’ve all been waiting for – Israelis go to the polls today to elect a new Knesset and a new government for the first time since 2009. Despite the fact that we don’t have any results yet, I thought I’d set out a list of things we know and things we don’t.

Things We Know:

Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu are going to win the most seats in the Knesset and Likud will be the largest party. This is an easy one given the polls, since even with the Likud Beiteinu list losing about a seat a week for months now, no other party is going to come close to the 32-36 seats LB is likely to take. The irony of course is that Netanyahu created the joint list in order to create an unbeatable force, yet Likud might have done better on its own as banding together with Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu likely cost Netanyahu seats for a host of reasons (and from the Department of Shameless Self Promotion, remember who told you months ago that this was a very bad idea on Bibi’s part). Despite the blunder, Labor is probably going to come in second with 15-18 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid are going to be battling for 3rd and 4th place. It is possible that the LB list will have twice as many seats as the next largest party despite its free fall in the polls, although this is a bit misleading since the two parties agreed to merge until only 30 days past the election, at which point they are free to revisit their agreement and separate. The most interesting little nugget about Likud being the largest party in the Knesset is that despite having served two terms as prime minister, this will be the first time that Netanyahu leads his party to a Knesset victory. When Netanyahu was elected in 1996, Israel was in the midst of its decade-long experiment of directly electing the prime minister, and so while Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres by 1% in the prime ministerial vote, Likud won 32 seats to Labor’s 34. In 2009, Likud came in second to Kadima, but after Tzipi Livni was unable to form a government, Netanyahu swooped in and cobbled together a governing coalition despite controlling the second largest party in the Knesset rather than the largest. By the end of today, Netanyahu will finally be able to say that he led his party to an electoral victory.

Things We Don’t Know

Everything else. And I mean that. Aside from Likud Beiteinu winning the most mandates, I cannot say with 100% certainty what else will happen. I am 99% sure that Netanyahu is going to be the next prime minister, but there are enough weird things going on to give me that minuscule 1% pause. To begin with, there are an unusually high number of undecided voters, and while they might break Bibi’s way, I don’t think that Bibi’s base is one that is marked by indecision, unless that indecision comprises whether to continue to vote for Netanyahu or to go with the trendier rightwing choice of Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s margins are going to be very tight, and this means there is an outside chance that he pulls a Livni and can’t pull off putting together a viable government. I am as confident as I can possibly be that HH is going to be in the coalition, but then the coalition math becomes very tricky. It involves bringing in a centrist party such as Yesh Atid, which will clash with HH and the more extremist Likud voices over peace process issues, or going with Shas and UTJ, who are toxic to HH over the draft and toxic to Yisrael Beiteinu over both the draft and the religious-secular divide. Then there is the possibility that Aryeh Deri’s return to Shas means it is no longer so reliably rightwing and will give Netanyahu a harder time when it comes to coalition bargaining.

To throw another monkey wrench into this, there are the rumblings from all sorts of quarters that the electorate has shifted in the past few days and that the leftwing and centrist parties are going to do better than their polling indicates. If voter turnout is high, it means that left and center parties are going to do better than expected, in which case there is even a possibility that Netanyahu is denied the first chance to form a government. Last month I brought up the possibility of a unity government, which started to look ridiculous in the interim but now I am not so sure that I was off-base. Then there are the rumors that were flying around last night that Ehud Barak is going to be defense minister and Tzipi Livni foreign minister, which I find to be completely far-fetched given the rancor toward Barak exhibited by all sorts of newly influential Likud members and the fact that Netanyahu would never give Livni any real power as foreign minister while Livni would never accept the position to be a mere figurehead. All of this is to say that while Bibi is almost definitely going to remain as prime minister, the possibility of a black swan would not be entirely out of the blue. As for what type of coalition he will put together assuming he remains prime minister, your guess is as good as mine. If I have to predict something, it’s that we will see a nationalist bent due to the inclusion of Habayit Hayehudi, that the haredi parties are going to be left out, and that Yesh Atid will be brought in. This will allow Bibi to keep his rightwingers happy on peace process and settlements, let Yesh Atid have its pet issue of reforming the draft, and not have to worry about the secular-religious divide issue bringing down the government. I can also see Labor being brought into this mix if Netanyahu wants to have the coalition be as big as possible or if the numbers are such that he needs another party but wants to avoid bringing in Shas. Whatever happens, the next few weeks promise to be an entertaining ride.

The Best of Israel and the Worst of Israel

August 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

Following the disgusting and abominable attack on Arab teenagers in Jerusalem’s Kikar Tzion last week – which, for those of you keeping track at home, Emergency Committee for Israel executive director Noah Pollak referred to as a “late-night scuffle” – Israel’s leaders have been unsparing in their condemnation of the incident. Shimon Peres declared himself ashamed at what happened and stated the obvious, which is that the Arab teens were attacked for no reason other than the fact that they are Arabs. While this is not surprising coming from Peres, Israeli rightwing politicians have been just as harsh in their denunciations. Bibi Netanyahu described the attack as racist to its core, and former IDF chief of staff and current vice PM Boogie Ya’alon called it an “act of terror” which left no ambiguity into how serious Israeli leaders view what has been accurately described as a lynching. Going further, Knesset speaker and Likud MK Reuven Rivlin visited one of the victims in the hospital yesterday and apologized, noting that racist anti-Arab sentiment is clearly not just on the fringe of Israeli society and that the attack is a “microcosm of a national problem that could endanger Israeli democracy.” Daniel Seidemann, writing on Jeffrey Goldberg’s blog, noted that the discourse from Likud politicians on this is significant because it is not being done with public opinion in mind (it will not help Bibi or anyone else in the Likud primaries) and indicates that rightwing politicians are genuinely worried that this is a serious and growing problem.

This is the way democracies are supposed to work, and it is heartening that for all of the criticism of Israel, both legitimate and illegitimate, over its treatment of Palestinians, things are operating in the aftermath of this attack exactly as they should. The government is not trying to explain it away or call it anything other than racism and terrorism, and Rivlin’s acknowledgment that this kind of behavior is becoming endemic and is a problem for a democratic society is the type of soul-searching that any democracy needs to go through in order to remain strong and vibrant. As I’ve noted before, for someone like me who is not shy about calling out Israeli misbehavior, it is important to also praise the things that demonstrate the strength of Israeli democracy and Israeli character, and the response to the Kikar Tzion attack across the political spectrum deserves to be praised. For all of the talk that Israel is content to keep the status quo and has no interest in introspection when it comes to treatment of Palestinians or Israeli Arabs, the political response so far is encouraging, and perhaps the worst of Israel encapsulated by the Kikar Tzion beating will now bring out the best of Israel.

Moving from the best of Israel to the other end of the spectrum, the political leaders who have not exactly covered themselves in glory this week are the two Yisrael Beiteinu members who run the Israeli Foreign Ministry, FM Avigdor Lieberman and deputy FM Danny Ayalon. Lieberman has apparently decided to take it upon himself to wage political guerilla warfare against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, writing a letter to the Quartet calling for new Palestinian elections with the aim of ousting Abbas as Palestinian president and then saying today that Abbas is a greater threat to Israel than Hamas. Netanyahu’s office distanced itself from Lieberman immediately, saying that his letter does not reflect the position of either Bibi or the government, and Ehud Barak slammed Lieberman for harming Israeli interests and for basically being a dolt in believing that it would be better for Israel were Hamas to take over control of the PA. Lieberman told a group of Israel ambassadors that he wrote the letter because the Israeli government is not heeding his advice and relaying his views on the Palestinians to the West, which is just the latest piece of evidence that the government sees Lieberman as the embarrassment that he is. That Israel does not have a professional, or even competent, foreign minister is a serious problem, and that Lieberman is in the post for political reasons is not an excuse. Israel has so many experienced and talented ambassadors and diplomats, and it discredits the entire enterprise to have Lieberman as the front man, even if he is not taken seriously by anyone inside or outside his government.

Not to be outdone by his boss, Ayalon resumed his spate of strange and embarrassing behavior by saying that South Africa remains an apartheid state in response to South Africa’s decision to label goods made in the West Bank as made in “occupied Palestinian territory.” Ayalon is rightly upset about what this will do to Israeli business interests, particularly if it ends up starting a trend that is picked up by other countries, but instead of responding with a measured argument, he chose to make a completely unsubstantiated (and incorrect) charge about South African politics and society. Not only won’t this change the South African government’s mind and will probably lead to an even further worsening of ties between the two countries, Ayalon did the exact thing that he and other Israel diplomats correctly rail against, which is recklessly tossing around the charge of apartheid in places to which it does not apply. How is Ayalon supposed to protest the next time some politician or celebrity stupidly refers to Israel as an apartheid state when he has just done the exact same thing? Ayalon was for years a respected diplomat and served as an able foreign policy advisor to Likud politicians and as ambassador to the U.S., but has seen his reputation take a serious turn for the worse under Lieberman. Between things like this and his ridiculous attempt at humiliating the Turkish ambassador by making him sit on a low chair in front of television cameras (for which Ayalon was forced to apologize), it’s tough to conclude anything other than that Lieberman’s corrosive influence is having a negative impact on Ayalon’s common sense. As well as the response to the attempted lynching of Arab teens by Jews has reflected on Israel’s politicians, its diplomats’ puerile actions this week have demonstrated the exact opposite.

 

A Tale of Two Letters

July 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Two letters were issued this week that tell very different stories about where Israel is going. The first was from the Shomron Residents Council and it was addressed to Shimon Peres. The settlement movement has never been in love with Peres, but they are particularly outraged at him at the moment following Peres’s comments last week about the need to take Israel’s demographic challenges into account and end the settlement project. The letter, which was also published as an ad in today’s Ha’aretz, calls for Peres to step down after accusing him of being a Palestinian agent working against Israeli and Jewish interests. It also states that Peres should join Meretz, Balad, or Kadima, but that he cannot continue serving as the president of the state.

Nobody who is thinking clearly would actually accuse Peres, the last remaining politically active member of Israel’s founding generation and literally one of the fathers of the state, of acting against Israel’s interests, so in that respect this is a fundamentally unserious letter. It does, however, tell us something serious about a significant portion of Israeli citizens, which is that they view Israel in a disturbingly parochial and sectarian manner. Calling for Peres to step down for crossing the settlers is rather unremarkable, but calling for him to join Meretz or Balad or Kadima is a statement that speaks volumes. First, it suggests that the settler leadership does not view those parties as legitimate, since it is apparently acceptable for Peres to be a member of Kadima despite not acting in the interests of the Israeli public or the Jewish public. Second, it implies that in order to serve as president of Israel, you must adhere to a certain line with regard to the settlements, and anyone that crosses this line also crosses the boundary of being unfit for office. This is a revolutionary view of citizenship, political participation, and public service. It imagines an Israel that is not simply split between citizens and non-citizens, or even Jews and non-Jews, but one that is officially and legally further fragmented along lines that delineate between acceptable viewpoints and unacceptable viewpoints. Peres is free to join Meretz or Kadima in the eyes of the settlement leadership since these parties, in their view, do not act in the state’s interests and are thus illegitimate.

The second letter was from the Israel Policy Forum and it was addressed to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The IPF letter was a response to the Levy Report, and it expressed the fear that adopting Levy’s recommendations will lead to the end of the two state solution. It referred to the importance of maintaining Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, and stated that the Levy Report will actually weaken Israel’s hand in its conflict with the Palestinians by providing fodder to the delegitimization crowd. The letter was then signed by 41 leaders of the American Jewish community.

The letter itself was smartly worded with its acknowledgement that the Palestinian Authority has “abdicated leadership by not returning to the negotiating table” and thus negating any warrantless accusations that the letter is an effort to place all blame on Israel, and as I wrote last week, I think that framing the issue of settlements strategically by referencing the serious threat to Israel’s future is the way to go. What is more encouraging though is the list of signatories. Nobody will be surprised that the letter was signed by Charles Bronfman or Rabbi Eric Yoffie, people with a reputation for being in the center or the left on Israel issues. It was also signed by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who is at the Shalem Center and recently held a well-publicized debate with Peter Beinart, and by Thomas Dine, who used to head up AIPAC. It suggests a different vision of Israel, one in which leaders from all sides of the spectrum are able to cooperate and come to an agreement on the big issues facing the Jewish state. Rather than viewing everything through a narrow prism, folks like Gordis and Dine, who might have very different views on settlements generally than someone like Yoffie, are able to recognize the unique problem that the Levy Report poses. In fact, Gordis wrote in Ha’aretz that he does not necessarily disagree with Levy’s legal reasoning, but that adopting the report would signal an annexation of the West Bank and the official abandonment of the two state solution. The letter represents a hopeful trend of moving away from political and ideological sectarianism and viewing Israel not as a disparate collection of tribal groups but as a whole. Quite frankly, it represents a more hopeful vision than the one displayed just yesterday by Bibi Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, who could not maintain a unity government in the face of some tough decisions over whether Israelis should equally share in the burden of service or not. Let’s hope that going forward, the vision contained in the IPF missive trumps the that contained in the Shomrom Residents Council’s one.

Thinking Strategically on Settlements

July 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

Shimon Peres gave a speech this week in which he warned about the danger that settlements pose to Israel’s Jewish majority. He spoke about a “threatening demographic change” and pointed out that without a Jewish majority, Israel will cease to be a Jewish state. This prompted predictable outrage from the right, with Yesha head Dani Dayan inveighing that the only danger to the Jewish state is conceding the right to the West Bank and 350 rabbis sending Peres a letter in which they said he should beg for forgiveness for the peace process and criticized his “hallucinatory ideas.” Peres’s speech also, however, brought opprobrium from the left, as various people were upset that Peres framed the problem with settlements as a strategic problem rather than an ethical or moral one. In this view, the primary problem with the settlements is that they are furthering the occupation and preventing a Palestinian state, and thus the argument against them should be that Israel is perpetrating an unethical policy in the West Bank and settlements should be denounced primarily as conflicting with the value of a democratic state and a Jewish state.

I am sympathetic to this argument, but it ignores the politics of the situation and misses the long view. The left and center-left do not need any convincing on the need for Israel to abandon the settlement enterprise outside of the major settlement blocs that Israel will presumably keep in a peace deal. If there is to ever be real movement on this issue, it is the right that needs to be brought around, and arguments about Palestinian rights are unlikely to be convincing. I do not mean to suggest that everybody on the right is completely unconcerned with the status of the Palestinians on the West Bank, but this has historically not been a winning argument on the right. If the right is to be swayed, it will be by arguments about Israel’s security and future, and in that sense, the demographic argument is the only one in town. I’ve heard that people in the upper ranks of the government don’t take the demographic threat seriously and believe that time is actually on Israel’s side, and I have had similar impressions in talking to friends and colleagues who are more rightwing on Israel issues than I am. When I was in Turkey two years ago, I got into what turned into a heated discussion with an older American Jewish couple whom I met while their cruise ship was docked in Istanbul for the weekend. During a conversation about Israel where I brought up the argument that Israel was running out of time to separate from the West Bank, the wife heatedly insisted that I had no idea what I was talking about because her daughter lives in Israel and has five kids, and so she absolutely refuses to believe that in 20 years there will be just as many Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank as there are Jews. The only way to convince rightwingers and conservatives that settlements need to be dealt with is to keep on pushing the demographic argument and make people realize that every day that passes increases the possibility of a binational one state Israeli future. This is why Peres’s speech was the correct response to the Levy Report, and while it might make folks on the left upset, a little more strategic thinking on this issue is required.

On a similar note, this is why I think that the Levy Report is so dangerous and why I disagree with Brent Sasley’s argument that Levy does not represent anything new. Has Israel been extending its control over the West Bank? Yes, it has. But that doesn’t mean that the Levy Report is not a dangerous development, because by legally eviscerating the line between Tel Aviv in Israel proper and Efrat over the Green Line, and between authorized settlement bloc Ariel and unauthorized outpost Migron, it brings a one state solution ever closer (for those whose Hebrew is less than stellar, Elder of Ziyon has a useful translation of the legal reasoning section of the Levy Report). The report’s significance is not in what it signals about past Israeli intention in the West Bank, but in what it signals about Israel’s political future and survival as a Jewish state. Brent and others think that the report is simply more of the same and that the declaration that there is no occupation is just the Israeli right showing its true colors in a more public manner, but this loses sight of the fact that Levy represents the opening salvo in the growing calls for a rightwing one state solution. Quite simply, this will be the end of Israel as we know it, and the right needs to be convinced that this is a path to oblivion. If this requires hammering away at the demographic argument and dropping language steeped in morality and ethics, so be it. Peres is on to the right idea here, and people on the left and the center should start thinking along these lines as well.

The Politics of Russia in Israel

June 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

Vladimir Putin was in Israel this week, and the government rolled out the red carpet for him. Shimon Peres hosted a state dinner for him and he held meetings with Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and he inaugurated a memorial in Netanya to Soviet soldiers who were killed in WWII. The Israeli welcoming embrace might seem strange given that Israel and the Soviet Union had an acrimonious relationship and that Putin is not exactly seen as a paragon of virtue these days, but it is actually a no-brainer from a domestic political standpoint. There are over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel out of a total population of 7.6 million, and there are many prominent Russian-Jewish politicians, from Natan Sharansky to current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many of these Russian olim no longer feel as acrimonious toward their former homeland as they once did, and they still have deep ties to Russia that make the Russian issue a political winner.

This point was really driven home for me this morning reading Marc Tracy’s post-Birthright thoughts on how his trip to Israel has made him feel more viscerally connected and emotionally attached to Israel even though he is an American Jew and not an Israeli. This connection felt by American Jews is one of the primary drivers behind the U.S.-Israel bond, as a particularly active and vocal (and yes, influential – let’s not sell ourselves short) segment of Americans feel so strongly about Israel. In Israel, the same holds true about the Russian population, who are Israeli citizens and may have not been to Russia or other former Soviet countries since they left but nevertheless feel a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward their previous home. This relationship goes both ways, as the new annual $1 million prize that Israel is going to bestow on recipients whose contributions to sciences or the arts reflect Jewish values is being funded by a group of Jewish Russian oligarchs. It makes sense for Israeli politicians to take advantage of this sentiment through stronger ties with Russia and wanting to have their pictures taken with Putin when he visits.

The question for me is whether this is a good idea for Israel geostrategically once you set aside the domestic political benefits, and my answer is no. To begin with, as Elise Labott points out, Israel and Russia do not see eye to eye on many foreign policy issues these days. The two countries are working at cross purposes when it comes to Iran and Syria, and yesterday Putin met with Mahmoud Abbas and implicitly backed the Palestinian president’s view that Israel is the party responsible for the deadlock in peace negotiations. Peres spent much of the visit publicly pressuring Putin to come around to the Israeli view of things, commenting during the memorial dedication ceremony that the country that defeated fascism will not tolerate similarly odious regimes in Iran and Syria, and expressing his view during the state dinner that Russia will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. This seems more like wishful thinking than an expression of confidence, since Russia has so far shown little inclination to budge on these issues and did not hint at any changes in policy during Putin’s meetings with Israeli leaders. Netanyahu, Barak, Lieberman, and other Israeli officials are assiduously working to court Russia, but to no avail. At some point, the closer relationship with Russia is going to come to a head, and it will be easier if there are fewer messy entanglements at that point.

Aside from the fact that Israel is destined to endlessly bang its head against the wall when it comes to Russian policy, there is another good reason for Israel to distance itself from Russia. Putin under Russia has evidenced an increasingly authoritarian bent, with Putin’s domestic opponents harassed and jailed, opposition political parties eviscerated, and charges of election rigging and voter fraud. Russia today is no longer a democracy, and Freedom House this year assigned it a 6 for political rights and a 5 for civil liberties (with 7 being the worst score a state can achieve). In short, Israel is trying to tighten its relationship with a deeply illiberal state, and one with which it foten disagrees on matters of foreign policy. In doing so, it risks damaging its relationship with other democracies and European states that do not look kindly upon Russian intransigence. Israel often evinces a view that any friend is a good one, but cozying up to Russia is not going to advance Israel’s international standing or leave it feeling less isolated. This is a classic example of losing sight of what is strategically prudent in the long term in favor of short term tactical political gain. Israel does not have to publicly repudiate Russia or Putin or lead the Mitt Romney vanguard that views Russia as the top geopolitical threat in the world today, but it also does not need to spend its time trying to be Russia’s best friend. Israel should work to keep its relationship with Russia as non-acrimonious as it can while holding Russia at arm’s length.

Guest Post: Which Side Is It That Is Actually Politicizing Israel?

June 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Following my post last week about the GOP turning Israel into a partisan issue, my friend Gabe Scheinmann emailed me to register his disagreement with what I had written. Gabe and I met when we were at Harvard and we both ended up as PhD students in the Government Department at Georgetown, and he is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Gabe is a rising star in conservative foreign policy circles, and I always take his unfailingly intelligent and informed views on security policy very seriously. Gabe has a different take on who is responsible for politicizing Israel as an issue in U.S. elections, and I asked if he would be willing to write a guest post laying out his rebuttal to my argument and he graciously agreed. Here is Gabe on the differences between the Republicans and Democrats on Israel and which side is more responsible for playing politics.

Making “Israel” into a partisan issue football is bad for Israel and bad for America. A true alliance does not bloom and wither based on the party in power, but instead represents long-term interests. By politicizing such an alliance, both political parties, and both countries for that matter, are jeopardizing the crucial trust and commitments needed for a fruitful relationship. Moreover, the current parties’ dispositions on Israel have not always been the same. Prior to the Nixon Administration, it was the Democratic Party that was a great friend of Israel, from immediate political recognition from Truman to the beginning of a military relationship under JFK. In contrast, the greatest crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations to this day occurred during a Republican Administration, when an irate Eisenhower browbeat Israel over its invasion of the Sinai and Suez Canal in 1956. Three decades from now, the parties’ identities may yet again change and it would be a disservice to the U.S, Israel, and the alliance if the parties were to develop diametrically opposed views on the subject.

That said, I think the real culprit is that for the first time in a long time, real differences have emerged between the two parties regarding their policies towards Israel. The Democratic Party’s lurch leftwards on foreign policy—partly a result of Vietnam, partly due to demographics—has also shaken its once solid support for Israel. The Democratic Congressional leadership remains very pro-Israel, way more so than the current president. But if you look at poll after poll of Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, what you find on Israel is very troubling. Whether it’s the J Street crowd (whose leadership is way more right-wing than its supporters, and that’s saying something), or the African-American community, or the environmentalist community, or the gay community, you’ll find some terrible sentiments on Israel. The ritual condemnation of Israel by supposed “human rights” organizations, all left-leaning, are manifestations of this. And while the Democratic leadership is indeed pro-Israel, the ranks of the Democratic party are not. The “Gaza-54” letter, asking Obama to pressure Israel to ease the Gaza blockade in 2010, was signed exclusively by 54 Democratic Congressmen, Rep Jim Moran (D-VA) blamed the Iraq War on AIPAC—earning the rebuke of Rep. Steny Hoyer—and, most recently, the New York Democratic Party establishment has come out against Charles Barron, the former Black Panther running for Congress, for his anti-Israel and anti-Semitic positions, even though he has been endorsed by the retiring Congressman whose seat he’s running for.

Moreover, President Obama himself has politicized Israel policy to a degree unseen in decades. The Obama Campaign put out a glossy, epic-music-leitmotif video on its “exemplary” record on Israel, the White House (note: not the campaign) has a webpage exclusively devoted to the president’s Israel record, longer than the entirety of its foreign policy page, and the president himself declared that he “has done more in terms of security for the state of Israel than any previous administration” and knows more about Judaism than any other American president. The list goes on. Obama has spoken at AIPAC two years in row, a first for a president. The recent spate of national security leaks—authorized or not—have served to make the president look tougher to his electorate, while compromising real national security, such as the disclosure of the joint U.S.-Israeli cyberwarfare campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, which has a direct quote from VP Biden blaming Israel.  In addition, Biden has recently reemphasized the president’s campaign speech of last October, also expounding that “I believe that no president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s physical security than Barack Obama”, even managing a small dig at the Bush Administration for supposedly not putting enough pressure on Iran.

Moreover, the President’s Israel policy seems dictated not by U.S. national security, but by his own reelection campaign, as his policies on the peace process and Iran have morphed as the November approaches.

Take the Peres ceremony. To be clear, if the GOP leadership was indeed invited, they should have gone. (However, Kampeas’ blog postings on the subject are far from definitive as to who was actually invited and who was out of town, so I’m not sure there’s solid evidence that the GOP absence was out of spite for Obama’s Israel record.) Notice the glowing and unprecedented reception the White House gave Peres compared to its shabby treatment of Netanyahu, Israel’s actual leader. Notice Obama quoting extensively from Peres’ 1993 Nobel peace prize speech, or the very act of giving Peres the medal, or more importantly, singling him out for a separate ceremony than the rest of the recipients the previous week. For example, when Obama gave Bush 41 the same medal two years ago, not only was it not a black tie event, nor at night, nor a reception, but he was one of fifteen recipients! This was an entire political operation by the president, from the decision to award the medal, to the manner in which it was presented, to the themes hit upon. (Notice how Peres brought up Iran, while Obama didn’t.) Obama’s message to Bibi was “See how I’ll treat you if you believe in what I believe”. It was a no-so-subtle dig.

To conclude, I believe that the core of the Democratic party has moved far leftward on foreign policy and, as a result, it is losing its reliable pro-Israel bent. This has begun to trickle up the ranks of its leadership, but for the moment its Congressional leadership is still solidly pro-Israel, more so than the president himself. So, what should the GOP or, for that matter, pro-Israel Democrats do? In order to keep Israel bipartisan, should they compromise? How should the Republican Party respond when the White House attempts to impose a settlement freeze on Israel, or equates the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering, or denies the existence of Bush era assurances to Israel, or attempts to refund UNESCO in contravention of U.S. law, or opposes the counting of Palestinian “refugees”?

In the past 5 years, substantive differences have emerged between the two parties on Israel, largely a result of a shift in the Democratic party. The emergence of groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel is a consequence, not a cause, of this shift and is merely trying to highlight these differences while ultimately letting voters decide. If the differences between the two parties, or Obama and Romney, were invented, then that would be a different story. However, they are not and therefore ought to be debated.

Turning Israel Into A Partisan Issue Does Israel No Favors

June 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

It is no secret that in the last few years the GOP has been trying to claim the pro-Israel mantle exclusively for itself. This has manifested itself in a number of ways, ranging from the creation of groups whose sole purpose appears to be bashing President Obama over the head on Israel to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promising Bibi Netanyahu during a one-on-one meeting that the House Republican majority would “serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington” and that “the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States,” with the unspoken implication being that the Democrats do not. Mitt Romney has accused Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus” and prominent conservative pundits have repeatedly taken Obama to task for alleged mistreatment of Netanyahu. The upshot of all this is a concerted message emanating from the GOP that only the Republicans can be trusted to safeguard Israel’s interests and that the Democrats, and Obama in particular, cannot.

The culmination of this strategy came on Wednesday, when Israeli President Shimon Peres was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a curious move from an American president who allegedly has no fond feelings for Israel. Many luminaries were in attendance, including Madeleine Albright, Elie Wiesel, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Notice anything strange about this list? Ron Kampeas did, which is that it includes only one Republican and nobody from the Republican congressional leadership. It is not because the Republicans weren’t welcome, as Kampeas confirmed from all sides that the leadership delegations from both parties were invited to Peres’s ceremony, but because they chose not to attend. Process that for a second – the president of Israel, who also happens to be one of the country’s founding fathers and a true Israeli legend and statesman in every sense, was honored by the president and only one (involuntarily) retiring Republican senator accepted the White House’s invitation to come. Eric Cantor, who is the highest ranking Jewish member of Congress in the history of the country and who cannot abide what he views as the White House’s various insults and backstabbing of Netanyahu and Israel, apparently thinks that coming to the equivalent of a state dinner for the Israeli president is not an important enough use of his time. Just imagine the torrent of criticism and vitriol that would be raining down on Obama and the Democrats right now if the situation were reversed. I dare say someone would be forming another Emergency Committee.

It seems pretty clear to me that the reason none of the Republican leadership was present on Wednesday is because they do not want to grant Obama a “victory” on Israel or lend credence to the notion that perhaps he is not as anti-Israel as Republicans have repeatedly insisted. It is a shame that one party is desperately trying to turn Israel into a partisan issue that can be used to its own political advantage, but more importantly it is a very dangerous development for Israel’s long term strength and support in the U.S. For decades, Israel has enjoyed nearly universal bipartisan support within American politics, and Republican efforts to paint Democrats as anti-Israel run the risk of turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy and making Israel a political football no different than taxes, abortion, or government spending. I fail to see how making Israel a partisan issue benefits Israel at all rather than solely benefitting the Republican Party, which is misguided behavior coming from a party that professes to be looking out for Israel’s interests. The Republicans are so intent on being perceived as more pro-Israel than the other side that they are actually hurting Israel in the process. The GOP needs to take a step back for a moment and recognize that it is doing Israel no favors by constantly – and ludicrously – insisting that the Democrats can’t be trusted when it comes to Israel’s security, and stop using Israel to score political points. Whether the GOP spurning of the Peres medal ceremony was a dig at Obama or a nod of support to Bibi in the Netanyahu-Peres divide, it was an insulting and outrageous misstep. If you claim to be Israel’s best friend, then you damn well better show up when its president receives the highest honor that the White House can give.

Why Jonathan Pollard Is Going to Die in Prison

April 10, 2012 § 5 Comments

In the latest Israeli attempt to get the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard clemency which he does not deserve, Israeli president Shimon Peres has appealed to the White House to release Pollard because Pollard’s health is deteriorating and Pollard’s wife, whom he married after being convicted, does not want to become a widow while he is in prison. As expected, the Obama administration turned down Peres’s request to release Pollard. I wholeheartedly support this decision – Pollard is an unrepentant spy who stole massive amounts of classified intelligence, disgustingly attempted to drag the American Jewish community into his case by turning himself into a cause celebre, and has done an incalculable amount of damage to American Jews by raising concerns about dual loyalty, particularly for those who have deep connections to Israel and want to work for the government in a position that requires security clearance. The entire U.S. security and intelligence establishment is unanimous in its position that Pollard should remain where he is, so much so that George Tenet threatened to resign as CIA director if Pollard was released, and no matter what Pollard’s supporters may claim, this universal hardline position is not motivated by anti-Semitism but by the fact that what Pollard did was unforgivable.

The point of this post is not to go on a rant about Pollard, which I have been known to do at the drop of a hat. Rather, it is to explain why it is that despite the mythical power attributed by some to the pro-Israel lobby, which has made Pollard’s release a priority, there has been and will be no change in Pollard’s status. It is a curious problem for the John Mearsheimers of the world, since if Israel and groups such as AIPAC are able to push the U.S. to take all sorts of actions contrary to its own interests in the Middle East, securing clemency for Pollard should be a relative breeze. Pollard’s cause is not by any means a fringe issue. A list of groups and individuals calling at some point for Pollard’s release includes the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith International, the World Zionist Congress, the state assemblies of New York and New Jersey, Arlen Spector, Rudy Giuliani, numerous congressmen and local officials, and both Jewish and Christian religious leaders. It is also notable that despite the high priority assigned by pro-Israel groups to the Pollard case, Congress has never passed a resolution calling for his release, or even calling for his case to be reexamined. Given the conventional wisdom in some quarters that Congress in particular is owned by the pro-Israel lobby, one would at least expect to see Congress pressing for Pollard’s release while successive administrations stand firm on keeping him behind bars.

As I have pointed out in a different venue, the failure of pro-Israel groups to sway politicians in this case is because support for Israel is highly dependent on public opinion rather than on the Israel lobby, and the American public takes a strong position against Pollard and his release. In January 1986, in the aftermath of the Pollard case and a number of other cases involving foreign spies, 75 percent of Americans favored mandatory polygraph tests for government employees handling secret information, 63 percent supported firing any managers who turned out to have spies working under them, and 62 percent were in favor of a mandatory death penalty for anyone caught passing secrets to a foreign government. Clearly, the public was not in a forgiving mood when it came to leniency or clemency for spies, making no distinction between spies for hostile governments or spies for allies.

In addition, the Pollard case affected the way the public viewed Israel in particular. A Harris poll in March 1987 found that while 68 percent of the American people viewed Israel as either a close ally or a friendly nation, versus only 18 percent that considered it to be hostile, it was the second lowest positive score for Israel in the history of the Harris poll to date, and it had dropped 13 points from 1984. There is no public polling data available on the Pollard issue specifically, which is unfortunate because it would make this argument even stronger. It can be assumed though that the general views of the public on how to treat spies are unlikely to have changed, and the sharp dip in positive views of Israel in the aftermath of Pollard’s exposure as a foreign agent is a good indicator that even today Pollard is unlikely to be viewed as a sympathetic figure deserving of clemency. This is a clear case where the weight of pro-Israel groups’ lobbying efforts has run into the wall of public opinion, and politicians have demonstrated that their desire to please voters and guard American national security interests trumps the wishes of the pro-Israel community, no matter how well-organized and well-funded it is.

Keep this in mind the next time you come across the argument that AIPAC controls American foreign policy in the Middle East, or that Netanyahu and other Israeli prime ministers are able to get whatever they want from whichever president occupies the White House at any given point in time. Pollard is a high priority issue, yet there has literally been zero movement on the part of the U.S. to release him despite official requests from respected Israeli leaders such as Peres and Yitzchak Rabin and efforts on Netanyahu’s part to tie peace agreements with the Palestinians to Pollard’s release. Yes, AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups have a lot of sway, but it is because they are pushing on an open door. When public opinion goes the other way on issues of national security, no amount of lobbying, public haranguing, or campaign donations is going to make a difference. What this means is that Jonathan Pollard is going to die in prison, despite the best efforts of many influential and well-connected organizations and individuals to change that basic reality.

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