Why A Gaza Ceasefire Is So Difficult

July 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

There was a strong expectation in Israel yesterday once the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire terms were announced that Hamas was going to accept the deal. Even after Hamas rejected the terms and launched 80 more rockets at Israel yesterday morning, some prominent voices, such as former Israel national security adviser Giora Eiland, were predicting that Hamas would ultimately accept the deal today. While anything may still happen, it is highly unlikely given Hamas’s vociferous objections to terms that are essentially a replica of the 2012 ceasefire agreement and Hamas’s release of its own offer this morning, which calls for an end to the Gaza blockade, the release of any prisoners swept up over the last month who had been released in the Gilad Shalit deal in 2011, building an airport and seaport in Gaza, expansion of the Gaza fishing zone, and the opening of all crossings into Gaza, including the Refah crossing into Egypt. Like the Egyptian deal was to Hamas, these terms are unpalatable to Israel and will not be accepted. Unlike in 2012, when a ceasefire was brokered relatively easily and put an end to hostilities, this time around things are proving to be far more difficult, and it isn’t just a matter of Israel and Hamas meeting halfway.

For starters, there are no good brokers for a truce. The problems with Egypt are well-known; Sisi and the Egyptian government want to isolate Hamas, and Hamas does not trust Sisi any more than they trust Bibi Netanyahu. Egypt’s ceasefire deal was negotiated without any Hamas input or even prior notification to Hamas before the terms were made public, and was likely more of an effort on Egypt’s part to isolate and weaken Hamas even further by having the entire Arab League and Western countries line up behind a deal that Hamas was almost certainly going to reject rather than a true effort at brokering an end to fighting. At this point, it is difficult to envision a situation in which Egypt plays a role in mediating between the two sides. The U.S. cannot do it alone given that it has no ties to Hamas, and that leaves aside the reporting in Haaretz that Israel specifically asked Kerry to stay out of it to avoid the impression that the U.S. was pressuring Israel and thus granting Hamas a win. I wrote last week about the potential for Turkey and Qatar to step in so no need to rehash the variables there – and indeed Mahmoud Abbas and Meshal are meeting with President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan in Turkey on Friday –  but both countries are deeply flawed due to their lack of successful experience in wading into Israeli-Palestinian fights, and Israel for good reason does not exactly trust either of them (particularly after Erdoğan yesterday compared Habayit Hayehudi MK Ayelet Shaked to Hitler).

Second, Hamas is an organization fractured between the Gaza leadership and the international leadership based in Qatar, and so it is unclear what it actually wants and who has the authority to make a deal. Signs point to Khaled Meshal following the military leaders right now than the other way around, and the military guys in Gaza appear to be averse to ending the fighting anytime soon. The atmosphere is very different now than it was in 2012, and while I will for the second time in a week emphasize that internal Palestinian politics are not my expertise, I have the sense that Meshal will be subject to the Gaza leadership’s veto on any deal he is involved in brokering. There is also the complicating factor of Gazans wanting a ceasefire and whether this will create any pressure on Hamas’s Gaza wing to at some point acquiesce.

Next, there is the fact that there is enormous political pressure on Bibi coming from his right flank to not accept any ceasefire – even one, like yesterday’s proposal, that is almost entirely on Israel’s terms – and to instead send the already-mobilized ground forces into Gaza. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday gave a press conference during which he advocated the IDF invading and retaking Gaza, and after Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon – who has long been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side within Likud – trashed Netanyahu for supporting the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, Netanyahu immediately fired him from his ministerial post. The ostensible reason was that it is unacceptable for a deputy defense minister to so harshly criticize the government’s defense policy in the midst of a war, but Netanyahu has been looking for ways to cut Danon down to size for awhile, and so he seized the opportunity once it presented itself. The larger point here is that Netanyahu has been isolated within his own party for some time as it moves further and further to the right, and his instinctual conservative behavior when it comes to sending troops into battle is not lauded by Likud members but is instead distrusted and viewed as weakness. I don’t think that Bibi wants to get involved in a ground war in Gaza, which entails lots of messy fighting, larger casualty numbers on both sides, guaranteed international opprobrium, and which last time led to the Goldstone Report following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. Nevertheless, the longer that rockets come flying from Gaza and the longer ground troops sit idly by waiting for orders, the more the rightwing is going to yell and howl about the need to take stronger military action rather than accepting a ceasefire deal that will only guarantee a few years of quiet at best.

There is also the factor of international support, and each side’s delusions about where it will lie as this drags further on. Israel made it very clear in the aftermath of the Hamas rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire that it views Hamas’s refusal to lay down arms as granting legitimacy to an eventual Israeli ground invasion, and the Israeli government believes that much of the world agrees with this position. I find it hard to believe that this logic will hold up in the face of mounting Palestinian deaths and a continued lopsided body count, even if the one-sided casualty numbers need to be viewed in the context of Hamas’s failure at killing Israelis not being for a lack of trying. It is also generally the case that world opinion does not work in Israel’s favor, and I do not think that structural feature is going to change as Operation Protective Edge continues. On Hamas’s side, it believes that world opinion will turn against Israel as things progress, which is in my view correct, and that the Israeli public will eventually get fed up and pressure Netanyahu to stop fighting, which in my view is comically incorrect. Furthermore, world opinion and international support are two different things, and at the moment Israel does not lack for support. In fact, yesterday Congress approved more funding for Iron Dome, and Hamas underestimates how much support in 2012 was driven by Arab countries that have since abandoned Hamas wholesale.

Finally, there is the balancing act that Israel is trying to play with the eventual outcome regarding Hamas itself. Israel’s goals are delicately balanced between weakening Hamas and taking out its capabilities to launch long-range missiles at Israeli cities while still keeping Hamas alive and viable to the point of it maintaining its rule over Gaza. Israel recognizes that while Hamas used to look like the most radical group in the neighborhood when compared to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas now routinely gets pressured from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other even scarier jihadi groups. That basic fact is what led Hamas to escalate things in the first place, as it has its own internal politics with which to contend. The Israeli government knows that until last week, Hamas has largely been trying to keep rockets from being launched out of Gaza rather than themselves doing the launching since the 2012 ceasefire, and it also knows that it is a pipe dream to hope for the PA to regain control of Gaza. Israel needs Hamas to run Gaza and keep it from spiraling even further out of control, so any ceasefire agreement that Israel signs will have to keep Hamas in power but assure Israel that Hamas’s military capabilities remain degraded following the fighting.

The upshot of all this is that Gaza in 2014 is a lot more complicated than Gaza in 2012, and assuming that the U.S. or Egypt can just swoop in and put an end to things when both sides have had enough is naive. There is lots of politics, both international and domestic, involved here, and while I still hold out hope of some combination of the U.S. and Turkey/Qatar being able to bridge the various gaps, the problem is that the gaps look more like chasms.

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Why Palestinian Reconciliation Would Be Bad

November 20, 2012 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Picture In Gaza

November 19, 2012 § 7 Comments

Since my focus last week was mostly on the particulars of the fighting between Israel and Hamas, I thought I’d try and take a step back and look at some of the larger issues at play here, both present and future. Today’s post is really three condensed into one, and I might expand on some or all of these at length later this week, but it is useful for me to think out loud a bit here and assess what I have been right about, what I have been wrong about, and try and figure out where this whole thing will lead.

First up is Turkey. I noted Turkey’s initial silence over Operation Pillar of Cloud last week, and argued that we should expect to see a tempered response from Turkey and one that is driven by Egypt more than anything else going forward. It looks like one of those predictions was correct, and it wasn’t the one about a tempered response. It took him a couple of days, but Prime Minister Erdoğan opened up on Israel with both barrels on Friday, calling Israel barbaric, accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu of bombing Gaza for “fabricated reasons,” and bringing back his old charge that Israel knows how to kill children very well. As I wrote last week, I expected a Turkish response but I thought it would be a quieter one. I think my analysis was actually correct – and let me reiterate that it took Erdoğan two days to say a thing, which is as out of character as it gets – but what I wasn’t thinking about was that at some point Erdoğan was going to feel the need to respond in a forceful way. Domestic politics and Turkey’s past statements on Israel weren’t going to let Erdoğan just sit this out, and I was too focused on the immediate short term rather than on the pressures that were going to build up the longer this went on. Nevertheless, Erdoğan so far has been deferring to Morsi and the Egyptians, and is sending Ahmet Davutoğlu to Gaza on Tuesday (in contrast to Morsi sending Egyptian PM Hesham Qandil last Friday) with a group of Arab foreign ministers. The point is that despite Erdoğan’s verbal bombast, which I should have anticipated, Turkey is not at all out front on this but is content to be following the crowd, and that is significant.

Next topic is what this whole mess does to the prospects of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. I have argued for awhile that opposition from the cabinet, the IDF, and the Israeli public meant that a strike on Iran was not going to happen. I think this might now change for two reasons. First, the rockets from Gaza underscore the threat of missile attacks on Israel, and this is only enhanced by the fact that Hamas has obviously been supplied by Iran with Fajr-5 missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv. If Iran is giving Fajr-5 missiles to Hamas, many Israelis are going to ask themselves whether the assumption that Iran would never supply Hamas with a nuclear missile is perhaps wishful thinking. It was much easier to not feel it necessary to launch a preemptive strike on Iran when there weren’t Iranian missiles being launched at Israeli cities, and my hunch is that the Iranian component to this is going to make Israelis more hawkish on the subject and think about how crowding in stairwells and bomb shelters is one thing for poorly made rockets and a whole different can of worms for Iranian nuclear missiles. Second, when it comes to the security cabinet and the IDF top brass in particular, the reporting on the subject has left the distinct impression that many of the generals and perhaps Ehud Barak as well believe that Iran is rational in the sense of being deterrable and that Iran would never nuke Israel. The problem now is that Hamas is being pounded by the IDF and from a rational deterrence perspective should have ceased firing rockets long ago, but clearly hasn’t got that message. The people who argue that extreme anti-Israel Islamist groups, irrespective of whether they are Sunni Palestinian nationalists or Shia Islamic revolutionaries, are irrational now have a pretty big datapoint in their favor and will be making their argument loudly and often, and I’d think this will have some effect on the upper echelons of the Israeli security establishment. My own view is that there are significant differences between Hamas and Iran that make a parallel comparison inapt, but the point is not what I think but what many Israelis will think after having gone through the experience of air raid sirens and rockets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Don’t be surprised to see public opinion polls on a unilateral Israeli strike shift in the months ahead.

Saving the most important point for last, there is the question of what Israel hopes to gain long term from the current war with Hamas. The Israelis talk a lot about reestablishing deterrence, although it is certainly an open question whether deterrence in this case is long gone. Jeffrey Goldberg asked on Friday what Israel’s long term strategy is here and argued that there is no way out militarily and that the only viable path is for Israel to demonstrate that it is serious about a two state solution. As it happens, I agree with this completely, but I also recognize that plenty of people find this argument to be naive. After all, Israel has withdrawn from Lebanon and from Gaza, and been met both times with rockets from Hizballah and Hamas. Furthermore, Hamas’s stated goal is not a two state solution but the elimination of Israel, and thus settlements are really ancillary to the picture when it comes to Hamas. These are facts that are tough to get around, particularly in one blog post, so let me reframe this another way. In the last four decades, Israel went from dealing mainly with plane hijackings and stone throwing, to suicide bombs on buses and in pizzerias and hotels, to a constant stream of hundreds of rockets a year on southern Israel and now on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well. Over that same period, Israel went from dealing with a stateless and non-governmental Palestine Liberation Organization to a quasi-governmental Palestinian Authority with autonomy over certain areas of the West Bank to a terrorist Hamas controlling Gaza in its entirety, and despite the current military operation Israel is desperately hoping that Hamas does not fall because it is viewed as far more pragmatic than the other fanatical Islamist groups operating in Gaza. Despite Israel’s massive military advantage, by any measure this is not a track record of long term success. It is rather a record of abysmal and abject failure. As awful as Hamas and rocket attacks are, the thrust of recent history suggests that whatever comes next will be that much worse. A new approach is needed that focuses on a political solution rather than a military one and anyone arguing otherwise is being willfully blind to the limits of what the IDF can reasonably accomplish.

Guest Post: Rhetoric On Israel Matters

August 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policy Vs. Campaign Rhetoric on Israel

August 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 3, 2012 § 5 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Arming Rebels A Good Idea?

July 24, 2012 § 3 Comments

Today’s post is going to be a departure from my usual fare, but it’s an issue I have been thinking about lately so I figured I’d muse about it. There is a debate currently taking place among policymakers and security analysts over whether to arm the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups in an effort to bring down the Assad government. While there have been reports that Turkey and Sunni Arab states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been doing so, the United States has so far been resistant despite criticism from John McCain – who yesterday, in response to a question asking if we should be arming the rebels, flippantly said, “Sure, why not?” –  and others. The U.S. is reluctant to do so primarily because we don’t know precisely who the rebels are and there are reports that the rebels are being supported by al-Qaida, which makes arming them a dangerous proposition. The decision not to arm the rebels is being driven by the specifics of the situation in Syria, but I think there is a bigger picture question that should precede it, which is whether arming rebels is ever a good idea in any situation.

Looking at the U.S. history of arming rebel groups reveals some major long term strategic blunders. The most prominent one was the effort to arm the Afghani mujahideen in the 1980s in a bid to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. This policy seemed like a smart one at the time, at it was undoubtedly successful in carrying out its immediate objective, as the Soviet Union suffered enormous losses in Afghanistan and ultimately pulled out, which was one of many contributing factors to its ultimate demise and the end of the Cold War. In hindsight, however, arming the mujahideen caused enormous blowback for the U.S., since the weapons supplied by the U.S. were ultimately turned on U.S. and NATO troops years later and the arms and training indirectly benefited al-Qaida and the Taliban down the road. All you have to do is read the very first chapter of Steve Coll’s excellent book Ghost Wars, in which the CIA is running around desperately trying to buy back all the Stinger missiles that it handed out in Afghanistan 15 years earlier so that they aren’t turned on American planes, so see why the policy was highly problematic. In other examples, arming and training rebels in South and Central America ultimately led to death squads or brutal military dictatorships in places like Honduras, Nicaragua, and Chile, and did not create stability or end the bloodshed but rather extended it.

I asked the question on Twitter yesterday whether there is an instance in which arming rebels did not lead to terrible unintended consequences down the road, and the two answers people collectively came up with were the French supplying weapons to the colonists during the American Revolution and the arming of the French Resistance and other partisan groups in Nazi-occupied Europe. A few people suggested Libya as a positive example, but it is way too soon to tell what the long term consequences there will be. Neither of the two historical examples is particularly encouraging given that one happened 250 years ago and involved no weapons more powerful than muskets, and the other was a much smaller scale and less organized effort to arm rebels who were also engaged in many other resistance activities other than fighting. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the Syrian rebels should under no circumstances be armed or provided with support. More importantly, I am absolutely not suggesting that the world should just sit back and watch Assad massacre more Syrians in an effort to stabilize the country and end the bloodshed as quickly as possible, since that is not a viable or ethical solution. What I am suggesting is that before people rush to arm the Syrian rebels, there should be a real conversation about what happens the day after the immediate goals are achieved. Where do those arms go next and what will they be used for? What can we learn from previous historical examples that will help us manage the unintended consequences that accrue from arming rebel groups? Given what we know happens when a country in the midst of a civil war is flooded with more weapons, is there a better option and should active outside intervention be rethought? I would like to hear more discussion that focuses on what happens once the conflict ends in addition to the current discussion about the easiest and least short term costly way to remove Assad from power.

Turkey Shoots Itself in the Foot Over Nevruz

March 18, 2012 § 3 Comments

Nevruz, which is the Turkish name for the Persian New Year (traditionally celebrated the first day of spring) has caused all sorts of headaches for successive Turkish governments. It is a day that is celebrated by Kurds, leading to increased Kurdish nationalism and sometimes to PKK violence, both of which the Turkish government wants to avoid. In fact, Nevruz has been so controversial in the past that its celebration was actually banned in the mid-90s following demonstrations and police shooting and killing civilians in 1992. This year, controversy swirled again after the pro-Kurdish BDP announced that it would be celebrating Nevruz this year on March 18 rather than March 21 since Sunday festivities would get more people into the streets, and Turkish provincial governors responded by ordering celebrations to take place on March 21 as usual.

The reasoning behind forbidding Nevruz celebrations today was to minimize excessive shows of Kurdish nationalism, but as was entirely predictable, the move backfired terribly. The BDP refused to back down, police in Diyarbakır and Istanbul ended up using tear gas and water cannons on crowds that gathered to celebrate/protest, and BDP member in Istanbul was killed during the clashes (rumored to be a Kurdish politician).

Two quick thoughts on this, one specific to today’s events and one more general. First, having state officials attempt to dictate when a non-state holiday is to be celebrated is nothing more than foolish and guaranteed to lead to trouble. Ankara is understandably wary of PKK violence on Nevruz and of louder calls for Kurdish autonomy, but attempting to designate an official day on which festivities can be held is always going to be a losing proposition. There was no doubt that Kurds were going to fill the streets, and that police equipped with crowd control devices trying to stop them would lead to injuries and possibly fatalities. What was the potential upside to doing things this way? Now pro-Kurdish politicians get to loudly proclaim that Turkey’s actions make it a “fascist state” and Kurdish nationalism gets a larger boost than it otherwise would, obviating the very purpose of trying to eliminate a Sunday Nevruz observance.

Second, this type of stuff is going to keep on happening until Turkey finds a genuine solution to its Kurdish problem. Kurdish nationalism is not going to disappear, and the 15-20% of Turkey’s population that is ethnically Kurdish is not going to all of a sudden embrace the Kemalist narrative of “we are all Turks.” Erdoğan’s brief Kurdish opening was a start, but he quickly reversed himself and now again has gone back to trying to sweep the issue of Kurdish nationalism and identity under the rug. Until the government has an open and honest conversation about what to do with its Kurdish population in the long term, Nevruz is going to continue to be a day of violence rather than an innocuous festival heralding the end of winter.

I Wonder What Rick Perry Would Say

March 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

The helicopter crash in Afghanistan that killed 12 Turkish soldiers is a sobering but important reminder that Turkey is not  run by “Islamic terrorists” but is a member of NATO and an ally of the United States supporting the mission in Afghanistan. The fact that anyone with such a high level of ignorance about basic foreign affairs was deemed fit at one point to run for president is just staggering. Plenty of people take issue with aspects of Turkish foreign policy, but it is somehow overlooked by far too many casual observers that Turkey has been in NATO since 1952, hosts the 39th Air Base Wing of the U.S. Air Force at Incirlik, and is a linchpin of American strategy in the Middle East.

A Turkish Buffer Zone

March 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

This report is interesting, as it opens up a possibility that would have been entirely unlikely months ago. If Turkey actually goes through with establishing a buffer zone inside Syria, it will be welcomed by those who are advocating intervention as it will move Turkey away from rhetorical support of the Syrian opposition and refugee assistance to active military action against the Assad government. I would be a bit surprised if it happens though, as it will make it easier for PKK fighters to slip through the cracks since there will be a larger border area to cover, and recent Turkish airstrikes and cross-border raids into northern Iraq indicate that Turkey’s willingness to risk a larger PKK presence inside its borders is slim.

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