Getting the U.S. and Israel Back On Track

April 21, 2015 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 28, 2014 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale Of Two Speeches

March 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

Two high profile speeches were delivered in Israel and Turkey yesterday, each inspiring and giving cause for hope, but only one of them is likely to be transformed from rhetoric into tangible gains. The two speeches of course were the ones given by President Obama in Jerusalem and by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan (via Pervin Buldan and Sırrı Süreyya Önder) in Diyarbakır. Let’s begin with Obama, who gave what was in many ways (although not all) the perfect speech when it comes to Israel. To begin with, he made it crystal clear that the Jewish connection to Israel and the path to establishing a state did not begin with the Holocaust, which was the crucial error he made in his 2009 speech in Cairo, and he also rooted the relationship between Israel and the U.S. in both interests and values, which will make many Israelis happy. He left no doubt that he understands the security problems faced by Israelis every day, from Hamas rockets to Hizballah terrorism targeting Israelis around the world to the Iranian nuclear program, and in the most memorable line of the speech said, “Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist — they might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel’s not going anywhere.”

At the same time, however, he spoke forcefully about the need to make peace and establish a Palestinian state while acknowledging that doing so is a difficult thing for Israelis given past rejection of peace proposals by Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas and the violent aftermath of Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza. Obama approached this topic in a smart way by linking peace to security and economic success, but did not ignore the basic fact that peace is also just and that some empathy for Palestinians is necessary. Of course the violence and terrorism that all too often has come from the Palestinian side is absolutely unjustifiable, but Israel has to overcome that and not tar all Palestinians with the same broad brush. Is there some naivete inherent in a speech that in some way links the U.S. civil rights movement, which was a completely non-violent grassroots movement for equality, to the Palestinian national struggle, which has never been a non-violent one in any widespread or meaningful way? Absolutely. But the Ben Gurion quote that Obama trotted out on believing in miracles in order to be a realist applies here, and if there is a winning combination of reassurance and prodding that Israelis need to hear, I think Obama hit on it. As Rob Danin points out, Israelis and Palestinians yearn for peace irrespective of everything that has taken place between the two sides and the cynicism that many feel, and Obama’s speech played on those emotions.

Of no less consequence was Öcalan’s Nevruz message, which stands in stark contrast to last year’s Nevruz marked by tear gas, water cannons, and civilian deaths. This year, over a million people gathered in the streets of Diyarbakır to hear Öcalan proclaim a PKK ceasefire, call for a move toward finding a political solution rather than a military one, echo the Turkish government’s language from the day before about fraternity, and link Turks and Kurds together as peoples united in one country. Öcalan dropped his call for an independent Kurdistan as well, which is in some ways even more remarkable than his call for a cessation of armed struggle, and his exhortation to let ideas rather than guns rule is similar to what Tayyip Erdoğan has been saying every time he talks about Kurdish issues. At heart, this speech appears to recognize that there is in fact no military solution to solving the impasse between Turkey and its Kurdish citizens and that the only way forward is through politics. While Obama’s speech got more attention in the U.S. and around the world yesterday, it is actually Öcalan’s speech that is the more consequential and revolutionary one, and I’d go so far to say that it is one of the most important political developments in Turkey during the entirety of the AKP’s time in government. Öcalan does not speak for all Kurds or even all elements of the PKK, so it remains to be seen whether this speech will actually significantly alter the PKK’s behavior, but given the enormous shift in language and the Nevruz setting, I am cautiously optimistic that it will and that Öcalan did not write this speech without some assurances that it would translate into action. I am also certain that this speech only came about following a private agreement between Öcalan and the government, and that BDP support for Erdoğan’s constitutional initiatives is now assured. If yesterday marks the end of PKK terrorism, it also marks the beginning of the Erdoğan presidency.

In contrast, I fear that Obama’s speech is going to end up being a rhetorical highlight but little more. As I have detailed before, the makeup of the new Israeli government makes a serious diplomatic initiative impossible, and Bibi Netanyahu is simply not going to risk having his government fall. Furthermore, despite the lofty words, Obama is not going to spend too much time and effort pushing an Israeli government that is unwilling to be pushed. It is no accident that Obama did not come to Israel with a peace plan of his own, since that was not the point of the trip and will not be the point of his second term. The reality of the situation is that Obama does not want to fight a losing battle, the current Israeli government is not going to move on implementing a two-state solution without some serious outside pressure, and the current Palestinian government is completely inept and unable to deliver on anything. So in sum, two great speeches to mark the first day of spring, but only one of them will ultimately be remembered as anything more than that.

The Prospects For Real Peace Talks

February 13, 2013 § 2 Comments

I wrote about this topic last week from the U.S. perspective in light of President Obama’s forthcoming trip to Israel, but from the standpoint of Israel politics some comments yesterday from Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are worth highlighting in assessing what movement we can expect to see on the peace process from the next Israeli government. As faithful O&Z readers know, I am fairly confident that Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will be in the coalition, and I am also fairly confident that Yair Lapid cares a lot more about the military draft issue than he does about the peace process and that he should not be viewed as the great savior of the peace camp and the two state solution. In light of this, let’s consider some facts that are emerging about the coalition talks and some things that were said by Lapid and Bennett yesterday in different forums.

To begin with, Lapid and Bennett have negotiated a deal that binds their fates together so that either Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will both be in the government or both parties will stay out. While Bibi Netanyahu is frantically trying to peel Bennett away from Lapid by making him extravagant but exploding offers, so far Bennett appears to be resistant to go back on his agreement with Lapid. This is interesting, because obviously Likud is more of a natural partner for Habayit Hayehudi than Yesh Atid is as Netanyahu and Bennett are closer ideologically – despite their history of personal issues – than Bennett and Lapid are. The one issue on which HH and YA are closer on is the issue of the draft and equalizing the burden of service, which suggests that it is the issue most important to both Lapid and Bennett and the one on which both parties are most reluctant to back down. Lots of attention has been paid to Lapid’s pledge that he is guided by overhauling the draft and reanimating the peace process and that he will not join a government that does not agree to do both, but in tying his fate to Bennett’s, he is signaling that one of those issues is far more important to him than the other and that the peace process condition is more about lip service than anything else.

Then there were Lapid’s remarks yesterday before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meeting in Jerusalem, in which he said that Ehud Olmert had gone too far in his concessions toward the Palestinians while prime minister, that Jerusalem could never be divided in his view, and that the Palestinians were going to have to accept an interim semi-state within temporary borders subject to future revision. Now, none of this makes Lapid a fire-breathing Greater Israel supporter, but it also does not make him the great champion of the two state solution that some think he is. Not agreeing to a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and talking about interim agreements are both positions that probably make peace talks doomed to fail before they even begin. The interim agreement is the bigger hurdle of these two, since while Jerusalem can be negotiated over during talks, no Palestinian government at this point will even come to the table for talks that deal with anything less than a final status agreement. This is the ultimate display of someone trying to cultivate a more left-wing image without adopting any policies to match. Again, this does not make Lapid an extremist or out of line with mainstream Israeli popular opinion, but it also does not make him the next Yitzhak Rabin.

Lapid’s new best friend also had some things of his own to say about the prospects of a Palestinian state yesterday, but in a much more straightforward way. In a Knesset speech, Bennett said that “there is no room” for a Palestinian state, that it will never happen, and that the government needs to say with finality that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. Nobody has ever had any illusions about Bennett’s views on the peace process and the two state solution so this does not come as a surprise, but the important takeaway here is that Lapid knows full well what Bennett’s views are and has still hitched his wagon to Bennett’s. Irrespective of whatever his own personal views may be, it is difficult from a political perspective to think that Lapid is committed to real negotiations when he will only go into the government if Bennett goes as well. Taking all of these factors into consideration, even if Tzipi Livni bring Hatnua into the government nobody should be getting their hopes up too high for a big diplomatic push on the horizon.

Wieseltier Is Right About The Lost Cause That Is The Peace Process

December 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

Leon Wieseltier has penned a eulogy for peace between Israel and the Palestinians in his lifetime, and while this is not going to surprise anyone save the most Pollyannaish dead-enders, it is difficult to conclude that he is wrong. I’ll take it even further and say that absent armed U.S. intervention with the purpose of imposing a solution on the two parties, or concurrent Israeli and Palestinian civil wars, it is unlikely to happen in my lifetime either (and Wieseltier has almost three decades on me). Wieseltier describes peace between Israelis and Palestinians as a lost cause, and he refers to a number of recent events that bolster his case – Hamas rockets, Mahmoud Abbas’s overheated rhetoric at the UN, the E1 settlement announcement, and the alliance between Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, among others. There is no doubt that the particulars of the last few years, or even the last few months, provide little reason for optimism, and Wieseltier recounts, “People assure me that all this can change if there is the political will to change it; but I do not detect the political will.” This is actually where I disagree with Wieseltier, because he frames the issue as a lack of will or courage, but I think it runs much deeper. We are rapidly getting to the point, if we have not passed it already, where structural conditions make a genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians impossible without an outside shock to the system, irrespective of who each side’s leaders are and whether they have the will of Rabin, Ghandi, and the Dalai Lama rolled into one.

Not only is the peace process stagnant, the situation is actually getting worse by the day rather than just cruising in a holding pattern. The reason for this is that each side’s position is hardening, but in different ways. On the Israeli side, the problem is literally a structural one, in that Israel is too intertwined in the West Bank to be able to exit it in any comprehensive manner. Let’s say the Israeli government struck a deal tomorrow and agreed to keep a few of the largest settlement blocs in return for proportional land swaps within Israel, and all that needed to be done was to evacuate the rest of the settlements (and to figure out the precise parameters of such a deal, check out this amazing new tool from the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and the Atlantic that lets you draw borders and see the precise implications in terms of population and percentage of the West Bank). There is just no way that the government could ever carry this out anymore. Gaza was a cakewalk compared to what will be when Israel orders settlers to pick up their stakes and move, and partially this is because the promises that Israel made to Gaza’s settlers on compensation and resettlement have gone unfulfilled. Just look at what happened with Migron, which is a tiny outpost, or the gnashing of teeth over settlers having to evacuate the neighborhood of Ulpana and literally move just down the street. The idea that Israel will be able to just pick up and leave when it finds a suitable negotiating partner on the other side would be a joke if people didn’t actually think it was true. Furthermore, the argument that Israel was able to pull out of Gaza or Yamit and so it will be able to pull out of the West Bank when push comes to shove is at this point hopelessly naive, as if those instances have any real bearing on the situation in the West Bank, or as if Israeli politics and public opinion can just be overcome with a government order to evacuate. This is not a question of political will in the near horizon, but one of whether a certain action can ever be accomplished under any circumstances. I hate to say that I don’t think it can, and trying to do so would ignite a full blown civil war in Israel, with settlers fighting the IDF tooth and nail and a significant portion of Israelis sympathizing with the settlers who were urged and incentivized by their government for decades to go put down roots in the West Bank.

On the Palestinian side, what is being hardened is not necessarily the physical situation on the ground but the ideological situation. For every poll showing a majority of Palestinians supporting peace negotiations there is a poll showing a majority rejecting a two state solution. More worrying than any specific poll is that Hamas now controls Gaza, is making inroads in the West Bank, and smart money is that ten years from now Hamas will be the face of the Palestinians rather than Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (unless Hamas comes to control the PA). Lest you think that Hamas’s views toward Israel and accepting Israel inside the 1967 borders are moderating, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal wants to make sure that you are aware that Hamas is as radical as ever, as he reiterated to hundreds of thousands of cheering Gazans over the weekend that Hamas will literally fight to the death until Israel is gone. In addition, the apparent decision on the part of Sunni states such as Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey to prop up Hamas and the trend of emerging Islamist governments in the region means that Hamas is only going to grow stronger and be seen as more legitimate, and it follows that the same will happen to its views on negotiating a real two-state solution. Make no mistake, this is even more of a problem – and one that is just as intractable – as the problem I highlighted on the Israeli side, and once again making the problem disappear probably requires a Palestinian civil war, in which a Palestinian Authority led by a committed two-stater like Salam Fayyad defeats Hamas in open warfare.

So, is Wieseltier’s recent essay a depressing one? It is, and not just because one man has decided that the peace process is an irrevocably lost cause. It is depressing because it might be even more of a lost cause than Wieseltier acknowledges, and from where I’m sitting, I don’t see a good way out of the morass absent some terrible infighting and bloodshed on both sides. Ehud Olmert might have convinced some people that all he needed was a few more months and everything would have been solved, but a more realistic assessment suggests otherwise. That doesn’t mean that anyone should stop trying to work toward a two-state solution but it is as much of an uphill battle as exists anywhere.

Turning Lemons Into Rotten Lemons

December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments

Last night Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted an apt point that all supporters of Israel should think about very hard. He wrote, “Two things can be true at the same time: Israel is judged more harshly than any other nation–and, Netanyahu is behaving terribly.” Israel is subjected to double standards to which no other country is held, and if you think that isn’t true, consider the nearly single-minded focus on Israel that is the hallmark of the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, or the harsh spotlight trained upon Israel over civilian casualties relative to other countries. Israel behaves badly on plenty of occasions, but so do other countries with far less complex challenges, and yet a visitor from another planet encountering Earth for the first time would lump Israel together with North Korea based on the media coverage (and if you think that is a fair comparison, please just stop reading now since you’ll be wasting your time). Israel always starts off in any situation at a complete disadvantage, and this is something that no other country deals with on a similar scale. Yet, this does not mean that Israel is a completely blameless actor in every instance, and none of the above obviates the fact that not all criticism of the Netanyahu government is a result of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, dislike of Netanyahu personally, or driven by a hidden agenda. To take the case in point, Netanyahu’s actions since last Thursday are not only childish and puerile, they are weakening Israel to an immeasurable degree.

Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at the long term picture. Israel is now perhaps more isolated than it has ever been on a number of levels, and certainly the most isolated it has been since 1975 during the Arab oil boycotts and the falling out with the Ford administration. Looking at Israel’s traditional regional allies, Israel’s relationship with Turkey is at an all-time low, its ties with Egypt are the most strained they have been in the post-Camp David era, and Jordan is too preoccupied with its own internal problems and the wave of refugees coming over the border from Syria to give Israel much cover on anything. While Israel does not have to worry about military threats from Arab states, it is looking at a long-term stream of diplomatic pressure from Islamist governments and less cooperation from Arab states on repressing non-state actors who threaten Israel.

In Europe, Israel faces an uphill battle as well. There is generally a lot of sympathy in European capitals for the Palestinians, but Europe’s indignation over settlements is real as well. This was driven home by the lopsided UN vote on Palestinian statehood, in which the Czech Republic was the only European country to vote with Israel. New allies Cyprus and Greece, to whom Israel has pinned such high hopes, both voted to grant Palestine non-member state observer status, and stalwart Israeli ally Germany abstained due to its anger over repeatedly being dismissed by Israel over the issue of settlement expansion. This all comes on the heels of the surprising European support for Operation Pillar of Cloud, which indicates that while Israel faces a tough audience in Europe, it has some wiggle room.

Then there is the United States, which has given Israel military aid for Iron Dome, constantly goes to bat for it in the UN including last week, was unwavering in its rhetorical support during military operations in Gaza, and also has been pleading with Israel to halt settlement expansion. The U.S. is unlikely to put heat on Israel like Europe does, but it has repeatedly expressed its displeasure with settlements and is very clear that it sees settlement growth as an obstacle to peace.

Given all of this, what is Israel’s most sensible course of action? Is it to loudly announce that it is going to “punish” the Palestinians for going to the UN by building thousands of more homes in the West Bank? Or is it to look at the big picture, realize that settlements are not just an excuse trotted out by anti-Semitic Europeans and Israel-hating leftists but are actually causing Israel all sorts of problems, and come up with some other way to deal with what it views as Palestinian intransigence? Israel went in the span of weeks from being viewed sympathetically due to Palestinian rockets indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians to being denounced and having its ambassadors hauled in on the carpet over settlement expansion and being threatened with all sorts of countermeasures by the West. Please, someone make a cogent argument for me how this is somehow a brilliant strategy and how Netanyahu is ensuring Israel’s future existence, because from where I am sitting it is counterproductive, dangerous, and unwaveringly stupid. It’s all fine and good to constantly claim that Western views don’t matter and that Israel has the right to do what it wants, but that is the equivalent to burying your head in the sand. The fact is that Israel cannot exist on its own, it needs allies given the neighborhood in which it lives, and settlements are actually a problem for Israel’s allies. That’s the truth, and pretending otherwise is fiddling while Rome burns.

It has become clear to me over the past few years that contrary to the popular myth that the problems between Israel and the Palestinians stem from 1967, the parties are still fighting over 1948. Significant segments of Palestinians, with Hamas leading the way, simply will not concede the legitimacy of Israel, plain and simple. Concurrently, the constant refrains from the right about Palestinians not needing a state of their own because they have Jordan or the tired old canard that there is no land to give back to the Palestinians because it belonged to Jordan and to Egypt (always smugly spouted as if this is some brilliantly clever argument) is a vestige of 1948. Everyone loves to point out that Hamas doesn’t care about settlements, and that the PLO was founded in 1964, and both of these things are true and speak to the challenges that Israel faces that have absolutely nothing to do with settlements. But – and this a big one – settlements exacerbate the situation enormously, particularly with Western countries. Even ceding the argument that Palestinians of all stripes are never going to accept Israel in the pre-1967 borders and that Arab states will never want to make peace with Israel, Israel should then be doing everything it can to make sure it has the West on its side. You want to know what the best way to foul that up is? Proudly declaring that you don’t care what anyone else thinks and that you are going to build settlements wherever and whenever you like, and that doing so is not in any way an obstacle to a two-state solution and that in fact the blame rests solely with the other side. I am sick and tired of watching Israel’s supporters, of whom I am most definitely one, ignore the glaringly obvious facts that are right in front of their faces. Settlements are a huge problem, case closed. If you think that the benefit to expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank outweighs everything else, then I respect your argument and at least you are going into this with eyes wide open. Pretending that settlements are an ancillary side issue though is willful blindness, and if that’s what you really think, then your powers of observation and analysis are sorely lacking.

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.

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