Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones, And So Will Words

October 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Frustrating the deeply held convictions of “Zionist Occupied Government” conspiracy theorists everywhere, it has not exactly been a banner week for the U.S.-Israel relationship. First there was the Bogie Ya’alon snub during his sojourn to Washington, where the Israeli defense minister met with Chuck Hagel and Samantha Power – the latter reportedly only because the White House was too late in trying to prevent it – but was not granted meetings with Joe Biden, John Kerry, or Susan Rice. Then came yesterday’s already legendary Jeff Goldberg piece in the Atlantic, henceforth known as the chickenshit article, during which an unnamed senior administration official used that moniker to describe Bibi Netanyahu. The piece, which proclaimed a crisis in U.S-Israel relations, was right and has now inflamed that crisis even further. As dedicated readers may recall, in July I wrote that despite the very bad personal relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama, the bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship was not going to be threatened in the long term, and I think that is still true. Nevertheless, what is going on now is certainly serious and can derail things in the short term. So to make up for my lack of recent blogging, and my even longer lack of blogging about Israel specifically, here are some semi-extensive thoughts about the entire contretemps.

First, just as Israeli officials are completely out of line and do damage to their own cause and interests when they make nasty comments about Obama, Kerry, and other U.S. government officials, the same goes for the inane and childish comments made to Goldberg about Netanyahu. I am and have been highly critical of Ya’alon, Naftali Bennett, and others who have launched inappropriate personal attacks; it reflects terribly upon them and does absolutely nothing to rectify whatever it is that has made them upset. This is no different, and the intensely personal nature of denigrating the courage of a former Israeli special forces commando is particularly ugly. Literally taunting an Israeli prime minister for not bombing Iran – as if the issue is a lack of guts rather than an array of barriers to doing so, from Israel’s security cabinet to intense differences of opinion about such a move across the political and military spectrum to serious pressure from the U.S. – is boorish and petty and smacks of smug, childish amateurism, not to mention a terrifyingly myopic and incomplete view of how foreign policy actually operates. I hope that the outrage expressed by some in the U.S. when Ya’alon has insulted Kerry in the press is also expressed today. On the flip side, those who found nothing wrong with Ya’alon’s remarks a few months ago should have the appropriate sense of self-perception to keep their mouths shut now as well. It’s not good when Israelis trash their American counterparts, and it’s not good when Americans trash their Israeli counterparts, but if you are a pro-Israel American, your outrage at one had better be matched by your outrage at the other.

Second, Netanyahu’s broadside in return today is a great example of a world leader who does not properly appreciate his country’s position in the international system. Israel is a regional power in its own right, but it is also largely dependent on the largesse of its great power patron – for which, by the way, it has no genuine feasible alternative replacements should that largesse ever be withdrawn. Despite the heady excitement Israelis have over increased trade ties with China and India, the optimism that this will translate into political support is misplaced, as excellently outlined by Rory Miller in Foreign Affairs, who demonstrated that both countries have completely delinked their economic relations with Israel from their political relations with Israel, and are not going to reverse that path any time soon. Were Netanyahu smart about this, he would have expressed his anger and disappointment behind closed doors, and publicly kept his mouth shut. The fact is that Israel and the U.S. will never be equal. There is an enormous power imbalance in the relationship, and the U.S. can afford to alienate Israel (although it shouldn’t and it would make things harder for U.S. initiatives in the region) but Israel can absolutely not afford to alienate the U.S. I get why Netanyahu’s impulse is to lash back out, but this is a tit-for-tat exchange that Israel will always lose. Israel’s greatest geopolitical advantage is its relationship with the U.S., and thus a well thought out plan would be to swallow whatever American insults come Israel’s way and do nothing to harm that relationship. Some Israeli leaders, including rightwing Likud politician President Ruby Rivlin, get this. Netanyahu quite obviously does not.

Third, leaving aside the damage in the day to day working relationship, the infamous chickenshit interview has potential to backfire on the U.S. when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program in two ways. One has to with Israel, and the other has to do with Iran. On the Israeli side of the equation, the White House is quite obviously happy that Jerusalem has so far sat on its hands and kept its planes far away from Fordow. In the context of an Israeli populace and political class that sees external threats rising up around it, nervousness that the U.S. is getting snookered by Iran in the nuclear negotiations and will agree to nearly any terms to just make the problem go away, and an election coming soon in which the threats to Netanyahu come not from the left but from the right, is there a better way of prompting Netanyahu into taking military action against Iran than denigrating him as a chickenshit who is too scared to use his military? It’s almost as if the person or persons who felt the need to go blabbing to Goldberg are trying to end up with egg all over their faces. I’d agree that the chances of Israeli action at this point are remote, but just listen to some of the saner and more respected security voices in Israel – Amos Yadlin and Ya’akov Amidror are two who come to mind – and you will quickly realize that Israel does not necessarily share the same view of these unnamed administration officials that a bombing run is completely off the table.

On the Iran side of the ledger, I agree with Dan Drezner that there is a component to this that involves signaling to Iran. I am not as certain that it is intentional, however; rather, my fear is that the U.S. is instead unwittingly and massively reducing its negotiating leverage by openly doubting Israel’s ability and willpower to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and by implying that it sees a nuclear Iran as a near fait accompli. Any Iranian leader reading the Goldberg interview would logically assume that there is nothing Iran can do that will invite a strike against its nuclear program, and that it really has no reason to offer any negotiating concessions at all. Irrespective of whether or not the Obama administration has privately decided that it wants a deal with Iran at any cost, this is terrible negotiating strategy and very poor strategic behavior.

Fourth, the chickenshit comments are more likely than not going to exacerbate the type of Israeli behavior that frustrates the U.S. unless the insults and vitriol are ultimately accompanied by a genuine change in policy toward Israel. If things continue along the same path, meaning that there is no real penalty for increased settlement activity in the form of reduced intelligence and military cooperation, reduced defense aid, or reduced support at the United Nations, the takeaway message for Netanyahu is going to be that the only price for driving U.S. officials to apoplexy is having to absorb personal insults. I don’t know whether policy is going to change following the November elections or not; I have read some predictions that the cover for Israel at the U.N. in particular is something that will be endangered, but I have serious doubts as to whether that will be the case. The point is, if Goldberg’s unnamed official thinks that his or her words alone are going to have any real effect on Israeli policy, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.

Finally, it is pretty clear to me that this is not just a random attempt to make Bibi look bad here, but a deliberate ploy to damage his political prospects. There is a perception among Israeli elites that picking a real fight with the U.S. is fatal for Israeli politicians, and many in various U.S. administrations believe that as well. My friend Brent Sasley has argued otherwise, although others take a different view of the Shamir loss in 1992. In this case, in the short term the fight seems to have bolstered Bibi, with people like Bennett coming out and strongly backing him against the chickenshit comments. It makes him look like a stronger leader standing up to a petty and bullying American administration. In the long term, however, I think that the White House political calculation here is correct in the sense of wanting to play up the hostility between Netanyahu and the White House in order to damage him. There are going to be elections in the next few months, and there are plenty of rightwing politicians aspiring to unseat Bibi who can claim that they will stand up to Washington when need be but do not have the baggage that Bibi has. Ya’alon is obviously not in this camp, but Bennett, Moshe Kahlon, Avigdor Lieberman, and even Yair Lapid will all try to take advantage of this dynamic to siphon votes away from Likud and toward themselves.

Ultimately, whomever it was that has now made the term chickenshit a permanent part of the foreign policy lexicon may feel a lot better today after a self-satisfied venting session, but this kind of thing is entirely counterproductive. Allies can and do disagree, but this is not the way to do it. Nobody in the Obama administration should be too pleased with themselves this afternoon.

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The Israeli Government Vs. Its Diplomats

January 2, 2013 § 2 Comments

During the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s ambassadors conference on Monday, the assembled diplomats were given a tongue lashing by Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, who took exception to a question posed by UN Ambassador Ron Prosor about the decision to start the zoning and planning process for E1. After Prosor asked why the government decided to make the E1 announcement and received a round of applause from the room, Amidror responded by saying that American and British diplomats would never applaud someone who criticized the policy of their own government, and that ambassadors are merely clerks tasked with carrying out rather than questioning the government’s directives. He further suggested that any diplomats unhappy with this should either go into politics themselves or resign.

As the various anonymous quotes in the papers make abundantly clear, Israel’s ambassadors were not happy with Amidror’s reaction to Prosor’s question. They feel as if they are being thrown into the spotlight to defend unpopular policies without much assistance or explanation, and Prosor’s question was aimed at getting an idea as to why the government decided to announce building in E1 at that particular time. Divulging plans for E1 the very day of the UN Palestinian statehood vote put Israeli diplomats in a very hard position, as they now not only had to defend a policy that the U.S. and the EU had previously communicated was a redline not to be crossed, but had to do so in the context of it being viewed as a retaliatory move meant to punish the Palestinians, which made them look petulant. As someone who used to train U.S. Foreign Service Officers on how to deal with tough questioning, I know firsthand that diplomats posted overseas have about the toughest job in the world. They don’t get to shut down when they leave the office at the end of the day like most people do, since literally everywhere they go – bars, restaurants, parties, small gatherings with friends – they are representing their country, and they need to watch everything they say since a stray off-message comment might be overheard and repeated as the official position of their government. Israeli ambassadors and chiefs of mission have to deal with this problem in an even more acute way, because they are the top diplomats in their host countries representing a state that is often a target of extra scrutiny. They have a difficult enough job as it is explaining and defending Israeli policies without the added burden of dealing with surprise building announcements and not getting enough direction from the Foreign Ministry on the rationale behind certain decisions.

The additional problem in this case is that despite the Foreign Ministry’s recommendation that the government not take any actions that would be explicitly viewed as retaliation for the Palestinian statehood gambit at the UN, the government ignored this advice and did exactly that. The ambassadors’ protest on Monday reflects frustration on the part of the professionals that the politicians are doing things that are not necessarily well thought out, and that are being driven by heated emotions rather than cool analysis. It is the hallmark of a government thinking about the politics of a situation rather than the policy implications, and understandably Israeli diplomats are frustrated. I do not mean to suggest that Israel’s diplomatic corps is universally leftist and that they uniformly disagree with settlement expansion or building in E1, since I am sure that is not the case. Not having a coherent strategy that is communicated to them beforehand makes their lives a lot more difficult irrespective of whether or not they support the underlying decision, and that is what Prosor’s question and his colleagues’ applause.

There are two things that should be taken away from this incident. First, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Netanyahu government to shove aside any and all criticism of Israeli actions as motivated by hatred for Israel or closet anti-Semitism. A lot of what Israel deals with definitely does fall into this category, but not all, and when you have a senior official upbraiding Israel’s ambassadors for criticizing the government and insisting that dissent will not be tolerated, you know that there is a much larger problem at hand. The official government line has been that Israel’s image problem stems from a failure of public relations rather than a failure of policy, but this is simply not credible when it comes to complaints from your own diplomats. It is one thing to dismiss criticism from Europe or the UN as biased, but quite another to dismiss complaints from the people manning your own diplomatic front lines. This should be a serious wakeup call to Netanyahu that things are off the rails, and that policy is going to have to be recalibrated.

Second, Amidror’s response to Prosor was a real overreaction, and all the more surprising given that he was not speaking to a group that could in any way be deemed a hostile audience. One of two things, and possibly both simultaneously, are going on here. Either the government is actually feeling a lot more pressure on settlements and E1 than it lets on, which would explain Amidror’s hair triggered short temper, or the government is feeling a lot more pressure over its declining pre-election poll numbers than it lets on and was willing to use a clash with its ambassadors to score political points. My hunch is that it is the former, and I certainly hope that it is the former, but one never knows with Israeli politics. If Netanyahu and his advisers are indeed feeling squeezed on the E1 issue, hopefully it will forestall greater settlement activity and push the government back to a serious negotiating posture once the elections are over. Either way, berating your top diplomat when he asks for some clarification on a policy that he is tasked with publicly and privately defending is probably not a great way to inspire confidence in your policy planning and implementation process.

When Ehud Met Rahm

September 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Ehud Barak showed up in Chicago yesterday to meet with his old friend Rahm Emanuel amidst growing tension between the U.S. and Israel over the issue of red lines on Iran and just weeks before the presidential election. This was clearly not just a social call, and in fact Emanuel’s spokesman said that the meeting was an “official visit.” The question is what exactly Barak is up to, since Emanuel has no formal role in making foreign policy anymore now that he is the mayor of Chicago rather than President Obama’s chief of staff. Furthermore, Israeli national security advisor Yaakov Amidror has been in Washington the past couple of days for previously undisclosed meetings with the White House to smooth out differences between the U.S. and Israel over Iran, so there would be no reason for Barak to be talking national security issues with Emanuel.

According to both Ynet and Ha’aretz, Barak’s mission was to begin healing the rift between Washington and Jerusalem, although the two differed on whether Barak was here on a mission from Bibi Netanyahu or was acting on his own. According to Ynet, “it remains unclear whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was informed” of the meeting, while Ha’aretz reports that “Netanyahu sent a message of appeasement to the Obama campaign in the form of Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. The message: The Israeli leader is not meddling in the elections taking place in the United States.”

So what’s really going on here? Did Bibi dispatch Barak in order to send a message through an Obama confidante, or is Barak doing his own thing? If I had to guess, I’d go with the latter for a few reasons. First, if Netanyahu was trying to reassure Obama that he is not meddling in American presidential politics, he wouldn’t be sending Barak with that message, as the two Israelis have a partnership of strategic convenience but are not close political allies in any significant sense. Barak may be trusted in Washington to a much higher degree than Netanyahu, but the person to deliver a political message of that nature would be someone like Ron Dermer and not Barak. When the president of the United States is angry because he thinks that you are interfering in his country’s internal politics, you send one of your most trusted aides to rebut the assertion rather than send your defense minister who belongs to another party.

Second, I’m not sure that it is actually in Barak’s interests to try and help out Netanyahu with Obama, as opposed to making sure that the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong. To put it bluntly, Barak’s priority is that Israel get all the defense and security and diplomatic help from the U.S. that it can muster and not whether Netanyahu can schedule meetings with Obama whenever he wants. It seems pretty clear to me that Netanyahu’s amateurish attempt to pressure the White House is an idea that he ginned up all on his own and that the rest of the political and defense establishment wants little part of it, and there is no reason for Barak to help Netanyahu climb down from the limb as long as the administration’s anger is directed at Netanyahu rather than Israel. The story about Barak trying to make sure that the relationship between the two countries remains strong rings truer to me than the version in which he is trying to spin Netanyahu’s public comments and interviews as benign.

Which brings me to the third point, which is that Barak is looking ahead to the next Israeli elections and is trying to set himself up for a resurgence. Barak is nothing if not a smart tactician, and I think he sees the handwriting on the wall at this point, which is that an Israeli strike is unlikely to occur and that makes him expendable to Netanyahu and the governing coalition since Likud hardliners are constantly after his head. Barak is trying to distance himself from Netanyahu so that he can make a credible run with Tzipi Livni or Yair Lapid in a new center-left party, which is why it was leaked that he no longer agrees with Netanyahu on the need for a strike and why he is going to start taking a harder stance on illegal settlement building. Meeting with Emanuel makes perfect sense given Rahm’s status within the Democratic Party and Barak’s position on the center-left of the Israeli political spectrum, since Barak wants to make sure that he maintains good ties with the Democrats and is seen as a credible figure by the U.S. Barak has a reputation for looking out for himself above all else, and I think the meeting with Emanuel fits into this patter. It is about letting the White House know that he does not agree with anything that Netanyahu is doing, and that should he find himself in a stronger political position after the next election he will make the relationship with the U.S. his top priority. There is no reason in the context of Israeli domestic politics for Barak to throw Netanyahu a lifeline; in fact, given outside events, there is every reason for Barak to let him drown.

Bibi’s Shameless Religious Gambit on Iran

August 21, 2012 § 3 Comments

Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have run into the problem that they appear to be virtually alone when it comes to deciding whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. The two are so out on a limb at the moment that Shai Feldman, writing in Foreign Policy, declared the debate over attacking Iran to be over because Netanyahu and Barak lack the minimum consensus that would be required for military action. The defense and intelligence establishments are united in wanting to wait for the U.S. and not wanting to attack Iran unilaterally, and until Avi Dichter was added to the security cabinet formerly known as the Octet last week (which means that it is no longer a shminiya but a tishiya), the vote to attack Iran was reportedly split 4-4. A lot was made of the fact that Dichter is presumed to be on Netanyahu and Barak’s side and that adding him to the mix breaks the logjam, but I didn’t write anything about that last week because it is a faulty and ill-informed argument. A 5-4 vote is not going to be enough to launch a strike given the heavy opposition that exists to such a move; Netanyahu and Barak need to do some serious convincing and make real headway with the holdouts, who are Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, and Eli Yishai.

It is this last name that is perhaps the toughest to move, because Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all members of Likud and presumably Netanyahu has some more sway with them since he is their party leader (although my hunch is that Meridor, and to a lesser extent Begin, would never flip). Yishai, however, is a member of Shas, and that’s how we get to the outrageously cynical ploy that Bibi tried yesterday. For the uninitiated – although since you are reading a niche blog about Israeli politics right now, you probably don’t need this background – Shas is an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, controls how its members vote despite not being an elected official of any kind. I wrote about this dynamic back in May, when Rabbi Yosef ordered Yishai to change his opinion on being willing to consider alternatives to the Tal Law. What you have in Shas is a theocratic party, in which the elected politicians are beholden to the party’s rabbinic leadership and dare not contravene rabbinic orders when it comes to taking public positions or voting on issues in the Knesset or the cabinet. With this in mind, yesterday Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – who holds no elected or official position in the Israeli polity and has zero to do with Israeli national security – was the recipient of a national security briefing on Iran. Not only was he briefed, but it was done by Yaakov Amidror, the head of the Israeli National Security Council, lest anyone think that this was not a big deal or little more than a courtesy for a former chief rabbi of Israel.

Make no mistake about what is going on here in case it isn’t already abundantly clear: Netanyahu is trying to swing a vote to launch a strike against Iran by convincing a religious leader to order an acolyte to vote a certain way. He is not trying to convince Yishai by making a cogent case for military action – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has given up trying to do it this way – but is going above his head to Yishai’s rabbi, whom he knows Yishai is bound to follow, and telling a man with no national security experience at all and no training or education in evaluating intelligence or threat assessments that it is crucial to bomb Iran. Does anyone think that Amidror, a general and Israel’s equivalent of Tom Donilon, had any trouble at all convincing Rabbi Yosef about the urgent need to strike now in order to prevent Israel’s annihilation? For all of the outrageous things that go on in politics, and Israeli politics in particular, this represents an absolute low. It is a naked appeal to religious authority made to a theocratic party in which politicians serve as mouthpieces for rabbis. The reason that Shas has never taken an interest in foreign affairs is because its spiritual leaders don’t care about the issue, and to prey on that ignorance in order to influence a crucial position on national security is nothing short of abominable.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from this sorry and craven episode. First, Netanyahu is desperate since he realizes that he is fighting a steep uphill battle and he will resort to anything, no matter how blatantly insulting and undemocratic, to get an advantage. Second, Netanyahu and Barak’s argument for an attack is not only falling on deaf ears but is so weak on its face that they both know it cannot win on its own merits. Briefing Eli Yishai’s rabbi is not a move made out of strength, but one made out of a position that is even weaker than anyone could have realized. If this svengali routine is the best that Netanyahu can come up with, I hope for his sake that he has something better when it comes to the rest of his security cabinet, since unlike Yishai, the three Likud holdouts do not answer to a higher authority.

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