The Signal and the Noise in the Barghouti Op-Ed

April 20, 2017 § 3 Comments

On Sunday, Marwan Barghouti published an op-ed in the New York Times. To read it without being versed in Israeli-Palestinian affairs, one would be forgiven for thinking that Barghouti is the Palestinian Martin Luther King writing his equivalent of the letter from the Birmingham jail. Barghouti used the op-ed to announce that he is leading a hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners to protest their treatment by Israel, wrote eloquently about the Palestinian national struggle for freedom and dignity while implying that he has been imprisoned for political reasons, and was identified in his byline as “a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” For those who know that Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences after having been convicted by an Israeli civilian court for murder and terrorism in his capacity as orchestrating suicide bombings as the founder of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, this was outrageous, and the anger directed at the Times resulted in a clarification and a brushback from the paper’s public editor.

The bulk of the focus – including from Prime Minister NetanyahuYair Lapid, and others – has been on the fact that the New York Times gave Barghouti a platform to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and misleadingly portray himself as something he is not. This anger is in no way misplaced, and it is helping shine a light on the fact that opponents of Israel are often granted a benefit of the doubt with regard to their motives and a whitewash of their histories to an alarming degree. But the import of Barghouti’s op-ed is not the revisionist history treatment of his biography; it is rather the fact that he chose to write it now and what it says about Palestinian politics going forward and the American effort to get Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.

Barghouti is a legendary Palestinian prisoner in a society where Palestinian prisoners are granted exalted status. His leadership of the latest prisoners’ hunger strike comes on the heels of his finishing first in the Fatah Central Committee elections in December, cementing his status as the most popular Palestinian political figure, while being sidelined two months ago by the current leadership as Mahmoud Abbas chose Mahmoud al-Aloul as Fatah’s first vice president. The jockeying to replace Abbas began in earnest some time ago, but Barghouti deciding now to take up the mantle of prisoners’ rights while making as public a splash as possible in the U.S. paper of record seems like one of the clearest signal from him that he intends to be part of the future leadership conversation.

Barghouti has in some ways had it easier than most despite being in prison, as it has insulated him from having to make any decisions or engage in the daily compromises that are involved in politics. He has been able to sit back and bask in his growing popularity as current Fatah leaders walk the fine line between security coordination with Israel and maintaining their power on one side and popular will and maintaining their grassroots legitimacy on the other. He has not had to navigate the minefield of dealing with Hamas rule in Gaza and playing the game of proclaiming national unity while taking steps to use the power of the Palestinian Authority to choke Hamas. The longer he is in prison, the greater the myth that surrounds him, and should Israel end up granting prisoners any concessions as a result of this hunger strike, it will make Barghouti’s power and influence greater. That he is taking this step now indicates that he thinks a leadership transition is coming sooner rather than later, and he wants to get ahead of the internal Fatah machinations that are designed to sideline him.

The repercussions of this are not limited to Barghouti and internal Fatah jockeying for position. Leading a movement of Palestinian prisoners is guaranteed to lead to wider West Bank foment, and it will not make the IDF or Shabak sleep easier at night. I am not suggesting that this will spark an intifada, but it could lead to an uptick in violence and further support for the position that compromise or even engagement with Israel sells out the Palestinian national cause. Palestinian politicians are bound to follow public sentiment, and nobody will want to be forced to take a backseat to Barghouti on the issue of resisting Israel. It will create a wider radicalization within the Palestinian political arena, and undermine any politicians who take a more moderate tone while perhaps undermining Fatah itself in relation to Hamas.

None of this portends well for President Trump’s efforts to push the two sides toward his ultimate deal, and if the prisoner strike is not quickly resolved, it will also make for a difficult Abbas White House visit the first week in May. Abbas proved to be a difficult interlocutor for President Obama, famously not responding to Obama’s Oval Office presentation of a framework for a final status agreement in 2014. Abbas is coming to DC this time to meet with a president whose vision is not nearly as fully formed on the details, but he will undoubtedly be asked by Trump to commit to something more specific than being willing to talk. Against the backdrop of hungerstriking prisoners and Barghouti trying to force him into a corner, it will be a particularly inauspicious time for Abbas to return to Ramallah and announce that he has agreed to return to talks with Israel without first winning any significant concessions. While the sense of gloomy fatalism that enveloped the Palestinian leadership at Trump’s election may have dissipated given his apparent willingness to push Netanyahu and the Israeli government on settlements and Jason Greenblatt’s praiseworthy performance in the region last month, it does not mean that Abbas is going to suddenly give Trump anything he wants. Abbas’s politics back home are still difficult, and having a friendlier White House than he anticipated does not change the fact that he is a weak political leader without the legitimacy or the chits to say yes to any comprehensive peace deal. This Barghouti move makes that even more of an entrenched reality.

Barghouti’s New York Times byline was the type of thing that drives Israeli politicians and American Jews up a wall with frustration. The byline, however, is just a distraction in this case from everything else that is going on. If Barghouti ushers in a new era of Fatah radicalization, we will look back at the focus over the byline rather than the underlying political move as the true outrage.

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Turkey’s Constitutional Referendum Will Be Neither Free Nor Fair

April 14, 2017 § 6 Comments

On Sunday, Turks will turn out for yet another election after a nearly 18 month reprieve to vote in a referendum that will overhaul Turkey’s constitution if passed. The culmination of a decade and a half of AKP rule and President Erdoğan’s burning ambition to be the most consequential leader in Turkish history, the constitutional amendments that the government would like Turks to approve will replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with a presidential system and create a presidency that controls the other two branches of government, effectively destroying any real semblance of checks and balances. Turkey will still lay claim to being a democracy that holds regular elections, but to call the proposed system democratic stretches the bounds of credulity. Yet, there is something else taking place on Sunday that is in some ways even worse than the proposed constitutional amendments themselves because it represents a truly unprecedented step in Turkey’s political development.

One of the reasons that Sunday’s vote is being given so much attention is because it is, in fact, a vote. While a win for the Yes camp will be the latest derailment of the Turkish democracy train, the government is pointing to the fact that the constitutional overhaul’s fate will be determined by voters and is thus an affirmation of Turkish democracy rather than a blow to it. Like the government’s rhetoric surrounding the substance of the amendments themselves, this rhetoric about the process is Orwellian doublespeak. The vote on Sunday is not going to be a democratic one, but a thoroughly authoritarian one whose outcome has been largely predetermined. The standard for a democratic vote is one that is free and fair, and this one will be neither. In fact, it is quite possible that this will be the least free and fair vote ever conducted in Turkey under the auspices of a civilian government, which is what makes the vote on the referendum as bad as the content of the referendum.

Free and fair elections are what distinguish electoral democracies from competitive authoritarian regimes. Under competitive authoritarianism, elections are contested but they are not free and fair. According to Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond, who is the preeminent expert on elections and democracy, elections are free when supporters of different sides are free to campaign and solicit votes and voters are not subject to coercion in the voting process; elections are fair when they are neutrally administered, ballot secrecy is respected, police and courts treat all sides impartially, independent monitoring is allowed at all voting locations, one side is not given an advantage over the other in terms of public media access, and there are no questions over the legitimacy and fairness of the vote count. With the possible exception of the last variable, the Turkish referendum violates every other one of these elements on both parts of the equation. The idea that a vote to ratify the new constitution will be a democratic one is an offense to anyone with sentient consciousness who has been paying even a smidgen of attention during the run-up to the referendum.

For starters, supporters of the No campaign have been subject to intimidation, harassment, and arrest. They have been shot at, beaten up, and prohibited from carrying signs or publicly rallying for No. They have been tear gassed by police, arrested, and both Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım have said that a vote for No is akin to supporting terrorism and the PKK. There is no plausible argument to be made that Turks have been free to campaign for the No side, and given the widespread intimidation and use of violence, no plausible argument to be made that this will not unduly influence the way people actually vote. After all, if No wins and you are suspected to have voted No, why should you assume that you will not be a target of the state and the roaming groups of thugs that it has empowered?

On the fair aspect, things have been just as bad. Despite the fact that the vote in the Grand National Assembly to amend the constitution and thereby trigger a referendum is mandated by law to be secret, AKP parliamentarians cast their affirmative votes publicly in an effort to intimidate others into doing the same and voting for the package of amendments. Supporters of Yes have been given hundreds of hours on television stations, while supporters of No have gotten almost none, and the government has stripped the election board’s power to sanction stations that do not devote equal time to both sides. Hundreds of media organizations have been shut down and journalists jailed, ostensibly for supporting terrorism or the failed coup last July but almost all of whom coincidentally just happen to oppose the constitutional amendments. Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the two leaders of the HDP, which is the third largest party in the parliament and the one most vociferously opposed to the amendments, are both in jail along with other HDP members. Independent election monitors will not be at every polling station, and the only news organization with access to report the official results as they come in will be the state news agency. Even if people do feel free to vote their conscience, there has been an unprecedented advantage conferred upon the Yes side by the government and its supporters in a way that will be nearly impossible to overcome.

The fact of the matter is that whether the outcome is Yes or No, Turkey already has a presidential system, rendering the outcome a sideshow. Since being elected president, Erdoğan has done everything possible to neuter the office of the prime minister and assume that office’s powers for himself. He has chaired cabinet meetings, overhauled the cabinet itself, selected party lists, and acted as the head of government in every conceivable way. If Yes wins – and I fully expect that it will – this will only formalize a process that has been well underway since 2014. That Turkey will have a presidential system will not be unprecedented, because the precedent has been set. What will be unprecedented is the degree to which the vote will be unfree and unfair after Turks have been subjected to months of authoritarian coercion. When Turks voted for their current constitution, they did so while living under military rule following the 1980 coup and voted on a document drafted by the army. It came after hundreds of thousands of arrests and purges, tens of thousands of citizenship revocations, and thousands of suspicious deaths and disappearances. It passed with over 90% of the vote, and the surprise is that the tally wasn’t higher given the environment that the military created. The nine months since the failed July 15 coup attempt have been nothing like what Turks went through in the early 1980s, but it is also nothing like Turks have been through under civilian rule before. Just because there will be a vote involved on Sunday does not make this a milestone to be celebrated or lauded.

Erdoğan and the AKP are about to eviscerate any balance that the political system has had and create a presidency that is among the least democratic of any country that holds contested elections. That they will do so in a completely undemocratic manner should surprise no one. Far too many are focusing on the substance while giving the government a free pass on the process. But as Turks go to vote on Sunday, let’s all take a moment to recognize that this is not a free and fair vote, that the legitimacy of elections has not been respected, and that no matter the outcome, this will in no way be a triumph for democracy.

Squaring the Regional Solution Circle

April 6, 2017 § 2 Comments

With Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah both in Washington this week for meetings with President Trump, undoubtedly the regional solution for Middle East peace came up during their White House discussions. This approach, which has been touted for years by Prime Minister Netanyahu and now seems to be favored by Trump as well, encompasses the idea that Israel should engage with Arab states in order to come to a set of understandings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will eventually lead to Israel’s full integration into the region. Many have seized on this idea as an obvious situation in which all sides win, and from an Israeli perspective, a deal that involves the wider Middle East is far preferable to one that does not.

Nevertheless, there are serious misconceptions floating around about what a regional solution would actually entail and what is workable. As this idea gains currency in policy circles, it is important to understand that different people define it in different ways, and that some definitions are far more realistic and feasible than others.

One of the biggest sticking points is whether a regional solution involves the two-state solution. I recently watched an audience applaud a speaker who said that he favors a regional solution rather than a two-state solution, at which point he quickly interrupted his newfound fans to clarify that the former necessarily involves the latter. Many on the Israeli right, including Netanyahu, speak about a regional process that deals with other issues aside from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The theory behind this is that Israel and its neighbors have an unprecedented confluence of interests arising from a joint fear of Iranian influence, and that cooperation is inevitable. Indeed, there is already cooperation on intelligence and defense issues that takes place behind closed doors, in addition to the more public coordination that Israel has with Egypt and Jordan due to the peace treaties it has signed with both states. The thinking is that security interests will outweigh all else, and that as private relationships develop and harden over time, Israel’s acceptance by Arab states will follow irrespective of whether there is movement on the Palestinian issue or not.

Relatedly, there is confusion over whether any formal negotiating track with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and others has to involve negotiations with the Palestinians too, even if the subject of discussion is the peace process. The theory here is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is secondary to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has been going on for longer, and that the Palestinians will never fully accept Israel’s existence until the other Arab states do so first. Since the wider Arab-Israeli conflict does not include thorny issues like borders – only Syria still has a territorial dispute with Israel – it should theoretically be easier to resolve, as the parties are no longer fighting over anything tangible and the joint security and economic benefits of full diplomatic relations are too large to just throw away. In this formulation, not only does a regional solution not have to include the creation of an independent Palestine, it does not have to include the Palestinians in any way.

Using a regional solution, however, as a way to bypass two states and bypass the Palestinians entirely are both dangerous misconceptions that rest on two fundamental misunderstandings. The first is that Israel can engage with regional Arab states on its own terms entirely rather than on theirs. In order to have any type of negotiations between Israel and its neighbors, you have to get both sides to the table, and the other side has made it abundantly clear that it is unwilling to engage with Israel unless Israel also engages with the Palestinians. Netanyahu and other members of the Israeli government speak about the regional solution as a way to bypass the Palestinians, but Arab states – including Egypt and Jordan, who already have diplomatic relations with Israel – are adamant that the regional solution will only exist as a parallel track to one that Israel establishes with the Palestinians. One of the easiest ways to identify someone who has never actually read the Arab Peace Initiative or has never had a conversation with an Arab government official is if they talk about the regional process as a way to cut the Palestinians out.

To be clear, Israel does not and should not have to simply acquiesce to what the other side wants; just as the Arab states need not accept Israel’s terms, Israel need not accept theirs. But the API is premised on the creation of a Palestinian state, and Arab governments have never wavered in their public or private declarations that they will not engage with Israel at the Palestinians’ expense. Israel can decide that it has lived its entire existence without formal diplomatic relations with the bulk of its regional neighbors and that reversing this situation is not worth the price, but it is foolhardy to speak as if the price can be waived. People who want to intelligently discuss the prospects for a wider regional peace should minimally understand what it would involve.

The second misunderstanding is that Arab states’ interests will outweigh their domestic politics, or that public opinion and internal political considerations somehow don’t matter in non-democracies. It is easy to see why a state like Saudi Arabia would benefit from closer relations with Israel in spheres large and small, from using Israeli intelligence in developing a joint strategy to contain Iran to buying Israeli technology. But particularly in the wake of the failed Arab Spring revolutions, Arab regimes are highly sensitive to anything that will imperil the stability of their rule, and being seen by their citizens as having sold out the Palestinians is the fast track to domestic unrest. The ways in which these regimes cynically and instrumentally employ the plight of the Palestinians to improve their popularity while not doing anything tangible to actually help the Palestinians is legendary, but the fact that the move is a cynical one does not make it ineffective. So long as the Palestinian cause is an easy rallying cry for Arab publics, their governments are not going to normalize relations with Israel, or even embrace Israel in a limited way, until there is serious movement toward a Palestinian state.

The Israeli government can hope all it wants that this situation will change over time as Arab states view Israel as increasingly indispensable and too valuable not to engage with, but that is not the current state of affairs. If the regional solution is to materialize, it will involve a better appreciation not only of what is possible, but what is necessary.

Your Guide to the Israeli Coalition Crisis

March 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

I’ve been getting lots of questions in the past couple of weeks about the political crisis threatening the demise of Israel’s ruling coalition and what it’s about, and whether today’s apparent deal means that it is over. So here is your guide to the strange machinations currently plaguing the Israeli government that has had everyone talking about elections.

What are the coalition members fighting about?

The fight is between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and it is ostensibly over Kan, the new public broadcasting corporation set to launch on April 30 and replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Kan was created in 2014 because the IBA, which collected a mandatory television tax from all Israeli households and had become so bloated and complacent that nobody even knew the precise numbers of people it employed, was seen as beyond repair or reform. In addition, the IBA’s board and director general were appointed by the government rather than by any independent means, which led to all sorts of conflicts of interest. It also didn’t hurt that the Netanyahu-led government at the time felt that the IBA had a leftwing bias characteristic of many public sector organizations – one ad supporting the broadcasting reforms showed IBA employees in a support group with Hamas terrorists complaining about the Netanyahu government that opposes them – and so shuttering the unpopular IBA entirely was an easy political win. But as the date for Kan’s opening was repeatedly pushed back amid concerns for the welfare of the IBA’s employees, there were other whisperings that Netanyahu was worried that the new public broadcasting operation would indeed be independent as envisioned and immune to his control, and thus he was looking for an excuse to sink it.

This background brings us to two weeks ago, when Netanyahu gave a speech in which he described Kan employees as leftists and denounced the fact that they would have no public supervision, and called on Kahlon to delay Kan’s opening by another six months. Given that Kahlon has inherited this issue from the last government and that Kan was created at Netanyahu’s own behest, he did not react well, and Netanyahu backed down from his postponement demand and replaced it with a request for a new law creating a supervisory body for Kan. Less than 48 hours later, Netanyahu reversed himself again and said that Kan had to be merged into IBA – effectively killing it – or that new elections would be held. This then evolved into a more limited demand that the chairman and director-general of Kan be replaced with Netanyahu appointees, and then it moved back again to the more maximalist position of Kan being shuttered entirely. Netanyahu and Kahlon have been negotiating between themselves in an effort to put all of this to rest, and this morning there are reports that Netanyahu and Kahlon have agreed to a deal in which yet another broadcasting corporation will be established alongside Kan to deal with news and current affairs. But this is not the first time that an agreement has been reported that has then been scuttled, and there is still the issue of whether Kan will go on air one month from today, with conflicting reports about that. Until new legislation is written and passes the Knesset, nobody can assume that this affair has been concluded.

Wow – so IBA must have enormous ratings and tremendous influence, making Kan’s direction a real potential threat to the prime minister, right?

Nope. IBA is like a less-watched and less prestigious PBS, despite the fact that for decades it ran the only channel in Israel. As noted above, it is also unpopular due to the mandatory tax levied to run it and the corruption and waste endemic to its operation. Its influence is small despite having some top-notch journalists and broadcasters working for it, and Kan is not expected to do a whole lot better.

Huh. So if Netanyahu was threatening elections over what seems like a completely insignificant issue, he must have the unwavering support of his coalition members on this?

Nope. Despite public backing from some of his more sycophantic Likud supporters, nearly every MK in the coalition thinks that elections would be a self-defeating move that does them no good. Kahlon is obviously opposed, the Haredi parties explicitly warned earlier this week against new elections, Avigdor Lieberman does not want to risk losing his position as defense minister, and Naftali Bennett is not quite ready to take on Netanyahu as leader of the rightwing bloc. There is such opposition to Netanyahu’s elections threat within Likud that there have been reports of plans to depose Netanyahu and form an alternative coalition led by a different Likud minister should the prime minister call elections now. I wrote five months ago that nobody in the government wanted to bring it down because the polls showed that – with the exception of Bennett and Bayit Yehudi – they would all be in worse positions and that making any moves would be incredibly risky, and that applies even more today.

I don’t get it. Why has this been happening?

I confess that for the first time in years with regard to Israeli politics, I am at a loss. If you think it is insane that Netanyahu is willing to risk his own prime ministership, the dominance of rightwing governments, Likud’s share of the Knesset, and any goodwill he has built up among his coalition partners over such a marginal issue in the firmament of Israeli politics, then you are not alone. Multiple Israeli columnists have literally questioned Netanyahu’s sanity in writing since this all blew up two weeks ago. But not being in the business of diagnosing the prime minister’s mental health from afar, here are my three best guesses in no particular order as to what has actually been going on.

Netanyahu actually sees Kan as a real threat. Netanyahu has an obsession with the media and how it covers him that is Trumpian, and it extends to outlets big and small. His involvement with Yisrael Hayom – colloquially known as the Bibiton – was infamous even before the tapes came to light of him bartering with Yediot Ahronot publisher Noni Mozes for better coverage in Yediot in return for depressing Yisrael Hayom’s circulation. He only gave up the Communications Ministry portfolio in February after the High Court ordered him to justify retaining it in light of the massive conflicts of interest revealed by the Mozes deal, and even then he only gave it up on an interim basis. That Netanyahu would not have control over Kan’s direction because of its independent structure seemed to only just hit him, and Netanyahu genuinely has a media bugaboo like no other Israeli politician. When his bitter Likud rival Gidon Sa’ar’s wife Geula Even-Sa’ar was named as lead anchor for Kan one week into the manufactured crisis with Kahlon, that probably drove him even further over the edge and convinced him that this was all a plot designed to chip away at him and ultimately bring him down. None of this seems rational to the outside world, but as Herman Melville so aptly illustrated in Moby Dick, single-minded obsession can crowd out everything else.

This is the best way to circumvent the four investigations into Netanyahu’s actions. Netanyahu right now is under active investigation by the police on four different fronts, and the near-universal assumption among Israel’s political and journalistic classes is that he will be indicted as a result of one of these cases, and possibly multiple ones. If Netanyahu calls elections now, he thinks these cases will halt since it will appear improper to have the legal system interfere with electoral politics – a topic that we in the U.S. now understand intimately well in light of the controversy over the FBI’s behavior surrounding investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email server and Donald Trump’s Russia ties during the campaign – and that if he manages to win another term as prime minster, they will permanently disappear since the will of the voters will trump any past misdeeds. Under this theory, Netanyahu was just grasping for the closest excuse – no matter how imperfect or implausible – to hold elections as the investigations have heated up, and this is what presented itself.

This is all a feint to distract from the real issue, which is Trump. There is no need to dwell on the obvious reality that Netanyahu is stuck between the rock of his unyielding rightwing coalition and the hard place of a President Trump who is moving full steam ahead on Israeli-Palestinian peace and doesn’t seem to like what he is hearing from the Israeli side. After being unable to come to an agreement with Netanyahu’s negotiating team on the scope of acceptable Israeli settlement activity, Jason Greenblatt reportedly now believes that Netanyahu could form a unity government with the Zionist Union in order to advance negotiations and thinks that Netanyahu’s protestations that he is politically hemmed in by his coalition are a mere excuse. Aryeh Deri yesterday called for Yitzhak Herzog to be brought into the government, and Kahlon would not stand in the way were it to happen, so there may soon be internal pressure for Netanyahu to make a move aside from what he is getting from the White House. It is easier for Netanyahu to start from scratch with new elections and be in a better bargaining position with a weaker Zionist Union than to jettison Bayit Yehudi and deal with Herzog’s 24 seats in the current Knesset, and it is also easier for Netanyahu politically to call new elections based on the broadcasting corporation pretext than to openly betray his rightwing partners before a vote takes place. If Netanyahu thinks that the only way out of his dilemma with the new administration is a new government, this is a plausible way for him to get there.

What Netanyahu does next will tell us a lot. If today’s deal holds and Netanyahu is able to gain new influence over the new news division by stacking it with IBA employees who are loyal to him, then it means control over state broadcasting is (implausibly) the real issue. If he keeps on changing the terms of what would be an acceptable resolution and the deal falls apart over nitpicky details, then it means he is using the broadcasting issue as a way to actually get to elections, and then the unknowable question will still be why it is that he wants them. As to whether today’s deal is actually the end of this or not, your guess is as good as mine, but least you now have a scorecard with which to follow the action.

Israel and Russia Head For a Crash

March 23, 2017 § 3 Comments

Israel’s relationship with Russia is in some ways its most important and also its most dangerous. While the U.S.-Israel relationship is the only one that is vital to guaranteeing Israel’s fundamental security, the relationship with Russia has a larger impact on the daily threats that Israel faces given the Russian role in the Syrian civil war. Prime Minister Netanyahu has ably managed ties with Moscow, with his trip to Russia to meet with President Putin two weeks ago the fifth in the past year, but the reality is that despite Israel’s best efforts, tension with Russia is bound to escalate. Israel and Russia’s redlines with regard to the outcome in Syria are in fundamental conflict, and papering over the differences is becoming increasingly harder to do.

Russia-Israel ties under Netanyahu and Putin have reached a historical apex for the two countries, partly because of the rapport between the two men and partly because of larger structural factors. From Israel’s perspective, closer ties with Russia make for good domestic politics. Over 10% of Israel’s population hails from the former Soviet Union, and Russian Jews maintain cultural and economic links to their former homeland. Soviet Jews have risen to the top of the government, with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein the most recent examples. Russia is also seen as a strong ally in Israel’s battle against terrorism as Russia has its own homegrown terrorist threat, and the Kremlin has also historically been inclined not to harshly criticize Israeli settlement policies despite its support of a Palestinian state.

But it is due to defense concerns on both sides that the relationship has deepened and become more important. One of the few advantages that Georgia had in its five-day war with Russia in 2008 over South Ossetia was its Israeli drones, which were far superior to the domestically-produced models flown by Russia and a fact that did not escape Moscow’s attention. It led Russia to subsequently make four purchases of Israeli drones, a seemingly ordinary transaction made remarkable by the fact that it was the first time Russia had ever bought arms from a foreign country. As Russia has increased its military activity in Syria and its near-abroad, its desire for Israeli military technology has only grown, and thus its relationship with Israel has become more important.

On the Israeli side, Russia’s involvement in Syria directly impacts Israel and makes closer relations a necessity. For the Israeli government, Russia’s heavy presence in Syria has been a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that Israel has been able to repeatedly strike Iranian arms convoys destined for Hizballah without Russian interference despite flying hundreds of sorties through Russian-controlled territory, since Jerusalem and Moscow have worked out a deal preserving Israel’s ability to strike these targets and have coordinated to a near-perfect level. Were Israel trying to operate in Iranian-controlled territory rather than Russian, things would be far messier. The fact that Russia purposely turns a blind eye to Israeli strikes on these weapons shipments – despite the extraordinary fact that Israel is oftentimes blowing up weapons that Russia itself has supplied to Iran – also limits the fallout, as it makes it difficult for Iran to retaliate against Israel in response. The curse, however, is that in having to rely on Russia’s good graces, the Israeli military is operating at the mercy of a larger power and must also limit itself to the parameters of what it has agreed upon with Moscow, rather than being able to target Iranian fighters in Syria to whatever larger extent it wishes. Russia’s ownership of the Syrian civil war provides Israel with a greater degree of freedom but also a greater degree of restriction.

While the relationship has remained on track up until now, it has been destined to unravel from the day that Russia entered Syria, and indeed the first loose threads are now beginning to show. No matter how good the coordination mechanism between the two sides, the fundamental conflict at the heart of Israeli-Russian views on Syria is that Israel’s redline is the establishment of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Russia’s redline is the elimination of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. At the outset of the Syrian civil war, Israeli government and military opinion was split as to whether it would be better for Bashar al-Assad to remain in power or better for him to be toppled. That debate has decisively shifted toward the latter as Assad has solidified his rule over western Syria with a serious assist from Iran, leading not only to a more robust Hizballah presence in Syria but Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers as well. As the Israeli defense and intelligence establishment came to a near-consensus on the dangers of Assad’s continued tenure given his ever larger reliance on Iran and his further cementing as an Iranian proxy, Russia made it clear that it will not abandon Assad and that its own core interest in Syria is keeping him – and the Iranian influence that is bound up with him as a necessary byproduct – right where he is. Israel cannot abide Assad staying and Russia cannot abide him going.

This situation was manageable so long as Israel was content to confine its actions in Syria to striking Hizballah and breaking up any efforts to supply it with advanced game-changing weaponry, such as S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. But with intelligence that Iran is now beginning to establish permanent bases in Syria, the Israeli calculus has understandably changed. Russia’s, however, has not. It was notable that in the aftermath of the Netanyahu-Putin summit two weeks ago where Netanyahu raised his concerns about preventing an Iranian military presence on Israel’s northern border, neither side indicated that it was particularly satisfied with the outcome of the discussion. Furthermore, one week later the Israeli ambassador to Russia was summoned to explain an Israeli strike that hit close to a Russian military position, introducing a new level of tension into the relationship, and Israel had to bat down the Assad government’s claim that Russia had informed Israel that it could no longer fly missions in Russian-controlled Syrian airspace.

It is an enormous accomplishment of Netanyahu’s diplomacy that the situation with Russia has proceeded so smoothly until now, particularly when juxtaposed against the backdrop of downed planes and economic sanctions that have marked the Russia-Turkey relationship over Syria. But Israel is now entering an untenable situation, in which it will have to choose between risking open conflict with Russia – something that both sides will be desperate to avoid – or sitting on its hands as Iran digs in across from IDF positions on the Golan and plants missile batteries on Syrian territory for the purposes of targeting Israeli cities and towns. Israel was right to worry about Iranian ambitions in the region, but it is the Russian relationship with Iran over Syria rather than the American relationship with Iran over the nuclear deal that will prove to be the thornier dilemma to navigate.

What Type of Utopia Will Israel Be?

March 16, 2017 § 4 Comments

There is a scene in the sixth episode of the first season of Mad Men where ad man Don Draper is approached by the Israeli government to come up with an effective tourism campaign for the Jewish state. Seeking some insight, he asks his Jewish client-cum-girlfriend to explain why Israel is important and why tourists would want to go there. She explains that Jews have lived in exile for such a long time that having a country seems very important, and that even though she has no desire to live there, Israel “just has to be” because of the idea that it represents. After Draper remarks that it sounds like utopia, she retorts that the Greek definition of utopia can mean either the good place or the place that cannot be. While the last exchange is meant to be a comment on their relationship, it captures the current wider context of the churning relationship between Israel and American Jews.

The surge in visible anti-Semitism in the U.S. over the past year has American Jews on edge, and for many it has reinforced the importance of Israel and why it “just has to be.” More than ever, Israel resonates as a safe harbor of last resort and as a refuge against a world that historically has not accepted Jews. I understand this sentiment not from a theoretical perspective, but from a personal one. As a kid growing up in New York, I never experienced a second of overtly detectable anti-Semitism. I had a recurring debate with my dad where I argued that the Jewish experience in America marked the end of history for the two thousand years of the Jewish Diaspora in which persecution and anti-Semitism were the defining features. And yet in the last two months, my kids’ Jewish schools have been subjected to multiple bomb threats, and my corner of Washington suburbia has seen an uptick in anti-Semitic graffiti and invective. Like Francis Fukuyama, I was wrong in allowing the exuberance of a brief moment to overtake the wider sweep of history, and despite being someone who never questioned the importance of Israel in the first place, that importance for me has now literally been driven home. Israel does indeed represent an idea for Jews around the world, and while we pray that it never has to transform for us from an idea into a practical imperative, it requires an absolute defense of Israel’s legitimacy and security.

But while the idea of Israel is of the good place, it is sliding dangerously close for American Jews into the place that cannot be. This is because Israel’s inviolable commitment to Jews, rather than only to Israelis, is in question, and once that emotional shift takes place, it will be impossible for many American Jews to identify with Israel in the same way. It will not be a place that they view as the ultimate oasis in the desert, but as a tantalizing mirage.

The first factor that threatens to cause this shift is the Israeli government’s treatment of anti-Semitism. In speaking about his decision to go to Paris after the terrorist attack on the Hyper Cacher grocery store to show solidarity with French Jews, Prime Minister Netanyahu described his role as not only representing Israel but as representing the entire Jewish people. This is not a role that has been claimed by previous Israeli prime ministers; David Ben-Gurion, for instance, clearly made a distinction between representing Israel and representing Jews outside of Israel in his exchange of letters with Simon Rawidowicz in 1954-55, in what began as an argument over the usage of the word “Israel” and other terminology and resulted in Ben-Gurion rejecting any uniformity between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews. It is a matter for wider debate whether Netanyahu can and should have a wider role beyond being a political leader, but if he wants to credibly make the argument, he must assume the expansive mantle consistently rather than only when it is politically expedient. To come to the U.S. in the midst of an outbreak of bomb threats against Jewish institutions and a maelstrom of angst from American Jews who have never felt personally threatened before and to essentially proclaim that all is well, not only negates any claim on Netanyahu’s part to represent Jews in danger wherever they are; it also calls into question Israel’s very commitment to Diaspora Jewry. For Jews who fervently support Israel as the ultimate Jewish project and as a powerful symbol against anti-Jewish repression, it is distressing to see an Israeli prime minister brush anti-Semitism aside and categorically declare that a president whom many American Jews view as part of the problem is actually the best friend that Jews have.

The second factor that threatens to perpetuate this shift is the attitude, encapsulated in Israel’s new travel ban against anyone publicly calling for boycotts of Israel or any area under its control, that views Israel not as a place for Jews but as a place for Jews who hold a certain ideology. I do not support BDS and am not even minimally sympathetic toward its aims, and I also do not support boycotts of settlers or settlements. Furthermore, Israel has an absolute right to determine what constitutes a threat to its security, and to screen people who enter its borders to guard against those threats. But what is justified is not always smart, and conflating tangible physical threats with amorphous ideological threats demonstrates the distinction. Keeping out the violent West Bank demonstrator is not the same as keeping out the middle-aged dad who loudly declares that he won’t buy Jordan Valley dates, and it this latter action that will cause the break between many American Jews and Israel. Even if, like Rachel Menken in Mad Men, you are a Jew who wants to visit Israel but do not want to live there, being stopped at passport control in the Jewish state because of your political views is the fastest way to make sure that any affinity you had for Israel disappears. Israel in that situation becomes a place that cannot be, no longer a safe haven for Jews or even just a place for Jews, but a state that has abandoned its core function and reason for being. The central Zionist argument that Jews need a homeland only works if Israel is indeed a homeland based on Judaism rather than a homeland based on a set of political leanings. In elevating threat perception to absurd heights, the new anti-boycott legislation ignominiously creates a bigger threat to Israel’s existence than the boycotters it is combatting.

Israel can indeed be a utopia for Jews around the world; not a perfect place that must meet an impossible ideal, but an anchor to which Jews can gravitate in times of need. If it does not take this obligation seriously, however, it will become a different kind of utopia; a place that demands an impossible ideal and that sinks under the weight of its own expectations.

A Liberal Zionism for the Trump Era

March 9, 2017 § 5 Comments

There is always angst among liberal Zionists about what liberal Zionism is and whether it can exist in a particular political environment, but the combination of the Netanyahu government and the Trump presidency has amplified the usual Weltschmerz. As Israel turns farther away from liberal values, legalizing illegal West Bank outposts and imposing ideological tests on those who want to enter the country, and liberals at home reject Zionism while lionizing social protest leaders who are literally anti-Israel terrorists, liberal Zionism is in an even more difficult place than usual in looking to reconcile its competing impulses. To succeed, liberal Zionists will need to reconstruct their first principles rather than to try and fit square pegs into round holes.

There is no question that the current political moment is uniquely challenging. Liberal Zionism over the last quarter century has often been synonymous with a peace process that shows fewer signs of hope now than it ever has. It has put forth a vision for Israel that is rejected by Israelis who return rightwing governments to power in election after election. It has put forth a vision for Israeli society that is belied by data such as majority support for pardoning Elor Azaria and real currents of racist and anti-democratic sentiment. And this is before we arrive at the enormous implications for liberal Zionism of the Trump presidency. How are liberal Zionists to grapple with a president who supports the fundamental tenets of Zionism but is so deeply illiberal? To complicate things further, how are liberal Zionists to grapple with a president who represents values that they reject but whose initial policy toward Israel may end up looking a lot like what one would expect from a liberal Zionist president?

Liberal Zionism will have to develop a set of lodestars to survive the challenges it faces, some of which have to do specifically with Trump and some of which do not. One principle should be reinforcing the connection between Israel and Jews, but making sure that the obligation runs both ways. Liberal Zionism must be unwavering in its insistence that Jewish support for Israel’s bedrock safety and security does not exist on a higher plane than Israeli support for Jews’ bedrock safety and security. The increasing threats against Jewish institutions in the U.S. and the unnerving feeling that many American Jews are now experiencing for the first time in their lives of being cast as outsiders and interlopers is certainly related to the current political moment; whether it can be laid at the feet of President Trump is an infinitely more complicated proposition. Irrespective of the answer to this question, American Jews are grappling with anti-Semitism in new ways, and there should never be any doubt that the first and foremost priority of the Israeli government as it relates to the Diaspora is to insist upon the inviolable rights of Jews to live anywhere in the world free of harassment and danger. Zionism is about the right of Jews to national self-determination, but it was meant to address the problems of Jewish exclusion rather than to reinforce those problems in its own right. If an Israeli prime minister wants to claim the mantle of representing Jews worldwide, than Zionism must be outward looking to Jews outside of Israel’s borders as well as inward looking to Jews inside of them.

Second and relatedly, liberal Zionism cannot just support liberalism within the contexts of Israeli state and society, but it must also make the connection more explicit between Zionism and liberalism independently of what is taking place in Israel or the policies of the current Israeli government. This is vital not only for ensuring continued support for Israel, but also for ensuring American Jewry’s place in society. In a terrifyingly new development, the so-called “alt right” has a presence in the Trump White House and its vision of what it means to support Israel rests on upon a different pillar than traditional American pro-Israel positions. Historically, American governments and Americans themselves have supported Israel because they view Israel as a reliable strategic regional ally and because they view Israel as an ideological democratic and values-based ally. Liberal Zionism has been an easy philosophy to espouse precisely because of this connection between the U.S. as the leader of the free world – in other words, liberal democratic values – and Israel as an unwavering soldier in the fight to extend the free world’s reach across the globe. But the rabid pro-Israel position espoused by Breitbart and other alt right organs is not based on this view of Israel; it is instead based on identification with Israel as a state based on populist ethnic nationalism. This formulation ties support for Israel directly to its perceived rejection of liberalism rather than to its upholding of liberal values, and it explains why the alt right can support Israel to the hilt while also swimming in the cesspool of anti-Semitism.

This is dangerous for Israel, as it makes support for Israel contingent upon a specific set of policies rather than on the fundamental nature and existence of Israel itself – let alone the fact that the policies this support demands would only weaken Israel at home and abroad. It is also dangerous for American Jews, as it turns Zionism into an even more particularistic ideology in which only a narrow type of Zionism is acceptable. The motivating factor behind Herzl’s philosophical development of Zionism – that Jews are not regular white folks, but a minority deserving of protection that needs its own state – is thrown out when your embrace of Zionism only involves an embrace of Israel as an ethnically nationalist majoritarian entity rather than as a safe haven for an historically persecuted people. The devastating consequences for American Jews when this line of thinking is extended to its logical conclusion are glaringly obvious.

Finally, liberal Zionism must firmly and unabashedly embrace a renewed Zionism that harkens back to the founding Zionist ethos of taking responsibility for one’s destiny, and shaping history rather being shaped by it. One of the reasons that the marriage between Zionism and liberalism is a natural one is because both seek to better the world through active engagement with problems and to leave an active mark upon history rather than, in William F. Buckley’s famous formulation, to stand athwart history yelling stop. Complaining that there is no Palestinian partner and thus Israel has no choice but to maintain the status quo runs contrary to the spirit and letter of Zionism. Complaining that Israel’s adversaries engage in asymmetric and inhumane behavior and thus Israel need not hold itself to an elevated standard in its efforts to grapple with terrorism and rejectionism runs contrary to the spirit and letter of Zionism. In an age where standards of decency and morality are being redefined and even truth and facts themselves are now subject to debate, liberal Zionism must stand for something clear and concrete, and advance principles and proposals that do not depend on the actions or responses of others.

It is more important than ever to insist on belonging to both the liberal and Zionist camps, and not to allow membership in one eradicate membership in the other. Zionism has to transcend Trump, Republican orthodoxy, and traditionally hawkish positions on Israel. If it is seen to be the cause of a single party or a single political ideology, it will never recover. The danger of sitting back and allowing Zionism and Israel to be solely claimed and embraced by the right is real, and advancing an active and liberal Zionist vision that does not compromise its Zionism or its liberalism is as crucial a task as exists.

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