August 18, 2016 § 13 Comments
Israeli athletes have had a rough reception from some of their fellow competitors at the Rio Olympics. First, members of the Lebanese delegation barred Israelis from boarding a bus to the opening ceremonies. Then a Saudi judoka pulled out of a match due to injury as soon as it became clear that she would be facing an Israeli competitor in the next round. But the ultimate statement came last Friday following Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby’s defeat at the hands of Or Sasson, when El Shehaby refused to shake the Israeli Sasson’s hand. El Shehaby was booed by the crowd following the breach of judo etiquette, and following a “severe reprimand for inappropriate behavior” from the International Olympic Committee’s Disciplinary Commission, El Shehaby was sent home. The incident created an uproar back in Israel, but ultimately a snubbed handshake is, after all, just a snubbed handshake. It isn’t the details of this episode that matter, but the larger lessons that it imparts.
If nothing else, the absurdity of the entire thing should settle once and for all that Israel is subjected to a unique standard. This doesn’t mean that Israel should be absolved from blame for its actions or policies that deserve to be criticized, but only one country’s athletes are treated this way. For some perspective, there are North Korean athletes competing at the Olympics, but nobody even hints that they should be treated as outcasts because of their government, and rightly so (and if you for some reason think that the government of Israel and Bibi Netanyahu are more worthy of criticism than the government of North Korea and Kim Jong Un, please just stop reading now since you are wasting your time). And deciding that Israeli athletes do indeed deserve to be held responsible for anything Israel does will not necessarily end only in discourteous behavior and lack of sportsmanship, as testified to by the 1972 Summer Olympics terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich.
The handshake snub also says something about identity and nationalism, and illuminates the dilemma faced by many American Jews, particularly college students and those who travel in progressive circles. El Shehaby is Egyptian, and he represents a country that has a formal peace treaty with Israel; in fact, Israeli-Egyptian cooperation has never been more robust. Yet, his refusal to shake hands with Sasson was an act on behalf of standing up for the Palestinians, a group with which he clearly sympathizes because of a shared identity. This shared identity is so strong that El Shehaby was willing to accept an official reprimand and risk sanction, neither of which serves Egyptian interests, in order to support his Palestinian compatriots. Many American Jews feel a similarly strong bond with Israeli Jews, and their identity is intertwined with support for Israel. So when the price of entry into progressive circles is a demand that American Jews renounce Israel, it creates a genuine crisis of identity, since Judaism and Zionism cannot always be so easily untangled. In criticizing El Shehaby’s actions, nobody has demanded that he withdraw his support for the Palestinian cause. It would be nice if American Jews were granted the same basic level of understanding.
The fact of the handshake itself also obscures a greater barrier that must be overcome. I have seen a number of people grant that El Shehaby behaved poorly, but justify it based on the fact that had he shook Sasson’s hand, he would have put himself in danger back home. It does not speak well for a society that would de facto criminalize a handshake based on national identity, and that should be the basis for a critique rather than the basis for a justification. But more importantly, that nearly four decades after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the establishment of diplomatic relations, simply shaking an Israeli’s hand would place an Egyptian at risk of physical harm demonstrates better than any other example why mere government-to-government relations are not enough. The Israeli government points to its cooperation with Arab states as proof that it is breaking out of its regional isolation, but acceptance is more about social attitudes than it is about state relations, since the former will never follow the latter but the latter will follow the former. Without routine interaction and habituation over time, the structures in place that make Israelis feel so isolated will not come down, and it doesn’t matter how much Israel helps the Egyptian government fight ISIS in the Sinai or how much intelligence Israel shares with the Saudi government. It is the same reason that the anti-normalization campaign mounted by Palestinians against Israelis is a far greater threat than BDS, since once it becomes common for Palestinians to treat Israelis the way Egyptians do, all hope of any lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the societal level will really be gone.
One concluding thought: it would be an interesting social experiment to see if an Egyptian or Iranian judoka would refuse to shake hands with an Arab Israeli athlete on the grounds of supporting the Palestinian cause. After all, if Israelis are being shunned because they are held collectively responsible for the actions of their government, then this should apply across the board to all Israeli athletes. I have a sneaking suspicion that those who support what El Shehaby did as a legitimate and relatively harmless form of political protest, and who claim that this has nothing to do with Jews but is solely about Israel, would feel differently about El Shehaby snubbing an Arab from Umm al-Fahm rather than a Jew from Jerusalem.
August 12, 2016 § 3 Comments
This piece was published in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal with my friend and colleague Steven Cook.
The meeting this week between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin and their vow to expand bilateral relations is the latest sign of deteriorating U.S.-Turkish relations since Turkey’s failed coup last month.
The U.S. and Turkey have faced difficult days before, such as after Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, yet American and Turkish leaders managed to find their way back. This time will be different.
Since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, the U.S. and Turkey have contributed to each other’s security and interests, and ties were cemented based on shared values as Turkey became more democratic. U.S. forces and tactical nuclear weapons at Turkey’s Incirlik air base represented the American commitment to Turkish security and Ankara’s support to a Washington-led global order.
These days, however, the U.S. and Turkey see eye to eye on very little. The two countries are at odds over Syria and the urgency of removing Syrian President Bashar Assad; over support for Syrian Kurds who, in contrast to the Turks, have proved to be reliable U.S. partners in the fight against Islamic State; over the territorial sovereignty of Iraq; and over continuing sanctions on Iran.
Though American officials privately acknowledge that Mr. Erdogan is “erratic,” they have given the Turkish leader extraordinary leverage over U.S. policy. The U.S. fear is that public pressure will result in even less cooperation from Ankara—especially on Syria.
August 11, 2016 § 3 Comments
If you thought that the seemingly never-ending battle between the United States and Israel to shape how the Iran deal is viewed was finally over, you’d be wrong. At a press conference last Thursday, President Obama touted what he said was Israel’s ex-post support for the deal, saying, “And it’s not just the assessment of our intelligence community; it’s the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence community, the country that was most opposed to this deal, that acknowledges this has been a game changer and that Iran has abided by the deal; and that they no longer have the sort of short-term breakout capacity that would allow them to create nuclear weapons.” The next day, an unsigned statement was issued by the Israeli Defense Ministry insinuating that the Iran deal has “no value” because it is based on a faulty reading of the facts on the ground, asserting that it damaged Israel’s struggle to defend itself from Iran, and comparing it to the infamous Munich agreement that preceded WWII. This in turn was followed by a statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu confirming that Israel’s opposition to the deal has not changed, but emphasizing that Israel has no greater ally than the U.S. and that the most important things going forward are ensuring Iranian compliance with the deal and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Then on Monday, the Defense Ministry issued another unsigned statement apologizing for any misunderstanding over the Munich analogy but reiterating again that Israel remains concerned about Iranian behavior in the wake of the Iran deal.
The Iran deal has been at the core of much of the up-and-down relationship between the American and Israeli governments over the past few years, culminating in Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March 2015 and continuing to cast a pall over the negotiations for the new ten year defense assistance Memorandum of Understanding. Despite the fact that the Iran deal has been signed and implemented, framing how it is perceived is still crucial to both sides. For the U.S., defending Obama’s signature – and most controversial – foreign policy achievement is the way to shape how history will view his presidency, and even more importantly to set the future direction of American foreign policy long after he is gone from office. For Israel, which was the most publicly vociferous opponent of the deal, continuing to inveigh against it is not only about protecting Israeli credibility and demonstrating Israeli prescience, but about keeping the heat on Iran in order to preserve Israel’s position in the region and assure international support for its defense and security priorities. So more than one year on from the deal’s conclusion, it still affects U.S.-Israel relations and will continue to do so for years to come.
In this particular case, the blowup could have and should have been easily avoided, and much of the blame lies on the president himself. Obama was wrong in his characterization of how the Israeli security establishment views the deal, particularly in his use of the phrase “game changer.” Whereas Obama portrayed Israel as Saul on the road to Damascus, having seen the light and undergone a conversion on the Iran deal’s merits, the reality is that Israeli officials are far more wary. They acknowledge that the deal has eliminated the nuclear issue in the short term, but they also worry that it has actually made the issue even more dangerous in the long term once the deal expires in ten years and that it has worsened other Iranian non-nuclear headaches, such as terrorism and ballistic missile production, in the present. And while Israeli officials concede that Iran has hewed to the narrow terms of the deal so far, they are also certain that Iran will violate the agreement as soon as it is in its interests to do so. In light of this, Israeli officials’ anger at Obama’s press conference is eminently understandable. Israelis rightly don’t like being used as pawns in a PR battle, and all the more so when they feel that their position is being misrepresented. Even worse, Israel’s response since the deal was implemented has been precisely what the U.S. had been pleading for – measured opposition and an acknowledgement that the most important thing now is to hold Iran to its commitments, rather than to continue lambasting the deal at every opportunity and lobbying for it to be scrapped. For that to be throw back in its face must have been particularly galling.
Being justifiably angry, however, does not make the response justifiable. Rather than bring a gun to a knife fight – and breaking out the Munich analogy was certainly a disproportionate response – Israel would have been better off spinning this as a win. After all, the fact that Obama referenced Israel as the ultimate validator in judging whether or not the deal has been and will be successful gives Israel a fair deal of leverage going forward when it comes to evaluating Iranian compliance and developing a response should Iran be deemed in violation of the accord. It is embarrassing enough that the “Defense Ministry” had to walk back its original statement a few days later, but the timing itself made things even more precarious given that the U.S. and Israel are reportedly in the end stages of negotiating the new military aid package, and this hardly seems the time for Israel to do anything that might upset the apple cart. The fact that Avigdor Lieberman – who presumably took the strange step of hiding behind an entire ministry in an effort to give his statement more weight – was unable to hold his tongue despite the timing and despite his past criticism of other Israeli ministers for needlessly harming relations with the U.S. is a reminder of how the pragmatic defense minister can still be dangerously erratic, placing politics above wider considerations.
If there is a positive element to all of this, it is that despite the missteps on both sides of the ocean, it seems that both the U.S. and Israel have learned something from the recent tensions in the relationship. That Israel almost immediately walked back its over the top outburst demonstrates a recognition that rhetorical excesses do indeed have consequences and must be contained. That the U.S. was publicly silent and did not escalate the confrontation in response to Lieberman’s barb demonstrates a desire going forward to keep disagreements behind closed doors, as the Israelis have often requested. There is no question that Iran is going to continue to be a wedge between the U.S. and Israel through the end of the Obama presidency at the very least, but hopefully both sides can manage to be more felicitous in their public statements going forward.
July 28, 2016 § 6 Comments
I have been unsparing in my criticism of Republican positions on Israel this campaign season, and particularly those held by the (no longer presumptive) nominee and his team of one-staters. I make no secret of the fact that I see Donald Trump’s views on Israel as incoherent at best and a dumpster fire at worst, and the fact that Republicans have, despite some laudable exceptions, quietly acceded to Trump upending years of established Republican – and largely bipartisan – policy on Israel is not their finest moment. If Trump loses, one of the most entertaining sideshows of the next few years will be watching his currently eager but future shamefaced supporters walking back not only their laudatory expressions of support for him personally but the absurd positions they embraced on his behalf, and hopefully the more-hawkish-than-Bibi position will fall under this umbrella. The Republicans have the problem that they are becoming comfortable with positions on Israel that are absurdly unrealistic and will damage Israel in the long run, but events at the Democratic convention are demonstrating that the Republicans are not alone. If the Republicans are hurting Israel by emboldening its most extreme instincts, the Democrats are doing so by giving those who possess the extreme instincts legitimate cause for concern.
On Monday, speaking at an event on the sidelines of the convention, Representative Hank Johnson stridently criticized Israeli settlement activity. The problem is that in doing so, he referred to Israeli settlers as termites; made the blanket assertion that Israelis are not building their own neighborhoods but that, in his words, “you see one home after another being appropriated by Jewish people who come in to claim that land just because somebody did not spend the night there;” and falsely charged that Israel has banned Palestinians from displaying the Palestinian flag. I understand why Johnson is upset at Israeli policies in the West Bank, and I share his frustration. What I don’t share is his view that it is appropriate to compare Israelis to vermin or to just make stuff up in order to paint a bad situation with an even darker brush. On Monday afternoon, Johnson tweeted an apology for his “poor choice of words,” referring to comparing Israelis to termites, but that actually misses the point. It is the exaggerated charges that are the truly damaging aspects of what Johnson said. Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton and Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders dislike Israel’s settlement policy, and it is reasonable to expect Democratic politicians to criticize it given their voters’ preferences. But whipping people up into an ignorant frenzy by insinuating that the bulk of settlement activity consists of Israelis lurking in the weeds, just waiting for Palestinians to spend a night out of town and then taking over their houses, is grossly irresponsible. Israel’s settlement policy – which, yes, sometimes involves building on privately owned Palestinian land – is bad enough on its own that it doesn’t need to be embellished, and it is this type of rhetoric that gives cover to the farthest right of Israel’s rightwing by allowing them to claim that criticism of Israel is little more than lies and hate.
Yet more extreme behavior was on display Tuesday outside of the convention hall, as a rowdy group of louts burned an Israeli flag and chanted “long live the intifada,” no doubt demonstrating their desire for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their commitment to two states for two peoples. Now, this is not activity sanctioned by the Democratic Party and so to blame it on national Democrats is simply unfair; in fact, the flag burners appear to have been part of a larger group protesting Democratic policy more widely. But just as there is something about Trump that draws white supremacists to him like moths to a flame, the fact that those on the left advocating for ethnic cleansing of Israeli Jews think that they will manage to get a sympathetic hearing from people attending the convention in Philadelphia says something. These kinds of views must be unequivocally denounced, and putting Cornel West – who has accused Bibi Netanyahu of war crimes and talks about “the role of money and lobbies” when discussing Israel policy – on the Democratic platform committee sends a message of a different type.
I do not mean to suggest an absolute equivalence here where both sides are suffering on the same level. On the Republican side, we are dealing with a nominee and a platform whose Israel policy is off the rails, while on the Democratic side we are dealing with a misinformed backbench congressman and some unwashed protestors who are left with burning flags on the wrong side of the convention’s security fence. One party has abandoned the bipartisan consensus on two states while one is still holding the line. That doesn’t change the fact that there is a worrisome undercurrent in the Democratic Party that views Israel as disproportionately bad, and it should and must be called out. Comments like Johnson’s or moves to welcome the BDS movement under the Democratic big tent are wrong on their own, but they are also ultimately damaging by reinforcing the narrative on the right that nothing Israel does will ever be enough, and so better to just damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead. It is easy to see how Republican policies are driving Israel away from two states. The fact that it is harder to see how some movements within the Democratic Party are accomplishing the same doesn’t mean that it is less worthy of opprobrium.
July 21, 2016 § 2 Comments
As Turkish tanks and F-16s filled the streets and skies of Turkish cities on Friday night in an effort to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP government from power, Israeli officials had cause for anxiety. The newly announced reconciliation deal has been highly touted by both governments, and while the military coup in Egypt that brought President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power in 2013 has been a boon for Israeli-Egyptian relations, there is no way of knowing what a military government in Turkey would bring. Ultimately, Israel’s initial radio silence and subsequent endorsement of “the democratic process in Turkey” was geared toward sending a message that it hopes reconciliation will continue apace and that is indeed the likely scenario. Nevertheless, the failed Turkish coup is going to affect Israel in other ways, some obvious and some less so.
The reconciliation agreement is still on track according to Turkish officials, and given that the government that negotiated it is still in place, there is no compelling reason to think otherwise. If anything, Turkey will be even more desperate now for Israeli intelligence and military cooperation given that the general who oversaw the army command responsible for securing Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq has been arrested as a coup plotter. The same rationales that existed for reconciling with Israel last month still exist today, and while reconciliation may easily get fouled up by other outside events, the Turkish government’s near-miss is not one of them.
In some ways, the events of last weekend actually may make the political relationship between Israel and Turkey stronger. Erdoğan is now laying the groundwork to be stronger domestically than he has been at any point during his tenure at the top of Turkish politics. He is using the coup attempt as an excuse to completely eviscerate all opposition wherever he suspects it lurks, from the military to the judiciary to the primary and higher education systems. His supporters, many of whom already saw him as a demigod above reproach, are now fired up and mobilized to back anything he does, and anyone who stands in the way will immediately be tarred as a Gülen movement terrorist or worse. The chances of Erdoğan now getting the constitution for which he has been pushing that will formally transform Turkey into a presidential system are nearly assured. The upshot of all this is that historically Erdoğan has used Israel as a punching bag when he has felt challenged domestically, or when he has not had a more convenient group on which to pin Turkey’s ills. The all-out war against the Gülenists combined with the fact that Erdoğan is on the verge of truly making himself into a modern day sultan mean that using Israel for nationalist or populist purposes is not going to be the crutch to which he immediately turns. That is not to say that a Turkey going through a period of nationalist-tinged anger is not going to have its share of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, but Erdoğan has other more pressing targets for now. In the context of Israel being used as an instrument of scorn in the Turkish political arena, a strong Erdoğan is better for Israel than a weak Erdoğan.
On the other hand, the military side of things will be much thornier for reasons that are apparent. The heyday of Israeli-Turkish ties in the 1990s was driven by the countries’ respective militaries, and in some respects Israel may be lucky that the freeze of the past six years means that few in Turkey will have any cause to insinuate Israeli military involvement in a Turkish military coup, despite the fact that one of the ringleaders was a former military attaché to Israel. The purges of the Turkish armed forces began immediately and will be ongoing on a scale that is unprecedented in Turkish history, and any robust relationships between IDF officers and their Turkish counterparts may now all be erased. In addition, the coup attempt was centered around the Turkish air force, which historically had the closest connection to the IDF as a result of quarterly Israeli air force training exercises in Turkey, and so any existing institutional relationship is bound to suffer as the air force is gutted in the wake of the coup plot.
One wildcard for Israel going forward is the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Turkey relationship, as Turkey demands that the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gülen, whom the government accuses of being behind the coup, and some Turkish cabinet ministers go so far as to blame the U.S. for the coup itself by dint of Gülen’s permanent residence here. Inflammatory Turkish rhetoric against the U.S. is hardening and the Obama administration’s response has been to warn Turkey about maintaining democratic norms and tacitly threatening its NATO status, so this is likely to get worse before it gets better. The U.S. was actively involved in encouraging Israeli-Turkish reconciliation out of a desire to see two of its closest regional allies not be at loggerheads, but a closer Israeli relationship with Turkey will not necessarily win any points with the U.S. should there be a serious falling out between the two NATO allies. While it is difficult to imagine any U.S. administration actively suggest that Israel cool things down with Turkey, there are certainly calculations to be made by Jerusalem as to how much it benefits from moving closer to Turkey just as the U.S. moves in the other direction.
Finally, the upheaval and reprisals in Turkey provide a sobering lesson and a warning sign to both the political and military establishments in Israel. On the one hand, the Turkish chaos presents a clear contrast to Israel, which has a strong army that has always been intimately – albeit informally – involved in politics and a robust military culture but has never suffered a military coup or even been close. The IDF often acts as a brake on politicians, as was the case during the years-long debate over whether to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, but it is never as a result of coercion and there is no question of the primacy of civilian oversight. Israel is, however, right now going through a rocky period in civil-military relations, and it is something that did not develop overnight. The failed coup attempt in Turkey is the result of myriad factors, but a significant one is the buildup of years of resentment from officers who feel that the government has hounded them unfairly, used them as a political tool, and treated them as pawns in larger battles. Israel would be wise to absorb what is going and use it to reinforce the longstanding Israeli ethos of harmonious and mutually beneficial civil-military relations and the necessitude of having a military that is above politics.
July 18, 2016 § Leave a comment
I tried to tackle the question for Foreign Affairs of what happens next in the wake of last weekend’s tumult in Turkey. You can find the article here.
It is hard to overstate the extent to which fears of a military coup have animated Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s actions as a politician. Conservative and religious Turks have lived for decades under the shadow of the 1960 coup that deposed and executed Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, whom Erdogan frequently refers to as a martyred hero and a cautionary tale. The 1997 “postmodern” coup that deposed Erdogan’s political mentor, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, and led to Erdogan’s subsequent imprisonment and suspension from politics for religious incitement only reinforced the notion among non-elite Turks that the old secular establishment, of which the army was the cornerstone, would never fully cede power.
It was only when Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) co-founder Abdullah Gül won their 2007 stare-down with the military over Gül’s candidacy for president (which the army opposed because Gül’s wife wore a headscarf), that Erdogan seemed to gain the upper hand and be in position to alter the balance of power with the army for good.
This is the context for the recent Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, in which the government accused Turkish officers of plotting a series of coups and false-flag attacks designed to overthrow the AKP regime—trials that decimated Turkey’s military ranks and that were also subsequently overturned when some of the convictions were found to be based on fabricated evidence.
It is also the context for Erdogan’s fetishization of elections and his majoritarian theory of governance. Both as prime minister and as president, Erdogan repeatedly expressed that elections confer ultimate power and allow the government to take any actions that it likes. Although such attitudes were partly a way of dismissing Turkey’s largely feckless opposition parties, they were also the ultimate line of defense against the military. Erdogan never felt safe from the long arm of the military and always saw the next coup right around the corner. He thus classified every challenge as a plot, whether it came from the military, his former Gülen movement allies, or even from unarmed protestors in Gezi Park.
Erdogan believed that he could get away with such characterizations as long as he could point to high margins of victory on election day and mobilize his supporters in impressive shows of popular strength. These would make it difficult for the military to continue its tradition of intervening in Turkish politics; to overthrow Erdogan and the AKP would be to take on a leader with unprecedented popularity and a party that had been extraordinarily successful.
So it was a surprise on Friday, when tanks rolled through the streets of Istanbul, F-16s flew low over Ankara, and a new entity calling itself the Peace at Home Council announced on Turkish state television that it had taken over the country. Suddenly, it seemed that Erdogan’s worst fears had been realized and that his efforts to coup-proof Turkey had provoked exactly what he was guarding against.
Please head over to Foreign Affairs to read the rest of the piece.