Israel’s Russian Roulette

May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

A year ago I wrote about the way in which Israeli domestic politics was coloring its foreign policy toward Russia on account of Israel’s large Russian population – over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union now live in Israel, making up somewhere between 10-15% of the total population – and noted that the government was doing its best to cozy up to Putin on account of the domestic political benefits despite the fact that there were obvious foreign policy pitfalls for Israel in pursuing such a strategy. In light of the violence in Syria, it is time to revisit this issue. The topic has taken on greater urgency now that Bashar al-Assad has claimed that Russia has already sent a shipment of S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries to Syria. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon had warned Russia not to arm the Assad regime with these missiles, considered to be a significant upgrade to existing Syrian air defense capabilities, and said that if the shipment of weapons left for Syria, Israel would “know how to act.” While Russia had postponed the initial shipment of missiles at Israel’s request, all signs point to further Israeli requests to delay delivering the SAM batteries being likely to fall on deaf ears. Russia’s interest in propping up the Assad regime has only grown, and the increasing calls for Western intervention and hints of U.S. plans for a no-fly zone in Syria have only seemed to strengthen Russian resolve as it turns the fight in Syria into a proxy battle against the West.

As Jordan Hirsch and Sam Kleiner smartly argued a couple of weeks ago, the chaos in Syria is in some ways restoring a Cold War dynamic between the U.S. and Israel that is focused on Israel as a proxy and strategic ally against a larger adversary, which in this case is Iran. However, the past couple of weeks have added a twist to this observation, which is that in some ways we are actually returning to the original Cold War dynamic of the U.S. against Russia and Israel caught in the middle. While the relationship between Israel and Russia has been strong, full of state visits and Israeli officials fawning over their Russian counterparts, the situation in Syria has put the brakes on what was in many ways a friendship built on a mirage. Israeli politicians have wanted to reap the low-hanging political fruit of being seen as having close ties with Russia, but Russia never gave Israel any indication of being willing to budge on its support for Iran or its backing of Assad. In fact, fostering a close relationship with Russia might have actually backfired, as when Israel hit Syrian military sites in Damascus earlier in May, it infuriated the Russian government, which was taken by surprise by the Israeli raid. Close ties between Jerusalem and Moscow may have created an expectation in Russia’s mind of notification by Israel, or perhaps some level of leeway on Russian priorities that Israel is unwilling to give.

The entire situation demonstrates the strategic quandary in which Israel finds itself due to its relatively small stature. Israel is not enough of a heavyweight to do much of anything to change the direction of Russian foreign policy, and its threats are not credible when dealing with a country the size and strength of Russia. Israel has spent years cultivating Putin and other Russian leaders, and Avigdor Lieberman played up his Russian connection while serving as foreign minister to an unprecedented degree, but when push comes to shove, all of this falls by the wayside in the face of larger Russian geostrategic priorities. Keeping Assad as an ally and maintaining the Russian naval base in Tartus, and in the big picture frustrating Western efforts to get Assad to exit power, is just worth much more to Moscow than anything Israel can offer and any benefits that accrue to Russia as a result of closer ties with Israel. Furthermore, Russia even has good cause to start intimidating Israel if it believes that Israeli natural gas exports  – if they ever happen, which is a big if – might in any way cut into Russian market share in Europe. Israel just does not measure up when it comes to ordering Russian priorities, and Israel is learning this the hard way in the context of the Syrian morass.

There is another element at play here, which is how Israeli domestic politics require Israel to tread carefully in its dealings with Russia. As I noted a year ago, the Russian population in Israel feels a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward its previous home even as its connection there wanes, much like American Jews feel strongly about Israel and Irish-Americans feel strongly about Ireland. Were the U.S. ever to have tense relations with Ireland, it would actually raise a serious problem in Congress and make for an extremely tricky political environment. Domestic politics affects every move the Israeli government makes, and if the connection between the large population of Russian origin and Israel’s foreign policy maneuvering has not already been taken into account by the more insightful politicians, I’d be surprised. Note that Israel has not yet directly threatened Russia, but has instead made veiled threats toward Syria on the issue of missile shipments, which is a counterintuitive move when you consider the supply chain here and that the party that needs to be prevented from moving is Moscow rather than Damascus. Part of that is, as I noted above, that Israel just does not have the heft to make any credible threats against Russia, but I think part of it is also the domestic political angle of trying not to pick a public fight with the Russian government any more than is absolutely necessary. Whatever the outcomes of the spat over the S-300 missile batteries, it will be very difficult going forward for Israel to pretend that its relationship with Russia is as cozy as it has portrayed in the past.

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Guest Post: Did It Just Get Tougher To Become A Turkish Alcoholic?

May 23, 2013 § 5 Comments

Dov Friedman needs no introduction to O&Z readers anymore, and his latest post touches on a larger issue that I have been writing and debating about for some time. I have long contended that the AKP is not an Islamist party, but rather a socially conservative party run by Islamists, but there are some recent signs that perhaps I need to reassess my thinking. Last week, Steven Cook detailed ways in which the AKP is in his view gradually Islamizing political and social institutions, and yesterday brought the news that there is a draft bill curtailing the consumption and advertisement of alcohol that is making its way through the Turkish parliament. It is an open question whether this is part of an AKP project to first transform society and then bring Turkey’s laws in line with ascendant religious and/or conservative attitudes, or whether this bill is typical AKP electioneering that won’t ever actually become law, but irrespective of which of these two options is closer to the truth, it feeds into a much broader debate about the AKP’s direction and motivations. Dov has done yeoman’s work in figuring out exactly how the bill would affect things in the heart of Istanbul were it to become law, so read ahead for some serious quality analysis and visual representation:

Yesterday, a Turkish parliamentary commission passed a controversial law related to the sale, advertisement, and consumption of alcoholic beverages.  If the bill is made law, consumption in outdoor areas will be restricted to those businesses holding tourist licenses, advertisement will be largely banned, and alcohol products must bear warnings equivalent to those that grace the packages of tobacco products.

The new—and controversial—regulations regarding the sale of alcohol have received the most attention.  If passed and enforced, new liquor licenses will not be issues to establishments within 100 meters of a mosque or “educational institution”.  Originally, the law sought to proscribe sales at all establishments within those distances, but strong opposition helped grandfather in establishments already bearing licenses.  The hazy meaning of “educational institution” also continues to be the source of both intense debate and nervous anticipation.

The law was conceived, drafted, and supported by members of the ruling AK Party.  Irrespective of one’s feelings about the law, this should surprise no one.  The AK Party trumpets its social conservatism, and efforts to circumscribe how alcohol is sold, marketed, and consumed are of a piece with the party’s ideology.

For alcohol purveyors and consumers, gut reactions to the law are decidedly negative.  Knowing that, roughly, “a lot” of mosques and schools pervade Turkey’s cities and towns, their opposition is visceral—and understandable.

But what, exactly, would the effects of such a law look like? How much, and what areas, of the cities people live in would be affected?  To begin to answer this question, I created a map that attempts to reflect the areas of Beyoğlu, Istanbul that would be affected.  Beyoğlu—as anyone who has visited Istanbul knows—is one of the hearts of the city and a center of culture, food, and nightlife.

Thanks to the wonderful capabilities of Google Maps Engine, I have created a multi-layered map of central Beyoğlu.  The map is meant to be illustrative, not executed with a surveyor’s precision.  I estimated the 100-meter distances.  I assumed that the alcohol-free zones were based on street access and not as the crow flies.  The map only takes into account mosques and schools identified as such by the good folks at Google Maps.  Finally, the map does not reflect where businesses might lose liquor licenses; it merely indicates where new licenses may not be forthcoming.

Personally, I am agnostic on the law.  I am not Turkish, I do not vote in Turkey, and it is not my job to decide for Turkish society the extent to which the laws should reflect conservative or liberal social values.  I do believe, however, that a clear visualization of what the law does, and does not, proscribe is helpful in debating its relative merits.

Indeed, the map has helped me form my own understanding of the law’s intended effect.  Several notable areas of concentrated nightlife—including the Asmalı Mescit and Nevizade districts—are largely unscathed.  I wonder if the law intends primarily to circumscribe nightlife and contain it to areas in which it already figures prominently, preventing its pervasive expansion throughout downtown.

Presently, the map may be viewed but not edited.  Though if someone wanted to contribute—or improve upon, using techniques this neo-Luddite cannot fathom—to the expansion of the map to other areas of the city, I would be happy to share access.

Perhaps this map will contribute to a robust discussion and debate about the law’s precise aims and consequences—something that is too often lacking in Turkey’s present political discourse.

It’s Not The Size Of Government That Matters, But How You Use It

May 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

Every so often I feel compelled to write something that has nothing to do with Israel or Turkey, the wider Middle East, or foreign policy in general, and today is one of those days. Instead of my usual fare, let me take a brief moment and use the current controversies engulfing the Obama administration to rant about how the silly debate over the size of government is entirely misplaced. Conservatives look at the IRS targeting Tea Party groups applying for non-profit status and quite naturally take away the lesson that big government is the problem and that the size of the public sector needs to be reduced. Similarly, big government is viewed as the culprit now that news has emerged that the Department of Justice secretly seized phone records from the Associated Press and email and phone records from Fox News reporter James Rosen in the pursuit of leak investigations. The argument is that were the government not so big, such abuses, mistakes, scandals, or whatever one wants to term them would not take place because the government would not have the resources to go after its enemies or people whom it feels like targeting.

This is a nice theory, but not only is it entirely inapt in these particular cases, it threatens to divert attention from a far more serious problem that is literally a threat to our system of democracy (and no, I am not being hyperbolic). To begin with, reducing the size of government would have had no impact on these cases. In the IRS case, the evidence in the New York Times reporting suggests that the problem was a severely understaffed regional office populated by under-qualified employees who were not prepared for the flood of 501(c)(4) applications that came their way, and they thus came up with the highly problematic solution of coming up with a shortcut to isolate applications from groups that they suspected were not truly socially welfare oriented. There is no evidence to date that this was a result of political pressure from above, and in fact the IRS is made up career bureaucrats who work there for years, so it would be odd to suggest that somehow the IRS is populated with partisan liberal Democrats going on witch hunts. Rather than big government being the problem here, the truth is the opposite; were the IRS sufficiently funded and staffed, applications could actually be considered properly rather than be subjected to shortcuts designed to manage an unmanageable workload in a timely fashion. (Full disclaimer here: I work for an organization whose tax-exempt status is right now under consideration by the IRS, and I am furious that it will likely be delayed even further now due to the political uproar taking place.)

Let’s move on to the AP scandal, which is actually a much bigger deal. In this case, the DOJ went on a fishing expedition to determine who leaked information to the AP after the national security threat had passed. In other words, the White House was mad that the information was going to come out at all, and so it engaged in massive overreach in trying to find out who the leaker was in targeting phone records that were likely to be outside the narrow scope that the law permits. Furthermore, the government did not even ask the AP to comply with a request for the records before subpoenaing them, which to me says that it knew that its actions were way over the line of what is reasonable. Now, in this case as well, the problem is not a government that is too big. DOJ does not require massive amounts of funding or personnel to improperly subpoena phone records. The AP case does, however, illuminate the true problem, which is not how big the government is, but what power we allow it to acquire. The AP case is not the only one in the news involving government investigations of leaks. Fox News reporters James Rosen, who reported classified information that he was leaked about North Korea, had his work and personal phone records seized, his work and personal emails searched, his visits to the State Department tracked, and even his parents’ phone records were seized. Perhaps this is not overzealous behavior given that Rosen’s reporting may have put rare intelligence assets in North Korea at risk and so finding the leaker was of paramount importance. I am open to this argument despite having my doubts as to the necessity of casting such a wide net. But even granting that is the case, the government went one step further, and actually named Rosen in a court affidavit as a “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator.” Placing a reporter who benefits from a leak in one of these categories is literally unprecedented in American history, and if you don’t think this is a big deal that leads to a very slippery slope, then all I can say is that you are simply not paying close enough attention.

For those keeping score at home, the Obama administration has now been the first to claim the right of the government to kill an American citizen without sufficient due process of law by any reasonable definition of the term, and also the first to identify a reporter doing his First Amendment-protected job as a criminal co-conspirator. Neither of these two things have anything at all to do with the size of the government, and everything to do with the powers that we accord the government – or, more accurately in this case, the powers that the government claims unopposed. I frequently take to Twitter, as I did last week, to make a variation of the following point, which is that I do not understand how more people are not up in arms about this, and particularly Democrats. Every single datapoint from political theory and history demonstrates that once the government gains the power to do something, it never gives it back. Are we supposed to trust the White House on these issues because Obama campaigned on maintaining civil liberties despite the national security challenges the country faces, or because he gave a nice speech in 2009 at the National Archives claiming that we did not have to make any trade-offs between security and freedom? While talking the talk, the government has claimed powers under his watch that not even Bush and Cheney asserted that they had. I shudder to think of what the next administration will do given the precedents set by this one, and if you don’t think that the White House knows what a problem this is, recall that a year ago they were frantically trying to set down written legal guidelines (which so far do not exist) for the drone war since they realized how out of control things might become with a potential Romney administration.

The idea that we should trust Obama on these issues because he is a Democrat is ridiculous, and in fact it should make people even more outraged and even more willing to scream and yell and pressure the administration. I keep on waiting and waiting for someone other than Rand Paul to start raising these issues, and it is high time that Democrats do so, because before you know it, the government is going to start claiming powers in the interest of national security that are even more expansive and wider in scope. That may be fine for some people while Obama is in the White House, although I don’t quite understand why, but remember that government powers once claimed live on forever no matter how big or small that government is, and pretty soon someone else is going to be sitting in the Oval Office. Please watch Obama’s speech tomorrow that is supposed to serve as a bookend to his 2009 speech and listen carefully to what he has to say, because anything short of a repudiation of what has gone on under his gaze should be considered unacceptable.

Guest Post: Are Turks And Americans Friends?

May 17, 2013 § 5 Comments

Today’s post comes from the great mind of Alexander Slater, who aside from being a close friend and one of my all-time favorite intellectual sparring partners is also a counsel at O’Melveny & Myers, where he works in the White Collar and Corporate Investigations practice. He has degrees from Yale, Harvard, and Oxford, is a former foreign policy adviser to Chuck Schumer, and is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Network. He and I were in Turkey together in March, and as Prime Minister Erdoğan is visiting DC this week, it is a good opportunity for Ally to expound on the gap between the constant rhetoric from the U.S. and Turkish governments about the friendship between the two countries on the one hand and the reality of the public opinion numbers on the other.

When the Obama Administration originally announced yesterday’s White House meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it explained that “[t]he Prime Minister’s visit underscores the close friendship between the United States and Turkey.” But are Turkey and the United States really friends?

This is not an idle question. As the United States’ close relations with Canada and the United Kingdom show, genuine friendships among states, as opposed to alliances based on the coincidence of national interests, can be powerful strategic assets. Especially in electoral democracies, relationships based on a mutual admiration among their people, not merely their governments, can endure beyond momentary, or even lasting, differences in foreign policies. (Canada’s refusal to join the coalition of states participating in the Iraq War is a case in point.)

Given the importance that Turkey and the United States place on their bilateral relations, then, the White House’s statement should be seen as more than polite diplomatic speak. Unfortunately, it also appears to be wrong, at least if the results from Pew Research’s 2012 Global Attitudes Survey are to be believed.

According to the survey, only 15 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States. Even fewer —only 13 percent—indicated they have a “favorable view of the American people.” (This was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed. By contrast, 32 percent of Egyptians and 39 percent of Chinese—nationals of countries with arguably more contentious relations with the United States than Turkey—had a favorable view of Americans.) These results are surprising because many people from both countries have a lot in common, even if their historical, religious, and cultural backgrounds differ.

I know this because in March I spent two weeks in Turkey as a participant in the third installment of the Young Turkey, Young America program, an intercultural exchange run jointly by the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center. As part of the program, fifteen Turks and fifteen Americans, all young professionals, spent a month together traveling across the two countries, meeting with officials from their commercial, political and civil society communities. The Pew survey results paint a very different picture than what I saw and heard during our travels.

For instance, according to the Pew survey, only 14 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ways of doing business.” (Like the results discussed above, this was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed.) And yet, while in Turkey, I saw officials and executives promote commerce and conduct business in ways similar to Americans: The Izmir Chamber of Commerce advertised how the region was a great place for investment; a government official in Ankara proclaimed that Turkey would inspire other countries as a modern economic power where markets and debtors could be trusted; and, while in Istanbul, an executive at one of Turkey’s leading conglomerates sought our ideas on using social media to promote brand development.

There seems to be a similar dynamic at play on political issues. According to the Pew survey, only 13 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ideas about democracy.” (This was the second-lowest rating, ahead of only Pakistan.) However, what I observed of the practice of politics in Turkey reminded me of these activities in America. At a meeting with an AK Party official, we saw a savvy integration of public relations and religious overtones that could have come straight out of the political handbook of Karl Rove. And almost every day during the trip, newspapers carried stories about Prime Minister Erdogan’s efforts to resolve the Kurdish conflict, including a push for constitutional reform that recognizes Kurds’ minority rights, which would make Turkey’s democracy will look more, rather than less, like its American counterpart.

A sharp critic might respond that these observations are based only on visits to the urban areas of Izmir, Ankara, and Istanbul—places where one would expect there to be convergence with Western commerce and political practice. This is true. However, together, these three regions represent approximately 30 percent of Turkey’s population and 70 percent of Turks overall are city dwellers, with more moving in every day. These places are increasingly representative of what Turkey is all about.

The issue seems to be that, among large portions of the Turkish public, there are substantial misperceptions of Americans. While recent political differences over the Syrian conflict and the Iraq War may contribute to Turks’ overall negative view of the United States, these policy problems seem unrelated to their apparently unfavorable view of American ways of doing business and democracy. This negativity is all the more surprising given that President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan reportedly have a deep personal relationship.

As the survey data shows, however, a connection between leaders, no matter how popular they are, is not enough to create friendship among peoples: if the two administrations are intent on forming an American-Turkish alliance built on more than a coincidence of interests, they must also devote effort to building up its foundations. One place to start would be to add to a future agenda the development of a bilateral strategy to emphasize domestically what Turks and Americans have in common.

Why The Chinese Plan For Mideast Peace Matters

May 13, 2013 § 2 Comments

The most consequential development for the long term prospects of a more stable and peaceful Middle East that took place this week was not John Kerry’s effort to move Russia closer to the American position on Syria and take steps toward negotiating a political transition, nor was it the news that Israel has quietly implemented a freeze on new settlement construction in the West Bank that may lead to new negotiations with the Palestinians. Rather, it was the lightly scoffed and derided announcement of a Chinese plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace that covered no new ground and relied on the tired formula that has been in place now for decades. The Chinese plan, presented to Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing while Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was being feted in Shanghai, recycles the ideas that are generally recognized to be the eventual key to a settlement – an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital, an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist and genuine need for security, an emphasis on land for peace and the need for any resolution to the conflict to be a negotiated one, and calls for greater international involvement in bringing both sides to the table. In essence, the Chinese plan is the equivalent of a blue-ribbon commission report that calls for the same measures as the previous blue-ribbon commission report on the same subject. The plan was dismissed by some as not mentioning anything new, and was dismissed by others as being too tilted in the Palestinians’ favor, and the widely held assumption is that this brief Chinese foray into the peace process will soon be forgotten.

While it is true that China’s four-point peace plan covers no new ground and has no greater chance at being implemented or moving the needle on negotiations than any previous U.S., European, or Quartet initiatives to date, the fact that China has even waded into these waters is monumentally significant. The Chinese peace plan is much greater than the sum of its parts, as it indicates a real willingness on China’s part to be an actual stakeholder in the international system and to begin using its status to solve problems and be a force for stability. That China has chosen to step forward on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute speaks volumes given the symbolism of this particular issue.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the Rolls Royce of international problems; it is very big and shiny and everyone wants to be seen riding in it. Not only has it lasted for decades, it is enormously high profile and solving it has been the dream of too many American presidents and U.N. secretaries general to count. Despite the fact that everyone knows how it will eventually be resolved, it plays an outsize role in diplomacy given its salience to hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people in the West and the Middle East, and it elicits strong opinions from people who have no direct connection to it other than what they see and read in the news. By choosing to offer its own plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, no matter how overworn and unoriginal, China is signaling that it understands its international responsibilities as the world’s most populous country, largest military, and second largest economy. The details of the peace plan do not particularly matter; what does matter is that China is making an effort.  It is no accident of history that the Quartet tasked with solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue is made up of the U.S., U.N., European Union, and Russia, but does not include China, as China has never indicated any willingness to be involved. As a country with a reputation for caring only about its quest for natural resources while sitting on the sidelines and generally obstructing any constructive efforts to solve global problems, the fact that China is trying to be proactive in the most high-profile global problem of all is a good sign.

The cynical take on this is that China is only now getting involved in an effort to curry favor with oil-rich Gulf Arab countries, curry favor with Israel now that it has massive natural gas fields coming online, or both. Yet even if this is the case, a greater Chinese effort to take ownership of this issue will cause greater Chinese involvement on a host of global governance issues whether China wants it or not. Once China becomes involved in the Israeli-Palestinian scene, it will be harder to walk away from other areas in which China does not have an obvious stake. China might actually even be able to break a deadlock on the Israeli-Palestinian front despite having nothing new to say just by virtue of being a new party with some credibility on both sides, and a larger role in other regional issues for China that do not have an obvious impact on Chinese economic interests, even if it is being done to counter American power in the Middle East, will mean that China is at least accepting that to be a world power means not letting international problems fester.

One of the big picture problems in international relations over the past decade has been how to get China to be a responsible stakeholder in world affairs and use its influence in a way that benefits the entire globe. To the extent that China begins to insert itself into other thorny problems in the Middle East, such as the Iranian nuclear standoff or the Syrian civil war, it will hopefully portend a positive trend for tamping down upheaval in the region. As much hard and soft power the U.S. brings to bear on regional issues, it clearly cannot solve problems alone, and having another major outside power exert a responsible influence – as China seems to be doing now with North Korea – can help alleviate some of the burden on the U.S. and add another powerful impetus for warring parties to come to agreements to end conflicts. China’s particular solution for a lasting peace in the Holy Land might seem like a small and unimportant story, but the bigger story here is what its foray into peacemaking means for its larger role in the world.

Not All Interventions In Syria Are Created Equal

May 6, 2013 § 7 Comments

Israel’s massive strike on military targets near Damascus early Sunday morning paired with its earlier strike on surface-to-surface missiles at the airport on Friday that were presumably destined for transfer to Hizballah has reopened a furious debate in Washington over U.S. intervention in Syria. Proponents of intervention, such as Senator John McCain, are pointing to the seeming ease with which Israel has been able to hit Syrian targets as an argument that the U.S. should be intervening in Syria and at minimum setting up a no-fly zone. The logic employed is that if Israel can use American-made weapons to penetrate Syrian air defenses seemingly at will, it shows the ineptitude of Syrian air defenses and eliminates the argument that setting up a no-fly zone will be dangerous or stretch U.S. capabilities. I am certainly no expert on the relative efficacy of Syrian military capabilities so I will not deign to wade into the argument over whether or not the Syrian army would present a legitimate military threat to setting up a no-fly zone, although I am as confident as I can be that any Syrian air defenses, no matter how robust, aren’t anything that the U.S. military can’t handle. We are talking about the most formidable fighting force with the best technology in the history of mankind, and as Steven Cook has pointed out, the difference in U.S. military resources vs. Syrian military resources is laughable, so I don’t think anyone serious is making an argument about U.S. military capabilities in warning against setting up a no-fly zone. Rather, the opposition to a no-fly zone that centers on the dangers of maintaining one is concerned with the costs of doing so and not arguing that setting one up is an impossibility. In this vein, I’d like to make a few points on why what Israel has just done over the past few days holds very few lessons for a hypothetical U.S. intervention in the form of a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.

First, the types of strikes are different. Israel has now conducted three one-off strikes in Syria since the conflict between Assad and the rebels began, and each has been an independent operation aimed at keeping what Israel terms “game changing” conventional weaponry out of Hizballah’s hands. A no-fly zone, in contrast, would consist of constant daily sorties along a predictable schedule and route. Dan Trombly this morning has done a much better job than I could ever hope to do of laying out exactly what a sustained no-fly zone would entail so rather than attempting to get into the specifics of it, just go and read his post instead. That is not to say that the U.S. cannot do so; we maintained a no-fly zone over Iraq for more than a decade. My point is that holding up three Israeli strikes, one of which happened in January and two of which happened two days apart last week, as definitive proof that a Syrian no-fly zone would present absolutely no logistical quandaries seems premature to me.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether Israel even penetrated Syrian airspace. The strike on the airport on Friday apparently took place from Lebanese territory with guided missiles that can skim along the ground for miles after being fired before reaching their intended to target, so the question of whether Syrian air defenses presented a challenge or not is moot. As of this writing, I have not seen any definitive statement as to whether the much larger strike in the wee hours of Sunday morning also came from Lebanese airspace or not. Even if it did not, I would surmise that it took the Syrian regime by surprise given that Israel has not been conducting constant strikes in Syria by any means and that Israel had already struck targets two days before. In any event, assuming that Israeli planes flew over Syria for the second strike, a solitary sortie again does not provide the evidence needed to draw any firm conclusions about Syrian air defenses against a long-term no-fly zone.

Third, even if Israel did launch the second strike from Syria itself, keep in mind that Syria has a long history of not responding to Israeli incursions while not extending the same courtesy to other countries. Israel flew eight planes in and out of Syria to destroy its nuclear reactor and extract its commandos on the ground in September 2007 without a shot being fired. Israel also conducted a strike in Syria through Syrian airspace in January, as noted above, and possibly again this past weekend, all without running into any resistance at all. In contrast, Turkey had its F-4 downed over Syria last summer, and whether it was brought down by Syria or – as has been widely rumored – by a Russian anti-aircraft battery, the fact remains that Syria generally keeps its head down when Israel is involved. In fact, a former Syrian air force major now with the rebels has claimed that Syrian air defenses were actively ordered to stand down during the Israeli raid on the al-Kibbar reactor once the planes were detected and it became clear that it was an Israeli operation. The reason might be that Israel has a carefully cultivated reputation for responding to provocations with overwhelming and even disproportionate force, which smartly deters retaliatory action. If Syria thinks that Israel will bomb it back to the Stone Age if it shoots at Israeli planes, it has every reason to stand down. Indeed, if the reports of the massive explosions in Damascus on Sunday are to be believed, Israel is still making sure to employ its own version of shock and awe. I am not sure that the U.S. reputation in the region is quite the same as Israel’s, and so extrapolating from Syria’s turning a blind eye to Israeli incursions that it will also ignore sustained U.S. incursions is, in my view, a bridge too far.

Finally, and most importantly, Israel has a clearly defined and limited goal in mind when it strikes Syrian targets. As Brent Sasley emphasized today, Israel is engaging in finite operations specifically designed to avoid reprisals by only targeting a specific category of weaponry that is in danger of being transferred to outside parties. The U.S., on the other hand, is dealing with a very different kettle of fish. If the U.S. sets up a no-fly zone, what is the objective? Is it to remove Assad? Even the playing field to give the rebels a better chance? Protect civilians without putting our thumb on the scale on behalf of one side? Israel can more easily carry out its objectives in Syria because they are simple – prevent chemical weapons or new missile technology being given to Hizballah. The U.S.’s objectives will be murkier, particularly since President Obama’s “red line” comment was apparently unplanned. When you don’t have a sense of what exactly you hope to accomplish, nor how long it will actually take to accomplish this hazy objective, taking lessons from a country that has an actually clear red line and knows that it does not have to commit many resources to enforce it may not be the best idea. If we have learned anything from our excursion in Iraq, surely it should be that predictions of a cakewalk should be cast aside in favor of a strategy that hopes for the best and plans for the worst.

Again, none of this is to say that the U.S. is not up to the job, or that the Syrian military is an awesomely fearsome fighting force, or that our capabilities are anything short of allowing us to do pretty much whatever we set out to do. What I am saying is that pointing to what Israel has just done and using that as definitive proof of anything related to a potential U.S. no-fly zone is taking the wrong frame of reference as a lesson.

One last related note: to those who incessantly insist that Israel is of absolutely no strategic worth to American interests and is nothing but an albatross around the neck of the U.S., I’d submit that having the Israeli military around to prevent transfers of Iranian-furnished weapons to Hizballah and to make sure that Assad’s delivery systems for chemical weapons also stay right where they are, all while battlefield-testing American weapons in the process, is pretty useful right about now. Just sayin’…

Freedom House’s Funhouse Definition Of Israeli Press Freedom

May 2, 2013 § 5 Comments

Freedom House released its annual “Freedom of the Press” report yesterday, in which it analyzes global press freedom and ranks countries by their levels of press freedom. Much like it does with its widely cited measure of freedom in the world, countries are given a designation of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free, and this year’s press freedom report contained at least one surprise, which is that Israel has been downgraded from Free to Partly Free when it comes to press freedom. For anyone who follows Israel and is a consumer of Israeli media, this comes as a head-scratching development, as Israel has four major newspapers that are evenly divided across the political spectrum, does not have any issues of jailing or intimidating journalists, and the press regularly investigates and criticizes the government for offenses big and small. Yet, Israel’s score for 2013 moved from a 30 to a 31, changing its overall press freedom status.

In the country report on Israel, Freedom House explains that Israel’s status was changed because of Ha’aretz journalist Uri Blau’s indictment for possession of state secrets, concerns surrounding Channel 10’s license renewal, and Israel Hayom’s market dominance in the newspaper sector threatening the viability of other papers. On the other hand, as the report notes, “Legal protections for freedom of the press are robust, and the rights of journalists are generally respected in practice. The country’s Basic Law does not specifically address the issue, but the Supreme Court has affirmed that freedom of expression is an essential component of human dignity. The legal standing of press freedom has also been reinforced by court rulings citing principles laid out in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”

Some further perusal of the Freedom House section on Israel reveals the depths of the absurdity of the designation of the Israeli press as Partly Free. Every piece of evidence in the report for declining press freedom is immediately followed by the equivalent of a small print disclaimer letting the reader know that the alarmist claims are either not quite so alarmist or have not actually occurred. Freedom House lets us know that the media “continue to face the threat of libel suits” and then admits that no such suit has actually been brought without being withdrawn. Blau was indicted on charges of espionage for holding thousands of classified documents, but this was the first time the law had been used against a journalist in decades and Blau cut a plea deal in which he is serving – the horror, the horror! – four whole months of community service. The Knesset has debated a number of draft laws that would limit press freedom of expression and raise the statutory compensation amounts in libel suits, yet not one of these bills was actually passed so nothing has actually changed. Israel Hayom has captured 40% of the newspaper market and put pressure on other papers, so much so that Ma’ariv almost had to close, but in the end Ma’ariv was bought and is not closing, and just as Israel had two major rightwing papers and two major leftwing papers in 2012, the exact same lineup remains in 2013. I could go on, but you get the picture. The Freedom House report reads as if the designation of Israeli press freedom as Partly Free was made ahead of time, and then someone went hunting for facts to back it up but couldn’t even find the clear and unfettered evidence they were looking for. Doing some really top notch reporting in the Times of Israel, Haviv Rettig Gur talked to “Freedom of the Press” project director Karin Karlekar, who admitted that the issue of libel suits was not about how they are handled in Israel specifically but because Freedom House generally opposes libel suits, that the issue with Blau isn’t even over the Blau case per se but that Freedom House is worried that this will be the beginning of a trend – despite the fact that this is literally the only instance of this law being used in decades – and that despite Israel Hayom’s market dominance Israel’s media is “very diverse.” So basically, Freedom House doesn’t have much of a problem with press freedom in Israel now, but what Israeli press freedom might look like in the future should a number of things go wrong.

In case you are wondering why Israel and its supporters constantly decry double standards and Israel being unfairly singled out for criticism, here is Exhibit A. Nobody claims that Israel is perfect, least of all me, but there’s no shortage of Israeli missteps to criticize without making new ones up. The idea that Israel’s press is not completely free is ridiculous, particularly to anyone who has spent even five minutes reading Israeli newspapers or watching Israel television, and if Freedom House wants to credibly assert differently, it’s going to have to come up with something better than a bunch of “yes, but” speculation.

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