December 23, 2015 § Leave a comment
2015 was a busy year in Israel, with elections, the Iran deal and the accompanying fiasco of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress, the return of routinized violence in the streets, and other stories big and small occupying headlines. While 2016 will (presumably) not bring another election, there will be plenty of other momentous events and slow-burning stories that occupy Israel. At the risk of opening myself up to some serious embarrassment at this time next year, here are some issues that I think will manifest themselves in a major way over the next twelve months.
Israel is a rare case when it comes to the relationship between the political and military leadership. Since most Israelis – and virtually all of the political leadership – do mandatory military service, military issues are not unfamiliar to any policymakers. On the other hand, because the IDF is Israel’s most revered institution, military leaders are accorded enormous respect and deference by the Israeli public. It means that Israel’s elected officials are in a better position than elected officials in many other countries to challenge the military leadership when disagreements arise, but are simultaneously constrained by a public that itself has firsthand familiarity with the military.
When the politicians and the generals are on the same page, this is not a problem. When they are not, the potential exists for things to get hairy. Netanyahu has famously been on the opposite side of issues with IDF chiefs of staff and Mossad and Shin Bet directors in the past, but it has seemed over the past two years that the current government is never in the same place as the upper echelon of the security and intelligence establishment. The disagreement over whether to attack Iran before the Iran deal has given way to disagreement over how to deal with the growing terrorist violence erupting from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and it almost seems inevitable that at some point down the road, the IDF is going to be asked to take actions to which it is adamantly opposed. I do not in any way mean to suggest that Israel is in danger of a military coup, since that seems about as far-fetched a possibility as Netanyahu all of a sudden embracing the BDS movement, but there is no question that the recommendations and priorities of the security leadership are clashing head on with the desires and priorities of the political leadership. Look for this to become an even bigger issue in 2016 as Palestinian violence grows and what to do in the West Bank becomes a more acute problem.
While you wouldn’t necessarily know it in the U.S. unless you regularly read beyond the headlines of the Israeli press, there are a couple of political scandals besetting Netanyahu that are ripe for explosion. The first surrounds his unusual process of appointments and suspicions that his primary criteria for evaluating whether someone is fit to lead Israel’s police force or become the next attorney general is if those appointees will turn a blind eye to the second, which is Sara Netanyahu’s household financial chicanery. It was reported this week that attorney general Yehuda Weinstein will allow the police to question Mrs. Netanyahu over allegations of misappropriating state funds in running the official Netanyahu residence, which comes on the heels of the search committee for the next attorney general recommending Avihai Mandelblit, who is seen as beholden to Netanyahu and likely to shield him and his wife from any future investigations. Possibly connected to this is Netanyahu’s strange decision to try and hold the primary for Likud chairman – which would normally happen six months before a Knesset election – as soon as two months from now in a blatant effort to forestall any challengers to his primacy. While Netanyahu’s motives may just be to get his ducks in order and catch rivals such as Gideon Sa’ar off balance well ahead of an election campaign, he also may be trying to get this out of the way before the scandals nipping at his heels catch up with him. Whatever the case, this will be a story to watch over the coming year.
Orthodox vs. Orthodox
Yedioth Ahronoth ran a feature over the weekend on the “new elites,” who are largely in the Naftali Bennett mold – young religious Zionists who are supportive of the settlement movement. While I think it is too soon to write the obituary for the secular liberal Ashkenazi elite that dominated Israel since its founding, there is no question that the fortunes of the national religious community – largely analogous to American Jewry’s modern Orthodox – are on the rise. The proportion of religious IDF officers and elite commandos has been skyrocketing for some time, and the heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Israeli police all come from the national religious camp. Bennett and Tzipi Hotovely are the political figureheads of this new elite, and there is no question that their influence is rising.
The Orthodox are not monolithic, however, and the fact that the Haredi population is on the rise as well – not to mention that Shas and UTJ are back in the coalition and are Netanyahu’s favorite political partners due to their general quiescence to his agenda – almost guarantees more intra-Orthodox friction in 2016. As it is, there is bad blood between the Haredi parties and Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, stemming from Bennett’s alliance in the last coalition with Haredi bogeyman Yair Lapid and the fight between the Haredim and the religious Zionists over the chief rabbinate, and the tension will continue to rise. The new religious Zionist elite is not willing to live with the status quo that grants the Haredi rabbinate a monopoly over the state’s religious institutions, and religious Zionist and Haredi priorities are frequently not in alignment, with the former caring first and foremost about hanging onto the West Bank and the latter caring first and foremost about stamping out secularism and continuing the state subsidies for yeshivot and other Haredi mainstays. The clashes that have so far been mostly below the radar are likely to burst into the open the longer these two camps have to coexist with each other in the same narrow coalition.
So there are some of my broad predictions for what we will see, and keep on following this space over the next year to see whether I’ll be completely wrong or just a little wrong. Happy New Year to all.
December 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
This is starting to feel like Groundhog Day. In March 2013, I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile, and here I am again nearly three years later explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile. That the two countries have had a number of false starts is instructive and provides the first lesson of the day, which is that despite yesterday’s announcement, expectations should be tempered until there is an actual signed agreement. That is not to say that this is a feint, but that there are still a lot of obstacles ahead, including President Erdoğan’s desire to use this as a domestic political win bumping against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire not to be used for Erdoğan’s political gain; a recent history of extremely difficult relations between the two governments that cannot be papered over at the drop of a hat; the Gaza blockade remaining as an extra large sticking point; and the big elephant – or more accurately, bear – in the room that is looming over this entire thing and that I’ll get to in a minute. In other words, this won’t be entirely easy so no champagne corks should be popping yet.
But assuming that this does indeed go through, it’s not terribly difficult to see why. What I wrote in March 2013 was that the two sides were being pushed together by energy needs and Syria, and that remains true today but even more acutely. Dan Arbell on Monday (exhibiting impeccable timing!) wrote about thawing relations between Turkey and Israel focusing on Turkey’s ongoing quest for energy security and Israel’s complementary ongoing quest to find an export destination for its natural gas, with the Syria situation being a factor as well. Turkey is in a serious bind now that its relationship with Russia has deteriorated in such a big way, and Israeli gas provides a way out. If Russia cancels the Turkish Stream project or even takes things one step further and halts natural gas shipments to Turkey entirely, Israeli gas won’t solve things in the short term but will provide a long term hedge against relying on Russia as a primary energy supplier. On the Israeli side, the simple truth is that no energy company is going to invest the resources to develop the Leviathan field without a viable export destination, and the two best large market options were always Egypt and Turkey. The first one is far less attractive now due to the recent Egyptian gas discoveries mitigating how much Israeli gas Egypt will want to buy over the long haul, leaving Turkey as the best destination remaining. There are still political hurdles to be overcome on both sides, and the technical hurdle of constructing a deepwater pipeline is nothing to sneeze at either, but the formal approval granted yesterday to Noble to develop Leviathan likely resulted directly from the reconciliation agreement with Turkey.
On Syria, Turkey is always desperate for more intelligence and coordination given how much it has been affected by the civil war, and Israel can benefit as well since it does not want spillover across its northern border. The Russian intervention has made this more stark for both sides, since where Israeli opinion has been divided from the start on whether it is better for Assad to stay or go, there has emerged a slightly dominant view that it is better for Assad to be deposed given his role as the linchpin of the Iran-Hizbollah axis, and Russian intervention now makes that harder (if you’re interested in the subject, I participated on a Wilson Center panel yesterday with Tamara Wittes and Yoram Peri on the subject of the Syrian crisis and Israeli security, and you can watch it here). For Turkey, which has set Assad’s downfall as its top foreign policy priority for over four years, Russia’s involvement in Syria is a disaster and so to the extent that Israeli priorities are slowly lining up on the same side, any joint cooperation is a net positive.
All of this is why the timing of rapprochement makes sense, maybe even urgently so on the Turkish side. So why do I think that in some ways it is odd? The same way that the Russia variable is driving Turkey to find alternative solutions to some of its problems and reestablish close links with its Western allies – and certainly making up with Israel is a factor in pulling the U.S. closer – the mirror image is true for Israel. Whereas in the past Israel could reconcile with Turkey and it would be cost-free in the larger geopolitical context, now it’s not quite so simple. Israel and Russia have gotten along remarkably well despite Israeli and Russian military planes both flying along the same corridor in southern Syria, and up until now Russia has respected and tolerated Israeli freedom of action to attack weapons convoys on their way to Hizballah in Lebanon. This shouldn’t be taken for granted, however, and a closer Israeli relationship with Turkey has the potential to alter this equation. Russia is undoubtedly annoyed by yesterday’s news as it has been trying to isolate Turkey as best it can, and that in itself may lead to frostier relations with Israel. But even if you take Russian pettiness out of the equation, closer coordination between the Israeli and Turkish militaries has real potential to encroach on Russian priorities in Syria, which mainly consist of ensuring Assad’s rule over at least part of the country. Should Israel be drawn into Turkey’s fight and end up striking Syrian army positions that do not directly impact Hizballah advanced weaponry, Israeli leeway in Syria will be quickly narrowed by Russia.
Furthermore, Israel has now dramatically reduced Russian leverage over Turkey by mitigating Russia’s energy blackmail strategy. This is not only a matter of economics but geopolitics as well, since Russia uses Gazprom and its energy policy as a tool for foreign policy outcomes, and in the case of Turkey, that has now been significantly undermined. I’m no Russia expert, and I don’t know that there is a Russia expert alive who can predict what Putin will or won’t do, but my casual observation of Russian behavior leads me to believe that it is not outlandish to assume that Putin won’t retaliate against Israel in some manner or another for throwing Turkey a gas lifeline. With relations with Russia as terrible as they are for Turkey, it makes sense for Ankara to risk even more Russian wrath if it means solving the energy security problem. What mystifies me a bit is why Israel, which has so far gotten along with Russia remarkably well despite working somewhat at cross purposes against Russia in Syria, would risk a downturn in relations with Russia in order to make up with Turkey, a country that cannot threaten Israel in any real way and upon whose favor Israel does not depend in order to keep on going after Hizballah in Syria. Helping Turkey out of its morass in order to realize some economic benefits while risking the chance of limiting your range of action in Syria and provoking a much stronger power is penny wise and pound foolish. On top of this, there is also the lesser but not irrelevant factor that Israel has been frantically trying to establish better ties with the “moderate” Sunni bloc that includes Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and there is no love lost for Turkey in that group of countries. When you look at the regional chess board, partnering in a closer way with Turkey brings with it some significant potential downside for Israel.
I’ll reiterate that nothing is done until it’s done, and so this post may prove to be as irrelevant as my last deep dive into this subject. From where I am sitting, this deal is a no-brainer for Turkey, but I don’t think the same can be definitively said for Israel. It will be fascinating to see where all of this leads and whether the benefits of reconciliation that both sides fantasize about end up fully materializing.
December 9, 2015 § 1 Comment
It was fitting and ironic that Donald Trump chose this week of all weeks to issue his monstrous missive calling for all Muslims – including citizens who have traveled outside of the country for work, vacation, or any reason at all – to be barred from entering the United States (you can read IPF’s official condemnation here). After all, this week Jews celebrate Hanukkah, the most minor of religious holidays on the Jewish calendar but the one that is actually most connected to religion. Casual observers know Hanukkah as the holiday that celebrates the miracle of oil that burned for eight days rather than just one, but Hanukkah is actually about the power of religion and the duality of that power, demonstrating that religion can be a force that motivates the good as well as the bad. In seeking to discriminate against an entire class of people on the basis of their faith and their faith alone, Trump demonstrates why the Hanukkah story is so important, both as a guide for how to respect religious difference and as a cautionary tale.
Hanukkah is the story of a Jewish revolt against the Syrian Greeks that was precipitated by a religious crisis. The Greek empire sought to impose cultural hegemony throughout all of the lands under its control by spreading Hellenism, and Judaism for a variety of reasons was viewed as incompatible with Hellenistic principles and ideals. Hellenism glorified the perfection of the human body, an idea that was challenged by the ritual of circumcision; Hellenism exalted the emperor as a deity, which Jewish monotheism could not accept. This fundamental clash led to the first recorded religious persecution in history and the denial of rights based solely on religion, a move which backfired on the Seleucids when the Hasmonean revolt dislodged them from Judea entirely and led not only to Jewish religious freedom – the purpose of the revolt to begin with – but Jewish political sovereignty as well.
The U.S. has a long record of protecting religious liberty, but it also has an unfortunate history of singling out entire classes of people, whether it be slavery and Jim Crow or internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Trump’s demagoguery harkens back to this latter darker legacy, and it is heartening to see nearly wall to wall condemnation of his comments. If the Hanukkah story can be distilled to its essence, it is about the downfall of an empire that singled out members of a religion on the basis of religious heritage alone, and Muslims can and should take heart in this Jewish story that has a universal message. Aside from being flat out morally reprehensible, Trump’s proposal would weaken this country rather than strengthen it.
There is another side to the Hanukkah story that is relevant here as well. As I have written about before, the epilogue to the Maccabean revolt did not have as happy an ending. The new Hasmonean kingdom of Judea emulated its predecessor’s tradition of religious intolerance and sought to forcefully convert its various subjects to Judaism or face expulsion, a policy that led to overreach, civil war, and the eventual subjugation of Judea by the Romans. It was a useful lesson that religion is not an unqualified force for good, and that fundamentalism and zealotry lead to chaos and destruction in ways that are predictable as well as ways that are unforeseen. It also bears noting that the Seleucid program of religious discrimination provoked a nationwide revolt, and pushed many ordinary Jews who would not have been inclined to fight under normal circumstances to go and take up arms in order to defend their religion from attack.
Many people have noted that Trump’s anti-Muslim broadside plays precisely into ISIS’s hands by giving the group a powerful recruiting tool. When perfectly ordinary and law-abiding Muslims are demonized because of the actions of a radical and demonic few, it increases the chances of the former group supporting the latter group out of a sense of tribal solidarity. One of the worst possible scenarios for Israel is for ISIS to train its sights on Israel and turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a much wider religious war, not because ISIS itself represents a serious military threat to the Israeli state but because the power of religion to radicalize and mobilize large numbers is unparalleled. The more that someone like Trump demonizes Muslims writ large, the greater the chances of that happening. The U.S. and Israel are often lumped together by extremist groups, and Trump has vowed to visit Israel and his self-claimed good friend Bibi Netanyahu later this year. There are all sorts of universal reasons for Americans who care about religious freedom and combatting prejudice to denounce Trump’s gambit, and there are more particular reasons for Jews who care about Israel to denounce it as well. Let’s absorb the many messages of Hanukkah, from religious tolerance to religion’s dangerous and unharnessable energy, and realize that Trump has now added moral and strategic bankruptcy to his long and undistinguished record of financial ones.
December 3, 2015 § 3 Comments
Political horizon is a term that gets bandied about a lot, including by me, when talking about the Palestinians and how to lower levels of tension and violence in Israel. The basic idea is that a lack of a political horizon leads to desperation on the Palestinian side, fueling terrorism and violence against Israelis, and it is accordingly important to provide some sense of political optimism for Palestinians. The hope is that even if a Palestinian state is not imminently around the corner, progress toward that goal will make actual conditions on the ground better.
Nevertheless, this is not a truism that lies unchallenged. Just as there is research and theory demonstrating that violence in general is caused by a lack of political movement and the frustration of nationalist aspirations, there is research and theory demonstrating that it is caused by poverty, or lack of jobs, or humiliation, or youth, or sexual frustration, or religious motivation. Complex phenomena are complex for a reason and the reality is that political violence is rarely monocausal, but people like to boil things down to one issue that if altered would change the current reality. Prime Minister Netanyahu, for instance, despite his rhetoric about jihadi terrorism and radical Islamism, appears to believe that the way out of political violence emanating from the West Bank is economics. He and his circle have long pushed the idea of an economic peace on the theory that improving the Palestinian economy will create a set of alternative incentives that do not include violence against Israelis; essentially, the thinking is that prosperous people are happy people with too much to lose.
Let’s say that you are amenable to this argument – and I think there is something to it, although I firmly believe that political progress matters more in this sphere than economic progress. Why then should the idea of a political horizon matter for practical purposes (setting aside for the moment the moral considerations involved in preventing a group’s right to self-determination)? To take it even further, let’s say you are someone who has never read your Benedict Anderson and puts the word Palestinian in quotes, or – as someone emailed in response to one of my recent columns – refers to “Fakestinians.” You don’t believe that Palestinians should have a state and that they aren’t capable of statehood. Why should it still be important to you that Palestinians perceive some sort of political horizon?
I was reading an atlas with my six year old daughter earlier this week, and when she saw that it had geographical maps and political maps, she asked me what politics means. I told her that in the context of a political map, it means the way that people organize themselves into different groups, but there is of course more behind that answer. Politics is how people acquire power and use that power to govern in an ideal world. When politics is absent, violence inevitably fills the void. Politics can be messy and nasty and ultimately deeply unsatisfying – just look at the current Republican primary race – but it is also the only tried and true route to a peaceful resolution of problems. It is not a sufficient component, but it is a necessary component.
The history of our own country belies the idea that economics trumps politics, and that politics can be ignored or downplayed. The British citizen revolutionaries of 1776 did not rise up against their own government because of excessive taxation; they rose up because they had no say in that taxation. The wealthy landowners who largely made up the leaders that we now refer to as the Founding Fathers saw no alternative to armed rebellion not because they had no economic horizon, but because they had no political horizon. It’s not for nothing that the Israeli security establishment has fingered the precise same problem in its assessment of what is driving the violence in Israel and the West Bank.
I am not suggesting that providing some sort of optimism on the political front – and that means at the very least Netanyahu refraining from talk about the need to occupy the West Bank for generations to come – is a silver bullet to end violence, because it isn’t. A political horizon is not a miracle cure. What it does is demonstrate that there is an alternative path to armed violence in seeking to achieve political goals. Von Clausewitz famously called war a continuation of politics by other means, but it is often a breakdown of politics, not a continuation of politics. That Palestinian leaders have rejected Israeli peace offers is not a reason to stop trying, since what ensues is sadly predictable. I am not advocating for the resumption of negotiations or forcing the two sides together for another inevitable failure. I am advocating for Israel to minimally demonstrate that it sees a path to a Palestinian state that involves attainable conditions at some point in the future. That vision does not seem to now exist, and it is the absence of a horizon that makes things on the Palestinian side look so bleak.
It is not wooly headed peaceniks saying that the restoration of a political horizon is necessary; it is the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus. So even if you are a true believer in Greater Israel, or you think that a Palestinian state will become a base for more terror against Israelis, or you are adamant that Israel has demonstrated its willingness to compromise and that the Palestinians never will, this is something you should favor. As great as things like Rawabi and Palestinian economic zones are, they are the equivalent of removing a splinter from the finger of someone who is bleeding from the head.