February 25, 2016 § 5 Comments
When Labor leader Buji Herzog rolled out his unilateral disengagement plan a couple of weeks ago – a plan that I think can be a positive step if it incorporates a number of critical components – he made a comment during a Knesset debate that rankled people and drew condemnations for appealing to racist logic. The comment was that if separation from the Palestinians does not happen soon, Jerusalem risks having an Arab mayor, with the obvious implication that this would be a bad thing that should be prevented. So at the risk of plunging into treacherous waters on this topic, is it wrong to want the mayor of Israel’s capital to be Jewish?
A simple answer might be yes. While discrimination and intolerance exist in Israeli politics and society – as they do in the politics and society of every country on Earth – Israel’s testament to being a democracy is that it has full political rights for all of its citizens. As there are Arab members of Knesset, Arab judges on the High Court of Justice, and Arab officers in the military, there is no reason why there cannot or should not be an Arab mayor of Jerusalem. To warn against such an eventuality is to transform Israel from being a Jewish state into a state only for Jews. It is easy to see why people took offense at what Herzog said.
But in this instance, this particular simple answer is insufficient. Let’s begin with some context. The idea of separation is not only Herzog’s main selling point but the animating idea behind the withdrawal plan itself, since it views separating from the Palestinians as soon as possible as so crucial that it throws out the Oslo framework with which the Labor Party is so strongly associated. The premise behind this is twofold, one that deals with the here and now and one that deals with the bigger picture. The here and now is the current security breakdown where violence has returned to Israel’s streets, and so Herzog is repeating an idea that has been largely associated with the right, which is to retreat behind a wall. The bigger picture is the more interesting one though, because it deals with the central principle of Zionism, which is the establishment of a Jewish state, and whether Zionism is a legitimate political movement.
When Herzog warned against the looming danger of an Arab mayor of Jerusalem, I don’t think this was a dogwhistle meant to appeal to anti-Arab sentiment. I get why some may think so, given the plain language involved and coming against the backdrop of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s infamous and abhorrent election night exhortation to rightwing voters to come to the polls and counter the Arab voters “coming out in droves.” I certainly cannot say definitively that Herzog wasn’t drawing from the same ugly well. But my reading of his comment in the larger context is that separation from the Palestinians is needed to secure the Zionist dream, and his invoking of Jerusalem was a clumsy shortcut to making that point. Zionism is nothing more and nothing less than an expression of Jewish nationalism, and the dream of Jewish nationalism necessarily involves Jewish officials exercising sovereignty in a Jewish state. Does it mean that only Jews are allowed into the political arena? Nope. But it’s not outrageous to express a wish that the mayor of the Jewish state’s capital city be Jewish, particularly given that Jews were barred from the Holy Basin when it was under Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967.
The entire premise behind the two-state solution is to preserve Jewish nationalist aspirations, which are at risk in a binational state when that state is no longer majority Jewish. I will not condemn anyone who suggests that Jewish leadership of a Jewish state is a desired goal, since to do otherwise is to flirt with the idea that Zionism is racism. Nobody will blink in the future at the suggestion that the mayor of East Jerusalem – presumably the capital of an independent Palestine – be Palestinian, and that will be neither a racist nor an unreasonable expectation. Herzog was expressing the flip side of that sentiment in the present, albeit in an awkward manner given that Jerusalem is not currently divided between two states. I don’t read it as an attempt to disenfranchise Jerusalem’s Arab residents – and I’d note that the fact that Herzog brings up the possibility is evidence that he isn’t trying to do so – but as an inarticulate way of expressing that without separation, the Zionist goal of a Jewish state is in danger. I for one would have no problem with an Arab mayor of Jerusalem, but there is little question that Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem is an integral part of Zionism and powerful imagery to evoke.
What Herzog said was largely deemed to be an ordinary statement in Israel because it resonated with many Israeli Jews as a simple explication of Zionist aspirations. This is not because Israeli Jews are racists seeking to keep their fellow Arab citizens down, and it is not because the state would ever prevent an elected Arab mayor of Jerusalem from taking office. It is because they rightly and justifiably view Zionism as just as legitimate as any other form of nationalism, and Jerusalem represents the very heart of Jewish nationalist aspirations. It is no coincidence that Herzog didn’t warn about an Arab mayor of Haifa or Ashdod. I do not begrudge anyone who calls out Herzog for his comment, but it is simply not the same as Netanyahu raising the alarm about the looming peril of Arab votes. It involves a larger question of whether one sees Zionism as inherently racist or as a legitimate nationalist movement of a long-oppressed people.
February 18, 2016 § 4 Comments
Israel in the last week has presented two classic case studies on strategic blundering and on precisely how not to conduct a successful foreign policy. One of these cases resulted in little more than embarrassment, but the other will actually have tangible consequences for Israel’s security and long-term military planning. Let’s look at both to see if there are any lessons to be learned for Israel going forward.
The first is the fight with the European Union over labeling goods made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. When the EU issued its labeling guidelines, the Israeli government’s response was to officially suspend diplomatic contacts with the EU on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was not merely a cosmetic measure; it came on the heels of Israel withdrawing from bilateral forums with the EU and calling the EU ambassador to Israel on the carpet, and was seen as Israel’s harshest available punishment against the EU in response to the labeling initiative. The presumed intention behind this move was to force the EU to reconsider, admit that it had gone too far, and withdraw the decision. Israel wasn’t wrong; I think that Israel was largely in the right given the way the EU guidelines differentiate between Jewish goods and Palestinian goods (an element that the U.S. guidelines do not have). But Prime Minister Netanyahu, the cabinet, and politicians across the entire spectrum made a big deal over the limited suspension of diplomatic contacts, and played it up as Israel using its power to change EU policy.
So you can imagine just how embarrassed Netanyahu and the government must have been last week when the suspension of diplomatic contacts was halted despite the EU not withdrawing its labeling guidelines. Furthermore, during the conversation between Netanyahu and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in which Netanyahu agreed to end the diplomatic suspension, Mogherini specifically reiterated the EU’s view that labeling does not constitute a boycott and did not promise that no further measures would be forthcoming. In other words, Israel accomplished nothing but angering EU countries even further, and possibly shot itself in the foot by prompting the emerging French initiative for an international peace conference. The bluster and rage turned out to be irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst.
The second case is still developing, but it is over the amount of annual U.S. military assistance to Israel. Close followers of this issue will recall that in the aftermath of the absolutely disastrous maneuver that was Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last March, Israel repeatedly deferred discussing the next ten year Memorandum of Understanding that would govern the amount and type of aid until after the Iran deal was either accepted or rejected by Congress – despite the fact that it was clear as day that the votes to reject it were not there – while Israeli officials anonymously expressed confidence that it wouldn’t matter. Except that now it turns out that rejecting repeated U.S. offers to negotiate did in fact matter, as Israel is unhappy with what is now being offered and Israeli officials now anonymously express that Israel would have received a deal more to their liking had they not waited until the Iran deal was concluded and implemented. My guess is that ultimately the aid package will be more than Israel is being offered right now but still less than Israeli officials were anticipating over the spring and summer when they were casually tossing out the number of $5 billion annually as if it was signed, sealed, delivered. Make no mistake though, this is a strategic failure of enormous magnitude, and is just the latest fallout from last March’s speech, which brought Israel not a single measurable benefit.
So what are the lessons from these two episodes for Israeli strategic engagement and diplomacy going forward? Some people will no doubt infer from both of them that the European Union and the Obama administration are out to get Israel and jumped at the chance to do so. I think, however, that there are more level-headed takeaways. First, leverage is paramount in any negotiation and Israel plunged headfirst into both when its leverage was about as weak as it could be. Jerusalem went hard after the EU after Netanyahu and the cabinet had spent over a year making it clear that they were not interested in any type of peace process and only a few days after Netanyahu had rejected separate U.S. and Quartet entreaties to take steps in the West Bank that would demonstrate a commitment to two states. Similarly, Israel purposely put off negotiations over the aid MOU until it had no cards left to play on the Iran deal and after the world had largely moved on. When the U.S. and other world powers were focused on mitigating the Iran threat, then Israel was in the best position to push for military assistance that would blunt that threat. But even in foreign policy, states and leaders have short attention spans, and now that the bandwidth is being consumed almost entirely by Syria and most American decision makers view the threat from Iran as having been temporarily rectified, Israel is not going to find itself with quite so receptive an audience.
Second is that Israel made the mistake of behaving like a global power rather than the regional power that it is. It is mind-boggling that Netanyahu or anyone else genuinely thought that suspending some diplomatic contacts with the EU was going to rattle it into changing its policies in fear of what might come next. It is mind-boggling that Netanyahu or anyone else genuinely thought that it could get anything and everything that it wanted from this administration or any administration (remember how President George W. Bush refused to give Israel bunker busters in 2008?) no matter the context. This isn’t a matter of states disrespecting the world’s only Jewish state. It is a matter of an ironclad law of international relations, which is that relative power matters. Israel too often acts as if it is dealing with equals when in fact it is the subordinate party when it comes to the EU and even more so the U.S.
Finally, as with Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, there is an element of hubris and a complete misreading of domestic politics involved. The settlement labeling initiative, which passed the European Parliament 525-70, isn’t even a close call in European politics; the idea that the Israeli government believed that it could downgrade relations with the EU and get a different result was hopelessly naïve. Truth be told, Israel’s response probably only reinforced for many European leaders that they were making the right move. On the U.S. side of things, following the Congressional speech debacle, months of intensive lobbying against President Obama’s signature foreign policy priority, and open statements and insinuations that the White House wasn’t smart or knowledgeable enough to know what it was doing, Israel expected none of these factors to impact at all on dealings going forward. To call this foolish is being charitable. This isn’t to say that Israel shouldn’t have taken these steps if it actually thought that they would affect the outcome of the Iran deal, but that it shouldn’t have done them without first thinking through the consequences and accepting the costs. These are all things that should be on the minds of Israel’s leaders going forward when they make decisions on which pitches to swing at and which pitches to take.
February 4, 2016 § 1 Comment
There has been much sound and fury over the past couple of weeks over labeling; more specifically, over the labeling rules for goods coming into the United States that are produced in the West Bank. There is lots of misinformation going around about the rules and even why they are now in the news, so in order to make it easier to have an informed opinion, I thought I’d write a quick and handy guide to the labeling controversy answering everyone’s questions.
Why is the Obama administration coming up with new ways to punish Israelis when there are much bigger problems going on in the Middle East? Actually, the Obama administration didn’t come up with anything new here at all. The labeling controversy erupted as a result of U.S. Customs and Border Protection issuing a reminder on January 23 about the existing rules on the books for how products made in the West Bank must be labeled. The rules, which were enacted in 1995 with the support of the Israeli government as a way to boost the Palestinian economy, state that any products made in the West Bank or Gaza shall be labeled as coming from the West Bank or Gaza but cannot be labeled with the phrases “Israel,” “Made in Israel,” “Occupied Territories-Israel,” or a similar variation. It is an open question as to why Customs decided to issue this reminder now for a rule that has been honored more by its breach than its enforcement. It could have been a matter of routine, it could have been as a result of outside complaints, it could have been due to the new EU settlement goods regulation, or it could have been because the White House or State Department asked for it to be done. For those who want to assume the worst and jump on President Obama for his perfidious treatment of Israel, however, let’s remember that the same people now calling for the president’s head over a low level bureaucratic organization issuing a policy reminder twisted themselves into knots in insisting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was entirely in the dark when a low level bureaucratic organization issued plans for new construction in Ramat Shlomo during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel in March 2010. Funny how all perceived affronts to the U.S. committed by Israel are nothing but unfortunate mistakes of timing or bureaucratic slip ups beyond the prime minister’s control, but any perceived false move toward Israel from one of the executive branch’s four and a half million employees must have been cooked up in the Oval Office by the president himself.
Who cares whether the president did this himself or not? How dare anyone allow the boycott of goods made by Israelis! Why is the president supporting BDS? I agree; economic and cultural boycotts of Israel and Israelis are odious in my view, and the BDS movement is about destroying Israel as a Jewish state rather than ending the occupation of the West Bank. Of course, we may as well be discussing the merits of the revamped Boston Red Sox starting pitching staff as discussing BDS, since they both are equally irrelevant to the topic at hand. As we all know from the Israeli government’s position over Israel’s proposed NGO bill, labeling things is about transparency and information rather than about a value judgment. In any event, whether you think that labeling things is justified or not, it is certainly a completely different animal than a boycott since it places no barriers on anyone’s ability to buy goods made in the West Bank.
Ok, fine. But the Obama administration is singling out stuff made by Jews! Isn’t that only a short skip and a jump away from the Nazis and the Nuremberg Laws? This is a popular position being expressed in my Facebook feed, but it has the unfortunate element of being not true. The key difference between U.S. labeling requirements and European labeling requirements is that the U.S. does not distinguish between goods made by Jews or Palestinians, or between goods produced in Jewish settlements versus goods produced in Palestinian towns and villages. To suggest that this is a measure targeting Jews is completely wrong, since a widget produced in Efrat is given the same label as a widget produced in Jenin. In fact, the American labeling regulation should actually appeal in many ways to the pro-Israel community, since it does not allow for a category of “Made in Palestine,” which the EU explicitly mandates as an option, and it also rules out using the phrase “Occupied Territories.” Unlike the EU regulation, the U.S. version explicitly recognizes that the West Bank is disputed territory still subject to negotiation.
Your absence of outrage over this is outrageous. Why aren’t you angry? Quite simply, this is a policy that not only makes sense to me, but comports with Israel’s official position on the West Bank. Israel has not annexed the West Bank, and the core of the defense of Israeli democracy despite the occupation is precisely that the West Bank has a different status. Mirroring Israel’s treatment of the West Bank as a distinctly separate entity without prejudicing the outcome of any future permanent status agreement is something with which I find it hard to quibble.
Furthermore, maintaining a conceptual barrier between Israel and the West Bank makes it harder to delegitimize Israel down the road. Conflation of Israel and the West Bank is precisely what the BDS movement tries to accomplish through the back door. It denounces Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but also denounces Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state by calling for a full right of return, and by relying on people not sophisticated enough to grasp the distinction between Israel and territories under Israel’s control, it marshals those who oppose the occupation into actually opposing Israel itself. The very core of the BDS argument – that Israel is an illegitimate apartheid state – rests on erasing any line between Israel and the territories under Israeli military control and then arguing that robust Israeli democracy inside of the Green Line makes no difference because of what takes place beyond it. Why should the U.S. assist in this maneuver by itself erasing the difference? People will make up their own minds as to whether the U.S. rule on labeling is innocuous or an affront, but to throw a fit over a reminder about a twenty year old law that was enacted at Israel’s behest; that in no way boycotts Israeli goods but in fact treats all goods made in the West Bank identically irrespective of who made them; that does not use the terms Palestine or occupation; and that reflects Israel’s own view of the West Bank’s status; is to my mind a waste of energy that should be directed elsewhere.