Hell Hath No Fury Like A Handshake Scorned

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.

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Turkey Is No Longer A Reliable Ally

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.

Read the rest of the article on the Wall Street Journal website.

The Fight To Frame The Iran Deal

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.

How Free Is Israel’s Media?

August 4, 2016 § 3 Comments

This past spring, in a move that largely slipped under the radar, Freedom House downgraded Israel’s press freedom status from free to partly free. Freedom House cited “the growing impact of Israel Hayom, whose owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets” as the primary reason for the status change, and also noted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s control over regulating the media through his own assumption of the communications portfolio. Then this past Sunday, New York-based Israeli journalist Ruth Margalit wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that went significantly further, charging that Netanyahu is stifling the press across the board, trying to “fragment” the television market in a ploy to control coverage, and working to turn the media into his own personal mouthpiece. So are things really as dire as Margalit portrays them, and is Freedom House correct to no longer describe Israel as having a free press?

This is not the first time that Freedom House has downgraded Israeli press freedom in its rankings. In 2013, it also moved Israel from the free column to the partly free column, and it cited the influence of Israel Hayom then too. I wrote at the time that the designation rang hollow given that every objection listed in the Freedom House report was immediately followed (or preceded) by a disclaimer modifying most of the actual objection or admitting that the objection has not yet come to pass, and this year’s report suffers from the same flaw.

Freedom House ranks countries’ press freedom in three categories – legal, political, and economic environments – and it left Israel’s first two unchanged from last year while downgrading the economic environment two points. The section on the economic environment talks about the pressure created by Israel Hayom on the financial sustainability of other papers since Israel Hayom – or the Bibiton, as it is pejoratively referred to by many – is distributed for free, and also criticizes the proliferation of paid content.

Israel Hayom is a blatant vehicle for pro-Netanyahu propaganda, funded at a loss of tens of millions of shekels a year by non-Israeli citizen Sheldon Adelson, and given out for free in order to make sure that it has Israel’s highest circulation. In other words, a foreign billionaire is making an indirect monetary contribution to the prime minister every day in order to influence Israeli opinion in the prime minister’s favor and crowd out critical voices. Nobody will objectively look at this and say that it’s not a huge problem, but to infer that Israel’s press is only partly free now because Israel Hayom may eventually push other newspapers out of business (despite the fact that it hasn’t yet happened) is jumping the gun.

Margalit’s criticism also focuses on Israel Hayom but is much broader. Her contention that Netanyahu is not satisfied with having one newspaper in his pocket but wants to have every media outlet submit to his control certainly has elements of truth. There is little question that Netanyahu does much to pressure and cajole favorable coverage for himself in a variety of ways, from using subordinates to intimidate journalists to complaining about headlines to leaning on wealthy media magnates who are either supporters or who want some favor from the government. This should not be whitewashed. I have heard stories from Israeli journalists about being pressured to write about certain things and not to write about others. Many are hounded incessantly on social media as leftists for challenging the government in campaigns that seem to be encouraged by the government itself. There have been ongoing controversies the past few months over Galei Tzahal (Army Radio) and ministers trying to dictate what songs are played and what poems are read. During a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev complained that the government doesn’t have enough direct control of the media, sparking a fight between Likud ministers and Habayit Hayehudi ministers that has continued into this week, in which the latter accused the former of trying to stamp out free media and the former accused the latter of being “champions of the left.”

But the problem also should not be blown out of proportion. To begin with, some of Margalit’s assertions are oddly off-base. She brings up the government shuttering the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) as proof that Netanyahu is trying to control the news, when in reality he is madly trying to postpone the closing of the IBA and the opening of its replacement because he is afraid that the new broadcasting authority will be too independent. She claims that “most Israelis are getting their news from Israel Hayom or Walla News” as a way of proving that Netanyahu’s efforts are not about countering leftwing bias, but Israel Hayom and Yediot Ahronot are very close in their market share – 40.8% to 35.2% – and equating Israel Hayom (quite literally a propaganda mouthpiece) with an internet news portal that employs legitimate and dogged reporters like Amir Tibon and Tal Shalev is the same as comparing Pravda with Yahoo News. As Liel Leibovitz points out in Tablet, Netanyahu’s fight to control the media is in many ways a tussle between right and left playing out in the media landscape rather than in the halls of the Knesset, which doesn’t make it better but at least provides some context. But the most effective counterargument to Margalit is the content of the Israeli press itself. Israel’s press is far from perfect, but spend one day reading Israeli newspapers and watching Israeli television – where this week alone Ben Caspit in the rightwing Ma’ariv referenced Netanyahu’s “political commissars” and Finance Ministry “jackboots” – and tell me that Israeli journalists have been cowed into silence due to government intimidation. It doesn’t mean that the intimidation doesn’t exist, but that Israel’s press is still unmistakably free.

Finally, remember that this problem is not unique to Israel among Western democracies. The fact that Fox News is owned by a billionaire supporter of Republican policies and causes, or that Breitbart reads as if its headlines are written directly by Trump campaign staffers, or that the White House brings enormous pressure to bear on editors and reporters to craft stories that support its interests, does not mean that the U.S. does not have a free press. It means that there is no such thing as unbiased news; that reporters have always had to and always will walk a line between the companies or people that pay their salaries and the people who consume their products; and that the fact that people increasingly gravitate toward sources that support their own political biases means we need to be even more vigilant about recognizing our preferred sources’ biases and figuring out how much to trust. That is true if you are Israeli and it is true if you are American.

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