March 23, 2017 § 3 Comments
Israel’s relationship with Russia is in some ways its most important and also its most dangerous. While the U.S.-Israel relationship is the only one that is vital to guaranteeing Israel’s fundamental security, the relationship with Russia has a larger impact on the daily threats that Israel faces given the Russian role in the Syrian civil war. Prime Minister Netanyahu has ably managed ties with Moscow, with his trip to Russia to meet with President Putin two weeks ago the fifth in the past year, but the reality is that despite Israel’s best efforts, tension with Russia is bound to escalate. Israel and Russia’s redlines with regard to the outcome in Syria are in fundamental conflict, and papering over the differences is becoming increasingly harder to do.
Russia-Israel ties under Netanyahu and Putin have reached a historical apex for the two countries, partly because of the rapport between the two men and partly because of larger structural factors. From Israel’s perspective, closer ties with Russia make for good domestic politics. Over 10% of Israel’s population hails from the former Soviet Union, and Russian Jews maintain cultural and economic links to their former homeland. Soviet Jews have risen to the top of the government, with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein the most recent examples. Russia is also seen as a strong ally in Israel’s battle against terrorism as Russia has its own homegrown terrorist threat, and the Kremlin has also historically been inclined not to harshly criticize Israeli settlement policies despite its support of a Palestinian state.
But it is due to defense concerns on both sides that the relationship has deepened and become more important. One of the few advantages that Georgia had in its five-day war with Russia in 2008 over South Ossetia was its Israeli drones, which were far superior to the domestically-produced models flown by Russia and a fact that did not escape Moscow’s attention. It led Russia to subsequently make four purchases of Israeli drones, a seemingly ordinary transaction made remarkable by the fact that it was the first time Russia had ever bought arms from a foreign country. As Russia has increased its military activity in Syria and its near-abroad, its desire for Israeli military technology has only grown, and thus its relationship with Israel has become more important.
On the Israeli side, Russia’s involvement in Syria directly impacts Israel and makes closer relations a necessity. For the Israeli government, Russia’s heavy presence in Syria has been a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that Israel has been able to repeatedly strike Iranian arms convoys destined for Hizballah without Russian interference despite flying hundreds of sorties through Russian-controlled territory, since Jerusalem and Moscow have worked out a deal preserving Israel’s ability to strike these targets and have coordinated to a near-perfect level. Were Israel trying to operate in Iranian-controlled territory rather than Russian, things would be far messier. The fact that Russia purposely turns a blind eye to Israeli strikes on these weapons shipments – despite the extraordinary fact that Israel is oftentimes blowing up weapons that Russia itself has supplied to Iran – also limits the fallout, as it makes it difficult for Iran to retaliate against Israel in response. The curse, however, is that in having to rely on Russia’s good graces, the Israeli military is operating at the mercy of a larger power and must also limit itself to the parameters of what it has agreed upon with Moscow, rather than being able to target Iranian fighters in Syria to whatever larger extent it wishes. Russia’s ownership of the Syrian civil war provides Israel with a greater degree of freedom but also a greater degree of restriction.
While the relationship has remained on track up until now, it has been destined to unravel from the day that Russia entered Syria, and indeed the first loose threads are now beginning to show. No matter how good the coordination mechanism between the two sides, the fundamental conflict at the heart of Israeli-Russian views on Syria is that Israel’s redline is the establishment of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Russia’s redline is the elimination of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. At the outset of the Syrian civil war, Israeli government and military opinion was split as to whether it would be better for Bashar al-Assad to remain in power or better for him to be toppled. That debate has decisively shifted toward the latter as Assad has solidified his rule over western Syria with a serious assist from Iran, leading not only to a more robust Hizballah presence in Syria but Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers as well. As the Israeli defense and intelligence establishment came to a near-consensus on the dangers of Assad’s continued tenure given his ever larger reliance on Iran and his further cementing as an Iranian proxy, Russia made it clear that it will not abandon Assad and that its own core interest in Syria is keeping him – and the Iranian influence that is bound up with him as a necessary byproduct – right where he is. Israel cannot abide Assad staying and Russia cannot abide him going.
This situation was manageable so long as Israel was content to confine its actions in Syria to striking Hizballah and breaking up any efforts to supply it with advanced game-changing weaponry, such as S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. But with intelligence that Iran is now beginning to establish permanent bases in Syria, the Israeli calculus has understandably changed. Russia’s, however, has not. It was notable that in the aftermath of the Netanyahu-Putin summit two weeks ago where Netanyahu raised his concerns about preventing an Iranian military presence on Israel’s northern border, neither side indicated that it was particularly satisfied with the outcome of the discussion. Furthermore, one week later the Israeli ambassador to Russia was summoned to explain an Israeli strike that hit close to a Russian military position, introducing a new level of tension into the relationship, and Israel had to bat down the Assad government’s claim that Russia had informed Israel that it could no longer fly missions in Russian-controlled Syrian airspace.
It is an enormous accomplishment of Netanyahu’s diplomacy that the situation with Russia has proceeded so smoothly until now, particularly when juxtaposed against the backdrop of downed planes and economic sanctions that have marked the Russia-Turkey relationship over Syria. But Israel is now entering an untenable situation, in which it will have to choose between risking open conflict with Russia – something that both sides will be desperate to avoid – or sitting on its hands as Iran digs in across from IDF positions on the Golan and plants missile batteries on Syrian territory for the purposes of targeting Israeli cities and towns. Israel was right to worry about Iranian ambitions in the region, but it is the Russian relationship with Iran over Syria rather than the American relationship with Iran over the nuclear deal that will prove to be the thornier dilemma to navigate.
March 16, 2017 § 4 Comments
There is a scene in the sixth episode of the first season of Mad Men where ad man Don Draper is approached by the Israeli government to come up with an effective tourism campaign for the Jewish state. Seeking some insight, he asks his Jewish client-cum-girlfriend to explain why Israel is important and why tourists would want to go there. She explains that Jews have lived in exile for such a long time that having a country seems very important, and that even though she has no desire to live there, Israel “just has to be” because of the idea that it represents. After Draper remarks that it sounds like utopia, she retorts that the Greek definition of utopia can mean either the good place or the place that cannot be. While the last exchange is meant to be a comment on their relationship, it captures the current wider context of the churning relationship between Israel and American Jews.
The surge in visible anti-Semitism in the U.S. over the past year has American Jews on edge, and for many it has reinforced the importance of Israel and why it “just has to be.” More than ever, Israel resonates as a safe harbor of last resort and as a refuge against a world that historically has not accepted Jews. I understand this sentiment not from a theoretical perspective, but from a personal one. As a kid growing up in New York, I never experienced a second of overtly detectable anti-Semitism. I had a recurring debate with my dad where I argued that the Jewish experience in America marked the end of history for the two thousand years of the Jewish Diaspora in which persecution and anti-Semitism were the defining features. And yet in the last two months, my kids’ Jewish schools have been subjected to multiple bomb threats, and my corner of Washington suburbia has seen an uptick in anti-Semitic graffiti and invective. Like Francis Fukuyama, I was wrong in allowing the exuberance of a brief moment to overtake the wider sweep of history, and despite being someone who never questioned the importance of Israel in the first place, that importance for me has now literally been driven home. Israel does indeed represent an idea for Jews around the world, and while we pray that it never has to transform for us from an idea into a practical imperative, it requires an absolute defense of Israel’s legitimacy and security.
But while the idea of Israel is of the good place, it is sliding dangerously close for American Jews into the place that cannot be. This is because Israel’s inviolable commitment to Jews, rather than only to Israelis, is in question, and once that emotional shift takes place, it will be impossible for many American Jews to identify with Israel in the same way. It will not be a place that they view as the ultimate oasis in the desert, but as a tantalizing mirage.
The first factor that threatens to cause this shift is the Israeli government’s treatment of anti-Semitism. In speaking about his decision to go to Paris after the terrorist attack on the Hyper Cacher grocery store to show solidarity with French Jews, Prime Minister Netanyahu described his role as not only representing Israel but as representing the entire Jewish people. This is not a role that has been claimed by previous Israeli prime ministers; David Ben-Gurion, for instance, clearly made a distinction between representing Israel and representing Jews outside of Israel in his exchange of letters with Simon Rawidowicz in 1954-55, in what began as an argument over the usage of the word “Israel” and other terminology and resulted in Ben-Gurion rejecting any uniformity between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews. It is a matter for wider debate whether Netanyahu can and should have a wider role beyond being a political leader, but if he wants to credibly make the argument, he must assume the expansive mantle consistently rather than only when it is politically expedient. To come to the U.S. in the midst of an outbreak of bomb threats against Jewish institutions and a maelstrom of angst from American Jews who have never felt personally threatened before and to essentially proclaim that all is well, not only negates any claim on Netanyahu’s part to represent Jews in danger wherever they are; it also calls into question Israel’s very commitment to Diaspora Jewry. For Jews who fervently support Israel as the ultimate Jewish project and as a powerful symbol against anti-Jewish repression, it is distressing to see an Israeli prime minister brush anti-Semitism aside and categorically declare that a president whom many American Jews view as part of the problem is actually the best friend that Jews have.
The second factor that threatens to perpetuate this shift is the attitude, encapsulated in Israel’s new travel ban against anyone publicly calling for boycotts of Israel or any area under its control, that views Israel not as a place for Jews but as a place for Jews who hold a certain ideology. I do not support BDS and am not even minimally sympathetic toward its aims, and I also do not support boycotts of settlers or settlements. Furthermore, Israel has an absolute right to determine what constitutes a threat to its security, and to screen people who enter its borders to guard against those threats. But what is justified is not always smart, and conflating tangible physical threats with amorphous ideological threats demonstrates the distinction. Keeping out the violent West Bank demonstrator is not the same as keeping out the middle-aged dad who loudly declares that he won’t buy Jordan Valley dates, and it this latter action that will cause the break between many American Jews and Israel. Even if, like Rachel Menken in Mad Men, you are a Jew who wants to visit Israel but do not want to live there, being stopped at passport control in the Jewish state because of your political views is the fastest way to make sure that any affinity you had for Israel disappears. Israel in that situation becomes a place that cannot be, no longer a safe haven for Jews or even just a place for Jews, but a state that has abandoned its core function and reason for being. The central Zionist argument that Jews need a homeland only works if Israel is indeed a homeland based on Judaism rather than a homeland based on a set of political leanings. In elevating threat perception to absurd heights, the new anti-boycott legislation ignominiously creates a bigger threat to Israel’s existence than the boycotters it is combatting.
Israel can indeed be a utopia for Jews around the world; not a perfect place that must meet an impossible ideal, but an anchor to which Jews can gravitate in times of need. If it does not take this obligation seriously, however, it will become a different kind of utopia; a place that demands an impossible ideal and that sinks under the weight of its own expectations.
March 9, 2017 § 5 Comments
There is always angst among liberal Zionists about what liberal Zionism is and whether it can exist in a particular political environment, but the combination of the Netanyahu government and the Trump presidency has amplified the usual Weltschmerz. As Israel turns farther away from liberal values, legalizing illegal West Bank outposts and imposing ideological tests on those who want to enter the country, and liberals at home reject Zionism while lionizing social protest leaders who are literally anti-Israel terrorists, liberal Zionism is in an even more difficult place than usual in looking to reconcile its competing impulses. To succeed, liberal Zionists will need to reconstruct their first principles rather than to try and fit square pegs into round holes.
There is no question that the current political moment is uniquely challenging. Liberal Zionism over the last quarter century has often been synonymous with a peace process that shows fewer signs of hope now than it ever has. It has put forth a vision for Israel that is rejected by Israelis who return rightwing governments to power in election after election. It has put forth a vision for Israeli society that is belied by data such as majority support for pardoning Elor Azaria and real currents of racist and anti-democratic sentiment. And this is before we arrive at the enormous implications for liberal Zionism of the Trump presidency. How are liberal Zionists to grapple with a president who supports the fundamental tenets of Zionism but is so deeply illiberal? To complicate things further, how are liberal Zionists to grapple with a president who represents values that they reject but whose initial policy toward Israel may end up looking a lot like what one would expect from a liberal Zionist president?
Liberal Zionism will have to develop a set of lodestars to survive the challenges it faces, some of which have to do specifically with Trump and some of which do not. One principle should be reinforcing the connection between Israel and Jews, but making sure that the obligation runs both ways. Liberal Zionism must be unwavering in its insistence that Jewish support for Israel’s bedrock safety and security does not exist on a higher plane than Israeli support for Jews’ bedrock safety and security. The increasing threats against Jewish institutions in the U.S. and the unnerving feeling that many American Jews are now experiencing for the first time in their lives of being cast as outsiders and interlopers is certainly related to the current political moment; whether it can be laid at the feet of President Trump is an infinitely more complicated proposition. Irrespective of the answer to this question, American Jews are grappling with anti-Semitism in new ways, and there should never be any doubt that the first and foremost priority of the Israeli government as it relates to the Diaspora is to insist upon the inviolable rights of Jews to live anywhere in the world free of harassment and danger. Zionism is about the right of Jews to national self-determination, but it was meant to address the problems of Jewish exclusion rather than to reinforce those problems in its own right. If an Israeli prime minister wants to claim the mantle of representing Jews worldwide, than Zionism must be outward looking to Jews outside of Israel’s borders as well as inward looking to Jews inside of them.
Second and relatedly, liberal Zionism cannot just support liberalism within the contexts of Israeli state and society, but it must also make the connection more explicit between Zionism and liberalism independently of what is taking place in Israel or the policies of the current Israeli government. This is vital not only for ensuring continued support for Israel, but also for ensuring American Jewry’s place in society. In a terrifyingly new development, the so-called “alt right” has a presence in the Trump White House and its vision of what it means to support Israel rests on upon a different pillar than traditional American pro-Israel positions. Historically, American governments and Americans themselves have supported Israel because they view Israel as a reliable strategic regional ally and because they view Israel as an ideological democratic and values-based ally. Liberal Zionism has been an easy philosophy to espouse precisely because of this connection between the U.S. as the leader of the free world – in other words, liberal democratic values – and Israel as an unwavering soldier in the fight to extend the free world’s reach across the globe. But the rabid pro-Israel position espoused by Breitbart and other alt right organs is not based on this view of Israel; it is instead based on identification with Israel as a state based on populist ethnic nationalism. This formulation ties support for Israel directly to its perceived rejection of liberalism rather than to its upholding of liberal values, and it explains why the alt right can support Israel to the hilt while also swimming in the cesspool of anti-Semitism.
This is dangerous for Israel, as it makes support for Israel contingent upon a specific set of policies rather than on the fundamental nature and existence of Israel itself – let alone the fact that the policies this support demands would only weaken Israel at home and abroad. It is also dangerous for American Jews, as it turns Zionism into an even more particularistic ideology in which only a narrow type of Zionism is acceptable. The motivating factor behind Herzl’s philosophical development of Zionism – that Jews are not regular white folks, but a minority deserving of protection that needs its own state – is thrown out when your embrace of Zionism only involves an embrace of Israel as an ethnically nationalist majoritarian entity rather than as a safe haven for an historically persecuted people. The devastating consequences for American Jews when this line of thinking is extended to its logical conclusion are glaringly obvious.
Finally, liberal Zionism must firmly and unabashedly embrace a renewed Zionism that harkens back to the founding Zionist ethos of taking responsibility for one’s destiny, and shaping history rather being shaped by it. One of the reasons that the marriage between Zionism and liberalism is a natural one is because both seek to better the world through active engagement with problems and to leave an active mark upon history rather than, in William F. Buckley’s famous formulation, to stand athwart history yelling stop. Complaining that there is no Palestinian partner and thus Israel has no choice but to maintain the status quo runs contrary to the spirit and letter of Zionism. Complaining that Israel’s adversaries engage in asymmetric and inhumane behavior and thus Israel need not hold itself to an elevated standard in its efforts to grapple with terrorism and rejectionism runs contrary to the spirit and letter of Zionism. In an age where standards of decency and morality are being redefined and even truth and facts themselves are now subject to debate, liberal Zionism must stand for something clear and concrete, and advance principles and proposals that do not depend on the actions or responses of others.
It is more important than ever to insist on belonging to both the liberal and Zionist camps, and not to allow membership in one eradicate membership in the other. Zionism has to transcend Trump, Republican orthodoxy, and traditionally hawkish positions on Israel. If it is seen to be the cause of a single party or a single political ideology, it will never recover. The danger of sitting back and allowing Zionism and Israel to be solely claimed and embraced by the right is real, and advancing an active and liberal Zionist vision that does not compromise its Zionism or its liberalism is as crucial a task as exists.
February 23, 2017 § 1 Comment
Everyone will recall the debate that unfolded during the 2016 presidential campaign over how to treat Donald Trump’s utterances on various policy issues. His detractors were increasingly alarmed by the ideas that spilled forth from his lips at rallies, many of which seemed to be blurted out without much thought into their wisdom or the details of their implementation. Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it; ban Muslims from coming into the country; slap a tariff on American companies making products overseas. His defenders exhorted those who were panicking at what seemed to be a litany of questionable proposals to stop taking Trump literally, and instead to take him seriously. So, for instance, when Trump threatened to punitively tax companies that were moving jobs overseas, the interpretation was supposed to be not that he would follow through, but that he was serious about finding a way to increase domestic job growth. It turns out, however, that taking Trump literally was not as silly as his campaign surrogates suggested, and that his words do indeed provide a guide for where he will initially land on policy. So applying this frame, what does it mean in the Israel context?
Largely forgotten alongside his more famous comments about wanting to make the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians is that early in his campaign, Trump actually laid out a precise roadmap for how he was going to approach Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some of his first comments on Israel during an interview with the Associated Press in December 2015, Trump refused to be pinned down on a host of specific Israel-related issues, which in itself was a strategy. But he did say enough to make it easier to predict what he is going to do going forward, and figure out how it meshes with his comments during the joint press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu last Wednesday.
Talking to the AP before the first primary votes had been cast, Trump said that the first thing he was going to do was sit down with leaders in the region to gauge not only their feelings about the contours of a deal and whether it is workable, but also to test their commitment to peace. He said that “I’ll be able to tell in one sit-down meeting with the real leaders” what is possible, and that he would know for sure within six months of taking office. He also said that he was not convinced that either Israel or the Palestinians were serious about an agreement and that he had greater concerns about one of the sides, but refused to say which side. He did, however, very clearly place the burden of resolving the situation on Israel; “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things. They may not be, and I understand that, and I’m OK with that. But then you’re just not going to have a deal.” He also, in what is now a familiar refrain, would not commit to moving the embassy, would not refer to Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, called settlements “a huge sticking point,” and would not commit to a two-state solution so as not to prejudice negotiations ahead of time. On whether he would want to dive into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as president, he said, “I think if I get elected, that would be something I’d really like to do. Because so much death, so much turmoil, so much hatred — that would be to me a great achievement. As a single achievement, that would be a really great achievement.”
The Trump playbook so far has followed the literal script he laid out before the politics of the campaign forced him to adopt more traditionally hawkish positions. The first thing he said he would do was talk with regional leaders. Not only did he sit down with Netanyahu early on, he also sat down with Jordan’s King Abdullah, spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and White House aides have been making the rounds of Arab ambassadors in Washington. He said that the burden would be on Israel to resolve the situation, and lo and behold he stood next to Netanyahu and warned him that both sides would have to compromise and again alluded to settlements being a sticking point in asking the prime minister to hold off on them for awhile. If we take Trump literally as we should, it means that he is going to make a very heavy early push on getting the two sides together, and will lean on Israel to stop taking actions in the short term that make a negotiated solution more difficult.
In this light, Trump’s pronunciations at last week’s press conference should not have come as a surprise. His infamous “I’m looking at two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like” is not a declaration of policy. It is a declaration of tactics. Similarly, his repeated characterization of settlements as problematic in some limited way, in the AP interview and in the White House statement following Netanyahu’s announcement of new construction and then in his request of Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” is not a policy position but a tactical position. Trump wants to get to a deal and he doesn’t terribly care what is in it, so his primary strategy is to not get pinned down on any specific variable. He will focus on the tangible things, like Palestinian incitement and Israeli settlements, that each side points to as a specific barrier, and he will ignore what the actual end result will look like.
It is important, however, not to ignore the other part of the equation that is clear from Trump’s words. He wants to get a deal, and he thinks the burden is on the Israelis to do the heavy lifting, but he also does not want to waste his time on a drawn out process and has no interest in convincing a party that does not want to be convinced. Contrary to President Obama and Secretary Kerry, he is not going to keep going back to the well if he is not able to work out an agreement in his first year in office, and he is not going to pressure Israel into changing its mind if it is unwilling at first to sacrifice in the ways that he asks. What the larger consequences of that may be for either Israel or the Palestinians are unknown, but if there is one thing that we know so far about this president, it is that he is deeply transactional. Understanding Israel’s reluctance to take certain steps is not the same as giving Israel free rein on every issue without fear of blowback for that reluctance. Hopefully Netanyahu is wise enough to take his new American partner both literally and seriously.
February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
After spending his entire tenure as prime minister chafing under the strictures placed upon him by Democratic presidents, Prime Minister Netanyahu finally gets his wish today: his first face-to-face Oval Office meeting with a Republican president. And not just any Republican president, but President Trump – the man the Israeli right has hailed as a savior from the day he was elected and upon whom they have placed their hopes and dreams. There is no question that Netanyahu is looking for a vastly different relationship with the current president than he had with the previous one, and also no question that both men will emerge from their meeting with ear-to-ear grins and acting like best friends, irrespective of whether the meeting warrants it or not. There are some obvious reasons for this, from the fact that both men lead right of center parties and are broadly ideologically similar to the simple desire to get off on the right foot. The current moment, however, also provides some more detailed and specific reasons for the two men to avoid disagreements, and provides some guide as to what they are likely to discuss, what they are likely to avoid, and what they should discuss if they want to keep the relationship on an even keel.
What Trump needs out of this meeting is simple. He is being buffeted on all sides with headache-inducing crises, be it the North Korean ballistic missile test, the resignation after only twenty four days of his national security adviser Mike Flynn beneath a cloud of allegations of his being compromised by Russia, or questions over the basic competence level of his senior aides and his continuing inability to staff the government beneath the cabinet level. Trump also has clearly not yet formulated a coherent policy on Israel, with different advisers pulling him in different directions and his own thoughts apparently still unsettled. Whether it be the embassy move or the role of settlements in preventing Israeli-Palestinian peace, Trump’s positions from the campaign have shifted, and in the case of settlements they have subtly shifted between the statement issued by Sean Spicer two weeks ago and Trump’s interview with Yisrael HaYom on Friday. What Trump needs while he is sorting through everything else in the Middle East is regional stability, not having Israel as a constant issue to manage, and above all no surprises. For now, he wants Israel to be something that he doesn’t have to think about or worry about, since if that wish is fulfilled, it will be just about the only issue that clears that bar.
What Netanyahu needs out of this meeting is even simpler. He arrives in Washington in the midst of the biggest threat he has ever faced to his tenure as prime minister, namely the four separate investigations being carried out into various allegations of corruption and improper behavior. Should he be indicted, as most Israeli analysts and journalists expect, he will be under enormous pressure to resign, and only the complete and unbroken support from every member of his coalition will keep him in office. Even if none of the four investigations end with an indictment, Netanyahu is still in a precarious position, down in the polls to Yair Lapid and under constant demand from his Bayit Yehudi coalition members and many of his Likud coalition members to definitively reject the two-state solution, support annexation of Ma’ale Adumim and perhaps even larger parts of the West Bank, and to completely alter the paradigm with the Palestinians under which Israel has operated. None of these are things that Netanyahu has ever particularly appeared or appears now to want to do, but he is in danger of being swallowed up by the Israeli right, for whom ideological purity tests are increasingly important. More than any specific policy victory or understanding with Trump, Netanyahu needs something that will help his domestic standing back home, and the only thing that can provide that is a black hole in which no daylight between the U.S. and Israel escapes. Netanyahu was reportedly able to mollify Naftali Bennett and other cabinet members before his departure from Israel by appealing to his stewardship of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is truly an Israeli existential issue, and he has to return home with an unambiguous demonstration of his ability – and his ability alone – to keep that relationship unbreakable. Netanyahu does not need a green light to build in the West Bank or a commitment to move the embassy or a vow to tear up the Iran deal. What he needs is no hint, no sign, and no leak of even the slightest public or private disagreement with Trump on anything.
In theory, this should be an easy plan for Trump and Netanyahu to execute. The problem is that Netanyahu is dealing with a president whom he expects to be an easier interlocutor than President Obama, but one who is unpredictable and unprepared to an unprecedented degree. Netanyahu cannot be sure what Trump will say, whether what he says can be trusted as an accurate predictor of what policies he will actually pursue down the road, to what extent Israel should rely on Trump’s assurance on various issues for its own policy planning purposes, and whether Trump has even devoted any real attention to planning for the conversation given that his national security adviser will have been replaced less than 48 hours earlier.
Given all of this, the one topic that is guaranteed to be on the agenda is Iran. As my colleague Ilan Goldenberg ably laid out earlier this week in his own preview of the meeting, Trump and Netanyahu have both focused on vigorously holding Iran to task and calling Iran out on its destabilizing actions in the region. It is unlikely that even Netanyahu is sticking to a position that the Iran deal needs to be scrapped, and both men might hold the view that even if the deal should be torn up, there are ways to make Iran be the actor that abrogates it through additional sanctions and testing the boundaries of Iran’s breaking point much as Iran has done since the JCPOA was implemented.
What both leaders want to avoid is any robust discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, settlements, or the two-state solution. Whatever Trump’s positions end up being, they are not going to be the positions pushed by Bennett and the annexation caucus, and Netanyahu cannot politically afford right now to publicly endorse two states. Neither Trump nor Netanyahu wants to start things off with a fight over where Israel will and will not build, and so my hunch is that they will both try and avoid any related subjects to the greatest possible extent.
There are two issues, however, that Trump and Netanyahu should discuss whether they want to or not in an effort to avoid any surprises or misunderstandings down the road. The first is Gaza, where Hamas’s newly installed leader Yahya Sinwar is far more hardline and confrontational than his predecessor Ismail Haniya and may be more willing to break the uneasy quiet that has largely held for two and a half years. It would be wise of the president and the prime minister to discuss how far Israel is willing to go in Gaza when the next war breaks out, what the plan is to deal with any wider regional fallout, and how the U.S. would like to manage a coordinated response with Israel and Egypt. This does not have to be a difficult conversation, and both men may be precisely on the same page, but it is easier to do it now than when the rockets start falling on Tel Aviv and the world is up in arms over civilian casualties in the Gaza war zone. The second issue is Syria, where Trump and Netanyahu may not be on the same page but cannot afford to let any differences of opinion fester. Rhetorically at least, Trump wants to make fighting ISIS in Syria a priority, which will be difficult to do while squaring completely with Israel’s objectives of maintaining its own freedom of movement against Hizballah weapons convoys and not allowing any long-term Iranian presence in Syria. If there will be disagreements on these issues, they should be dealt with up front and in private since any public blow up later will be far worse.
Today’s meeting will be the first of many, and we may not have any greater clarity after it has concluded than we do right now. Many assume that Trump and Netanyahu will set a new standard for the relationship between an American president and Israeli prime minister, but no matter what their personal relationship turns out to be, there is going to be friction over policy issues big and small. The most important question going forward will not be why and where there are disagreements, but how the two men manage them.
February 9, 2017 § 1 Comment
A few weeks into the Trump presidency, the nascent stirrings of an Israel policy appear to be developing. Where President Trump will land on two states, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the embassy move, or the American government’s relations with the Palestinian Authority are still more unclear than not, and will remain murky until his February 15 meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, if not for longer. Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s announcement last week that Israel intends to construct a new West Bank settlement for the first time in over two decades prompted a brief missive from the White House on the issue, and it yields some clues that the past may be prologue when it comes to the U.S. and Israel.
The salient sentence of the four contained in the statement is: “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.” With the qualification that it is unwise to read too definitively into the White House’s words – it was issued in Sean Spicer’s name rather than the president or national security adviser’s, there is no way of knowing who wrote or influenced it, and no way of knowing whether it represents official policy or was issued off-the-cuff due to the demands of the news cycle – it represents a departure in two ways.
First, it is a clear departure from the Obama administration’s policies on settlements, which should surprise nobody. The people currently serving as the administration’s top Israel advisers – one of whom is now the nominee to be the American ambassador to Israel – are of the view that settlements do not impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and nobody should expect the Trump White House to suddenly embrace a view on settlements to which it has been diametrically opposed. Obama’s stance on settlements was that they are all problematic, no matter where they are located, and his administration included neighborhoods of Jerusalem beyond the Green Line in that calculus. The White House statement is clear that the Trump administration does not view the presence of settlements to be a problem, full stop. This is not only a departure from Obama, but also an unprecedented departure from all previous presidents since 1967, both Republican and Democratic.
Second, the White House statement is a departure from the baseline that many had assumed for the Trump administration, which was that Israel would be given a complete free hand to do whatever it wants in the West Bank. The celebratory atmosphere on the Israeli right, resulting in the exuberance driving the Regulation Law and efforts to annex Ma’ale Adumim, was born out of this assumption. It appears that even the Trump White House has limits, however, that rest on Israel maintaining the territorial status quo (although not the population status quo). This is certainly not a victory for those who have been pining for the Obama policy since noon on January 20, but neither is it a blank check for the Israeli government. It further demonstrates why Israel would have been wise to exercise caution from the start and proceed as if it was operating in an unknown environment rather than throw an indulgent settlements bacchanalia. Instead, it forced Trump’s hand in the first month of his presidency and resulted in a rebuke, no matter that it was as mild as could be.
There is an enormous amount of space between “all settlements are bad” and “settlements are fine as long as their footprint remains static” and the question is where precisely in that space Trump will land. The most likely possibility in my view is a return to the Bush-Sharon understandings, under which construction in the blocs was viewed as implicitly kosher so long as Israel froze construction everywhere else. As I have written time and again, I think such a policy is a good one that would lead to tangible progress toward a fair and viable two-state solution. But it is important to understand what precisely Bush and Sharon agreed to, since the Bush-Sharon letters are often bandied about as shorthand for justifying Israeli building in some places without any real concurrent Israeli obligations to take active measures against other settlements.
In their exchange in April 2004, President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon indeed landed upon a formula in which the U.S. would tolerate construction in the blocs, but it was not a free lunch. The arrangement began with a letter from Sharon, in which he pledged to undertake a number of initiatives and fulfill a set of obligations related to the Roadmap. The one that most remember is that Israel would disengage from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, but that was not the end of the quid pro quo. Sharon also wrote, “In this regard, we are fully aware of the responsibilities facing the State of Israel. These include limitations on the growth of settlements; removal of unauthorized outposts; and steps to increase, to the extent permitted by security needs, freedom of movement for Palestinians not engaged in terrorism.” In return for this complete package, Bush declared it unrealistic for Israel to return to the Green Line without acknowledging “new realities on the ground” in the form of “already existing major Israeli population centers.”
There is no scenario in which the Regulation Law passed by the Knesset this week does not obliterate any good faith commitment on Israel’s part to limit the growth of settlements or remove unauthorized outposts. It is, in fact, purposely designed to do the precise opposite. This is why the government’s actions this week are so damaging to even getting back to the deal reached with the last Republican administration. It is possible given Trump’s apparent preferences and Israel’s long-standing frustration with outsiders who make no distinction between different types of settlements to return to the Bush 43 policy, even despite the fact that the population of the blocs has enormously increased in the last decade. But it is incumbent for those who want to see such a policy emerge to also demand that the other side of the ledger is complete; namely, that the Israeli government not only halt settlement growth elsewhere, but take active steps to remove settlements that have been illegal under Israeli law from the start. This does indeed involve regulation, but not the kind that the Knesset appears to envision.