Trump and Netanyahu, Round One

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.

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Trump’s Time Machine Settlements Policy

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.

How To Rebalance The Shifting Settlement Debate

February 2, 2017 § Leave a comment

Over the last couple of years, a disturbing and worrisome shift has taken place in Israeli political discourse. For decades, the prevailing debate within Israel over the West Bank was about maintaining the status quo versus withdrawing in some form. Before Oslo, withdrawal was largely discussed in terms of a federation between Jordan and the Palestinians in the West Bank, and after Oslo it shifted to the idea of a Palestinian state. But whether it was in the context of negotiations or of unilateral withdrawal – as was done by Ariel Sharon in Gaza – the debate has been over maintaining the current status of temporary military occupation in the West Bank or leaving it.

This is no longer the case. Between the Regulation Bill that would legalize currently illegal outposts, the push by Naftali Bennett and other MKs in Bayit Yehudi and Likud to annex first Ma’ale Adumim and then the rest of Area C, Tuesday’s announcement of another 3,000 homes in the West Bank, and yesterday’s statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu that he will build a new settlement to replace the evacuated Amona, it is clear that the debate over the West Bank has a new center of gravity. Rather than policy arguments over the status quo or easing Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the new fault line is between those who want to maintain the status quo and those who want to deepen Israel’s hold on the West Bank. The reasons for this shift are numerous, from the disappointing failures of Oslo to the bloodshed and terror of the Second Intifada to a more rightwing population and Knesset. The result, however, is that Israel is entering a dangerous period where the government is perilously close to the point of no return. This only reinforces why a saner policy on settlements must emerge, that combines an understanding of what Israelis will accept politically while preserving the possibility for two states, and it must start with a focus on the settlement blocs.

Shaul Arieli wrote brilliantly last week about why annexation of the West Bank would be so dangerous, using the example of Jerusalem as a canvas for what precisely will go wrong. In the current environment, with the prospect of successful negotiations as dormant as ever, separation without withdrawal – as advocated by the Commanders for Israel’s Security – is the way forward, as it maintains Israel’s hold on the blocs while laying the foundation for Israel to one day in the future cede the rest. But this only works in keeping Israel secure, Jewish, and democratic if the distinction between the blocs and everything else is maintained. Otherwise, separation does not – to use the infamous term – create facts on the ground in support of two states but instead contravenes it. Employing an inviolable bright line between the blocs and the rest of the West Bank is also critical to Israel’s credibility; increasingly fewer governments and international observers will buy the rhetoric that settlements are not the primary obstacle to peace when the government is building up areas outside of any reasonable consensus of what Israel will keep in a deal. Not only will this be a better policy, it will eliminate some of Israel’s public opinion headaches and lessen the chances of future nasty diplomatic surprises in the vein of UNSCR 2334.

There are two steps that should be taken right away in order to rebalance the conversation over settlements and Israeli policy. The first is for the Netanyahu government to actually define what it views as blocs. The debate surrounding settlements right now is rife with purposeful misunderstanding, as everyone talks about the blocs as if they have been divinely decreed when the truth is that they mean different things to different people. Most everyone would include the blocs in the Jerusalem triangle – Givat Ze’ev, Ma’ale Adumim, Gush Etzion – along with Modi’in Illit and Alfei Menashe, areas that have the largest Jewish populations and are close to the Green Line. But there are other large population centers that cut farther into the West Bank, such as Ariel, or smaller population centers that encroach on large Palestinian cities, such as the Kedumim finger. Netanyahu himself has said that he envisions Beit El and Kiryat Arba as parts of blocs too, which takes us into the realm of the absurd. If any government is going to adopt a policy of building in the blocs to the exclusion of the rest, it first must adopt a hard definition of what it views as blocs.

Second, once the official Israel view of the blocs is set forth, the borders of those blocs must be defined. For instance, Ma’ale Adumim is the part of the West Bank that is least controversial in the eyes of most Israelis; it is hard to find virtually anyone who does not envision it as part of Israel one day, which is why it is the first target in the current annexation push. But the land slated to be annexed along with Ma’ale Adumim encompasses an area six times that of the settlement itself, and those borders include E-1, which has been a redline for both the U.S. and the European Union. Building in E-1 will destroy Palestinian contiguity in the West Bank by cutting off any direct access between Ramallah and Bethlehem, which is why it is such a big deal and why neither Sharon nor Netanyahu has taken that step. If Israel is to build in blocs while freezing the rest, does Ma’ale Adumim include its entire current municipal border? As another example, does the border of the Givat Ze’ev bloc include Beit Horon, which incorporates more Palestinian villages and agricultural land to get another 1000 Jews inside the border? Do the borders of the blocs remain fixed, or do they constantly expand to allow for natural growth? It is very easy to abuse the notion of building inside the blocs without knowing exactly what the borders of the blocs are.

Israel has to make a choice about what its core strategic interests are. Does it want to move toward a sustainable position in the West Bank that incorporates the overwhelming majority of settlers while maintaining somewhere upwards of 95% of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, or does it want to try and incorporate 60% or even all of the West Bank into Israel? One of the reasons that the announcement two days ago of new construction is so damaging – perhaps even more so than the Regulation Bill, which will be struck down by the High Court if passed – is because some of it is outside the blocs, which is doubly counterproductive by raising the temperature on the settlement issue writ large and seriously calling into question not only the Israeli government’s motives but the continuing viability of a Jewish and democratic Israel.

I have spent days in all parts of the West Bank over the past half year seeing the precise layout of settlements and topography with my own eyes. Territorial contiguity for a Palestinian state is still very possible and can be maintained while incorporating nearly all of the settlers into Israel, but only if Israel immediately takes the steps outlined here. Otherwise we slide quickly down a slippery slope that only ends with an Israeli defense of annexing all of Area C because of new facts on the ground that make doing anything less infeasible, and that is not a day that I ever want to see. The only way to ward this off is to reshift the debate away from annexation, and this is how to start doing it.

Trump, Netanyahu, and the Embassy Move That Wasn’t

January 26, 2017 § 1 Comment

As President Trump had promised multiple times during the presidential campaign, the issue of moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was indeed on the agenda during his very first week in office. The result, however, was not what had been promised. Rather than following through on the pledge to move the embassy immediately, and fulfilling the implicit promise of Sean Spicer’s teaser on the day before the inauguration to “stay tuned” on the issue, the Trump administration instead slammed on the brakes. On Monday, Spicer said that no decision had been made on moving the embassy, that the White House was still early in the decision making process, that Trump could do it right now by executive order if he wanted to but was explicitly declining to do so, and that the administration had to consult more with the State Department. Spicer later reiterated the point in response to a question, saying, “If it was already a decision, we wouldn’t be going through the process.”

While some in the Israeli government, such as Miri Regev and Ze’ev Elkin, chose to take a glass half full approach by focusing on the statement that the administration is in the beginning stages of the embassy move, others – rightly in my view – saw this as the first step in a drawn out process that may well draw itself out until the very end of Trump’s tenure as president. Certainly it was quite the turnaround from Trump’s repeated promises on the campaign trail to move the embassy on day one, and presumably came as a shock to the various pro-Israel voters and organizations that ranked the embassy move as high on their list of reasons for casting their vote for Trump or backing Trump on November 8. Most interestingly, the announcement that any embassy move was not going to be imminent came after Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu had their first phone conversation since Trump took office on Friday.

Like much else surrounding Trump and as I have reiterated before, there is no way of knowing yet precisely what he is going to do on Israel, but this early encounter over the embassy hints at some emerging dynamics that will have impacts on related issues down the line. Not only does this episode suggest that the embassy will stay put for the duration of the Trump administration, it suggests that the Netanyahu government’s unbridled enthusiasm over Trump’s election may have been premature.

Do not underestimate the importance that Netanyahu’s coalition partners place on the issue of the embassy moving to Jerusalem. It figured prominently in the congratulatory messages issued by government officials to Trump after his election, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked made it a centerpiece of her speech to the Institute for National Security Studies conference on Tuesday. An immediate announcement on the embassy was part of Naftali Bennett’s assessment that the next four years of Israeli policy under Trump would be established in the first four weeks of the administration, as Israel would be able to take advantage of a new White House trying to find its footing and create a new set of norms surrounding Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. Yet despite the repeated campaign promises and the chaos engulfing the first few days of the Trump presidency, the embassy remains in Tel Aviv indefinitely until further notice.

It is reasonable to assume that two things happened. The first is that the Trump administration heard from Sunni allies in the region – Jordan and Egypt in particular – immediately upon taking office, and that the first thing the White House heard from them was how disastrous moving the embassy would be to their own stability. Skeptics point out that there is no way of definitively knowing whether protests or unrest over an embassy move will materialize or how damaging they would be, but the Jordanian government firmly believes that the U.S. moving the embassy will not only damage their own position but place long term cooperation with Israel at risk. Despite the tangible success of the peace treaty and the various cooperative security and economic projects between Israel and Jordan, that cooperation comes at a high domestic political cost. If the American embassy is relocated to Jerusalem, Jordan cannot do anything that will endanger American assistance, so the only available move to the government to quell popular anger will be to downgrade its relationship with Israel. That will be bad for Israel and bad for Jordan, and an outcome that the Trump administration will want to avoid. It is not a stretch to say that King Abdullah is one of the most popular and credible foreign leaders with Congress, and undoubtedly the nascent Trump administration will view him similarly. The king is the keynote speaker at the national prayer breakfast next week, and it is unlikely that he would show up in the wake of being embarrassed at home by an embassy move.

This suggests that contrary to the hope in some quarters that the Israeli government would be given a blank check by Trump, other regional voices are going to be given weight even when their preferences contradict with the most hawkish pro-Israel position. Perhaps this is because Trump wants buy-in for his top regional foreign policy priority, which appears from his rhetoric to this point to be the fight against ISIS; perhaps this is because he was serious in his desire to make the “ultimate deal” and was told by the Jordanians, Palestinians, and others that an embassy move would destroy any chances of resuming negotiations toward a two-state solution; perhaps it is because a president who had no history of embracing the Israeli right until he ran for president was willing to say anything he thought helpful to get elected and sold the Israeli and American Jewish right a bill of goods. Whatever the answer, it makes no sense for Trump to delay on the embassy move if he is serious about it. The domestic political benefits of doing so evaporate the longer he waits, and by ardently promising to do so as recently as last week and then turning on a dime, he is actually damaging his position with many on the right and with the more hawkish segment of American Jewry. This looks like a repeat of the George W. Bush administration, where Candidate Bush promised to move the embassy while President Bush spent eight years examining the feasibility of it.

The second thing that likely happened is that Netanyahu gave his implicit okay for the embassy to stay where it is. This may come as a surprise to those who are used to hearing Netanyahu or Ambassador Ron Dermer talk about the importance of Jerusalem and the necessity of having the American embassy there, but behind the scenes the embassy is not one of Netanyahu’s priorities. It has been reported that during the Kerry negotiations, Netanyahu did not ask for the embassy issue to be put on the table even once, in contrast to Jonathan Pollard’s release, which he raised consistently in multiple negotiation efforts. The readout of Sunday’s Trump-Netanyahu call mentioned a host of issues, but the embassy move was curiously absent, which is especially surprising given the prominence it had been previously given both by American and Israeli officials. Calling for the U.S. to move the embassy is good politics for Netanyahu, but actually having it moved is a different story. Particularly given what he is hearing from the IDF on the potential fallout and unrest in the West Bank should the embassy move to Jerusalem, Netanyahu does not want to deal with massive protests and possibly a resumption of terror in Israeli cities while he is also going through a series of investigations that present the biggest threat to his continued tenure as prime minister that he has ever faced. While I don’t know that he would ever tell Trump not to move the embassy, he probably did not push back when Trump told him that it was not going to be his opening gambit on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

There is no guarantee of anything with Trump. What he thinks today will not necessarily be what he thinks tomorrow, and I do not think we can impute consistency to his methods or his decisions. For all I know, tomorrow he will announce that he has moved the embassy overnight. But examining the curious way in which events have unfolded so far, it is safe to say that the Naftali Bennetts and Mort Kleins of the world may not have everything in Trump that they bargained for.

Welcome to the Jungle

January 19, 2017 § 3 Comments

With tomorrow’s inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, Israel is entering an era of uncertainty unseen to this extent since 1967. It is not only Trump’s ascent to the presidency – expertly broken down by my colleague Ilan Goldenberg – that is causing so much ambiguity for Israel’s future; the Trump presidency is coinciding with two other variables whose outcomes are unknown, and the combination of the three together makes predicting Israel’s path forward with regard to its relations with the U.S., with the Palestinians, and with the rest of the world very difficult.

Trump’s Israel Policy

While there has been no shortage of guessing – including by yours truly – as to what Trump’s policies toward Israel and in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be, the truth of the matter is that nobody actually knows. While Trump has actually been consistent, if simplistic, on other foreign policy issues – protectionism, questioning NATO’s contribution to global and American security, a less antagonistic relationship with Russia, for example – on Israel he has sent conflicting signals.

On the one hand, he is quite obviously seduced by the idea of making what he calls “the ultimate deal” and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has spoken about the need to be seen as a “neutral guy” on Israel in order to command the Palestinians’ trust as a mediator. He has announced his intention to appoint Jared Kushner as his Middle East peace envoy because he views Kushner as uniquely suited to get the two parties to an agreement. On the other, he has taken actions that will make his stated goal of reaching a deal harder and possibly call it into question entirely, from supporting relocating the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to removing any mention of the two-state solution from the GOP platform.

On the one hand, he has nominated Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis to serve as his secretaries of state and defense, and neither of them is associated with rightwing policies on Israel. In particular, Mattis has talked about the damage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does to American interests in the Middle East and has squarely cast the blame on settlements for the impasse between the two sides. On the other, David Friedman is as rightwing and hawkish on Israel issues as any nominee to serve as Trump’s ambassador to Israel could possibly be, and Jason Greenblatt – Trump’s new envoy for international negotiations – has stated that he does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace in any way, and looks askance at the two-state solution as unwise and impractical.

There is no way of knowing at this point which of these competing impulses will win out. The main takeaway, however, is that the Israeli government has no way of knowing either, making any sudden moves fraught with danger. If, for instance, the Israeli government moves ahead with Bezalel Smotrich’s plan to annex Ma’ale Adumim, it may meet with a green light from the Trump White House, or it may be met with opposition from the White House and the State and Defense Departments. This is the genesis of the disagreement between Naftali Bennett, who wants Israel to quickly move ahead with annexation plans and formally abandon the two-state solution, and Avigdor Lieberman, who wants Israel to work out an agreement with the U.S. that would allow building in the blocs while freezing construction outside of them, similar to the plan developed by the Commanders for Israel’s Security. Whichever direction Israel moves in, what is certain is that it cannot be sure what the consequences, if any, will be.

Netanyahu’s Future

The second uncertain variable is the investigations into Prime Minister Netanyahu and how they will be resolved. Either Case 1000 – the allegations that billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer supplied the Netanyahu family with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cigars, pink champagne, flights on private jets, luxury hotel stays, and the use of posh vacation residences in return for favors from the prime minister – or Case 2000 – the allegations that Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes conspired to reduce rival newspaper Yisrael HaYom’s circulation in return for more favorable coverage of Netanyahu in Yedioth – have the potential to end in Netanyahu’s indictment. Whether or not they result in indictments or end with no charges filed, they are creating gridlock while they are ongoing. The talk of early elections that has sprung up overnight is partially because other politicians smell blood in the water, but partially because a prime minister under such serious investigation is limited in what he can carry out. Until the situation is resolved, Israel’s political system is in a state of limbo.

If Netanyahu is ultimately charged, it is difficult to see how he will manage to stay in power rather than being forced to resign as the Likud and coalition MKs abandon him. Should Netanyahu step down – voluntarily or otherwise – it will not, however, mean the end of the political chaos. Netanyahu has purposely cultivated a leadership vacuum underneath him, from chasing away serious challengers to his primacy on top of Likud – Moshe Ya’alon, Gidon Sa’ar, and Moshe Kahlon being the most prominent recent examples – to not appointing a deputy prime minister underneath him. Should Netanyahu suddenly be whisked away from the scene, who will replace him is entirely unclear. New elections will not resolve the uncertainty either; the current polls indicate that Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid would receive the most seats in Knesset, but would be unable to put together a coalition unless the Haredi parties and Lapid are able to bridge their seemingly unbridgeable differences. This would mean a repeat of 2009, when Kadima and Tzipi Livni won the elections, but after weeks of futile attempts at creating a government, Netanyahu was left standing as prime minister instead. While this makes for great news for political junkies, it does not make for stability in Israel’s policymaking.

Palestinian Leadership Transition

The third uncertain variable surrounds Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. While Abbas’s actions make clear that he is going to serve as the Palestinian president and head of the PLO until he dies, that could happen at any moment given his age and proclivity for chain smoking, and who will replace him is a complete black box. The recent Fatah Central Committee elections and conference sidelined Muhammad Dahlan and all of his allies while empowering Jibril Rajoub and Marwan Barghouti. Rajoub is well placed in terms of controlling the relevant institutions and organs of power but does not have much popularity or legitimacy with the Palestinian public, while Barghouti is enormously popular with the public but is sitting in HaSharon prison serving out multiple life terms for orchestrating the terrorist murders of Israelis. Furthermore, it is possible that when Abbas is gone, no single person will hold the reins of power but that it will be more of a politburo, or that the roles of Palestinian Authority president, PLO chief, and Fatah leader will be separated.

The stakes involved for how this gets resolved are enormous for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the single biggest factor preventing the resumption of mass organized Palestinian terrorism from assaulting the streets of Israeli cities is the robust cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian security forces. The PA security cooperation with Israel is immensely unpopular, and to Abbas’s credit, he has not wavered in his commitment to continuing it, even if his reasons for doing so are not entirely altruistic. But there is no guarantee that whomever comes after Abbas will evince the same commitment; in fact, in a protracted leadership fight, one of the easiest ways to win public support will be to pledge to end security coordination with Israel. The negative consequences should this happen cannot be overstated, and thus Israeli officials are watching with bated breath to see how the post-Abbas period will play out. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is as unclear as can be.

The irony of all this is that Israel is entering this era of uncertainty on so many political fronts when its security has never been more certain. The conventional threats from neighboring states has evaporated; the Iranian nuclear threat has been deferred – though certainly not eliminated – in the estimation of Israel’s military and intelligence brass; the borders with Gaza and Lebanon have been unprecedentedly quiet for a variety of reasons from effective Israeli deterrence to the Syrian civil war; and organized terrorism (as opposed to lone wolf attacks) is at its lowest point since before the Second Intifada. Yet on the political and diplomatic fronts, the status Israel’s relationships with the U.S., the wider international community, the Palestinians, and Diaspora Jewry have rarely been so murky. While all may turn out fine in the end, Israel should be prepared for a period of potential upheaval.

How To Think About The American Embassy

January 12, 2017 § 4 Comments

The location of the American Embassy in Israel has been an issue of controversy for decades, but it is newly on the front burner. Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a persistent Donald Trump campaign promise, one of its strongest advocates is ambassador-nominee David Friedman, and Israeli officials called on Trump to relocate the embassy in their messages of congratulations on his election. Like so many other variables in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this one boils down to whether you feel more strongly about principles or feel more strongly about outcomes. Unlike other areas of contention between Israel and the Palestinians, this is one where the smart solution is one against which I instinctively recoil.

The historical reason for the embassy being located in Tel Aviv is because the international community views the overall status of Jerusalem as being subject to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This is not an issue in which the U.S. is an outlier in any way – while there were a small number of primarily Latin American countries that located their embassies in Jerusalem in the past, there have been no embassies in Jerusalem for over a decade. Aside from the American position that the status of Jerusalem should not be pre-judged, there is a daily and ongoing practical reason as well for having the embassy in Tel Aviv. American regional allies are adamant that locating the embassy in Jerusalem would be a literally explosive issue, and indeed Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have on national security grounds waived the requirement in the Jerusalem Embassy Act that the embassy be moved to Jerusalem. It is taken as an article of faith that moving the embassy will create protests not only in Israel but against American embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East and subject American diplomats and soldiers to the threat of violence.

The argument for moving the embassy to Jerusalem relies on a basic notion of fairness. Israel defines its capital as Jerusalem, and yet it is the only country in the world whose capital – determined by its own democratically elected and sovereign government – is not accepted by the rest of the international community. Despite the fact that Jerusalem does indeed represent a complex problem whose ultimate settlement must be resolved through negotiations, this is a red herring. Israel’s capital is in West Jerusalem, the newer section of the city that was built by Jewish residents of Palestine and that was part of Israel from the very beginning. Its status is not and never has been disputed, was not and is not subject to any past or future negotiations, and is not the part of the city that is viewed by some as being more appropriately internationalized. Many Israelis and American Jews view the refusal to locate the American embassy in West Jerusalem as an unfair double standard, and believe the Palestinian and larger Arab red line over moving the embassy to be evidence that the issue is acceptance of Israel in any borders rather than a stand against Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

Many people and organizations on both sides of this issue feel very strongly about it, as evidenced by the flood of statements and commentary on it since Trump’s election. Similar to the debate over the president using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” it is an example of the divide over whether powerful symbolism should take precedence over more easily measurable consequences, and as with that debate, there are legitimate arguments for both. Irrespective of where one falls out, I wish that those on opposite sides of this divide would recognize that it is not a cut and dry debate.

To keep the embassy where it is does not constitute a purely neutral move. Israelis rightly feel that it signals an unwillingness to accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people, the return to which was the object of centuries of Jewish longing. An American embassy in West Jerusalem does not prejudice the status of the Old City or negate the eminently reasonable desire of Palestinians to have their future capital in East Jerusalem. Keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv grants a hecklers’ veto to those whose real problem is with any Israeli presence in Jerusalem and who aim to deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. As with the Temple Mount status quo, having the world’s diplomatic corps to Israel live and work in Tel Aviv is a very painful concession, even if it is one that is ultimately wise for security purposes.

To move the embassy is an ideological move completely devoid of any practical considerations. It doesn’t mean that it is ultimately the wrong policy to adopt, but it is highly misleading to pretend that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is the clear “pro-Israel” move and that keeping it in Tel Aviv is a sign of less than full support for Israel. Moving the embassy will not necessarily result in chaos and riots in Jerusalem itself, but there is no question that it will result in chaos and riots somewhere, whether in other spots in Israel, the West Bank, Muslim-majority countries, or at American and Israeli embassies around the world. Is making a completely symbolic statement of moving the embassy worth even one American, Israeli, or Palestinian life? Is it worth even one dollar of property damage? Is it worth the PLO following through on its threat to withdraw its recognition of Israel, or halt the security cooperation that is preventing mass terrorism and rockets from the West Bank? The idea that the American embassy can be moved in a cost-free manner is laughable.

The embassy issue is hard. Do not use it as a litmus test for what is right or wrong, what is supportive of Israel or not, what should be done or should not be done. Above all, do not turn it into such a sacred cow that keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv will automatically result in a 50% cut to American embassy security worldwide, as the absolutely insane bill introduced in the Senate last week will do. Policies have consequences, and moving the American embassy or keeping it where it is involves a lot more than whether diplomats will have to order new business cards. We are entering an era where every policy is in danger of being reduced to a mere rhetorical argument; do not give into that temptation with regard to this one.

Elor Azaria and the System

January 4, 2017 § 2 Comments

There are two common responses to Elor Azaria’s manslaughter conviction by the military court today for fatally shooting an incapacitated terrorist in Hebron. One common response is that Azaria is a victim of the system; if you place 18 year old soldiers in a crucible where they must make split-second life and death decisions while facing down terrorists, you should not hold them responsible when things go wrong. Another common response is that Azaria is representative of the system; if you have militarily occupied a territory for five decades while suppressing the occupied population’s nationalist aspirations, then criminal abuses are a feature rather than a bug. There are elements of truth to both of these positions, but the obvious feature that they both share is that they fall back on “the system” to explain what has happened and to argue for their preferred outcome. The focus on the system is important, but it cannot and should not be the sum total of the story in the Azaria saga.

From one perspective, the Azaria conviction shows that the system works. When Azaria was first arrested after the shooting, there was widespread fear on the left that a whitewash would occur. Given the rush of nationalist politicians to defend his actions and visit his family to reassure them that he would not be abandoned – including Prime Minister Netanyahu, who famously called Azaria’s parents to promise them that their son would be treated fairly – the fear was not unfounded. This fear was magnified when Azaria was charged with manslaughter rather than murder despite plenty of evidence that his killing of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif was plotted as an act of revenge rather than an act of misperceived self-defense. Azaria’s lawyers mounted his defense by indicting Azaria’s commanders and the entire military apparatus as part of a conspiracy to cover up the fact that he actually acted properly, and they were bolstered by a public campaign to turn Azaria into a hero. While IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon strongly cautioned against treating Azaria as a model soldier and decried viewing him as a scapegoat or martyr, the amount of pressure going the other way was overwhelming. Nonetheless, the court today not only unanimously convicted Azaria of the manslaughter charge, but also delivered a forceful statement in spending three hours reading out the verdict and emphasizing that this was not a close or borderline case. One cannot maintain in the face of the Azaria trial that the rule of law does not exist in Israel.

From another perspective, the Azaria conviction shows just how broken the system is. Azaria was captured on tape fatally shooting a wounded and unarmed Palestinian terrorist fifteen minutes after he was first taken down by another soldier – about as open and shut a case with documentary evidence that exists – and yet the outcry surrounding his arrest and trial was monumental. According to the Israeli NGO Yesh Din, there have been 262 investigations of Palestinian fatalities caused by the IDF in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2000, and only 17 of those have resulted indictments. It is easy to understand why after observing the uproar surrounding this particular case. More disturbingly, that Azaria has not only been defended so vigorously in the court of public (and ministerial) opinion but has been lionized as a symbol of what is right with Israel points to dark days ahead. Demonstrators on Wednesday outside of military headquarters where the verdict was delivered chanted, “Gadi be careful, Rabin is looking for a friend,” implying that Eisenkot would be deserving of assassination should Azaria be convicted. That a soldier in an emotionally tough situation who shoots and kills an unarmed assailant is worthy of praise – not sympathy, but praise – and that his supporters view him as a paragon of virtue is bad enough. That he is a vehicle by which the IDF chief of staff and the judges who tried him are threatened with death is reprehensible and a sign that part of Israel has seriously lost its way. Judge Maya Heller, who delivered the verdict today, appears more like someone with her finger in the dike unsuccessfully trying to hold back a tidal wave of overwhelming floodwaters than like Joseph Welch shocking a country back to its senses.

What the Azaria trial says about the system, however, cannot be the last word. Making this solely a story about the success or failure of a system of Israeli policy in the West Bank or a system of Israeli rule of law is a path to disaster. There is no doubt in my mind that what Israel asks of its 18 and 19 year olds is an impossible task. There is equally no doubt in my mind that a heavy Israeli military presence in a place like Hebron – and place that must be visited in person to understand just how soul-crushing the situation there is – guarantees that even the best 18 and 19 year olds will act in reprehensible ways. Neither of these observations should be used to absolve anyone of individual responsibility for his or her actions. Once you take this tack, then chaos and anarchy reign supreme. If every soldier who encounters a violent Palestinian knows that he can wrongfully shoot and claim being a victim of “the system,” it will unleash unspeakable violence while also rending Israeli society in two to an irreparable degree. If every incident of wrongful killing or abuse of Palestinians in the West Bank is met with a larger demand to investigate why Israel is in the West Bank at all, it will similarly create an environment in which there is no incentive for individuals to act with caution or compassion.

This is why the effort already underway to pardon Azaria, championed not only by the prime minister and other government ministers such as Naftali Bennett, Miri Regev, Aryeh Deri, and Yisrael Katz, but also by opposition figures such as Shelley Yachimovich, is a dangerous development. It sends the wrong message about the obligations of soldiers to act legally and humanely and creates a terrible set of incentives through institutionalizing moral hazard. It also validates those who have been treating Azaria as a soldier who acted appropriately but has been scapegoated by the system, while tarnishing the part of the system – the rule of law – that actually worked and has come out of this incident unscathed. But more importantly, it makes this all about the system itself. Do not discount what Elor Azaria did himself, no matter how bad or unfair the situation was in which he found himself. It turns Elor Azaria into a black and white proxy for whether Israel can do no right or Israel can do no wrong, when the reality is far grayer.

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