November 18, 2016 § 1 Comment
Natan Sachs and I argue today in Foreign Affairs that despite the jubilation on the Israeli right at Trump’s election, it actually creates some real political problems for Bibi Netanyahu.
On November 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated President-elect Donald Trump through a video message, in which the Israeli leader could barely contain his giddiness at the prospect of a friendlier White House. The ruling Israeli right-wing coalition, which sees Trump as a potential champion of Greater Israel, believes that the United States’ next president will finally remove any outside constraints on settlement construction in the West Bank or the legalization of already existing settlements built without governmental approval. Settlement-friendly politicians in Israel are already working hard on such moves; on Wednesday, a bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land passed its first reading in the Knesset, despite the objections of the attorney general and a near certain rejection by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Some in Israel even view the next four years as an opportunity to annex the West Bank outright. This is a “tremendous opportunity to announce a renunciation of the idea of founding a Palestinian state in the heart of the land,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, stated. “The era of the Palestinian state is over.”
It’s not clear what Trump will do, of course, nor whether he even knows his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the campaign, he initially said that he would like to remain a “neutral guy”—a contrast to decades of U.S. policy that his tilted toward Israel—but he later shifted to a more traditional pro-Israel stance. To the delight of the Israeli right, the Republican platform omitted any mention of a two-state solution. And since the election, the co-chairs of Trump’s Israel advisory committee have reiterated controversial statements about Trump moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. They’ve also said that Trump does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace. At the same time, Trump himself told The Wall Street Journal of his desire to close the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. “As a dealmaker, I’d like to do … the deal that can’t be made,” he said. “And do it for humanity’s sake.”
Despite the myriad conflicting signals, it is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu will now have a freer hand to implement the policies he desires with regard to settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. Politically speaking, he may no longer have to run the gauntlet between a coalition that demands more building in the West Bank and a White House that insists on less.
But Netanyahu may soon find out that he needs to be careful with what he wishes for. Freedom from U.S. pressure would be a mixed blessing. Rather than solving his problems, it could cost him his political leverage, his ability to play two-level games.
Head over to Foreign Affairs to read the rest of the piece.
November 3, 2016 § Leave a comment
When I was fifteen, my family went to Israel for Passover in order to celebrate my younger brother’s bar mitzvah, and like many bar mitzvah-celebrating American families in Israel, we did it at the Western Wall. While walking toward the plaza next to a secular Israeli relative a couple of decades my senior, I asked him when he had last been to the Western Wall. I could barely comprehend it when he told me that this was his first time, and that he had never had any interest in visiting the site because he had no emotional or religious reason to do so. I was then bowled over when this same leftwing Tel Aviv-dwelling secular Israeli artist cousin immediately expressed his unalloyed view (during the very height of the debate over the Oslo process) that sovereignty over the Temple Mount could never be ceded to any other country or group because the site represented the core of Israeli identity. Here I was, an American Jewish teenager who had been brought up to revere the Western Wall for its religious significance and spiritual power and viewed praying there as a holy obligation but had never considered it in any way as a political symbol, and my Israeli cousin cared so little about the Wall’s religious significance that he had never even bothered to see it in person but was adamant that Israel must always control its environs. The ways we related to the Western Wall were about as far apart as they could be, and that anyone could view the site in the way he did was something that I had never considered or even encountered.
I recount this story in light of yesterday’s clash at the Western Wall between activists seeking to make the site more religiously pluralistic and (mostly) ultra-Orthodox worshippers seeking to maintain the site’s Orthodox status quo. It is helpful to me in framing and understanding the enormous gap that appears to exist between American and Israeli Jews over the importance of this issue, and the reactions by some on the left to whether the energy that liberal American and Israeli Jews are expending on this issue wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere on what they view as more pressing human rights violations.
The twin Pew surveys of American and Israeli Jews highlighted a number of clear distinctions between the two communities, with the most glaring one being that Americans view their Judaism as being more culturally universal and Israelis view theirs as being more religiously particularistic. This explains why despite the fact that Women of the Wall and the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel are the groups at the vanguard of religious pluralism at the Western Wall, this issue has been embraced far more strongly and widely by Diaspora Jews than by Israelis. Israelis, whether religious or secular, view Judaism through a more traditional religious lens that leads them to see religious observance as the Orthodox path, whether or not they are Orthodox. My secular Israeli cousin could not have been more indifferent to the Wall’s religious value and saw it as a political and nationalist symbol instead, but the fact that prayer there is regulated according to Orthodox custom also did not seem to bother him at all. The thorough dominance of traditional Orthodox Judaism over religion in Israel means that most Israelis do not see anything irregular about treating religion traditionally. This is particularly the case when it comes to purely religious activities, such as prayer, versus areas like marriage and divorce that are governed by religious law and custom despite being social institutions.
Speaking at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto in September, the prominent American-Israeli writer and public intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi took exception with the American Jewish community for its support of the Iran deal. Speaking of his feelings in the aftermath of the agreement, Halevi said, “I wasn’t disappointed in the administration, I was disappointed in the American Jewish community. I felt deeply let down. Ninety percent of Israelis, according to polls, opposed that deal. For many of us, this was an existential threat. And I always felt that at an existential moment, for all of the differences between us, I could depend on the American Jewry….And the American Jewish community as a whole, I feel let down by them.” For many American Jews, the lack of religious pluralism in Israel – perfectly encapsulated by the government not implementing an agreement from January that creates a completely separate pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall – is a source of equivalent disappointment. Given the enormous premium placed on support for Israel in American Jewish synagogues, communities, and institutions, American Jews see the rejection of their Jewish observance and the denial of their religious rights at the Western Wall as a devastating insight into how the Israeli government views them, and exhortations for them to be more patient or to express their hurt more quietly add insult to injury. Very few people in the Israeli government understand what a big deal it is and just how much it imperils support from the overwhelming majority of American Jews who do not pray or observe in the Orthodox tradition, and who are not accustomed to being told that they must simply acquiesce to the situation. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rebuke of American Jewish leaders and his appeals to the maintenance of a religious status quo to which they never agreed or accepted is as tone deaf and short-sighted as it comes, ignoring Israel’s critical need for Diaspora Jewish support in order to lock in some illusory domestic political gains by mollifying his Haredi coalition partners.
Of course, it is not only those on the traditional right who don’t grasp what the fuss is about. Many prominent and well-known liberal Israeli activists and writers took to social media yesterday to question why those on the left are wasting their time and effort on the Western Wall issue when the far graver human rights violations against Palestinians must be battled. The irony here is that it is the same argument that many on the right use against anyone who criticizes Israel, since there are always other countries that act far worse and commit actual genocidal atrocities; after all, spending time highlighting Israel’s misbehavior when Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons and barrel bombs on his own people right next door seems like gravely misdirected energy. The obvious response to this is that humans are thankfully pretty capable beings who can focus on more than one thing at one time, but the deeper reason is that people tend to get worked about the things that are meaningful to them. I spill far more critical ink on Israeli illegal outposts than I do on Iranian executions of dissidents because Israel is much closer to my heart and has a special emotional and cultural resonance for me that is central to who I am. Similarly, for American Jews who view their Judaism not simply as an expression of universal values but as an expression of their religion, the discrimination at the Western Wall is as important as any other issue because it strikes directly at the core of their identity. Criticizing activists fighting for the Western Wall because they should instead be fighting separation walls misunderstands the fundamental thinking motivating those whose animating liberal passion is a more pluralistic Judaism in the Jewish state.
Like my cousin who didn’t see why he should pay the Western Wall any heed, these critics find it hard to see why this is a pressing civil rights issue. But if they don’t do a better job of understanding why this is important to American Jews, they will be sorely disappointed when American Jews become less receptive to the issues important to them.
October 27, 2016 § Leave a comment
After what many viewed as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s boosterism on behalf of Mitt Romney in 2012 and his meetings in New York last month with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there has been inevitable chatter about how Israeli politics is impacting the U.S. presidential election. For what it’s worth, I thought in 2012 that Netanyahu largely got an unfair bad rap over allegations that he was trying to influence the campaign, and I give him credit this time around for having clean hands. By all accounts, Netanyahu gave zero encouragement to Trump when he was making noise about taking a campaign trip to Israel last spring, made no independent effort to meet with the candidates while in the U.S., and made sure to reach out to Clinton to schedule a meeting only after Trump asked for one first. While there is plenty of speculation about the Israeli government’s preferences and how those preferences will impact the election, the more interesting angle goes the other way. The U.S. election has the potential to wreak havoc on Israeli politics, and it is forcing Netanyahu to make some potentially momentous choices with regard to his own political positioning.
The past couple of months have not been kind to Netanyahu and Likud insofar as the polls go. In early September, public opinion surveys showed Yesh Atid pulling ahead of Likud were elections to be held, with Yesh Atid more than doubling its current seats and Likud’s share cut by 25%. Another poll in late September confirmed this trend holding, with Yesh Atid ahead of Likud by four seats despite more respondents preferring Netanyahu to Yair Lapid as prime minister. While the numbers dictate trouble ahead for Netanyahu and Likud politically absent some sort of course correction, there is one important way in which the polling acts to Netanyahu’s political benefit. Israeli government coalitions are notoriously unstable – Netanyahu’s most recent government lasted just over two years, and there have been nine governments in the twenty one years since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination – and it oftentimes takes little to bring a government down. Coalition partners are able to hold the prime minister hostage by insisting on an array of demands and threatening – explicitly or implicitly – to bring down the government and force new elections if they aren’t met. Conversely, when the polls show the leading party benefitting from new elections, the prime minister will often force a crisis, such as when Netanyahu fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni in December 2014 in order to try and pick up more seats and bring the Haredi parties into the government.
The current government is in many ways one that should be particularly susceptible to hostage taking behavior by Likud’s coalition partners. The coalition is 66 MKs – and was only 61 MKs until Avigdor Lieberman brought Yisrael Beiteinu into the government in May – and it can be unilaterally brought down by four out of its five coalition partners, since a defection by any of the four would put the coalition under a majority of 61 Knesset seats. It is filled with party leaders, such as Naftali Bennett and Lieberman, who harbor ambitions to replace Netanyahu, have extremely checkered pasts with him, and are also widely reputed to loathe him personally. It contains parties with wildly different priorities, from Habayit Hayehudi and its focus on its settler and rightwing nationalist constituency to Shas and United Torah Judaism and their championing of ultra-Orthodox welfare and religious priorities. It has been plagued with fights surrounding the budget. In short, few people thought this government would last particularly long.
The recent polls change that calculus, because the prospects of Yesh Atid winning and forming the next government mean that Habayit Hayehudi and the Haredi parties would be doomed to irrelevance. Despite Lapid and Bennett’s unlikely partnership of strange bedfellows in the previous government, it is difficult to foresee a coalition led by Lapid in which their two parties coexist. The Haredi parties are also terrified of Lapid, despite his recent efforts to take a softer rhetorical line on their pet issues, since he represents the secular elite with whom they clash and his late father, Tommy Lapid, was Israel’s most ardent and outspoken secular leader and Haredi opponent. In addition, Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party would nearly disappear if new elections were held today, and Kahlon’s future political career is dependent on his banking some tangible policy victories as finance minister. In short, Netanyahu’s partners can no longer afford to make idle threats of bringing the government down, which makes Netanyahu’s coalition far more stable in inverse proportion to how strong Likud is polling.
Which brings us to the wrinkle, which is our presidential election here at home. Currently, Netanyahu’s biggest fear is that President Obama will do something on his way out the door related to the peace process and/or settlements, ranging from what Netanyahu views as disastrous (a binding UN Security Council resolution) to enormously inconvenient (a speech laying out Obama’s views on parameters for future two-state negotiations). Netanyahu and Israeli officials have been furiously lobbying everyone from the president on down not to make any moves on this front, and they have been counting on the uncertainty of the election outcome to forestall any surprises, since Obama will not want to do anything that may drive Jewish voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other swing states toward Trump. After the election though, all bets are off, and this is particularly so in the unlikely but still possible case that Trump wins, since then Obama will have no concerns about saddling his successor with a policy on Israel that may not be to his liking. Even if Clinton wins as expected, the unusually harsh American response to the Israeli government’s plan to build a new neighborhood in Shilo for the relocated Amona settlers makes Netanyahu and his coalition partners fear that there is an American sword of Damocles waiting to drop.
In Netanyahu’s calculations, the one possibly foolproof thing he can do to head this all off at the pass is to bring Yitzhak Herzog and his Zionist Union party into the government and make Herzog foreign minister, which explains the dalliance with Herzog a few months ago and the constant reports that he and Herzog are once again cooking up plans for a unity government. Netanyahu thinks that bringing in Herzog and giving him the diplomatic portfolio will signal to the world that he is genuine in his desire to see a two-state solution, and that it will prevent a post-election move from Obama while starting him off on the right foot with Clinton should she win. It will also not bring down his government if Herzog can bring enough Zionist Union MKs with him to replace the eight from Habayit Hayehudi who will leave should Zionist Union join, and while it leaves Netanyahu with a suboptimal coalition from a policy standpoint and creates future political problems for him, it gives him diplomatic breathing room.
I am skeptical that Netanyahu’s fears are well-placed since I think the likelihood is greater than not that Obama does nothing earth shattering on the Israeli-Palestinian front before he leaves the White House, but there is also little question that Netanyahu’s calculus on this is presenting him with a political choice and that he is weighing his options. So the intersection of American politics and Israeli politics are indeed important for the next few months, but the impact will be far more heavily felt in Israel than here.
October 13, 2016 § 4 Comments
When your work centers on Israel, you spend a lot of time contemplating existential threats. Whether it is Iran’s nuclear program, Hizballah and Hamas terrorism, Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the specter of Israel ending its presence in the West Bank, the monopoly of the Orthodox on Israel’s religious and family institutions, the threat of allowing the non-Orthodox a say in Israel’s religious and family institutions – everyone has their favorite doomsday scenario for what will bring the end of Israel. I don’t want to debate whose alarmist tendencies are most on point, but there is one clear and present danger looming on the horizon that nobody should casually dismiss, and that is the potential presidency of Donald Trump.
Let’s begin with the easy stuff. American Jews often like to talk about whether or not a candidate feels Israel in his or her kishkes, and for many it can be a quick and easy litmus test for pro-Israel voters. If this is the standard that you employ, there is no conceivable argument that Trump meets it. Trump seems to know nothing about Israel other than that it has built a wall. He has suggested cutting all U.S. foreign aid – which would include the military assistance to Israel – and then embraced making Israel reimburse the U.S. for the defense aid it receives. He then switched course yet again and defended the annual military assistance and missile defense cooperation not on the grounds of Israel being an important ally or because its safety is an American interest or because Israel doesn’t exactly live in a friendly neighborhood, but because it is an “excellent investment.” Given Trump’s history of bailing on investments that have turned sour and leaving his creditors high and dry, I don’t know why anyone would assume that he would treat Israel otherwise were his views of its investment worthiness – whatever that even means – to change.
But let’s leave aside Trump’s emotional attachment to Israel or lack thereof. The actual policy agenda that he has embraced would be disastrous for Israel as well. Trump has made his disdain for allies and alliances clear, treating every relationship that the U.S. has as a transactional one. For a country that relies on the U.S. for weapons, security guarantees, diplomatic assistance in the United Nations and other international forums, and intelligence sharing, to list only a short part of a long menu of items, it would be four or eight years of constant walking on eggshells, hoping that a President Trump views Israel as pulling its perceived weight.
Trump does not actually understand Israel’s specific policy concerns. The major area of disagreement between the U.S. and Israel during the Obama administration has been Iranian power, and yet at the debate this past Sunday night, Trump repeatedly expressed his preference for farming out responsibility and influence in Syria to Iran and Russia so that they could assist Bashar al-Assad. In short, Trump actively wants to further empower Iran in establishing a permanent and dominant presence in Syria, creating the biggest threat on Israel’s immediate border in decades and ensuring that Hizballah has even freer reign than it ever has to stockpile missiles and menace Israel. He has called for Saudi Arabia to develop its own nuclear weapons, which would permanently eliminate Israel’s qualitative military edge. Does this sound like someone who even understands what Israeli security concerns are, let alone a great and glorious friend?
Trump does not understand Israel itself. He has stated that if he is not elected president, the Iran deal will lead to Israel’s elimination. We can debate the merits of the Iran deal from now until Election Day – and Trump is correct that Israeli officials, including those in the security establishment and not just politicians, are not exactly fans – but the notion that only Trump can save Israel runs counter to anything and everything for which Israel stands. It betrays an utter ignorance of the very essence of Zionism, of Jewish power and survival embodied in the Jewish state. It betrays an utter contempt for the Israeli ethos of self-reliance and making “Never Again” more than just a hollow slogan. It betrays an utter incomprehension of Israeli military power, intelligence, and capabilities. It betrays an insulting narcissism that pays lip service to Israel without bothering to learn the first thing about it.
Trump does not understand the U.S.-Israel relationship. He thinks that it is based upon the shared darkness of struggling with terrorism rather than the shared values of democracy. He seizes upon suboptimal choices that Israel has reluctantly made out of necessity – the separation barrier, profiling at Ben Gurion Airport – to bind himself to Israel, never for one second comprehending that Israel does not take these measures with the glee that Trump evinces when discussing them. Every time he unfairly tarnishes Israel by using it as his justification for pushing a set of noxious policy prescriptions that are completely devoid of the Israeli context, Israel’s standing in the U.S. suffers. When naysayers doubt the values aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship, they tend to focus on Israel’s democratic deficit, warning that Israel is in danger of losing its appeal in the eyes of Americans. Not only do Trump’s words of damning praise threaten support for Israel by continually shining a spotlight on Israel’s least attractive side, a Trump presidency will take this dynamic and turn it on its head, making Israel diplomatically captive to an America whose moral leadership is eroded and tarnishing Israel with a guilt-by-association. It is difficult to have a robust alliance that is based primarily on shared values when one side of that alliance is run by an imperious megalomaniac obsessed with punishing his political enemies and eviscerating the rule of law.
During Sunday night’s debate, I tweeted that Trump is an authoritarian. Over the next 24 hours on Twitter, I was called an oven dodger, a dumb kike, a hook-nosed Jew, a Jewish subversive, a traitor, told to “get your ass back to Tel Aviv” and to go back to “your country Israel,” among other pleasantries. My characterization of Trump did not even hint at anything having to do with Jews or Israel, yet the putrescent sleaze emanating from his fans was quite narrowly tailored. I do not hold Trump responsible for what his supporters do and say, and thankfully none of these mental midgets will be responsible for his Israel policy. But think about the political persuasions of Trump’s most ardent fans and remember that this is a man with no real policy ideas that do not involve sound bites and who is captive to whatever crazy idea is the latest to penetrate his skull. And then ask yourself whether you are comfortable with the most powerful leader in the world being someone who lies awake at night retweeting the kind of people who think that an American Jew whose family has been here for over a century should “pack your bags for your walled ethnostate.” There is a wide universe of policies that can be deemed pro-Israel, but I don’t trust that any of them will be reliably implemented by an unapologetically oblivious and proudly uninformed cretin whose policies and statements present a danger to the long term health and interests of his own country’s democracy, let alone one six thousand miles away.