The Fight To Frame The Iran Deal

August 11, 2016 § 3 Comments

If you thought that the seemingly never-ending battle between the United States and Israel to shape how the Iran deal is viewed was finally over, you’d be wrong. At a press conference last Thursday, President Obama touted what he said was Israel’s ex-post support for the deal, saying, “And it’s not just the assessment of our intelligence community; it’s the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence community, the country that was most opposed to this deal, that acknowledges this has been a game changer and that Iran has abided by the deal; and that they no longer have the sort of short-term breakout capacity that would allow them to create nuclear weapons.” The next day, an unsigned statement was issued by the Israeli Defense Ministry insinuating that the Iran deal has “no value” because it is based on a faulty reading of the facts on the ground, asserting that it damaged Israel’s struggle to defend itself from Iran, and comparing it to the infamous Munich agreement that preceded WWII. This in turn was followed by a statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu confirming that Israel’s opposition to the deal has not changed, but emphasizing that Israel has no greater ally than the U.S. and that the most important things going forward are ensuring Iranian compliance with the deal and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Then on Monday, the Defense Ministry issued another unsigned statement apologizing for any misunderstanding over the Munich analogy but reiterating again that Israel remains concerned about Iranian behavior in the wake of the Iran deal.

The Iran deal has been at the core of much of the up-and-down relationship between the American and Israeli governments over the past few years, culminating in Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March 2015 and continuing to cast a pall over the negotiations for the new ten year defense assistance Memorandum of Understanding. Despite the fact that the Iran deal has been signed and implemented, framing how it is perceived is still crucial to both sides. For the U.S., defending Obama’s signature – and most controversial – foreign policy achievement is the way to shape how history will view his presidency, and even more importantly to set the future direction of American foreign policy long after he is gone from office. For Israel, which was the most publicly vociferous opponent of the deal, continuing to inveigh against it is not only about protecting Israeli credibility and demonstrating Israeli prescience, but about keeping the heat on Iran in order to preserve Israel’s position in the region and assure international support for its defense and security priorities. So more than one year on from the deal’s conclusion, it still affects U.S.-Israel relations and will continue to do so for years to come.

In this particular case, the blowup could have and should have been easily avoided, and much of the blame lies on the president himself. Obama was wrong in his characterization of how the Israeli security establishment views the deal, particularly in his use of the phrase “game changer.” Whereas Obama portrayed Israel as Saul on the road to Damascus, having seen the light and undergone a conversion on the Iran deal’s merits, the reality is that Israeli officials are far more wary. They acknowledge that the deal has eliminated the nuclear issue in the short term, but they also worry that it has actually made the issue even more dangerous in the long term once the deal expires in ten years and that it has worsened other Iranian non-nuclear headaches, such as terrorism and ballistic missile production, in the present. And while Israeli officials concede that Iran has hewed to the narrow terms of the deal so far, they are also certain that Iran will violate the agreement as soon as it is in its interests to do so. In light of this, Israeli officials’ anger at Obama’s press conference is eminently understandable. Israelis rightly don’t like being used as pawns in a PR battle, and all the more so when they feel that their position is being misrepresented. Even worse, Israel’s response since the deal was implemented has been precisely what the U.S. had been pleading for – measured opposition and an acknowledgement that the most important thing now is to hold Iran to its commitments, rather than to continue lambasting the deal at every opportunity and lobbying for it to be scrapped. For that to be throw back in its face must have been particularly galling.

Being justifiably angry, however, does not make the response justifiable. Rather than bring a gun to a knife fight – and breaking out the Munich analogy was certainly a disproportionate response – Israel would have been better off spinning this as a win. After all, the fact that Obama referenced Israel as the ultimate validator in judging whether or not the deal has been and will be successful gives Israel a fair deal of leverage going forward when it comes to evaluating Iranian compliance and developing a response should Iran be deemed in violation of the accord. It is embarrassing enough that the “Defense Ministry” had to walk back its original statement a few days later, but the timing itself made things even more precarious given that the U.S. and Israel are reportedly in the end stages of negotiating the new military aid package, and this hardly seems the time for Israel to do anything that might upset the apple cart. The fact that Avigdor Lieberman – who presumably took the strange step of hiding behind an entire ministry in an effort to give his statement more weight – was unable to hold his tongue despite the timing and despite his past criticism of other Israeli ministers for needlessly harming relations with the U.S. is a reminder of how the pragmatic defense minister can still be dangerously erratic, placing politics above wider considerations.

If there is a positive element to all of this, it is that despite the missteps on both sides of the ocean, it seems that both the U.S. and Israel have learned something from the recent tensions in the relationship. That Israel almost immediately walked back its over the top outburst demonstrates a recognition that rhetorical excesses do indeed have consequences and must be contained. That the U.S. was publicly silent and did not escalate the confrontation in response to Lieberman’s barb demonstrates a desire going forward to keep disagreements behind closed doors, as the Israelis have often requested. There is no question that Iran is going to continue to be a wedge between the U.S. and Israel through the end of the Obama presidency at the very least, but hopefully both sides can manage to be more felicitous in their public statements going forward.

How To Lose Friends And Not Influence Anyone

February 18, 2016 § 4 Comments

Israel in the last week has presented two classic case studies on strategic blundering and on precisely how not to conduct a successful foreign policy. One of these cases resulted in little more than embarrassment, but the other will actually have tangible consequences for Israel’s security and long-term military planning. Let’s look at both to see if there are any lessons to be learned for Israel going forward.

The first is the fight with the European Union over labeling goods made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. When the EU issued its labeling guidelines, the Israeli government’s response was to officially suspend diplomatic contacts with the EU on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was not merely a cosmetic measure; it came on the heels of Israel withdrawing from bilateral forums with the EU and calling the EU ambassador to Israel on the carpet, and was seen as Israel’s harshest available punishment against the EU in response to the labeling initiative. The presumed intention behind this move was to force the EU to reconsider, admit that it had gone too far, and withdraw the decision. Israel wasn’t wrong; I think that Israel was largely in the right given the way the EU guidelines differentiate between Jewish goods and Palestinian goods (an element that the U.S. guidelines do not have). But Prime Minister Netanyahu, the cabinet, and politicians across the entire spectrum made a big deal over the limited suspension of diplomatic contacts, and played it up as Israel using its power to change EU policy.

So you can imagine just how embarrassed Netanyahu and the government must have been last week when the suspension of diplomatic contacts was halted despite the EU not withdrawing its labeling guidelines. Furthermore, during the conversation between Netanyahu and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in which Netanyahu agreed to end the diplomatic suspension, Mogherini specifically reiterated the EU’s view that labeling does not constitute a boycott and did not promise that no further measures would be forthcoming. In other words, Israel accomplished nothing but angering EU countries even further, and possibly shot itself in the foot by prompting the emerging French initiative for an international peace conference. The bluster and rage turned out to be irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst.

The second case is still developing, but it is over the amount of annual U.S. military assistance to Israel. Close followers of this issue will recall that in the aftermath of the absolutely disastrous maneuver that was Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last March, Israel repeatedly deferred discussing the next ten year Memorandum of Understanding that would govern the amount and type of aid until after the Iran deal was either accepted or rejected by Congress – despite the fact that it was clear as day that the votes to reject it were not there – while Israeli officials anonymously expressed confidence that it wouldn’t matter. Except that now it turns out that rejecting repeated U.S. offers to negotiate did in fact matter, as Israel is unhappy with what is now being offered and Israeli officials now anonymously express that Israel would have received a deal more to their liking had they not waited until the Iran deal was concluded and implemented. My guess is that ultimately the aid package will be more than Israel is being offered right now but still less than Israeli officials were anticipating over the spring and summer when they were casually tossing out the number of $5 billion annually as if it was signed, sealed, delivered. Make no mistake though, this is a strategic failure of enormous magnitude, and is just the latest fallout from last March’s speech, which brought Israel not a single measurable benefit.

So what are the lessons from these two episodes for Israeli strategic engagement and diplomacy going forward? Some people will no doubt infer from both of them that the European Union and the Obama administration are out to get Israel and jumped at the chance to do so. I think, however, that there are more level-headed takeaways. First, leverage is paramount in any negotiation and Israel plunged headfirst into both when its leverage was about as weak as it could be. Jerusalem went hard after the EU after Netanyahu and the cabinet had spent over a year making it clear that they were not interested in any type of peace process and only a few days after Netanyahu had rejected separate U.S. and Quartet entreaties to take steps in the West Bank that would demonstrate a commitment to two states. Similarly, Israel purposely put off negotiations over the aid MOU until it had no cards left to play on the Iran deal and after the world had largely moved on. When the U.S. and other world powers were focused on mitigating the Iran threat, then Israel was in the best position to push for military assistance that would blunt that threat. But even in foreign policy, states and leaders have short attention spans, and now that the bandwidth is being consumed almost entirely by Syria and most American decision makers view the threat from Iran as having been temporarily rectified, Israel is not going to find itself with quite so receptive an audience.

Second is that Israel made the mistake of behaving like a global power rather than the regional power that it is. It is mind-boggling that Netanyahu or anyone else genuinely thought that suspending some diplomatic contacts with the EU was going to rattle it into changing its policies in fear of what might come next. It is mind-boggling that Netanyahu or anyone else genuinely thought that it could get anything and everything that it wanted from this administration or any administration (remember how President George W. Bush refused to give Israel bunker busters in 2008?) no matter the context. This isn’t a matter of states disrespecting the world’s only Jewish state. It is a matter of an ironclad law of international relations, which is that relative power matters. Israel too often acts as if it is dealing with equals when in fact it is the subordinate party when it comes to the EU and even more so the U.S.

Finally, as with Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, there is an element of hubris and a complete misreading of domestic politics involved. The settlement labeling initiative, which passed the European Parliament 525-70, isn’t even a close call in European politics; the idea that the Israeli government believed that it could downgrade relations with the EU and get a different result was hopelessly naïve. Truth be told, Israel’s response probably only reinforced for many European leaders that they were making the right move. On the U.S. side of things, following the Congressional speech debacle, months of intensive lobbying against President Obama’s signature foreign policy priority, and open statements and insinuations that the White House wasn’t smart or knowledgeable enough to know what it was doing, Israel expected none of these factors to impact at all on dealings going forward. To call this foolish is being charitable. This isn’t to say that Israel shouldn’t have taken these steps if it actually thought that they would affect the outcome of the Iran deal, but that it shouldn’t have done them without first thinking through the consequences and accepting the costs. These are all things that should be on the minds of Israel’s leaders going forward when they make decisions on which pitches to swing at and which pitches to take.

Truth In Advertising

February 4, 2016 § 1 Comment

There has been much sound and fury over the past couple of weeks over labeling; more specifically, over the labeling rules for goods coming into the United States that are produced in the West Bank. There is lots of misinformation going around about the rules and even why they are now in the news, so in order to make it easier to have an informed opinion, I thought I’d write a quick and handy guide to the labeling controversy answering everyone’s questions.

Why is the Obama administration coming up with new ways to punish Israelis when there are much bigger problems going on in the Middle East? Actually, the Obama administration didn’t come up with anything new here at all. The labeling controversy erupted as a result of U.S. Customs and Border Protection issuing a reminder on January 23 about the existing rules on the books for how products made in the West Bank must be labeled. The rules, which were enacted in 1995 with the support of the Israeli government as a way to boost the Palestinian economy, state that any products made in the West Bank or Gaza shall be labeled as coming from the West Bank or Gaza but cannot be labeled with the phrases “Israel,” “Made in Israel,” “Occupied Territories-Israel,” or a similar variation. It is an open question as to why Customs decided to issue this reminder now for a rule that has been honored more by its breach than its enforcement. It could have been a matter of routine, it could have been as a result of outside complaints, it could have been due to the new EU settlement goods regulation, or it could have been because the White House or State Department asked for it to be done. For those who want to assume the worst and jump on President Obama for his perfidious treatment of Israel, however, let’s remember that the same people now calling for the president’s head over a low level bureaucratic organization issuing a policy reminder twisted themselves into knots in insisting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was entirely in the dark when a low level bureaucratic organization issued plans for new construction in Ramat Shlomo during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel in March 2010. Funny how all perceived affronts to the U.S. committed by Israel are nothing but unfortunate mistakes of timing or bureaucratic slip ups beyond the prime minister’s control, but any perceived false move toward Israel from one of the executive branch’s four and a half million employees must have been cooked up in the Oval Office by the president himself. 

Who cares whether the president did this himself or not? How dare anyone allow the boycott of goods made by Israelis! Why is the president supporting BDS? I agree; economic and cultural boycotts of Israel and Israelis are odious in my view, and the BDS movement is about destroying Israel as a Jewish state rather than ending the occupation of the West Bank. Of course, we may as well be discussing the merits of the revamped Boston Red Sox starting pitching staff as discussing BDS, since they both are equally irrelevant to the topic at hand. As we all know from the Israeli government’s position over Israel’s proposed NGO bill, labeling things is about transparency and information rather than about a value judgment. In any event, whether you think that labeling things is justified or not, it is certainly a completely different animal than a boycott since it places no barriers on anyone’s ability to buy goods made in the West Bank.

Ok, fine. But the Obama administration is singling out stuff made by Jews! Isn’t that only a short skip and a jump away from the Nazis and the Nuremberg Laws? This is a popular position being expressed in my Facebook feed, but it has the unfortunate element of being not true. The key difference between U.S. labeling requirements and European labeling requirements is that the U.S. does not distinguish between goods made by Jews or Palestinians, or between goods produced in Jewish settlements versus goods produced in Palestinian towns and villages. To suggest that this is a measure targeting Jews is completely wrong, since a widget produced in Efrat is given the same label as a widget produced in Jenin. In fact, the American labeling regulation should actually appeal in many ways to the pro-Israel community, since it does not allow for a category of “Made in Palestine,” which the EU explicitly mandates as an option, and it also rules out using the phrase “Occupied Territories.” Unlike the EU regulation, the U.S. version explicitly recognizes that the West Bank is disputed territory still subject to negotiation.

Your absence of outrage over this is outrageous. Why aren’t you angry? Quite simply, this is a policy that not only makes sense to me, but comports with Israel’s official position on the West Bank. Israel has not annexed the West Bank, and the core of the defense of Israeli democracy despite the occupation is precisely that the West Bank has a different status. Mirroring Israel’s treatment of the West Bank as a distinctly separate entity without prejudicing the outcome of any future permanent status agreement is something with which I find it hard to quibble.

Furthermore, maintaining a conceptual barrier between Israel and the West Bank makes it harder to delegitimize Israel down the road. Conflation of Israel and the West Bank is precisely what the BDS movement tries to accomplish through the back door. It denounces Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but also denounces Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state by calling for a full right of return, and by relying on people not sophisticated enough to grasp the distinction between Israel and territories under Israel’s control, it marshals those who oppose the occupation into actually opposing Israel itself. The very core of the BDS argument – that Israel is an illegitimate apartheid state – rests on erasing any line between Israel and the territories under Israeli military control and then arguing that robust Israeli democracy inside of the Green Line makes no difference because of what takes place beyond it. Why should the U.S. assist in this maneuver by itself erasing the difference? People will make up their own minds as to whether the U.S. rule on labeling is innocuous or an affront, but to throw a fit over a reminder about a twenty year old law that was enacted at Israel’s behest; that in no way boycotts Israeli goods but in fact treats all goods made in the West Bank identically irrespective of who made them; that does not use the terms Palestine or occupation; and that reflects Israel’s own view of the West Bank’s status; is to my mind a waste of energy that should be directed elsewhere.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Iran Nuclear Deal

July 14, 2015 § 7 Comments

There are two huge pieces of news today that interest me, and while the one I really want to write about is the New Horizons spacecraft reaching Pluto and sending back amazing pictures and data on Pluto and Charon (which everyone refers to as one of Pluto’s moons but isn’t technically an accurate description since Charon doesn’t orbit Pluto and the system’s center of gravity lies in between them, but don’t get me started), for some reason people seem to want to know what I think about the Iran deal rather than what I think about the Plutonian atmosphere. So after spending some time reading through all 159 pages (except for the lists of companies and individuals on which sanctions will be lifted, which I skimmed), here is my initial take on where I think this deal works and the myriad ways in which I fear it won’t.

Starting with the good, there are some really good elements in this deal when it comes to keeping the wraps on Iran’s nuclear activity that we currently know about. The sections dealing with preventing a break out are pretty strong in terms of absolutely limiting Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium beyond a 3.67% level for fifteen years and turning Fordow into what is essentially a centrifuge museum. The only centrifuges that will actually be spinning uranium for the first ten years are 5,060 first generation centrifuges, and despite what sounds like a high number, nobody is actually worried about these. Any uranium in excess of 300 kilograms gets down blended and all spent fuel from reactors gets shipped out of the country The IAEA monitoring system in place for these centrifuges and the more advanced ones that Iran has developed also seems very strong to me, with full IAEA access, control, or electronic monitoring in various ways. Iran also has to address IAEA questions about its past activities, which should provide some additional clarity for preventing illicit Iranian activity going forward. Based on the provisions of this deal, I think it very unlikely that Iran will produce a nuclear weapon at any of its known facilities or with any of its current centrifuges in the next decade.

But even giving credit to the P5+1 negotiators for doing a good job on knocking out the break out option in the short term, this deal is indicative of the absurdly short attention span we Americans seem to have, where we think that ten years is a long time when in the context of international relations it is the blink of an eye. While it is true that Iran cannot enrich uranium in a worrisome manner over the first ten years of the deal, the agreement basically lets Iran do all the prep work during this ten year period to accomplish the higher uranium enrichment later on in advanced centrifuges without actually doing so during this initial decade. Once the ten year limit expires, Iran is in a position to break out really quickly if it so chooses, since while it commits to 3.67% enrichment for fifteen years, after ten years it can enrich uranium in more advanced centrifuges and install the advanced IR-8 centrifuge infrastructure in Natanz  and manufacture new complete advanced centrifuges. So while it will still only be enriching uranium at low levels for fifteen years, it will have five years of testing and manufacturing more advanced machinery before the deal’s restrictions on enrichment levels expire. Despite the fact that the NPT and the Additional Protocol will still apply in perpetuity, Iran has quite clearly violated the NPT in the past and I see no reason to assume that it won’t do so again, so I do not assume that the break out provisions are going to operative past fifteen years.

When it comes to sneak out, I am less satisfied. The agreement provides for only 150 IAEA inspectors to monitor the entire country, which frankly is a joke in a country the size of Iran. The prevention of a sneak out path to a bomb is predicated on Iran having to declare all of its existing facilities before the deal is implemented and having to inform inspectors ahead of time if it decides to build any new facilities, since otherwise detecting secret centrifuge facilities – as opposed to plutonium facilities – is not easy (see Fordow for a relevant and recent example). Furthermore, if inspectors request access to a suspected undeclared location, Iran has two weeks from the time that access is requested to think about it, and if it decides to keep inspectors out, a majority of the Joint Commission (P5+1, EU representative, and Iran) has to vote to force Iran to resolve the situation, at which point Iran has another ten days to negotiate and implement whatever solution the Joint Commission ultimately imposes. This is certainly not the “anytime, anywhere” inspections that were going to make deal skeptics comfortable and that would be required for true, absolute verification of Iranian compliance. Aaron Stein, who is my guru on the technical issues, is far more sanguine on the arms control provisions of the deal, and I am told by those who know these issues much better than I that three and a half weeks is not nearly enough time to dismantle a covert enrichment facility and scrub all evidence of the centrifuges, tubing, etc. so perhaps the two weeks plus ten days is not as disastrous as it seems to my admittedly amateur eyes. But ultimately, your comfort level here has to rest on trust. If you assume that Iran is not going to hold anything back or try to cheat the system, then you’re probably ok with the measures that this deal puts in place. But as President Obama himself said earlier today, the deal is predicated verification rather than trust, and assuming that Iran has nothing that they won’t tell us about appears to me to be a big hole in the deal when you don’t really have a good way of detecting secret facilities. Given that much sanctions relief and embargo relief can expire earlier than the designated eight year period if the IAEA certifies that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities, and that the additional requirements on top of this deal imposed by the NPT and the Additional Protocol rely on eternal Iranian compliance, I wouldn’t bet very much money that Iran is going to remain in its nuclear box in perpetuity.

The other big element that I have an issue with is the question of Iran’s conventional weapons and lifting the current arms embargo. It was widely reported in the last couple of days that the deal was stuck on this point, and Obama’s statement today portrayed this as a win since the weapons embargo will last another five year and the ballistic missile ban another eight years. Why this wasn’t set as an absolute red line related to Iran’s non-nuclear behavior is mystifying to me, since it is Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism worldwide, rather than its nuclear program, that create an impetus for a general arms embargo. I understand why the compromises on Arak and Fordow are smart, since they hand Iran a pyrrhic victory by allowing it to save face and claim that it keeps all of its facilities while at the same time rendering those two facilities more or less harmless given the monitoring regime that has been set up for known nuclear sites. The conventional arms and ballistic missiles would have been a red line for me, and that we are essentially denying Iran nuclear weapons – which it would have been highly unlikely to actually use anyway and which are historically defensive weapons – and in return allowing it to arm to the teeth with stuff that it will use to create trouble around the Middle East is worrisome to say the least.

Which brings me to my next point, which is that it is difficult to see how this deal advances conventional peace and stability in the Middle East over the next decade even as it pushes a nuclear Iran farther away. Contra the president’s assumptions, Iran is almost certainly going to use the money in sanctions relief to continue fighting proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and continuing its general covert war with the Sunni world, not to mention its sponsorship of terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. By all means celebrate a temporary victory on the nuclear front, but the idea that this will bring peace in our time or stability to the Middle East is ridiculous. The impetus for the deal from the administration’s perspective has clearly been a conviction that Iran is changing socially and politically and that the regime cannot go on forever, and that a nuclear deal will empower moderates, create pressure from below for change, etc. This view is hubristic; I know of nobody who can accurately predict with any type of certainty or accuracy whether and when regimes will collapse, or how social trends will impact a deeply authoritarian state’s political trajectory (and yes, Iran is a deeply authoritarian state, liberalizing society and elected parliament or not). Certainly providing the regime with an influx of cash, cooperation on regional issues, and better access to arms is not going to hasten the end of the mullahs’ rule, so much as I find it hard to condemn the deal entirely because of some clear positives on the nuclear issue, I find it just as hard to celebrate this as some clear and celebratory foreign policy victory.

That does not mean that everything on the regional front will be doom and gloom. Think about Iran before sanctions were imposed in 2006. Was Iran considered to be an existential threat to U.S. security? To work security? In a position to be a regional hegemon that was going to imminently dominate the Middle East? Certainly Iran was a real foreign policy problem, but nobody worried that the era of Iranian domination was nigh. This deal basically restores the status quo ante in that regard – with the one very large exception that Iran’s reliable Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad is in a much worse position than he was – and so the question is whether Iran has been so successful under sanctions that the lifting of sanctions is now going to automatically mean a regional apocalypse. My bet is that the answer to this question is that it has not. Israel has obviously been the country most concerned about Iran, and Bibi Netanyahu has not in any way tried to hide his anger over the deal since its conclusion was announced, but in some ways I think this deal actually benefits Israel more than it does the U.S. As I have emphasized, the pure nuclear component is the strongest element here, and so I truly believe that Israel can breathe more easily about a nuclear Iran for at least a decade, which is more than it would be able to do were there no deal at all. If Iran is spending its energies and new conventional capabilities and wealth on propping up Bashar al-Assad, fighting ISIS, reinforcing the Houthis in Yemen, providing security for the government in Iraq, and all of the other things it is doing around the region, then Israel is better off than it would otherwise be. Iranian backing for Hizballah is still an enormous problem that should not be underemphasized, and once the Syrian civil war is over it will primarily be a problem for Israel, but faced with a choice between a nuclear Iran vs. an Iran that can better arm and train Hizballah, most Israeli leaders would choose the latter option, even if it is a terrible one. A nuclear Iran was always a bigger problem for Israel than for the U.S., whereas an Iran that has more conventional capabilities to cause trouble for American allies and harass shipping in the Gulf is a bigger problem for the U.S. than Israel. Obviously these are not mutually exclusive, but to the extent that this deal makes the nuclear aspect less problematic and the regional adventurism more problematic, Israel benefits more. As one might guess, I do not think Israel’s initial reaction to the deal was particularly smart, but I’ll save that for another post later in the week.

The bottom line for me is that there are elements of this deal to like and elements of this deal to detest. Ceteris paribus on the sole question of nuclear weapons in the short term, this is certainly better than no deal, but the problem is that the deal cannot be judged solely on the nuclear question given everything else involved. It is tough for me to see how this agreement permanently prevents proliferation in the region in the long term and I certainly do not think it will transform the Middle East in a markedly good way. Ultimately, the whole thing really hinges on Obama’s bet on the future direction of Iran as opposed to Iranian compliance with the deal’s provisions, and as I have elaborated upon before at some length, I am on the opposite side of the president’s bet.

Getting the U.S. and Israel Back On Track

April 21, 2015 § 3 Comments

Now that the Israeli elections are in the rearview mirror – although coalition negotiations are still ongoing – it is time to assess the damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and figure out how to avoid clashes going forward such as those that have marred the past few years. There is no doubt that the relationship is at a low point politically, perhaps even historically low. But it is also the case that it will certainly recover and that we are not seeing the beginning of the end, but are rather going through the sort of blip that happened under Ford in 1975, Reagan in 1981, Bush in 1990, etc. The relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu is the worst between any two presidents and prime ministers, and there is also wide distrust and dislike of ministers such as Bogie Ya’alon and Naftali Bennett in the White House with a corresponding disdain for people like John Kerry and Susan Rice in the prime minister’s office. Ultimately, Obama and Netanyahu are going to move on from the scene, and the robust institutional relationship that still exists at all other levels will be paramount. That said, this fighting at the top levels is ugly and counterproductive, and at some point threatens to become a lasting acrimonious trend rather than a temporary occurrence, so each side needs to think about what can and should be done to prevent future misunderstandings big and small.

Starting with the Israeli side, this government and all future governments need to understand that support from the U.S. is predicated on a number of things, but first and foremost on the idea of shared democratic values. I have written about this at length in academic form and the post-9/11 picture is a bit more complicated, but the executive summary is that it is easy to draw a direct line from public preferences to foreign policy formation in this particular case, and Americans don’t care whether or not Israel is a strategic asset or liability but do care whether or not Israel is a liberal democracy. Furthermore, the erosion of support for Israel on the left and among younger voters is even more tightly tied to this (whether Israel could do anything that would be able to satisfy some of this segment is a separate question). Netanyahu’s lackluster moves toward creating a Palestinian state and his ugly election day display thus matter hugely in this regard, and all of the “yes, but” arguments that seek to mitigate these things don’t matter, even if they are true. Maybe a Palestinian negotiating partner that was more serious and responsive to Israeli concessions or an altered security environment would prompt Netanyahu to leave the West Bank, and maybe Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state on his watch really was meant to be qualified and his warning that Arabs are coming to the polls in droves wasn’t about Arabs specifically but just shorthand for leftwing voters. Even if you fervently believe these things – and, for what it’s worth, I am hugely skeptical – it doesn’t matter when it comes to the relationship with the U.S., because they both chip away at the vision in the American mind of Israel as a like-minded country that we can easily understand and with which we can sympathize. What Israeli governments need to understand is that 99% of people outside of Israel are not following the daily back and forth of Israeli politics and policy, and so the rapidly spreading perception of Israel as an increasingly illiberal country seeking to shout down minorities and keep the Palestinians in a state of perpetual occupied statelessness doesn’t have to be true in order to be damaging. Once Israel is seen as abandoning the two state solution and the peace process, the game is over and Israel becomes like any other country when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. The only priority the Israeli government should have going forward when it comes to the U.S. is preserving the possibility of an eventual two state solution, even if such an outcome is currently impossible.

The Israel Policy Forum released a statement of principles last week that is dead-on in this regard. It explicitly recognizes that a negotiated two state solution is not imminent for a variety of reasons, but that preserving the possibility of two states happening at some point down the road is critical. It recognizes the security bind that Israel is in and thus does not demand that Israel simply pull out of the West Bank tomorrow, and unqualifiedly states that Palestinian moves to encourage the BDS movement or to use the ICC are counterproductive. At the same time, the statement is clear that advancing the goal of two states for two people is the key to U.S.-Israel relations, among other things, and that this means rethinking settlement policy and embracing ways out of the bind such as the Arab Peace Initiative. This is on target because it displays an understanding of the fact that just because Israel may not be able to create a Palestinian state at this point in time due to circumstances both of its own doing and beyond its control does not obviate the necessity to keep this goal alive, if for no other reason than to preserve the crucial relationship with the U.S.

For a variety of historical reasons, no matter what it does Israel is never going to be a normal country accepted by everyone. Anti-Semitism is a very real phenomenon and it underpins much (although not all) of anti-Zionism, and the strain of anti-imperial ideology that exists in many places is never going to be comfortable with Israel whether it pulls out of the West Bank or not. Israel does not and never will live a completely normal life. But this fact makes it even more important for Israel to have completely clean hands and to not give anyone any excuse to condemn her, since double standards when it comes to Israel are a permanent fact of life. The U.S. is a country that actually does sympathize with Israel for many reasons, whether it be because of a frontier mentality or Christian Zionism or respect for democracy or solidarity with a Westernized state in the Middle East. Even the U.S., however, is not going to give Israel a blank check, and needs to see that Israel is doing what it can within reason to live up to its ideals. Obama and Netanyahu will continue to loathe each other, and better Israeli behavior on settlements would have had absolutely zero bearing on mitigating West Wing retaliation in the aftermath of the Netanyahu speech to Congress, but looking at a longer time horizon and anticipating what happens once the principals change, Israel needs to do a better job on always acting like a country that values its democracy first and foremost, and that is ready to live next to a Palestinian state when the Palestinians are ready to live next to Israel. When you rule out that possibility entirely, what the Palestinians are or are not doing simply doesn’t matter when it comes to better relations with the U.S.

On the U.S. side, just as Israel needs to understand what is important to the U.S., the U.S. needs to better understand what is important to Israel. As a political scientist, one of the things that I think the Obama administration has gotten right is an understanding that countries have their own internal politics and that this cannot be simply brushed away as an inconvenient fact to be ignored. Public opinion matters, in authoritarian states as well as in democracies (in fact, it may be even more important in authoritarian states where the only outlet for dissatisfaction is violence in the streets), and even a government in a country like Iran with a Supreme Leader ironically has to take politics into account when taking action like selling a nuclear deal. Yet, when it comes to Israel, the Obama White House seems to forget this lesson and grants Netanyahu zero leeway. If the U.S. wants the Israeli government to stop acting so hostile, it needs to get a better sense of when to push and when to lay off, since not all perceived Israeli misdeeds are created equal.

To take an important example, the Obama administration’s views on the moral and practical problems with settlements are strident, but in expressing this, it rarely takes into account the fact that Israelis do not view all settlement activity as equal, and so putting all settlements into the same boat makes Israelis feel as if the U.S. does not understand Israeli realities. For instance, 90% of Israelis, if not more, do not view building in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as settlement activity, and are deeply resentful of efforts to prevent building in their own capital. Every time Marie Harf or Jen Psaki says something negative about Israeli construction in neighborhoods like Gilo or Har Homa, Netanyahu seizes the opportunity to slam the U.S. government, and not only is he not wrong to do so in the minds of the vast majority of Israelis, it wins him points in their eyes. Within the West Bank as well, many Israelis make distinctions between building in settlement blocs that will be part of Israel in any eventual deal and building in areas outside of the blocs, but the U.S. publicly does not recognize any distinction between an apartment in French Hill or Efrat and one in Kiryat Arba, and this is a problem. Just as Israel needs to recognize U.S. realities, the U.S. needs to do the same with Israeli realities, and one of these realities is that not all building outside the Green Line is equal by a long shot. When the administration treats all building as the same, it makes the Israeli government throw its hands in the air in frustration and assume that since it will get criticism no matter what it does, it may as well do whatever it likes. If this administration or any future one wants to get the Israeli government to crack down on the problematic settlements and to stop expanding blocs like Ma’ale Adumim or Ariel that legitimately cut into the West Bank so as to threaten its territorial continuity, then it has to be very clear with the Israeli government that it understands that Gilo and similar neighborhoods are always going to be a part of Israel. Without acknowledging where Israeli politics are on this issue, the U.S. will never have the trust of either the Israeli government or the Israeli public when it comes to territorial concessions. Even if the U.S. does not publicly acknowledge Israel’s right to build in Ramot or Alon Shvut, it needs to privately concede the point and pick its public battles more carefully if it wants an Israeli prime minister to ever be able to sell a deal with the Palestinians.

Relatedly, Netanyahu has obviously born the brunt of the anger coming from the White House and has been raked over the coals numerous times, and I think that in many instances it is deserved, but to give the man credit where it it due, he is capable of instituting a policy of doing no harm. He has not expanded settlements at a faster pace than his predecessors, and he has initiated new ones on a much reduced scale than his predecessors. He also instituted a building freeze outside of Jerusalem for nine months when asked, and has very quietly instituted a freeze on new settlement projects even in Jerusalem this year. The point is not that Netanyahu is a peacenik, but that even he is capable of doing things that will make the U.S. happy, and that giving the Israeli government a little bit of breathing space may do wonders for American priorities.

For both sides, it is imperative in the future to keep disputes behind closed doors rather than air them in public. This applies to the U.S. taking Netanyahu to task for a wide variety of real and perceived misdeeds, and it applies even more heavily to Israel doing things like trying to sabotage an Iran deal by embarrassing the White House in very public ways. Aside from the fact that it poisons the relationship, it ends up being massively counterproductive for everyone involved. Is there really anyone left who thinks that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress moved the needle in the direction he wanted rather than doing the opposite by forcing Democrats to publicly side with the president even if their inclination was to do otherwise? Does anyone really believe that publicly threatening to withhold American vetoes in the United Nations Security Council is going to have a salutary effect on Israel’s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians? On issues like settlements, it is in fact vital that the U.S. try to accomplish what it wants in private, since if Netanyahu or any rightwing prime minister is going to give on territorial issues, they will not be able to loudly broadcast it and will need to maintain plausible deniability. The public sniping back and forth is bad for both sides and needs to stop, no matter how cathartic it may be for two parties that could use some couples therapy.

Despite the policy disputes, American and Israeli long term interests still align in many ways. Even on Iran, which is of course the most high profile and deepest disagreement that has caused the most acrimony, the issue may now be working to Israel’s benefit. The White House’s apparent desire to strike a deal at nearly any cost likely means that it will not want to rock the boat in any way with Congress, which makes Israel’s position at the UN a lot safer. Both sides have to learn from past mistakes, such as the U.S. not creating unreasonable expectations for Israel that can’t be met, like a total settlement freeze, and Israel not trying to win fights with an administration when it has no leverage and little influence. The personalities at the top will not be there forever, but if the U.S. continues to use Israel as a wedge issue to score points, or if Israel keeps on behaving as if it is an equal partner – such as when it makes very public demands from U.S. nuclear negotiators that are completely unrelated to the nuclear deal – when it is in fact very much a junior partner, then U.S.-Israel ties really will suffer a blow that is not so easily recoverable. Both sides need to step back, realize what is important to the other, what is doable within the confines of the political and security environment, and recalibrate things.

My Quick Takeaway from Bibi’s Speech

March 4, 2015 § 11 Comments

I doubt there’s anyone reading this who didn’t watch (or at least read the transcript of) Bibi Netanyahu’s speech themselves yesterday, and everyone has their own well-informed opinions by now so I don’t feel the need to comment too extensively. I did want to flag just a few things though that I found interesting or significant.

1. Coming into the speech, the conventional wisdom on the right was that Netanyahu was going to inform Congress and the world of all the worrisome details in the emerging Iran nuclear deal that the administration has been withholding, and the conventional wisdom on the left was that Netanyahu was going to bash the administration and argue that nothing short of military action will halt Iran’s inevitable march to a bomb. Netanyahu actually did neither of those things, and I found his speech to be relatively tame. As I expected (which you know if you were following me on Twitter yesterday morning), he was conciliatory toward Obama and the Democrats and clearly realized that there was no further benefit to stoking the fire, and he didn’t say anything new in his speech that he hasn’t said before. I found the first half that catalogued Iran’s various sins somewhat unnecessary, as nobody to be taken seriously is arguing that Iran is a positive actor or a force for good in the world, but I also happen to agree with Bibi’s characterization of Iran as a revisionist state engaged in all sorts of unsavory and troublesome behavior around the world, so perhaps there are some who needed the reminder. I do not think that he hit a home run as nothing he said will convince anyone on the fence to change their views, but I also do not think that he struck out since predictions of a confrontational, bombastic, offensive Netanyahu were wrong.

2. I wrote yesterday that I was listening for a viable alternative to the administration’s current approach, and Netanyahu did not offer that exactly. His prescription was to negotiate a better deal, but the details of how one goes about doing that were non-existent. Is it replacing John Kerry and Wendy Sherman with negotiators more inclined to yell and throw a chair or two? Is it passing a sanctions bill now, before negotiations have concluded, to put more pressure on the Iranian side? Is it to pull out of negotiations unless Iran drops any demands that cross certain red lines, like a sunset clause (which if I were negotiating things on the U.S. side would be a deal breaker for me)? Natan Sachs makes a great point in Ha’aretz, which is that trying to torpedo this deal before things have run their course makes it much likelier that the administration will rush to sign an agreement even if it isn’t an ideal one, and that is obviously a very suboptimal outcome. I wish Netanyahu had been specific about how he thinks a better deal can be achieved, since it’s very easy to tear something down but far harder to do so constructively.

3. While I don’t think the speech will move the needle at all in terms of whether individual congressmen are in favor or opposed to talks, more sanctions, etc. I think it’s likely to have motivated more members to approve the Menendez-Corker bill in the works that will require congressional approval of any agreement. This is a good development, not a bad one. Even leaving aside that the executive branch has steadily gobbled up more and more power for decades and destroyed nearly any balance between the branches – a development sorely in need of a corrective – tacking on explicit legislative approval creates the two-level game that is required to get the better deal that Netanyahu believes is out there. If Obama or Kerry can turn to the Iranians and make the case that there are certain elements that simply will not pass Congress and that including those elements will scuttle any negotiated deal, it gives them more leverage in the negotiations since it convincingly self-binds them within a demarcated framework of what is and is not acceptable. It lets the U.S. negotiating team play good cop to Congress’s bad cop, and it can only create a better outcome for the U.S. side (assuming that Iran is serious about negotiating).

4. Far and away the most significant element to the speech is not anything that Netanyahu said, but what he left out, and I am baffled as to why this hasn’t been picked up on more widely. For the first time in awhile, Netanyahu did not insist on his oft-repeated demand that Iran be left with zero enrichment capability, and I assume that this was intentional. If Netanyahu is resigned to a deal happening and wants to make sure that it is one that Israel can live with, dropping the zero enrichment demand is the biggest and most important concession he can make since it creates a space that allows U.S. expectations and Israeli expectations to overlap, not to mention the fact that zero enrichment was a fantasy that was simply never going to happen. So long as Netanyahu was demanding no enrichment at any level, there was not going to be an outcome that he could live with. The fact that he did not repeat it suggests to me that he is taking a more realistic and more reasonable view of things, particularly since low level enrichment was always a red herring – the only number that matters is 20% and higher for breakout purposes – and for the first time, he is actually helping a deal along. I give him lots of credit for this, and I don’t particularly care whether he did it because he realized that demanding zero enrichment made no sense from a technical perspective or whether he did it because he realized that it was just not a realistic demand and hence decided to be pragmatic about things. Either way, people should take this for the positive development that it is, and hope that the aftermath of this speech is that it has created the necessary space for a better deal by enlarging the part of the Venn diagram where the U.S. and Israel overlap.

What To Listen For In Netanyahu’s Speech Today

March 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

This morning’s Bibi Netanyahu speech to Congress is must-see tv if for no other reason than to observe the culmination of all the histrionics of the past month, but there is also one key thing in my view to keep an eye out for. Netanyahu’s goal is to make the case that the Obama administration is moving down a dangerous path with the Iran nuclear negotiations (although there are signs today that Iran may be looking for excuses not to sign a deal anyway) since allowing Iran to retain any nuclear capability or the ability to enrich uranium means that a nuclear breakout is inevitable, and that the world cannot and should not tolerate a nuclear Iran. We know that Netanyahu believes that a nuclear deal will not avert this result, and that it may even hasten it by confirming Iran’s right to enrich uranium and easing sanctions that make it harder for Iran to build a bomb, but we haven’t yet heard from him what his alternative is. I agree that a nuclear Iran is a terrible outcome, and a deal with a sunset clause that imposes no restrictions on Iran past the cessation of an agreement in the hopes that a new government will be lodged in Tehran is dangerously naive, but the alternatives bandied about do not accomplish the stated goal either. I’ve written about why I think the right deal is the best shot for preventing an Iranian bomb, but for those who disagree, I haven’t yet heard a convincing argument about what should happen instead.

If negotiations break down or Iran rejects a deal, then the options left are a) do nothing; b) impose harsher sanctions and wait for Iran to come back to the table or for the regime to fall; or c) bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and/or wage a wider air and ground campaign. The first option of doing nothing may end up what happens given the difficulty of rallying already-reluctant countries for a different and more confrontational course of action, and this would certainly be a disaster, as it would allow Iran to proceed with its nuclear program uninhibited. The third option – military action – is also not going to prevent a bomb. Destroying Iranian nuclear facilities is a band-aid rather a permanent solution as they can – and will – easily be rebuilt, and it would unquestionably harden Iranian resolve to put facilities underground and go full out for a bomb as quickly as possible on the logic that the only way to deter future attacks is to become a nuclear power. There is very little chance that it will make Iran rethink its desire to gain weaponized nuclear capability, and unless the U.S., Israel, or some broader coalition is willing to make bombing runs every two years like clockwork, I can think of no more reliable way to ensure an Iranian bomb in the future. This is without even mentioning that sustained military action against Iran every few years would cause an inconceivable mess to U.S. interests and power in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria…the list goes on. As for the option of reenacting the Gulf War but this time in Iran, that is a pipe dream and will never happen; there’s no political support for it and even less military support for it.

This leaves the option that I think most deal opponents have in mind, which is harsher sanctions in an effort to get Iran to either voluntarily stop its program, force Iran into coming back to the negotiating table with a more conciliatory stance, or bring down the regime. While this sounds great in theory, I don’t see how to realistically connect the dots and turn this from theory into reality. Harsher sanctions are more likely to have the same effect as a limited bombing run given that Iran has abided by the interim deal so far according to all of the available evidence, and following up its compliance with an interim deal by imposing harsher sanctions will lead to the logical conclusion on the Iranians’ part that the only way to break the impasse is not through more concessions – as doing so may lead to yet more sanctions based on recent history – but to dash for a bomb. In other words, Iran is going to look at its expected payoffs and reasonably conclude that surviving sanctions and going nuclear yields a more certain benefit than making more concessions. Again, this may be satisfying to the U.S. and Israel in the interim as Iran’s economy crumbles even more, but it won’t achieve the ultimate outcome of preventing a nuclear Iran. The other big problem is that harsher sanctions only work with a buy-in from Europe, Russia, and China, and if the perception is that the U.S. is the unreasonable party, then a more crippling sanctions regime will be an impossible sell. This is why I still think a deal – and a good deal, rather than any deal – has to be pursued, and I don’t see that the other options on the table actually accomplish the ultimate goal.

So this is all a long way of saying that if Netanyahu gets up before Congress in an hour and gives a stemwinder trashing the deal – which I expect him to do – but does not then move to the necessary coda, which is what should come in place of a deal and what plausible and enactable ideas he has to prevent a nuclear Iran, then he will not have accomplished his objectives. It isn’t enough to say what you don’t like if you have no solution for what to do instead. There’s no question that an Iranian bomb is a disastrous outcome; there’s no question that reports about the status of the negotiations are worrisome. A serious speech from Netanyahu will suggest a way forward that is more to his liking rather than offering up a hope and a prayer.

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