The Signal and the Noise in the Barghouti Op-Ed

April 20, 2017 § 3 Comments

On Sunday, Marwan Barghouti published an op-ed in the New York Times. To read it without being versed in Israeli-Palestinian affairs, one would be forgiven for thinking that Barghouti is the Palestinian Martin Luther King writing his equivalent of the letter from the Birmingham jail. Barghouti used the op-ed to announce that he is leading a hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners to protest their treatment by Israel, wrote eloquently about the Palestinian national struggle for freedom and dignity while implying that he has been imprisoned for political reasons, and was identified in his byline as “a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” For those who know that Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences after having been convicted by an Israeli civilian court for murder and terrorism in his capacity as orchestrating suicide bombings as the founder of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, this was outrageous, and the anger directed at the Times resulted in a clarification and a brushback from the paper’s public editor.

The bulk of the focus – including from Prime Minister NetanyahuYair Lapid, and others – has been on the fact that the New York Times gave Barghouti a platform to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and misleadingly portray himself as something he is not. This anger is in no way misplaced, and it is helping shine a light on the fact that opponents of Israel are often granted a benefit of the doubt with regard to their motives and a whitewash of their histories to an alarming degree. But the import of Barghouti’s op-ed is not the revisionist history treatment of his biography; it is rather the fact that he chose to write it now and what it says about Palestinian politics going forward and the American effort to get Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.

Barghouti is a legendary Palestinian prisoner in a society where Palestinian prisoners are granted exalted status. His leadership of the latest prisoners’ hunger strike comes on the heels of his finishing first in the Fatah Central Committee elections in December, cementing his status as the most popular Palestinian political figure, while being sidelined two months ago by the current leadership as Mahmoud Abbas chose Mahmoud al-Aloul as Fatah’s first vice president. The jockeying to replace Abbas began in earnest some time ago, but Barghouti deciding now to take up the mantle of prisoners’ rights while making as public a splash as possible in the U.S. paper of record seems like one of the clearest signal from him that he intends to be part of the future leadership conversation.

Barghouti has in some ways had it easier than most despite being in prison, as it has insulated him from having to make any decisions or engage in the daily compromises that are involved in politics. He has been able to sit back and bask in his growing popularity as current Fatah leaders walk the fine line between security coordination with Israel and maintaining their power on one side and popular will and maintaining their grassroots legitimacy on the other. He has not had to navigate the minefield of dealing with Hamas rule in Gaza and playing the game of proclaiming national unity while taking steps to use the power of the Palestinian Authority to choke Hamas. The longer he is in prison, the greater the myth that surrounds him, and should Israel end up granting prisoners any concessions as a result of this hunger strike, it will make Barghouti’s power and influence greater. That he is taking this step now indicates that he thinks a leadership transition is coming sooner rather than later, and he wants to get ahead of the internal Fatah machinations that are designed to sideline him.

The repercussions of this are not limited to Barghouti and internal Fatah jockeying for position. Leading a movement of Palestinian prisoners is guaranteed to lead to wider West Bank foment, and it will not make the IDF or Shabak sleep easier at night. I am not suggesting that this will spark an intifada, but it could lead to an uptick in violence and further support for the position that compromise or even engagement with Israel sells out the Palestinian national cause. Palestinian politicians are bound to follow public sentiment, and nobody will want to be forced to take a backseat to Barghouti on the issue of resisting Israel. It will create a wider radicalization within the Palestinian political arena, and undermine any politicians who take a more moderate tone while perhaps undermining Fatah itself in relation to Hamas.

None of this portends well for President Trump’s efforts to push the two sides toward his ultimate deal, and if the prisoner strike is not quickly resolved, it will also make for a difficult Abbas White House visit the first week in May. Abbas proved to be a difficult interlocutor for President Obama, famously not responding to Obama’s Oval Office presentation of a framework for a final status agreement in 2014. Abbas is coming to DC this time to meet with a president whose vision is not nearly as fully formed on the details, but he will undoubtedly be asked by Trump to commit to something more specific than being willing to talk. Against the backdrop of hungerstriking prisoners and Barghouti trying to force him into a corner, it will be a particularly inauspicious time for Abbas to return to Ramallah and announce that he has agreed to return to talks with Israel without first winning any significant concessions. While the sense of gloomy fatalism that enveloped the Palestinian leadership at Trump’s election may have dissipated given his apparent willingness to push Netanyahu and the Israeli government on settlements and Jason Greenblatt’s praiseworthy performance in the region last month, it does not mean that Abbas is going to suddenly give Trump anything he wants. Abbas’s politics back home are still difficult, and having a friendlier White House than he anticipated does not change the fact that he is a weak political leader without the legitimacy or the chits to say yes to any comprehensive peace deal. This Barghouti move makes that even more of an entrenched reality.

Barghouti’s New York Times byline was the type of thing that drives Israeli politicians and American Jews up a wall with frustration. The byline, however, is just a distraction in this case from everything else that is going on. If Barghouti ushers in a new era of Fatah radicalization, we will look back at the focus over the byline rather than the underlying political move as the true outrage.

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Your Guide to the Israeli Coalition Crisis

March 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

I’ve been getting lots of questions in the past couple of weeks about the political crisis threatening the demise of Israel’s ruling coalition and what it’s about, and whether today’s apparent deal means that it is over. So here is your guide to the strange machinations currently plaguing the Israeli government that has had everyone talking about elections.

What are the coalition members fighting about?

The fight is between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and it is ostensibly over Kan, the new public broadcasting corporation set to launch on April 30 and replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Kan was created in 2014 because the IBA, which collected a mandatory television tax from all Israeli households and had become so bloated and complacent that nobody even knew the precise numbers of people it employed, was seen as beyond repair or reform. In addition, the IBA’s board and director general were appointed by the government rather than by any independent means, which led to all sorts of conflicts of interest. It also didn’t hurt that the Netanyahu-led government at the time felt that the IBA had a leftwing bias characteristic of many public sector organizations – one ad supporting the broadcasting reforms showed IBA employees in a support group with Hamas terrorists complaining about the Netanyahu government that opposes them – and so shuttering the unpopular IBA entirely was an easy political win. But as the date for Kan’s opening was repeatedly pushed back amid concerns for the welfare of the IBA’s employees, there were other whisperings that Netanyahu was worried that the new public broadcasting operation would indeed be independent as envisioned and immune to his control, and thus he was looking for an excuse to sink it.

This background brings us to two weeks ago, when Netanyahu gave a speech in which he described Kan employees as leftists and denounced the fact that they would have no public supervision, and called on Kahlon to delay Kan’s opening by another six months. Given that Kahlon has inherited this issue from the last government and that Kan was created at Netanyahu’s own behest, he did not react well, and Netanyahu backed down from his postponement demand and replaced it with a request for a new law creating a supervisory body for Kan. Less than 48 hours later, Netanyahu reversed himself again and said that Kan had to be merged into IBA – effectively killing it – or that new elections would be held. This then evolved into a more limited demand that the chairman and director-general of Kan be replaced with Netanyahu appointees, and then it moved back again to the more maximalist position of Kan being shuttered entirely. Netanyahu and Kahlon have been negotiating between themselves in an effort to put all of this to rest, and this morning there are reports that Netanyahu and Kahlon have agreed to a deal in which yet another broadcasting corporation will be established alongside Kan to deal with news and current affairs. But this is not the first time that an agreement has been reported that has then been scuttled, and there is still the issue of whether Kan will go on air one month from today, with conflicting reports about that. Until new legislation is written and passes the Knesset, nobody can assume that this affair has been concluded.

Wow – so IBA must have enormous ratings and tremendous influence, making Kan’s direction a real potential threat to the prime minister, right?

Nope. IBA is like a less-watched and less prestigious PBS, despite the fact that for decades it ran the only channel in Israel. As noted above, it is also unpopular due to the mandatory tax levied to run it and the corruption and waste endemic to its operation. Its influence is small despite having some top-notch journalists and broadcasters working for it, and Kan is not expected to do a whole lot better.

Huh. So if Netanyahu was threatening elections over what seems like a completely insignificant issue, he must have the unwavering support of his coalition members on this?

Nope. Despite public backing from some of his more sycophantic Likud supporters, nearly every MK in the coalition thinks that elections would be a self-defeating move that does them no good. Kahlon is obviously opposed, the Haredi parties explicitly warned earlier this week against new elections, Avigdor Lieberman does not want to risk losing his position as defense minister, and Naftali Bennett is not quite ready to take on Netanyahu as leader of the rightwing bloc. There is such opposition to Netanyahu’s elections threat within Likud that there have been reports of plans to depose Netanyahu and form an alternative coalition led by a different Likud minister should the prime minister call elections now. I wrote five months ago that nobody in the government wanted to bring it down because the polls showed that – with the exception of Bennett and Bayit Yehudi – they would all be in worse positions and that making any moves would be incredibly risky, and that applies even more today.

I don’t get it. Why has this been happening?

I confess that for the first time in years with regard to Israeli politics, I am at a loss. If you think it is insane that Netanyahu is willing to risk his own prime ministership, the dominance of rightwing governments, Likud’s share of the Knesset, and any goodwill he has built up among his coalition partners over such a marginal issue in the firmament of Israeli politics, then you are not alone. Multiple Israeli columnists have literally questioned Netanyahu’s sanity in writing since this all blew up two weeks ago. But not being in the business of diagnosing the prime minister’s mental health from afar, here are my three best guesses in no particular order as to what has actually been going on.

Netanyahu actually sees Kan as a real threat. Netanyahu has an obsession with the media and how it covers him that is Trumpian, and it extends to outlets big and small. His involvement with Yisrael Hayom – colloquially known as the Bibiton – was infamous even before the tapes came to light of him bartering with Yediot Ahronot publisher Noni Mozes for better coverage in Yediot in return for depressing Yisrael Hayom’s circulation. He only gave up the Communications Ministry portfolio in February after the High Court ordered him to justify retaining it in light of the massive conflicts of interest revealed by the Mozes deal, and even then he only gave it up on an interim basis. That Netanyahu would not have control over Kan’s direction because of its independent structure seemed to only just hit him, and Netanyahu genuinely has a media bugaboo like no other Israeli politician. When his bitter Likud rival Gidon Sa’ar’s wife Geula Even-Sa’ar was named as lead anchor for Kan one week into the manufactured crisis with Kahlon, that probably drove him even further over the edge and convinced him that this was all a plot designed to chip away at him and ultimately bring him down. None of this seems rational to the outside world, but as Herman Melville so aptly illustrated in Moby Dick, single-minded obsession can crowd out everything else.

This is the best way to circumvent the four investigations into Netanyahu’s actions. Netanyahu right now is under active investigation by the police on four different fronts, and the near-universal assumption among Israel’s political and journalistic classes is that he will be indicted as a result of one of these cases, and possibly multiple ones. If Netanyahu calls elections now, he thinks these cases will halt since it will appear improper to have the legal system interfere with electoral politics – a topic that we in the U.S. now understand intimately well in light of the controversy over the FBI’s behavior surrounding investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email server and Donald Trump’s Russia ties during the campaign – and that if he manages to win another term as prime minster, they will permanently disappear since the will of the voters will trump any past misdeeds. Under this theory, Netanyahu was just grasping for the closest excuse – no matter how imperfect or implausible – to hold elections as the investigations have heated up, and this is what presented itself.

This is all a feint to distract from the real issue, which is Trump. There is no need to dwell on the obvious reality that Netanyahu is stuck between the rock of his unyielding rightwing coalition and the hard place of a President Trump who is moving full steam ahead on Israeli-Palestinian peace and doesn’t seem to like what he is hearing from the Israeli side. After being unable to come to an agreement with Netanyahu’s negotiating team on the scope of acceptable Israeli settlement activity, Jason Greenblatt reportedly now believes that Netanyahu could form a unity government with the Zionist Union in order to advance negotiations and thinks that Netanyahu’s protestations that he is politically hemmed in by his coalition are a mere excuse. Aryeh Deri yesterday called for Yitzhak Herzog to be brought into the government, and Kahlon would not stand in the way were it to happen, so there may soon be internal pressure for Netanyahu to make a move aside from what he is getting from the White House. It is easier for Netanyahu to start from scratch with new elections and be in a better bargaining position with a weaker Zionist Union than to jettison Bayit Yehudi and deal with Herzog’s 24 seats in the current Knesset, and it is also easier for Netanyahu politically to call new elections based on the broadcasting corporation pretext than to openly betray his rightwing partners before a vote takes place. If Netanyahu thinks that the only way out of his dilemma with the new administration is a new government, this is a plausible way for him to get there.

What Netanyahu does next will tell us a lot. If today’s deal holds and Netanyahu is able to gain new influence over the new news division by stacking it with IBA employees who are loyal to him, then it means control over state broadcasting is (implausibly) the real issue. If he keeps on changing the terms of what would be an acceptable resolution and the deal falls apart over nitpicky details, then it means he is using the broadcasting issue as a way to actually get to elections, and then the unknowable question will still be why it is that he wants them. As to whether today’s deal is actually the end of this or not, your guess is as good as mine, but least you now have a scorecard with which to follow the action.

A Liberal Zionism for the Trump Era

March 9, 2017 § 5 Comments

There is always angst among liberal Zionists about what liberal Zionism is and whether it can exist in a particular political environment, but the combination of the Netanyahu government and the Trump presidency has amplified the usual Weltschmerz. As Israel turns farther away from liberal values, legalizing illegal West Bank outposts and imposing ideological tests on those who want to enter the country, and liberals at home reject Zionism while lionizing social protest leaders who are literally anti-Israel terrorists, liberal Zionism is in an even more difficult place than usual in looking to reconcile its competing impulses. To succeed, liberal Zionists will need to reconstruct their first principles rather than to try and fit square pegs into round holes.

There is no question that the current political moment is uniquely challenging. Liberal Zionism over the last quarter century has often been synonymous with a peace process that shows fewer signs of hope now than it ever has. It has put forth a vision for Israel that is rejected by Israelis who return rightwing governments to power in election after election. It has put forth a vision for Israeli society that is belied by data such as majority support for pardoning Elor Azaria and real currents of racist and anti-democratic sentiment. And this is before we arrive at the enormous implications for liberal Zionism of the Trump presidency. How are liberal Zionists to grapple with a president who supports the fundamental tenets of Zionism but is so deeply illiberal? To complicate things further, how are liberal Zionists to grapple with a president who represents values that they reject but whose initial policy toward Israel may end up looking a lot like what one would expect from a liberal Zionist president?

Liberal Zionism will have to develop a set of lodestars to survive the challenges it faces, some of which have to do specifically with Trump and some of which do not. One principle should be reinforcing the connection between Israel and Jews, but making sure that the obligation runs both ways. Liberal Zionism must be unwavering in its insistence that Jewish support for Israel’s bedrock safety and security does not exist on a higher plane than Israeli support for Jews’ bedrock safety and security. The increasing threats against Jewish institutions in the U.S. and the unnerving feeling that many American Jews are now experiencing for the first time in their lives of being cast as outsiders and interlopers is certainly related to the current political moment; whether it can be laid at the feet of President Trump is an infinitely more complicated proposition. Irrespective of the answer to this question, American Jews are grappling with anti-Semitism in new ways, and there should never be any doubt that the first and foremost priority of the Israeli government as it relates to the Diaspora is to insist upon the inviolable rights of Jews to live anywhere in the world free of harassment and danger. Zionism is about the right of Jews to national self-determination, but it was meant to address the problems of Jewish exclusion rather than to reinforce those problems in its own right. If an Israeli prime minister wants to claim the mantle of representing Jews worldwide, than Zionism must be outward looking to Jews outside of Israel’s borders as well as inward looking to Jews inside of them.

Second and relatedly, liberal Zionism cannot just support liberalism within the contexts of Israeli state and society, but it must also make the connection more explicit between Zionism and liberalism independently of what is taking place in Israel or the policies of the current Israeli government. This is vital not only for ensuring continued support for Israel, but also for ensuring American Jewry’s place in society. In a terrifyingly new development, the so-called “alt right” has a presence in the Trump White House and its vision of what it means to support Israel rests on upon a different pillar than traditional American pro-Israel positions. Historically, American governments and Americans themselves have supported Israel because they view Israel as a reliable strategic regional ally and because they view Israel as an ideological democratic and values-based ally. Liberal Zionism has been an easy philosophy to espouse precisely because of this connection between the U.S. as the leader of the free world – in other words, liberal democratic values – and Israel as an unwavering soldier in the fight to extend the free world’s reach across the globe. But the rabid pro-Israel position espoused by Breitbart and other alt right organs is not based on this view of Israel; it is instead based on identification with Israel as a state based on populist ethnic nationalism. This formulation ties support for Israel directly to its perceived rejection of liberalism rather than to its upholding of liberal values, and it explains why the alt right can support Israel to the hilt while also swimming in the cesspool of anti-Semitism.

This is dangerous for Israel, as it makes support for Israel contingent upon a specific set of policies rather than on the fundamental nature and existence of Israel itself – let alone the fact that the policies this support demands would only weaken Israel at home and abroad. It is also dangerous for American Jews, as it turns Zionism into an even more particularistic ideology in which only a narrow type of Zionism is acceptable. The motivating factor behind Herzl’s philosophical development of Zionism – that Jews are not regular white folks, but a minority deserving of protection that needs its own state – is thrown out when your embrace of Zionism only involves an embrace of Israel as an ethnically nationalist majoritarian entity rather than as a safe haven for an historically persecuted people. The devastating consequences for American Jews when this line of thinking is extended to its logical conclusion are glaringly obvious.

Finally, liberal Zionism must firmly and unabashedly embrace a renewed Zionism that harkens back to the founding Zionist ethos of taking responsibility for one’s destiny, and shaping history rather being shaped by it. One of the reasons that the marriage between Zionism and liberalism is a natural one is because both seek to better the world through active engagement with problems and to leave an active mark upon history rather than, in William F. Buckley’s famous formulation, to stand athwart history yelling stop. Complaining that there is no Palestinian partner and thus Israel has no choice but to maintain the status quo runs contrary to the spirit and letter of Zionism. Complaining that Israel’s adversaries engage in asymmetric and inhumane behavior and thus Israel need not hold itself to an elevated standard in its efforts to grapple with terrorism and rejectionism runs contrary to the spirit and letter of Zionism. In an age where standards of decency and morality are being redefined and even truth and facts themselves are now subject to debate, liberal Zionism must stand for something clear and concrete, and advance principles and proposals that do not depend on the actions or responses of others.

It is more important than ever to insist on belonging to both the liberal and Zionist camps, and not to allow membership in one eradicate membership in the other. Zionism has to transcend Trump, Republican orthodoxy, and traditionally hawkish positions on Israel. If it is seen to be the cause of a single party or a single political ideology, it will never recover. The danger of sitting back and allowing Zionism and Israel to be solely claimed and embraced by the right is real, and advancing an active and liberal Zionist vision that does not compromise its Zionism or its liberalism is as crucial a task as exists.

Taking Trump Literally And Seriously

February 23, 2017 § 1 Comment

Everyone will recall the debate that unfolded during the 2016 presidential campaign over how to treat Donald Trump’s utterances on various policy issues. His detractors were increasingly alarmed by the ideas that spilled forth from his lips at rallies, many of which seemed to be blurted out without much thought into their wisdom or the details of their implementation. Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it; ban Muslims from coming into the country; slap a tariff on American companies making products overseas. His defenders exhorted those who were panicking at what seemed to be a litany of questionable proposals to stop taking Trump literally, and instead to take him seriously. So, for instance, when Trump threatened to punitively tax companies that were moving jobs overseas, the interpretation was supposed to be not that he would follow through, but that he was serious about finding a way to increase domestic job growth. It turns out, however, that taking Trump literally was not as silly as his campaign surrogates suggested, and that his words do indeed provide a guide for where he will initially land on policy. So applying this frame, what does it mean in the Israel context?

Largely forgotten alongside his more famous comments about wanting to make the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians is that early in his campaign, Trump actually laid out a precise roadmap for how he was going to approach Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some of his first comments on Israel during an interview with the Associated Press in December 2015, Trump refused to be pinned down on a host of specific Israel-related issues, which in itself was a strategy. But he did say enough to make it easier to predict what he is going to do going forward, and figure out how it meshes with his comments during the joint press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu last Wednesday.

Talking to the AP before the first primary votes had been cast, Trump said that the first thing he was going to do was sit down with leaders in the region to gauge not only their feelings about the contours of a deal and whether it is workable, but also to test their commitment to peace. He said that “I’ll be able to tell in one sit-down meeting with the real leaders” what is possible, and that he would know for sure within six months of taking office. He also said that he was not convinced that either Israel or the Palestinians were serious about an agreement and that he had greater concerns about one of the sides, but refused to say which side. He did, however, very clearly place the burden of resolving the situation on Israel; “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things. They may not be, and I understand that, and I’m OK with that. But then you’re just not going to have a deal.” He also, in what is now a familiar refrain, would not commit to moving the embassy, would not refer to Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, called settlements “a huge sticking point,” and would not commit to a two-state solution so as not to prejudice negotiations ahead of time. On whether he would want to dive into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as president, he said, “I think if I get elected, that would be something I’d really like to do. Because so much death, so much turmoil, so much hatred — that would be to me a great achievement. As a single achievement, that would be a really great achievement.”

The Trump playbook so far has followed the literal script he laid out before the politics of the campaign forced him to adopt more traditionally hawkish positions. The first thing he said he would do was talk with regional leaders. Not only did he sit down with Netanyahu early on, he also sat down with Jordan’s King Abdullah, spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and White House aides have been making the rounds of Arab ambassadors in Washington. He said that the burden would be on Israel to resolve the situation, and lo and behold he stood next to Netanyahu and warned him that both sides would have to compromise and again alluded to settlements being a sticking point in asking the prime minister to hold off on them for awhile. If we take Trump literally as we should, it means that he is going to make a very heavy early push on getting the two sides together, and will lean on Israel to stop taking actions in the short term that make a negotiated solution more difficult.

In this light, Trump’s pronunciations at last week’s press conference should not have come as a surprise. His infamous “I’m looking at two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like” is not a declaration of policy. It is a declaration of tactics. Similarly, his repeated characterization of settlements as problematic in some limited way, in the AP interview and in the White House statement following Netanyahu’s announcement of new construction and then in his request of Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” is not a policy position but a tactical position. Trump wants to get to a deal and he doesn’t terribly care what is in it, so his primary strategy is to not get pinned down on any specific variable. He will focus on the tangible things, like Palestinian incitement and Israeli settlements, that each side points to as a specific barrier, and he will ignore what the actual end result will look like.

It is important, however, not to ignore the other part of the equation that is clear from Trump’s words. He wants to get a deal, and he thinks the burden is on the Israelis to do the heavy lifting, but he also does not want to waste his time on a drawn out process and has no interest in convincing a party that does not want to be convinced. Contrary to President Obama and Secretary Kerry, he is not going to keep going back to the well if he is not able to work out an agreement in his first year in office, and he is not going to pressure Israel into changing its mind if it is unwilling at first to sacrifice in the ways that he asks. What the larger consequences of that may be for either Israel or the Palestinians are unknown, but if there is one thing that we know so far about this president, it is that he is deeply transactional. Understanding Israel’s reluctance to take certain steps is not the same as giving Israel free rein on every issue without fear of blowback for that reluctance. Hopefully Netanyahu is wise enough to take his new American partner both literally and seriously.

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.

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.

America Is An Idea

January 29, 2017 § 6 Comments

Why is the United States a global superpower? There are many responses to this question, all of which have played an important part of the answer. Among these are the geographical fortune to be surrounded by oceans and non-threatening neighbors, enormous expanses of land and vast natural resources, a constitutional and democratic system of government, wise leadership, wildly talented citizens, and an unparalleled military. These and other reasons explain why American power was predominant for nearly the entire 20th century, why we emerged as the sole superpower after the Cold War, and why we remain unchallenged in our ability to project influence across the globe.

But there is one reason that stands out to me above the others, responsible not for American hard power but American influence and soft power, and it is this: America is not just a place. America is an idea. The immigrants who flocked here in droves in the 19th and 20th centuries were not doing a cost-benefit analysis of the relative strengths of the American military or land mass compared to other European countries. The billions of people around the globe today who lap up American culture do not do so because they admire the separation of powers laid out in the first three articles of the Constitution. The strength of American brands is not because McDonalds has some sort of culinary secret that eludes Chinese fast food companies. It is because people around the world have historically seen the United States not just as a place on the map, but as something bigger. The power of the American dream and the iconography of the Statue of Liberty mean something. They have value far beyond feel-good expressions of patriotism. They represent America as something for which to strive, as an expression of hopes and dreams for a better life, as a fulfillment of a quest for ultimate safety and prosperity and liberty. They represent America not just as a place for Americans, but – as Ronald Reagan so aptly put when borrowing from John Winthrop – a shining city upon a hill for the entire world. The power of the United States comes from many sources, but more than anything else it comes from the strength of the American idea.

Leave aside your politics for a moment. I don’t care whom you voted for, which party you identify with, whether you think we are stronger together or want to make America great again. If the power of America as an idea dies, American power will shortly follow. Keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism is vital, but the executive order signed by President Trump on Friday temporarily keeping citizens – including U.S. green card holders – of seven countries from entering our own, halting the admission of refugees from anywhere in the world, and shutting the door indefinitely to refugees from Syria does not do that. What it does is irreparably damage the American idea, the one that Emma Lazarus described as a world-wide welcome for those yearning to breathe free. Surely we are better than this. Surely we can agree that we face legitimate and scary threats from overseas without casting a viciously wide net. Surely we do not want to become just another country with a large economy and a powerful army. Surely we do not want to stop being Americans.

This is the challenge that we now face. I have never made any secret of how I felt about Candidate Trump, and my reservations about President Trump are even bigger. But in evaluating everything that comes over the next four years, do not lose sight for a moment of how powerful and important for all of us it is to maintain America as an idea. Doing so will be more important than the sum total of every individual policy outcome. In all instances, do your best to ensure that we continue to lift our lamp beside the golden door. Because when the idea of America is snuffed out, we forever become just another country.

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