How To Think About The American Embassy

January 12, 2017 § 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons From Israel on the Politics of Intelligence

December 15, 2016 § 1 Comment

The extraordinary battle that is currently unfolding between President-elect Donald Trump and the intelligence community is unprecedented in the United States. While undoubtedly presidents and the CIA are not always on the same page – and presidents have certainly come to regret relying on CIA assessments that turned out to be inaccurate – the outright dismissal of intelligence agencies by the soon-to-be commander in chief is a first. The ideal situation in democratic countries is for intelligence agencies to be divorced from politics so that political considerations do not interfere with intelligence assessments and intelligence agencies are not tempted to wield their significant power in the political sphere. In picking a very public feud with the CIA, Trump is playing a dangerous game, and looking to Israel yields some clues as to where this skirmish may go as Israel has more experience with the fusion of politics and intelligence than the U.S.

The first lesson from the Israeli experience is that intelligence agencies are able to constrain the policies of an elected leader with whom they do not agree. The infamous but not widely remembered Lavon affair of 1954 is a prime example. Prime Minister Moshe Sharett initiated peace talks with Egypt out of a desire to use it as a stepping stone to a wider regional peace, but in doing so he ran afoul not only of his predecessor David Ben Gurion, but also of hardliners within military intelligence. A large portion of both the military and intelligence establishments were skeptical that any deal could be struck with Egypt and were particularly wary of the surging Egyptian nationalism championed by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the midst of the negotiations, Israeli military intelligence – possibly at the behest of Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon or possibly at the behest of the head of Israeli military intelligence – planned a false flag operation to set off bombs in Cairo in an attempt to sow chaos and convince the British to remain in Egypt, thereby delivering a blow to Egyptian nationalist aspirations. The plot was exposed, but the damage was already done; Sharett’s outreach to Nasser was successfully thwarted, his term as prime minister was short lived, and the renewed Israeli hardline policy toward Egypt later contributed in part to the 1956 Suez crisis. In this case, Israeli intelligence actively set a course different from that of the Israeli prime minister and won, which is a lesson that Trump may want to keep in mind as he appears determined to set a more conciliatory policy toward Russia while the intelligence community unanimously views Russia as harmfully meddling in American internal affairs.

The lesson from Israel regarding intelligence agencies thwarting an elected politician’s priorities is sharpened if intelligence officials believe that they are being marginalized or mistreated, which is where the comparison to what Trump is doing is particularly germane. Rather than reaching back into the history of the mid-20th century, there is a contemporary Israeli case upon which to draw. The debate in Israel during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first term of his current tenure about whether the IDF should attack Iranian nuclear facilities was conducted under the enormous shadow of the well-known and unsettlingly public dispute between Netanyahu and his military and intelligence chiefs. IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, and Mossad director Meir Dagan were all vigorously opposed to a strike on Iran while Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak argued in favor. That there would be a dispute between the elected political leadership and the appointed security leadership is not an uncommon or unreasonable phenomenon. However, when Dagan felt that Netanyahu was ignoring the Mossad’s conclusions about the prospects of an Iranian bomb – the Mossad believed that it was not imminent while Netanyahu was insisting in speeches that Iran was about to go nuclear – he took his concerns public in a way that was meant to paint Netanyahu into a corner. On Dagan’s last day on the job, he briefed a group of Israeli senior journalists to hammer home how big of a mistake he believed Netanyahu was making in forcing a confrontation with Iran, and then upon retiring made a series of speeches in which he dubbed a strike on Iran “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard. Dagan’s successor, Tamir Pardo, continued Dagan’s legacy of constraining Netanyahu on Iran, publicly declaring that Iran was not an existential threat and that people used that term too loosely; this was the thinnest of thinly veiled barbs directed at Netanyahu, who was describing Iran in precisely such a way.

But there is a corollary to this, which is that intelligence agencies that try to impose their will on political leaders may find themselves undermined at the first opportunity. This can take the form of micromanaging intelligence officials themselves, but it can also take the form of casting aspersions on the entire intelligence apparatus as biased or suffering from misguided views. Netanyahu and his political allies have done this with regard to the Shin Bet over its alleged blind spot with regard to the Palestinians, disparaging former Shin Bet chiefs who warn of the dangers of a continuing Israeli presence in the West Bank as delusional leftists. In this case, it is not a set of analytical conclusions that have been challenged, but the competence of Shin Bet heads more broadly. As the current coalition chair David Bitan said this past summer about Dagan and a host of former Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs, “Something happens to you over the years in these positions…over the years the heads of Shin Bet and Mossad become leftists.” This quote will sound familiar to those who have been listening to Trump dismiss the CIA wholesale and insist that because it was mistaken about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction it must be mistaken about Russia over a decade later. In addition, as a result of his past clashes with Dagan, Pardo, Diskin, and others, Netanyahu has made sure that the current intelligence chiefs are people with whom he had close ties prior to their appointments and who are less likely to challenge him. This is one of the reasons that the ever-present friction between Netanyahu and the IDF brass no longer seems to invade the intelligence sphere. It is a reminder that intelligence agencies may win battles with their political overseers, but oftentimes the politicians will make those agencies pay for it down the road.

The upshot of all this is that keeping a country and its citizens safe and formulating successful national security policies is far harder when the politicians and the intelligence professionals are waging a war not against a common external enemy but against each other. In Israel’s case, the perception that Netanyahu and the intelligence community are in opposition undermines confidence in both, and will likely lead to greater and potentially disastrous interventions of the political arena in the intelligence arena and vice versa. Let’s hope that Trump and those in his circle realize the dangers associated with confronting the U.S. intelligence apparatus so that the same mistakes born out of the Israeli experience can be avoided.

Searching for Keith Ellison

December 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

I published an op-ed in Ha’aretz today on Keith Ellison’s DNC bid, and why I think the perfect candidate to lead the Democratic Party would be an Ellison who isn’t actually Ellison. The op-ed can be found on Ha’aretz, and the text is reproduced below.

Keith Ellison has a real Israel problem.

Many pro-Israel groups had been skeptical of his candidacy to lead the Democratic National Committee from the start due to concerns over his past affiliation with the Nation of Islam and his criticism of Israel’s use of force in Gaza in response to Hamas rocket attacks.

But the revelation of a 2010 audio clip of Ellison charging that American foreign policy in the Middle East is governed primarily by Israeli interests has significantly complicated Ellison’s efforts to lead the DNC. The Anti-Defamation League, which had initially taken a wait-and-see approach to Ellison, responded to the clip by calling his words “deeply disturbing and disqualifying.” Making the case that Ellison is within the reasonable boundaries of being pro-Israel is far harder now than it was before.

When taking everything into context, the DNC will be better off without having Ellison at its helm.

The Mearsheimerian allegations of Israeli control over American decision making is indeed, as the ADL says, disqualifying, even if Ellison meant it as an example of American Jewish success that American Muslims should seek to emulate. Ellison’s past defense of Louis Farrakhan from charges of anti-Semitism should also not be given a free pass or chalked up simply to youthful indiscretion. It has been evident for decades to anyone with basic comprehension skills that Farrakhan is a repugnant and unapologetic anti-Semite, and defending him personally cannot be waved away as misguided or an error in judgment.

The concerns about Ellison are valid, and given the growing strains within the Democratic Party over Israel, having a figure at the helm who raises alarm bells within mainstream American Jewish organizations is bad for the party and bad for the American Jewish community at large.

There is a tragedy though in how this saga is playing out, because nothing would be better for the pro-Israel cause than having a Keith Ellison at the DNC who is not Keith Ellison. Much has been made about both Ellison’s background and Ellison’s specific statements, but it is only the latter that should sink his DNC bid. Not only should Ellison’s background not disqualify him, it is actually beneficial. That someone like Ellison has worked so hard to be seen as pro-Israel only demonstrates the strength of Israel’s case and shows how support for Israel can remain broadly bipartisan going forward.

Ellison is not a figure whom anyone would normally expect to be a supporter of Israel. He is an African-American Muslim who did not grow up in a particularly Jewish area of the country, came of age after 1967, when Israel’s image as a David began shifting to that of a Goliath, did not have any prominent Jewish mentors, and has a background in radical politics. As a student, he was harshly critical of Zionism and its legitimacy.

Given this biography, one would expect Ellison to be a loud voice in Congress criticizing Israel given every opportunity, and to perhaps even lead an anti-Israel movement akin to what has become common within Britain’s Labour Party.

Yet Ellison unambiguously self-identifies as pro-Israel, supports a two-state solution without reservation, has repeatedly said that Israel has a right to defend itself and expressed the importance of protecting and maintaining Israel’s security, and there is no evidence that he has ever supported or advocated for BDS.

That is not to say that there are not worrisome aspects to Ellison’s record on Israel, from his 2014 vote against emergency Iron Dome funding to his naive misunderstanding of the lengths to which Hamas will go to maintain its arsenal of rockets in Gaza. Nobody will ever accuse him of being Scoop Jackson, and it obliterates the bounds of credulity to suggest that Israel has no better friend.

But the fact is that in supporting two states, in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, and in rejecting BDS, Ellison falls within a wide pro-Israel tent. That someone with his background embraces these principles is the best case for Israel that Democrats could possibly make. It shows that those who spend time marinating in a toxic anti-Israel stew can be convinced of the importance of supporting Israel through greater exposure and education, and it gives a green light to those who genuinely want to support Israel on most fronts but are uncomfortable with some of its more hawkish policies to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In Ellison’s case, this has to be weighed against the parts of the ledger where he disregarded overt and purposeful anti-Semitism and spouted an ugly conspiracy theory about an Israeli veto over American foreign policy, and it should not come out in his favor. But it does not alter the reality that a different Ellison is what Democrats need.

The shifting demographics of the U.S., and particularly those within the Democratic Party, make future bipartisan support for Israel murkier than it has been in decades. The ubiquity of social media that broadcasts every Israeli misstep and the constant news cycle that keeps Israel in the crosshairs are not going away, and they complicate political support for Israel in real ways.

Having someone lead the DNC who embraces Israel despite not being an obvious candidate to do so should be viewed as a strength rather than a weakness. Democrats should be looking for a new Keith Ellison who isn’t actually Keith Ellison.

Structuring Conflict in the Trumpian World

November 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

In the decade before the unfortunately named Arab Spring uprisings, political science on the subject of the Middle East was largely consumed with explaining the region’s persistent and seemingly exceptional authoritarianism. One of the best treatments of the subject was Yale political scientist Ellen Lust-Okar’s 1995 book titled Structuring Conflict in the Arab World. Lust-Okar looked at why political opposition groups in some Middle Eastern states would mobilize popular protests during economic crises while in other states they wouldn’t, and she developed a handy theory to explain the variance in behavior despite similar circumstances. While at first glance this topic has nothing to do with American Jewry and the nascent Trump administration, Lust-Okar’s book was the first thing that came to my mind when thinking about the way different Jewish organizations are responding to the challenges that President-elect Trump is presenting.

Lust-Okar’s theory on what made opposition groups decide to mobilize or not was that it wasn’t a function of the groups themselves, but a function of how the regime manipulated them. Middle Eastern authoritarian governments establish different relationships between the state and the opposition, and between opposition groups themselves, by creating unified or divided structures of contestation. In plain English, the state (wittingly or unwittingly) determines how opposition groups behave based on whether it favors some groups over others or treats them all as equally illegitimate. If the regime grants some political parties or groups legal status while making others illegal, the legal ones become reluctant to protest or join with the “illegal” opposition since they will be putting their own status at risk. Having the regime’s favor carries with it benefits, including most basically not being arbitrarily thrown in jail, so by playing it safe and not challenging the regime, the legal groups ensure that they will not be repressed or excluded from the system no matter what abuses the state carries out against others. On the other side of the equation, the illegal parties or groups are constantly looking to have the legal parties or groups join their protests in order to give them the imprimatur of legality and the safety of numbers. When the legal parties inevitably choose not join in order to protect their own status, it allows the regime to portray the protests as illegitimate and carried out by outlaws and rabble-rousers with invalid grievances.

I’ve been thinking about this while observing the way American Jewish organizations are reacting to the goings on surrounding Trump, his appointments, and his policies that will most directly impact Israel and Jews themselves. To get one important thing out of the way up front, I am not arguing that Trump is planning on banning groups he doesn’t like or that we are dealing with an authoritarian regime that will imprison opponents. But looking at the dynamic of opposition in non-democracies helps to understand the dynamic emerging here.

To be sure, every White House has groups it favors and groups it doesn’t. Every White House uses the divisions within groups to its advantage. There is nothing illegal or untoward about this, but it influences group dynamics in a way that can be extremely damaging to group cohesiveness. To take a recent prominent example, the Iran deal was divisive enough within the American Jewish community without needing an extra boost from the Obama administration, but the White House unquestionably made things worse in its appeals to Jewish groups and making the “it will make Israel safer” argument a big part of the sell. This is not to absolve other actors or place the lion’s share of the blame on the White House, since there was nothing more ultimately damaging or divisive than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress, but the choice made by the administration played a part in fracturing the Jewish community as well.

What is already going on before Trump has even taken office, however, is orders of magnitudes worse. For starters, no Jewish groups should even debate supporting the appointment of someone who runs a site that traffics in the worst sort of anti-Semitic and bigoted tropes as Trump’s most influential domestic policy advisor. As Bari Weiss correctly argues, whether Steve Bannon is personally anti-Semitic is irrelevant given how much anti-Semitic filth he is responsible for spreading and promoting. No Jewish groups should even debate supporting the appointment of someone who has retweeted anti-Semitic messages as Trump’s most influential foreign policy advisor. That Mike Flynn may want a closer relationship with Israel should not matter when he feels comfortably at home with people who view Jews as the source of the world’s ills. Yet whether to support, oppose, or remain neutral on these appointments has become a controversy within the American Jewish community despite the fact that it should be clear-cut that they are completely outside the boundary of what we should deem acceptable.

Say what you will about the Obama White House, but it listened to and talked with everyone without regard to politics. When the previous White House Jewish liaison Matt Nosanchuk stepped down, one of the most complimentary missives came from ZOA president Mort Klein, who heads a group that is hardly a supporter of the current administration. Is anyone confident that the next White House will behave the same way? Will it listen to or deal with groups that do not share its views? My fear is that the Trump administration will look at how it so easily divided Jewish groups over an issue that should not even be debatable, and make the divisions even worse by rewarding groups that it views as compliant and freezing out groups that it views as intransigent. Once this structure of contestation has been set up, opposing the administration on anything will become that much harder, including on issues that directly threaten American Jewish interests or Israel.

American Jewish groups are not going to see eye to eye or march in lockstep on every policy issue, nor should they. It was eminently reasonable that some groups dedicated almost all of their time and energies to opposing the Iran deal while other groups to supporting it. Policy differences are not themselves destructive. But blatant anti-Semitism is not a policy difference; it is the reddest of red lines. We are creating in-groups and out-groups over an issue where everyone needs to be on the same side. As someone whose natural inclination is to more often than not side with pragmatism over absolutist principles, I innately understand the argument of not doing something that will foreclose any ability to have the president’s ear. Influence is often a result of being inside the room rather than shouting from a bullhorn outside it. But just as the television executives who went to Trump Tower on Monday thought that they were there to have a conversation with the president-elect and were instead berated for over an hour, I fear that we are falling into the same trap over an issue that is mission-critical to any Jewish organization irrespective of the precise mission. Do not allow Steve Bannon to become a litmus test that the Trump White House uses to determine which groups are “good” and which are “bad.” There is going to be lots to fight over and argue about during the next four years, providing us all with many opportunities to engage in Jews’ favorite pastime. If we cannot stand together at the outset when given such a wide and obvious target, then it is not going to be long before the wide and obvious target is us.

What To Do Next

November 9, 2016 § 5 Comments

I am as disappointed and angry, and frankly shaken to my core, about what happened yesterday as anyone out there. That Trump is now the president-elect does not change the fact that he is uniquely unqualified to serve in the office by dint of his temperament, intellectual vapidity, lack of any relevant experience, terrible judgement, willingness to display and countenance all manner of bigoted and misogynistic behavior, and most crucially his clear admiration for authoritarian norms and prerogatives. I feel a mortifying sense of embarrassment that he is now the face of our country and what we offer up as a representative example of America. I am repulsed by his dark vision of our current state of affairs, and terrified for what will happen when those who have placed their sincere hopes in his ability to deliver all sorts of undeliverable promises realize that he cannot do so. Well aware of how overwrought this will sound, when I stood in front of Kira’s door this morning for thirty seconds before going in because I wasn’t sure what to tell her and because I wanted to put off for just one more minute shattering her sweet innocence about the world, it transported me back to how I felt on the terrible afternoon that my mom died and I had to call my brother and my aunts and uncles to let them know. I stand second to none in my conviction that four years from now we will be picking up the wreckage of geopolitical upheaval unlike anything seen since WWII.

But despite all of this, there is one – and only one – appropriate response. The United States of America only works if we all accept that we belong to a single political community and that the legitimacy of our political system is above question. I never had any patience for those who treated President Bush as illegitimate because he lost the popular vote; we have an electoral system that gives the presidency to the winner in the Electoral College, and unless you want to throw out the entirety of the Constitution, you don’t get to pick and choose which parts you want to abide by and which parts you want to ignore. Similarly, I had even less patience for those who treated and still treat President Obama as illegitimate based on debunked and puerile conspiracy theories about his citizenship, allegiances, or his alleged un-Americanness. There is nothing more disgusting to me than Americans who derogatorily refer to their elected chief executive as “your president” because they didn’t vote for him or don’t support him. If you are an American citizen, the person who takes the oath of office on January 20 is our president whether you like him or not. Them’s the facts, and there is literally nothing less American or more unpatriotic than behaving otherwise. Those of you who could not grasp this very simple principle during the past eight years should hang your heads in shame and should have the decency and self-awareness not to lecture anyone about it now that you have a president you like, and those who will not be able to grasp this very simple principle for the next four years will forfeit the right to complain about how President Obama was treated during the past eight.

With all that said, I am going to do anything and everything I can to oppose what I believe will be a disastrous Trump presidency, but I will do it based on disagreements with his policies and his behavior and not based on any questions about his legitimacy. I suspect that many of you will do the same, and I welcome any and all thoughts about productive ways to limit the policy fallout that is coming. Spare me your pablum about coming together. We do not have to unify as a country, heal the political divisions, just accept the inevitable, or treat this as anything but a dark day, and I hope that we don’t. The consequences of this election cannot possibly be overstated, particularly if – like me – you care first and foremost about foreign policy and America’s place in the world. Stop making idle threats about making aliyah or moving to Canada, and instead fight tooth and nail to ensure that the United States remains the greatest country on earth. Be the loyal opposition. Be an American by conviction and not by convenience.

But we absolutely must be unwaveringly unified as a polity, which means that on January 20, Donald Trump becomes OUR president. It means sincerely wishing and praying for his success as a president and as the leader of our country, even and especially if you think, as I do, that he will be a historically, disastrously, abysmal failure. Lead by example in fearing and preparing for the worst but hoping for the best. Be an American first.

Go Vote

November 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

On Election Day four years ago, I wrote about the following scenario, which is worth recounting again this year. There was a leader of a country who was in power for over a decade and was forced out of office before he was ready to step down. The leader’s bitter rival, who had spent months painstakingly turning elites and the general population against the country’s ruler, took over power and embarked on a crusade to cement his own hold over the country. After nearly a decade marked by scandal and recriminations, the current leader was retiring and the first leader’s son, who had a severe alcohol problem, a string of failed business ventures to his name, and was chased by allegations of drug use, decided that he wanted to run the country. He challenged the current president’s hand-picked successor, accusing him of being involved in scandals and misusing the military and vowing to avenge his father’s loss. A vote was held that was marked by all sorts of irregularities and accusations of fraud, with the most troubling irregularities occurring in territory controlled by the challenger’s brother, and when the dust cleared it turned out that the current president’s successor had won the most votes.

The challenger was not willing to accept his loss though, and being stymied by the results of the election, he approached the country’s constitutional court, a majority of whose judges were appointed by his father when he had been in power, and convinced the judges to declare him the winner through a technicality and order the current president’s government to step down and cede power. Knowing that there was a genuine sense of anger among the former president’s powerful supporters and that he was facing a crisis of legitimacy that would hamper his rule, and perhaps even in an effort to make sure that he had the army on his side, he then appointed popular military officials from his father’s government, including the former commanding general of the country’s army and the former defense minister, to high ministerial posts in his own government. After seeing to it that his troops had placed the outgoing president on a military helicopter and sent him out of the capital, he then proceeded to organize a parade through the streets that literally brought him to the steps of the presidential palace.

The question is, what happens next? Is this country going to be stable, or is it likely to go through years of repression and civil war? Based on this set of facts, this country is likely going to experience an outbreak of violence, if not armed civil conflict, and authoritarian rule is almost certainly going to prevail. Fortunately, we do not have to guess the trajectory of this country’s future because this series of events actually occurred somewhere relatively recently, but the country in question was not Yemen, Zimbabwe, or Syria. As many of you have already realized, the country I have described is the United States under Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush. There was simply no question that once the Supreme Court ended the recount, effectively making Bush the president, there would be no violence or rioting, no military coup, no measures to prevent the new president from moving into the White House, and that the Clinton administration would stand aside for the Bush administration. As Americans we take this for granted, because this is the way our country works and has always worked (save for that pesky Civil War), but in the grand sweep of history it is nothing short of remarkable. Not only do we get the opportunity every fourth year to decide who will be president, but when the incumbent is voted out or must step down after two terms, the most powerful person in the world and commander-in-chief of the most awesome fighting force in the history of mankind unfailingly vacates his post peacefully and makes no move to hang on to the trappings of absolute power. Just take a minute to reflect on how improbable this would be were it to happen once, let alone routinely as a matter of course for over two centuries. Take a minute to reflect on what an incredible country this is and how lucky we are to be living in it.

The reason that transfer of power here is so routine is because we vote. If you ask most people why voting is important, they will say it is because it allows the people to decide who their leaders will be, but I don’t think that is correct. Choosing our leaders is the outcome, but not the biggest reason it matters. It matters because the simple act of voting protects our freedom and our political system, without which it won’t much matter who our leaders are. One of the ironies of our unparalleled democracy is that the right to vote allows people to purposely not exercise that right if they choose not to do so, but that is the wrong way to look at things. Being a citizen of a democracy gives us rights, but it also comes with responsibilities and obligations, and expecting to keep those rights without taking the responsibilities and obligations seriously is the best and fastest way to see those rights disappear. Voting is the ultimate responsibility and obligation, and if you choose to stay home today, not only do you forfeit your right to complain about the outcome when you inevitably don’t like it, but you risk losing the freedom to stay home next time.

Voter apathy seems higher this year than it has ever been, but no matter how you feel about this election, go vote. Want to make America great again? Go vote. Think America is already great and has to be protected from someone who doesn’t understand that? Go vote. Hate both candidates and bemoan the state of our politics that has produced two historically unpopular nominees? Go vote. Think that voting doesn’t matter because there is no real difference between the candidates and their policies, and the system is rigged anyway? You’re wrong, and go vote. No matter what your preferences or political proclivities, go vote. Whoever wins at the end of this day, there is no scenario in which not exercising your ability to protect our system of government is the right decision. Demonstrate that the awesome power of the American electorate is something that can never be trifled with or taken away, and make sure that the story that I told above never unfolds in this country with a different ending. Go vote and celebrate what makes this country unique in the history of the world, and happy Election Day to all.

The American Election and Israeli Coalition Politics

October 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

After what many viewed as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s boosterism on behalf of Mitt Romney in 2012 and his meetings in New York last month with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there has been inevitable chatter about how Israeli politics is impacting the U.S. presidential election. For what it’s worth, I thought in 2012 that Netanyahu largely got an unfair bad rap over allegations that he was trying to influence the campaign, and I give him credit this time around for having clean hands. By all accounts, Netanyahu gave zero encouragement to Trump when he was making noise about taking a campaign trip to Israel last spring, made no independent effort to meet with the candidates while in the U.S., and made sure to reach out to Clinton to schedule a meeting only after Trump asked for one first. While there is plenty of speculation about the Israeli government’s preferences and how those preferences will impact the election, the more interesting angle goes the other way. The U.S. election has the potential to wreak havoc on Israeli politics, and it is forcing Netanyahu to make some potentially momentous choices with regard to his own political positioning.

The past couple of months have not been kind to Netanyahu and Likud insofar as the polls go. In early September, public opinion surveys showed Yesh Atid pulling ahead of Likud were elections to be held, with Yesh Atid more than doubling its current seats and Likud’s share cut by 25%. Another poll in late September confirmed this trend holding, with Yesh Atid ahead of Likud by four seats despite more respondents preferring Netanyahu to Yair Lapid as prime minister. While the numbers dictate trouble ahead for Netanyahu and Likud politically absent some sort of course correction, there is one important way in which the polling acts to Netanyahu’s political benefit. Israeli government coalitions are notoriously unstable – Netanyahu’s most recent government lasted just over two years, and there have been nine governments in the twenty one years since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination – and it oftentimes takes little to bring a government down. Coalition partners are able to hold the prime minister hostage by insisting on an array of demands and threatening – explicitly or implicitly – to bring down the government and force new elections if they aren’t met. Conversely, when the polls show the leading party benefitting from new elections, the prime minister will often force a crisis, such as when Netanyahu fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni in December 2014 in order to try and pick up more seats and bring the Haredi parties into the government.

The current government is in many ways one that should be particularly susceptible to hostage taking behavior by Likud’s coalition partners. The coalition is 66 MKs – and was only 61 MKs until Avigdor Lieberman brought Yisrael Beiteinu into the government in May – and it can be unilaterally brought down by four out of its five coalition partners, since a defection by any of the four would put the coalition under a majority of 61 Knesset seats. It is filled with party leaders, such as Naftali Bennett and Lieberman, who harbor ambitions to replace Netanyahu, have extremely checkered pasts with him, and are also widely reputed to loathe him personally. It contains parties with wildly different priorities, from Habayit Hayehudi and its focus on its settler and rightwing nationalist constituency to Shas and United Torah Judaism and their championing of ultra-Orthodox welfare and religious priorities. It has been plagued with fights surrounding the budget. In short, few people thought this government would last particularly long.

The recent polls change that calculus, because the prospects of Yesh Atid winning and forming the next government mean that Habayit Hayehudi and the Haredi parties would be doomed to irrelevance. Despite Lapid and Bennett’s unlikely partnership of strange bedfellows in the previous government, it is difficult to foresee a coalition led by Lapid in which their two parties coexist. The Haredi parties are also terrified of Lapid, despite his recent efforts to take a softer rhetorical line on their pet issues, since he represents the secular elite with whom they clash and his late father, Tommy Lapid, was Israel’s most ardent and outspoken secular leader and Haredi opponent. In addition, Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party would nearly disappear if new elections were held today, and Kahlon’s future political career is dependent on his banking some tangible policy victories as finance minister. In short, Netanyahu’s partners can no longer afford to make idle threats of bringing the government down, which makes Netanyahu’s coalition far more stable in inverse proportion to how strong Likud is polling.

Which brings us to the wrinkle, which is our presidential election here at home. Currently, Netanyahu’s biggest fear is that President Obama will do something on his way out the door related to the peace process and/or settlements, ranging from what Netanyahu views as disastrous (a binding UN Security Council resolution) to enormously inconvenient (a speech laying out Obama’s views on parameters for future two-state negotiations). Netanyahu and Israeli officials have been furiously lobbying everyone from the president on down not to make any moves on this front, and they have been counting on the uncertainty of the election outcome to forestall any surprises, since Obama will not want to do anything that may drive Jewish voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other swing states toward Trump. After the election though, all bets are off, and this is particularly so in the unlikely but still possible case that Trump wins, since then Obama will have no concerns about saddling his successor with a policy on Israel that may not be to his liking. Even if Clinton wins as expected, the unusually harsh American response to the Israeli government’s plan to build a new neighborhood in Shilo for the relocated Amona settlers makes Netanyahu and his coalition partners fear that there is an American sword of Damocles waiting to drop.

In Netanyahu’s calculations, the one possibly foolproof thing he can do to head this all off at the pass is to bring Yitzhak Herzog and his Zionist Union party into the government and make Herzog foreign minister, which explains the dalliance with Herzog a few months ago and the constant reports that he and Herzog are once again cooking up plans for a unity government. Netanyahu thinks that bringing in Herzog and giving him the diplomatic portfolio will signal to the world that he is genuine in his desire to see a two-state solution, and that it will prevent a post-election move from Obama while starting him off on the right foot with Clinton should she win. It will also not bring down his government if Herzog can bring enough Zionist Union MKs with him to replace the eight from Habayit Hayehudi who will leave should Zionist Union join, and while it leaves Netanyahu with a suboptimal coalition from a policy standpoint and creates future political problems for him, it gives him diplomatic breathing room.

I am skeptical that Netanyahu’s fears are well-placed since I think the likelihood is greater than not that Obama does nothing earth shattering on the Israeli-Palestinian front before he leaves the White House, but there is also little question that Netanyahu’s calculus on this is presenting him with a political choice and that he is weighing his options. So the intersection of American politics and Israeli politics are indeed important for the next few months, but the impact will be far more heavily felt in Israel than here.

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