Terrorism and Blame

June 16, 2016 § 5 Comments

In the wee hours of the morning, a man with an immigrant background intent on transforming himself into a killer walked into a crowded gathering place, populated with people whom he did not know personally but whom he abhorred just for the group to which they belonged. The man, who had a connection to extremist religious groups that prioritize coreligionists over all others and advocate for blatantly racist and violent political actions, had a history of making discriminatory comments about the group he targeted. He had expressed public outrage at their actions, voicing a belief that what they did violated the morals and tenets of his own religion and that religious dictate required him to shun them. On that fateful early morning, the man walked into that place – one that symbolizes so well the country’s divide on social and political issues – carrying a semi-automatic assault rifle that he had legally procured. He took out his weapon and, firing into an unsuspecting crowd of hundreds that never in a thousand years would have imagined that this personal sanctuary would be the site of their last moments on Earth, killed dozens of people and wounded scores more. The killer himself did not survive his own carnage and was justifiably killed in a counter-assault aimed at halting the ongoing massacre.

How do we decide what factors are to blame for this truly horrific tragedy? As Max Fisher succinctly put it in the New York Times on Tuesday, “when a troubled young man murders dozens of people…how do we classify, and thereby make sense of, what he did?” Lots of it depends on one’s frame of reference. The description in the above paragraph is obviously referring to Omar Mateen, who mowed down 49 people on Sunday in Orlando at the gay nightclub Pulse. But it just as easily refers to Baruch Goldstein, who walked into the mosque section of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Purim morning in 1994 and killed 29 worshippers at morning prayers. Most people would have similar reactions to these two acts, but many wouldn’t, and the question is whether our own biases and sympathies lead us astray in thinking about terrorism and what is behind it.

For starters, it seems clear that both Mateen and Goldstein perpetrated acts of religiously motivated terrorism. Both men had links to, or at the very least declared an allegiance to, a group that carries out violence in the name of religion. I don’t mean to equate ISIS with the Kahane movement, since they are miles apart in terms of ideology, purpose, brutality, and tactics. It’s like comparing Anna Netrebko singing at the Met to a cat mewling in an alley. But both groups instrumentalize religion for political purposes, and it raises difficult questions as to how to think about the role of religion in violence. If someone commits an act of terrorism, designed to inflict mass casualties and send a larger message, and he does so out of religious fervor, no matter how misguided that fervor may be, it should not be controversial to link the act to the ideology behind it. It beggars belief to insist that religion had absolutely no bearing on Mateen’s motivation whatsoever and it is just a coincidence or a red herring or a cover for other more salient motivations, and we should be willing to heap the same scorn on those who separate Goldstein from Judaism entirely. Referring to “radical Islam” or “radical Islamism” when discussing Mateen won’t do a thing to solve the actual problem, no matter how much Donald Trump may claim to the contrary, but to contort oneself into knots to deny what appears to be plainly obvious recalls George Orwell’s famous aphorism that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

Equally clear should be that to tie either Mateen or Goldstein to religious motivation is not to disparage the entire religion itself. All religions simultaneously contain good and bad, with acts of monumental charity and monstrous barbarity perpetrated in their names constantly. That one sick, twisted individual or even thousands of sick, twisted individuals kill in service of a religion proves nothing. It does not mean that the religion’s faithful are all terrorists in waiting, but simply means that the terrorists who kill in its name are using the religion to justify the unjustifiable. Religion gives rise to terrible ideologies that cloak themselves in the mantle of faith and God, but it is foolish absent evidence to the contrary to assume that the parasite has fully consumed the host. Many are quick to point to Mateen’s connection to Islam as representative of Islam writ large, and I vigorously disagree with it but I understand where it comes from, given how many terrorist attacks are committed in Islam’s name. We can run multivariate regressions all day that demonstrate that Islam is statistically insignificant compared to poverty, political repression, and all sorts of other factors when it comes to terrorism, but it seems to belie common sense. Also belying common sense is to then blanketly insist that Islam is synonymous with violence, rather than understanding that we live in a time when Islam is employed for violence more than other religions, as Christianity was employed for violence more than other religions during the Middle Ages (as Jews know full well). The fact that American Jews would never tolerate being tarred by Goldstein’s brush is precisely why it is so important to maintain the same standards with other religions, even when Jewish terrorism is a drop in the bucket compared to Muslim terrorism.

Goldstein killed a group of Muslims for the crime of being Muslim. Mateen killed a group of gays for being gay. In Tel Aviv last week, two Palestinians killed a group of Israelis for being Israeli. There are complex factors and wider contexts involved in all of these cases, but it would be foolish to ignore some of them for political reasons. Acknowledging that there are uncomfortable truths at work does not justify any of these acts of terrorism in any way. Terrorism and killing innocents is wrong no matter the reason and no matter the perpetrator. People should not be afraid of complexity, and when we give in to the temptation of turning everything into a black and white political issue that prioritizes ideology over the struggle for truth, we set ourselves up for a generation of leaders who prioritize sound bites over substance, platitudes over policy, and division over discourse.

Trust and Partners

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Since IPF released its Two-State Security project last week, we have gotten an enormous response, most of it positive but some of it critical. Nearly everyone appreciates the effort that has gone into the plans developed by our partners, the Commanders for Israel’s Security and the Center for a New American Security, but the most common concerns that keep arising are about the Palestinians. The concerns all revolve around some variation of the question, does Israel have a partner? How can we be sure if Israel pulls back from the West Bank in performance-dependent stages that it won’t eventually have to go back in? How can we trust the Palestinians when the Palestinian Authority does nothing now to crack down on incitement? Doesn’t Israeli security under these plans depend on relying on a party that has shown no willingness to accept Israel’s legitimacy?

These are all good and legitimate questions that take on a particular urgency in light of yesterday’s horrific terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, and they cannot and should not be simply brushed away. One of the reasons that the peace camp has fallen into such hard times is a sense on the part of Israeli and American Jews that the left was too naïve about the issue of trusting the other side absent reasonable evidence to do so. The issue of trust and reliable partners looms large for good reason. So why should anyone trust a security plan to work when Israelis are being gunned down in cold blood in cafes and their security depends on the acquiescence of an untrustworthy party?

The CIS plan is designed to get around this question entirely through bypassing any necessary Palestinian cooperation. It is a plan for security now in the absence of negotiations or any peace process of which to speak, and thus it is comprised entirely of measures to be taken by Israel without the need for coordination from the other side. In fact, the slogan that CIS has been using is !אין פרטנר? יש פתרון meaning, “No partner? There is a solution!” The plan to take unilateral steps to establish Israel’s security as a precursor to peace later explicitly assumes that a partner is not necessary for this initial stage. Some of the measures that the plan calls for, such as immediately completing the multiple gaps in the security fence that have been left open for political reasons, are designed to prevent illegal infiltrators like the ones who carried out yesterday’s attack, providing a grimly stark example of why the plan’s recommendations should be taken seriously.

But the CIS plan is a stopgap. Ultimately, long-term success requires a successful permanent status negotiation with the Palestinians, and a deal can only be sustainable if there is a partner willing to enforce it, most importantly on the security variables. So we are back to where we started; does Israel have a partner?

It is no accident that the CNAS plan – one that requires a successful negotiating process in order to be implemented – deals with security. If there is one area in which Israel has a demonstrable partner in the Palestinian Authority, it is security. There are a number of reasons why the West Bank is not the rocket launching pad that is Gaza, from a less radicalized population to a more robust economy to the difficulty in building tunnels or sustainable smuggling routes to nighttime Israeli incursions. But the single biggest factor is the willingness of the Palestinian security forces to enforce and maintain quiet. These are forces that have been trained by the U.S., work in close coordination with the IDF, and spend their days keeping the West Bank quiet and effectively protecting Israeli lives. Even the most rightwing member of the Israeli government will tell you that the Palestinian security forces are one of the true success stories of the past decade. They are not perfect, but the fact that the IDF has been attempting to end its incursions into Area A and gradually transfer full security control to the PA speaks volumes about its level of trust in the Palestinian security apparatus.

So let’s grant that when it comes to security, Israel currently has a partner. What about the rest of it? On the political side, it is difficult to say with any certainty that Israel right now has a partner. Mahmoud Abbas, for a variety of reasons good and bad, is more interested now in internationalizing the conflict than negotiating its resolution, and has either rejected or not responded to offers made by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. Unlike his predecessor, Abbas has not encouraged violence against Israelis, but he has legitimized it after the fact and there is no question that incitement by Palestinian Authority officials and others is an enormous problem not to be waved away. This is not to suggest by any means that the Palestinians are solely to blame for the impasse; when you have in your cabinet a minister who just this week categorically rejected the two-state solution and called for Israel to annex Area C, it is difficult to claim the unambiguous high ground on the issue of diplomatic intransigence.

But if the Palestinians are to become a partner on the political and diplomatic side the way that they are on the security side, they will need to be provided with some real incentives to do so. This is not a call to appease Palestinian terrorism or to just keep on giving in the hopes that the Palestinians will eventually recant revanchist positions, since that will not work. It is a recognition that any successful resolution requires an array of tactics, and using sticks is not mutually exclusive with utilizing some carrots as well. As IPF’s Israel fellow Nimrod Novik likes to recount, a Palestinian security official once relayed to him how much easier it is for Palestinian security forces to accede to Israeli demands and arrest their brothers, cousins, and friends when there is a political horizon and a negotiating process taking place since they are taking action for the benefit of a future Palestinian state, as opposed to when there is no political horizon and it feels like they are taking action for the benefit of the Israeli occupation. In order for Israel to eventually have a partner on the other side, the Palestinians must take responsibility for their own shortcomings, end the ugly incitement that has become routine, and accept Israel’s legitimacy unambiguously and without reservation. But there are two things that Israel can do to further things along as well. First, realize that the “there is no partner” tagline is a lot more complicated than the simplified slogan suggests; it may be true when it comes to diplomacy, but it is and has not been true when it comes to security. Second, build upon the excellent security cooperation that exists now to pave the way for cooperation in other areas in the future. Socializing norms of trust and coordination in one area will ultimately spread to others, and providing incentives for the current cooperation to continue will ultimately pay off in resolving the issue of not having a partner on the other side. Trust begets trust and success begets success. Take the steps now that do not depend on having a partner on the other side, and maintain a distrust-and-verify stance until you are assured that a partner is there.

Two-State Security

June 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

This column is part of IPF’s Two-State Security project launch, so please forgive the organizational self-promotion.

There are few such essential and simple concepts more in need of a rebranding than the two-state solution. It is routinely disparaged as a tired concept that has been tried and failed, one that requires iron political will and strong leaders on both sides when the reality of the current situation is leaders whose commitment to take the necessary steps is doubted by all. There is truth to this critique, but ultimately it is irrelevant. If a Jewish, democratic, and secure Israel is the goal – and there is no pro-Israel position that does not share all three of these characteristics – then two states is the only realistic way to get there, no matter the current circumstances. It is for this reason that IPF has launched the Two-State Security project, as an attempt to overcome one of the largest obstacles that exists in achieving a viable two-state solution.

Two-State Security is an initiative designed to address Israel’s very legitimate and very real security concerns surrounding a future Palestinian state and loss of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. There are many things that this initiative is not. It is not a call for a unilateral military disengagement, as was tried with varying degrees of success and failure in Lebanon and Gaza. It is not a call for an immediate return to negotiations with the Palestinians, which would almost certainly end in failure and make conditions for both sides even worse. It is not an effort to replace the current Israeli government or launch a campaign against Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is not an attempt to override the democratic choices of Israelis or to impose any type of outside solution on the two actual parties to the conflict. The only way this thing will get solved is through direct negotiations between the two parties, full stop. But the fact that the environment for this to work does not now exist is all the more reason to work on creative suggestions that will pave the way for the right environment to emerge, and that is what the Two-State Security project tries to do.

In the era of Oslo and Camp David, security was viewed as the easiest issue on the table to solve. The constant suicide bombings of the Second Intifada changed that irrevocably, and the rockets and tunnels bursting out from over and under the Gaza border have only added to Israelis’ convictions that security must be the primary issue to be dealt with if they are ever to alter the status quo in the West Bank. There will be no real movement toward two states until security is addressed in a comprehensive manner, and it belies the evidence to blithely assume that simply ending Israel’s presence in the West Bank will bring quiet to Israelis. An eventual Israeli pullback has to be managed in a way that creates the necessary safeguards and institutions to enable Israel to trust that a two-state solution isn’t going to fundamentally undermine the safety and security of its citizens going about their daily routines. If you take two states seriously, then you must take security seriously.

This project is based on two excellent and expert plans put out this week, one by the Commanders for Israel’s Security calling for a series of steps to be taken now that will improve Israeli security immediately and preserve the future path to two states, and one by the Center for a New American Security that is a comprehensive security system to be implemented in the future as part of a successful permanent status agreement. They are both the result of over a year of research, debate, thought, and writing, and I urge you to read them in full and check out the myriad of summaries and resources that we have put together connected to both plans. Like any plan that exists on any subject, they have strengths and weaknesses and people will argue over the wisdom and efficacy of the details, which is the point. Without a serious effort to spark these conversations now, the security situation will not improve, and more and more people will just resign themselves to the cliché that “there is no solution” when in fact that is the most harmful attitude to Israel’s future that can possibly be adopted. Ultimately, the key to a viable two-state solution is building the requisite political will, and this project is an effort to address one extremely crucial component of doing so.

The dirty little secret of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the status quo isn’t actually a status quo; it is a drumbeat of constant deterioration. If you are Israeli, your sense of security has plummeted in direct inverse proportion to Israel’s footprint in the West Bank. If you are Palestinian, your sense of dignity and sovereignty has plummeted in direct inverse proportion to ramped up Palestinian terrorism and violence. The notion that this can all be managed is based on a fallacy that managing it can keep the lid on the box, when in fact the lid is precariously close to being blown up entirely. Anyone who believes that Israel can be pushed out of the West Bank through terrorism, violence, and sanctions knows nothing about Israeli history, Zionism, or Jewish resolve. Anyone who believes that Palestinian nationalism can be simply quashed through a sufficient show of strength knows nothing about the history of the globe from the 19th century onward or how nationalism has proven to be a potent political force like no other. There are a million excuses that can be employed across the political spectrum for why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is permanently intractable, from Palestinian refusal to accept Israel’s existence, to the settlements being too ingrained in the West Bank to ever be uprooted, to the role of religion on both sides, to neither side being ready to make the necessary compromises. All of these have merit, and none of them eliminate the need to try and find a way out. It doesn’t mean coming up with ideas that neither side will accept and trying to force them on the two parties. It means brainstorming proposals that can be part of a comprehensive solution that will ultimately be palatable to each side and can eventually be implemented. It is not pragmatic to be pie in the sky, but it is no more pragmatic to just sit on the sidelines and wait for a deus ex machina that is never coming.

No matter where you come down, you are taking a gamble. No security plan will ever be perfect, and there is no such thing as an ironclad guarantee. It’s why countries fight wars, companies break contracts, and couples get divorced. The question for Israel is which gamble for its future has better long term odds and a higher potential payoff – keep everything exactly as is and hope that terrorism doesn’t get worse and Palestinians and the world don’t push for a bi-national state, or figure out a way to extricate yourself from the West Bank and create as many systems and safeguards as possible to ensure the best security that can be attained. One of these is the obvious choice to me, but please read and engage with our Two-State Security initiative and whether you nod your head in agreement or shake it in disapproval, let’s get the conversation started.

Grasping At Straws

May 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

IPF has been very busy lately, and people are starting to take notice. Earlier this week, Ron Kampeas of JTA wrote an article previewing IPF’s activities in the months ahead, particularly the rollout of our Two-State Security initiative developed in conjunction with the Center for a New American Security and the Commanders for Israel’s Security (much more on this next week once it actually launches!), and noting the addition of a bevy of prominent American Jewish leaders to our board. Like moths to a flame, the mention of the phrase “two states” was bound to attract condemnation from the usual suspects, and Jonathan Tobin at Commentary was quick on the draw. Of our initiative, Tobin writes, “Buoyed by the bad press that the current Israeli government has been getting, these people think now is just the moment to push forward a peace plan that will help prepare the way for change despite the opposition of the elected leaders of the Jewish state.” He claims that what we are proposing is all unoriginal and has been tried before, and characterizes what we are doing as “based on the same bogus notion that Israel needs to be saved from itself and forced to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to preserve it as a Jewish state.” But the heart of Tobin’s argument is that what we are doing is misguided because the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected two states and that no plan will work unless a way is found to ensure that a Palestinian state in the West Bank will not become a terrorist enclave as exists in Gaza.

It’s a shame that Tobin did not wait until next week when the plans are actually released and he had been able to read them, since had he done so, he would have saved himself some time and wasted space on Commentary’s website. Tobin is attacking a ghost of his own imagination, as neither the CNAS report nor the Commanders for Israel’s Security report are peace plans. Neither calls for an immediate return to negotiations. Neither calls for sanctions or international pressure on Israel. Neither has a word to say about Israeli governments being too rightwing or not forthcoming enough, as Tobin alleges. Neither has been tried before in any guise, and the CNAS plan isn’t even a call to action now but is a roadmap for necessary security arrangements in the wake of a successful permanent status agreement. Most absurdly, Tobin attacks these plans as not being serious since they are “new peace plans about territorial withdrawals” that don’t deal with Israel’s security, when in fact both plans are precisely plans for Israel’s security. The title of the CNAS report is “A Security System For The Two-State Solution” and the title of the CIS plan is “Security First,” but hey, why let some pesky little facts get in the way of a good straw man?

I could keep on going, but this is all ancillary to the main point. Tobin’s basic argument is that because Palestinians have repeatedly rejected Israeli peace offers – a point with which I do not disagree – and will not accept Israel or the basic premise of Zionism, this is all a futile effort. The problem with this is that it is a Zionism of paralysis that places Israel’s fate in the Palestinians’ hands rather than in Israel’s. This is a very simple equation; if you believe that Israel must remain both Jewish and democratic, then the only way to get there is the two-state solution, and not coming up with creative ways to get there is an abrogation of responsibility. Shifting the discussion over to whether or not the Palestinians are prepared for peace is a nifty sleight of hand, since the rationale behind Israel’s presence in the West Bank is security and so the core of what needs to be done is to arrange for that security as best as Israel can. This has nothing to do with imposing a solution on Israel, and it has nothing to do with overturning the democratic will of Israeli voters. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s publicly stated position is that he supports the two-state solution under the right set of circumstances. Unless you think he is a willful and purposeful prevaricator, then well-researched and thought-out proposals that grapple with Israel’s genuine security challenges vis-à-vis the Palestinians and form the basis for discussions on how to arrive at right set of circumstances are precisely what we need right now.

I hope that everyone reads the plans once they are out next week, and that there is a vigorous debate on their details and feasibility. It is a much better use of everyone’s time and effort than debating an idea that nobody is actually proposing. The bottom line here is that if you believe that Israel can remain Jewish and democratic without two states, I’d love to hear how, and why you think that you know better than the elected government of Israel, which believes otherwise. If you grant that two states is a fundamental necessity, then ensuring Israel’s security is a necessary prior step before two states can happen. This initiative is designed to get to that spot, and how anyone who is pro-Israel finds this remotely controversial is puzzling to me.

How Do You Determine When The IDF Has Gone Too Far?

May 26, 2016 § 1 Comment

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as his defense minister has opened up all sorts of fault lines in Israeli politics, but perhaps none as important as the one between the government and the IDF. Outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was a career military man and a former IDF chief of staff who commanded the military’s complete respect, and anytime someone with that profile and background is replaced with a defense minister whose military qualifications are minimal at best, it will engender anger and resentment. More saliently though, the genesis of the contretemps between Netanyahu and Ya’alon that ultimately led to the latter’s ouster was Ya’alon’s unwavering support for the IDF against the criticism of Netanyahu and other cabinet members. Given that Ya’alon has been replaced essentially for not selling out the generals under his purview, civil-military relations in Israel right now are at a nadir.

Assessing the situation in the New York Times over the weekend, veteran Israeli military and intelligence reporter Ronen Bergman expressed sympathy for IDF officers, writing that in Israel, “politicians blatantly trample the state’s values and laws and seek belligerent solutions, while the chiefs of the Israel Defense Forces and the heads of the intelligence agencies try to calm and restrain them.” Bergman reported that the IDF leadership saw Netanyahu’s phone call to the family of Elor Azariah – the soldier who shot and killed the Palestinian terrorist lying on the ground in Hebron – as “gross defiance of the military’s authority” and that high ranking IDF officials have raised the possibility of a military coup “with a smile,” even if that scenario is highly unlikely. In response, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens forcefully defended Netanyahu and the political leadership, warning that when generals are comfortable publicly criticizing civilian political leaders, erosion of civilian control of the military will follow. Stephens further warned that a military that conceives of anything it says or does as impartially guarding the national interest is at odds with how democratic government operates.

Let’s stipulate from the outset that a military coup in Israel is not just highly unlikely, as Bergman posits, but preposterous, as Stephens writes. Israel has had democratic governance from day one of its existence, and while generals often enter politics in Israel and end up in the prime minister’s office – Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon are the most prominent examples – never have there even been any whispers of an IDF revolt against civilian government. But there are certainly ways that the military can erode the power and legitimacy of the elected politicians short of a coup. Speeches denouncing the government can be given, orders can be ignored, policy deliberations can be leaked in an effort to embarrass politicians and influence public opinion, and a myriad of other actions can be taken that are utilized by militaries all over the world – including in democracies – to sway elected officials.

It is evident that the IDF leadership is pretty actively engaged in Israeli politics at the moment. Both Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and his deputy Yair Golan have tried to influence military policy through public comments of one sort or another, and each time have been immediately attacked by members of the government and right-leaning MKs. That military leaders are speaking out is not unusual for Israel when you take into account the fact that the IDF and the wider security establishment are granted a large role in the policymaking process by design. Israel is a country with mandatory military service for most, it has fought too many wars for a country with such a short history, and it faces an unusually large array of threats, so military officers are accorded a measure of political deference. That politicians are viciously attacking them is unusual though, and while there is no need to extensively go back over ground I have previously covered, politicizing the military is a very bad trend. The military should be free to make its thoughts known on subjects that directly fall under its jurisdiction, such as rules of engagement and prosecuting its own for misconduct, and contrary to Stephens’ assertion, I haven’t yet seen an instance of the IDF “publicly telling off its civilian masters.” Seizing upon every utterance of an officer as an opportunity to score political points will only end badly.

Nevertheless, if Bergman is accurately relaying a military culture that even makes jokes about military coups because of Lieberman’s appointment, then there is a serious problem, even if the actual possibility of a coup is as close to non-existent as it can get. Democracy has to be taken seriously when you don’t get your way; after all, democracy works precisely for this very reason as it offers perpetual hope that the next election cycle will turn this vote’s losers into next vote’s winners. Israel’s Basic Law on the military is crystal clear that the IDF is subject to the authority of the government and that the minister in charge of the IDF is the defense minister, full stop. Once IDF officers stop treating this as an inviolable truth, then the entire system is at risk of breaking down. Vertical accountability and civilian control of the military are necessary components of democratic government, and that applies even when the civilian in charge is someone that you don’t like and is severely under-qualified for the post.

The trends on each side – politicians using the military as a political punching bag, and the military coming dangerously close to the line of callousness regarding civilian oversight – are terrible developments that need to be cut off at the pass, and potentially the greatest tragedy of Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister is that it exacerbates them both. Lieberman does not have the experience or the gravitas to prevent the military running roughshod over him, which is bad for democracy. On the other side of the equation, his very appointment indicates that the politicization of the IDF has only just begun, as the defense ministry is not one to be used as a blatant political tool. Civil-military relations is not an issue to be trifled with if a country’s political system is to remain healthy, so let’s hope that what is now just a spark does not become a conflagration that consumes everything in its path.

Your Handy Guide To Netanyahu’s Coalitional Maneuvering

May 19, 2016 § 1 Comment

On Tuesday, center-left opposition leader Isaac Herzog was set to become the new Israeli foreign minister after bringing the Zionist Union into a national unity government. On Wednesday, rightwing gadfly and Bibi Netanyahu frenemy Avigdor Lieberman was set to become the new defense minister while Herzog was consigned to losing his party’s leadership and his potential new cabinet post. Looking for answers to your questions about all of the political shenanigans? You’ve come to the right place.

Isn’t there supposed to be a new unity government?

Netanyahu and Herzog have reportedly been talking about bringing the Zionist Union into the coalition ever since the government was formed with the Zionist Union on the outside last spring, and these negotiations burst into the open in recent weeks. For Netanyahu, the appeal was primarily twofold. First, despite the fact that his 61 seat coalition does not have any huge ideological fissures, a government with a one seat majority is never a comfortable place from which to operate. Bringing in Herzog and the approximately fourteen Labor Party members from the Zionist Union faction that he would have brought along would give Netanyahu breathing space and not make every coalition member a potential hostage taker. Second, there is something of a perfect storm gathering on the horizon on the diplomatic front, with the French initiative, the forthcoming Quartet report that is expected to be harsh on Israeli settlements, the end of the Obama administration (bearing in mind that Clinton and Bush both made a renewed effort at Israeli-Palestinian peace on their way out the door), and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war all looming. Appointing Herzog as foreign minister would give Israel a friendlier face in Western capitals and offset some of the pressure that is hurtling down the road by signaling that Israel is more serious than assumed about finding a way to get to two states.

From Herzog’s perspective, he leads a party that has been plummeting in the polls, is completely ineffective in its opposition to the government, and he himself was facing massive discontent within the ranks. Entering into talks to join the government only sealed his inevitable demise within the Labor Party, as everyone from Zionist Union co-chief Tzipi Livni to Herzog’s predecessor Shelley Yachimovich to popular rising Labor star Stav Shaffir was opposed to joining the government. Indeed, Shaffir and other Labor members have now called for him to step down. Even if he were successful in joining the government, Herzog would have only brought a rump contingent with him. Nevertheless, if he was going to be ousted for ineffectiveness at some point, Herzog clearly believed that he may as well join the government as a top minister and also clearly believed in his ability to affect change from the inside. Not only did this make sense for him, it was the only way for him to maintain any real relevance. There was also the added wrinkle of Herzog mysteriously claiming earlier in the week that there was a secret regional diplomatic opportunity that might disappear if not immediately acted upon and that he was the man to make it happen, and then Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Tuesday offering warmer relations with Israel if it would reach a settlement with the Palestinians. Some saw this confluence of events as a bit too convenient, speculating that Netanyahu and Herzog had coordinated this with Sisi in order to pave the way for the unity government to happen.

So what happened?

Suddenly, everything turned on a dime, and it became apparent that Netanyahu had been using Herzog to instead entice Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu to join the coalition, a move that prompted Herzog to cut off talks on a unity government. Netanyahu and Lieberman have a long and tortured history, and after serving as foreign minister in the last government (with a corruption trial that forced him to temporarily step down from the post for a year), Lieberman decided to remain in the opposition after the last election and has been sniping at Netanyahu from the right ever since, accusing him of selling out the rightwing and not being a true nationalist or Zionist. It has been a smart political move for Lieberman, as Yisrael Beiteinu has six seats in the current Knesset and a poll released this week by the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv shows that going up to eleven, but ultimately Lieberman has always wanted power, and being in the government is the only way for him to do it. Becoming defense minister – particularly in the wake of the Hebron shooting and the Yair Golan speech and at a time when there is concern within the nationalist camp over the direction of the IDF – is perfect for Lieberman, and he will get to demonstrate that he is more hawkish than anyone else in Israeli politics while using the power of his post to protect the settlement enterprise

From Netanyahu’s angle, he gets to remove a thorn in his side and also shore up his own internal political position. There has been serious friction between him and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and major discontent within the Likud ranks over where Ya’alon’s priorities lie, and now Netanyahu gets to remove him and mollify the right by creating the most rightwing government that can be assembled. He also gets to neutralize the critiques coming from his biggest long-term threat, Naftali Bennett, by removing the basis for the charge that Netanyahu is not sufficiently attuned to the concerns of settlers or in step with the nationalist camp. Netanyahu also still gets to expand his coalition, but does so in a way that makes his base happy rather than making them think that he is selling out rightwing principles.

How can Netanyahu pursue Herzog and Lieberman at the same time? That’s like a voter who thinks that the economy is rigged supporting a billionaire who lives in an apartment made of gold and marble and whose success is based on borrowing money from banks based on family connections and his last name.

There are a couple rules of Bibi politics that you need to know to make sense of this. The first is that Netanyahu is constantly in search of room to maneuver, but don’t ever presume to know what he wants to do with that space. The smart take on Tuesday was that he needed the flexibility to deflect the pressure from the French and the Quartet and to take advantage of the regional overtures about which he is constantly boasting, but he then went and ignited a wildfire on his own lawn. There is literally no more inflammatory figure as defense minister than Lieberman, who is on record as wanting to execute the terrorists that Israel captures alive and keep in perpetuity the bodies of those they don’t. Any caution that Ya’alon has exercised in the West Bank, where the defense minister has final decision making power, is now going to dissipate overnight. Not only has Netanyahu decided not to deflect the diplomatic pressure, he has taken the move that will ramp it up to the highest possible level.

This segues into the second rule, which is that Netanyahu is always more worried about threats that come from his right than about threats that come from his left, and he will always guard his right flank irrespective of anything else that is going on. He perpetually faces the choice of going in a more moderate direction and mollifying the center and Israel’s allies, or tacking right and mollifying the rightwing, and he always chooses the same way. The surprise here is not that he played Herzog in order to reestablish his rightwing credentials, but that anyone thought that he would actually go through with it. In one fell swoop, Netanyahu has silenced Lieberman’s continuing criticism of the government, removed the specter of a hard right rebellion against Ya’alon that would have reverberated against him as well, cut off any discontent from the settler wing by ending talks with Herzog that might have led to measures curtailing settlement growth, and set himself up for the next election as the man who puts Zionism and nationalism first no matter what the rest of the world thinks. The threats that were massing against him on the far right are now largely – although not entirely – neutralized.

This is a long piece. Anything else we should be looking out for while you are in a talkative mood?

Yes, and thanks for asking. This whole thing is not as entirely straightforward as it seems, and there are some potential surprises and some potential pitfalls. It is important to know that during the Kerry negotiations two years ago, American officials found Lieberman during his time as foreign minister to actually be a helpful presence and willing interlocutor. Despite the fact that he is a hardliner on settlements and the Palestinians more generally, he seems to understand far better than Netanyahu that international opinion is not meaningless and that protecting the U.S.-Israel relationship is truly an existential issue. Amir Tibon’s excellent Tablet profile of Lieberman last May noted that he has surprisingly strong links throughout the Middle East and has promoted himself as the person to unite Israel and its Arab neighbors, and so while he is no longer foreign minister, the fact that there appear to be regional opportunities abounding as Lieberman returns to power is interesting.

On the domestic side, including Lieberman in the coalition will generally make Netanyahu’s Likud members happy, but it will infuriate the Haredi parties. They do not coexist well with Lieberman given the importance among his Russian constituency of breaking the Haredi monopoly of control over marriage and conversion, and it is bound to cause Netanyahu some serious unpleasantness.

This move also empowers Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid, who would have been the largest non-Likud vote getter in the next election anyway and who will now be the unquestionable de facto alternative to Netanyahu as the Labor infighting between Herzog and his adversaries destroys the party from within. This entire episode gives him a much larger megaphone, and he consequently may actually be able to present a serious electoral threat to Netanyahu the next time around.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, I predicted in December that civil-military relations were going to be potentially explosive in 2016, and with the tension between the IDF and the government over a range of issues, that has sadly been a topic that I got right. Replacing Ya’alon – a former IDF chief of staff and staunch defender of the military, which is what has prompted the tension between him and Netanyahu during the last couple of months – with Lieberman, who had a relatively undistinguished stint in an IDF artillery unit and has been attacking the military leadership over its values, is not going to improve this situation, to say the least. Netanyahu has made his choice, and I am afraid that it will mean a rocky period ahead on a number of fronts.

When To Say Yes To $3.7 Billion

May 12, 2016 § 2 Comments

Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) is always a good time to celebrate Israel’s accomplishments, which are numerous. One of the most important of those accomplishments is independence itself. I do not mean independence in the obvious sense of having an independent state, but in the sense of not being influenced or controlled by anyone else. Israelis – and Israel – famously go their own way, and this is often reflected in Israeli policy. Whether it was ultimately counterproductive or not, Israel fought tooth and nail against the Iran deal despite the views of its Western allies and well beyond the point when it was clear that the deal was a fait accompli. Israel has not hesitated to act in its own best interest in the face of global opposition, such as with the strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 or the development of its own nuclear program. It is difficult to look at Israeli security or domestic policy and view it as being influenced or controlled by other states or world opinion, both for the good and the bad.

Of course, Independence Day is also a good time to reflect on the ways in which Israel’s survival is guaranteed precisely because of its relationships with others, since no country – including global superpowers – can ever truly survive by going it alone. The most important of these is of course the relationship with the United States, and it too is something to be celebrated as an accomplishment. The U.S. has seen Israel through different prisms over nearly seven decades, from Harry Truman’s sense of supporting Israel as biblically mandated to Richard Nixon’s view of Israel as a bulwark against Communism in the Middle East to Bill Clinton’s deep affinity for and identification with Israeli values and spirit. That Israel has through all of this maintained and institutionalized the connection to the U.S. across all levels of government, fostered bonds between American and Israeli society, intertwined the American and Israeli economies, and built a relationship with the U.S. that has withstood many trials and bumps and remained not only resilient but one of the strongest bilateral partnerships that exists is remarkable (and if you think this all exists solely because of a shadowy and nefarious lobbying campaign, you have some serious blind spots, to put it charitably).

One of the hallmarks of this relationship is currently in danger, and it is the annual military assistance that the U.S. provides to Israel. The current aid package is a ten year agreement that was signed in August 2007 and provides $3 billion per year, which is about 20% of Israel’s annual defense spending. While some, including Naftali Bennett and Elliott Abrams, have cogently argued that it would be best for Israel if military aid was to be reduced or even eliminated entirely, needless to say the defense assistance is currently a vital component of Israel’s security and contingency planning, and ensures Israel’s military primacy in the Middle East. Aside from shoring up the U.S.’s key military ally in the world’s most turbulent region, another benefit to the U.S. from this aid package is that the bulk of the funds are spent at home, providing an important stimulus to the American economy. As the current MOU is about to expire, the U.S. and Israel have been negotiating the next one and have run into a number of snags. While the two sides appear to be apart over the issue of the overall number – Israel was initially seeking as much as $4.5 billion annually and the U.S. is reportedly holding the line at $3.7 billion – the actual hang-up is in the details. The current MOU allows Israel to spend 26.3% of the funds on Israeli-made equipment rather than spending the entirety in the U.S., which is not a component of U.S. military assistance to any other country, and it also allows Israel to spend $400 million per year on gasoline. Reuters reported last week that the U.S. wants to eliminate both of these clauses going forward, and Israel so far has been reluctant to agree to these terms, arguing that to remove the nearly $800 million that is spent annually on the Israeli defense industry will fatally cripple it.

I have already made apparent my view that refusing to negotiate on the military aid package during the Iran deal debate, when Israel still had some leverage, was an epic strategic blunder on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s part, so there is no need to rehash the point. What is taking place now is also a bad misreading of the political environment, and Israel is again making a critical mistake. The reason for the 26.3% carve out in the last MOU was to give the Israeli defense industry a boost, as Israel has always viewed a strong homegrown defense technology and manufacturing sector as critical to Israeli security. The boost worked well; so well, in fact, that U.S. arms manufacturers are now competing with Israeli ones in the market for advanced weapons, particularly when it comes to drones and other aerial technology. It is now an election year in the U.S., at a time when people are worried about the uneven economic recovery and particularly about manufacturing jobs. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have both injected an enormous dose of economic populism into the national conversation, not to mention Trump’s ugly “America First” nationalism. Israel is already requesting a substantial increase in military assistance at a time when budget sequestration is still in effect in the U.S. and its own defense spending is being cut back. This seems like a particularly bad time to make a stand against American negotiators and members of Congress over an issue that will affect U.S. jobs, especially when it involves an industry where Israeli companies and American companies are directly competing. Imagine trying to convince a Republican congressman in Texas or South Carolina or Georgia that it is more important to maintain the 26.3% exception than it is to save jobs in his or her district, and you’ll see the limits of pro-Israel advocacy firsthand. This is also not an issue that will go away once the White House changes hands, as the fundamental disagreement here is not going to evaporate. It is entirely appropriate for Israel to make the case for higher levels of aid given the changed strategic regional environment it faces since the last agreement was negotiated, and this is particularly true when it comes to missile defense. The 26.3% carve out is, however, not quite as defensible, and Israel should not view it as a core benefit that is being taken away but as an added bonus that it enjoyed during a different economic era.

Israel’s security is not an issue that can be compromised. Were I advising the Israeli government, I would urge it to smile and say thank you to the American government for the generous and unprecedented offer on the table, and to find other ways to prop up Israeli defense firms. Whatever the final package turns out to be, make sure that it lives up to Israel’s security needs, and don’t spurn an offer hoping that a better one is around the corner. That mistake happened once before. It shouldn’t be repeated.

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