Paying the Piper

December 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Israeli government this week is debating making two sets of extraordinary payments to different groups. Both payments are in some part necessary, but the story they tell about Israel is not a hopeful one. Indeed, they are an encapsulation of why so many, both inside Israel and out, harbor immense frustration with Israel’s political leadership.

The first set of payments is in response to the fires that ravaged Haifa, Zichron Yaakov, and other pockets of Israel over the past week. The initial suspicion was that the primary cause of the fires was arson, and the Israeli government arrested thirty five suspects, a majority of whom were Arab citizens of Israel. Deliberately torching homes and forests for nationalist motives can certainly be considered terrorism, and the government moved quickly to treat it as such, with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan calling to demolish perpetrators’ homes and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri floating the idea that arsonists’ Israeli citizenship should be revoked. Of more immediate consequence, a number of ministers and MKs called for the government to compensate everyone whose homes and belongings were damaged by the fires, and the Israel Tax Authority on Tuesday ruled that the fires were universally the result of arson. The reason this is important is that the state only has to compensate citizens who suffered financial losses as a result of terrorism; if you lost your home due to wildfires, such as the ones that ravaged the Carmel forest in 2010, then you are covered by private insurance and not entitled to complete restitution from the state. In this case, despite the fact that the Fire and Rescue Authority deemed only 25 of the 1,773 fires to be arson and the Israeli police initially believe that the fires in Haifa – where the most damage occurred – were not arson-related, by moving to cover all losses the government is creating a narrative of Israel under assault from a terrorist fire intifada.

My objection to this is not because I have any desire to see Israelis who lost their homes in a terrible fire be abandoned by the state. It is also not because I think criminal arsonists acting out of nationalist motives are in any way justified or are anything but terrorists. It is because there is another and far more accurate story to tell here, and it is one that does not paint a picture of Israeli society breaking apart because Jews cannot trust Arabs not to burn their country to the ground. Leaving aside the fact that it now appears that deliberate arson was a drop in the bucket compared to weather and environmental factors, the real story of these fires is the cooperation that ensued between Israel and its neighbors and between different segments of Israeli society. The dominant theme is Jews and Arabs helping each other out, rather than Jews and Arabs at each other’s throats. The Palestinian Authority sent eight fire trucks and forty four firefighters to help bring the fires under control, prompting a thank you call from Prime Minister Netanyahu to President Abbas. Even more encouragingly, firefighters from Ramallah helped put out the fires in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, rather than limiting their assistance to fires inside the Green Line. Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey all sent personnel or equipment. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs crossed community lines to host their fellow citizens in their homes, regardless of religion or politics. Yes, there was deliberate arson. Yes, many people on social media were celebrating Jews being burned. These things should not be papered over as if they are irrelevant. But by rushing to declare the entirety of the fires as a terrorist attack that requires the state to compensate every effected Israeli, the government is elevating the smallest and most unsavory part of the story and making sure that it subsumes the far larger and more important part. Rather than seizing on hope, the government is seizing on fear, and guaranteeing that the 2016 fires will be remembered as the latest example of terrorism rather than as an encouraging example of true partnership and cooperation.

The second set of payments being debated this week involves another group that has been deliberately wronged, and in this case as well the government is rushing to pay compensation to people who should never have to be compensated. Despite the fact that Moshe Kahlon’s opposition temporarily derailed it yesterday, the bill to retroactively legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land and pay compensation to the Palestinian landowners is still moving forward, and will only be stopped by a High Court ruling or Netanyahu suddenly developing some political and moral courage on this issue. There is no question that if the government manages to legalize what is blatantly and indisputably illegal that the Palestinians affected need to be fairly compensated. But nobody should celebrate not stiffing the landowners outright as an example of Israeli justice or fair play. The juxtaposition of Israeli MKs who think that it is fine to take revenge on Palestinians who have rendered land uninhabitable for Jews – such as Oren Hazan, who actually held up a lighter in the Knesset and demanded “an eye for an eye” – against the majority of MKs who think that it is fine to render land uninhabitable for Palestinians by illegally taking it and then just paying for it afterwards is particularly jarring.

If the government is so intent on paying people to vacate land in the West Bank, it should move the settlers in places like Amona – who were encouraged by the government to go there and were led to believe that they would never have to pick up and leave – and compensate them for their detrimental reliance on explicit and implicit promises made by successive Israeli governments. Much like the compensation for people who lost everything to wildfires and arson, the government thinks that compensating Palestinians who lost their land puts Israel in a positive light when in fact it does the opposite. Rather than instill faith that the Israeli government will do the right thing, it instills faith that the Israeli government will take a bad situation and somehow make it even worse.

Bibi’s Trump Dilemma

November 18, 2016 § 1 Comment

Natan Sachs and I argue today in Foreign Affairs that despite the jubilation on the Israeli right at Trump’s election, it actually creates some real political problems for Bibi Netanyahu.

On November 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated President-elect Donald Trump through a video message, in which the Israeli leader could barely contain his giddiness at the prospect of a friendlier White House. The ruling Israeli right-wing coalition, which sees Trump as a potential champion of Greater Israel, believes that the United States’ next president will finally remove any outside constraints on settlement construction in the West Bank or the legalization of already existing settlements built without governmental approval. Settlement-friendly politicians in Israel are already working hard on such moves; on Wednesday, a bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land passed its first reading in the Knesset, despite the objections of the attorney general and a near certain rejection by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Some in Israel even view the next four years as an opportunity to annex the West Bank outright. This is a “tremendous opportunity to announce a renunciation of the idea of founding a Palestinian state in the heart of the land,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, stated. “The era of the Palestinian state is over.”

It’s not clear what Trump will do, of course, nor whether he even knows his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the campaign, he initially said that he would like to remain a “neutral guy”—a contrast to decades of U.S. policy that his tilted toward Israel—but he later shifted to a more traditional pro-Israel stance. To the delight of the Israeli right, the Republican platform omitted any mention of a two-state solution. And since the election, the co-chairs of Trump’s Israel advisory committee have reiterated controversial statements about Trump moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. They’ve also said that Trump does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace. At the same time, Trump himself told The Wall Street Journal of his desire to close the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. “As a dealmaker, I’d like to do … the deal that can’t be made,” he said. “And do it for humanity’s sake.”

Despite the myriad conflicting signals, it is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu will now have a freer hand to implement the policies he desires with regard to settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. Politically speaking, he may no longer have to run the gauntlet between a coalition that demands more building in the West Bank and a White House that insists on less.

But Netanyahu may soon find out that he needs to be careful with what he wishes for. Freedom from U.S. pressure would be a mixed blessing. Rather than solving his problems, it could cost him his political leverage, his ability to play two-level games.

Head over to Foreign Affairs to read the rest of the piece.

Trump and the Virtues of Israeli Caution

November 17, 2016 § 2 Comments

The Israeli right has embraced Donald Trump’s election as if the country has been granted a new lease on life. Naftali Bennett has declared the end of the era of the Palestinian state and shared his view that Trump’s election is an opportunity to restructure the entire region. Ofir Akunis has called for a new round of settlement construction. Yoav Kish has said that it is time to stop talking about two states. In general, there is a mood of exhilaration on the right driven by a sense that come January 20, President Trump will give Israel leeway to anything it pleases.

For a government that has been frustrated by President Obama for eight years, it is easy to understand the temptation to throw caution to the wind and move full steam ahead on settlement building and creating a new paradigm vis-à-vis the Palestinians. If yesterday’s preliminary approval of the bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land is an indication of what’s to come, Israel is about to embark on a path that eliminates any ambiguity about its intentions. The government of Israel has every right to do what it pleases, of course. But doing so would be an enormous mistake. Taking a myopic approach and racking up as many short term wins as possible before the winds shift will only harm Israel in the long term, and would be a continuation of allowing tactics to win out over strategy.

For starters, assuming that Trump does indeed give Israel an unencumbered hand to deal with the West Bank and the Palestinians (more on this assumption in a moment), the United States is not the only relevant actor in this drama. Israel has spent years fending off sanctions from Europe over settlement activity, and the labeling controversy of earlier this year will seem like child’s play compared to what will come if Israel does indeed annex part of the West Bank. Israel has touted its improving ties with Sunni Arab states, but as tenuous as these relationships already are, they will disappear completely if Israel is viewed as destroying any chances of Palestinian sovereignty once and for all. Russia, which has enormous leverage over Israel at the moment given its role in Syria and its willingness to look the other way when Israel targets Hizballah weapons shipments, is also unlikely to respond well to Israel formally ending a two-state policy. In short, while any American administration will always be Israel’s top concern, it is never the only one.

And even if it were, the fact is that nobody – neither in Israel nor here – actually has any concrete idea what a Trump administration’s Israel policy will be. The panoply of conflicting signals and statements from Trump and his advisers on topics such as the wisdom of pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, whether the American embassy will be moved to Jerusalem, or if Israel is at fault for the current impasse or if it is only the Palestinians, means that predictions about what Trump will support or tolerate are speculative at best. While I’d say that he will take more rightwing positions on Israel were I forced to bet, I also think it is safe to say that he does not have deeply held ideological beliefs on the subject. If, for instance, Trump wants to get Sunni buy-in on a Syria policy that effectively strengthens Iran and the price in return is cracking down on Israeli building over the Green Line (an unlikely but not impossible scenario), is anyone confident that he won’t sacrifice his Israel policy for a more pressing regional priority? If Israel commits itself to a policy in the West Bank that is even more encouraging of building anywhere and everywhere – or moves toward outright annexation – on the assumption that Trump will not pose an obstacle, it may find itself in a deep hole with no way out. Avigdor Lieberman seems to recognize the potential danger, urging his government to strike a deal with Trump that allows building inside the blocs while freezing it everywhere else rather than build everywhere with abandon, but there is no indication that any other coalition members have the same presence of mind.

Just as there is no way of knowing what comes with Trump, there is no way of knowing what comes after Trump. Given the radical departure that President Obama represented from the Bush era, and the radical departure that President-elect Trump represents from the Obama era, and the seemingly permanent hunger of the American electorate for change from whatever currently reigns in Washington, it is reasonable to assume that the 46th president will have very different views from the 45th. If Israel builds so much in the West Bank over the next four – or possibly eight – years to destroy any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state, it might find itself under fire from the next president from day one. Shutting off the possibility of changing course when there is a new administration is foolhardy.

Then there’s the inconvenient fact that the majority of American Jews are rigidly opposed to Trump, and it creates an awkward situation if the Israeli government treats Trump as its long-awaited savior when most American Jews view him with extreme distaste. This is not to say that Israel should exhibit any disdain for Trump; it must have the best relationship with any U.S. president that it can. But there is a difference between staying on Trump’s good side and anointing him as the second coming of Cyrus the Great. If Israel cares a lick about the opinions of the 76% of American Jews who did not vote for Trump and views American Jews as an important national security asset for Israel, it will not embrace Trump in a bear hug.

Were I the Israeli prime minister, I would use Trump’s ascent to the presidency as an opportunity to reset the foundation of the relationship with my most important and only irreplaceable ally. The Netanyahu government should make the most out of the fact that there will certainly be less public conflict and disagreement with Trump than there has been with Obama to reinforce how valuable Israel is as an intelligence and military partner, and to reinforce to American Jews that the U.S.-Israel alliance rests on democratic values and ideological affinity above all else. Seizing on Trump’s willingness to look the other way on settlements and thus plowing ahead with a narrow domestic political agenda will be squandering a larger space to think strategically about Israel’s geostrategic position, and will inevitably lead to negative consequences down the road.

Nobody should be naïve about what is likely to happen next. Talking about two states, the peace process, and a resumption of negotiations as remotely imminent given the two governments about to be in place borders on delusion. It is also important to note that this is not solely a Trump-related phenomenon; measures such as the Amona-related settlement legalization bill, despite the Washington Post’s strange framing of it as being spurred directly by the election, have been in the works for months. This does not mean giving up making the case again and again for why two states are necessary, but expectations have to be properly calibrated. Nevertheless, the Israeli government should think long and hard before taking the plunge toward using a Trump presidency to kill two states for good. Things that seem too good to be true almost always are.

A Western Wall For All

November 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

When I was fifteen, my family went to Israel for Passover in order to celebrate my younger brother’s bar mitzvah, and like many bar mitzvah-celebrating American families in Israel, we did it at the Western Wall. While walking toward the plaza next to a secular Israeli relative a couple of decades my senior, I asked him when he had last been to the Western Wall. I could barely comprehend it when he told me that this was his first time, and that he had never had any interest in visiting the site because he had no emotional or religious reason to do so. I was then bowled over when this same leftwing Tel Aviv-dwelling secular Israeli artist cousin immediately expressed his unalloyed view (during the very height of the debate over the Oslo process) that sovereignty over the Temple Mount could never be ceded to any other country or group because the site represented the core of Israeli identity. Here I was, an American Jewish teenager who had been brought up to revere the Western Wall for its religious significance and spiritual power and viewed praying there as a holy obligation but had never considered it in any way as a political symbol, and my Israeli cousin cared so little about the Wall’s religious significance that he had never even bothered to see it in person but was adamant that Israel must always control its environs. The ways we related to the Western Wall were about as far apart as they could be, and that anyone could view the site in the way he did was something that I had never considered or even encountered.

I recount this story in light of yesterday’s clash at the Western Wall between activists seeking to make the site more religiously pluralistic and (mostly) ultra-Orthodox worshippers seeking to maintain the site’s Orthodox status quo. It is helpful to me in framing and understanding the enormous gap that appears to exist between American and Israeli Jews over the importance of this issue, and the reactions by some on the left to whether the energy that liberal American and Israeli Jews are expending on this issue wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere on what they view as more pressing human rights violations.

The twin Pew surveys of American and Israeli Jews highlighted a number of clear distinctions between the two communities, with the most glaring one being that Americans view their Judaism as being more culturally universal and Israelis view theirs as being more religiously particularistic. This explains why despite the fact that Women of the Wall and the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel are the groups at the vanguard of religious pluralism at the Western Wall, this issue has been embraced far more strongly and widely by Diaspora Jews than by Israelis. Israelis, whether religious or secular, view Judaism through a more traditional religious lens that leads them to see religious observance as the Orthodox path, whether or not they are Orthodox. My secular Israeli cousin could not have been more indifferent to the Wall’s religious value and saw it as a political and nationalist symbol instead, but the fact that prayer there is regulated according to Orthodox custom also did not seem to bother him at all. The thorough dominance of traditional Orthodox Judaism over religion in Israel means that most Israelis do not see anything irregular about treating religion traditionally. This is particularly the case when it comes to purely religious activities, such as prayer, versus areas like marriage and divorce that are governed by religious law and custom despite being social institutions.

Speaking at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto in September, the prominent American-Israeli writer and public intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi took exception with the American Jewish community for its support of the Iran deal. Speaking of his feelings in the aftermath of the agreement, Halevi said, “I wasn’t disappointed in the administration, I was disappointed in the American Jewish community. I felt deeply let down. Ninety percent of Israelis, according to polls, opposed that deal. For many of us, this was an existential threat. And I always felt that at an existential moment, for all of the differences between us, I could depend on the American Jewry….And the American Jewish community as a whole, I feel let down by them.” For many American Jews, the lack of religious pluralism in Israel – perfectly encapsulated by the government not implementing an agreement from January that creates a completely separate pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall – is a source of equivalent disappointment. Given the enormous premium placed on support for Israel in American Jewish synagogues, communities, and institutions, American Jews see the rejection of their Jewish observance and the denial of their religious rights at the Western Wall as a devastating insight into how the Israeli government views them, and exhortations for them to be more patient or to express their hurt more quietly add insult to injury. Very few people in the Israeli government understand what a big deal it is and just how much it imperils support from the overwhelming majority of American Jews who do not pray or observe in the Orthodox tradition, and who are not accustomed to being told that they must simply acquiesce to the situation. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rebuke of American Jewish leaders and his appeals to the maintenance of a religious status quo to which they never agreed or accepted is as tone deaf and short-sighted as it comes, ignoring Israel’s critical need for Diaspora Jewish support in order to lock in some illusory domestic political gains by mollifying his Haredi coalition partners.

Of course, it is not only those on the traditional right who don’t grasp what the fuss is about. Many prominent and well-known liberal Israeli activists and writers took to social media yesterday to question why those on the left are wasting their time and effort on the Western Wall issue when the far graver human rights violations against Palestinians must be battled. The irony here is that it is the same argument that many on the right use against anyone who criticizes Israel, since there are always other countries that act far worse and commit actual genocidal atrocities; after all, spending time highlighting Israel’s misbehavior when Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons and barrel bombs on his own people right next door seems like gravely misdirected energy. The obvious response to this is that humans are thankfully pretty capable beings who can focus on more than one thing at one time, but the deeper reason is that people tend to get worked about the things that are meaningful to them. I spill far more critical ink on Israeli illegal outposts than I do on Iranian executions of dissidents because Israel is much closer to my heart and has a special emotional and cultural resonance for me that is central to who I am. Similarly, for American Jews who view their Judaism not simply as an expression of universal values but as an expression of their religion, the discrimination at the Western Wall is as important as any other issue because it strikes directly at the core of their identity. Criticizing activists fighting for the Western Wall because they should instead be fighting separation walls misunderstands the fundamental thinking motivating those whose animating liberal passion is a more pluralistic Judaism in the Jewish state.

Like my cousin who didn’t see why he should pay the Western Wall any heed, these critics find it hard to see why this is a pressing civil rights issue. But if they don’t do a better job of understanding why this is important to American Jews, they will be sorely disappointed when American Jews become less receptive to the issues important to them.

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.

The Legacy of Shimon Peres

September 28, 2016 § 7 Comments

Unlike many authors of his obituaries this week, I did not know Shimon Peres. I met him briefly a couple of times, where I heard him extol the virtues of being a dreamer and admired the way he was able to churn out pithy and poignant aphorisms, but I don’t have any personal stories about him or particularly meaningful encounters to relate. Nevertheless, I have always found him inspiring because he is the personification of one of the most important lessons for being successful in life, which is how to overcome failure.

Shimon Peres was good at many things, but his chosen profession was not one of them. Unlike many of Israel’s founding fathers, he did not have an illustrious or decorated military career and chose much earlier to go the political route, but he was, at best, a middling politician. He failed in his early jousts with Yitzhak Rabin to become party leader of HaMa’arakh (Labor’s predecessor), only succeeding in taking over the party when Rabin had to resign as prime minister and party leader because of his wife’s foreign bank account. He then immediately presided over his party’s first electoral defeat in Israel’s existence following 29 years of uninterrupted rule, losing to Menachem Begin and Likud in 1977 and setting off a new era of rightwing dominance that continues to this day. He lost the next election in 1981 as well, and finally won an election in 1984 only to fail at putting together a coalition and being forced into a power sharing arrangement with Likud and Yitzhak Shamir in which they rotated the offices of prime minister and foreign minister. When Peres lost the 1988 election, he agreed to form a unity government with Shamir once again, but without being able to extract the same concession for a prime ministerial rotation that Shamir had been able to extract from him. After Rabin’s tragic assassination, Peres served as acting prime minister for seven months until he promptly lost the first post-Rabin election to Bibi Netanyahu, an election that arguably should not have even been close but was lost partially as a result of Peres’s poor political instincts. The next time he ran for office was in 2000 when he stood for president, an election in the Knesset that everyone predicted he would win handily but which he lost to the undistinguished future convicted felon Moshe Katzav, thereby becoming both the first candidate for prime minister and the first candidate for president to ever lose to a Likud opponent. Peres won the presidency in 2007 on his second try, marking his first unambiguous electoral victory for high national office, although it was not an embrace from Israeli voters but one from the 120 Knesset members who vote for president.

Why am I inconsiderately recounting this embarrassing history of the last member of the state’s founding generation before he has even been buried? Because to me, the greatness of Shimon Peres stems precisely from this embarrassing history. Peres is being feted as an Israeli hero, as someone who was responsible for more Israeli military and diplomatic achievements than any other figure, as the high prophet of Israeli technology and ingenuity, and as the ultimate striver to realize his otherworldly vision of Israel at peace with its Palestinian neighbor. Yet, Peres never won an outright election to be prime minister. He was not, until his last decade, truly loved or embraced by the Israeli public. He was continually overshadowed by his rival Rabin. But rather than become the Adlai Stevenson of Israel, he became the Shimon Peres of Israel. He understood that failure was something that you overcome rather than something that defines you. He took whatever situation he was in and elevated it to something sublime and heretofore unimaginable. Has there ever been a more tireless or successful foreign minister? Is there anyone else who could have taken the completely ceremonial and entirely ignored position of Israeli president and transformed it into the bully pulpit and clarion voice of moral order that it has now become? By all rights, Peres should have disappeared from Israel’s political scene decades ago, yet the more time went on and the more electoral losses he racked up, the more influential and visionary he became.

Peres did not only rebound from failures. Equally important, he learned from them, and did not allow them to constrict him going forward. Many will note in the coming days the contradictions of Shimon Peres and his legacy; how he was derided by the military establishment despite being the most important figure in Israel’s acquisition of military assets and weapons in the state’s first decade and the godfather of its nuclear arsenal, or how he was lauded as a peacemaker despite being an early and effective champion of settlements, or how the world sees him as the face of Israel despite his being a non-sabra, suit wearing, European accented Hebrew speaker. But these contradictions were another key to his success, because when he was wrong or when something did not work, he was able to pivot and embrace something else. It is true that he was a hawk for most of his life, but he was a dove when it mattered. It is true that he encouraged the settlement enterprise and protected settlements as defense minister, but he was able to see how that policy would lead to Israel’s destruction and came to advocate for a Palestinian state. It is true that he spent years championing the concept of economic peace, but he eventually saw that it would never be sufficient without addressing the political aspect as well. Peres will go down as one of history’s greatest dreamers, but he was able to dream big because he was willing to stand on the rubble of his own previous failures of imagination.

The last giant of Israel’s founding generation is now gone. Shimon Peres’s death marks a new era for the Jewish state, whether Israel is ready for it or not. Peres’s death leaves a gaping hole and his legacy is overwhelming. May his memory be for an eternal blessing, and may Israel always embrace his ethos of never giving in to failure, elevating the mundane into the lofty, and constantly pushing against the limits of what appears possible.

Scenes From The U.S.-Israel Funhouse

September 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

During the raging debate over the Iran deal in the spring and summer of 2015, there was an illuminating ancillary dispute over whether supporting the agreement meant forfeiting the right to describe oneself as pro-Israel. It reached a crux with Jeffrey Goldberg’s question posed on Twitter as to whether J Street could support the deal and still call itself pro-Israel when the Israeli prime minister and opposition leader both opposed it, and Peter Beinart’s response that supporting a country means supporting a vision of its interests irrespective of whether the country’s leaders or people share that same vision. That debate has become relevant once again this week in the U.S.-Israel sphere, but this time the challenge is not for those on the left but for those on the right.

The new ten year, $38 billion defense assistance Memorandum of Understanding  (MOU) between the U.S. and Israel was negotiated by the two governments for close to a year, and finally signed last week. It commits the U.S. to grant Israel $3.8 billion per year for a decade to purchase weapons and missile defense systems, and is notable when compared to the last ten year MOU for a few reasons. The total dollar value is larger by $8 billion and it includes annual funds for missile defense, which until now have been covered by Israeli supplemental requests on a need basis, but it also prevents Israel from returning to Congress for additional funds outside of emergency situations and phases in a requirement for Israel to spend all of the aid on American weapons rather than converting 26.3% into shekels as the previous agreement allowed. More unusually, as part of the agreement Israel has signed a letter pledging to return any aid money appropriated by Congress above what is laid out in the MOU. Even though the package is not perfect from Israel’s perspective, the new aid arrangement is not only supported by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who blasted critics of the deal as not being sufficiently grateful to the U.S., but was negotiated by his government and signed now over the objections of those who thought he should wait until the next administration.

Nevertheless, some prominent pro-Israel figures do not support the defense aid package. Senator Lindsey Graham, after failing in his attempt to prevent the U.S. and Israel from signing the MOU, appeared to be angriest not at President Obama for allegedly short-shifting Israel but at Netanyahu himself. Graham expressed his frustration at Israel for agreeing to sign a deal that, in his view, betrayed Israel’s friends in Congress, saying, “Here is what I would tell Bibi: When members of Congress come to Israel, you do a great job talking about the State of Israel’s needs and threats. Well, don’t tell us about all those needs and when we try to help you, you pull the rug from under us. I think that is bad for Israel.” Reinforcing the point, Graham added, “I am going to push back. We will see what Bibi does. But I will tell you right now, from my point of view, the prime minister has made a mistake here.”

Then on Tuesday, Graham doubled down, holding a press conference with Senators McCain, Ayotte, and Cruz, in which he announced a bill granting Israel an additional $1.5 billion over the $38 billion in the MOU, overturning the provision requiring Israel to spend all of the aid on U.S. weapons rather than allowing Israel to spend some of the aid at home, and objecting to Israel’s letter pledging to return any extra money appropriated by Congress. This now sets up a dynamic in which Graham and other senators are promising to torpedo an arrangement that was negotiated and agreed to by the Israeli government, as opposed to promising to torpedo a unilateral initiative from the White House that they don’t like. They do not believe that this MOU is in Israel’s best interests and they insist that they have a better sense of those interests than the Israeli government, which in their view is being coerced into signing an unfavorable agreement.

Despite Graham’s objections, it is not difficult to ascertain Netanyahu’s thinking on this issue. There is symbolism to Israel getting the largest aid package in U.S. history from a Democratic president tarred by so many as being anti-Israel when bipartisan support for Israel is being threatened, and Netanyahu clearly is enamored of the message that this sends. It also seems evident that Netanyahu wanted to have this MOU done before the next administration takes office given the uncertainty a new president will bring, and that locking the assistance in now was preferable to rolling the dice on who or what may come next. There are also the optics of Israel not wanting to appear ungrateful or overly greedy, which would endanger future assistance and public support for Israel in the U.S.; indeed, the New York Times editorial board last week questioned the deal as negotiated, let alone Graham’s wish for it to be bigger, wondering “whether the ever-increasing aid levels make sense, especially in the face of America’s other pressing domestic and overseas obligations.” So for all of these and undoubtedly other reasons as well, Netanyahu decided that it was in Israel’s best interest to agree to this deal, even with the provisions ruling out additional aid and eliminating the subsidy to Israel’s domestic defense industry.

Yet Graham doesn’t agree. In his words, Israel’s prime minister has made a mistake and he has promised to push back against Netanyahu’s decision because he has a different vision of what Israel should do. The argument is eerily reminiscent of the one made by the Obama administration on pushing Israel with regard to the Palestinians and two states, that true friends don’t let friends drive drunk and that the White House is seeking to help Israel avoid the consequences of its own poor decisions. So to paraphrase Goldberg’s question about the Iran deal, can a group of senators oppose the defense assistance MOU despite its support from Israel’s prime minister, defense minister, military chief of staff, and security establishment and still call themselves pro-Israel? Does Israel get to determine what is in its own best interests, or does a group of Americans who would like to see the democratically elected Israeli government pursue policies other than the ones that it has adopted? As someone who often disagrees with Israeli policies and will never cede my pro-Israel bona fides to anyone, my own answer to this question should be obvious. But keep this episode in mind the next time someone asserts that to be pro-Israel means to support every policy adopted by the Israeli government irrespective of your own assessment about how best to protect Israel as a secure Jewish and democratic state.

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