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.
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.
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.
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.
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.