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.

Your Guide to Settlements and Ethnic Cleansing

September 13, 2016 § 6 Comments

Prime Minister Netanyahu stirred up a cocktail of controversy on Friday when his latest attempt at creating a viral video did not get the reception he anticipated. In the two minute clip, Netanyahu opened by saying he was perplexed by the charge that “Jewish communities” in the West Bank are an obstacle to peace since it is clear that Arabs living inside Israel are not an obstacle to peace. He then alleged that the sole precondition the Palestinian leadership has demanded for a future state is that it be free of Jews, which he said is an example of ethnic cleansing. He went on to criticize this demand as outrageous, criticize the world community for not finding this outrage to be outrageous, and firmly state that those who say that Jews cannot live somewhere should think through the implications. Since the video has provoked responses all over the map from the right, the left, the Israeli opposition, and the U.S. government, here is your concise and handy guide to Jews in the West Bank, ethnic cleansing, and what Netanyahu is up to.

Netanyahu is right. It is outrageous that a future Palestinian state won’t allow any Jews to live in the West Bank! Yes, it would be if that were the case. If an independent Palestine forced out all of its Jews and barred any Jews from living there, it would certainly be a textbook case of ethnic cleansing, and there is no defensible argument to construct such a policy.

What do you mean, “if that were the case” – haven’t Palestinian leaders said there will be no Jews allowed? Nope. Netanyahu was in all likelihood referring to Mahmoud Abbas’s statement in 2013 that he would not accept the “the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands” in the aftermath of an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement. As Matt Duss helpfully points out, PLO leaders have explicitly said that Jews are welcome to live in a Palestinian state while categorically ruling out Israelis living in settlements where they maintain their Israeli citizenship. To put this into some perspective, this would be like a presidential candidate saying that Syrian Muslims are welcome to come and live in the U.S. so long as they are not living in extra-territorial enclaves that are sovereign Syrian territory and they are subject to the laws and authority of the U.S. Makes sense, right? A presidential candidate would be on much shakier and more discriminatory ground if he, say, I don’t know, ruled out all Syrian Muslims entirely just because they are Syrian Muslims. Now, it is certainly possible – and even likely – that there are members of the Palestinian leadership who have said they would bar all Jews, Israeli citizens or not. Given the way that the Old City of Jerusalem was administered while under Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967, or the calls from various quarters to ban Jews from the Temple Mount entirely today, there is certainly some precedent that warrants suspicion. But given the public record of Abbas’s comments, it is clear that he was referring to Israelis living in Palestine as Israeli citizens under Israeli sovereignty. So much like Netanyahu’s rhetorical excess back in October regarding Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Holocaust, once again his imprecision with pesky little details has cost him some credibility.

So it comes back to settlements? Indeed it does. Note Netanyahu’s rhetorical sleight of hand in the video, where he begins by talking about Jewish communities in the West Bank, and then pivots to talking about Jews writ large. It is one thing for Israel to absorb the large settlements blocs into Israel proper once an agreement is signed, but it is quite another for Israel to maintain settlements that are in Palestinian state territory, that are only open to residents who are Jewish, and that are Israeli sovereign territory guarded by Israeli soldiers. That is what Netanyahu was actually arguing for in the video and positing that there is no reason that such an arrangement should be an obstacle to peace, when the reality is that describing it for what it actually is, as I have above, demonstrates precisely what an enormous problem it is. If Palestinians who before 1948 lived in territory that is now part of Israel wanted to come back and live in their old houses but as Palestinian citizens subject to the law and authority of the government of Palestine, they’d be dismissed out of hand, and rightly so. Once a permanent status agreement is signed, the Israeli government should make every conceivable effort to persuade settlers to relocate to Israel and provide compensation for them to do so, which will likely result in the evacuation of the overwhelming majority of settlers. Any settler who greets the IDF with violent resistance should be arrested and immediately moved out of the West Bank. But any peaceful, law-abiding settler who is willing to renounce Israeli citizenship and wants to remain in his or her home should absolutely be allowed to do so, but only as citizens of Palestine under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian government. In other words, settlers are fine; settlements are not.

So why would Netanyahu put out a video like that? This brings us to the essence of Netanyahu, which is that he subsumes all policy goals to political ones. There is a reason that Netanyahu has provoked the wrath and scorn of nearly every general and intelligence chief who has served under him. Why negotiate a new defense package when you have maximum leverage when you can instead shore up your rightwing base at home by giving a speech before Congress instead? Why keep an extremely competent and respected and supremely qualified defense minister during the midst of a wave of violence – and following an Iran deal that you say has put Israel at greater risk – when you can enlarge your coalition and neutralize an ultranationalist foe by making him defense minister despite a pitiful lack of qualifications? In this case, Netanyahu was coming off the debacle of shutting down train repairs on Shabbat in order to mollify his Haredi coalition partners and then having the public squarely blame him for putting politics ahead of soldiers trying to get home for the weekend, and then facing down polls that show Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party besting Netanyahu and Likud were an election to be held now. On top of that, the polls show Likud losing ground to its farther right coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi. In this instance, the obvious move for Netanyahu was to say something controversial that would fire up the rightwing base, provoke rebukes abroad, and thus benefit Netanyahu even further as he rails against foreign interference and vows to stand up to those who would smear Israel and try to discriminate against Jews. I’d be surprised if Netanyahu anticipated quite the depth of the pushback that he would face, but this is all part of his domestic political calculations.

So in conclusion, I agree 100% with the principle that Netanyahu espoused, namely that it is outrageous bigotry to prevent Jews from living in the West Bank. Unfortunately, in this instance Netanyahu was not speaking theoretically, and everyone should see through the smokescreen that he constructed in order to use anti-Semitism as a cover in defending settlements.

Opining On Outposts

September 8, 2016 § 2 Comments

In 2011, the Israeli High Court ruled that Migron, an outpost in the West Bank built without government approval on private Palestinian land, had to be dismantled. After the government ignored the court order and instead worked out an agreement with Migron’s residents that delayed the evacuation, the court stepped in again and ordered Migron evacuated before the deadline that had been agreed upon with the settlers. The Israeli government complied, but rather than end the Migron experiment entirely, it simply moved Migron slightly to the south, where it would now sit on state land, and retroactively legalized its status.

Were Migron an isolated incident, it would be bad enough. But as the current fights over Amona and Netiv Ha’avot – two other unauthorized outposts ordered to be demolished by the High Court – make clear, the story of Migron is the rule rather than the exception. Just like with Migron, Amona is slated to be torn down at the end of the year but the government is planning on relocating it a few hundred yards away and retroactively approving it as an authorized settlement. The fight over Netiv Ha’avot is only just beginning as the High Court ruled last week that it had to be demolished and could not be retroactively legalized, but given the parade of ministers who vowed to prevent its destruction, there is no doubt Netiv Ha’avot will live on. It is critical to understand what is taking place in these unauthorized outposts and to recognize the “solutions” for just how damaging they are, since they are critical to a key talking point that Prime Minister Netanyahu uses when speaking to foreign audiences and point to just how malleable rule of law is within Israel.

While there is controversy over any and all Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, Israel has attempted to deal with the contested legality of settlements in general by establishing rules and processes for determining when Israeli law deems a settlement legal or not. The two main components that a settlement requires to be legal in Israel’s eyes are government approval in a formal planning and authorization process, and being built on land that is not privately owned by Palestinians. The outposts, which number in the hundreds, violate both of these requirements, which is why the High Court continues to order their demolition. Yet, either because the orders are ignored, the state retroactively legalizes the construction,  or the outposts are relocated to the closest parcel of state land, once an outpost goes up it almost never disappears. Even though outposts do not, by definition, have formal government approval, they are often supported by government officials and ministries.

Migron, for instance, was funded by the Housing Ministry at the behest of then-Minister Yair Rafaeli despite never having been formally approved or planned. The best way to understand how outposts get built, evade government efforts to tear them down, and manage to leverage political support and connections to tie up the bureaucracy and keep expanding, is not by reading the news but by reading Assaf Gavron’s 2014 novel The Hilltop, which is an engrossing work of fiction but also a cutting analysis of the dynamics that allow illegal outposts to thrive.

And as Isabel Kershner’s recent New York Times article on illegal outposts makes clear, they are indeed thriving, as the Israeli government retroactively legalizes them and does everything in its power under Israel’s legal system to let them stay. I am not someone who thinks that the presence of a few caravans on isolated hilltops makes it impossible to create a fair and contiguous Palestinian state, but I still think that the largest spotlight possible needs to be shined on this process for a variety of reasons.

First, one of Netanyahu’s favorite rhetorical devices is to note that Israel has not built any new settlements during his current run in the prime minister’s office. He uses this fact to shut down criticism of Israeli settlement activity and as proof that it is only the Palestinians, and not he, who are the real obstacles to achieving a two-state agreement, and when he trots it out before sympathetic or uninformed audiences, it is an effective trick. The trick is that while it is technically and narrowly correct, it ignores the fact that Israel under Netanyahu’s – and his predecessors’ – watch may not be authorizing brand new settlements, but the government doesn’t have to when it can just take the illegal ones that exist and make them legal. The more that interested observers get the sleight of hand at work, the less Netanyahu will be able to make unsubstantiated claims that muddy the waters.

Second, and more substantively important, the process of making illegal outposts legal is devastating to a two-state solution, not because the outposts themselves are such an obstacle but because they point to just how hard it will be for Israel to undertake the big moves that will be necessary down the road. If the government cannot commit to evacuating tens of settlers living in caravans and tents, what will happen when it agrees to evacuate thousands of settlers living in stone structures, like in Kdumim or Shilo or even Ariel? These outposts are a test of the government’s will, and it almost always fails the test miserably. If settlers can establish a community in contravention of Israeli law, clash with the IDF, repel government efforts to make them evacuate, refer to politicians and IDF commanders as Nazis, dictators, and enemies of Jews (all of which routinely happens), and still draw support from ministers and face little worse than having their homes picked up and relocated just yards away, then I wish the government good luck in working up the courage to move tens of thousands of settlers out of the West Bank who actually followed the rules.

Third, the process of dealing with illegal outposts shows how the rule of law in Israel can be more dependent on whom you are than on what you do. When Israeli Jews build illegally in the West Bank, the government has to be dragged kicking and screaming by NGOs who file lawsuits before it takes an action, and that action more often than not is to legalize what was illegal. When Palestinians build illegally in the West Bank – something that they are often forced into by circumstance as Israel issued only one building permit for Palestinians in Area C in 2014 and issued zero in 2015 – their homes are not retroactively legalized or relocated to Area B on the state’s dime, but are torn down. When Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that he was going to comply with the order to tear down Amona, he made sure to add that he was going to comply with the order to tear down the Palestinian village of Susya as well, which seems defensible on its face since the same rules should apply to everyone until you consider that Israel is going to rebuild Amona right next door while the residents of Susya are more likely going to have to fend for themselves.

In the greater scope of things, a tiny illegal outpost deep in the West Bank is irrelevant compared to the problems presented by places like Givat Hamatos or Givat Ze’ev, neighborhoods that do indeed make a contiguous Palestinian state with access to East Jerusalem overwhelmingly difficult. But these outposts matter because of what they say about the Israeli government and its willingness to give in to extremists and small interest groups at the slightest hint of political pressure. In many ways, as the fate of these outposts go, so goes the fate of the two-state solution.

Sideline Russia From Israeli-Palestinian Peace

September 1, 2016 § 2 Comments

Those who bemoan the United States constantly trying to jumpstart the peace process and force the two parties to the table finally have some cause for celebration. There are plans in the works for the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down across from each other at a peace conference overseen by a third party, but it is not President Obama or Secretary of State Kerry who will be serving as host. Instead, it will be Vladimir Putin playing international peacemaker, amidst speculation in the Israeli press that Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas will meet in Moscow in October. If this meeting does indeed end up taking place, it is highly unlikely that anything will come of it. But it will still be a big deal if it happens, more for what it says about the U.S. than about any movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Any peace negotiation between Netanyahu and Abbas stands little chance of success. The personal histories of distrust and even animosity between the two men are well known. Abbas is still reportedly keeping to his self-defeating demand of preconditions – a complete settlement freeze and a final status timetable – before sitting down with Netanyahu, while Netanyahu rejects making direct talks contingent on Israel agreeing to concessions ahead of time. Neither Israel or the Palestinians seems prepared to rock the boat with any big moves in the near future, particularly with the American presidential election and Palestinian municipal elections in the fall creating an atmosphere of uncertainty. So for a variety of reasons, the potential October meeting will amount to nothing.

The fact that it is destined to go nowhere, however, is not the point. The point is that Netanyahu and Abbas might convene under the auspices of a world leader who is not American, and that is a mightily important – and from the American perspective, an unwelcome – development. The U.S. is not the only international player when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab peacemaking. The U.N. has of course been an influential player in shaping the direction of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians due to Security Council resolutions of various stripes. The Quartet is comprised of Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations in addition to the U.S., and other states – most recently France and Egypt – have tried to mediate between the parties outside of American guidance. But it is rare for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree to sit down with a third party world leader who isn’t American, and the fact that this might now happen not only sets a precedent for the future, but is a marker of the erosion of American influence with both parties.

Political scientists talk about the role that the U.S. plays as the global hegemon, expending its own capital and resources to do things like ensuring the freedom of international shipping lanes and maintaining the post-WWII institutions of global security architecture, but no global hegemon acts out of a sense of unencumbered altruism. The U.S. gets benefits from acting as the adult responsible for this part of the solar system. Sometimes those benefits are tangible and easily measured, such as the dollar being the world’s reserve currency or the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe always being an American. Other times those benefits are reputational and signal that the U.S. gets to shape events by dint of it being the world’s only superpower. Convening Israeli and Palestinian leaders and mediating the conflict falls under this latter category, and that Russia wants to now horn in on the traditional American role – and that Netanyahu and Abbas might be complicit in assisting Russian encroachment – will damage the U.S. in a way that cannot be quantified, but it will be damaging nonetheless.

Shepherding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is not a matter of solving all of the U.S.’s problems in the region. The conflict is not the primary cause of anti-Americanism, of global terrorism, or of regional instability. U.S. involvement, however, projects American power without bombs and guns, because it sends a signal that the U.S. is indispensable; not only is the U.S. the sole actor capable of getting the two sides to talk, but it is the sole actor capable of guaranteeing that an agreement lasts. The American financial commitment to Israel and Egypt emanating from the 1979 Camp David Accords shows how this works in practice, where the U.S. guarantees the peace through aid but also through an unspoken admonition that breaking the peace will come with consequences for the offending party’s relationship with the U.S. as well. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the most important conflict on Earth, but it is the most high profile one, and that is why overseeing it matters to America’s reputation and to American power and credibility.
The still-in-the-works Putin summit presents a dilemma for American policymakers, since there are no good options. Convening Netanyahu and Abbas for talks that are doomed to fail doesn’t do much good, and failed talks almost always create more chaos on the ground. On the other hand, sitting back and ceding this ground to Russia also does no good for the reasons outlined above. While Israeli-Palestinian peace would be a great development, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks without primary American involvement would be less so. This may be one instance where the U.S. should be rooting for Netanyahu and Abbas to remain in character, guaranteeing that rumors of a meeting remain just that.

The Fight To Frame The Iran Deal

August 11, 2016 § 3 Comments

If you thought that the seemingly never-ending battle between the United States and Israel to shape how the Iran deal is viewed was finally over, you’d be wrong. At a press conference last Thursday, President Obama touted what he said was Israel’s ex-post support for the deal, saying, “And it’s not just the assessment of our intelligence community; it’s the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence community, the country that was most opposed to this deal, that acknowledges this has been a game changer and that Iran has abided by the deal; and that they no longer have the sort of short-term breakout capacity that would allow them to create nuclear weapons.” The next day, an unsigned statement was issued by the Israeli Defense Ministry insinuating that the Iran deal has “no value” because it is based on a faulty reading of the facts on the ground, asserting that it damaged Israel’s struggle to defend itself from Iran, and comparing it to the infamous Munich agreement that preceded WWII. This in turn was followed by a statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu confirming that Israel’s opposition to the deal has not changed, but emphasizing that Israel has no greater ally than the U.S. and that the most important things going forward are ensuring Iranian compliance with the deal and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Then on Monday, the Defense Ministry issued another unsigned statement apologizing for any misunderstanding over the Munich analogy but reiterating again that Israel remains concerned about Iranian behavior in the wake of the Iran deal.

The Iran deal has been at the core of much of the up-and-down relationship between the American and Israeli governments over the past few years, culminating in Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March 2015 and continuing to cast a pall over the negotiations for the new ten year defense assistance Memorandum of Understanding. Despite the fact that the Iran deal has been signed and implemented, framing how it is perceived is still crucial to both sides. For the U.S., defending Obama’s signature – and most controversial – foreign policy achievement is the way to shape how history will view his presidency, and even more importantly to set the future direction of American foreign policy long after he is gone from office. For Israel, which was the most publicly vociferous opponent of the deal, continuing to inveigh against it is not only about protecting Israeli credibility and demonstrating Israeli prescience, but about keeping the heat on Iran in order to preserve Israel’s position in the region and assure international support for its defense and security priorities. So more than one year on from the deal’s conclusion, it still affects U.S.-Israel relations and will continue to do so for years to come.

In this particular case, the blowup could have and should have been easily avoided, and much of the blame lies on the president himself. Obama was wrong in his characterization of how the Israeli security establishment views the deal, particularly in his use of the phrase “game changer.” Whereas Obama portrayed Israel as Saul on the road to Damascus, having seen the light and undergone a conversion on the Iran deal’s merits, the reality is that Israeli officials are far more wary. They acknowledge that the deal has eliminated the nuclear issue in the short term, but they also worry that it has actually made the issue even more dangerous in the long term once the deal expires in ten years and that it has worsened other Iranian non-nuclear headaches, such as terrorism and ballistic missile production, in the present. And while Israeli officials concede that Iran has hewed to the narrow terms of the deal so far, they are also certain that Iran will violate the agreement as soon as it is in its interests to do so. In light of this, Israeli officials’ anger at Obama’s press conference is eminently understandable. Israelis rightly don’t like being used as pawns in a PR battle, and all the more so when they feel that their position is being misrepresented. Even worse, Israel’s response since the deal was implemented has been precisely what the U.S. had been pleading for – measured opposition and an acknowledgement that the most important thing now is to hold Iran to its commitments, rather than to continue lambasting the deal at every opportunity and lobbying for it to be scrapped. For that to be throw back in its face must have been particularly galling.

Being justifiably angry, however, does not make the response justifiable. Rather than bring a gun to a knife fight – and breaking out the Munich analogy was certainly a disproportionate response – Israel would have been better off spinning this as a win. After all, the fact that Obama referenced Israel as the ultimate validator in judging whether or not the deal has been and will be successful gives Israel a fair deal of leverage going forward when it comes to evaluating Iranian compliance and developing a response should Iran be deemed in violation of the accord. It is embarrassing enough that the “Defense Ministry” had to walk back its original statement a few days later, but the timing itself made things even more precarious given that the U.S. and Israel are reportedly in the end stages of negotiating the new military aid package, and this hardly seems the time for Israel to do anything that might upset the apple cart. The fact that Avigdor Lieberman – who presumably took the strange step of hiding behind an entire ministry in an effort to give his statement more weight – was unable to hold his tongue despite the timing and despite his past criticism of other Israeli ministers for needlessly harming relations with the U.S. is a reminder of how the pragmatic defense minister can still be dangerously erratic, placing politics above wider considerations.

If there is a positive element to all of this, it is that despite the missteps on both sides of the ocean, it seems that both the U.S. and Israel have learned something from the recent tensions in the relationship. That Israel almost immediately walked back its over the top outburst demonstrates a recognition that rhetorical excesses do indeed have consequences and must be contained. That the U.S. was publicly silent and did not escalate the confrontation in response to Lieberman’s barb demonstrates a desire going forward to keep disagreements behind closed doors, as the Israelis have often requested. There is no question that Iran is going to continue to be a wedge between the U.S. and Israel through the end of the Obama presidency at the very least, but hopefully both sides can manage to be more felicitous in their public statements going forward.

How Free Is Israel’s Media?

August 4, 2016 § 3 Comments

This past spring, in a move that largely slipped under the radar, Freedom House downgraded Israel’s press freedom status from free to partly free. Freedom House cited “the growing impact of Israel Hayom, whose owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets” as the primary reason for the status change, and also noted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s control over regulating the media through his own assumption of the communications portfolio. Then this past Sunday, New York-based Israeli journalist Ruth Margalit wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that went significantly further, charging that Netanyahu is stifling the press across the board, trying to “fragment” the television market in a ploy to control coverage, and working to turn the media into his own personal mouthpiece. So are things really as dire as Margalit portrays them, and is Freedom House correct to no longer describe Israel as having a free press?

This is not the first time that Freedom House has downgraded Israeli press freedom in its rankings. In 2013, it also moved Israel from the free column to the partly free column, and it cited the influence of Israel Hayom then too. I wrote at the time that the designation rang hollow given that every objection listed in the Freedom House report was immediately followed (or preceded) by a disclaimer modifying most of the actual objection or admitting that the objection has not yet come to pass, and this year’s report suffers from the same flaw.

Freedom House ranks countries’ press freedom in three categories – legal, political, and economic environments – and it left Israel’s first two unchanged from last year while downgrading the economic environment two points. The section on the economic environment talks about the pressure created by Israel Hayom on the financial sustainability of other papers since Israel Hayom – or the Bibiton, as it is pejoratively referred to by many – is distributed for free, and also criticizes the proliferation of paid content.

Israel Hayom is a blatant vehicle for pro-Netanyahu propaganda, funded at a loss of tens of millions of shekels a year by non-Israeli citizen Sheldon Adelson, and given out for free in order to make sure that it has Israel’s highest circulation. In other words, a foreign billionaire is making an indirect monetary contribution to the prime minister every day in order to influence Israeli opinion in the prime minister’s favor and crowd out critical voices. Nobody will objectively look at this and say that it’s not a huge problem, but to infer that Israel’s press is only partly free now because Israel Hayom may eventually push other newspapers out of business (despite the fact that it hasn’t yet happened) is jumping the gun.

Margalit’s criticism also focuses on Israel Hayom but is much broader. Her contention that Netanyahu is not satisfied with having one newspaper in his pocket but wants to have every media outlet submit to his control certainly has elements of truth. There is little question that Netanyahu does much to pressure and cajole favorable coverage for himself in a variety of ways, from using subordinates to intimidate journalists to complaining about headlines to leaning on wealthy media magnates who are either supporters or who want some favor from the government. This should not be whitewashed. I have heard stories from Israeli journalists about being pressured to write about certain things and not to write about others. Many are hounded incessantly on social media as leftists for challenging the government in campaigns that seem to be encouraged by the government itself. There have been ongoing controversies the past few months over Galei Tzahal (Army Radio) and ministers trying to dictate what songs are played and what poems are read. During a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev complained that the government doesn’t have enough direct control of the media, sparking a fight between Likud ministers and Habayit Hayehudi ministers that has continued into this week, in which the latter accused the former of trying to stamp out free media and the former accused the latter of being “champions of the left.”

But the problem also should not be blown out of proportion. To begin with, some of Margalit’s assertions are oddly off-base. She brings up the government shuttering the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) as proof that Netanyahu is trying to control the news, when in reality he is madly trying to postpone the closing of the IBA and the opening of its replacement because he is afraid that the new broadcasting authority will be too independent. She claims that “most Israelis are getting their news from Israel Hayom or Walla News” as a way of proving that Netanyahu’s efforts are not about countering leftwing bias, but Israel Hayom and Yediot Ahronot are very close in their market share – 40.8% to 35.2% – and equating Israel Hayom (quite literally a propaganda mouthpiece) with an internet news portal that employs legitimate and dogged reporters like Amir Tibon and Tal Shalev is the same as comparing Pravda with Yahoo News. As Liel Leibovitz points out in Tablet, Netanyahu’s fight to control the media is in many ways a tussle between right and left playing out in the media landscape rather than in the halls of the Knesset, which doesn’t make it better but at least provides some context. But the most effective counterargument to Margalit is the content of the Israeli press itself. Israel’s press is far from perfect, but spend one day reading Israeli newspapers and watching Israeli television – where this week alone Ben Caspit in the rightwing Ma’ariv referenced Netanyahu’s “political commissars” and Finance Ministry “jackboots” – and tell me that Israeli journalists have been cowed into silence due to government intimidation. It doesn’t mean that the intimidation doesn’t exist, but that Israel’s press is still unmistakably free.

Finally, remember that this problem is not unique to Israel among Western democracies. The fact that Fox News is owned by a billionaire supporter of Republican policies and causes, or that Breitbart reads as if its headlines are written directly by Trump campaign staffers, or that the White House brings enormous pressure to bear on editors and reporters to craft stories that support its interests, does not mean that the U.S. does not have a free press. It means that there is no such thing as unbiased news; that reporters have always had to and always will walk a line between the companies or people that pay their salaries and the people who consume their products; and that the fact that people increasingly gravitate toward sources that support their own political biases means we need to be even more vigilant about recognizing our preferred sources’ biases and figuring out how much to trust. That is true if you are Israeli and it is true if you are American.

Send In The Clowns

July 14, 2016 § 5 Comments

There is a quip that a camel is a horse designed by committee, a witticism that never seemed truer than it did this week. In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Republican Party Platform Committee introduced a new plank on Israel that dropped all references to the two-state solution – references that had been included in every Republican Party platform since 2004 – and made clear that it is taking its cues from Donald Trump. Much like other Trumpian policy positions and pearls of wisdom that emanate from the candidate and his advisers, this one is destined to wither on the vine. But let’s not allow the moment to pass without fully acknowledging its myopic foolishness and what it says about how out of touch with reality the GOP platform delegates are.

The 2012 Republican platform was unequivocal in its support for Israel and its security, and in its appreciation of the shared values between Israel and the U.S. And yet, somehow it did not see the following lines as contradictory to any of that: “We support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state with secure, defensible borders; and we envision two democratic states – Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine – living in peace and security…. The U.S. seeks a comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East, negotiated between the parties themselves with the assistance of the U.S., without the imposition of an artificial timetable.” Republican support for two states was not an accident, and in fact the first president to explicitly call for a Palestinian state was George W. Bush. Republicans have long understood that the two-state solution is the only secure long-term path for Israel, which is why they have embraced it despite serious and valid reservations over whether an independent Palestine will be a viable or peaceful Israeli neighbor. The excising of all mentions of two states is not neutral or innocuous; it is a purposeful reversal of policy, no matter how advocates for the new platform position attempt to spin the development. Removing long-standing language is an active statement, and by cheerleading this process along, Trump and his henchmen are putting the GOP in conflict not only with American policy, but with Israeli policy as well.

In 2009, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor’s security and existence.” In November 2015, he said, ““I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.” It is one thing to debate over how best to get to two states, whether it is feasible at the moment, what conditions must be in force in order for a Palestinian state to become a reality, and what the timetable should be. It is quite another not to endorse two states in any guise and to tacitly promote a one-state catastrophe. Netanyahu falls under the first category, and the Republican platform now falls under the second. Make no mistake – there is no world in which this can be considered a rational pro-Israel position.

Let’s start with what should be obvious: one state means the end of Israel as both Jewish and democratic. That David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt – Trump’s two Israel advisers, both of whom work as corporate lawyers and whose expertise in Israel policy seems to extend as far but no farther than the fact that they are Jewish and have spent time in Israel – are reduced to peddling mythical statistics in service of denying this simple truth only demonstrates the delusion at work here. The entire fight against the BDS movement is predicated on the very idea that one state means the end of Israel as we know it, so that the Republican platform can in one breath denounce BDS for seeking to destroy Israel and then with the next encourage a one-state policy is a truly acrobatic feat of cognitive dissonance. And is there even a need anymore to tackle the chimera of the “sustainable status quo,” a concept that Netanyahu has rebuffed both publicly and privately and one against which the near entirety of Israel’s security establishment has revolted? Smart Republican Israel hands such as Elliott Abrams understand the importance of preserving the two-state solution, and yet the Trumpkins have managed to drown out decades of GOP expertise and experience by employing their common follow-the-leader tactic of acting upon whatever half-baked thought pops into their heads.

But let’s set all of this aside. Let’s assume that the experts are all wrong, and that either the status quo can continue forever or that Israel can annex the West Bank with no devastating adverse consequences. Isn’t there a constant refrain from the pro-Israel community about not imposing outside solutions on Israel and yielding to Israelis to determine their own destiny? I do not say this sarcastically; I am in full agreement and very much on the record as believing that Americans can and should express their preferences to Israel, come up with helpful suggestions, and make their best arguments as to why they should be implemented, but ultimately it is up to Israelis to elect their leaders and for the government of Israel to set its own policies. Yet in this instance, the government of Israel has stated its policy preference for a two-state solution and has been clear that a one-state outcome must be avoided at all costs, and the Republican platform has actively decided to contravene that policy. Not only that, it has actively decided to contravene it out of a desire to establish “a relationship with no daylight between America and Israel,” apparently ignorant of the fact that this does the precise opposite. It is unclear to me why hawkish policies that seek to impose unwanted solutions on Israel should be viewed any differently than dovish ones.

Ultimately, platform committees don’t matter in the real world, as much as the delegates desperately want to believe that their hard work is making a difference. I’ll bet that all nominees would fail a well-constructed multiple choice test on their parties’ platform language, and I can guarantee that no president has ever made a decision in office based on what the party platform encouraged or dismissed. Nevertheless, it is disturbing to see the base of the Republican Party be led so far aground by a bloviating, ignorant clodpate and his merry band of troglodytes. Consider Greenblatt’s comments to the Jewish Week: ““My view is that we should look at a single-state solution — and any other options on the table. Don’t take two states as a given; it is quite old. Maybe the Palestinians — after having suffered through the leadership they have had and seeing Israeli Palestinians who live a safe and free life — would also like it.” Not only is this a guy who has clearly never spoken with a Palestinian – and possibly never spoken with an Israeli who doesn’t vote for Habayit Hayehudi – the shallow fatuousness of the analysis beggars belief. Yes, there are indeed Palestinians who would like to see a one-state solution, but they are not the fellow travelers of Greenblatt’s fever dream hallucination. There is a reason that even Netanyahu, who clearly does not relish the prospect of relinquishing the West Bank to say the least, has reluctantly come around to the view that it will ultimately have to be done. There is a reason that two states has become the widespread consensus position, both in Israel and the U.S.

On second thought, perhaps the fact that Trump’s team is driving the GOP into the wilderness on Israel is a good thing. I can think of no better way for the one-state delusion to be discredited for good than for Trump and his coterie of Chelm court jesters to embrace it.

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