Your Handy Guide To Netanyahu’s Coalitional Maneuvering

May 19, 2016 § 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When To Say Yes To $3.7 Billion

May 12, 2016 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

Israel Is Politicized. Tell Me Something New.

April 21, 2016 § 1 Comment

Two important events took place in the last seven days related to Israel’s role in American political discourse. The first was last Thursday night’s Democratic debate in Brooklyn, when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had one of the longest sustained exchanges on Israel that I can recall in any presidential primary debate. The second was the annual J Street conference, which hosted speeches by Joe Biden and John Kerry that were both critical of the current Israeli government to some degree. The conventional wisdom that has coalesced around the first is wrong, and the second demonstrates why. What they both point to is not that some mythical taboo about Israel has been broken, but that the extent to which Israel is politicized is changing and that the pro-Israel community will have to grapple with a new landscape.

After being asked about the U.S.-Israel relationship during the debate last week, Sanders made a number of points that have attracted attention, among them that Israel used disproportionate force in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 despite defending Israel’s right to defend itself; that Palestinians must be treated with dignity and respect; and that the U.S. has to say that Bibi Netanyahu is not right all the time. Many rushed to dub this an unprecedented expansion of the dialogue surrounding Israel in the American political system. An ABC News article called it “something that Mideast experts and advocates on either side have never seen someone in his position do before,” while CNN went even further, trumpeting that “Bernie Sanders is taking a sledgehammer to the political status quo on Israel” and that “he upended a long-standing tenet of American politics: that unflinching support for Israel is non-negotiable.”

There’s no question that Sanders’ defense of Palestinian rights was unprecedented for a presidential debate, and he deserves credit for taking a principled stand. But let’s not overblow the big picture; to suggest that he has smashed some redline on Israel and the manner in which the U.S. supports it takes a unique type of historical amnesia or outright ignorance. It reminds me of those who denounce the suppression of critical views of Israel in the midst of embarking on speaking tours or writing best-selling books doing the very thing that they claim is impossible to do. Let’s leave aside the current very public contretemps that have taken place between President Obama and Netanyahu – both of whom would no doubt guffaw at the claim that Sanders is unique in saying that Netanyahu is not always right – or the famed incident during the first President Bush’s administration when Secretary of State James Baker in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee blasted Israel for obstructionism and recited the White House’s phone number for the Israelis to call “when you’re serious about peace,” or when President Ford publicly rebuked Israel and announced a reassessment of U.S. policy in the Middle East due to frustration with the Israelis. Perhaps the nastiest moment between the U.S. and Israel came during the Reagan administration and the debate over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, when the White House and the deal’s supporters in Congress publicly decried Israeli influence and made the case that Israel was inappropriately attempting to subvert U.S. foreign policy for its own ends. In a foreshadowing of last year’s Iran debate, the Reagan administration repeatedly insisted that the AWACS sale would actually benefit Israeli security, despite the Israeli government’s insistence to the contrary. To argue in the wake of the Clinton-Sanders debate that we have now approached a unique moment, where politicians are for the first time doing anything other than providing Israel with a figurative blank check, is quite plainly abject nonsense.

In fact, Israel has always simultaneously been politicized while drawing bipartisan support. The question is not if, but to what extent, and that brings us to J Street’s annual gathering. J Street has done a very good job over the past eight years of building and selling itself as the home for Jewish Democrats, making the case that AIPAC no longer represents their thinking on Israel. While I have no doubt at all that AIPAC’s leadership continues to harbor, and always will harbor, bipartisan ambitions, and there is also little question that there are still substantial numbers of Democrats who are comfortable in the AIPAC fold, there is also little question that the monopoly AIPAC once enjoyed is now over. I find it hard to see J Street ever rising to AIPAC’s size or influence, but it has a permanent and significant niche. Biden and Kerry went to address J Street as a reward for the organization’s advocacy of the Iran deal, but do not expect this to be a one-time thing. Democrats are increasingly going to show up to both AIPAC and J Street, and it reflects the fact that J Street is in tune with much of the Democratic base.

This is also a function of Newton’s third law in action with regard to Netanyahu and the Republican Party. The symbiotic relationship between the two and the barely disguised effort on the Israeli government’s part to favor one side of the American political spectrum over the other was guaranteed to provoke a response. The form the response has taken is that Democrats are more comfortable criticizing Netanyahu, and J Street is happy to take a different approach to AIPAC on this subject and capitalize on the new political battle lines. Once the Republicans and Netanyahu dropped any hesitation at using Israel as a cudgel, the Democrats were going to drop their hesitation at using Israel in their own way, which means a tilt toward J Street. The battle to keep J Street out of the mainstream is over, even if AIPAC is still going to be the more obvious destination for many.

This ultimately means that the politicization of Israel will not only continue apace, but increase. J Street is a different sort of animal than AIPAC in that it is far more of an overtly political organization. I don’t mean this as a knock on J Street, since there is nothing wrong with being political, but it does mean that there are consequences for the structure of the pro-Israel community in the U.S. One need look no further than the debate in Las Vegas last month between J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami and Republican Jewish Coalition head Matt Brooks to see where things are headed. An AIPAC chief would never agree to participate in such a debate, but it is a simple fact that as more Democrats move toward J Street, AIPAC is going to look even more Republican than it already does to many by default. American Jews who legitimately care about Israel are going to divide even more starkly into two camps, and that means unification around a general platitude of being pro-Israel but harsh disagreement on the specifics and boundaries of what that means. Israel is being politicized, but if you think that a socialist candidate for president who criticizes Israel during a primary debate is the harbinger of a groundbreaking new trend, you haven’t been paying very close attention.

The Slow Self-Immolation Of A Political Party

April 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

Imagine a political party that finds itself in what appears to be a permanent bind. The elites who run the party and make up the senior elected officials represent an establishment rightwing view, and it is one that has been electorally successful for decades as it stayed within a national consensus that allowed it to attract a wider array of voters beyond its natural base. At the same time, many of the party’s voters have been steadily moving rightward and taking more extreme positions that are being embraced by people on an order of magnitude that would have been unimaginable a couple of elections before. The party honchos have not been unaware of this trend, and have been playing a timeless game in which they rhetorically support the more extreme positions of the base in an effort to keep them in the fold and win their votes, while rarely following through on the promises they make during the heat of a campaign. They are careful to give the base some small victories, but generally tend to pull back from the edge of the cliff of truly revolutionary proposals, always providing an array of excuses and promises that patience will pay off in the end, and that the eventual victory of remaking the country wholesale is just around the corner.

With each heightened expectation that is inevitably dashed, the base of the party becomes more upset and more radicalized. They eventually turn to even more rightwing movements that are seen as more authentic and more grassroots, and even though these more extreme movements are smaller and will never be able to win an election on their own outright, the effect is to push the larger and more establishment party to the right as it becomes terrified of being cannibalized by its more ideologically pure sibling. This of course only encourages the extremist base, and it creates a spiral in which the party becomes more extreme but can never go far enough to satisfy its most strident voters, and eventually the voters who happily kept returning the party and its standard bearers to national office turn on those standard bearers, branding their former heroes traitors to the cause and embracing new politicians who tell them what they want to hear, no matter how absurd or devastating the consequences of the proposed policies would be.

This is a rough portrayal of what has been taking place in the Republican Party, but it is also the story of what is right now taking place in Likud. The Likud establishment has been winning elections for decades, but the impatience of many in its base – particularly religious settlers – has led to challenges from smaller parties demanding greater fidelity to nationalist ideology, Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi being the most prominent recent example. Prime Minister Netanyahu comes off as unapologetically rightwing to many American Jews, but the fact is that to the Israeli right, he is seen as too cautious and not viewed as a true believer. His rhetoric meant for the rightwing base has become more extreme over time, from the infamous election night warning about Arab voters coming to the polls in droves to his all but calling Mahmoud Abbas a terrorist, but it is never enough. The fact that he and his government have placed any brakes at all on settlement activity in the West Bank, let alone refused to seriously consider annexation, makes him and other Likud luminaries automatically suspect. And thus Netanyahu keeps on being returned to office, but each time the grumbling becomes louder and keeping his coalition satisfied becomes increasingly Sisyphean.

In the U.S., this trend has led to a Republican Party circular firing squad, where whomever or whatever emerges is going to be barely breathing politically. In Israel, however, the consequences have been more serious, since this trend is not only ensnaring one of Israel’s two historically major political parties, but the IDF as well. This has been laid bare by the fallout from the Hebron shooting, in which an IDF soldier shot and killed an injured and immobilized terrorist with a bullet to the head. Both Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot immediately moved to make sure that the soldier was detained and that a proper investigation was conducted, and Ya’alon forcefully condemned the soldier as one who had gone bad. The fact that they did not instead unequivocally support the soldier – who may yet turn out to be guilty of something less serious than murder, but whose actions were captured on tape and appear to be as ugly as it gets – was immediately seized upon by those on the far right, led by Bennett who accused Ya’alon of selling out the IDF. Netanyahu’s zigzag, from initially supporting Ya’alon and criticizing the soldier to then calling the soldier’s family and seemingly playing all sides, was sadly predictable. All of this was naturally followed by images circulating of Ya’alon’s face in the crosshairs of a rifle, comparisons to Hitler, and posters hung all over Tel Aviv calling on Eisenkot to resign and accusing him of failing to safeguard Jewish lives. The sad fact that Bennett is more representative of the public mood, as a majority of Israelis do not believe that the solider should have been arrested and investigated, does not make his conduct any less dangerous or reprehensible, since he is deliberately undermining the institution that is most trusted by the Israeli public in order to further his own political career. That Netanyahu is continuing to calibrate his own actions based on what Bennett does should finally put the notion to bed once and for all that Netanyahu is a leader rather than a man with his finger perpetually in the air testing the wind.

The IDF is what holds Israel together; once it has been undermined for short term political gain, there is no going back. And yet after years of treating its base as simplistic fools and seeing it boomerang in the faces of its leaders, the Likud is now haplessly watching by as its own defense minister is savaged for actually acting correctly and responsibly, and the IDF leadership is questioned for acting like armies in democratic countries act. That Republican leaders in the U.S. completely lost control of their own political vehicle and are now faced with the prospect of a nominee that many of them refuse to support – whether it is Donald Trump or Ted Cruz – is not a good thing for American democracy; no matter which party owns your sympathies, competition is both good and necessary for a healthy and functioning democracy, and the corrosion of the Republican Party is not good for the country. But ultimately, the damage is likely going to be limited to Republican institutions and not the institutions of the state. In Israel, the same cannot be said. Likud has been fighting a losing battle against its own Tea Partiers, whom it tacitly encouraged under the assumption that it could contain them, but the chaos is now spilling over and has the potential to bring the rest of the country down with it. When you wink at extremism while laughing at it behind its back, the joke is often on you. This time, it is coming at all of Israel’s expense.

Dithering Over Dani Dayan’s Diplomacy

March 31, 2016 § 1 Comment

There was a revealing debate that played itself out in the pages of Ha’aretz earlier this week after the Israeli government announced that it was appointing Dani Dayan to be the consul general in New York. For those unfamiliar with him, Dayan is the former chairman of the Yesha Council, a position that is the de facto leader of the settlement movement, and he has become in many ways the international face of the settlements through his willingness to write, speak, and engage with foreign audiences. Prime Minister Netanyahu had initially appointed Dayan as Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, but the Brazilian government was not willing to accept his credentials due to his settlement advocacy, so Dayan is now headed to the U.S., where many are looking at him askance.

Bradley Burston captures why Dayan is walking into a situation where he is already behind in the count, cataloguing the new consul general’s rejection of the two-state solution and his desire to annex the West Bank without any corresponding plan to grant the Palestinians living there any political rights. Burston consequently thinks that the American Jewish community should, like the government of Brazil, refuse to accept Dayan’s appointment and demand that he be replaced with someone who reflects American Jewish politics and values and is more in line with the outlook and communal mood of the majority of American Jews. As Burston writes, “To a Jewish community with grave reservations about the consequences of the settlement enterprise and its destructive impact on democracy and economics in Israel, and on peace, security, and human rights throughout the Holy Land, Israel is sending a man who declared, ‘The settlements of Judea and Samaria are not the problem — they are part of the solution.’”

Burston’s colleague Chemi Shalev takes a different tack. Shalev argues that the right way to approach Dayan’s appointment is not by looking at his audience, but by looking at his client. In Shalev’s view, since Dayan is being sent to New York to represent the government of Israel rather than the other way around and since Dayan accurately reflects the government’s views, he is in some ways the perfect envoy. Rather than pretending that the Israeli government embraces policies that American Jews would like to see, having Dayan as consul general in New York will make it clear that the government is not really interested in two states and put an end to the notion that the Netanyahu government is going to eventually come around.

I side with Shalev in this debate for a number of reasons. First, I don’t think it is appropriate to judge Dayan as a diplomat before he has even spent one minute in the job, and it is possible that he will surprise. I have observed Dayan in action on a few occasions, and while there is no question that he is an inveterate rightwinger, I found Burston’s description of him as vindictive and quick to anger as oddly off-base. Having watched Dayan address rooms where he is not only the most rightwing guy there but the only rightwing guy there, he is actually extremely diplomatic; he listens to the other side and then responds in a respectful and cogent way, with a heavy dose of humor. A diplomat isn’t supposed to nod and agree with everything his interlocutors say, but to listen well, argue well, and behave diplomatically. Perhaps Dayan’s intemperate and ill-timed comments on J Street being “un-Jewish” will turn out to be representative, but my limited observations of him point to the opposite.

More saliently, Shalev is right about what Dayan is here to do. A diplomat is supposed to reflect and advance his government’s positions rather than mold him or herself to fit the place where he or she is sent. The fact that Dayan may not be popular with American Jews doesn’t change the fact that he is a perfectly appropriate representative of the current government, and in some ways it would be more insulting to send a consul general to New York who would constantly dissemble and tell American Jews what they want to hear. There is a line between respectfully presenting unpopular positions, and obnoxiously asserting that you know better than everyone else. Some of Israel’s senior diplomats fall into the latter category, which is what makes them so ineffectual, but I don’t think Dayan is of the same ilk.

But the real lesson of Dayan’s appointment is a deeper one. His appointment is the clearest message that the Israeli government has sent yet that it does not view its policies as a problem, but rather the way in which they are presented. Dayan will not pretend to be anything but a rightwing one-stater who views the two-state solution as naïve and unrealistic. He will perfectly represent the current Israeli government as an unapologetic realist who views the bulk of American Jews as out of touch with the reality of Israel’s situation and neighborhood. Yet, the Israeli government sincerely seems to believe that forcefully and consistently presenting this message will change minds here, and that American Jews will eventually come around. Dayan as consul general lets us know that the Israeli government is blind as a bat to the damage caused by its policies, and that it is the naïve party here by assuming that it has a messaging problem rather than a policy problem. Israeli diplomats don’t need to be more forceful in pushing their message; they need a different message to push.

Nothing could illustrate this point better than yesterday’s news that Senator Pat Leahy and ten House Democrats have sent a letter to Secretary of State Kerry asking that he review U.S. military assistance to Israel and Egypt in light of alleged gross violations of human right by both countries. The fact that a relatively miniscule number of legislators signed a letter questioning military assistance to Israel will not matter in the scheme of things, but what is remarkable – and a bad harbinger of things to come – is that eleven members of Congress saw no problem lumping Israel with Egypt on the subject of human rights. It is a grossly inappropriate comparison, even if the intention was not to equate the two but to link their aid status as a legacy of the Camp David agreement, and there is no universe in which Israeli missteps are on the same plane as Egyptian killings and torture of political opponents. But Israel is not in Congressional crosshairs because its message needs to be more finely honed. It is in Congressional crosshairs because its policies in the West Bank are corrosive and inevitably lead to actions that no democracy should commit and that sully Israel’s reputation. This letter is a consequence of Israel mistakenly believing that it only has to explain itself better and give no quarter to its critics in order to make its problems go away. I wish Dani Dayan all the luck in the world, but he is sidling up to the table having already been dealt a losing hand.

Blocs and Borders

March 14, 2016 § 3 Comments

Shaul Arieli has a smart op-ed in Ha’aretz today arguing that the concept of the sanctity of settlement blocs is leading Israel astray. Arieli goes through the history of how the blocs came to be, and more importantly demonstrates the way in which their contours have changed, from security zones in the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem envelope to settlements intended to obliterate the Green Line to more recent efforts on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s part to include areas that bifurcate the West Bank and make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. Arieli argues that the blocs have no security, demographic, economic, or political logic, and that in fact the idea of these inviolate blocs that Israel will keep in any permanent status agreement actively harms Israel by establishing an incoherent and unstable border. Were Israel to adopt a border that incorporated only settlements not separated by the Green Line from Palestinian towns or infrastructure, Arieli writes that it would significantly shorten the length of the border, leave 75% of Israelis living over the Green Line in their current homes, and create a border that is more secure without hurting the social fabric and contiguity of Palestinian locales.

It’s an excellent piece and I want to highlight it so that people go and read it, but I also want to make two brief complementary points. First, the history of the changing definition of blocs to include, in Netanyahu’s current formulation, places like Ofra, Kiryat Arba, and Kfar Adumim demonstrates the urgent need to define the border of the blocs. The idea that negotiations for two states proceed with an assumption about Israel keeping blocs and nobody knows what those blocs entail means that an agreement in principle might easily blow up once the details have to be hammered out. Furthermore, allowing the blocs to gobble up more and more area destroys any semblance of trust among the Palestinians, and is fundamentally unfair to Palestinian society in the West Bank. The current government’s definition of a border for the blocs would be a very different one than I would draw, but limiting things at all would still be a positive step. It would also force the Israeli government to provide a visual for its current settlement policy, which would make it more difficult for it to insist that everything is fine as is. “Blocs” cannot continue to be an amorphous concept that everyone tiptoes around as if it is – pardon the pun – settled, when in fact the blocs continue to be defined differently depending on who’s doing the talking.

Second, Arieli’s rundown demonstrates to me why a complete settlement freeze is unworkable. I get the argument that any deviation from the 1967 lines as a starting point undermines the core Palestinian conviction that agreeing to negotiations on that basis was their key concession. But Israeli politics cannot be ignored either, and a complete settlement freeze that includes Jerusalem neighborhoods like Gilo is going to be anathema to 95% of Israeli Jews. Each side is going to have to bend on something, and defining the blocs in a fair manner and then freezing everything outside of them – along with a concurrent declaration that everything, including territory inside the borders of the blocs, is subject to future negotiation – is my view of what constitutes a reasonable and likely way of moving forward. Just as the Palestinians view their core concession as recognizing the 1967 lines as relevant at all, Israelis view their core concession as recognizing the PLO and agreeing to negotiate towards a Palestinian state. The reality is that both sides are destined to be deeply disappointed in some manner, and that is how agreements are forged.

Being More Pro-Israel Than Israel

March 3, 2016 § 3 Comments

I consider myself to be unabashedly in the pro-Israel camp. I am glad that there is a Jewish state, I am proud that it is democratic, and I happen to like that state a lot irrespective of its characteristics, having spent a large chunk of my life living in and visiting Israel. Nevertheless, I don’t like the term pro-Israel because it draws unnecessary boundaries that oftentimes do Israel more harm than good by excluding those who do not deserve to be excluded. It effectively creates an alienating dichotomy through a standard of purity that is difficult for many, if not most, people to meet, including those who would not think of doing anything to malign, diminish, or delegitimize Israel. This is damaging enough when it involves Diaspora Jews creating an unnecessarily harsh litmus test for Diaspora Jews. It veers into Alice In Wonderland territory when it involves Diaspora Jews and non-Israelis of all stripes deciding that the government of Israel itself is not sufficiently pro-Israel.

Exhibit A: Last week, famed Israeli singer Achinoam Nini (who goes by the stage name Noa) was the subject of controversy over a Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) concert she is scheduled to perform at in Vancouver. The Jewish National Fund of Canada, which had been slated to sponsor the concert as it does every year, pulled out when it was announced that Nini would be performing due to the fact that, in JNF Canada’s view, “the entertainer that has been hired does not reflect, nor correspond to the mandate and values of the Jewish National Fund of Canada.” JNF Canada appears to have taken exception to the fact that Nini has been critical of Israeli actions in the West Bank and has lent her support to Breaking the Silence, and a number of prominent Vancouver Jews accused her of supporting BDS, a charge that Nini unequivocally denied. Not only did JNF Canada’s move prove unsuccessful in getting Nini’s performance cancelled, it backfired spectacularly when the Israeli embassy in Ottawa and the Israeli consulate in Toronto stepped in to sponsor the concert in JNF’s place. In other words, JNF Canada takes a more hardline view of who and what is considered to be so objectionably anti-Israel that it requires disassociation from the offending party or views than does the government of Israel itself.

Exhibit B: The Republican debates and victory (or pseudo victory) speeches on primary nights have been sprinkled with references to Israel and what it means to be an Israel supporter. With the notable exception of Donald Trump – a topic I can’t quite decide to write about or to avoid like the plague – the GOP candidates take a reliably right-leaning view on Israel that supports Prime Minister Netanyahu and his policies, and they use these expressions of support as a cudgel against President Obama and his Democratic heir apparent, whomever he or she may be. Nevertheless, the Republican support for Israel tends to veer into territory that is actually out of sync with the stated policies of the Israeli government or the overwhelming consensus of Israeli generals and security officials. When Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio state that their support for Israel requires them to rip up the Iran nuclear deal on their first day in office, this does not comport with the near-consensus opinion of the IDF and Mossad that the Iran deal is imperfect but has at a minimum temporarily removed the threat of a nuclear Iran. When candidates for president decry even attempting to negotiate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, they are implicitly trashing the current and past Netanyahu governments, which have engaged in negotiations multiple times. When Cruz dubs John Kerry the most anti-Israel secretary of state in U.S. history, as he did at the debate last Thursday night, he is going to be hard pressed to find one Israeli cabinet official or MK who agrees with him, and he contradicts numerous public defenses of Kerry by Netanyahu. It is silly to pretend that the current Israeli government is enamored of the Obama administration, but it is a surreal scene when the men fighting to be the Republican standard bearer are more hawkish on Israel than its own government.

I do not mean to suggest that there aren’t people or organizations legitimately outside the pro-Israel tent, since there are. Had Nini really supported BDS, then I would have no problem with JNF Canada pulling its sponsorship. If John Kerry opposed American diplomatic recognition of Israel, as George Marshall did in 1948, then perhaps Cruz’s hyperbolic hysterics would be justified. But when you brand someone as an unacceptable Israel-hater and the Israeli government steps in to counter the charge, it is probably time to rethink your priorities and worldview. Not only does it make for foolish optics, it makes for bad policy. The reality is that most people in the world, and even most Diaspora Jews, are not going to support the most hardline and hawkish positions on Israel, and so out pro-Israeling even the Israeli government is guaranteed to create an orthodoxy on Israel that is severely limiting. There are advantages to maintaining ideological purity, but winning a broad base of supporters is not one of them. In a time when Israel needs all of the friends it can get and is searching for relatable faces to present to the world, rooting out imaginary anti-Israel monsters hiding under the bed does Israel and its government no favors.

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