December 15, 2016 § 1 Comment
The extraordinary battle that is currently unfolding between President-elect Donald Trump and the intelligence community is unprecedented in the United States. While undoubtedly presidents and the CIA are not always on the same page – and presidents have certainly come to regret relying on CIA assessments that turned out to be inaccurate – the outright dismissal of intelligence agencies by the soon-to-be commander in chief is a first. The ideal situation in democratic countries is for intelligence agencies to be divorced from politics so that political considerations do not interfere with intelligence assessments and intelligence agencies are not tempted to wield their significant power in the political sphere. In picking a very public feud with the CIA, Trump is playing a dangerous game, and looking to Israel yields some clues as to where this skirmish may go as Israel has more experience with the fusion of politics and intelligence than the U.S.
The first lesson from the Israeli experience is that intelligence agencies are able to constrain the policies of an elected leader with whom they do not agree. The infamous but not widely remembered Lavon affair of 1954 is a prime example. Prime Minister Moshe Sharett initiated peace talks with Egypt out of a desire to use it as a stepping stone to a wider regional peace, but in doing so he ran afoul not only of his predecessor David Ben Gurion, but also of hardliners within military intelligence. A large portion of both the military and intelligence establishments were skeptical that any deal could be struck with Egypt and were particularly wary of the surging Egyptian nationalism championed by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the midst of the negotiations, Israeli military intelligence – possibly at the behest of Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon or possibly at the behest of the head of Israeli military intelligence – planned a false flag operation to set off bombs in Cairo in an attempt to sow chaos and convince the British to remain in Egypt, thereby delivering a blow to Egyptian nationalist aspirations. The plot was exposed, but the damage was already done; Sharett’s outreach to Nasser was successfully thwarted, his term as prime minister was short lived, and the renewed Israeli hardline policy toward Egypt later contributed in part to the 1956 Suez crisis. In this case, Israeli intelligence actively set a course different from that of the Israeli prime minister and won, which is a lesson that Trump may want to keep in mind as he appears determined to set a more conciliatory policy toward Russia while the intelligence community unanimously views Russia as harmfully meddling in American internal affairs.
The lesson from Israel regarding intelligence agencies thwarting an elected politician’s priorities is sharpened if intelligence officials believe that they are being marginalized or mistreated, which is where the comparison to what Trump is doing is particularly germane. Rather than reaching back into the history of the mid-20th century, there is a contemporary Israeli case upon which to draw. The debate in Israel during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first term of his current tenure about whether the IDF should attack Iranian nuclear facilities was conducted under the enormous shadow of the well-known and unsettlingly public dispute between Netanyahu and his military and intelligence chiefs. IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, and Mossad director Meir Dagan were all vigorously opposed to a strike on Iran while Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak argued in favor. That there would be a dispute between the elected political leadership and the appointed security leadership is not an uncommon or unreasonable phenomenon. However, when Dagan felt that Netanyahu was ignoring the Mossad’s conclusions about the prospects of an Iranian bomb – the Mossad believed that it was not imminent while Netanyahu was insisting in speeches that Iran was about to go nuclear – he took his concerns public in a way that was meant to paint Netanyahu into a corner. On Dagan’s last day on the job, he briefed a group of Israeli senior journalists to hammer home how big of a mistake he believed Netanyahu was making in forcing a confrontation with Iran, and then upon retiring made a series of speeches in which he dubbed a strike on Iran “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard. Dagan’s successor, Tamir Pardo, continued Dagan’s legacy of constraining Netanyahu on Iran, publicly declaring that Iran was not an existential threat and that people used that term too loosely; this was the thinnest of thinly veiled barbs directed at Netanyahu, who was describing Iran in precisely such a way.
But there is a corollary to this, which is that intelligence agencies that try to impose their will on political leaders may find themselves undermined at the first opportunity. This can take the form of micromanaging intelligence officials themselves, but it can also take the form of casting aspersions on the entire intelligence apparatus as biased or suffering from misguided views. Netanyahu and his political allies have done this with regard to the Shin Bet over its alleged blind spot with regard to the Palestinians, disparaging former Shin Bet chiefs who warn of the dangers of a continuing Israeli presence in the West Bank as delusional leftists. In this case, it is not a set of analytical conclusions that have been challenged, but the competence of Shin Bet heads more broadly. As the current coalition chair David Bitan said this past summer about Dagan and a host of former Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs, “Something happens to you over the years in these positions…over the years the heads of Shin Bet and Mossad become leftists.” This quote will sound familiar to those who have been listening to Trump dismiss the CIA wholesale and insist that because it was mistaken about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction it must be mistaken about Russia over a decade later. In addition, as a result of his past clashes with Dagan, Pardo, Diskin, and others, Netanyahu has made sure that the current intelligence chiefs are people with whom he had close ties prior to their appointments and who are less likely to challenge him. This is one of the reasons that the ever-present friction between Netanyahu and the IDF brass no longer seems to invade the intelligence sphere. It is a reminder that intelligence agencies may win battles with their political overseers, but oftentimes the politicians will make those agencies pay for it down the road.
The upshot of all this is that keeping a country and its citizens safe and formulating successful national security policies is far harder when the politicians and the intelligence professionals are waging a war not against a common external enemy but against each other. In Israel’s case, the perception that Netanyahu and the intelligence community are in opposition undermines confidence in both, and will likely lead to greater and potentially disastrous interventions of the political arena in the intelligence arena and vice versa. Let’s hope that Trump and those in his circle realize the dangers associated with confronting the U.S. intelligence apparatus so that the same mistakes born out of the Israeli experience can be avoided.
August 18, 2016 § 13 Comments
Israeli athletes have had a rough reception from some of their fellow competitors at the Rio Olympics. First, members of the Lebanese delegation barred Israelis from boarding a bus to the opening ceremonies. Then a Saudi judoka pulled out of a match due to injury as soon as it became clear that she would be facing an Israeli competitor in the next round. But the ultimate statement came last Friday following Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby’s defeat at the hands of Or Sasson, when El Shehaby refused to shake the Israeli Sasson’s hand. El Shehaby was booed by the crowd following the breach of judo etiquette, and following a “severe reprimand for inappropriate behavior” from the International Olympic Committee’s Disciplinary Commission, El Shehaby was sent home. The incident created an uproar back in Israel, but ultimately a snubbed handshake is, after all, just a snubbed handshake. It isn’t the details of this episode that matter, but the larger lessons that it imparts.
If nothing else, the absurdity of the entire thing should settle once and for all that Israel is subjected to a unique standard. This doesn’t mean that Israel should be absolved from blame for its actions or policies that deserve to be criticized, but only one country’s athletes are treated this way. For some perspective, there are North Korean athletes competing at the Olympics, but nobody even hints that they should be treated as outcasts because of their government, and rightly so (and if you for some reason think that the government of Israel and Bibi Netanyahu are more worthy of criticism than the government of North Korea and Kim Jong Un, please just stop reading now since you are wasting your time). And deciding that Israeli athletes do indeed deserve to be held responsible for anything Israel does will not necessarily end only in discourteous behavior and lack of sportsmanship, as testified to by the 1972 Summer Olympics terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich.
The handshake snub also says something about identity and nationalism, and illuminates the dilemma faced by many American Jews, particularly college students and those who travel in progressive circles. El Shehaby is Egyptian, and he represents a country that has a formal peace treaty with Israel; in fact, Israeli-Egyptian cooperation has never been more robust. Yet, his refusal to shake hands with Sasson was an act on behalf of standing up for the Palestinians, a group with which he clearly sympathizes because of a shared identity. This shared identity is so strong that El Shehaby was willing to accept an official reprimand and risk sanction, neither of which serves Egyptian interests, in order to support his Palestinian compatriots. Many American Jews feel a similarly strong bond with Israeli Jews, and their identity is intertwined with support for Israel. So when the price of entry into progressive circles is a demand that American Jews renounce Israel, it creates a genuine crisis of identity, since Judaism and Zionism cannot always be so easily untangled. In criticizing El Shehaby’s actions, nobody has demanded that he withdraw his support for the Palestinian cause. It would be nice if American Jews were granted the same basic level of understanding.
The fact of the handshake itself also obscures a greater barrier that must be overcome. I have seen a number of people grant that El Shehaby behaved poorly, but justify it based on the fact that had he shook Sasson’s hand, he would have put himself in danger back home. It does not speak well for a society that would de facto criminalize a handshake based on national identity, and that should be the basis for a critique rather than the basis for a justification. But more importantly, that nearly four decades after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the establishment of diplomatic relations, simply shaking an Israeli’s hand would place an Egyptian at risk of physical harm demonstrates better than any other example why mere government-to-government relations are not enough. The Israeli government points to its cooperation with Arab states as proof that it is breaking out of its regional isolation, but acceptance is more about social attitudes than it is about state relations, since the former will never follow the latter but the latter will follow the former. Without routine interaction and habituation over time, the structures in place that make Israelis feel so isolated will not come down, and it doesn’t matter how much Israel helps the Egyptian government fight ISIS in the Sinai or how much intelligence Israel shares with the Saudi government. It is the same reason that the anti-normalization campaign mounted by Palestinians against Israelis is a far greater threat than BDS, since once it becomes common for Palestinians to treat Israelis the way Egyptians do, all hope of any lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the societal level will really be gone.
One concluding thought: it would be an interesting social experiment to see if an Egyptian or Iranian judoka would refuse to shake hands with an Arab Israeli athlete on the grounds of supporting the Palestinian cause. After all, if Israelis are being shunned because they are held collectively responsible for the actions of their government, then this should apply across the board to all Israeli athletes. I have a sneaking suspicion that those who support what El Shehaby did as a legitimate and relatively harmless form of political protest, and who claim that this has nothing to do with Jews but is solely about Israel, would feel differently about El Shehaby snubbing an Arab from Umm al-Fahm rather than a Jew from Jerusalem.
June 29, 2016 § 2 Comments
I wrote the following piece for Foreign Affairs on the Israel-Turkey normalization pact, and why I think, despite the interests of both sides to maintain good ties, that it will be unsustainable.
On Tuesday, three machine gun-wielding suicide bombers attacked Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, killing 41 and injuring hundreds. News of the attack quickly overshadowed the week’s other major development in the country: a deal to normalize relations between Turkey and Israel after a six-year falling out. Although the two events might seem unrelated, they are connected in that one of the major factors driving reconciliation was cooperation on intelligence and counter-terrorism. Whether the deal will survive long enough for such benefits to be realized is a question that only becomes more urgent after the horrific terrorist attack.
Israel and Turkey’s announcement that they had agreed on the terms of their reconciliation came after years of false starts. Under the deal, Israel will pay Turkey $20 million in compensation for the nine Turkish citizens killed during the raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010, allow Turkey to send humanitarian supplies to Gaza via the Israeli port city of Ashdod, and permit Turkey to support building projects in Gaza, including a hospital, power plant, and desalination plant. In return, Turkey has promised to end the lawsuits still pending in its courts against four high-ranking Israeli military officials involved in the flotilla raid, stop Hamas from launching or financing terrorist operations against Israel from Turkish territory, and intercede with Hamas on Israel’s behalf to secure the return to Israel of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers being held in Gaza. Both sides have also agreed to return their ambassadors to the other country and to drop any remaining sanctions against each other.
On paper, this all sounds great, and there is no question that reconciliation can theoretically help both sides. The drivers of past aborted attempts at normalization, namely potential energy cooperation and coordination on Syria and counter-terrorism, are still at work, and there are benefits for both sides to be realized. Nonetheless, the celebrations in Jerusalem and Ankara are more likely than not to be short-lived for two reasons: the parameters of the deal may be more difficult to abide by than appears at first glance, and the entire structure could well fall apart at the first sign of the inevitable next round of fighting in Gaza.
To read the rest, please head over to Foreign Affairs.
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.