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.
January 23, 2014 § 1 Comment
A couple of weeks ago, Egyptian political scientist Emad Shahin was charged by the Egyptian government with espionage, forcing him to flee Egypt before he could be arrested. Professor Shahin, who was teaching at the American University of Cairo, is someone I know fairly well, as he was my professor while in grad school for a seminar on comparative politics of the Middle East and a course on political Islam, and supervised my masters thesis on Islamist parties that supported an opening to the West (although we haven’t been in touch in some years). The notion that he is a spy trying to undermine Egypt is, to put it bluntly, quite insane. I echo Nathan Brown’s comment that it is more likely that Joe Biden is a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army than that the charges against Professor Shahin are accurate. The charges in the indictment include espionage, leading an illegal organisation, providing a banned organisation with information and financial support, calling for the suspension of the constitution, preventing state institutions and authorities from performing their functions, harming national unity and social harmony, and causing to change the government by force. This last one is particularly laughable coming from a government that sits where it does because it carried out a military coup.
In all the time I spent with Professor Shahin, I found him to be fair, open-minded, intellectually honest, accepting of criticism, and above all imbued with a deep love and concern for his country. He was someone who recognized very early on that governments in the region would have to engage with political Islam and he tried to suggest ways in which this could happen, but he was not in any way a water carrier for or even supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, an advocate of violence, or tolerant of authoritarianism in any guise. My masters thesis back in 2007 argued that Islamist parties were the ones most likely to be successful in Muslim-majority states and that the U.S. should identify ways of supporting Islamist parties amenable to coexisting with the West, with a focus on the ideological evolution of Ennahda in Tunisia and the AKP in Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood was not one of the parties I identified as being sympathetic to the West, and Professor Shahin never suggested in any way that it was or argued that it was a moderate body worthy of Western support. Professor Shahin was also modest, reserved, soft spoken, and respectful to everyone with whom I ever saw him interact. In short, it boggles the mind that anyone would possibly think he is a covert Muslim Brotherhood leader seeking to overthrow the current Egyptian government in favor of an Islamist regime.
More broadly though, the nonsensical charges against Professor Shahin point to something I argued months ago, namely that crackdowns by an authoritarian government on one group always lead to the spread of a much wider net designed to ensnare all opposition of any stripe. Professor Shahin has been consistently critical of authoritarianism in Egypt, from the Mubarak regime to the Muslim Brotherhood government under Mohamed Morsi to the current military government. It is no surprise that the government is now trying to portray him as a Muslim Brotherhood stooge, as it has based its legitimacy on eliminating what it has deemed a terrorist threat and so the strategy is to lump anyone it can under that umbrella. But charging Professor Shahin with espionage and charging Amr Hamzawy with insulting the judiciary, both of whom are part of what might be deemed the liberal opposition, is a harbinger of what is to come, which will be a crackdown on non-Islamist critics of the government. When I wrote in Foreign Affairs in August that the Islamists were the first target but wouldn’t be the last and compared the situation in Egypt to that in Tunisia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali quickly moved against his secular and liberal opponents after he had dispatched Ennahda, some veteran Egypt experts argued that I was wrong and that the response to the Brotherhood was “special” so that liberals would be discredited but not put down. I take no pleasure in the fact that the Shahin affair appears to be vindicating my position, and I’d add that this is unlikely to be an isolated incident. Each situation is unique, but there is a reason that political scientists like to compare things, and if Tunisia continues to serve as a reliable guide – and I think that it will – the critical non-Islamist press, politicians, academics, and intellectuals are going to start finding themselves on the wrong end of these types of bogus charges with an unsettling frequency.
I hope that enough pressure is put on the Egyptian government, both internally and externally, to have the charges against Professor Shahin dropped so that he can return to his country if he so chooses. If he is forced to spend the rest of his time in the U.S., however, it will be American academia’s gain and another unnecessary loss for Egypt.
October 23, 2013 § 6 Comments
On Monday, Israel’s High Court cleared the way for Israel to export 40% of its new natural gas bonanza after rejecting petitions that challenged the government’s export plan. The Israeli government harbors high hopes of reaching $60 billion in profits over the next two decades from natural gas exports, and so the High Court’s decision is being celebrated as paving the way for an economic windfall. The problem is that there are some very big and intractable regional issues that have to be settled before Israel sees even a shekel from gas exports, and the prospect for all of this coming together is quite slim. If anything, Israel’s natural gas fields are going to end up sparking competition and regional destabilization rather than the opposite.
There are two ways for Israel to export its natural gas. The first is via pipeline to Turkey and hooking up with the planned TANAP or TAP pipelines in order to send Israeli gas to the rest of Europe. The prospects of Israel and Turkey cooperating on a pipeline deal at this point are laughable when the two sides cannot even agree on something as basic and simple as compensation for the Mavi Marmara deaths, not to mention the most recent unpleasantness between the two countries. Let’s assume for a moment though that cooler heads are able to prevail and mutual economic interests override the basic domestic politics of both countries, there is still a thornier problem of geography. A pipeline from Israel to Turkey has two possible routes. The first runs through Lebanon and Syria, which is a non-starter for all sorts of obvious reasons. The second route is undersea and has to travel through Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone. Given the animosity between Turkey and Cyprus and Turkey’s adamant insistence that is does not and never has occupied any part of Cyprus, reconciliation between these two parties over an issue that has been dubbed a diplomats’ graveyard is not on the horizon. It is true that there are many good reasons for a deal to happen, from the fact that there is a lot of money at stake to the fact that Turkey is completely isolated on the Cyprus issue and is the only country in the world that even recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as an independent state, but that doesn’t mean that movement is imminent. Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected a painstakingly negotiated federal model in 2004, and there is no reason to think that opinion on this has changed. What this means is that a pipeline, which would be the most cost-effective and easiest solution, is out for now.
The other way for Israel to export its gas is to liquify it and ship LNG to Turkey and other destinations. This comes with its own set of challenges as well. The first is that liquifying natural gas is an expensive process that reduces profit margins as compared to shipping it via pipeline. On top of the process itself, it requires building an LNG terminal that takes approximately 3-5 years to build and costs somewhere between $5 billion and $10 billion, which cuts into profits even further. An LNG terminal is unlikely to be built in Israel itself due to legal and environmental challenges, which again leaves Cyprus as the natural partner, but absent reconciliation between Turkey and Cyprus, shipping LNG to Turkey from a Cypriot LNG terminal is likely off the table. Without a Turkish market for gas, Israel is not going to expend the time and resources to build a LNG terminal in Cyprus to then have it essentially be bricked. Even assuming that Turkey and Cyprus are able to patch things up and Israel goes the LNG route, the security challenges posed by protecting an Israeli LNG terminal that is in Cyprus rather than in Israel and then protecting Israeli tankers plying the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean are enormous. Israeli ships carrying Israeli natural gas are immediately going to become an attractive target for all manner of jihadi and terrorist groups, and the Israeli Navy does not now have the capacity to protect such a potentially large venture.
So the bottom line is that a boom in natural gas exports is not assured by any means. No matter which way Israel turns, the path to huge profits from natural gas is complicated by geopolitics that have so far proved immune to easy resolution. In the short term, the answer is likely to send natural gas to Jordan, which will be profitable to a limited extent since Jordan is not a very big market. Another cheap alternative with much larger potential is to export to Egypt, but despite Energy Minister Silvan Shalom’s insistence that this avenue is open, the Egyptians claim that they have no interest in buying Israel’s natural gas.
Looking at the bigger picture, Israel’s long term problem may be more serious than simply not having a viable market for its exports. Turkey and Egypt both project very high growth in energy demand with no real energy resources of their own at the moment, and they are sitting next to countries – Israel and Cyprus – that are resource rich and with whom they do not have great relations. In addition, there are claims on Eastern Mediterranean gas fields being made by Lebanon and by the Palestinians in Gaza, not to mention Northern Cyprus’s claims to the fields claimed by the Cypriot government. How these tensions will be resolved is unclear and anyone’s guess, but a very combustible situation is developing, and the idea of major resource conflict at some point is not all that far-fetched. Should the Israel-Turkey-Cyrpus triangle not get resolved to each party’s relative satisfaction, the Eastern Mediterranean may very well become a lot less placid.