How To Lose Friends And Not Influence Anyone

February 18, 2016 § 4 Comments

Israel in the last week has presented two classic case studies on strategic blundering and on precisely how not to conduct a successful foreign policy. One of these cases resulted in little more than embarrassment, but the other will actually have tangible consequences for Israel’s security and long-term military planning. Let’s look at both to see if there are any lessons to be learned for Israel going forward.

The first is the fight with the European Union over labeling goods made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. When the EU issued its labeling guidelines, the Israeli government’s response was to officially suspend diplomatic contacts with the EU on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was not merely a cosmetic measure; it came on the heels of Israel withdrawing from bilateral forums with the EU and calling the EU ambassador to Israel on the carpet, and was seen as Israel’s harshest available punishment against the EU in response to the labeling initiative. The presumed intention behind this move was to force the EU to reconsider, admit that it had gone too far, and withdraw the decision. Israel wasn’t wrong; I think that Israel was largely in the right given the way the EU guidelines differentiate between Jewish goods and Palestinian goods (an element that the U.S. guidelines do not have). But Prime Minister Netanyahu, the cabinet, and politicians across the entire spectrum made a big deal over the limited suspension of diplomatic contacts, and played it up as Israel using its power to change EU policy.

So you can imagine just how embarrassed Netanyahu and the government must have been last week when the suspension of diplomatic contacts was halted despite the EU not withdrawing its labeling guidelines. Furthermore, during the conversation between Netanyahu and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in which Netanyahu agreed to end the diplomatic suspension, Mogherini specifically reiterated the EU’s view that labeling does not constitute a boycott and did not promise that no further measures would be forthcoming. In other words, Israel accomplished nothing but angering EU countries even further, and possibly shot itself in the foot by prompting the emerging French initiative for an international peace conference. The bluster and rage turned out to be irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst.

The second case is still developing, but it is over the amount of annual U.S. military assistance to Israel. Close followers of this issue will recall that in the aftermath of the absolutely disastrous maneuver that was Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last March, Israel repeatedly deferred discussing the next ten year Memorandum of Understanding that would govern the amount and type of aid until after the Iran deal was either accepted or rejected by Congress – despite the fact that it was clear as day that the votes to reject it were not there – while Israeli officials anonymously expressed confidence that it wouldn’t matter. Except that now it turns out that rejecting repeated U.S. offers to negotiate did in fact matter, as Israel is unhappy with what is now being offered and Israeli officials now anonymously express that Israel would have received a deal more to their liking had they not waited until the Iran deal was concluded and implemented. My guess is that ultimately the aid package will be more than Israel is being offered right now but still less than Israeli officials were anticipating over the spring and summer when they were casually tossing out the number of $5 billion annually as if it was signed, sealed, delivered. Make no mistake though, this is a strategic failure of enormous magnitude, and is just the latest fallout from last March’s speech, which brought Israel not a single measurable benefit.

So what are the lessons from these two episodes for Israeli strategic engagement and diplomacy going forward? Some people will no doubt infer from both of them that the European Union and the Obama administration are out to get Israel and jumped at the chance to do so. I think, however, that there are more level-headed takeaways. First, leverage is paramount in any negotiation and Israel plunged headfirst into both when its leverage was about as weak as it could be. Jerusalem went hard after the EU after Netanyahu and the cabinet had spent over a year making it clear that they were not interested in any type of peace process and only a few days after Netanyahu had rejected separate U.S. and Quartet entreaties to take steps in the West Bank that would demonstrate a commitment to two states. Similarly, Israel purposely put off negotiations over the aid MOU until it had no cards left to play on the Iran deal and after the world had largely moved on. When the U.S. and other world powers were focused on mitigating the Iran threat, then Israel was in the best position to push for military assistance that would blunt that threat. But even in foreign policy, states and leaders have short attention spans, and now that the bandwidth is being consumed almost entirely by Syria and most American decision makers view the threat from Iran as having been temporarily rectified, Israel is not going to find itself with quite so receptive an audience.

Second is that Israel made the mistake of behaving like a global power rather than the regional power that it is. It is mind-boggling that Netanyahu or anyone else genuinely thought that suspending some diplomatic contacts with the EU was going to rattle it into changing its policies in fear of what might come next. It is mind-boggling that Netanyahu or anyone else genuinely thought that it could get anything and everything that it wanted from this administration or any administration (remember how President George W. Bush refused to give Israel bunker busters in 2008?) no matter the context. This isn’t a matter of states disrespecting the world’s only Jewish state. It is a matter of an ironclad law of international relations, which is that relative power matters. Israel too often acts as if it is dealing with equals when in fact it is the subordinate party when it comes to the EU and even more so the U.S.

Finally, as with Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, there is an element of hubris and a complete misreading of domestic politics involved. The settlement labeling initiative, which passed the European Parliament 525-70, isn’t even a close call in European politics; the idea that the Israeli government believed that it could downgrade relations with the EU and get a different result was hopelessly naïve. Truth be told, Israel’s response probably only reinforced for many European leaders that they were making the right move. On the U.S. side of things, following the Congressional speech debacle, months of intensive lobbying against President Obama’s signature foreign policy priority, and open statements and insinuations that the White House wasn’t smart or knowledgeable enough to know what it was doing, Israel expected none of these factors to impact at all on dealings going forward. To call this foolish is being charitable. This isn’t to say that Israel shouldn’t have taken these steps if it actually thought that they would affect the outcome of the Iran deal, but that it shouldn’t have done them without first thinking through the consequences and accepting the costs. These are all things that should be on the minds of Israel’s leaders going forward when they make decisions on which pitches to swing at and which pitches to take.

Truth In Advertising

February 4, 2016 § 1 Comment

There has been much sound and fury over the past couple of weeks over labeling; more specifically, over the labeling rules for goods coming into the United States that are produced in the West Bank. There is lots of misinformation going around about the rules and even why they are now in the news, so in order to make it easier to have an informed opinion, I thought I’d write a quick and handy guide to the labeling controversy answering everyone’s questions.

Why is the Obama administration coming up with new ways to punish Israelis when there are much bigger problems going on in the Middle East? Actually, the Obama administration didn’t come up with anything new here at all. The labeling controversy erupted as a result of U.S. Customs and Border Protection issuing a reminder on January 23 about the existing rules on the books for how products made in the West Bank must be labeled. The rules, which were enacted in 1995 with the support of the Israeli government as a way to boost the Palestinian economy, state that any products made in the West Bank or Gaza shall be labeled as coming from the West Bank or Gaza but cannot be labeled with the phrases “Israel,” “Made in Israel,” “Occupied Territories-Israel,” or a similar variation. It is an open question as to why Customs decided to issue this reminder now for a rule that has been honored more by its breach than its enforcement. It could have been a matter of routine, it could have been as a result of outside complaints, it could have been due to the new EU settlement goods regulation, or it could have been because the White House or State Department asked for it to be done. For those who want to assume the worst and jump on President Obama for his perfidious treatment of Israel, however, let’s remember that the same people now calling for the president’s head over a low level bureaucratic organization issuing a policy reminder twisted themselves into knots in insisting that Prime Minister Netanyahu was entirely in the dark when a low level bureaucratic organization issued plans for new construction in Ramat Shlomo during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel in March 2010. Funny how all perceived affronts to the U.S. committed by Israel are nothing but unfortunate mistakes of timing or bureaucratic slip ups beyond the prime minister’s control, but any perceived false move toward Israel from one of the executive branch’s four and a half million employees must have been cooked up in the Oval Office by the president himself. 

Who cares whether the president did this himself or not? How dare anyone allow the boycott of goods made by Israelis! Why is the president supporting BDS? I agree; economic and cultural boycotts of Israel and Israelis are odious in my view, and the BDS movement is about destroying Israel as a Jewish state rather than ending the occupation of the West Bank. Of course, we may as well be discussing the merits of the revamped Boston Red Sox starting pitching staff as discussing BDS, since they both are equally irrelevant to the topic at hand. As we all know from the Israeli government’s position over Israel’s proposed NGO bill, labeling things is about transparency and information rather than about a value judgment. In any event, whether you think that labeling things is justified or not, it is certainly a completely different animal than a boycott since it places no barriers on anyone’s ability to buy goods made in the West Bank.

Ok, fine. But the Obama administration is singling out stuff made by Jews! Isn’t that only a short skip and a jump away from the Nazis and the Nuremberg Laws? This is a popular position being expressed in my Facebook feed, but it has the unfortunate element of being not true. The key difference between U.S. labeling requirements and European labeling requirements is that the U.S. does not distinguish between goods made by Jews or Palestinians, or between goods produced in Jewish settlements versus goods produced in Palestinian towns and villages. To suggest that this is a measure targeting Jews is completely wrong, since a widget produced in Efrat is given the same label as a widget produced in Jenin. In fact, the American labeling regulation should actually appeal in many ways to the pro-Israel community, since it does not allow for a category of “Made in Palestine,” which the EU explicitly mandates as an option, and it also rules out using the phrase “Occupied Territories.” Unlike the EU regulation, the U.S. version explicitly recognizes that the West Bank is disputed territory still subject to negotiation.

Your absence of outrage over this is outrageous. Why aren’t you angry? Quite simply, this is a policy that not only makes sense to me, but comports with Israel’s official position on the West Bank. Israel has not annexed the West Bank, and the core of the defense of Israeli democracy despite the occupation is precisely that the West Bank has a different status. Mirroring Israel’s treatment of the West Bank as a distinctly separate entity without prejudicing the outcome of any future permanent status agreement is something with which I find it hard to quibble.

Furthermore, maintaining a conceptual barrier between Israel and the West Bank makes it harder to delegitimize Israel down the road. Conflation of Israel and the West Bank is precisely what the BDS movement tries to accomplish through the back door. It denounces Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but also denounces Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state by calling for a full right of return, and by relying on people not sophisticated enough to grasp the distinction between Israel and territories under Israel’s control, it marshals those who oppose the occupation into actually opposing Israel itself. The very core of the BDS argument – that Israel is an illegitimate apartheid state – rests on erasing any line between Israel and the territories under Israeli military control and then arguing that robust Israeli democracy inside of the Green Line makes no difference because of what takes place beyond it. Why should the U.S. assist in this maneuver by itself erasing the difference? People will make up their own minds as to whether the U.S. rule on labeling is innocuous or an affront, but to throw a fit over a reminder about a twenty year old law that was enacted at Israel’s behest; that in no way boycotts Israeli goods but in fact treats all goods made in the West Bank identically irrespective of who made them; that does not use the terms Palestine or occupation; and that reflects Israel’s own view of the West Bank’s status; is to my mind a waste of energy that should be directed elsewhere.

Where You Stand Depends On Where You Sit

January 7, 2016 § 4 Comments

The discourse in Israel lately has got me thinking about my first year of law school. One of the first things we were taught was that success in the law (and on law school exams) relies on being able to distinguish cases based on different facts. You may have two similar corporations that refuse to honor similar contracts under similar circumstances, but one will be a breach of contract and one will not depending on all sorts of mitigating factors. In observing what is deemed to be acceptable or not by the Israeli government and its supporters on one side and its detractors on the other, it is handy to have a decision tree at the ready.

For example, let’s examine the issue of foreign funding for non-profit non-governmental organizations. The recent NGO bill that is causing such a stir after passing an initial vote in the cabinet is predicated on the assumption that accepting too much money from sources outside of Israel effectively makes organizations foreign agents who may have nefarious ulterior motives. Its sponsor, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, made that argument explicitly in an op-ed this week in which, after comparing the proposed bill to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, she wrote, “Like the United States, we have discovered in recent years the danger posed by the existence of forces financed by foreign money.” So the problem appears to be foreign influence, right?

Except that the bill only applies to money coming from foreign governments, not from individuals. Perhaps that is because the bill’s sponsors and supporters only view foreign influence as nefarious if it is governmental influence and not general non-Israeli influence, which is certainly a reasonable position to take. Or perhaps it is because leftwing Israeli NGOs tend to receive their funding from foreign governments while rightwing Israeli NGOs tend to receive their funding from foreign individuals. Or perhaps it is because the most prominent example of foreign funding in Israel is the country’s highest circulation newspaper, the pro-Netanyahu Yisrael Hayom, which is owned by Sheldon Adelson and distributed for free to the tune of millions of dollars lost annually, so decrying any and all foreign monetary influence would quickly become awkward. The point is, it is difficult to take a position on foreign funding without consulting your scorecard.

The same goes for labeling, which is another component of the NGO bill. Representatives from affected NGOs would be required to wear special identification badges while in the Knesset similar to the ones required of lobbyists. The bill’s supporters – which include the entire Israeli cabinet that voted for it unanimously – describe this as a victory for transparency and good government in that it only provides MKs with information without actually impeding the ability of NGOs to operate. More information leads to better and accurately informed decisions, and so there is no problem with slapping informational labels on stuff, right?

Except that this argument gets turned on its head when it applies to the European Union guidelines calling for goods produced beyond the Green Line to carry labels declaring them to come from the settlements. In that instance, proponents of the effort to label NGOs based on where their funding originates fundamentally oppose the effort to label goods based on where their production originates. Shaked, for instance, stated in response to the EU that “European hypocrisy and hatred of Israel has crossed every line” and that the move was anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist. The free speech for me but not for thee dynamic is not, of course, confined to Shaked or the Israeli right. The EU, which insists that the settlement goods labeling initiative is nothing more than an apolitical technical move, stating “The Commission is providing guidance to the EU member states and economic operators to ensure the uniform application of the rules on indication of origins of Israeli settlement produce,” unsurprisingly does not view the NGO bill in a similar light. Rather than viewing it as a mechanism to ensure uniform application of information on origins of NGO funding, the EU’s response was to warn Israel about “reigning in its prosperous democratic society with laws that are reminiscent of totalitarian regimes.” As with foreign funding, one’s perspective on labeling depends on where you happen to be sitting with regard to the particular initiative under consideration.

Other examples abound as well. When Netanyahu declared last week that he was not willing to accept pockets of citizens who do not abide by the laws of the state and who instead foment hatred and radicalism, it would have been a logical response to the indictment of Amiram Ben Ulliel, the alleged murderer of Ali Dawabshe, who is part of a larger movement of hilltop youth that are plotting to overthrow the state. Netanyahu instead was referring to the Arab Israeli sector following the shooting rampage carried out by Nashat Melhem, a lone gunman who has not been tied to any larger group or plot. While Netanyahu’s condemnation of Ben Ulliel has been unequivocal, his tarring of all Israeli Arabs for the actions of one compared to how he speaks about the radical right as isolated from any broader trends speaks volumes. Far more egregious is Joint List MK Osama Sa’adi, who refused to categorize the October murders of Eitam and Na’ama Henkin as terrorism because “Settlers are occupiers that steal the land of the Palestinian nation. We are against harming innocent civilians, but there is a difference between settlers, who are occupiers, and Tel Aviv.” Or Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich, who says that the Dawabshe firebombing was not terrorism because terrorism can only be perpetrated against Israelis, not by them.

Perhaps issues in Israel are always so divisive and subject to hypocrisy and I am falling prey to the availability heuristic, but the current period seems to be more rife with such examples than usual. It would be great if everyone could take a deep breath, acknowledge that some issues are indeed matters of life and death and others aren’t, and see that a little more consistency combined with a dose of empathy would do the entire country some good. Unfortunately, I fear that I am destined to remain frustrated.

Tom Friedman Dashes Any Hopes I Had For A Peace Deal

February 4, 2014 § 8 Comments

As regular readers know (although since I have been so neglectful about blogging, I’m not sure I can legitimately claim to have any regular readers anymore), I am never optimistic that a successful Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is on the horizon. For some reasons why not, you can read this or this or this or this. The two sides are way too far apart on core issues, don’t even necessarily agree about what the most important core issues are, make demands that the other side will not meet, and feel that they have better options available to them, not to mention the fact that the negotiations are designed to rectify the problems of 1967 when in reality the issue is 1948. There is no sense of urgency and the two sides are completely talking past each other. Despite all of this, the reports from the Kerry camp have been consistently optimistic, the team led by Martin Indyk has been beefing up staff, and it actually seems like maybe both sides will accept a framework agreement. So despite my conviction that none of this will lead to anything permanent or concrete, maybe it all demonstrates that there is some light at the end of a very far tunnel.

And then I read Tom Friedman’s column this week in the New York Times, and I am now even more pessimistic than before. Entitled “Abbas’s NATO Proposal,” it turns on the idea that NATO will have to keep troops in the West Bank indefinitely in order to have the security arrangements for a peace deal fulfilled. In Abbas’s words, NATO troops “can stay to reassure the Israelis, and to protect us. We will be demilitarized. … Do you think we have any illusion that we can have any security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?” Friedman argues that this is a suggestion worthy of consideration because it meets Israeli security needs and meets Palestinians needs to not have an Israeli military presence in the West Bank after an initial five year period, and presumably only NATO can bridge this gap.

It all sounds very nice, but the fact that Abbas is pushing it says to me that he is either fundamentally unserious or knows just how desperate the situation is, and neither of those possibilities is encouraging. None of the three constituencies involved in this scenario would ever actually accept the parameters as Friedman lays them out. Start with the Palestinians, for whom it would be a hard sell having some security force confined to the Jordan Valley, and then think about the idea of having foreign troops spread throughout an entire Palestinian state forever. It is one thing to have foreign troops confined to a very distinct area, as is the case with American troops in South Korea, and quite another to have them literally anywhere and everywhere. I find it hard to believe that Abbas speaks for his own constituency in opening up this possibility, let alone for groups like Hamas that don’t accept his authority at all. The loss of sovereignty that comes with a demilitarized state is a hard enough obstacle to overcome, and throwing this additional factor on top blows the whole thing up. Troops for a finite number of years, or confined to a specific location, or with limited authority; these are all things that are potentially workable from the perspective of what the Palestinian side might reasonably accept. What Abbas suggests is not, plain and simple, and it makes me wonder whether he has any credibility left on his own side.

Next come the Israelis, who as Abbas relayed via Friedman do not want to have any third party overseeing their own security, and rightly so. UN troops based in Sinai literally cleared out of the way in 1967 when Nasser ordered them out in preparation for a strike against Israel (a strike that the Israelis preempted with the Six Day War), and the UN force in Lebanon hasn’t exactly been effective at preventing Hizballah from shooting rockets across the border, abducting soldiers, or conducting sniper attacks. That Friedman brings these examples up as something that Israel has tolerated before is completely removed from the reality of what Israel will accept when it comes to territory right on Tel Aviv’s doorstep. In both of these instances, foreign forces meant to in some measure safeguard Israeli security have been complete and unmitigated failures. Furthermore, Friedman is talking about NATO troops, and in case you haven’t been paying attention, Israel and various European NATO countries aren’t always on the best of terms. Israel is convinced that Europe is out to get it and that Europeans side with the Palestinians over the Israelis in every instance – convictions, by the way, that are not entirely unrooted in fact – and accepting American troops as guarantors of Israeli security would maybe, maybe eventually be ok with the Israelis. But NATO troops as the first line of defense against Palestinian rockets? I find it very hard to see an Israeli government that can be elected in the current climate ever acceding to that condition.

Finally comes NATO itself. Think about the reaction the vast majority of Americans have right now to sending U.S. troops to another location overseas in order to fight a war or safeguard vital American interests. Then think about the reaction people will have to sending U.S. troops to police a political and territorial dispute in which we are not involved in any way. Then realize that nearly every other NATO country is even more reticent than we are to put troops into harm’s way, particularly when it will involve those troops being stationed in a Muslim-majority country. I could keep going, but it seems unnecessary at this point. No elected politician will be able to justify any type of real commitment to such an operation, and quite frankly, why would they even if they could get away with it politically? I care about Israeli-Palestinian peace as much as anyone, but this is not something that NATO countries will be eagerly signing up for, not to mention that it is well, well beyond NATO’s mandate. Is Abbas or Friedman suggesting that a NATO country is at risk, necessitating placing NATO troops inside the West Bank? Or that NATO has somehow evolved into an organization that is willing to send its resources anywhere in the world for the sake of peace?

The bottom line is that if this proposal is what a peace agreement will hinge upon, you can forget seeing anything resembling a permanent agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians for decades. I hope Abbas has something else up his sleeve.

Optimism and Pessimism On The New Round Of Peace Talks

July 25, 2013 § 13 Comments

Now that reports are surfacing that negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians are scheduled to begin in Washington on Tuesday – although there are also conflicting reports that Saeb Erekat is going to stay home until the Israelis agree to use the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations over the final border – it seems like a good time to lay out some reasons for optimism and reasons for pessimism about whether these talks are fated to go anywhere. Since I am generally pretty cynical about such things, let’s start with the reasons why I think the talks may fail. One of the biggest obstacles is the domestic politics involved. Brent Sasley has written a thorough piece arguing that the politics right now on the Israeli side are actually favorable for meaningful negotiations and concessions, but I tend to see things differently. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not shown the willingness in the past to actually deal with the hard choices involved in coming to an agreement, and while that does not mean that he is incapable of doing so, nothing in his past indicates that he is an enthusiastic peace process negotiator. If he is being dragged to the negotiating table unwillingly through a combination of pressure and quid pro quo for past U.S. security assistance, it is not going to bode well for the final outcome. Even if he is doing it of his own volition, which is certainly in the realm of possibility, the fact that he seems unwilling to accede to measures such as relinquishing sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem – which is going to have to be in any deal that the Palestinians will accept – is a bad omen. Then there is the problem of Netanyahu’s party. The current iteration of the Likud is the most right wing in its history, and a large bloc, if not an outright majority of the party, does not trust Netanyahu and is adamantly opposed to negotiations. In fact, an increasingly large subset of Likud members, led by Danny Danon, have been openly calling for Israel to annex the West Bank and ditch the two state solution in favor of the rightwing version of a one state solution. It is also the case that the more radical Likud members now control the party’s policy apparatus and serve as deputy ministers in the government; in fact, it seems as if Netanyahu is refuting the latest nonsense from Deputy Defense Minister Danon every other week. Sasley argues that this cast of characters is aware that they cannot win without Netanyahu and will ultimately fall in line, but I am not nearly so certain. Plenty of Likud voters will vote for the party if, say, Bogie Ya’alon is the headliner, and I don’t think that the Likud ministers and back benchers are going to sit idly by if Netanyahu begins to give up territory in the West Bank or order the evacuation of settlements. They have staked their political reputations almost entirely on rejectionism of the two state solution, and just because Netanyahu asks them nicely does not mean that they would not rather have a smaller but purer version of the Likud. See the experience that John Boehner has had with his own unruly caucus of House Republican newcomers as a parallel to how this would play out. Furthermore, Netanyahu is being kept afloat by his temporary merger with Yisrael Beiteinu, which he wants to turn into a permanent one. Without the extra YB votes, Likud immediately loses 10-12 seats in the Knesset. The problem is that Avigdor Lieberman is in many ways the original rightwing one stater, and there is simply no way in which he agrees to keep the two parties together once settlements are given up. Netanyahu knows this, which provides another incentive to make sure that talks break down along their usual pattern. The same problem exists with coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi, which has repeatedly threatened to leave the government over the issue of freezing settlements and whose head, Naftali Bennett, is also an advocate of annexation. Sasley argues that pulling out of the coalition will risk breaking the party apart, leaving Bennett politically homeless, and so he can’t risk it. I think the much bigger risk to Bennett is the party folding or excommunicating him for selling out his core principles if he agrees to remain in a government that agrees to extricate itself from the West Bank. After all, the party’s very name – Jewish Home in English – is meant to refer to the entirely of the Land of Israel from the river to the sea and explicitly lay claim to all of the territory as part of the Jewish state. The idea that the greater risk in this lies in leaving the government seems to gloss over the very reason the party exists, its history, and its makeup. There is also the issue of a referendum, which Netanyahu has now promised to hold to approve any peace agreement that is struck with the Palestinians. While the latest poll in Ha’aretz indicates that 55% of Israelis would approve a peace agreement, that is in a generic sense. Once the details are factored in and various political parties and lobbying groups begin to play on Israeli fears about security, sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the Jewish character of the state, etc. it will be very easy to siphon off entire groups of voters through scare tactics and populist campaigns. That 55% number is a mirage, akin to the way in which Yair Lapid supports a two state solution but is adamantly opposed to any division of Jerusalem; lots of people support a peace deal in theory, but the devil is in the details. Bennett knows this, which is why Habayit Hayehudi has pushed to extend the Basic Law that requires a referendum to approve giving up land that Israel has annexed – East Jerusalem and the Golan – to include the West Bank as well. The hope on the right is that a referendum will doom any successful negotiations for good. Finally, there is the Palestinian side. There is no need to rehash here all of the various arguments over Mahmoud Abbas and whether he rejected Ehud Olmert’s offer of 99% of the West Bank or whether he simply did not respond because Olmert was a lame duck and out of office before he even had a chance. My own opinion is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I am not as convinced as others on the left that Abbas is a willing a peace negotiator. The insistence on preconditions to negotiating is a tactic designed to doom talks, and the fact that Abbas was not willing to jump on Netanyahu’s partial 10 month building freeze a couple of years ago as the excuse he needed to reenter talks does not bolster the case of those who want to pin all of the blame on the Israeli side. Abbas may indeed want to talk, but I do not think it is fair to portray him as champing at the bit to get started. On the flip side, there are reasons to be optimistic. While, as I noted above, Netanyahu has not shown a propensity in the past to reach an agreement that the Palestinians can reasonably accept, he certainly appears to have arrived at the realization that Israel’s international standing is becoming more precarious by the day. The EU guidelines on settlements last week seem to have been a wakeup call of sorts, and his now repeated public warnings that Israel is facing a real prospect of a binational state indicate that his attitude in 2013 is very different than it was during his tenure as prime minister in the mid-90s or during the beginning of his current stint in 2009. In addition, as Dahlia Scheindlin has pointed out, polls consistently and repeatedly show support for a two state solution, 83 out of 120 seats in the current Knesset are controlled by parties theoretically supporting two states, and the support for two states remains even when you add various line items about specific concessions into the polling questions. In this light, the referendum may turn out to be a very good thing, since it will reinforce the move toward a negotiated solution. It is also encouraging that Netanyahu is seeking political cover to do what needs to be done, since if he negotiates a deal that is then approved by the Israeli electorate, it will be difficult for the right to claim that he has overstepped his authority. Finally, there is the fact that the best way for negotiations to succeed is if the specific details are kept under wraps, and any concessions made by either side are not wielded by opponents of two states as populist cudgels designed to doom the talks. John Kerry has done a good job of this by not publicly outlining the conditions that each side have agreed to in order for talks to resume, but even more encouragingly so has Netanyahu. There is currently a purposeful cloud of ambiguity hovering over the question of whether Israel has frozen settlement construction or not, with Netanyahu denying such a freeze exists and Housing Minister Uri Ariel saying that the de facto and unannounced policy in place is not allowing for any new construction. This, more than anything, is the most hopeful sign of all, since if Netanyahu has actually frozen settlement construction while trying to trick his party and coalition into thinking that he has done no such thing, it is a more serious indication of his desire to really strike a deal than any other datapoint I have seen. P.S. To watch me talk about this more extensively, here is a link to a video of a roundtable hosted by David Halperin and the Israel Policy Forum that I did yesterday with Hussein Ibish and Dahlia Scheindlin. It’s long, but an interesting and thorough discussion of the various issues involved.

Israel’s Head-Scratching Response To The EU

July 17, 2013 § 9 Comments

It has been a puzzling couple of days when it comes to Israel’s foreign relations. The big story dominating newspaper headlines in Israel and causing a general uproar is the new European Union guidelines setting forth the policy of the EU not to have any dealings in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or the Golan, and requiring EU agreements with Israel to contain a clause explicitly stating that the settlements are not part of Israel. This has predictably and understandably caused much angst in all reaches of the Israeli government, with Prime Minister Netanyahu angrily stating that Israel will not accept any “foreign dictates” about its borders and making clear that he thinks harping on settlements is absurd when there are more pressing regional problems such as the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear program. In the meantime, government ministers are calling for retaliation against the EU such as limiting EU diplomats’ travel in the West Bank, and despite the fact that the new regulations appear not to be quite as far reaching as first reported and are only binding on EU institutions rather than on member states individually, this is a diplomatic crisis of first-rate proportions that is unlikely to die down anytime soon.

While the Israeli government appears to have been caught off-guard by this decision – which, by the way, is what happens when you eviscerate the Foreign Ministry and don’t even bother to appoint a separate Foreign Minister other than Netanyahu himself – it should have seen this coming a mile away. As Brent Sasley noted yesterday, this is only the latest signal in a long line of them that the international community in general and the EU in particular takes settlements seriously and sees them as a real and genuine obstacle to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Now, the Israeli government and outside observers can rage all day that settlements are not the primary cause of the conflict, and there is a large measure of truth to this, but there are two important things to keep in mind. First, just because settlements may not have caused the conflict does not mean that they aren’t exacerbating it, and second, the key here is that Israel is suffering because much of the world believes that the settlements are indeed the main problem and will not be convinced otherwise. It is this second reason that is germane here, because as long as the EU, which is Israel’s largest trading partner, holds this view of things, Israel is going to deal with increasingly onerous efforts to get it to change its ways. The next step is going to be specially labeling goods produced in the settlements, or expanding these new regulations to cover trade rather than just grants, prizes, and financial instruments, or requiring settlers to get special visas to travel to EU countries. Israel can get as angry as it likes, but making reciprocal threats against the EU or loudly denouncing the Europeans as biased is going to get Israel absolutely nowhere, and it’s a shame that Netanyahu is still too blind to realize that what he is doing will not ease Israel’s burden one iota. I understand the Israeli government’s anger here, particularly when it comes to East Jerusalem, and I am certain that announcing these regulations just when it seems that John Kerry is on the verge of convincing the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table without preconditions will doom those efforts entirely. After all, if the EU is now demanding that Israel acknowledge in agreements that the settlements are not part of Israel, why should Mahmoud Abbas negotiate that point with the Israelis at all?

Nevertheless, Israel has to deal with the situation as it is, not as it wishes it to be. In a perfect world as far as the Netanyahu government is concerned, the EU would focus its ire on Tehran for the violations of international agreements it has committed in its pursuit of its nuclear program and leave the settlements on the back burner. This, however, is wishful thinking, and the over the top admonishments and hectoring of the EU accomplishes absolutely nothing. If Netanyahu were smart, he would have downplayed this entire thing, kept his head down, and resumed working toward getting back to negotiating or even unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank entirely. Instead, he made it crystal clear that Israel will not change its policies or back down in the face of pressure, and that nobody will lecture Israel on what it must do. That’s all fine and good, and Netanyahu can do whatever he pleases, but do not for one second think that Israel’s situation is going to improve absent some change of policy on its part. Netanyahu can either continue living in his fantasy land of griping and complaining about the rest of the world, or he can come to grips with the reality of things and work to improve his country’s international standing. Israel’s being singled out may not be fair and it may feel good to lash out against what the government sees as its tormentors, but being the grownup in the room means recognizing the situation for what it is, acknowledging that some things cannot be changed no matter how much you wish it otherwise, and figuring out the best solution for moving forward. This has nothing to do with blaming Israel, not recognizing the Palestinians’ agency, moral equivalence, rewarding bad behavior, or anything else; it is a simple reckoning of the world as it exists and trying to improve things within the parameters that Israel has been dealt. With regard to the dispute with the EU, let’s hope that Netanyahu has an epiphany on this sooner rather than later.

Erdoğan, Master Linguist

June 18, 2013 § 6 Comments

When the AKP came to power in 2002, Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party set out on an ambitious mission to remake Turkey’s economy and politics, turn Turkey into a regional power, and step up efforts to join the EU. It was a huge undertaking that was successful in some ways and unsuccessful in others. In recent days, however, the prime minister has embarked on an even greater challenge, since this time he is not content to simply remake Turkey. Instead, Erdoğan has decided to tackle a more global problem, which is redefining words whose definition seems clear in every language but which the prime minister has decided do not adequately reflect realities as he sees them.

Let’s start with the word “terrorist” which is often contested in terms of details but generally means a person who uses violence as a way of causing mass fear and intimidation. It seems relatively simple to distinguish terrorists from people who are not terrorists. For instance, Osama bin Laden is a terrorist for a number of reasons, including bringing down the World Trade Center. The folks who hang out in Franklin Square during my lunch hour are not terrorists since all they are doing is standing around. Erdoğan has apparently decided that the common definition is not good enough because it is too limiting. For him, the word terrorist must encompass all sorts of actions, such as protesting against the government, running away from police who are teargassing you, criticizing the prime minister or the cabinet or the police on Twitter, heading an opposition party, and almost certainly soon to include people who, like the folks in Franklin Square during my lunch hour, just stand around not doing much of anything at all. The new ingenious wave of protests sweeping Turkey encompasses nothing more than standing still, which began with a single man named Erdem Gündüz who spent hours standing silently in Taksim Square and has sparked hundreds of people doing the same (here are some awe-inspiring pictures of the phenomenon, and to see more go to Twitter and search #duranadam). The government claims that it will not intervene in the Duran Adam (Standing Man) protests unless there is a menace to public order, but I have little doubt that in a few days, as this spreads to more cities and grows to even greater heights, that Erdoğan will figure out a way to broaden the definition of “breaking public order” and we will all be enlightened as to how Gündüz is actually a foreign agent acting on the orders of the interest rate lobby, financial lobby, international media, social media, Communists, leftwing terrorists and anarchists, Zionists, foreign provocateurs, and how anyone who emulates him must be a foreign agent as well. And in case you are wondering, yes, he was in fact briefly detained by police for standing, a fate that also met Davide Martello’s piano after he played it for the crowds in Taksim over the weekend. It’s good to know that the piano spent a couple of days in jail, as you can never be too careful when it comes to terrorist musical instruments.

Another term that Erdoğan is having issues with is “democracy.” Just yesterday, we found out from the prime minister that the European Union has no respect for democracy despite it encompassing the largest federation of democratic states in the history of the world. By criticizing Turkey, Erdoğan says that the EU is anti-democratic, which is funny because I was under the impression that democracy had something to do with free and fair contested elections for effective power along with granting and protecting a set of liberties, but apparently democracy is henceforth to be defined as agreeing with the current Turkish government. In fact, while one might argue that the right to criticize, as the EU has done with regard to the Turkish government’s response to the protests, is actually in itself a hallmark of democratic behavior, the prime minister wants to set us straight by letting us know that in fact criticizing the Turkish government is the very definition of anti-democratic behavior. Erdoğan chided the EU for supporting those who attack the freedom of others, since he insists that the Gezi protestors are restricting his own freedom rather than the other way around. Again, I was under the impression that the entity that detains, arrests, beats, teargasses, and chemically burns civilians was the party restricting freedoms, but once again I must be mistaken. Thankfully, Erdoğan has most helpfully educated all of us by instructing the world that it is not the ones who do the detaining, arresting, beating, teargassing, and chemically burning who restrict freedom, but in reality it is the ones who are themselves detained, arrested, beaten, teargassed, and chemically burned who are restricting freedom. As always, good to know. In addition, the prime minister would like us all to be aware that the Turkish police have an “inherent right” to use as much teargas as they please, so I’m happy to see that at least one group’s rights are being zealously protected by the state. And in case you were wondering, Minister for European Affairs Egemen Bağış assures that there is absolutely no state violence in Turkey and that this is all a foreign plot. Phew! I was starting to think that maybe Turkey was having some issues with democracy.

I could go on like this for literally hours, but you get the point. When a government has to resort to the most tortured explanations, absurd rhetorical flights of fancy, and outright dishonesty and dissembling to try and convince the entire world that what it is seeing in the streets is not actually happening, then there is something rotten afoot. I still can’t tell if Erdoğan has completely lost his mind or if this is a deliberate strategy, but no matter what the answer is, the Turkish government is looking more foolish and unhinged by the hour. The government has announced that it is writing new laws to regulate the use of social media in Turkey, and as Yigal Schleifer pointed out earlier today, the irony is thick when a prime minister who was imprisoned for reciting a poem tries to imprison people for exercising their rights to free speech on Twitter and Facebook. As the government moves to arrest people without charges and hold them indefinitely while throwing around vague accusations of terrorism, coup plots, and links to leftwing anarchist groups, it is eerily reminiscent of the prosecutions of the military, which also involved allegations of shadowy conspiracies and detentions without charges. We know how that game ended, and it appears as if the government is once again pulling out the Ergenekon playbook. All the meanwhile, Erdoğan attempts to convince everyone that up is down, black is white, and freedom and democracy mean getting mauled by police for protesting. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. All that’s left is for Erdoğan to announce that the protestors will be dealt with by the Ministry of Love. If you can’t convince your citizens that basic terms mean something other than what everyone always thought they meant, then what’s the point of being prime minister anyway?

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