Israel’s Trumpian Existential Threat

October 13, 2016 § 4 Comments

When your work centers on Israel, you spend a lot of time contemplating existential threats. Whether it is Iran’s nuclear program, Hizballah and Hamas terrorism, Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the specter of Israel ending its presence in the West Bank, the monopoly of the Orthodox on Israel’s religious and family institutions, the threat of allowing the non-Orthodox a say in Israel’s religious and family institutions – everyone has their favorite doomsday scenario for what will bring the end of Israel. I don’t want to debate whose alarmist tendencies are most on point, but there is one clear and present danger looming on the horizon that nobody should casually dismiss, and that is the potential presidency of Donald Trump.

Let’s begin with the easy stuff. American Jews often like to talk about whether or not a candidate feels Israel in his or her kishkes, and for many it can be a quick and easy litmus test for pro-Israel voters. If this is the standard that you employ, there is no conceivable argument that Trump meets it. Trump seems to know nothing about Israel other than that it has built a wall. He has suggested cutting all U.S. foreign aid – which would include the military assistance to Israel – and then embraced making Israel reimburse the U.S. for the defense aid it receives. He then switched course yet again and defended the annual military assistance and missile defense cooperation not on the grounds of Israel being an important ally or because its safety is an American interest or because Israel doesn’t exactly live in a friendly neighborhood, but because it is an “excellent investment.” Given Trump’s history of bailing on investments that have turned sour and leaving his creditors high and dry, I don’t know why anyone would assume that he would treat Israel otherwise were his views of its investment worthiness – whatever that even means – to change.

But let’s leave aside Trump’s emotional attachment to Israel or lack thereof. The actual policy agenda that he has embraced would be disastrous for Israel as well. Trump has made his disdain for allies and alliances clear, treating every relationship that the U.S. has as a transactional one. For a country that relies on the U.S. for weapons, security guarantees, diplomatic assistance in the United Nations and other international forums, and intelligence sharing, to list only a short part of a long menu of items, it would be four or eight years of constant walking on eggshells, hoping that a President Trump views Israel as pulling its perceived weight.

Trump does not actually understand Israel’s specific policy concerns. The major area of disagreement between the U.S. and Israel during the Obama administration has been Iranian power, and yet at the debate this past Sunday night, Trump repeatedly expressed his preference for farming out responsibility and influence in Syria to Iran and Russia so that they could assist Bashar al-Assad. In short, Trump actively wants to further empower Iran in establishing a permanent and dominant presence in Syria, creating the biggest threat on Israel’s immediate border in decades and ensuring that Hizballah has even freer reign than it ever has to stockpile missiles and menace Israel. He has called for Saudi Arabia to develop its own nuclear weapons, which would permanently eliminate Israel’s qualitative military edge. Does this sound like someone who even understands what Israeli security concerns are, let alone a great and glorious friend?

Trump does not understand Israel itself. He has stated that if he is not elected president, the Iran deal will lead to Israel’s elimination. We can debate the merits of the Iran deal from now until Election Day – and Trump is correct that Israeli officials, including those in the security establishment and not just politicians, are not exactly fans – but the notion that only Trump can save Israel runs counter to anything and everything for which Israel stands. It betrays an utter ignorance of the very essence of Zionism, of Jewish power and survival embodied in the Jewish state. It betrays an utter contempt for the Israeli ethos of self-reliance and making “Never Again” more than just a hollow slogan. It betrays an utter incomprehension of Israeli military power, intelligence, and capabilities. It betrays an insulting narcissism that pays lip service to Israel without bothering to learn the first thing about it.

Trump does not understand the U.S.-Israel relationship. He thinks that it is based upon the shared darkness of struggling with terrorism rather than the shared values of democracy. He seizes upon suboptimal choices that Israel has reluctantly made out of necessity – the separation barrier, profiling at Ben Gurion Airport – to bind himself to Israel, never for one second comprehending that Israel does not take these measures with the glee that Trump evinces when discussing them. Every time he unfairly tarnishes Israel by using it as his justification for pushing a set of noxious policy prescriptions that are completely devoid of the Israeli context, Israel’s standing in the U.S. suffers. When naysayers doubt the values aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship, they tend to focus on Israel’s democratic deficit, warning that Israel is in danger of losing its appeal in the eyes of Americans. Not only do Trump’s words of damning praise threaten support for Israel by continually shining a spotlight on Israel’s least attractive side, a Trump presidency will take this dynamic and turn it on its head, making Israel diplomatically captive to an America whose moral leadership is eroded and tarnishing Israel with a guilt-by-association. It is difficult to have a robust alliance that is based primarily on shared values when one side of that alliance is run by an imperious megalomaniac obsessed with punishing his political enemies and eviscerating the rule of law.

During Sunday night’s debate, I tweeted that Trump is an authoritarian. Over the next 24 hours on Twitter, I was called an oven dodger, a dumb kike, a hook-nosed Jew, a Jewish subversive, a traitor, told to “get your ass back to Tel Aviv” and to go back to “your country Israel,” among other pleasantries. My characterization of Trump did not even hint at anything having to do with Jews or Israel, yet the putrescent sleaze emanating from his fans was quite narrowly tailored. I do not hold Trump responsible for what his supporters do and say, and thankfully none of these mental midgets will be responsible for his Israel policy. But think about the political persuasions of Trump’s most ardent fans and remember that this is a man with no real policy ideas that do not involve sound bites and who is captive to whatever crazy idea is the latest to penetrate his skull. And then ask yourself whether you are comfortable with the most powerful leader in the world being someone who lies awake at night retweeting the kind of people who think that an American Jew whose family has been here for over a century should “pack your bags for your walled ethnostate.” There is a wide universe of policies that can be deemed pro-Israel, but I don’t trust that any of them will be reliably implemented by an unapologetically oblivious and proudly uninformed cretin whose policies and statements present a danger to the long term health and interests of his own country’s democracy, let alone one six thousand miles away.

Terrorism and Turkey’s Deal With Israel

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.

The Crisis Of Anti-Zionism

May 5, 2016 § 5 Comments

It’s been a pretty terrible run recently for British politicians who like to wear their opposition to Israel as a badge of honor. The former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, paved the way for the deluge in the course of defending his colleague Naz Shah – herself suspended for anti-Semitic ravings – with his fever dream conspiracy theory that Hitler supported Zionism “before he went mad.” This opened the floodgates, and now it turns out that fifty Labour Party members have been suspended for anti-Semitism and racism (although dollars to donuts the racism part of the Venn diagram that does not overlap with anti-Semitism is nearly non-existent), with surely more to come. This is before one even begins to mention Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who himself has a dodgy history of giving cover to Hamas and Hizballah, defending 9/11 conspiracy theorists who blame the attacks on the Mossad, and cavorting with Holocaust deniers.

The vitriolic rot is not limited to the other side of the pond. Right here at home, there has been Harvard Law student Husam El-Qoulaq asking Israeli MK and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni why she is “so smelly;” the questioner at the Bernie Sanders rally who asserted that “Zionist Jews” run the U.S. economy and control American political campaigns; the UCLA student who was initially barred from joining the student judicial board because her Jewish heritage would allegedly prevent her from fairly considering cases related to Israel activism and BDS; and countless others. All of this has naturally reinvigorated a long-running debate on whether anti-Semitism can be distinct from anti-Zionism – a topic I briefly weighed in on years ago – and how to oppose Zionism without it bleeding over into opposing Jews writ large.

The question is important both intellectually and practically, but it is the wrong question. The question of the moment shouldn’t be whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, but why anti-Zionism as it is being practiced is considered to be within the bounds of acceptability at all, irrespective of the anti-Semitism angle. Whenever someone draws an unwarranted spotlight these days for traversing the thin red line between denouncing Israel versus denouncing Jews, there is an immediate race to say that the offending comments or actions are not anti-Semitic, only anti-Zionist. The unsaid implication is that wholesale delegitimization of Israel is fine so long as it does not extend to Jews as a group, but it is unclear to me why this is somehow seen as a legitimate way of distinguishing cases; the virulence of many of these instances of anti-Zionism is just as ugly as straight anti-Semitism.

Go back and take another look at the various recent examples at the top of this piece. With the exception of the UCLA incident, one can pretty easily make a cogent argument that none of these are anti-Semitic. That doesn’t make them alright. We have arrived at a place where committed anti-Zionists must ask themselves not whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic or not, but whether anti-Zionism itself can be sustained in any real way that is not violently and offensively bigoted. Bigotry is the hatred and refusal to accept members of a particular group based on nothing but their inclusion in that group. The most widespread form of anti-Zionism, that seeks to boycott and hound Israelis no matter who they are or where they are, is bigotry, plain and simple. That it is directed at Israelis rather than Jews makes no difference. The laughable refrain that “Israel is the most brutal country on Earth and does not have a right to exist, but hey, I love Jews and have many Jewish friends, and by the way the best Jews are not Zionists” doesn’t send the message that you’re not anti-Semitic. It sends the message that you are a callous bigot, ignorant of history and any sense of factual proportion, who for some reason believes that hating Jews as a group is ok as long as you only hate the group of Jews who live in one particular place.

I will defend anyone’s right to criticize the Israeli government, and I exercise that right myself all the time (almost certainly too much for some readers’ tastes). The notion that some hold of supporting everything Israel does, right or wrong, is not one with which I identify. If the litmus test of what it means to be pro-Israel were applied to talking about the U.S., then literally every American I know would be classified as anti-American. I can understand – although I neither condone it nor agree with it – those who go further than mere criticism and boycott Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appearances because of their harsh disagreement with the Israeli government. But if you think that comparing Netanyahu to Hitler and Israelis to Nazis, or referring to Israeli politicians as olfactory nightmares, or barring Israelis from academic conferences around the world, is simply “criticism” that doesn’t cross a line of what should be acceptable in civilized company, you are badly in need of a history lesson, if not a lobotomy.

For the purposes of this exercise, lets give anti-Zionism the largest possible benefit of the doubt. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that claims to reject nationalism and decries Israel’s right to exist but at the same time endlessly shouts Free Palestine is not anti-Semitic. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that lauds Hamas as anti-colonial freedom fighters while whitewashing its annihilationist rhetoric against Jews – not Israelis, but Jews – is not anti-Semitic. Perhaps an anti-Zionism that has nothing to say about countries that forbid non-Muslims from entering entire cities or enact legislation based on religious law but that harps on Israeli immigration preferences for Jews is not anti-Semitic. Even if you grant all of that, it doesn’t make this anti-Zionism any less noxious, less offensive, less bigoted, or less dangerous. Anti-Semitism is a black scourge upon the face of human history, but the fact that it is singularly terrible does not make other forms of vile hatred any less worse than they actually are.

What To Do About Gaza?

February 16, 2016 § 4 Comments

I wrote a piece last week for Foreign Affairs about why Israel must do all that it can to prevent another war in Gaza with some suggestions for how Israel can accomplish this. The article can be read at this link on the Foreign Affairs website, and I have reproduced it below.

While Israelis focus on the violence emanating from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Hamas has been quietly gearing up for its own next round of fighting. It is rebuilding its tunnel network while replenishing its rocket caches and improving its intelligence capabilities. Israel was caught off guard by Hamas’ attack tunnels during the 2014 war, and Hamas is trying to ensure that they penetrate further into Israel during the next effort. The group is working nearly around the clock to dig and reinforce a maze that lies as much as 100 feet below the ground. For Israel, larger conventional threats from Iran and Hezbollah might be a bigger problem, but Hamas is a more combustible one. The next war thus seems inevitable, a question of when rather than if—at least as judged by the matter-of-fact way in which politicians such as Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid already discuss the causes of fighting that is yet to break out.

As much as the die feels cast, this is a war that Israel’s energies should be channeled into avoiding. It goes without saying that another war will bring with it a tragically high number of Palestinian civilian casualties given Hamas’ purposeful entrenchment in civilian areas. The Israeli side will not be spared either. The last rounds of fighting in Gaza—Cast Lead in 2008, Pillar of Defense in 2012, and the more recent Protective Edge in 2014—did not lead to high Israeli civilian casualty counts, but the psychological toll should not be discounted. Israelis were justifiably shaken by the constant running to air raid shelters and the heavy reliance on the Iron Dome anti-missile system during the last round of fighting. On both sides, psychological trauma contributes to hardened attitudes that make the Israeli–Palestinian conflict more difficult to resolve. To assume that another round of fighting with Hamas and other groups in Gaza will be relatively cost-free for Israel, then, is to ignore how the recent wars have harmed Israel in real ways.

Hamas is engaged in a battle in the West Bank with the Palestinian Authority (PA) for the hearts and minds of Palestinians, and the PA is losing badly. The latest Palestinian poll shows that PA President Mahmoud Abbas would lose in a head-to-head election with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh; that Hamas would beat Abbas’ Fatah in legislative elections in the West Bank; and that two-thirds of Palestinians support the current wave of knife attacks on Israelis and believe that an armed intifada would be more beneficial than negotiations. Given these numbers, should Hamas be at the forefront of another fight with Israel in Gaza, the result will be an even larger increase in Hamas’ popularity at the expense of the PA, and could plausibly lead to the nightmare scenario for Israel of the PA’s complete collapse.

The damage to Israel in that scenario cannot be overstated. The hallmark of the past decade of relative quiet has been Israeli and Palestinian joint security cooperation—cooperation that is deeply unpopular with the Palestinian public. Should the PA disappear, the Israeli Defense Forces will have to reoccupy Palestinian cities and expend time and resources that it can ill afford in policing and administering the West Bank. A war in Gaza will also further radicalize Palestinians both inside Israel and in the West Bank by stoking nationalist tensions and giving credence to the argument that only through armed resistance can Palestinian national aspirations be realized. An increased campaign of terrorism against Israelis will almost certainly be the end result.In deciding whether to initiate a war with Israel, Hamas is responding to two different pressures. The first comes from even more radical jihadi groups in Gaza, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and others affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), which denigrate Hamas as weak-kneed and unwilling to resist Israel. The second comes from the public, which—as demonstrated in the poll numbers—sees no path to any improvement in the abysmal standards of daily life in Gaza and supports armed resistance as the only possible way out. Fighting a two-front battle is difficult and could leave Hamas with no choice but to launch a war, whether it wants to hold off or not.

It will be easier for Hamas to hold the line against more radical groups, though, if the concerns of the public can be somewhat alleviated. The key to avoiding another Gaza war is thus providing Palestinians in Gaza some breathing space while simultaneously making it harder for Hamas to carry out successful strikes within Israel. Even if this process creates its own set of security problems, it is a far better outcome than risking the conflagration a Gaza war may set off.

One element of such a strategy would be relaxing some of the restrictions on what goes into Gaza. Over the past year, the number of Israeli trucks into Gaza has steadily increased, from 5,249 in February 2015 to 12,418 in December, which is a trend that must continue. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken in the past about the importance of allowing Gaza to be rebuilt in order to avoid new rounds of fighting, and there is evidence that the government is haltingly embracing this position. The number of items that make it across the border should be expanded as well. Wood planks are critical to a functioning Gaza economy due to their necessity for Gaza’s furniture factories, and allowing them in— despite their use in tunnel construction—is a risk worth taking when Israel has been permitting higher amounts of the more dangerous cement to enter Gaza. Another crucial element is fixing the electricity and water shortages. Both of these are dependent on Israeli largesse, and despite ongoing disputes over payments to Israel’s electric authority, the fact that Gazan sewage is beginning to wash up onto Tel Aviv beaches should be enough to convince Israel that the investment would be worthwhile. If chronic electricity and water shortages are not addressed soon, it is not unthinkable that Israel will be facing thousands of Gazans trying to breach the border fence on a daily basis.

On the other side of this equation, Israel should be taking a cue from Egypt and doing all it can to flood and destroy attack tunnels that residents of Gaza periphery communities can hear being dug underneath their homes. While providing residents of Gaza with reasons to want to avoid a war, Israel must also deter Hamas from launching one. Going after the tunnels now rather than waiting until they are used should, at the very least, set back the timetable for the next war and alleviate concerns that relaxing the Gaza blockade will only lead to more attacks on Israelis.

There is no perfect answer for Israel. Hamas’ very reason for being is resistance, and it is naive to think that the group will change. Nevertheless, Hamas has indicated an interest in maintaining ceasefires before when Israel has taken steps to make the reconstruction of Gaza easier and when Hamas has felt that it can maintain the upper hand against even harder line groups without resorting to an inevitable military loss against the Israeli Defense Forces. The damage that another Gaza war will cause makes it worth doing everything possible to keep the current ceasefire going. Anything that Israel does to avoid an outbreak of fighting will empower Hamas in some way, but the alternative is far worse.

Solutionism on Settlements

November 24, 2015 § 8 Comments

Life involves tradeoffs at every turn, and so does foreign policy. The perfect often becomes the enemy of the good, and pragmatic solutions require jettisoning principles. So too in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where each side must at times set aside deeply held beliefs and principles in order to achieve a realistic balance on the ground. Yitzhak Rabin’s realization that he was going to have to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, or the PLO’s realization that it would have to recognize Israel, were not steps that were taken lightly or that came easily. However, they had salutary effects that necessitated a sacrifice of principles and for each side created the risk of moral hazard in rewarding behavior that had been deemed out of bounds.

We are now at a similar crossroads when it comes to settlements. As a result of nearly five decades of settlement policy, Israel now has over half a million Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Even if they are not the root of the conflict, there is simply no question that settlements are an enormous and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, one that is diverting Israel’s political development to a frightening place. Israeli leaders present at the creation of the settlement project, from Rabin to Moshe Dayan, recognized the folly of occupying the West Bank, let alone settling it, and what it would mean for Israel to control millions of Palestinians in a state of political limbo. Nevertheless, here we are, and the fact is that removing half a million Israelis in an eventual peace deal will be an impossible task, and one that Israel is never going to attempt. As has been clear for decades and was formally laid out in the Clinton Parameters, Israel is going to end up keeping the large settlement blocs, allowing the most settlers to remain in Israel on the least amount of land, and will eventually have to evacuate the rest.

Given that it is clear to nearly everyone what the end result will be, there are two ways to approach current settlement construction. One is to treat all settlements as the same and condemn all new building in the settlements, irrespective of where the settlement is or how large it is. This has been the policy of the U.S. government since 1967, and it treats Gilo and Alon Shvut the same as Ofra and Elon Moreh. A settlement is a settlement, and thus any further construction is problematic, no matter the particular settlement’s eventual disposition. The other approach is to differentiate between settlements, and to recognize that building in an area that everyone knows that Israel will keep in any peace deal is not the same as building in areas that effectively bisect the West Bank or cut off Palestinian contiguity or prevent access to Jerusalem. While settlements are generally problematic, not all settlements are equally so.

Proponents of the first approach argue – not without merit – that to create a distinction between settlements now, outside the parameters of negotiations, would be to reward Israeli bad behavior. After creating a network of settlements in the West Bank of dubious legality at best, for external actors to recognize them as effectively part of Israel proper by not registering any complaints over their continued growth is to incentivize Israel to keep on building anywhere it likes in the hopes that creating facts on the ground will subvert Palestinian efforts to halt the settlement project.

As I said, this approach is not without merit, and it is certainly the morally satisfying one for those who have spent decades working to counter Israeli building outside the Green Line. The problem with it is that in occupying the moral high ground, it makes a solution harder rather than easier. The reality is that if a two state solution is to happen, it will require settler buy in, for better or worse, and getting settlers to support two states means recognizing that for the majority of them, expanding their current communities does not create an impediment to a final status agreement. For many on the left, this is a wholly unsatisfying and bitter pill to swallow, but it is also a fact of life that cannot be wished away.

To take an example from the other side of the spectrum (and this in no way suggests any type of moral equivalence), Hamas currently governs Gaza and does not appear to be going away. Hamas is a terrorist group with blood on its hands, and Israel is entirely justified in refusing to deal with it or acknowledge that it has any legitimacy at all. By the same token, rational people understand that as unpalatable as it may be, accepting that Hamas is in Gaza and that it cannot be simply wished away means crafting policies that take this into account, and even communicating with Hamas through back channels, as the current Israeli government has done. Rational thinking on settlements must prevail as well.

One of the striking elements from Israel Policy Forum’s trip to Israel last week was that the people working hardest to implement a two state solution and alleviate conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank are adamant that an all or nothing approach to settlements by calling for a complete settlement freeze would be the death knell for two states. Pragmatism must win out over principle in this case, which means pushing the Israeli government to define just what it means by the blocs – since this can be a nebulous moving target at times – and then creating a policy that distinguishes between kosher and non-kosher settlement growth. The Palestinian leadership and Mahmoud Abbas advanced this approach themselves in 2007 at Annapolis in presenting a proposal that involved Israel keeping 1.9% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, and while Israel’s preference is to keep 6.5% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, there is a compromise to be had that reconciles these two positions. This is not to accept Netanyahu’s reported position of recognition of the blocs as a quid pro quo for gestures in the West Bank – gestures that he should be taking anyway – or to treat the blocs as annexed to Israel before any final status negotiations have been concluded. It is to understand that while no building in the West Bank is helpful or desirable, one kind is a lot worse than another. While a change in how the U.S. views and treats settlements will lead to frustration for many and engender resentment among Palestinians, it is also the epitome of solutionism.

Does the Outcome of the Election Even Matter for Israeli Foreign Policy?

March 17, 2015 § 3 Comments

I have a piece in Foreign Affairs today in which I argue that on foreign and security issues – Iran, the peace process, settlements, fighting with Hamas, etc. – a Herzog prime ministership will look very much like Netanyahu’s prime ministership has. Here is the setup to my argument:

These days, Israeli opposition leader Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog is on everyone’s mind, and for good reason. Herzog’s Zionist Camp electoral bloc is the clear leader in the last polls allowed to be published before Tuesday’s election, raising the prospect of an opposition candidate unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who is coming off two consecutive terms following his first term nearly two decades ago.

Herzog’s electoral prospects are not the only thing creating buzz, however. For those opposed to Netanyahu’s hawkish positions on Iran and the Palestinians—and his general worldview of an Israel beset on all sides by enemies (including, in some iterations, the Obama administration and the European Union), Herzog seems to represent the possibility of genuine change. He has been described as Netanyahu’s “polar opposite” and would be Israel’s first truly left-wing prime minister since Ehud Barak in 1999. Many thus hope that his election could bring a significant turn in Israeli foreign and defense policies, including an end to Israeli opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran and a renewed push toward Palestinian statehood.

Those hoping to see a momentous shift in Israeli foreign policy, however, will be disappointed. No matter who emerges as the prime minister following the election and the inevitable weeks of haggling and horse-trading that go into forming a coalition, Israel’s foreign policy on the big issues will be marked by consistency rather than transformation. Although no one should casually dismiss Herzog’s markedly different tone and approach to the world, his and Netanyahu’s areas of disagreement are not as large as one might think. Further, in office, both would be similarly boxed in by circumstances beyond their control.

It is no accident that Herzog’s campaign, like the previous Labor campaign in 2013, has been largely run on domestic issues. Not only are economic and social issues the most pressing items on voters’ minds, the space between Likud and Labor on foreign policy can be measured in inches rather than miles. The big foreign policy matter that Herzog has seized upon is the faltering relationship between the Untied States and Israel, which he vows to improve. There is no doubt that the White House would immediately warm to a Prime Minister Herzog, given that he is far less abrasive than Netanyahu and would work to ease tensions, but that would be the case with nearly any other candidate. The personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is so cold that an improvement in bilateral ties will be more about Netanyahu’s absence than about his replacement.

On the biggest policy issue dividing the United States and Israel, however, Netanyahu and Herzog speak with the same voice. Herzog’s denouncement of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress should not obscure the fact that, like Netanyahu, Herzog would never accept a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli and that Herzog’s perception of the Iranian threat is far more acute than Obama’s. The likelihood that Herzog would certainly work to keep his disagreements with the White House behind closed doors does not mean that there would be no disagreements and that Herzog would clear the path for a nuclear deal. In fact, he would not bring about a change in Israel’s fear of Iranian nuclear ambitions or the country’s correspondingly hawkish stance.

To read the rest of the price, please head over to Foreign Affairs.

Turkey’s Iran Quandary

September 3, 2014 § 11 Comments

Taking a step back and looking at the Turkish-Iranian relationship, it strikes me that it is following a similar pattern to the one Turkey had with Syria until 2011. The Turkish relationship with Syria was based largely on economic ties, and Ankara played down any political factors that might cause tension in the name of trade and economic growth. When Bashar al-Assad’s murderous behavior became more pronounced as the Syrian civil war heated up, Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu operated on a mistaken assumption that they could softly manage the problem and convince Assad to change his ways. They presumed that in the same way that they saw economic growth and trade as a factor outweighing everything else, Assad would view things the same way. Assad had far larger and more pressing concerns, however, and after promising to Davutoğlu’s face not to kill civilians, he promptly continued his massacring of Syrians, which led Erdoğan to blow a gasket after feeling personally betrayed and adopt a policy of getting rid of Assad at any cost. This in turn caused the rapid downward spiral of Turkish foreign policy, which has largely collapsed due to the government’s Syria policy – a policy that was neither well thought out or well planned, and one which the Turkish government concocted on the fly. It chose to ignore all sorts of warning signs and then turned on a dime, all to devastating effect.

The variables with Iran are different, but the basic dynamic is similar. Turkey has cultivated a friendly and cordial relationship with Iran despite a host of structural reasons to be wary of its erstwhile regional rival and in the face of a coordinated Western effort to keep Iran isolated until concerns over Iran’s nuclear program are resolved. Turkey has made a concerted effort to improve ties with Iran for economic reasons, and in fact the two countries activated a deal last month to reduce trade tariffs with a stated objective of raising annual bilateral trade to $30 billion by the end of 2015, which would double the trade volume from 2013. I have written in the past about the power imbalance between the two due to Turkey’s over reliance on Iranian oil and gas, which is one of the primary reasons Turkey was such a willing partner in helping Iran evade sanctions by swapping gold for gas. The desire to boost commercial trade with Iran has only grown with the loss of Syria as a trade conduit, and thus Turkey has pressed forward on working to expand economic ties with Iran despite an effort among its NATO partners to isolate Tehran economically.

Like with Syria, the rial signs in Ankara’s eyes have blinded it to some larger geopolitical truths. Turkey and Iran have a shared interest in stamping out the threat from ISIL, and they have each played a big role in keeping Hamas alive and boosting its standing in relation to the Palestinian Authority, but otherwise they are operating at cross-purposes. While Erdoğan has stated his conviction that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power is for civilian purposes only, Turkey has a longstanding policy of opposition to an Iranian nuclear bomb. Turkey and Iran are on opposite sides of the ledger in the struggle for hegemony in the region, with Iran wanting to limit the influence of a connected Sunni bloc and Turkey teaming with Qatar to boost Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist movements. As a NATO member and EU aspirant, Turkey is ostensibly in the Western camp while Iran is decidedly not. On Syria and Iraq, which have been the two most pressing hot spots in the region, Iran has strongly backed both Assad and Nuri al-Maliki, while Turkey has turned a blind eye for two years to groups like ISIL all in the name of ending Assad’s rule and clashed with Maliki repeatedly and consistently while he was at the helm in Baghdad. In short, you have two populous non-Arab states with the largest militaries in the region who differ on nearly every policy issue of consequence and who have historically each tried to control the Middle East, and yet Turkey has treated Iran with all due deference.

I have no insider insights into the status of the P5+1 talks with Iran, but given the frantic NATO/EU focus on Ukraine and the emergent ISIL problem occupying the White House’s attention, this would be the perfect time for a revisionist state such as Iran to take advantage of the chaos and take a harder line in talks or restart elements of its nuclear program. The spotlight at the moment is elsewhere, and given the previous extension of the deadline following the interim Geneva agreement, Iran would not be out of line in assuming that the U.S.’s priority is to get a deal even if it means letting up on issues such as enrichment. The upshot of this is that with other foreign policy problems eclipsing Iran’s nuclear program and an improved economic situation following the loosening of sanctions, Iran’s position is improving, which should worry Turkey deeply in a wider regional context. There is no question that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu both pine for the days of Ottoman power and would like to restore Turkey to what they see as its rightful role as regional leader, and a stronger Iran is not something that will help this project.

Turkey’s Iran policy up until now has been assume, like it did with Syria, that it can ignore the problems on the horizon and simply manage an ascendant Iran on its own. As with Syria, this has the potential to blow up in Ankara’s face in a big way, particularly once Iran no longer needs Turkey as an escape hatch out of its economic isolation. Whereas Turkey is reliant on Iran for its energy needs because it has no other viable suppliers yet, Iran is only reliant on Turkish capital and investment so long as it is under sanctions. Ankara’s assumption that Iran is always going to be a relatively friendly and cooperative neighbor flies in the face of the way regional powers operate, particularly when there is a power vacuum in the region in question. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu thought that they could manage Assad and that they could ignore ISIL outright, and that both problems would eventually melt away. They were wrong on both counts, and if Turkey keeps on treating Iran with kid gloves rather than realizing the threat that a powerful Iran presents to Turkish interests, it is ultimately going to end up with yet another foreign policy problem that it could have fended off with some foresight earlier in the process.

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