The Signal and the Noise in the Barghouti Op-Ed

April 20, 2017 § 3 Comments

On Sunday, Marwan Barghouti published an op-ed in the New York Times. To read it without being versed in Israeli-Palestinian affairs, one would be forgiven for thinking that Barghouti is the Palestinian Martin Luther King writing his equivalent of the letter from the Birmingham jail. Barghouti used the op-ed to announce that he is leading a hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners to protest their treatment by Israel, wrote eloquently about the Palestinian national struggle for freedom and dignity while implying that he has been imprisoned for political reasons, and was identified in his byline as “a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” For those who know that Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences after having been convicted by an Israeli civilian court for murder and terrorism in his capacity as orchestrating suicide bombings as the founder of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, this was outrageous, and the anger directed at the Times resulted in a clarification and a brushback from the paper’s public editor.

The bulk of the focus – including from Prime Minister NetanyahuYair Lapid, and others – has been on the fact that the New York Times gave Barghouti a platform to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and misleadingly portray himself as something he is not. This anger is in no way misplaced, and it is helping shine a light on the fact that opponents of Israel are often granted a benefit of the doubt with regard to their motives and a whitewash of their histories to an alarming degree. But the import of Barghouti’s op-ed is not the revisionist history treatment of his biography; it is rather the fact that he chose to write it now and what it says about Palestinian politics going forward and the American effort to get Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.

Barghouti is a legendary Palestinian prisoner in a society where Palestinian prisoners are granted exalted status. His leadership of the latest prisoners’ hunger strike comes on the heels of his finishing first in the Fatah Central Committee elections in December, cementing his status as the most popular Palestinian political figure, while being sidelined two months ago by the current leadership as Mahmoud Abbas chose Mahmoud al-Aloul as Fatah’s first vice president. The jockeying to replace Abbas began in earnest some time ago, but Barghouti deciding now to take up the mantle of prisoners’ rights while making as public a splash as possible in the U.S. paper of record seems like one of the clearest signal from him that he intends to be part of the future leadership conversation.

Barghouti has in some ways had it easier than most despite being in prison, as it has insulated him from having to make any decisions or engage in the daily compromises that are involved in politics. He has been able to sit back and bask in his growing popularity as current Fatah leaders walk the fine line between security coordination with Israel and maintaining their power on one side and popular will and maintaining their grassroots legitimacy on the other. He has not had to navigate the minefield of dealing with Hamas rule in Gaza and playing the game of proclaiming national unity while taking steps to use the power of the Palestinian Authority to choke Hamas. The longer he is in prison, the greater the myth that surrounds him, and should Israel end up granting prisoners any concessions as a result of this hunger strike, it will make Barghouti’s power and influence greater. That he is taking this step now indicates that he thinks a leadership transition is coming sooner rather than later, and he wants to get ahead of the internal Fatah machinations that are designed to sideline him.

The repercussions of this are not limited to Barghouti and internal Fatah jockeying for position. Leading a movement of Palestinian prisoners is guaranteed to lead to wider West Bank foment, and it will not make the IDF or Shabak sleep easier at night. I am not suggesting that this will spark an intifada, but it could lead to an uptick in violence and further support for the position that compromise or even engagement with Israel sells out the Palestinian national cause. Palestinian politicians are bound to follow public sentiment, and nobody will want to be forced to take a backseat to Barghouti on the issue of resisting Israel. It will create a wider radicalization within the Palestinian political arena, and undermine any politicians who take a more moderate tone while perhaps undermining Fatah itself in relation to Hamas.

None of this portends well for President Trump’s efforts to push the two sides toward his ultimate deal, and if the prisoner strike is not quickly resolved, it will also make for a difficult Abbas White House visit the first week in May. Abbas proved to be a difficult interlocutor for President Obama, famously not responding to Obama’s Oval Office presentation of a framework for a final status agreement in 2014. Abbas is coming to DC this time to meet with a president whose vision is not nearly as fully formed on the details, but he will undoubtedly be asked by Trump to commit to something more specific than being willing to talk. Against the backdrop of hungerstriking prisoners and Barghouti trying to force him into a corner, it will be a particularly inauspicious time for Abbas to return to Ramallah and announce that he has agreed to return to talks with Israel without first winning any significant concessions. While the sense of gloomy fatalism that enveloped the Palestinian leadership at Trump’s election may have dissipated given his apparent willingness to push Netanyahu and the Israeli government on settlements and Jason Greenblatt’s praiseworthy performance in the region last month, it does not mean that Abbas is going to suddenly give Trump anything he wants. Abbas’s politics back home are still difficult, and having a friendlier White House than he anticipated does not change the fact that he is a weak political leader without the legitimacy or the chits to say yes to any comprehensive peace deal. This Barghouti move makes that even more of an entrenched reality.

Barghouti’s New York Times byline was the type of thing that drives Israeli politicians and American Jews up a wall with frustration. The byline, however, is just a distraction in this case from everything else that is going on. If Barghouti ushers in a new era of Fatah radicalization, we will look back at the focus over the byline rather than the underlying political move as the true outrage.

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The Perplexing Problem of Propping Up the PA

March 2, 2017 § 2 Comments

Senator Lindsey Graham on Tuesday reintroduced the Taylor Force Act, which is an effort to end the Palestinian Authority’s support for terror by withholding U.S. funds to the Palestinians until the PA ceases its practice of paying stipends to individuals or to families of individuals convicted of terrorism against American or Israeli citizens. It goes without saying that ending Palestinian support for or encouragement of terror is an important policy goal. But as with every element of foreign policy, there are inevitable tradeoffs involved. In this case, there is a strange and terrible irony at work, which is that punishing the PA for its rewarding of terrorism will damage Israeli security rather than improve it.

Named after an American veteran killed in a stabbing attack in Jaffa last year, the Taylor Force Act would not cut off every dollar of American aid that goes to the PA. American funds are split between economic assistance and security assistance, with a heavy weight toward the economic side. The overall numbers have declined since 2011, when the PA received $395 million in economic aid and $150 million in security aid, to last year’s approximately $232 million in economic assistance and $70 million in security assistance. The economic assistance, which goes toward USAID projects and PA budgetary support, is what the Taylor Force Act would cut off. The security assistance, which helps develop and train the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF), would remain in place, although few consider that aid to be completely untouchable in perpetuity. In order for the economic assistance to be transferred to the PA, the act stipulates that the PA take steps to end violence against Americans and Israelis, publicly condemn such violence, and most crucially stop paying convicted terrorists and their families.

These payments, known colloquially as the martyrs fund, rightly represent one of the biggest areas of contention between Israel and the U.S. on one side and the Palestinian Authority on the other. While the PA provides funds to families of Palestinians who are jailed in Israel for any reason, doing so to families of those who have attacked and killed Israelis in terrorist attacks is particularly odious. PA officials give a host of justifications for this practice, none of which are convincing. A common defense from the PA is that the innocent family members of convicted killers should not be left destitute as a result of something with which they had no involvement, and that forcing a terrorist’s children into penury only makes it more likely that those children will follow the same path as their terrorist parent. While this may sound logical in theory, it relies on a rhetorical sleight of hand. It is one thing not to take away basic government assistance or benefits from families of terrorists that are available to everyone, akin to not making the families of convicted murderers in the U.S. ineligible for Medicaid or Social Security benefits. It is quite another to provide the families of terrorists with extra funds, which is what the PA does. Wanting to help families who have lost their primary breadwinner overnight is not morally justified given the circumstances that led to the breadwinner’s death or incarceration.

In their more honest moments, some PA officials will appeal to their ongoing battle with Hamas and point out that if they do not make these payments, Hamas will do it and thereby gain a greater foothold in the West Bank. While this may be true, it still means that the PA is rewarding terror, providing incentives for those who feel like they have little to lose to take up violence, creating an enormous moral hazard problem that cannot be adequately measured or combatted, and casting doubts on its ability to ever function as a truly responsible governing body that is ready to take on the burdens of running a stable and non-belligerent state. These payments are indefensible, and they should be condemned without qualification, raised in every meeting with PA officials, and brought up in response every time someone describes the PA as a uniformly peace-loving and non-violent body.

As repugnant and loathsome as the martyrs fund is, what to do about it is more complicated than it seems at first glance, as it becomes tied up in what is actually keeping organized terrorism in Israeli cities at a remarkable low. The reason that nobody has yet brought up eliminating American security assistance to the PA – although it is important to note that the preliminary budget for FY 2017 cuts it from $70 million to $35 million – is that the most overlooked fact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past decade has been the remarkable record of the PASF in helping keep Israelis safe. Ask any Israeli security official, and they will tell you that coordination with the PASF is one of the primary reasons that terrorist attacks on Israelis now consist of lone-wolf stabbings and shootings rather than mass suicide bombings, and why there are rockets from Gaza but zero from the West Bank. Despite the rhetoric of Israeli politicians about the PA being barely a step removed from terrorism, the PA has become Israel’s most important security partner on the ground. The Israeli security establishment, the Ministry of Defense, the IDF, and AIPAC have all opposed cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority for this very reason; I was once regaled with stories from a former high-ranking MoD official about his government trips to Washington to inform the most pro-Israel members of Congress that their efforts to defund the PA were not actually going to benefit Israel. Palestinian security cooperation with Israel is the biggest – and perhaps only – success story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the Oslo Agreements, and anything that endangers that opens up Israelis to their nightmare of the West Bank actually turning into Gaza.

While the Taylor Force Act does not touch the security assistance component of American aid, eliminating the far larger bucket of economic assistance puts the PA in danger of collapse, and with the end of the PA comes the end of the PASF and its partnership with the IDF. The PA is far from perfect – it is corrupt, authoritarian, unimaginative, concerned with maintaining its power above actually accomplishing anything productive, and paralyzed by indecision. But it is the best of the bad options out there, and that has to be balanced against the wholly understandable and laudable desire to punish official remuneration for terrorism. The current practice of reducing the amount of aid to the PA by the same amount that the PA pays to terrorists’ families is not as satisfying as turning off the spigot entirely, but it sends a message without taking a drastic move that will make things worse. The Taylor Force Act’s sponsors are acting with the best intentions, but they risk paving the road to Israel’s hell.

Trump and Netanyahu, Round One

February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

After spending his entire tenure as prime minister chafing under the strictures placed upon him by Democratic presidents, Prime Minister Netanyahu finally gets his wish today: his first face-to-face Oval Office meeting with a Republican president. And not just any Republican president, but President Trump – the man the Israeli right has hailed as a savior from the day he was elected and upon whom they have placed their hopes and dreams. There is no question that Netanyahu is looking for a vastly different relationship with the current president than he had with the previous one, and also no question that both men will emerge from their meeting with ear-to-ear grins and acting like best friends, irrespective of whether the meeting warrants it or not. There are some obvious reasons for this, from the fact that both men lead right of center parties and are broadly ideologically similar to the simple desire to get off on the right foot. The current moment, however, also provides some more detailed and specific reasons for the two men to avoid disagreements, and provides some guide as to what they are likely to discuss, what they are likely to avoid, and what they should discuss if they want to keep the relationship on an even keel.

What Trump needs out of this meeting is simple. He is being buffeted on all sides with headache-inducing crises, be it the North Korean ballistic missile test, the resignation after only twenty four days of his national security adviser Mike Flynn beneath a cloud of allegations of his being compromised by Russia, or questions over the basic competence level of his senior aides and his continuing inability to staff the government beneath the cabinet level. Trump also has clearly not yet formulated a coherent policy on Israel, with different advisers pulling him in different directions and his own thoughts apparently still unsettled. Whether it be the embassy move or the role of settlements in preventing Israeli-Palestinian peace, Trump’s positions from the campaign have shifted, and in the case of settlements they have subtly shifted between the statement issued by Sean Spicer two weeks ago and Trump’s interview with Yisrael HaYom on Friday. What Trump needs while he is sorting through everything else in the Middle East is regional stability, not having Israel as a constant issue to manage, and above all no surprises. For now, he wants Israel to be something that he doesn’t have to think about or worry about, since if that wish is fulfilled, it will be just about the only issue that clears that bar.

What Netanyahu needs out of this meeting is even simpler. He arrives in Washington in the midst of the biggest threat he has ever faced to his tenure as prime minister, namely the four separate investigations being carried out into various allegations of corruption and improper behavior. Should he be indicted, as most Israeli analysts and journalists expect, he will be under enormous pressure to resign, and only the complete and unbroken support from every member of his coalition will keep him in office. Even if none of the four investigations end with an indictment, Netanyahu is still in a precarious position, down in the polls to Yair Lapid and under constant demand from his Bayit Yehudi coalition members and many of his Likud coalition members to definitively reject the two-state solution, support annexation of Ma’ale Adumim and perhaps even larger parts of the West Bank, and to completely alter the paradigm with the Palestinians under which Israel has operated. None of these are things that Netanyahu has ever particularly appeared or appears now to want to do, but he is in danger of being swallowed up by the Israeli right, for whom ideological purity tests are increasingly important. More than any specific policy victory or understanding with Trump, Netanyahu needs something that will help his domestic standing back home, and the only thing that can provide that is a black hole in which no daylight between the U.S. and Israel escapes. Netanyahu was reportedly able to mollify Naftali Bennett and other cabinet members before his departure from Israel by appealing to his stewardship of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is truly an Israeli existential issue, and he has to return home with an unambiguous demonstration of his ability – and his ability alone – to keep that relationship unbreakable. Netanyahu does not need a green light to build in the West Bank or a commitment to move the embassy or a vow to tear up the Iran deal. What he needs is no hint, no sign, and no leak of even the slightest public or private disagreement with Trump on anything.

In theory, this should be an easy plan for Trump and Netanyahu to execute. The problem is that Netanyahu is dealing with a president whom he expects to be an easier interlocutor than President Obama, but one who is unpredictable and unprepared to an unprecedented degree. Netanyahu cannot be sure what Trump will say, whether what he says can be trusted as an accurate predictor of what policies he will actually pursue down the road, to what extent Israel should rely on Trump’s assurance on various issues for its own policy planning purposes, and whether Trump has even devoted any real attention to planning for the conversation given that his national security adviser will have been replaced less than 48 hours earlier.

Given all of this, the one topic that is guaranteed to be on the agenda is Iran. As my colleague Ilan Goldenberg ably laid out earlier this week in his own preview of the meeting, Trump and Netanyahu have both focused on vigorously holding Iran to task and calling Iran out on its destabilizing actions in the region. It is unlikely that even Netanyahu is sticking to a position that the Iran deal needs to be scrapped, and both men might hold the view that even if the deal should be torn up, there are ways to make Iran be the actor that abrogates it through additional sanctions and testing the boundaries of Iran’s breaking point much as Iran has done since the JCPOA was implemented.

What both leaders want to avoid is any robust discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, settlements, or the two-state solution. Whatever Trump’s positions end up being, they are not going to be the positions pushed by Bennett and the annexation caucus, and Netanyahu cannot politically afford right now to publicly endorse two states. Neither Trump nor Netanyahu wants to start things off with a fight over where Israel will and will not build, and so my hunch is that they will both try and avoid any related subjects to the greatest possible extent.

There are two issues, however, that Trump and Netanyahu should discuss whether they want to or not in an effort to avoid any surprises or misunderstandings down the road. The first is Gaza, where Hamas’s newly installed leader Yahya Sinwar is far more hardline and confrontational than his predecessor Ismail Haniya and may be more willing to break the uneasy quiet that has largely held for two and a half years. It would be wise of the president and the prime minister to discuss how far Israel is willing to go in Gaza when the next war breaks out, what the plan is to deal with any wider regional fallout, and how the U.S. would like to manage a coordinated response with Israel and Egypt. This does not have to be a difficult conversation, and both men may be precisely on the same page, but it is easier to do it now than when the rockets start falling on Tel Aviv and the world is up in arms over civilian casualties in the Gaza war zone. The second issue is Syria, where Trump and Netanyahu may not be on the same page but cannot afford to let any differences of opinion fester. Rhetorically at least, Trump wants to make fighting ISIS in Syria a priority, which will be difficult to do while squaring completely with Israel’s objectives of maintaining its own freedom of movement against Hizballah weapons convoys and not allowing any long-term Iranian presence in Syria. If there will be disagreements on these issues, they should be dealt with up front and in private since any public blow up later will be far worse.

Today’s meeting will be the first of many, and we may not have any greater clarity after it has concluded than we do right now. Many assume that Trump and Netanyahu will set a new standard for the relationship between an American president and Israeli prime minister, but no matter what their personal relationship turns out to be, there is going to be friction over policy issues big and small. The most important question going forward will not be why and where there are disagreements, but how the two men manage them.

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.

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