What Does Turkish Turmoil Mean For Israel?

July 21, 2016 § 2 Comments

As Turkish tanks and F-16s filled the streets and skies of Turkish cities on Friday night in an effort to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP government from power, Israeli officials had cause for anxiety. The newly announced reconciliation deal has been highly touted by both governments, and while the military coup in Egypt that brought President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power in 2013 has been a boon for Israeli-Egyptian relations, there is no way of knowing what a military government in Turkey would bring. Ultimately, Israel’s initial radio silence and subsequent endorsement of “the democratic process in Turkey” was geared toward sending a message that it hopes reconciliation will continue apace and that is indeed the likely scenario. Nevertheless, the failed Turkish coup is going to affect Israel in other ways, some obvious and some less so.

The reconciliation agreement is still on track according to Turkish officials, and given that the government that negotiated it is still in place, there is no compelling reason to think otherwise. If anything, Turkey will be even more desperate now for Israeli intelligence and military cooperation given that the general who oversaw the army command responsible for securing Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq has been arrested as a coup plotter. The same rationales that existed for reconciling with Israel last month still exist today, and while reconciliation may easily get fouled up by other outside events, the Turkish government’s near-miss is not one of them.

In some ways, the events of last weekend actually may make the political relationship between Israel and Turkey stronger. Erdoğan is now laying the groundwork to be stronger domestically than he has been at any point during his tenure at the top of Turkish politics. He is using the coup attempt as an excuse to completely eviscerate all opposition wherever he suspects it lurks, from the military to the judiciary to the primary and higher education systems. His supporters, many of whom already saw him as a demigod above reproach, are now fired up and mobilized to back anything he does, and anyone who stands in the way will immediately be tarred as a Gülen movement terrorist or worse. The chances of Erdoğan now getting the constitution for which he has been pushing that will formally transform Turkey into a presidential system are nearly assured. The upshot of all this is that historically Erdoğan has used Israel as a punching bag when he has felt challenged domestically, or when he has not had a more convenient group on which to pin Turkey’s ills. The all-out war against the Gülenists combined with the fact that Erdoğan is on the verge of truly making himself into a modern day sultan mean that using Israel for nationalist or populist purposes is not going to be the crutch to which he immediately turns. That is not to say that a Turkey going through a period of nationalist-tinged anger is not going to have its share of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, but Erdoğan has other more pressing targets for now. In the context of Israel being used as an instrument of scorn in the Turkish political arena, a strong Erdoğan is better for Israel than a weak Erdoğan.

On the other hand, the military side of things will be much thornier for reasons that are apparent. The heyday of Israeli-Turkish ties in the 1990s was driven by the countries’ respective militaries, and in some respects Israel may be lucky that the freeze of the past six years means that few in Turkey will have any cause to insinuate Israeli military involvement in a Turkish military coup, despite the fact that one of the ringleaders was a former military attaché to Israel. The purges of the Turkish armed forces began immediately and will be ongoing on a scale that is unprecedented in Turkish history, and any robust relationships between IDF officers and their Turkish counterparts may now all be erased. In addition, the coup attempt was centered around the Turkish air force, which historically had the closest connection to the IDF as a result of quarterly Israeli air force training exercises in Turkey, and so any existing institutional relationship is bound to suffer as the air force is gutted in the wake of the coup plot.

One wildcard for Israel going forward is the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Turkey relationship, as Turkey demands that the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gülen, whom the government accuses of being behind the coup, and some Turkish cabinet ministers go so far as to blame the U.S. for the coup itself by dint of Gülen’s permanent residence here. Inflammatory Turkish rhetoric against the U.S. is hardening and the Obama administration’s response has been to warn Turkey about maintaining democratic norms and tacitly threatening its NATO status, so this is likely to get worse before it gets better. The U.S. was actively involved in encouraging Israeli-Turkish reconciliation out of a desire to see two of its closest regional allies not be at loggerheads, but a closer Israeli relationship with Turkey will not necessarily win any points with the U.S. should there be a serious falling out between the two NATO allies. While it is difficult to imagine any U.S. administration actively suggest that Israel cool things down with Turkey, there are certainly calculations to be made by Jerusalem as to how much it benefits from moving closer to Turkey just as the U.S. moves in the other direction.

Finally, the upheaval and reprisals in Turkey provide a sobering lesson and a warning sign to both the political and military establishments in Israel. On the one hand, the Turkish chaos presents a clear contrast to Israel, which has a strong army that has always been intimately – albeit informally – involved in politics and a robust military culture but has never suffered a military coup or even been close. The IDF often acts as a brake on politicians, as was the case during the years-long debate over whether to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, but it is never as a result of coercion and there is no question of the primacy of civilian oversight. Israel is, however, right now going through a rocky period in civil-military relations, and it is something that did not develop overnight. The failed coup attempt in Turkey is the result of myriad factors, but a significant one is the buildup of years of resentment from officers who feel that the government has hounded them unfairly, used them as a political tool, and treated them as pawns in larger battles. Israel would be wise to absorb what is going and use it to reinforce the longstanding Israeli ethos of harmonious and mutually beneficial civil-military relations and the necessitude of having a military that is above politics.

Sunshine and Rain

June 30, 2016 § 2 Comments

I’ve spent the last week in Israel with IPF exploring the security situation in depth, spending days in the Gaza envelope, Jerusalem seam line, southern West Bank, and Jordan Valley to get a firsthand sense of Israel’s security challenges and requirements. This included meeting with former Israeli generals and national security advisers, American security officials, and Palestinian security and local government officials to get their assessments. The amount that I have absorbed will take awhile to fully process, but let me start with one reason for despondence and one for encouragement.

The most disheartening thing I have seen this week – aside from Hebron, where I hadn’t been for two decades and which provoked in me a unique brew of shock, rage, sadness, and apathy all at once – is the complete lack of daring on both sides. Let’s start with the Israelis. One thing you immediately hear when talking to Israeli officials about doing anything on the Palestinian front is incitement. There is no question that incitement is a genuine problem that should not be dismissed by anyone who takes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seriously. One high-ranking IDF officer told us how terrorism in the area under his command has morphed from “organized” to “inspired” and is enabled by a social media echo chamber, and incitement is certainly a component in the wave of attacks on Israelis that has only recently abated. Nevertheless, the IDF’s assessment of the wave of terrorism that began in the fall is that twice as many terrorists were motivated by nationalism – i.e. lack of political progress – than by incitement. This should logically warrant the conclusion that it is more important to take constructive steps now, unilaterally or otherwise, to change conditions in the West Bank than to sit pat until all incitement everywhere stops. But using incitement as a reason not to take any steps at all is easy politics, particularly because it provides perfect evidence for the argument that there is no partner and allows the government to maintain the status quo, such as it is, indefinitely.

Notwithstanding the fact that incitement is a concern that must be addressed, and that the Palestinian Authority must answer for its role in fomenting it, ultimately the laserlike focus on incitement is something of a shell game. Initially, Israel argued that the Palestinians were not serious because the PA supported terrorism. Now that the PA has become a full-fledged security partner and has by all accounts cracked down on terrorism to the best of its ability in the West Bank, the new argument becomes that the Palestinians are not serious because of incitement. None of this is an argument that incitement is irrelevant, because it decidedly isn’t. President Abbas’s feet must be held to the fire over the virulent and criminal ugliness that emanates from official Palestinian channels, and hopefully the forthcoming Quartet report will do just that, as expected. But it is pretty clear that Palestinian cooperation is achievable on a number of fronts, and maintaining the status quo everywhere because it is politically safer and more potent to rail against incitement is a wasted opportunity. I understand that the coalition politics of it is difficult for Netanyahu and that nobody justifiably wants to come out and embrace Abbas when he is off accusing Israelis of poisoning Palestinian wells, but sacrificing opportunities to move the ball forward on the altar of political expediency does Israel no favors.

The Palestinians are equally guilty of shooting themselves in the foot for the sake of narrow politics, and in their case they are losing out even more. At nearly every opportunity that presents itself, Netanyahu reiterates his offer to sit down with Abbas and negotiate without preconditions anytime, anywhere. Rather than accept, Abbas jumps through hoops not only to avoid Netanyahu but to also avoid having to meet with any Israeli officials at all, such as just last week when he wouldn’t sit down with President Rivlin in Brussels. Palestinian officials offer a litany of excuses as to why Abbas won’t sit down with Netanyahu, from there not being enough advance notice to refusing to believe that he will actually negotiate once in the room, but what it boils down to is the politics on the Palestinian side. It costs Abbas every time he sits across the table from Bibi and ultimately doesn’t come away with a deal, and so just entering into negotiations is now deeply unpopular. That does not absolve Abbas; leaders are supposed to lead, and he is not. Much like the Israelis, the Palestinians like to shift the goalposts too. First the problem was that Netanyahu wouldn’t negotiate; then the problem was that they could only negotiate once settlements were frozen; then they couldn’t negotiate until building was frozen in East Jerusalem as well; and now it is back to insisting that Abbas can’t meet until Netanyahu first demonstrates good will by again freezing settlement construction. In the meantime, literally every day the situation gets worse for the Palestinians, and Abbas’s own stubborn obduracy not only allows Israel to shift the blame for the impasse entirely onto him – after all, Netanyahu will sit down while Abbas will not – but telegraphs that the political costs to Abbas are more important to him than the policy costs to the Palestinians as a whole. Overall, it is overwhelmingly clear that nothing is going to happen without some shakeup that changes the political calculus for one side or both.

Nonetheless, I came away with two data points that I hadn’t expected to see and that actually make me more optimistic than anything I have seen in years. The first was on the Palestinian side, where multiple Palestinian officials conceded that they had made mistakes by walking away at Camp David and breaking things off with Ehud Olmert in 2008. This was unprecedented for me and for other people I asked with far more experience dealing with the Palestinians, and it genuinely took me by surprise. Whether it heralds a newfound openness and realism I don’t know, but I can only take it as a positive sign.

On the Israeli side, we talked to a number of rightwing policymakers, from retired four star generals to regional council heads and mayors, and to a man, each one of them without hesitation said they would choose a two-state solution over one state. None of them hedged, none of them claimed that there is a realistic outcome other than those two options, and while all of them had a litany of reasons why two states is a bad idea or not implementable, they all reluctantly embraced it as the preferable of the options available. While I do not expect this to translate into a sudden policy shift, it is striking the way that serious people on the right do not pretend that the choice is avoidable, and even more striking just how much the concept of two states has been socialized into the thought and discourse across the political spectrum. I don’t think we are anywhere close to a successful round of negotiations or a permanent status agreement, but I leave Israel thinking that given the right set of circumstances, perhaps things are not quite so bad as many – myself included – have long assumed.

Return Of The Establishment

June 23, 2016 § 4 Comments

The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign has seen the culmination of a trend that has been building in American politics for some time, namely the distrust of the establishment and the glorification of the outsider. The Iraq War and the Great Recession were probably the most significant contributors to the growing idea that the old order couldn’t be trusted, that the historically bipartisan establishment consensus on foreign and economic policy was failing regular citizens, and that only by “throwing the bums out” could the ship of state be righted. The election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party were manifestations of this political movement. Bernie Sanders’s surprising success in this year’s Democratic primary and the nomination of Donald Trump on the Republican side have only magnified it. The U.S., however, is not the only country where this has taken place, and in many ways Israeli politics is giving us a glimpse of what happens when the outsiders become the insiders and the old establishment begins to plot its comeback.

Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister with the Likud victory in 1977 was earth shattering.  It marked the first time that the Israeli rightwing defeated the leftwing Mapai and its political heirs and was the first rejection of the secular Ashkenazi elite that had founded the state and governed it since its inception. The Israeli rightwing – which includes secular Ashkenazi Jews but also is viewed as representing Mizrahim, Haredim, national religious, immigrants, and others in a way that the left traditionally has not – has been in power with only two brief interludes since Begin’s first victory.  In spite of this history, the prime ministership of Binyamin Netanyahu has in many ways embraced this outsider ethos rather than acting as the latest iteration of a political movement that thoroughly controls the state. Despite hailing from a well-known family with deep Zionist roots, Netanyahu seems to have a chip on his shoulder against Israeli establishment elites. He surrounds himself – to his credit – with relative newcomers to the state, whether it be close advisers like Ron Dermer and Dore Gold or political allies like Avigdor Lieberman and Yuli Edelstein. Ministers in his cabinet, like Moshe Kahlon or Miri Regev, speak out against the old establishment and work to upend the old order in various ways. Netanyahu, like many politicians who successfully capitalize on voters’ resentment, never hesitates to appeal to nationalism that denigrates leftists, the “State of Tel Aviv,” or other symbols of the traditional establishment. Despite being a three term prime minister who has served more time in the post than anyone other than David Ben Gurion and heads a political camp that has dominated Israeli politics for four decades, Netanyahu in many ways gives off the vibe of being an upstart outsider.

The conflict between Netanyahu and various political and military figures that is now playing out – intensified by Moshe Ya’alon’s and Ehud Barak’s speeches at the IDC Herzliya conference last week – can be viewed in a number of ways. On the one hand, there is the never-ending battle taking place between Likud and the parties to its left looking to displace it. Netanyahu still maintains the overwhelming upper hand over the conflict and angst-ridden Labor party, but the political rival who presents the most obvious clear and present danger is Yair Lapid, who in the latest poll is running only two seats behind Netanyahu and Likud. This is a battle not between right and left, but between right and center, and there is no doubt that Lapid is gunning hard to become the next prime minister and taking positions that will still appeal to nationalists while distinguishing him from Netanyahu.

Another way to view the current contretemps is politicians vs. the military. Israel’s current political leadership is very much at odds with the military leadership and security establishment over all sorts of issues, from what steps to take in the West Bank to how to address the controversy surrounding Elor Azaria (the soldier on trial for shooting and killing an immobile Palestinian terrorist in Hebron). There is no question that some in the government see benefit to using the IDF as a punching bag, and that some in the IDF see benefit in discrediting the government, and politicians on all sides of the issue are eager to line up behind one side or another based on the politics irrespective of the actual issues at hand.

But there is another way to look at the sudden cavalcade of politicians and former generals aligning themselves against Netanyahu, and it is the frame of the traditional establishment reasserting itself. Barak and Ya’alon are both former defense ministers and former IDF chiefs of staff, but that is where the comparison ends. They differ in their politics, in their styles, and in their worldviews, but the common thread uniting them aside from their military backgrounds is the charge that Netanyahu is changing the fabric of the country by pitting different groups against each other and damaging Israel’s democracy. The same goes for establishment Likud princes, such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, who have fallen out with Netanyahu over similar issues rather than over issues of left vs. right. Much like the Bush family here – the ultimate symbol of the American establishment – who seem to abhor Trump not so much for his specific positions but for the threat he represents to the fabric of a harmonious American society and democracy, the various people and forces now lining up against Netanyahu across the spectrum represent the old Israeli establishment consensus despite having diverse political views. Netanyahu, who has done a masterful job of sidelining and diminishing his adversaries over the course of his political career, finally seems to have provoked a widespread backlash not because of any one policy per se, but because the people who view themselves as guardians of the Israeli ethos – and after all, what is an establishment for if not for that? – see his continued tenure as a threat to some definition of what it means to be Israeli and what Israel should stand for. I do not mean to abandon my cynical self here; very clearly much of this is political opportunism and some long-time Netanyahu rivals seeing the chance to finally draw some blood. But looking at how Israeli politics seems to be realigning itself along establishment/non-establishment fault lines may give us a glimpse of what the post-Trump future will look like here as well.

Trust and Partners

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Since IPF released its Two-State Security project last week, we have gotten an enormous response, most of it positive but some of it critical. Nearly everyone appreciates the effort that has gone into the plans developed by our partners, the Commanders for Israel’s Security and the Center for a New American Security, but the most common concerns that keep arising are about the Palestinians. The concerns all revolve around some variation of the question, does Israel have a partner? How can we be sure if Israel pulls back from the West Bank in performance-dependent stages that it won’t eventually have to go back in? How can we trust the Palestinians when the Palestinian Authority does nothing now to crack down on incitement? Doesn’t Israeli security under these plans depend on relying on a party that has shown no willingness to accept Israel’s legitimacy?

These are all good and legitimate questions that take on a particular urgency in light of yesterday’s horrific terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, and they cannot and should not be simply brushed away. One of the reasons that the peace camp has fallen into such hard times is a sense on the part of Israeli and American Jews that the left was too naïve about the issue of trusting the other side absent reasonable evidence to do so. The issue of trust and reliable partners looms large for good reason. So why should anyone trust a security plan to work when Israelis are being gunned down in cold blood in cafes and their security depends on the acquiescence of an untrustworthy party?

The CIS plan is designed to get around this question entirely through bypassing any necessary Palestinian cooperation. It is a plan for security now in the absence of negotiations or any peace process of which to speak, and thus it is comprised entirely of measures to be taken by Israel without the need for coordination from the other side. In fact, the slogan that CIS has been using is !אין פרטנר? יש פתרון meaning, “No partner? There is a solution!” The plan to take unilateral steps to establish Israel’s security as a precursor to peace later explicitly assumes that a partner is not necessary for this initial stage. Some of the measures that the plan calls for, such as immediately completing the multiple gaps in the security fence that have been left open for political reasons, are designed to prevent illegal infiltrators like the ones who carried out yesterday’s attack, providing a grimly stark example of why the plan’s recommendations should be taken seriously.

But the CIS plan is a stopgap. Ultimately, long-term success requires a successful permanent status negotiation with the Palestinians, and a deal can only be sustainable if there is a partner willing to enforce it, most importantly on the security variables. So we are back to where we started; does Israel have a partner?

It is no accident that the CNAS plan – one that requires a successful negotiating process in order to be implemented – deals with security. If there is one area in which Israel has a demonstrable partner in the Palestinian Authority, it is security. There are a number of reasons why the West Bank is not the rocket launching pad that is Gaza, from a less radicalized population to a more robust economy to the difficulty in building tunnels or sustainable smuggling routes to nighttime Israeli incursions. But the single biggest factor is the willingness of the Palestinian security forces to enforce and maintain quiet. These are forces that have been trained by the U.S., work in close coordination with the IDF, and spend their days keeping the West Bank quiet and effectively protecting Israeli lives. Even the most rightwing member of the Israeli government will tell you that the Palestinian security forces are one of the true success stories of the past decade. They are not perfect, but the fact that the IDF has been attempting to end its incursions into Area A and gradually transfer full security control to the PA speaks volumes about its level of trust in the Palestinian security apparatus.

So let’s grant that when it comes to security, Israel currently has a partner. What about the rest of it? On the political side, it is difficult to say with any certainty that Israel right now has a partner. Mahmoud Abbas, for a variety of reasons good and bad, is more interested now in internationalizing the conflict than negotiating its resolution, and has either rejected or not responded to offers made by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. Unlike his predecessor, Abbas has not encouraged violence against Israelis, but he has legitimized it after the fact and there is no question that incitement by Palestinian Authority officials and others is an enormous problem not to be waved away. This is not to suggest by any means that the Palestinians are solely to blame for the impasse; when you have in your cabinet a minister who just this week categorically rejected the two-state solution and called for Israel to annex Area C, it is difficult to claim the unambiguous high ground on the issue of diplomatic intransigence.

But if the Palestinians are to become a partner on the political and diplomatic side the way that they are on the security side, they will need to be provided with some real incentives to do so. This is not a call to appease Palestinian terrorism or to just keep on giving in the hopes that the Palestinians will eventually recant revanchist positions, since that will not work. It is a recognition that any successful resolution requires an array of tactics, and using sticks is not mutually exclusive with utilizing some carrots as well. As IPF’s Israel fellow Nimrod Novik likes to recount, a Palestinian security official once relayed to him how much easier it is for Palestinian security forces to accede to Israeli demands and arrest their brothers, cousins, and friends when there is a political horizon and a negotiating process taking place since they are taking action for the benefit of a future Palestinian state, as opposed to when there is no political horizon and it feels like they are taking action for the benefit of the Israeli occupation. In order for Israel to eventually have a partner on the other side, the Palestinians must take responsibility for their own shortcomings, end the ugly incitement that has become routine, and accept Israel’s legitimacy unambiguously and without reservation. But there are two things that Israel can do to further things along as well. First, realize that the “there is no partner” tagline is a lot more complicated than the simplified slogan suggests; it may be true when it comes to diplomacy, but it is and has not been true when it comes to security. Second, build upon the excellent security cooperation that exists now to pave the way for cooperation in other areas in the future. Socializing norms of trust and coordination in one area will ultimately spread to others, and providing incentives for the current cooperation to continue will ultimately pay off in resolving the issue of not having a partner on the other side. Trust begets trust and success begets success. Take the steps now that do not depend on having a partner on the other side, and maintain a distrust-and-verify stance until you are assured that a partner is there.

How Do You Determine When The IDF Has Gone Too Far?

May 26, 2016 § 1 Comment

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as his defense minister has opened up all sorts of fault lines in Israeli politics, but perhaps none as important as the one between the government and the IDF. Outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was a career military man and a former IDF chief of staff who commanded the military’s complete respect, and anytime someone with that profile and background is replaced with a defense minister whose military qualifications are minimal at best, it will engender anger and resentment. More saliently though, the genesis of the contretemps between Netanyahu and Ya’alon that ultimately led to the latter’s ouster was Ya’alon’s unwavering support for the IDF against the criticism of Netanyahu and other cabinet members. Given that Ya’alon has been replaced essentially for not selling out the generals under his purview, civil-military relations in Israel right now are at a nadir.

Assessing the situation in the New York Times over the weekend, veteran Israeli military and intelligence reporter Ronen Bergman expressed sympathy for IDF officers, writing that in Israel, “politicians blatantly trample the state’s values and laws and seek belligerent solutions, while the chiefs of the Israel Defense Forces and the heads of the intelligence agencies try to calm and restrain them.” Bergman reported that the IDF leadership saw Netanyahu’s phone call to the family of Elor Azariah – the soldier who shot and killed the Palestinian terrorist lying on the ground in Hebron – as “gross defiance of the military’s authority” and that high ranking IDF officials have raised the possibility of a military coup “with a smile,” even if that scenario is highly unlikely. In response, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens forcefully defended Netanyahu and the political leadership, warning that when generals are comfortable publicly criticizing civilian political leaders, erosion of civilian control of the military will follow. Stephens further warned that a military that conceives of anything it says or does as impartially guarding the national interest is at odds with how democratic government operates.

Let’s stipulate from the outset that a military coup in Israel is not just highly unlikely, as Bergman posits, but preposterous, as Stephens writes. Israel has had democratic governance from day one of its existence, and while generals often enter politics in Israel and end up in the prime minister’s office – Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon are the most prominent examples – never have there even been any whispers of an IDF revolt against civilian government. But there are certainly ways that the military can erode the power and legitimacy of the elected politicians short of a coup. Speeches denouncing the government can be given, orders can be ignored, policy deliberations can be leaked in an effort to embarrass politicians and influence public opinion, and a myriad of other actions can be taken that are utilized by militaries all over the world – including in democracies – to sway elected officials.

It is evident that the IDF leadership is pretty actively engaged in Israeli politics at the moment. Both Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and his deputy Yair Golan have tried to influence military policy through public comments of one sort or another, and each time have been immediately attacked by members of the government and right-leaning MKs. That military leaders are speaking out is not unusual for Israel when you take into account the fact that the IDF and the wider security establishment are granted a large role in the policymaking process by design. Israel is a country with mandatory military service for most, it has fought too many wars for a country with such a short history, and it faces an unusually large array of threats, so military officers are accorded a measure of political deference. That politicians are viciously attacking them is unusual though, and while there is no need to extensively go back over ground I have previously covered, politicizing the military is a very bad trend. The military should be free to make its thoughts known on subjects that directly fall under its jurisdiction, such as rules of engagement and prosecuting its own for misconduct, and contrary to Stephens’ assertion, I haven’t yet seen an instance of the IDF “publicly telling off its civilian masters.” Seizing upon every utterance of an officer as an opportunity to score political points will only end badly.

Nevertheless, if Bergman is accurately relaying a military culture that even makes jokes about military coups because of Lieberman’s appointment, then there is a serious problem, even if the actual possibility of a coup is as close to non-existent as it can get. Democracy has to be taken seriously when you don’t get your way; after all, democracy works precisely for this very reason as it offers perpetual hope that the next election cycle will turn this vote’s losers into next vote’s winners. Israel’s Basic Law on the military is crystal clear that the IDF is subject to the authority of the government and that the minister in charge of the IDF is the defense minister, full stop. Once IDF officers stop treating this as an inviolable truth, then the entire system is at risk of breaking down. Vertical accountability and civilian control of the military are necessary components of democratic government, and that applies even when the civilian in charge is someone that you don’t like and is severely under-qualified for the post.

The trends on each side – politicians using the military as a political punching bag, and the military coming dangerously close to the line of callousness regarding civilian oversight – are terrible developments that need to be cut off at the pass, and potentially the greatest tragedy of Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister is that it exacerbates them both. Lieberman does not have the experience or the gravitas to prevent the military running roughshod over him, which is bad for democracy. On the other side of the equation, his very appointment indicates that the politicization of the IDF has only just begun, as the defense ministry is not one to be used as a blatant political tool. Civil-military relations is not an issue to be trifled with if a country’s political system is to remain healthy, so let’s hope that what is now just a spark does not become a conflagration that consumes everything in its path.

The Slow Self-Immolation Of A Political Party

April 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

Imagine a political party that finds itself in what appears to be a permanent bind. The elites who run the party and make up the senior elected officials represent an establishment rightwing view, and it is one that has been electorally successful for decades as it stayed within a national consensus that allowed it to attract a wider array of voters beyond its natural base. At the same time, many of the party’s voters have been steadily moving rightward and taking more extreme positions that are being embraced by people on an order of magnitude that would have been unimaginable a couple of elections before. The party honchos have not been unaware of this trend, and have been playing a timeless game in which they rhetorically support the more extreme positions of the base in an effort to keep them in the fold and win their votes, while rarely following through on the promises they make during the heat of a campaign. They are careful to give the base some small victories, but generally tend to pull back from the edge of the cliff of truly revolutionary proposals, always providing an array of excuses and promises that patience will pay off in the end, and that the eventual victory of remaking the country wholesale is just around the corner.

With each heightened expectation that is inevitably dashed, the base of the party becomes more upset and more radicalized. They eventually turn to even more rightwing movements that are seen as more authentic and more grassroots, and even though these more extreme movements are smaller and will never be able to win an election on their own outright, the effect is to push the larger and more establishment party to the right as it becomes terrified of being cannibalized by its more ideologically pure sibling. This of course only encourages the extremist base, and it creates a spiral in which the party becomes more extreme but can never go far enough to satisfy its most strident voters, and eventually the voters who happily kept returning the party and its standard bearers to national office turn on those standard bearers, branding their former heroes traitors to the cause and embracing new politicians who tell them what they want to hear, no matter how absurd or devastating the consequences of the proposed policies would be.

This is a rough portrayal of what has been taking place in the Republican Party, but it is also the story of what is right now taking place in Likud. The Likud establishment has been winning elections for decades, but the impatience of many in its base – particularly religious settlers – has led to challenges from smaller parties demanding greater fidelity to nationalist ideology, Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi being the most prominent recent example. Prime Minister Netanyahu comes off as unapologetically rightwing to many American Jews, but the fact is that to the Israeli right, he is seen as too cautious and not viewed as a true believer. His rhetoric meant for the rightwing base has become more extreme over time, from the infamous election night warning about Arab voters coming to the polls in droves to his all but calling Mahmoud Abbas a terrorist, but it is never enough. The fact that he and his government have placed any brakes at all on settlement activity in the West Bank, let alone refused to seriously consider annexation, makes him and other Likud luminaries automatically suspect. And thus Netanyahu keeps on being returned to office, but each time the grumbling becomes louder and keeping his coalition satisfied becomes increasingly Sisyphean.

In the U.S., this trend has led to a Republican Party circular firing squad, where whomever or whatever emerges is going to be barely breathing politically. In Israel, however, the consequences have been more serious, since this trend is not only ensnaring one of Israel’s two historically major political parties, but the IDF as well. This has been laid bare by the fallout from the Hebron shooting, in which an IDF soldier shot and killed an injured and immobilized terrorist with a bullet to the head. Both Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot immediately moved to make sure that the soldier was detained and that a proper investigation was conducted, and Ya’alon forcefully condemned the soldier as one who had gone bad. The fact that they did not instead unequivocally support the soldier – who may yet turn out to be guilty of something less serious than murder, but whose actions were captured on tape and appear to be as ugly as it gets – was immediately seized upon by those on the far right, led by Bennett who accused Ya’alon of selling out the IDF. Netanyahu’s zigzag, from initially supporting Ya’alon and criticizing the soldier to then calling the soldier’s family and seemingly playing all sides, was sadly predictable. All of this was naturally followed by images circulating of Ya’alon’s face in the crosshairs of a rifle, comparisons to Hitler, and posters hung all over Tel Aviv calling on Eisenkot to resign and accusing him of failing to safeguard Jewish lives. The sad fact that Bennett is more representative of the public mood, as a majority of Israelis do not believe that the solider should have been arrested and investigated, does not make his conduct any less dangerous or reprehensible, since he is deliberately undermining the institution that is most trusted by the Israeli public in order to further his own political career. That Netanyahu is continuing to calibrate his own actions based on what Bennett does should finally put the notion to bed once and for all that Netanyahu is a leader rather than a man with his finger perpetually in the air testing the wind.

The IDF is what holds Israel together; once it has been undermined for short term political gain, there is no going back. And yet after years of treating its base as simplistic fools and seeing it boomerang in the faces of its leaders, the Likud is now haplessly watching by as its own defense minister is savaged for actually acting correctly and responsibly, and the IDF leadership is questioned for acting like armies in democratic countries act. That Republican leaders in the U.S. completely lost control of their own political vehicle and are now faced with the prospect of a nominee that many of them refuse to support – whether it is Donald Trump or Ted Cruz – is not a good thing for American democracy; no matter which party owns your sympathies, competition is both good and necessary for a healthy and functioning democracy, and the corrosion of the Republican Party is not good for the country. But ultimately, the damage is likely going to be limited to Republican institutions and not the institutions of the state. In Israel, the same cannot be said. Likud has been fighting a losing battle against its own Tea Partiers, whom it tacitly encouraged under the assumption that it could contain them, but the chaos is now spilling over and has the potential to bring the rest of the country down with it. When you wink at extremism while laughing at it behind its back, the joke is often on you. This time, it is coming at all of Israel’s expense.

What To Watch For In Israel In 2016

December 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

2015 was a busy year in Israel, with elections, the Iran deal and the accompanying fiasco of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress, the return of routinized violence in the streets, and other stories big and small occupying headlines. While 2016 will (presumably) not bring another election, there will be plenty of other momentous events and slow-burning stories that occupy Israel. At the risk of opening myself up to some serious embarrassment at this time next year, here are some issues that I think will manifest themselves in a major way over the next twelve months.

Civil-military relations

Israel is a rare case when it comes to the relationship between the political and military leadership. Since most Israelis – and virtually all of the political leadership – do mandatory military service, military issues are not unfamiliar to any policymakers. On the other hand, because the IDF is Israel’s most revered institution, military leaders are accorded enormous respect and deference by the Israeli public. It means that Israel’s elected officials are in a better position than elected officials in many other countries to challenge the military leadership when disagreements arise, but are simultaneously constrained by a public that itself has firsthand familiarity with the military.

When the politicians and the generals are on the same page, this is not a problem. When they are not, the potential exists for things to get hairy. Netanyahu has famously been on the opposite side of issues with IDF chiefs of staff and Mossad and Shin Bet directors in the past, but it has seemed over the past two years that the current government is never in the same place as the upper echelon of the security and intelligence establishment. The disagreement over whether to attack Iran before the Iran deal has given way to disagreement over how to deal with the growing terrorist violence erupting from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and it almost seems inevitable that at some point down the road, the IDF is going to be asked to take actions to which it is adamantly opposed. I do not in any way mean to suggest that Israel is in danger of a military coup, since that seems about as far-fetched a possibility as Netanyahu all of a sudden embracing the BDS movement, but there is no question that the recommendations and priorities of the security leadership are clashing head on with the desires and priorities of the political leadership. Look for this to become an even bigger issue in 2016 as Palestinian violence grows and what to do in the West Bank becomes a more acute problem.

Political scandals

While you wouldn’t necessarily know it in the U.S. unless you regularly read beyond the headlines of the Israeli press, there are a couple of political scandals besetting Netanyahu that are ripe for explosion. The first surrounds his unusual process of appointments and suspicions that his primary criteria for evaluating whether someone is fit to lead Israel’s police force or become the next attorney general is if those appointees will turn a blind eye to the second, which is Sara Netanyahu’s household financial chicanery. It was reported this week that attorney general Yehuda Weinstein will allow the police to question Mrs. Netanyahu over allegations of misappropriating state funds in running the official Netanyahu residence, which comes on the heels of the search committee for the next attorney general recommending Avihai Mandelblit, who is seen as beholden to Netanyahu and likely to shield him and his wife from any future investigations. Possibly connected to this is Netanyahu’s strange decision to try and hold the primary for Likud chairman – which would normally happen six months before a Knesset election – as soon as two months from now in a blatant effort to forestall any challengers to his primacy. While Netanyahu’s motives may just be to get his ducks in order and catch rivals such as Gideon Sa’ar off balance well ahead of an election campaign, he also may be trying to get this out of the way before the scandals nipping at his heels catch up with him. Whatever the case, this will be a story to watch over the coming year.

Orthodox vs. Orthodox

Yedioth Ahronoth ran a feature over the weekend on the “new elites,” who are largely in the Naftali Bennett mold – young religious Zionists who are supportive of the settlement movement. While I think it is too soon to write the obituary for the secular liberal Ashkenazi elite that dominated Israel since its founding, there is no question that the fortunes of the national religious community – largely analogous to American Jewry’s modern Orthodox – are on the rise. The proportion of religious IDF officers and elite commandos has been skyrocketing for some time, and the heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Israeli police all come from the national religious camp. Bennett and Tzipi Hotovely are the political figureheads of this new elite, and there is no question that their influence is rising.

The Orthodox are not monolithic, however, and the fact that the Haredi population is on the rise as well – not to mention that Shas and UTJ are back in the coalition and are Netanyahu’s favorite political partners due to their general quiescence to his agenda – almost guarantees more intra-Orthodox friction in 2016. As it is, there is bad blood between the Haredi parties and Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, stemming from Bennett’s alliance in the last coalition with Haredi bogeyman Yair Lapid and the fight between the Haredim and the religious Zionists over the chief rabbinate, and the tension will continue to rise. The new religious Zionist elite is not willing to live with the status quo that grants the Haredi rabbinate a monopoly over the state’s religious institutions, and religious Zionist and Haredi priorities are frequently not in alignment, with the former caring first and foremost about hanging onto the West Bank and the latter caring first and foremost about stamping out secularism and continuing the state subsidies for yeshivot and other Haredi mainstays. The clashes that have so far been mostly below the radar are likely to burst into the open the longer these two camps have to coexist with each other in the same narrow coalition.

So there are some of my broad predictions for what we will see, and keep on following this space over the next year to see whether I’ll be completely wrong or just a little wrong. Happy New Year to all.

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