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.

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.

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 Do About Gaza?

February 16, 2016 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solutionism on Settlements

November 24, 2015 § 8 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Zionism of Excuses

November 19, 2015 § 7 Comments

There is a familiar refrain that has been coming out of Israel for some time, and it was on display during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S. last week. The refrain is that Israel must maintain the status quo – sometimes referred to in shorthand as “conflict management” – despite its desire to have peace because outside events beyond its control are hemming it in. The Palestinian refusal to negotiate without preconditions, the risk of the West Bank turning into a terrorist enclave akin to Gaza, threats to regional stability from a variety of state and non-state actors, European sympathy for the Palestinians, and the resurgence of jihadi terrorism all combine for an antediluvian environment in which Israel cannot afford to take any risks lest the flood waters come rushing in. It is a picture that portrays Israel as an ark in a stormy sea, an island of stability whose actions are constrained because of its environment.

In many ways, this picture is an accurate one. All of the above factors exist to one degree or another, and they all impact Israel’s security and economy. This notion that to act in the face of such a threat matrix would be to assume unmanageable risks was nicely explicated by Natan Sachs in Foreign Affairs recently, where he described Netanyahu’s strategy as anti-solutionism emanating from a belief that there are no current fixes for Israel’s myriad challenges. The Zionist project becomes an inward looking one that tries to passively fend off threats, rather than an outward looking one that attempts to actively solve problems. I have many quarrels with Netanyahu’s leadership of Israel, but perhaps the largest one is that I find this general philosophy to be fundamentally at odds with the Zionist ideal. The strategy of sitting back and waiting for the universe to present a more propitious moment would be unrecognizable to Israel’s founders and iconic leaders, and it reveals a Zionism of excuses rather than actions.

Like many American Jews of my generation, I was raised on a diet of stories about the Panglossian wonder of Israel. The narrative went from Israeli pioneers braving malaria and draining the swamps of Palestine, to building the institutions of a future state despite hostility from the British and the Arabs, to the unimaginable diplomatic accomplishment of having the two opposing Cold War superpowers both vote in favor of partition, to the successive military miracles of beating back the invading armies of 1948 and then achieving an unthinkable victory in a mere six days in June 1967, to the modern successes of Israel in a variety of economic and technological spheres. This was a wholly sanitized narrative that avoided many contradictions and unpleasant truths, but the running thread throughout was that Zionism meant taking action and working to better your circumstances, no matter how insurmountable the challenges may appear. Zionism did not wait for the world it inhabited to change; it changed the world it inhabited.

While the above story is an incomplete one, the point about Zionism was correct. The yishuv in Mandatory Palestine did in fact face huge challenges and nearly impossible odds, and those odds did not terribly improve with the establishment of Israel. Zionism was the personification of a can-do attitude and creating your own positive reality, and it is no accident that Israel was widely admired as a plucky underdog. The Zionist project was something to be admired because it represented the ultimate victory of hard work and persistence, and above all it was a philosophy of doing.

What Netanyahu now peddles is the polar opposite. After listening to Netanyahu last week in the U.S. and spending this week in Israel meeting with various Israeli officials and politicians, I can’t help but sink under the weight of the ingrained pessimism and various pretexts for inaction. To listen to the Israeli government is to hear about an Israel at the mercy of its military and diplomatic adversaries, an Israel that cannot act because the barely functioning Palestinian government is outmaneuvering it, an Israel that has a litany of excuses for why it is dependent on the good will of others in order to improve its own situation. If only Mahmoud Abbas would drop his preconditions for negotiating, if only Palestinians would stop incitement, if only the Palestinian Authority would acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state…if, if, if. I am not suggesting that these are not legitimate complaints, only that to allow them to bog you down and be held hostage by their very existence conveys a complete lack of imagination and confidence. It is a betrayal of Zionist ideals, pure and simple, and one that makes Israel look weak rather than strong.

It is accepted conventional wisdom that the solutions to the various elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are known to everyone, and it is just a matter of getting both sides to say yes. I think a better way of formulating this is that the solutions are simple, but they are not easy. They will involve painful concessions and even more painful actions, and neither side is going to come out of this with everything they want. The difference between the Zionism of the 20th century and Netanyahu’s 21st century Zionism is that the former understood that hardship is not the same thing as impossibility, whereas the latter conflates the two at the drop of a hat. I know which version of Zionism I favor.

The Unilateral Bibi

November 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Bibi Netanyahu’s highly anticipated appearance on Tuesday at the Center for American Progress did not contain many surprises. Netanyahu spent much of the hour doing a masterful job of communicating his talking points, maneuvering questions onto advantageous territory, and using the yawning chasm between his knowledge and CAP President Neera Tanden’s knowledge of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to push across his worldview largely unchallenged. There was, however, one notable moment at the very end that was immediately picked up on by those in the room and later caused a ruckus back in Israel. Circling back to an earlier question from Washington Institute fellow David Makovsky on what Netanyahu’s Plan B is to prevent Israel from becoming a bi-national state, Netanyahu stated about unilateralism, “I suppose that is possible, but it would have to meet Israeli security criteria.”

As someone who has championed unilateralism as a way to avoid having the peace process kill the two state solution, I found this ever so slight opening heartening, and indeed, an Israeli diplomat told me immediately following Netanyahu’s appearance that the line was not a throw away but something that has been the subject of recent discussion. As is so often the case with Netanyahu, however, things are not always as they seem and politics gets in the way. Politicians on the right immediately insisted that Netanyahu could not possibly have been calling for a unilateral territorial withdrawal and declared that unilateralism is great if it means annexing Area C as opposed to withdrawing from it. A Likud spokesman dubbed unilateral withdrawal as a mistake that won’t be repeated and said people misinterpreted what Netanyahu said. Then Netanyahu himself backpedaled, stating on his Facebook page that he was not talking about withdrawal and that he has no intention of uprooting any settlements. So much for that.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu should not have been so hasty to disavow in Hebrew what he said in English. Unilateral withdrawal makes sense in a lot of ways, and it can be done in a way that fulfills Netanyahu’s stated concern about meeting Israeli security criteria. Given the current environment, in which Netanyahu does not want to negotiate in the face of terrorism, Mahmoud Abbas does not want to negotiate with Netanyahu at all, and the Obama administration has now publicly thrown up its hands at the idea of getting a negotiated agreement during the remainder of Obama’s term, unilateral withdrawal may in fact be the best way to safeguard Israel’s security.

Asher Susser recently wrote about basic security versus current security in the context of the terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. Basic security seeks to safeguard the fundamentals of the Zionist enterprise in keeping Israel Jewish and democratic, while current security seeks to safeguard the basic daily well-being of Israeli citizens. On the issue of basic security, it is a nearly impossible battle to argue that keeping the West Bank indefinitely preserves the Zionist enterprise, and indeed Netanyahu himself has conceded as much. The most oft-stated objection to pulling out of the West Bank that comes from Netanyahu and others on the right – leaving aside the religious and ideological attachments to the entirety of the Land of Israel – is that a withdrawal would leave a terrorist state in the West Bank and destroy any semblance of Israel’s current security.

One of the problems that Israel faces is that Netanyahu has consistently prioritized Israel’s current security over its basic security, sacrificing the long term in service of the short term. But another is that even when it comes to basic security, Netanyahu’s views are either influenced by political calculations or are narrowly conventional. Netanyahu states without qualification that withdrawing from the West Bank would be a security disaster, but this assumes a full military withdrawal as took place in Gaza in 2005. Given what transpired in the aftermath, few people contemplate unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank as including the entirety of the IDF presence there; when people with impeccable security credentials such as Amos Yadlin advocate for unilateral disengagement, they explicitly exclude withdrawing all IDF troops or even leaving the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu’s rejection of disengagement from the West Bank by pointing to Gaza also ignores the subsequent decade of robust and successful security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the fact that even were Israel to withdraw, the PA would have every incentive to continue to keep things quiet. Not all withdrawals are of the same flavor, and in spending years ruling out a West Bank disengagement and immediately reversing course after floating a trial balloon this week at CAP, Netanyahu is missing a chance to potentially establish Israel’s basic security for good while guaranteeing its current security.

Rather than accede to the politics of his coalition partners and his ministers, Netanyahu should seriously contemplate unilaterally declaring a provisional border with the West Bank, evacuating the settlements beyond that unilateral provisional border, keeping a military presence in the Jordan Valley, and telling the Palestinian Authority that he is happy to negotiate an agreement for permanent borders any time. It would be great if negotiations toward a final status agreement were proceeding swimmingly, but there are scores of reasons why they aren’t, and aren’t destined to be for the foreseeable future. Makovsky’s question to Netanyahu about a backup plan prompted an answer that many don’t like, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good one. Some productive unilateralism would go a long way toward putting the two state solution back on solid ground.

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