Trump and Netanyahu, Round One

February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How To Rebalance The Shifting Settlement Debate

February 2, 2017 § Leave a comment

Over the last couple of years, a disturbing and worrisome shift has taken place in Israeli political discourse. For decades, the prevailing debate within Israel over the West Bank was about maintaining the status quo versus withdrawing in some form. Before Oslo, withdrawal was largely discussed in terms of a federation between Jordan and the Palestinians in the West Bank, and after Oslo it shifted to the idea of a Palestinian state. But whether it was in the context of negotiations or of unilateral withdrawal – as was done by Ariel Sharon in Gaza – the debate has been over maintaining the current status of temporary military occupation in the West Bank or leaving it.

This is no longer the case. Between the Regulation Bill that would legalize currently illegal outposts, the push by Naftali Bennett and other MKs in Bayit Yehudi and Likud to annex first Ma’ale Adumim and then the rest of Area C, Tuesday’s announcement of another 3,000 homes in the West Bank, and yesterday’s statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu that he will build a new settlement to replace the evacuated Amona, it is clear that the debate over the West Bank has a new center of gravity. Rather than policy arguments over the status quo or easing Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the new fault line is between those who want to maintain the status quo and those who want to deepen Israel’s hold on the West Bank. The reasons for this shift are numerous, from the disappointing failures of Oslo to the bloodshed and terror of the Second Intifada to a more rightwing population and Knesset. The result, however, is that Israel is entering a dangerous period where the government is perilously close to the point of no return. This only reinforces why a saner policy on settlements must emerge, that combines an understanding of what Israelis will accept politically while preserving the possibility for two states, and it must start with a focus on the settlement blocs.

Shaul Arieli wrote brilliantly last week about why annexation of the West Bank would be so dangerous, using the example of Jerusalem as a canvas for what precisely will go wrong. In the current environment, with the prospect of successful negotiations as dormant as ever, separation without withdrawal – as advocated by the Commanders for Israel’s Security – is the way forward, as it maintains Israel’s hold on the blocs while laying the foundation for Israel to one day in the future cede the rest. But this only works in keeping Israel secure, Jewish, and democratic if the distinction between the blocs and everything else is maintained. Otherwise, separation does not – to use the infamous term – create facts on the ground in support of two states but instead contravenes it. Employing an inviolable bright line between the blocs and the rest of the West Bank is also critical to Israel’s credibility; increasingly fewer governments and international observers will buy the rhetoric that settlements are not the primary obstacle to peace when the government is building up areas outside of any reasonable consensus of what Israel will keep in a deal. Not only will this be a better policy, it will eliminate some of Israel’s public opinion headaches and lessen the chances of future nasty diplomatic surprises in the vein of UNSCR 2334.

There are two steps that should be taken right away in order to rebalance the conversation over settlements and Israeli policy. The first is for the Netanyahu government to actually define what it views as blocs. The debate surrounding settlements right now is rife with purposeful misunderstanding, as everyone talks about the blocs as if they have been divinely decreed when the truth is that they mean different things to different people. Most everyone would include the blocs in the Jerusalem triangle – Givat Ze’ev, Ma’ale Adumim, Gush Etzion – along with Modi’in Illit and Alfei Menashe, areas that have the largest Jewish populations and are close to the Green Line. But there are other large population centers that cut farther into the West Bank, such as Ariel, or smaller population centers that encroach on large Palestinian cities, such as the Kedumim finger. Netanyahu himself has said that he envisions Beit El and Kiryat Arba as parts of blocs too, which takes us into the realm of the absurd. If any government is going to adopt a policy of building in the blocs to the exclusion of the rest, it first must adopt a hard definition of what it views as blocs.

Second, once the official Israel view of the blocs is set forth, the borders of those blocs must be defined. For instance, Ma’ale Adumim is the part of the West Bank that is least controversial in the eyes of most Israelis; it is hard to find virtually anyone who does not envision it as part of Israel one day, which is why it is the first target in the current annexation push. But the land slated to be annexed along with Ma’ale Adumim encompasses an area six times that of the settlement itself, and those borders include E-1, which has been a redline for both the U.S. and the European Union. Building in E-1 will destroy Palestinian contiguity in the West Bank by cutting off any direct access between Ramallah and Bethlehem, which is why it is such a big deal and why neither Sharon nor Netanyahu has taken that step. If Israel is to build in blocs while freezing the rest, does Ma’ale Adumim include its entire current municipal border? As another example, does the border of the Givat Ze’ev bloc include Beit Horon, which incorporates more Palestinian villages and agricultural land to get another 1000 Jews inside the border? Do the borders of the blocs remain fixed, or do they constantly expand to allow for natural growth? It is very easy to abuse the notion of building inside the blocs without knowing exactly what the borders of the blocs are.

Israel has to make a choice about what its core strategic interests are. Does it want to move toward a sustainable position in the West Bank that incorporates the overwhelming majority of settlers while maintaining somewhere upwards of 95% of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, or does it want to try and incorporate 60% or even all of the West Bank into Israel? One of the reasons that the announcement two days ago of new construction is so damaging – perhaps even more so than the Regulation Bill, which will be struck down by the High Court if passed – is because some of it is outside the blocs, which is doubly counterproductive by raising the temperature on the settlement issue writ large and seriously calling into question not only the Israeli government’s motives but the continuing viability of a Jewish and democratic Israel.

I have spent days in all parts of the West Bank over the past half year seeing the precise layout of settlements and topography with my own eyes. Territorial contiguity for a Palestinian state is still very possible and can be maintained while incorporating nearly all of the settlers into Israel, but only if Israel immediately takes the steps outlined here. Otherwise we slide quickly down a slippery slope that only ends with an Israeli defense of annexing all of Area C because of new facts on the ground that make doing anything less infeasible, and that is not a day that I ever want to see. The only way to ward this off is to reshift the debate away from annexation, and this is how to start doing it.

Trump, Netanyahu, and the Embassy Move That Wasn’t

January 26, 2017 § 1 Comment

As President Trump had promised multiple times during the presidential campaign, the issue of moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was indeed on the agenda during his very first week in office. The result, however, was not what had been promised. Rather than following through on the pledge to move the embassy immediately, and fulfilling the implicit promise of Sean Spicer’s teaser on the day before the inauguration to “stay tuned” on the issue, the Trump administration instead slammed on the brakes. On Monday, Spicer said that no decision had been made on moving the embassy, that the White House was still early in the decision making process, that Trump could do it right now by executive order if he wanted to but was explicitly declining to do so, and that the administration had to consult more with the State Department. Spicer later reiterated the point in response to a question, saying, “If it was already a decision, we wouldn’t be going through the process.”

While some in the Israeli government, such as Miri Regev and Ze’ev Elkin, chose to take a glass half full approach by focusing on the statement that the administration is in the beginning stages of the embassy move, others – rightly in my view – saw this as the first step in a drawn out process that may well draw itself out until the very end of Trump’s tenure as president. Certainly it was quite the turnaround from Trump’s repeated promises on the campaign trail to move the embassy on day one, and presumably came as a shock to the various pro-Israel voters and organizations that ranked the embassy move as high on their list of reasons for casting their vote for Trump or backing Trump on November 8. Most interestingly, the announcement that any embassy move was not going to be imminent came after Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu had their first phone conversation since Trump took office on Friday.

Like much else surrounding Trump and as I have reiterated before, there is no way of knowing yet precisely what he is going to do on Israel, but this early encounter over the embassy hints at some emerging dynamics that will have impacts on related issues down the line. Not only does this episode suggest that the embassy will stay put for the duration of the Trump administration, it suggests that the Netanyahu government’s unbridled enthusiasm over Trump’s election may have been premature.

Do not underestimate the importance that Netanyahu’s coalition partners place on the issue of the embassy moving to Jerusalem. It figured prominently in the congratulatory messages issued by government officials to Trump after his election, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked made it a centerpiece of her speech to the Institute for National Security Studies conference on Tuesday. An immediate announcement on the embassy was part of Naftali Bennett’s assessment that the next four years of Israeli policy under Trump would be established in the first four weeks of the administration, as Israel would be able to take advantage of a new White House trying to find its footing and create a new set of norms surrounding Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. Yet despite the repeated campaign promises and the chaos engulfing the first few days of the Trump presidency, the embassy remains in Tel Aviv indefinitely until further notice.

It is reasonable to assume that two things happened. The first is that the Trump administration heard from Sunni allies in the region – Jordan and Egypt in particular – immediately upon taking office, and that the first thing the White House heard from them was how disastrous moving the embassy would be to their own stability. Skeptics point out that there is no way of definitively knowing whether protests or unrest over an embassy move will materialize or how damaging they would be, but the Jordanian government firmly believes that the U.S. moving the embassy will not only damage their own position but place long term cooperation with Israel at risk. Despite the tangible success of the peace treaty and the various cooperative security and economic projects between Israel and Jordan, that cooperation comes at a high domestic political cost. If the American embassy is relocated to Jerusalem, Jordan cannot do anything that will endanger American assistance, so the only available move to the government to quell popular anger will be to downgrade its relationship with Israel. That will be bad for Israel and bad for Jordan, and an outcome that the Trump administration will want to avoid. It is not a stretch to say that King Abdullah is one of the most popular and credible foreign leaders with Congress, and undoubtedly the nascent Trump administration will view him similarly. The king is the keynote speaker at the national prayer breakfast next week, and it is unlikely that he would show up in the wake of being embarrassed at home by an embassy move.

This suggests that contrary to the hope in some quarters that the Israeli government would be given a blank check by Trump, other regional voices are going to be given weight even when their preferences contradict with the most hawkish pro-Israel position. Perhaps this is because Trump wants buy-in for his top regional foreign policy priority, which appears from his rhetoric to this point to be the fight against ISIS; perhaps this is because he was serious in his desire to make the “ultimate deal” and was told by the Jordanians, Palestinians, and others that an embassy move would destroy any chances of resuming negotiations toward a two-state solution; perhaps it is because a president who had no history of embracing the Israeli right until he ran for president was willing to say anything he thought helpful to get elected and sold the Israeli and American Jewish right a bill of goods. Whatever the answer, it makes no sense for Trump to delay on the embassy move if he is serious about it. The domestic political benefits of doing so evaporate the longer he waits, and by ardently promising to do so as recently as last week and then turning on a dime, he is actually damaging his position with many on the right and with the more hawkish segment of American Jewry. This looks like a repeat of the George W. Bush administration, where Candidate Bush promised to move the embassy while President Bush spent eight years examining the feasibility of it.

The second thing that likely happened is that Netanyahu gave his implicit okay for the embassy to stay where it is. This may come as a surprise to those who are used to hearing Netanyahu or Ambassador Ron Dermer talk about the importance of Jerusalem and the necessity of having the American embassy there, but behind the scenes the embassy is not one of Netanyahu’s priorities. It has been reported that during the Kerry negotiations, Netanyahu did not ask for the embassy issue to be put on the table even once, in contrast to Jonathan Pollard’s release, which he raised consistently in multiple negotiation efforts. The readout of Sunday’s Trump-Netanyahu call mentioned a host of issues, but the embassy move was curiously absent, which is especially surprising given the prominence it had been previously given both by American and Israeli officials. Calling for the U.S. to move the embassy is good politics for Netanyahu, but actually having it moved is a different story. Particularly given what he is hearing from the IDF on the potential fallout and unrest in the West Bank should the embassy move to Jerusalem, Netanyahu does not want to deal with massive protests and possibly a resumption of terror in Israeli cities while he is also going through a series of investigations that present the biggest threat to his continued tenure as prime minister that he has ever faced. While I don’t know that he would ever tell Trump not to move the embassy, he probably did not push back when Trump told him that it was not going to be his opening gambit on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

There is no guarantee of anything with Trump. What he thinks today will not necessarily be what he thinks tomorrow, and I do not think we can impute consistency to his methods or his decisions. For all I know, tomorrow he will announce that he has moved the embassy overnight. But examining the curious way in which events have unfolded so far, it is safe to say that the Naftali Bennetts and Mort Kleins of the world may not have everything in Trump that they bargained for.

Welcome to the Jungle

January 19, 2017 § 3 Comments

With tomorrow’s inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, Israel is entering an era of uncertainty unseen to this extent since 1967. It is not only Trump’s ascent to the presidency – expertly broken down by my colleague Ilan Goldenberg – that is causing so much ambiguity for Israel’s future; the Trump presidency is coinciding with two other variables whose outcomes are unknown, and the combination of the three together makes predicting Israel’s path forward with regard to its relations with the U.S., with the Palestinians, and with the rest of the world very difficult.

Trump’s Israel Policy

While there has been no shortage of guessing – including by yours truly – as to what Trump’s policies toward Israel and in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be, the truth of the matter is that nobody actually knows. While Trump has actually been consistent, if simplistic, on other foreign policy issues – protectionism, questioning NATO’s contribution to global and American security, a less antagonistic relationship with Russia, for example – on Israel he has sent conflicting signals.

On the one hand, he is quite obviously seduced by the idea of making what he calls “the ultimate deal” and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has spoken about the need to be seen as a “neutral guy” on Israel in order to command the Palestinians’ trust as a mediator. He has announced his intention to appoint Jared Kushner as his Middle East peace envoy because he views Kushner as uniquely suited to get the two parties to an agreement. On the other, he has taken actions that will make his stated goal of reaching a deal harder and possibly call it into question entirely, from supporting relocating the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to removing any mention of the two-state solution from the GOP platform.

On the one hand, he has nominated Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis to serve as his secretaries of state and defense, and neither of them is associated with rightwing policies on Israel. In particular, Mattis has talked about the damage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does to American interests in the Middle East and has squarely cast the blame on settlements for the impasse between the two sides. On the other, David Friedman is as rightwing and hawkish on Israel issues as any nominee to serve as Trump’s ambassador to Israel could possibly be, and Jason Greenblatt – Trump’s new envoy for international negotiations – has stated that he does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace in any way, and looks askance at the two-state solution as unwise and impractical.

There is no way of knowing at this point which of these competing impulses will win out. The main takeaway, however, is that the Israeli government has no way of knowing either, making any sudden moves fraught with danger. If, for instance, the Israeli government moves ahead with Bezalel Smotrich’s plan to annex Ma’ale Adumim, it may meet with a green light from the Trump White House, or it may be met with opposition from the White House and the State and Defense Departments. This is the genesis of the disagreement between Naftali Bennett, who wants Israel to quickly move ahead with annexation plans and formally abandon the two-state solution, and Avigdor Lieberman, who wants Israel to work out an agreement with the U.S. that would allow building in the blocs while freezing construction outside of them, similar to the plan developed by the Commanders for Israel’s Security. Whichever direction Israel moves in, what is certain is that it cannot be sure what the consequences, if any, will be.

Netanyahu’s Future

The second uncertain variable is the investigations into Prime Minister Netanyahu and how they will be resolved. Either Case 1000 – the allegations that billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer supplied the Netanyahu family with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cigars, pink champagne, flights on private jets, luxury hotel stays, and the use of posh vacation residences in return for favors from the prime minister – or Case 2000 – the allegations that Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes conspired to reduce rival newspaper Yisrael HaYom’s circulation in return for more favorable coverage of Netanyahu in Yedioth – have the potential to end in Netanyahu’s indictment. Whether or not they result in indictments or end with no charges filed, they are creating gridlock while they are ongoing. The talk of early elections that has sprung up overnight is partially because other politicians smell blood in the water, but partially because a prime minister under such serious investigation is limited in what he can carry out. Until the situation is resolved, Israel’s political system is in a state of limbo.

If Netanyahu is ultimately charged, it is difficult to see how he will manage to stay in power rather than being forced to resign as the Likud and coalition MKs abandon him. Should Netanyahu step down – voluntarily or otherwise – it will not, however, mean the end of the political chaos. Netanyahu has purposely cultivated a leadership vacuum underneath him, from chasing away serious challengers to his primacy on top of Likud – Moshe Ya’alon, Gidon Sa’ar, and Moshe Kahlon being the most prominent recent examples – to not appointing a deputy prime minister underneath him. Should Netanyahu suddenly be whisked away from the scene, who will replace him is entirely unclear. New elections will not resolve the uncertainty either; the current polls indicate that Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid would receive the most seats in Knesset, but would be unable to put together a coalition unless the Haredi parties and Lapid are able to bridge their seemingly unbridgeable differences. This would mean a repeat of 2009, when Kadima and Tzipi Livni won the elections, but after weeks of futile attempts at creating a government, Netanyahu was left standing as prime minister instead. While this makes for great news for political junkies, it does not make for stability in Israel’s policymaking.

Palestinian Leadership Transition

The third uncertain variable surrounds Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. While Abbas’s actions make clear that he is going to serve as the Palestinian president and head of the PLO until he dies, that could happen at any moment given his age and proclivity for chain smoking, and who will replace him is a complete black box. The recent Fatah Central Committee elections and conference sidelined Muhammad Dahlan and all of his allies while empowering Jibril Rajoub and Marwan Barghouti. Rajoub is well placed in terms of controlling the relevant institutions and organs of power but does not have much popularity or legitimacy with the Palestinian public, while Barghouti is enormously popular with the public but is sitting in HaSharon prison serving out multiple life terms for orchestrating the terrorist murders of Israelis. Furthermore, it is possible that when Abbas is gone, no single person will hold the reins of power but that it will be more of a politburo, or that the roles of Palestinian Authority president, PLO chief, and Fatah leader will be separated.

The stakes involved for how this gets resolved are enormous for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the single biggest factor preventing the resumption of mass organized Palestinian terrorism from assaulting the streets of Israeli cities is the robust cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian security forces. The PA security cooperation with Israel is immensely unpopular, and to Abbas’s credit, he has not wavered in his commitment to continuing it, even if his reasons for doing so are not entirely altruistic. But there is no guarantee that whomever comes after Abbas will evince the same commitment; in fact, in a protracted leadership fight, one of the easiest ways to win public support will be to pledge to end security coordination with Israel. The negative consequences should this happen cannot be overstated, and thus Israeli officials are watching with bated breath to see how the post-Abbas period will play out. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is as unclear as can be.

The irony of all this is that Israel is entering this era of uncertainty on so many political fronts when its security has never been more certain. The conventional threats from neighboring states has evaporated; the Iranian nuclear threat has been deferred – though certainly not eliminated – in the estimation of Israel’s military and intelligence brass; the borders with Gaza and Lebanon have been unprecedentedly quiet for a variety of reasons from effective Israeli deterrence to the Syrian civil war; and organized terrorism (as opposed to lone wolf attacks) is at its lowest point since before the Second Intifada. Yet on the political and diplomatic fronts, the status Israel’s relationships with the U.S., the wider international community, the Palestinians, and Diaspora Jewry have rarely been so murky. While all may turn out fine in the end, Israel should be prepared for a period of potential upheaval.

Elor Azaria and the System

January 4, 2017 § 2 Comments

There are two common responses to Elor Azaria’s manslaughter conviction by the military court today for fatally shooting an incapacitated terrorist in Hebron. One common response is that Azaria is a victim of the system; if you place 18 year old soldiers in a crucible where they must make split-second life and death decisions while facing down terrorists, you should not hold them responsible when things go wrong. Another common response is that Azaria is representative of the system; if you have militarily occupied a territory for five decades while suppressing the occupied population’s nationalist aspirations, then criminal abuses are a feature rather than a bug. There are elements of truth to both of these positions, but the obvious feature that they both share is that they fall back on “the system” to explain what has happened and to argue for their preferred outcome. The focus on the system is important, but it cannot and should not be the sum total of the story in the Azaria saga.

From one perspective, the Azaria conviction shows that the system works. When Azaria was first arrested after the shooting, there was widespread fear on the left that a whitewash would occur. Given the rush of nationalist politicians to defend his actions and visit his family to reassure them that he would not be abandoned – including Prime Minister Netanyahu, who famously called Azaria’s parents to promise them that their son would be treated fairly – the fear was not unfounded. This fear was magnified when Azaria was charged with manslaughter rather than murder despite plenty of evidence that his killing of Abdel Fattah al-Sharif was plotted as an act of revenge rather than an act of misperceived self-defense. Azaria’s lawyers mounted his defense by indicting Azaria’s commanders and the entire military apparatus as part of a conspiracy to cover up the fact that he actually acted properly, and they were bolstered by a public campaign to turn Azaria into a hero. While IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon strongly cautioned against treating Azaria as a model soldier and decried viewing him as a scapegoat or martyr, the amount of pressure going the other way was overwhelming. Nonetheless, the court today not only unanimously convicted Azaria of the manslaughter charge, but also delivered a forceful statement in spending three hours reading out the verdict and emphasizing that this was not a close or borderline case. One cannot maintain in the face of the Azaria trial that the rule of law does not exist in Israel.

From another perspective, the Azaria conviction shows just how broken the system is. Azaria was captured on tape fatally shooting a wounded and unarmed Palestinian terrorist fifteen minutes after he was first taken down by another soldier – about as open and shut a case with documentary evidence that exists – and yet the outcry surrounding his arrest and trial was monumental. According to the Israeli NGO Yesh Din, there have been 262 investigations of Palestinian fatalities caused by the IDF in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2000, and only 17 of those have resulted indictments. It is easy to understand why after observing the uproar surrounding this particular case. More disturbingly, that Azaria has not only been defended so vigorously in the court of public (and ministerial) opinion but has been lionized as a symbol of what is right with Israel points to dark days ahead. Demonstrators on Wednesday outside of military headquarters where the verdict was delivered chanted, “Gadi be careful, Rabin is looking for a friend,” implying that Eisenkot would be deserving of assassination should Azaria be convicted. That a soldier in an emotionally tough situation who shoots and kills an unarmed assailant is worthy of praise – not sympathy, but praise – and that his supporters view him as a paragon of virtue is bad enough. That he is a vehicle by which the IDF chief of staff and the judges who tried him are threatened with death is reprehensible and a sign that part of Israel has seriously lost its way. Judge Maya Heller, who delivered the verdict today, appears more like someone with her finger in the dike unsuccessfully trying to hold back a tidal wave of overwhelming floodwaters than like Joseph Welch shocking a country back to its senses.

What the Azaria trial says about the system, however, cannot be the last word. Making this solely a story about the success or failure of a system of Israeli policy in the West Bank or a system of Israeli rule of law is a path to disaster. There is no doubt in my mind that what Israel asks of its 18 and 19 year olds is an impossible task. There is equally no doubt in my mind that a heavy Israeli military presence in a place like Hebron – and place that must be visited in person to understand just how soul-crushing the situation there is – guarantees that even the best 18 and 19 year olds will act in reprehensible ways. Neither of these observations should be used to absolve anyone of individual responsibility for his or her actions. Once you take this tack, then chaos and anarchy reign supreme. If every soldier who encounters a violent Palestinian knows that he can wrongfully shoot and claim being a victim of “the system,” it will unleash unspeakable violence while also rending Israeli society in two to an irreparable degree. If every incident of wrongful killing or abuse of Palestinians in the West Bank is met with a larger demand to investigate why Israel is in the West Bank at all, it will similarly create an environment in which there is no incentive for individuals to act with caution or compassion.

This is why the effort already underway to pardon Azaria, championed not only by the prime minister and other government ministers such as Naftali Bennett, Miri Regev, Aryeh Deri, and Yisrael Katz, but also by opposition figures such as Shelley Yachimovich, is a dangerous development. It sends the wrong message about the obligations of soldiers to act legally and humanely and creates a terrible set of incentives through institutionalizing moral hazard. It also validates those who have been treating Azaria as a soldier who acted appropriately but has been scapegoated by the system, while tarnishing the part of the system – the rule of law – that actually worked and has come out of this incident unscathed. But more importantly, it makes this all about the system itself. Do not discount what Elor Azaria did himself, no matter how bad or unfair the situation was in which he found himself. It turns Elor Azaria into a black and white proxy for whether Israel can do no right or Israel can do no wrong, when the reality is far grayer.

The Legalization Bill Is Not Just About Settlements

December 8, 2016 § 5 Comments

The Regulation Bill, which aims to legalize thousands of homes in the West Bank built on private Palestinian land and that passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset on Monday and a first reading yesterday, is a disaster for more reasons than I can list in one place. But that’s no excuse not to try. So (deep breath):

To start with the glaringly obvious, legalizing thousands of homes inside existing recognized settlements and legalizing fifty-five illegal outposts makes a permanent status agreement resulting in a two-state solution farther away than it has been at any time since before Oslo. It hardens Israel’s presence in the West Bank to a degree that makes it impossible to envision a withdrawal of civilians that will not result in violence and bloodshed or exact a crushing emotional toll. Given the location of these outposts, it also enormously complicates what is the best way in the current environment to create a de facto two-state solution on the ground – namely, the plan from Commanders for Israel’s Security to freeze expansion east of the security barrier and renounce any claims to Israeli sovereignty in that territory. Should it pass and become law, the Regulation Bill not only makes negotiations down the road that much harder, it eviscerates Israel’s own unilateral options. It is self-binding in the worst sort of way, since it does not do anything productive in deterring an enemy or reassuring an ally – which is the purpose of the self-binding contained in the North Atlantic Treaty, for instance – but instead creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom for Israel’s future. You need to have zero regard for your political successors or for your own political independence to take an action that boxes you in like this to one and only one trajectory going forward.

The bill also puts the lie to long-standing Israeli claims about settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu gives no quarter in claiming that settlements are in no way the issue in preventing Israeli-Palestinian peace. He instead argues that they are a smokescreen that the other side hides behind to mask its refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy. Netanyahu has also gotten lots of mileage from his claim that Israel has not authorized any new settlements on his watch, relying on the fact that most outside observers do not know how illegal settlement activity has proliferated. But that rhetorical flight of fancy is now gone for good. Plenty of people, myself included, have never seen settlements as the core issue behind the conflict, but recognize that they are in fact an enormous obstacle and not anything that can be blithely dismissed as insignificant. When you throw any and all restraint to the wind, however, and let settlements swallow up everything else, they become a core issue. Imagine a Palestinian living in Area C whose home is one of the 11,000 structures under a demolition order for having been built without a permit, and he wakes up to see that with a stroke of a pen Israeli homes in the exact same situation are now deemed legal. If you think that his anger is motivated by a desire to drive Tel Avivians into the sea rather than the blatant discrimination and injustice to which he is being directly subjected, you are deluding yourself.

But it is more than just arguing about the role of settlements that is at stake here. I have enormous sympathy for settlers who moved to the West Bank because they were repeatedly encouraged to do so by the government and were provided all sorts of financial incentives to go. They cannot and should not be hung out to dry. Legalizing what was blatantly illegal activity, however, creates a completely different and perverse set of incentives, and accelerates a moral hazard problem that will become impossible to overcome. We are talking about Israelis who moved onto private Palestinian land without permits and without explicit or clear government approval, and even though the bill as drafted only retroactively legalizes the activity if they didn’t know they were building on private land, it now makes everything they did completely consequence-free. There is no reason from now on for anyone to heed the laws or directives of the Israeli government with regard to building in the West Bank, since the precedent has been set that it will be treated as perfectly fine and that someone else will bear the costs. This decimates the rule of law and encourages a wide range of bad behavior that cannot be put back in the box.

The Regulation Bill also reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be democratic. A majoritarian theory of democracy, in which leaders and parties that win elections get to do anything they please with no checks and balances, is precisely what political philosophers and creators of longstanding democracies like Great Britain and the United States feared. It is why checks and balances and separation of powers exist. Supporters of this bill seem to think that its almost-certain rejection by the High Court is a sign that the High Court is undemocratic because it is thwarting the will of the people, or that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s determination that the bill is unconstitutional does not matter because nobody elected him. This is precisely how democracies turn into populist non-democracies controlled by demagogues, and supporters of Israel who dismiss this attitude as irrelevant do so at their own peril.

Finally, the legalism being used to justify the Regulation Bill is reaching Orwellian heights, and should not be viewed as anything positive. One of the ironies of the three Soviet constitutions was that they guaranteed a wider range of rights than Western constitutions; if an alien landed on Earth and read the Soviet Union’s constitutional and legal documents, it would assume that the Soviet Union was the most free and liberal country on the planet. For similar reasons, countries in which elections do not matter to the transfer of political power almost all go to great lengths to hold elections and make big shows of how they are respecting the will of the people. A patina of legality is used to legitimize that which is illegitimate. I am not suggesting that Israel is an authoritarian country, and it shares no resemblance to the totalitarian Soviet Union. But the focus on what is narrowly legal – the structures being legalized must have been built with no direct knowledge that they were built on private land, there had to have been implicit or explicit government or municipal support – is designed to make what happens appear as if it is above board. It is not. To seize private land without authorization and pay the landowners compensation whether they are willing to cede their land or not is not legal, full stop. The Israeli High Court does not view it as legal. The Israeli attorney general does not view it as legal. No source of international law views it as legal. Tying it up with a phony legal bow almost makes the entire thing worse.

Make no mistake about what this is. It is not an attempt to right wrongs. It is not an attempt to administer fair and impartial justice. Naftali Bennett, to his credit, has not been cagey but has said what this is proudly and clearly: “The Israeli Knesset shifted from a path to establish a Palestinian state, to a path of extending sovereignty to Judea and Samaria. Let there be no doubt, the Regulation Bill is what will spearhead the extension of [Israeli] sovereignty.” The bill will not pass the High Court and will not become law, but what it says about the current state of political affairs in Israel is as disturbing as anything that has happened since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. It is an attempt to radically overhaul Israel’s system of democracy, and that it is playing out in the Knesset does not make it any more democratic.

Bibi’s Trump Dilemma

November 18, 2016 § 1 Comment

Natan Sachs and I argue today in Foreign Affairs that despite the jubilation on the Israeli right at Trump’s election, it actually creates some real political problems for Bibi Netanyahu.

On November 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated President-elect Donald Trump through a video message, in which the Israeli leader could barely contain his giddiness at the prospect of a friendlier White House. The ruling Israeli right-wing coalition, which sees Trump as a potential champion of Greater Israel, believes that the United States’ next president will finally remove any outside constraints on settlement construction in the West Bank or the legalization of already existing settlements built without governmental approval. Settlement-friendly politicians in Israel are already working hard on such moves; on Wednesday, a bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land passed its first reading in the Knesset, despite the objections of the attorney general and a near certain rejection by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Some in Israel even view the next four years as an opportunity to annex the West Bank outright. This is a “tremendous opportunity to announce a renunciation of the idea of founding a Palestinian state in the heart of the land,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, stated. “The era of the Palestinian state is over.”

It’s not clear what Trump will do, of course, nor whether he even knows his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the campaign, he initially said that he would like to remain a “neutral guy”—a contrast to decades of U.S. policy that his tilted toward Israel—but he later shifted to a more traditional pro-Israel stance. To the delight of the Israeli right, the Republican platform omitted any mention of a two-state solution. And since the election, the co-chairs of Trump’s Israel advisory committee have reiterated controversial statements about Trump moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. They’ve also said that Trump does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace. At the same time, Trump himself told The Wall Street Journal of his desire to close the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. “As a dealmaker, I’d like to do … the deal that can’t be made,” he said. “And do it for humanity’s sake.”

Despite the myriad conflicting signals, it is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu will now have a freer hand to implement the policies he desires with regard to settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. Politically speaking, he may no longer have to run the gauntlet between a coalition that demands more building in the West Bank and a White House that insists on less.

But Netanyahu may soon find out that he needs to be careful with what he wishes for. Freedom from U.S. pressure would be a mixed blessing. Rather than solving his problems, it could cost him his political leverage, his ability to play two-level games.

Head over to Foreign Affairs to read the rest of the piece.

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