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.

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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.

Paying the Piper

December 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Israeli government this week is debating making two sets of extraordinary payments to different groups. Both payments are in some part necessary, but the story they tell about Israel is not a hopeful one. Indeed, they are an encapsulation of why so many, both inside Israel and out, harbor immense frustration with Israel’s political leadership.

The first set of payments is in response to the fires that ravaged Haifa, Zichron Yaakov, and other pockets of Israel over the past week. The initial suspicion was that the primary cause of the fires was arson, and the Israeli government arrested thirty five suspects, a majority of whom were Arab citizens of Israel. Deliberately torching homes and forests for nationalist motives can certainly be considered terrorism, and the government moved quickly to treat it as such, with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan calling to demolish perpetrators’ homes and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri floating the idea that arsonists’ Israeli citizenship should be revoked. Of more immediate consequence, a number of ministers and MKs called for the government to compensate everyone whose homes and belongings were damaged by the fires, and the Israel Tax Authority on Tuesday ruled that the fires were universally the result of arson. The reason this is important is that the state only has to compensate citizens who suffered financial losses as a result of terrorism; if you lost your home due to wildfires, such as the ones that ravaged the Carmel forest in 2010, then you are covered by private insurance and not entitled to complete restitution from the state. In this case, despite the fact that the Fire and Rescue Authority deemed only 25 of the 1,773 fires to be arson and the Israeli police initially believe that the fires in Haifa – where the most damage occurred – were not arson-related, by moving to cover all losses the government is creating a narrative of Israel under assault from a terrorist fire intifada.

My objection to this is not because I have any desire to see Israelis who lost their homes in a terrible fire be abandoned by the state. It is also not because I think criminal arsonists acting out of nationalist motives are in any way justified or are anything but terrorists. It is because there is another and far more accurate story to tell here, and it is one that does not paint a picture of Israeli society breaking apart because Jews cannot trust Arabs not to burn their country to the ground. Leaving aside the fact that it now appears that deliberate arson was a drop in the bucket compared to weather and environmental factors, the real story of these fires is the cooperation that ensued between Israel and its neighbors and between different segments of Israeli society. The dominant theme is Jews and Arabs helping each other out, rather than Jews and Arabs at each other’s throats. The Palestinian Authority sent eight fire trucks and forty four firefighters to help bring the fires under control, prompting a thank you call from Prime Minister Netanyahu to President Abbas. Even more encouragingly, firefighters from Ramallah helped put out the fires in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, rather than limiting their assistance to fires inside the Green Line. Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey all sent personnel or equipment. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs crossed community lines to host their fellow citizens in their homes, regardless of religion or politics. Yes, there was deliberate arson. Yes, many people on social media were celebrating Jews being burned. These things should not be papered over as if they are irrelevant. But by rushing to declare the entirety of the fires as a terrorist attack that requires the state to compensate every effected Israeli, the government is elevating the smallest and most unsavory part of the story and making sure that it subsumes the far larger and more important part. Rather than seizing on hope, the government is seizing on fear, and guaranteeing that the 2016 fires will be remembered as the latest example of terrorism rather than as an encouraging example of true partnership and cooperation.

The second set of payments being debated this week involves another group that has been deliberately wronged, and in this case as well the government is rushing to pay compensation to people who should never have to be compensated. Despite the fact that Moshe Kahlon’s opposition temporarily derailed it yesterday, the bill to retroactively legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land and pay compensation to the Palestinian landowners is still moving forward, and will only be stopped by a High Court ruling or Netanyahu suddenly developing some political and moral courage on this issue. There is no question that if the government manages to legalize what is blatantly and indisputably illegal that the Palestinians affected need to be fairly compensated. But nobody should celebrate not stiffing the landowners outright as an example of Israeli justice or fair play. The juxtaposition of Israeli MKs who think that it is fine to take revenge on Palestinians who have rendered land uninhabitable for Jews – such as Oren Hazan, who actually held up a lighter in the Knesset and demanded “an eye for an eye” – against the majority of MKs who think that it is fine to render land uninhabitable for Palestinians by illegally taking it and then just paying for it afterwards is particularly jarring.

If the government is so intent on paying people to vacate land in the West Bank, it should move the settlers in places like Amona – who were encouraged by the government to go there and were led to believe that they would never have to pick up and leave – and compensate them for their detrimental reliance on explicit and implicit promises made by successive Israeli governments. Much like the compensation for people who lost everything to wildfires and arson, the government thinks that compensating Palestinians who lost their land puts Israel in a positive light when in fact it does the opposite. Rather than instill faith that the Israeli government will do the right thing, it instills faith that the Israeli government will take a bad situation and somehow make it even worse.

Sacrificing the Temple Mount

October 20, 2016 § 3 Comments

When the United Nations was created amidst the wreckage of World War II as a mechanism for shaping a new international order, its founders had some high hopes for their new global institution. The preamble to the UN Charter explicitly envisioned saving succeeding generations from war, promoting social progress, maintaining international law, practicing peace and tolerance, and all other sorts of laudable goals. But even the UN’s creators could never have imagined the immense power the organization has assumed to rewrite history and create an alternate timeline to the universe, as happened last week when a committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to adopt a resolution that erased any trace of a Jewish connection to Judaism’s holiest site. In some ways this absurd farce does not and should not matter in the least, but in other ways it is a microcosm of much that is wrong with matters that pertain to Israel.

From one perspective, this is not a big deal. Whether UNESCO wants to acknowledge it or not, the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount is immediately evident after five minutes of studying archeology, three minutes of studying ancient history, and half a second of studying Jewish liturgy. And even if none of that were the case, the fact is that Judaism as a religion reveres the Temple Mount as its holiest site, and so that ipso facto makes it so. Pretending otherwise is puerile and infantile, and much like the Israeli demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, whether outside parties recognize the Temple Mount as a holy Jewish site or not is beside the point since it is one, plain and simple. Having someone else say it won’t make it more so, and having someone else deny it certainly won’t make it less so.

But from another perspective, this is a monumental deal that should not be downplayed or waved away. It is critical to understand not only what the Temple Mount represents and what it means to Jews (and observant Jews in particular), but just how much Israel sacrifices and Jews give up by maintaining the current status quo at the site. Imagine if Jews claimed the Kaaba in Mecca as holy to Judaism as well as to Islam, and Israel assumed control of the Kaaba compound and allowed Muslims to visit for a couple of hours a day but expressly forbade them from praying there, creating a blatantly discriminatory double standard against Muslims at Islam’s holiest place. Then imagine further that Israel pushed a UNESCO resolution acknowledging a Muslim connection to Mecca but none at all to the Kaaba, and blasting Saudi Arabia for not respecting the “integrity, authenticity and cultural heritage” of the explicitly Jewish site. The world would literally be up in arms in this scenario, yet this is what happens at Judaism’s holiest site, and not only is the situation not condemned, but Israel is the party criticized. The situation for Jews on the Temple Mount is the equivalent of religious apartheid, yet Israel not only goes along with it but it enforces it in the interests of maintaining the peace. To then add insult to injury by using Israel’s enormous and massive restraint at the Temple Mount against it in pretending that there is no Jewish connection at all is reprehensible. That the UNESCO resolution alludes to the importance of Jerusalem for Judaism – although never comes out and explicitly says it but only mentions “the three monotheistic religions – and uses the Jewish terms for religious sites in the West Bank only makes the purposeful absence of Jewish terms in connection to the Temple Mount even worse, and using UNESCO’s acknowledgement of Jewish Jerusalem to whitewash memory-holing the Temple Mount is a disgraceful rhetorical technique. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova’s statement essentially renouncing the UNESCO resolution and using the terms Temple Mount and Har Habayit should be applauded by everyone.

The larger problem here is not what this resolution says about history, but what it says about the future. The Palestinian push to make this resolution happen rightly feeds into fears of what will happen to Jews and Jewish holy places in a future Palestinian state, and whether the same basic access and protections that Israel affords to non-Jewish religious sites will be reciprocated in any way. The “historic status quo” repeatedly referred to in the UNESCO resolution is only five decades old; it should not escape notice that the status quo before 1967 was that the Temple Mount was Jew-free entirely. This latest move does not instill confidence for the future of religious tolerance and respect, and it also raises the question of why the Palestinians are wasting their time trying to deny what are plainly obvious historical facts rather than accomplishing anything productive diplomatically. If this is the best that Palestinian leadership can muster, then it is no wonder that the Palestinian Authority is abysmally unpopular. It also feeds into the Israeli instinct to distrust the UN and the international community more generally, since it is all fine and well that no European countries voted for the resolution, but that France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and other couldn’t get up the courage to do more than abstain reinforces the Israeli view that they will never get a fair shake.

The resolution’s sponsoring countries also point to a tough road ahead for Israel. The draft was submitted by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Sudan. Israel touts its ties with Egypt as one of its greatest diplomatic successes, has been trying to improve Sudan’s relations with the West as a way of further isolating Iran, and frequently coordinates behind the scenes with Qatar – Hamas’s primary international patron – in order to manage the situation in Gaza. Yet when push comes to shove, these countries have no compunction about raising completely outrageous claims about Israel and Judaism at the UN over an issue that has no tangible diplomatic value other than emotionally wounding Jews around the world. This is not encouraging for Israel’s regional acceptance and normalization, to say the least.

It cannot be that every offensive statement made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, every rhetorical provocation committed by an Israeli minister, and every move to deny Palestinian claims and narratives by the Israeli government are highlighted and written in stone for all to bash until the end of time, but the Palestinians can do the same and get a free pass. UNESCO’s repugnance does not have the same terrible daily impact, for instance, as demolishing Palestinian homes that were built without permits that Israel refuses to grant, but it is repugnant nonetheless and must be condemned without qualification. That Judaism’s connection to its holiest and most revered religious site is now the subject of official UN debate is humiliating not only to the UN, but to anyone who respects those pesky little things called facts.

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.

What To Do About Gaza?

February 16, 2016 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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