Taking Trump Literally And Seriously

February 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

Everyone will recall the debate that unfolded during the 2016 presidential campaign over how to treat Donald Trump’s utterances on various policy issues. His detractors were increasingly alarmed by the ideas that spilled forth from his lips at rallies, many of which seemed to be blurted out without much thought into their wisdom or the details of their implementation. Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it; ban Muslims from coming into the country; slap a tariff on American companies making products overseas. His defenders exhorted those who were panicking at what seemed to be a litany of questionable proposals to stop taking Trump literally, and instead to take him seriously. So, for instance, when Trump threatened to punitively tax companies that were moving jobs overseas, the interpretation was supposed to be not that he would follow through, but that he was serious about finding a way to increase domestic job growth. It turns out, however, that taking Trump literally was not as silly as his campaign surrogates suggested, and that his words do indeed provide a guide for where he will initially land on policy. So applying this frame, what does it mean in the Israel context?

Largely forgotten alongside his more famous comments about wanting to make the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians is that early in his campaign, Trump actually laid out a precise roadmap for how he was going to approach Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some of his first comments on Israel during an interview with the Associated Press in December 2015, Trump refused to be pinned down on a host of specific Israel-related issues, which in itself was a strategy. But he did say enough to make it easier to predict what he is going to do going forward, and figure out how it meshes with his comments during the joint press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu last Wednesday.

Talking to the AP before the first primary votes had been cast, Trump said that the first thing he was going to do was sit down with leaders in the region to gauge not only their feelings about the contours of a deal and whether it is workable, but also to test their commitment to peace. He said that “I’ll be able to tell in one sit-down meeting with the real leaders” what is possible, and that he would know for sure within six months of taking office. He also said that he was not convinced that either Israel or the Palestinians were serious about an agreement and that he had greater concerns about one of the sides, but refused to say which side. He did, however, very clearly place the burden of resolving the situation on Israel; “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things. They may not be, and I understand that, and I’m OK with that. But then you’re just not going to have a deal.” He also, in what is now a familiar refrain, would not commit to moving the embassy, would not refer to Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, called settlements “a huge sticking point,” and would not commit to a two-state solution so as not to prejudice negotiations ahead of time. On whether he would want to dive into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as president, he said, “I think if I get elected, that would be something I’d really like to do. Because so much death, so much turmoil, so much hatred — that would be to me a great achievement. As a single achievement, that would be a really great achievement.”

The Trump playbook so far has followed the literal script he laid out before the politics of the campaign forced him to adopt more traditionally hawkish positions. The first thing he said he would do was talk with regional leaders. Not only did he sit down with Netanyahu early on, he also sat down with Jordan’s King Abdullah, spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and White House aides have been making the rounds of Arab ambassadors in Washington. He said that the burden would be on Israel to resolve the situation, and lo and behold he stood next to Netanyahu and warned him that both sides would have to compromise and again alluded to settlements being a sticking point in asking the prime minister to hold off on them for awhile. If we take Trump literally as we should, it means that he is going to make a very heavy early push on getting the two sides together, and will lean on Israel to stop taking actions in the short term that make a negotiated solution more difficult.

In this light, Trump’s pronunciations at last week’s press conference should not have come as a surprise. His infamous “I’m looking at two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like” is not a declaration of policy. It is a declaration of tactics. Similarly, his repeated characterization of settlements as problematic in some limited way, in the AP interview and in the White House statement following Netanyahu’s announcement of new construction and then in his request of Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” is not a policy position but a tactical position. Trump wants to get to a deal and he doesn’t terribly care what is in it, so his primary strategy is to not get pinned down on any specific variable. He will focus on the tangible things, like Palestinian incitement and Israeli settlements, that each side points to as a specific barrier, and he will ignore what the actual end result will look like.

It is important, however, not to ignore the other part of the equation that is clear from Trump’s words. He wants to get a deal, and he thinks the burden is on the Israelis to do the heavy lifting, but he also does not want to waste his time on a drawn out process and has no interest in convincing a party that does not want to be convinced. Contrary to President Obama and Secretary Kerry, he is not going to keep going back to the well if he is not able to work out an agreement in his first year in office, and he is not going to pressure Israel into changing its mind if it is unwilling at first to sacrifice in the ways that he asks. What the larger consequences of that may be for either Israel or the Palestinians are unknown, but if there is one thing that we know so far about this president, it is that he is deeply transactional. Understanding Israel’s reluctance to take certain steps is not the same as giving Israel free rein on every issue without fear of blowback for that reluctance. Hopefully Netanyahu is wise enough to take his new American partner both literally and seriously.

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Why Should You Care About A Political Horizon For Palestinians?

December 3, 2015 § 3 Comments

Political horizon is a term that gets bandied about a lot, including by me, when talking about the Palestinians and how to lower levels of tension and violence in Israel. The basic idea is that a lack of a political horizon leads to desperation on the Palestinian side, fueling terrorism and violence against Israelis, and it is accordingly important to provide some sense of political optimism for Palestinians. The hope is that even if a Palestinian state is not imminently around the corner, progress toward that goal will make actual conditions on the ground better.

Nevertheless, this is not a truism that lies unchallenged. Just as there is research and theory demonstrating that violence in general is caused by a lack of political movement and the frustration of nationalist aspirations, there is research and theory demonstrating that it is caused by poverty, or lack of jobs, or humiliation, or youth, or sexual frustration, or religious motivation. Complex phenomena are complex for a reason and the reality is that political violence is rarely monocausal, but people like to boil things down to one issue that if altered would change the current reality. Prime Minister Netanyahu, for instance, despite his rhetoric about jihadi terrorism and radical Islamism, appears to believe that the way out of political violence emanating from the West Bank is economics. He and his circle have long pushed the idea of an economic peace on the theory that improving the Palestinian economy will create a set of alternative incentives that do not include violence against Israelis; essentially, the thinking is that prosperous people are happy people with too much to lose.

Let’s say that you are amenable to this argument – and I think there is something to it, although I firmly believe that political progress matters more in this sphere than economic progress. Why then should the idea of a political horizon matter for practical purposes (setting aside for the moment the moral considerations involved in preventing a group’s right to self-determination)? To take it even further, let’s say you are someone who has never read your Benedict Anderson and puts the word Palestinian in quotes, or – as someone emailed in response to one of my recent columns – refers to “Fakestinians.” You don’t believe that Palestinians should have a state and that they aren’t capable of statehood. Why should it still be important to you that Palestinians perceive some sort of political horizon?

I was reading an atlas with my six year old daughter earlier this week, and when she saw that it had geographical maps and political maps, she asked me what politics means. I told her that in the context of a political map, it means the way that people organize themselves into different groups, but there is of course more behind that answer. Politics is how people acquire power and use that power to govern in an ideal world. When politics is absent, violence inevitably fills the void. Politics can be messy and nasty and ultimately deeply unsatisfying – just look at the current Republican primary race – but it is also the only tried and true route to a peaceful resolution of problems. It is not a sufficient component, but it is a necessary component.

The history of our own country belies the idea that economics trumps politics, and that politics can be ignored or downplayed. The British citizen revolutionaries of 1776 did not rise up against their own government because of excessive taxation; they rose up because they had no say in that taxation. The wealthy landowners who largely made up the leaders that we now refer to as the Founding Fathers saw no alternative to armed rebellion not because they had no economic horizon, but because they had no political horizon. It’s not for nothing that the Israeli security establishment has fingered the precise same problem in its assessment of what is driving the violence in Israel and the West Bank.

I am not suggesting that providing some sort of optimism on the political front – and that means at the very least Netanyahu refraining from talk about the need to occupy the West Bank for generations to come – is a silver bullet to end violence, because it isn’t. A political horizon is not a miracle cure. What it does is demonstrate that there is an alternative path to armed violence in seeking to achieve political goals. Von Clausewitz famously called war a continuation of politics by other means, but it is often a breakdown of politics, not a continuation of politics. That Palestinian leaders have rejected Israeli peace offers is not a reason to stop trying, since what ensues is sadly predictable. I am not advocating for the resumption of negotiations or forcing the two sides together for another inevitable failure. I am advocating for Israel to minimally demonstrate that it sees a path to a Palestinian state that involves attainable conditions at some point in the future. That vision does not seem to now exist, and it is the absence of a horizon that makes things on the Palestinian side look so bleak.

It is not wooly headed peaceniks saying that the restoration of a political horizon is necessary; it is the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus. So even if you are a true believer in Greater Israel, or you think that a Palestinian state will become a base for more terror against Israelis, or you are adamant that Israel has demonstrated its willingness to compromise and that the Palestinians never will, this is something you should favor. As great as things like Rawabi and Palestinian economic zones are, they are the equivalent of removing a splinter from the finger of someone who is bleeding from the head.

Solutionism on Settlements

November 24, 2015 § 8 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Zionism of Excuses

November 19, 2015 § 7 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unilateral Bibi

November 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does What Palestinians Want Matter?

November 5, 2015 § 5 Comments

Yitzhak Rabin was no doe-eyed peacenik. He did not believe in the Palestinians’ good intentions. He was convinced that ceding the West Bank to the Palestinians was necessary to preserve Israel as a Jewish state, but was under no illusions that doing so would cure all ills and turn the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River into Switzerland. Above all, he was a champion of incrementalism, not allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good and dictate inaction.

I bring this up during the week that we mark twenty years since Rabin’s assassination because of a much-discussed long piece in Mosaic by Daniel Polisar that looks at hundreds of polls of Palestinian attitudes to ascertain what it is that Palestinians want. Polisar cites polls showing large majorities of Palestinians supporting armed attacks against Israeli civilians; justifying and supporting violence as a means to extract Israeli concessions; convinced that Israel wants to annex the West Bank and expel all of the Arabs; asserting that Israel wants to destroy al-Aqsa and replace it with a synagogue; denying Jewish history in the land; and so on and so forth. The picture that emerges is an ugly one of Palestinians harboring ill will toward Jews, not being willing to accept Israel, and ensuring that Israel is fated to live in an eternal state of war. It is not unreasonable to read the thousands of words that Polisar dedicates to documenting Palestinian survey responses about Israel and conclude, as many have, that Israel cannot and should not ever grant the Palestinians a state of their own in the West Bank, since to do so would be to take an irreversible step that would place Israel in grave danger.

However, to reach this conclusion would be the wrong response to this data, and this perhaps more than anything else is the lesson to be gleaned from Rabin’s legacy. There are two basic ways to approach the bleak picture painted by Polisar’s review of Palestinian opinion (and this comes with the caveat that I have not read through all 330 of the polls that Polisar has analyzed, so I will have to take it on faith that the picture he paints is an accurate and contextual one). The first is to say that Palestinian hatred and rejection of Israel is immutable, not primarily driven by anything that Israel has done and implacably unresponsive to anything that Israel will do in the future. For instance, in discussing the manner in which Palestinians view Jews, Polisar cites a 2011 Pew Research Center poll in which only 4% of Palestinians held favorable views of Jews, and 52% of Palestinians claimed that some religions were more prone to violence than others with 88% of those citing Judaism as the most violent offender. This type of attitude does not seem like it will change any time soon given the incredibly lopsided numbers, and in Polisar’s conclusion he writes, “Could anything change this state of affairs? It seems highly improbable that the Palestinian masses, whose views have been relatively stable for so long, will spontaneously shift gears in the foreseeable future… Similarly farfetched, but for other reasons, is the idea that Israeli leaders, by modifying their rhetoric or restraining the reactions of the security forces, can appreciably dampen Palestinian support for violence.”

There is, however, another way to approach this data, which is that Palestinian hatred and rejection of Israel is largely a response to Palestinian historical experience, and while this never justifies the deadly targeting of civilians it has engendered, it suggests that Israeli action can indeed dampen support for Palestinian violence. As a useful exercise, let’s look at another country’s response to the same questions in that 2011 Pew poll. In this country, only 9% of non-Muslim respondents had a favorable view of Muslims, and of the 63% of respondents who agreed that some religions were more violent than others, 91% fingered Islam as the most violent. Is immutable hatred at work here as well? If you haven’t already guessed which country this is, it is Israel. The overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews, American Jews, and supporters of Israel worldwide – and I am in this category – would reject the view that these numbers are driven by anything other than Israel’s experience with Palestinian terror, rejectionism, and violence, but it is always more difficult to see the context on the other side than it is on your own. It is foolhardy to pretend that Palestinians’ experience with statelessness, Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and dual standards for Israelis and Palestinians both inside and outside the Green Line does not contribute to Palestinian attitudes in a major way.

Let’s bring this back to where we started, with the legacy of Rabin. A Rabin approach to the Palestinians – one that looks at the longterm and existential threats to Israel and shapes the strategic environment in the face of those threats – dictates a two state solution and separation from the Palestinians in the face of these survey numbers irrespective of how you interpret them. If you think that Palestinians will eternally hate Israel and want to kill Jews, then deepening a situation where Israelis and Palestinians are intertwined throughout the West Bank is sheer madness, and presents a security nightmare with no permanent solution. The only possible way out is a divorce with a heavily guarded and patrolled border in between Israel and Palestine. Likewise, if you think that Palestinian hatred of Israel is driven in some part by Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the consequent lack of a Palestinian state, then reversing course will indeed have a constructive effect on Palestinian attitudes that support violence against Israelis. Israel cannot be held captive by Palestinian attitudes or wait for them to change, but must act according to its own interests and without regard to what it sees on the other side.

I heard Dan Meridor last week repeatedly make the point that Israel is paralyzed by a lack of leadership, and he referenced the examples of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat as leaders who would not have taken the steps they did in service of peace between Israelis and Egyptians had they been enslaved to public opinion. While Israel may be facing hostile Palestinian public opinion, the fact is that the Palestinian Authority, while far from perfect, has demonstrated its willingness under Mahmoud Abbas to work with Israel and prevent violence from erupting in the West Bank. Prince Turki al-Faisal, who spent a quarter century as the Saudi Arabian intelligence minister and also served as ambassador to the U.S., told IPF last week in a meeting that the Arab world would like to engage Israel, and that the Arab Peace Initiative is not a take-it-or-leave-it offer but one that is open to negotiation and awaiting an official Israeli response. The upshot is that there is an opening here for Israel to do something constructive no matter what Palestinians think. Were Rabin still alive, he would undoubtedly take advantage of this opening and run through it.

When Zionists Boycott

October 29, 2015 § 5 Comments

Last weekend, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl, professors respectively at Harvard and Chicago (which has made for a dangerous combination in the past), arguing for a boycott of Israel. Levitsky and Weyl, both self-identified as progressive Jews and lifelong Zionists, argue that because their support for Israel is predicated in part on the Jewish state embracing universal values of human rights, their observation that the occupation of the West Bank has become permanent dictates a boycott. They write that the purpose of a boycott is to pressure Israel into altering its strategic calculations and change its behavior; in their words, “Until Israel seriously engages with a peace process that either establishes a sovereign Palestinian state or grants full democratic citizenship to Palestinians living in a single state, we cannot continue to subsidize governments whose actions threaten Israel’s long-term survival.”

Given the pedigree and prominence of the authors, this particular call to boycott Israel has caused some consternation and drawn a variety of harsh responses, with some points of substance but mostly loud verbiage questioning the authors’ fitness to comment on Israel or diagnosing their allegedly selfish emotional motivations behind writing the op-ed. If you are looking for another ad hominem attack against Levitsky and Weyl or an investigation into their psyches, you needn’t read any further since one will not be forthcoming in this space. I am more interested in demonstrating why I think the particular arguments they make are inapt and figuring out how they arrived at the view of Israel that they espouse.

I am passingly acquainted with Levitsky personally from my days at Harvard, but I am intimately acquainted with his influential and excellent work on competitive authoritarianism. Competitive authoritarian regimes are ones where the authoritarian government holds elections that can theoretically result in the opposition coming to power, but the process is not free and fair and is heavily weighted in the regime’s favor. This work on competitive authoritarianism is part of a wider literature in political science recognizing that not only are elections not a sufficient condition for democracy, but that in many cases elections are part of a wider system of placing a democratic veneer on authoritarian government. A competitive authoritarian regime may look like a democracy but behind the scenes is actually working to unfairly perpetuate its own rule; think about Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey for a current snapshot of what that looks like.

I bring this up because in reading Levitsky and Weyl’s argument, it jumps out at me that they are taking Levitsky’s work on competitive authoritarian regimes and superimposing it – inappropriately, in my view – on Israel. From their vantage point, Israel is denying basic rights to Palestinians in the West Bank, growing the settler population, mistreating its Arab minority, and generally using its advantage over the Palestinians to ensure that they live in permanent subjugation. Much like a competitive authoritarian regime holds elections that can theoretically result in a change in government but only if the opposition overcomes the significant hurdles and unfair disadvantages that the ruling party places in its path, Levitsky and Weyl see Israel periodically engaging in a peace process that can theoretically result in a Palestinian state but placing too many hurdles in the way of such a process being successful. In short, while never explicitly writing it, Levitsky and Weyl view Israel as engaging in competitive authoritarian behavior in a number of ways.

It is thus unsurprising given Levitsky’s research showing that competitive authoritarian regimes with strong ties to the West respond to pressure to democratize that he and Weyl came up with the prescription that they did. They are convinced that by isolating Israel from the West and placing its financial and diplomatic ties to the U.S. in jeopardy, it will create sufficient pressure to get Israel to take the peace process seriously and step back from the brink in ending the occupation. As they write, “We recognize that some boycott advocates are driven by opposition to (and even hatred of) Israel. Our motivation is precisely the opposite: love for Israel and a desire to save it.”

I take the authors’ professed love for Israel at face value, but the problem with their plan to address Israel’s behavior through boycotts and sanctions is that their misdiagnosis of the situation leads them to prescribe medicine that will not cure this particular disease. One of the defining characteristics of authoritarian states is that the power to alter course is entirely in the hands of the regimes; not only is there an extreme power imbalance with respect to the opposition, but the regime holds all of the cards in terms of opening up to democracy and competition. Levitsky and Weyl proceed based on an assumption that pressure on Israel will ipso facto lead to the creation of a Palestinian state and the end of an Israeli presence in the West Bank because it is in Israel’s power to do so at will given the right set of incentives. While many, including me, do not view the current Israeli government as in any way serious about the two state solution, the fact remains that successive Palestinian leaders and governments have turned down Israeli offers of statehood without so much as a counter response. This is not a scenario in which Israel can snap its fingers and create a new reality, or one in which Israel is solely to blame for the situation that exists. Israel can and should do better, particularly when it comes to settlement activity, but it does not automatically follow that a boycott of Israel will address the problem at hand, and that is without even factoring in Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

Levitsky and Weyl address head on the common critique that boycotting Israel constitutes a double standard by acknowledging that, no, Israel is not the world’s worst human rights violators, but that they also feel far more invested in Israel’s future fate than they do of other states. As someone who spends his time working on Israel rather than on Bulgaria or Comoros, I empathize with this position, but it again overlooks a crucial reality. While Levitsky and Weyl may be motivated by genuine concerns, their course of action ends up being discriminatory in effect if not in intent far beyond their limited scope. It’s one thing for them to care about Israel more than they do about China, but it’s another to actively work to ensure that Israel is treated worse, particularly given the international environment that seizes upon such efforts to argue that Israel is in fact the world’s worst violator of human rights. Just because Levitsky and Weyl acknowledge that Israel is not a rogue nation without parallel does not mean that such understanding will extend to those with a very different agenda who seize upon their call to action.

I understand the frustration with the Israeli government, with the settlement enterprise, with illiberal trends in Israeli society, and with a Jewish state that speaks for Jews everywhere irrespective of whether all Jews want to cede to it that authority. But Israel is still a democracy, and to view it as an authoritarian actor that is susceptible to pressures that work on authoritarian states leads to poor policy prescriptions. A boycott is the wrong approach, both morally and practically, and Levitsky and Weyl’s op-ed is an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

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