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.

Guest Post: Rhetoric On Israel Matters

August 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

No introductions needed this time. Here is Gabe Scheinmann’s half of Round Two on the implications for U.S. policy toward Israel if Mitt Romney is elected in November (for the previous three installations, go here, here, and here.

Well, I think I’ve gotten Michael to move the needle a little bit (from “little daylight between the two men” to “Gabe is undoubtedly correct that differences exist between Romney and Obama” to saying Michael is “on board with the notion that Romney’s rhetoric and personal convictions on Israel are more friendly than Obama’s”. However, if the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over again expecting different results, here I go.

First, on Iran, Michael somewhat jumbled my argument. Forget the exact chronological predictions for the moment as neither Michael nor I, nor Washington, London, or Jerusalem truly know how far along Iran is. However, my overall point remains unchanged. It’s the Israelis, not us Americans, that have a shorter window for military action should it come to that. Large differences in capabilities between the two countries means that the U.S. can afford to allow the Iranian program to develop much farther than Israel can. Moreover, the gravitas of that difference is magnified by how much Israel trusts Obama’s promises. So, when the Obama Administration draws a red line that is the furthest possible down the road, it makes a massive difference to Israel. So, for the Israelis, a broken U.S. commitment to stop a “nuclear Iran” could mean that it would be too late for Israel to take out the program. Whereas a broken U.S. commitment to stop an Iran with “nuclear weapons capability” would still gives Jerusalem an opportunity to take care of the program itself if need be. As to “walking back” the “respect” quote, maybe we are splitting hairs here, but Senor clarified and did not retract his statement. He said that he hopes diplomacy and sanctions succeed—a position agreed to by all—but in the likely event that they don’t, Romney “recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it.” Even if the “respect” language hadn’t been initially used, the Romney camp is saying in no uncertain terms that America will support Israel if Israel chooses to exercise its right to self-defense. In conclusion, the differences in policies here are still quite large: Obama is actively trying to restrain Israeli action—Panetta at one point even telegraphed the date of a possible attack which really hemmed in the Israelis—whereas Romney is merely saying that he will support our ally if push comes to shove.

Second, on the Palestinian portfolio, let me bring a little more evidence to bear. The Obama Administration is on the record as stating that not only is Jerusalem not Israel’s capital, but that it is not even in Israel. It is Obama’s policy, not Romney’s position, that marks a large change in the American position. See Omri Ceren’s cataloguing of efforts by the Obama Administration to scrub “Jerusalem, Israel” from the archives of past administrations, literally rewriting some history. (You can see the differences in the photo captions.) All previous presidents have recognized Israeli sovereignty over at least pre-1967 Jerusalem, where all Israeli government institutions reside.Nixon (see the September 5, 1972 entry), CarterClinton, and Bush43 have all had no problem admitting that Jerusalem was in Israel. Lastly, while candidate Obama stated that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and that it will remain undivided”—two positions he has now backtracked on—candidate Romney has actually not said the “undivided” part. While this could merely be an unintended omission, it could also be an astute recognition that while Jerusalem is obviously in Israel and obviously Israel’s capital, the final borders of Jerusalem could change in line with the decisions of an Israeli government. It lends more weight to Romney’s other statements because his silence naturally defers any decision to its rightful place: the Israeli government.

On borders, Michael has misquoted the joint Netanyahu-Clinton statement, which in turn demonstrates that the Obama position on borders is unprecedented. The relevant parts of the statement says that the “the United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps…” which is actually quite different than what Michael wrote. It merely commits the U.S. to a negotiated outcome and states that those borders are a Palestinian goal. Obama went further in his May 2011 State Department speech, converting the Palestinian goal into the U.S. position. But nowhere in the statement does it say Israel believes this. In fact, a quick search of “1967 lines” or “1967 borders” on the American Presidency Project, an eminently useful archive of presidential speeches, demonstrates that Obama is the first to ever use the formulation in this way. Contrast that with this nifty Reagan quote: “In the pre-1967 borders Israel was barely 10 miles wide at its narrowest point. The bulk of Israel’s population lived within artillery range of hostile Arab armies. I am not about to ask Israel to live that way again.” Even President Carter said that while he expected there to be “minor adjustments to the 1967, pre-1967 borders” that it was “a matter for Israel and her neighbors to decide.” To summarize, Obama believes that Jerusalem is neither the capital of Israel, nor in Israel, and that the borders of a future Palestinian state should be based on the 1967 lines with mutual agreed swaps. Romney believes that Jerusalem is both in Israel and is Israel’s capital, a position more in line with most U.S. presidents, and has not commented on what he believes Israel’s final borders to be. In doing so, he has deferred to Israel’s own evaluation of its objectives as well as the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Obama, meanwhile, has prejudged those negotiations by putting down the starting point as the Palestinian position. Those are fairly stark policy differences.

Third, on the overall regional approach, Michael points to Zvika Krieger’s article, where Zvika argues that the U.S. did Israel a favor by not including it in a counterterrorism forum because it made Arab and Turkish participation easier. Overlooking the fact that the sole source of the article is an Obama Administration official who presumably drew the short straw of trying to explain the exclusion by saying it was in Israel’s interests, I would argue that reinforcing the Arab diplomatic boycott of Israel, especially in regards to a forum that Israel is a leading expert, as a way of being “pro-Israel” verges on delusion. Unless the Obama Administration thinks it can whisper sweet nothings in Arab ears that will alter their decades-long boycott of Israel, I don’t see how this is productive for Israel in the long run. But, even if Michael buys Zvika’s story, the story confirms what I wrote: the Administration purposefully excluded Israel from the forum, though the Obama line is that in the hopes that it will make cooperation easier down the road. I’ll let the readers decide whether they think that is a good strategy. As per Israel’s non-attendance at the NATO summit in Chicago, Michael refers to his own post on the issue, whereby he cites Administration officials saying that Israel was never invited in the first place, and Israeli officials that it was never going to attend anyways. I would merely submit that this is a diplomatic waltz, a way for the two countries to avoid making an issue out of something that was unlikely to be changed.

I’ll end with a question for Michael—I’ll defer to him as to whether his silence on the numerous other points (calling on Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, desiring to fund UNESCO in contravention of U.S. law, making the peace process a “vital national security interest”) constitutes agreement. By telling Jewish leaders that he intended to put “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel because he thought that the lack of daylight during the Bush years did not lead to peace process progress, was Obama himself not therefore stating that he intended to pursue a different policy than the Bush Administration?

In conclusion, I want to make the case that rhetoric and personal conviction do end up having an important policy impact. There’s no magic formula that explains how convictions translate into policies, but many policymakers will easily attest that a president’s priorities, convictions, personal history, and relationships end up having a greater impact on policy than stand-alone statements. As such, I’d like to link to President Bush’s speech to the Israeli Knesset upon his attendance of Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebration. For a man that was not known for his oratory, the speech is a wonderful expression of the deep, personal convictions of the leader of the free world. “I have been fortunate,” Bush said, “to see the character of Israel up close. I’ve touched the Western Wall; I’ve seen the sun reflected in the Sea of Galilee; I have prayed at Yad Vashem. And earlier today I visited Masada, an inspiring monument to courage and sacrifice. At this historic site, Israeli soldiers swear an oath: “Masada shall never fall again.” Citizens of Israel, Masada shall never fall again, and America will be at your side.” Contrast that language with that of Obama’s in his 2009 Cairo speech, where he implied that the “aspiration for a Jewish homeland” was a result of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and not its Biblical existence.

Policy Vs. Campaign Rhetoric on Israel

August 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

Gabe Scheinmann wrote a great guest post last week responding to my contention that U.S. policy toward Israel is going to remain largely the same irrespective of who wins the election in November. In short, Gabe argues that there is a world of difference between Obama and Romney and that it will have a significant impact on U.S. policy regarding Iran, the peace process, and Mideast regional politics and security. I don’t disagree with Gabe that Obama and Romney have different views on various issues related to Israel, but I think where Gabe goes awry is in his contention that it’s going to matter for U.S. policy. Looking at what has gone on under Obama and the history of presidential candidates and campaigns saying things that get walked back later on (including by Romney just last week), I think that a Romney administration will hew to much the same line that the Obama administration has.

On Iran, Gabe argues that the difference between the U.S. drawing a red line at nuclear capability versus drawing a red line at a nuclear weapon is a drastic one, and that by taking the former position Romney is aligned with the Israeli stance. Gabe also thinks that Romney’s position means that the U.S. is looking at a multi-month window, rather than multi-year window under Obama, to strike Iran. There are, however, a couple of factors that Gabe is overlooking. First, we don’t know that the U.S. and Israel are necessarily in agreement as to how long before Iran develops nuclear capability; the British estimate is that Iran is two years away from nuclear capability, while Israeli officials have at times estimated that Iran is only months away. If U.S. intelligence agencies are in line with the British view, then it means we are still looking at a multi-year window for U.S. action. Second, Gabe claims that the Romney campaign has said he will “respect” an Israeli decision to unilaterally attack Iran and he contrasts this with Obama’s efforts to prevent Israel from launching at attack, but Gabe must know that this is misleading. The link that he provides for the “respect” claim is an article detailing how the Romney campaign walked back aide Dan Senor’s respect position – widely interpreted as giving Israel a green light – just hours after he made it, and instead clarified that Romney simply “recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself.” The idea that Obama is constraining the Israelis from striking Iran but that Romney would tell them to go right ahead, or even assist them in doing so, is one that was consciously contradicted by the Romney campaign. As I wrote in my original post, the difference between capability and an actual weapon is a real one, but the effect this has on what actions the U.S. will take and when is not as large as Gabe suggests.

On the issue of the West Bank and the peace process, Gabe says that Obama does not believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that Romney does, and that Obama has endorsed the Palestinian position on negotiations with regard to Jerusalem and borders and that Romney has not. Again, this is a highly selective reading of events. Much like Romney now, when Obama was a candidate in 2008 he famously said that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” and when he attracted a storm of criticism for the “undivided” part of the comment, he walked back that portion but pointedly did not refute the part of the comment calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Once in office, his administration’s official position was the exact same as literally every president before him since – including George W. Bush, widely seen as the most pro-Israel president in history – that Jerusalem’s final status should be subject to negotiations. This is, in fact, the position that Israel agreed to when it signed the Oslo Accords, so when Gabe refers to this as the Palestinian position in negotiations, it is unclear to me why he implies that Israel has never agreed to negotiation Jerusalem’s final status. It is also unclear to me why Gabe believes that Romney will be the first president in history to overturn the U.S. position on Jerusalem, and why he thinks that Romney is not doing the exact same thing that Obama did when campaigning in 2008. On the issue of borders, Netanyahu issued a joint statement with Hillary Clinton in November 2010 using the phrase “1967 lines, with agreed swaps,” which is the same formulation Obama has used. It is also the same position that the U.S. and Israel have taken in every single negotiation with the Palestinians during the Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations, so I’d again be curious to know why Gabe thinks Romney will do things differently. This is furthered by the fact that the Romney campaign website is completely silent on this issue and Romney has, as Gabe note, “issued no such positions” because he has been silent on specifics with regard to Israel, instead relying on empty platitudes. This is not a coincidence, since Romney does not want to upset Jewish voters but also does not want to box himself in by taking positions he will have to repudiate in office. No matter what Romney believes, the fact is that if he wades into the peace process morass, he is – like every president before him irrespective of party – also going to endorse the 1967 lines with swaps and refuse to prejudice the outcomes of negotiations over Jerusalem.

Finally, on the issue of the approach to Middle East regional issues, Gabe says that Obama has excluded Israel from the new Global Counterterrrorism Forum, although I would direct my readers to Zvika Krieger’s excellent reporting on the subject which makes clear that this has nothing to do with the administration trying to isolate Israel. Gabe also contends that Israel is being sold out to placate Turkey, but his claim about allowing Turkey to block Israel from the recent NATO summit is incorrect (as I have written about before), not to mention that I don’t think Gabe would suggest that the U.S. not attend NATO summits if Turkey does indeed exercise its right under the NATO bylaws to block non-members from attending. It should also be pointed out that Israel has never once attended a NATO summit in its history, so the idea that this can be pinned on Obama and that Romney would somehow change that is quite a stretch. Similarly, I think it is questionable to imply, as Gabe does, that the decision not to back Egypt’s autocratic dictator once the handwriting was on the wall was directed at Israel and that Romney would have done things differently.

In sum, Gabe is undoubtedly correct that differences exist between Romney and Obama, but I think he overstates the extent to which this will affect much of anything. Unless you think that Romney is going to upend the bipartisan consensus on the peace process that has existed for decades, or that he is going to destroy ties with Turkey rather than trying to work a middle ground that preserves the relationship with Israel while simultaneously preserving the relationship with another important regional ally, what we are left is with a difference on Iran, but one that still puts Romney at odds with the Israeli position. I am on board with the notion that Romney’s rhetoric and even personal convictions on Israel are more friendly toward Israel than Obama’s, but despite making a host of important points, I don’t think Gabe meets the burden of proof in demonstrating that this will ultimately matter when it comes to U.S. policy.

Guest Post: Romney and Obama Differ On More Than Just Iran

August 3, 2012 § 5 Comments

On Monday I wrote a post arguing that irrespective of who wins the presidential election in November, American policy toward Israel is unlikely to change very much. My friend Gabe Scheinmann (whose previous guest post differed with me on which side is politicizing the Israel debate) is now here to present an opposing view, since he believes that I have downplayed the differences between Obama and Romney when it comes to Israel policy.

Michael argues that, outside of rhetorical flourish intended for the election season, the sole policy difference with regards to Israel between a Romney Administration and a second Obama term is the “limited exception of what threshold will trigger [U.S.] military action against Iran”. While I respect Michael’s analysis, I have to say that the differences between the two are far, far starker. Whether it be the U.S. approach to the peace process, the status of Jerusalem, relations with regional countries, or dealing with Iran, the policy priorities and principles between the two potential leaders will be vastly different.

First, I concede that, under Obama, the military relationship has strengthened, mostly attributable to the nearly $300mil the Administration has granted to Israel to purchase additional Iron Dome batteries. While this is absolutely commendable, I would surmise that this would have also occurred during a hypothetical McCain Administration and would continue under Romney as well. Moreover, while this is my own opinion, the rhetorical echo chamber nurtured by both the White House and the Israeli government when it comes to security ties has been a way for both governments to claim “Situation Normal” without having to add the AFU part. The nature of military-to-military ties makes it difficult for Congress, interest groups, or the public to know what is concrete and what isn’t. By touting “the closest ever” security ties, both sides are able to mask the deep political and diplomatic problems that do exist.

First, on Iran. The difference between “nuclear weapon capability”, which is the Romney and Israeli position, and a “nuclear Iran”, which is the Obama position, is drastic. While Michael admits that this is the sole point of difference, I think that he undervalues the importance of the difference, which could be a multi-year window for the U.S., a multi-month window for Israel. Moreover, while Obama’s efforts have been focused on constraining, preventing, and even preemptively condemning potential unilateral Israeli military action, the Romney campaign has now said that it will “respect” Israeli action should it come to that. Lastly, Romney supports aiding the Iranian opposition in an attempt to remove the current regime, a notable contrast with the president, who was notoriously silent at the most opportune moment in 2009 for such support. Put simply, Obama’s Plan A is negotiations/sanctions, Plan B is simply “trust me” a few years from now. If he burns your trust, it’s too late. Romney’s Plan A is negotiations/sanctions/regime change from within or “trust me” a few months from now. If he burns your trust, it is still not too late to act unilaterally.

Second, on the West Bank portfolio. On settlements, Obama believes that Jerusalem, including the Old City, is a settlement and should be treated no differently than everything else in the West Bank. The Administration does not believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. (Note: One could still not move the Embassy, state that final borders are subject to negotiation, but still believe that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. The Administration has gone out of its way to not do that.) Romney believes that Jerusalem is not a settlement and that it is Israel’s capital. That is a fairly significant difference. Romney has been silent on West Bank settlements, a marked contrast with Obama who made it the focus of his Israel policy for nearly a year, souring the U.S.-Israel relationship and setting back Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Whereas Obama has endorsed the Palestinian negotiating position (Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel and is subject to negotiation, borders (not negotiations on borders, but borders) should be based on the 1949 armistice (he called them 1967 lines), Romney issued no such positions and condemned the president for doing so. Whereas Romney has promised to defund the Palestinian Authority if it enters into a unity government with Hamas or seeks unilateral statehood recognition at the UN, the Obama Administration has gone to great lengths to keep bankrolling the PA, even though Abu Mazen has crossed both those red lines. It also upgraded the diplomatic representation of the Palestinian mission very early on.

Third, Obama and Romney regional policies would be different with different effects on Israel.  The Obama Administration has excluded Israel from the first two meetings of a new major counterterrorism forum, has endorsed a conference statement calling for Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, has pushed Israel to apologize to Turkey for the flotilla affair, and has given Turkey a veto on Israeli participation in NATO exercises. Moreover, while it swiftly called for Mubarak, a longtime American and Israeli ally, to step down in the wake of domestic protests, it resisted doing the same in Iran, an American and Israeli enemy, despite its more brutal oppression and troublemaking.

Fourth, the semiotics of Obama’s approach to Israel have been somewhere between wrong-footed, disingenuous, and appalling. The president snubbed the democratically elected Israeli leader at the White House two years ago, denying him a perfunctory photo-op and abandoning him to eat dinner with his family, equated the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering, visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, but not Israel, made his first foreign phone call as president to PA president Abu Mazen, and purposefully put “daylight” between the two countries, as he openly told Jewish leaders. In contrast, Romney has promised to make Israel his first foreign visit.

To conclude, the differences between the two men’s policies are glaring. On Iran, Romney has said that he respects an Israeli strike if it comes to that, but more importantly the threshold for what constitutes as “unacceptable” is a lot lower than what Obama has said. On the Palestinians, the two men see Jerusalem, settlements, and the basis of negotiations in far different lights. Overall, whereas Obama believes that the best way to stop an Iranian nuclear program and to increase U.S. popularity in the Arab world is to loosen its political support of Israel, Romney believes that only by tightening the U.S.-Israel relationship will the U.S. stop the Iranian nuclear drive and enhance Arab-Israeli peacemaking. (The Obama Administration even elevated Palestinian-Israeli peace to a U.S. “vital national security interest”.) The evidence suggests that a Romney Administration’s Israel policy would represent a distinct departure from the policies of the last four years.

How Will Romney’s Israel Policy Differ From Obama’s?

July 30, 2012 § 4 Comments

With Mitt Romney visiting Israel this weekend and giving speeches and making statements about his policy toward Israel, it seems like a good time to think about how his approach as president would be different from what we have seen under President Obama. Romney’s Jewish supporters, noting that a significant number of American Jews appear to be uncomfortable or disappointed with the way that Obama has interacted with Israel, have been pushing the notion that there will be a sea change if Romney is in office, and Romney himself has played up this idea as well. So, if Romney is sitting in the Oval Office come January 20, what can we expect to change?

The first big issue is military and intelligence cooperation and assistance, and almost nobody disputes the fact that these are at an all time high under Obama. Whether it be funding for Iron Dome, coordination on Stuxnet and other measures meant to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, or the sale of advanced weaponry, Israel and the U.S. enjoy a closer relationship now than at any other time in the last 60 years. Indeed, last year Ehud Barak remarked, “I can hardly remember a better period of support, American support and backing and cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.” This type of cooperation is sure to continue should Romney win in November.

Another big policy area is the peace process. Despite concerns over whether Romney supports a two state solution, which largely stem from the backing he is receiving from Palestinian state opponent Sheldon Adelson, I find it difficult to imagine that Romney will buck the strong bipartisan consensus and actually come out in favor of the rightwing one state solution favored by Joe Walsh and Danny Danon. Bibi Netanyahu himself is on record as being in favor of a Palestinian state, and even if you think this is mere lip service, it demonstrates just how far outside the mainstream abandoning the two state solution would place Romney. On the issue of whether he would push the Israelis on settlements and making concessions to the Palestinians, my guess is that Romney will occupy the same position as George W. Bush, which is to have an official policy against continued Israeli settlement expansion but to do nothing about it in practice. Obama famously pushed the Israelis on the issue of settlements earlier in his term, but has since backed off either due to a realization that his initial strategy was a bad one or in order to calm Jewish voters who were uncomfortable with his pressuring Israel but not the Palestinians, or perhaps a little bit of both. Whatever the case, Romney will likely not make the peace process a priority, but it is an open question as to whether a second term Obama would make a strong effort to force the two parties into a peace deal, and my own view is that he is going to let it drop. Between getting burned once and announcing a pivot toward Asia, I think that Obama’s heavy involvement in the peace process is a thing of the past.

Romney’s visit to Israel raised two other issues of American policy after he issued statements addressing each, and these are American support for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On the Iran issue, there was initially some confusion as to whether Romney would commit U.S. troops after the fact were Israel to strike Iran, but Romney himself made clear in an interview in Ha’aretz that he and Obama hold the same position on Iran, saying, “President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.” While Romney has criticized Obama over his Iran policy and suggested that he would be more forceful with the Iranian regime, his actual policy is identical when it comes to tactics – namely, increased sanctions and keeping the military option on the table. Where the two men differ is over what constitutes the precise red line; for Obama it is Iran developing a nuclear weapon, while for Romney it is the attainment of nuclear capability.

Another place where Romney drew a clear distinction with Obama over the past two days was on the embassy question, but it is the emptiest of distinctions. Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, Romney pledged to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and like Bush and Clinton before him, it is a virtual guarantee that should Romney be elected the embassy will remain right where it is. Since Jerusalem’s status is an issue to be negotiated under an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, no American government will actually move the embassy to Jerusalem so as to not act in a prejudicial way. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply knows very little about the politics of Israel in the U.S., and Romney himself knows full well that calling for the embassy to be moved is low hanging political fruit that will never see the light of day once he is in office.

Romney famously said earlier this year that he would do the opposite of what Obama has done on Israel, but this will plainly not be the case. When it comes to hard policy, the differences between the two men are negligible at best. The one place where Romney may differ from Obama is that, as pointed out in this excellent Aaron David Miller column, Obama does not seem to connect with Israel on an emotional level and this impacts the way he speaks about it and the way American Jews perceive Obama on the issue. Romney will not have this same problem, and while I think that looking at actual policies is the best way to judge the two on the Israel question, I understand the concerns that some Jewish voters have when it comes to Obama’s rhetoric. This divide on how one views Obama on Israel was captured in an instructive Twitter exchange yesterday between CFR’s Steven Cook (who is a friend and recent co-author) and Emergency Committee For Israel executive director Noah Pollak. After Pollak referenced “Obama’s abuse of Israel,” Steven queried how Iron Dome, Stuxnet, sanctions on Iran, and ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge could be considered abuse. Pollak’s response was, “Diplomatic ambushes, tirade @ UNSC, joining HRC, WH snubs, going nuclear on settlements, isolating Isr to please Erdogan.” The bottom line here is that Obama supporters are convinced that he could not possibly be any more pro-Israel, and Romney supporters are convinced that Obama is anything but and that a President Romney would usher in a massive shift in Israel policy. From where I am standing, it seems pretty clear that, rhetoric aside, there is little daylight between the two when it comes to actual policies on Israel with the limited exception of what threshold will trigger military action against Iran, and that no matter who our next president is, we are bound to have almost complete continuity on policy toward Israel.

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