Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How Netanyahu Beat Israel's Political System

On March 17, 2015, Israelis will go to the polls for the third time since 2008. Analysts have framed these elections as a mistake hastened by low-intensity violence in Jerusalem, settlement building, and this summer’s war in Gaza. However, they are actually the result of a deliberate and masterful political maneuver by Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s leadership strategy since his election in 2009 has been characterized by undermining opposition. Since that time, he has faced two opposition threats. First, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of the HaTnuah party and Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party are centrist members of Israel’s governing coalition, holding a solid 25 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Netanyahu coopted them in the short term by bringing both into his Cabinet. He put Lapid in charge of cutting popular social services in Israel’s national budget, and Livni in charge of a hopeless peace process. However, Lapid and Livni’s visibility as cabinet members and conflicting policies posed a longer-term threat to his leadership. Second, this summer’s war in Gaza threatened to spur significant opposition after Deputy Minister of Defense Danny Danon, a far-right member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, criticized Netanyahu’s handling of Israel’s military operation. Netanyahu (who leans center-right) fired Danon but needed to do more to undermine the long-term threat of an insurrection from the Likud’s far-right base.

His solution was as deliberate as it was elegant: tack far-right, manufacture a coalition crisis, and divide potential opposition. On November 16, Netanyahu expressed support for a bill introduced back in 2011 that would enshrine Israel’s nature as a Jewish State in the country’s Basic Laws. The proposal was popular among the far-right, undermining any attacks Likud’s far right ministers could launch against him. As an added bonus, the bill drew sharp but predictable criticism from both Lapid and Livni. Now Netanyahu had a “political crisis.” In a fiery but deliberate speech, Netanyahu accused Lapid and Livni of conspiring to destroy the coalition. In reality, both ministers had acted exactly as Netanyahu had hoped, giving him a reason to dissolve the coalition and move to the elections he had wanted for months. On November 29, he cancelled the Knesset vote on the bill, and on December 7 he told an audience at Brookings' Saban Forum 2014, "I will never agree to legislation that undermines Israel's democratic character. Not now, not ever."

By holding elections at strategic moments, Netanyahu has solved major problems of instability in Israel’s government. From its founding in 1948 until 1977, Israel’s dominant party system meant that there was little instability in government, since one party was virtually guaranteed to win each election. Many of Israel’s major political institutions, for example, those dealing with religion and education, were shaped by the dominant Mapai party. However, when Likud beat Mapai's follow on, the Labor Alignment, in 1977, it was a surprise upset that changed fundamentally the nature of Israeli politics. Israel was no longer a dominant party system since every party could potentially lose. Coalition instability became a larger threat since the Prime Minister (who generally comes from the winning party) could suffer a vote of no confidence at any time. Additionally, the system forced parties with fundamental disagreements to govern together. This arrangement constrained ruling parties since smaller parties could always threaten to leave the coalition and collapse the government.

By holding new elections, Netanyahu can potentially solve this problem of instability. The elections give him a chance to renegotiate his coalition with parties more aligned with Likud’s policy platform. Coalition partners inevitably grow tired of rubber stamping another party’s agenda, see opportunities for growth, and bolt from the coalition. By calling elections now, Netanyahu is preempting the collapse by engineering it on his terms. Such an arrangement will very likely leave Likud on top, and forces potential allies to compete with each other rather than challenge Likud. When it comes time to form a coalition, these parties will likely be weakened and faced with the choice of joining the government or being politically irrelevant in the short term.

However, while engineering election timing is effective for remaining in power, it takes time and resources away from governing. Netanyahu’s tactic is likely to be copied by future Israeli leaders. However, its utility speaks to the need for greater stability in leadership positions in Israel. Such guarantees would allow the Prime Minister to focus on Israel’s long-term challenges rather than on staying in power. These challenges will pose critical threats to Israel over the next few decades, but a political system equipped to handle them is the first step to navigating the treacherous road ahead.



*An earlier version of this post stated elections were held in 2008. They were held on February 10, 2009. It also identified the Mapai party as losing the 1977 elections, but by that point Mapai had merged with Ahdut HaAvoda and Rafi into the Israeli Labor Party, which merged with Mapam in 1969 to form the (second) Labor Alignment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

No, Ferguson Is Not Palestine

The debate over recent events in Ferguson, Missouri is far too extensive to unpack in a single blog post. However, one of the more wonky facets of the response to these events has been what academics call "issue linkage." Protesters, bloggers, and social media mavens have linked events in Ferguson to the plight of Afghanis, Iraqis and Palestinians. The means of linkage is often the use of terms like "oppression," "extra-judicial killing," "occupation," and even "colonialism." It is ironic that activists so quick to invoke Orwell have appropriated such terms based on their strategic emotional connotation rather than their meaning. 

Here are the distinctions.

Oppression in Ferguson is the fact that laws about the use of police force disproportionately affect Americans of color because of systemic social attitudes of racism. Oppression in the Palestinian territories is the result of a set of laws imposed without consent by a military administration which engages in belligerent occupation.

Assassinating Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004 is an example of extra-judicial killing. Targeting Anwar al-Alawki in 2011 is an example of an extra-judicial killing. Both are premeditated strikes against an individual (in the latter case, a citizen) that deliberately deny due process under the law.  A police officer shooting an unarmed 18-year old six times under unclear circumstances is an example of an excessive use of force. There is no evidence to suggest his horrific death was a premeditated act of targeting by the State.

Belligerent occupation refers to the governing presence of a military force without the assent of the governed population. Scholars, lawyers, and judges (including Israel's Supreme Court) consider the West Bank to be under belligerent occupation. Ferguson, Missouri is an American town under the jurisdiction of the American government and officials elected by citizens. In no sense of the word is Ferguson occupied.

This blog has seen previous discussion as to whether or not the West Bank is "colonized," but even arguments in the affirmative cannot reasonably be applied to Ferguson. No "foreign" power is expanding its territory, settling a foreign population, or exploiting resources.

There are other differences.

A protest in Ferguson is an act of constitutionally-protected speech. A protest in the West Bank is a "security incident."

Police in Ferguson may be disproportionately white but all are US citizens. Members of the IDF are (almost always) Israeli citizens administering a Palestinian population without such citizenship.

Extreme violence by a small minority in Ferguson looks like looting stores or low-intensity acts against police. Extreme violence in the West Bank by a small minority looks like stabbings, car attacks, kidnappings, and other forms of terrorism.

The very existence of Palestinians as an ethnic and national group continues to be denied in the (conservative) mainstream. That African Americans are a cohesive minority group in the United States and that this group is constitutionally entitled to equality is a fact denied by only the most radically conservative Americans, who are widely ridiculed.


The use of poorly-constructed and inaccurate comparisons is an attempt to invoke notions of a global struggle. While the fight for recognition and rights may very well be global, the ways in which this struggle takes place and the conditions these struggles seek to change vary widely. Misappropriating analytical terms to highlight emotional similarities does a disservice to those to whom the term actually applies (now or historically). It is analytically lazy, since it invokes connections based on feelings rather than a well-constructed argument. Finally, it disempowers the people at the heart of such struggles by constructing them as essentialized agents of a grandiose theory rather than as people with multi-faceted ideas, needs, and agency to change their circumstances.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

BDS And Free Speech At #MESA2014: A Contradiction In Terms

Next Monday, members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) will be voting on a resolution which asks the membership to “affirm the right of MESA members to engage in open and transparent discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” What this boycott would entail and how far it would go are left unspecified in the text. The resolution comes in the wake of a letter by MESA President Nathan Brown which took a fairly neutral stance towards the issue of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). BDS supporters at MESA are hardly the target of persecution. In fact, MESA has announced a special Presidential Forum on BDS where participants will have a chance to speak on the issue.

Nonetheless, the resolution frames itself as affirming members’ free speech, highlighting the membership’s “right” to discuss BDS. Deploring unspecified “measures of intimidation” against similar academic associations, the resolution encourages members to discuss BDS in the name of freedom of expression.

This position is contradictory. Discussing BDS is indeed legitimate. However, by specifically targeting “Israeli academic institutions,” supporters of the resolution are prima facie restricting freedom of expression. A MESA boycott of these institutions and their academics would, by definition, restrict their access to the discourse MESA fosters. Discussing ways to end Palestinian suffering and Israel's military policies in the West Bank are valid topics of academic conversations. However, a body which calls for Israelis to be excluded from those discussions cannot logically do so in the name of free speech.

The resolution also gives no justification for dis-aggregating an Israeli academic boycott specifically from the plethora of actions that fall under the umbrella of BDS. Is it because the Israeli academy has ties with a defense establishment that commits human rights violations? If so, the resolution should also include mention of the plethora of Middle Eastern academies - and the American academy - who have such links. The resolution gives no universally applicable standard for its unique mention of Israel. It seeks to advise MESA members, but gives unsatisfactory justifications for its most noteworthy recommendation.

True academic discourse evaluates speech based on the quality of its ideas, not the identity of the speaker. If MESA members value the forum that the Association provides, they will opt to engage their colleagues through discourse, not exclude them through boycotts and restricting access. The current iteration of the resolution is inconsistent with the ideals MESA upholds, and should not be adopted by the membership.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Jerusalem Tensions Hit Critical Levels

Tensions in Jerusalem escalated significantly today. These tensions began with a Palestinian attack on light rail passengers October 22. Next, activist Yehuda Glick was shot by a Palestinian assailant on October 29. This morning a Palestinian drove a minivan into a crowd waiting for the light rail, killing one and injuring 13. Hours ago another Palestinian drove a car into 3 IDF soldiers in the area of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and members of his security cabinet blamed Palestinian President Abbas for the 10/22 attack. Netanyahu's primary aim in doing so was to shore up support among his base in preparation for Likud party primaries, which may be held December 25. His secondary aim was to de-legitimize President Abbas as a leader and ease international and US pressure on Israel to negotiate a solution to the conflict that Bibi fears would leave Israel vulnerable. 

However, the original attack turned out to be a spate of attacks by Hamas. The group claimed responsibility for the attack this morning and an earlier attack on October 22. President Abbas, a Fatah party member, extended condolences to the family of the man who shot activist Yehuda Glick, and called Israel's closure of the Temple Mount a declaration of war. Both are extremely unhelpful steps to say the least. But the available evidence points much more towards Hamas than to Abbas as the culprit. Unfortunately, Netanyahu's talking points were set before the Israeli government may have realized the 10/22 attack was not a one-off event. The result is that the Israeli government finds its hands tied, rhetorically speaking.

By attacking soldiers in the West Bank, Hamas can provoke an Israeli reaction in Palestinian areas of the West Bank versus in Jerusalem. These terrorist attacks are designed to polarize Israel's population and rally Palestinian support behind a fragile unity government between Hamas and Fatah. In addition, Netanyahu's Likud adversaries have put political pressure on him to act. Yet IDF action in the West Bank, even in response to terrorism or militant action, would exacerbate tensions. Checkpoints, roadblocks, and searches for attackers in heavily Palestinian areas would look eerily reminiscent of 2001-2005. Since Prime Minister Netanyahu has framed Abbas for the violence, Israel is unlikely to get support from the Palestinian Security Forces for these activities. Jordan's recalling its ambassador from Israel today legitimizes these acts of violence against Israeli soldiers and civilians. It is also a move of dubious wisdom given protests which may occur in the country should a sustained campaign of violence break out.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is calling for restraint, and it's likely he knows how dangerous the current situation is - both in the West Bank and in his party. But conflict is a two-player game and as with Operation Protective Edge, Israel could get drawn into a conflict.  

Israel is low on options here. It could communicate to President Abbas that car attacks show Fatah is losing control of the West Bank. However, Bibi must maintain an anti-Abbas line to remain consistent, and Abbas gains legitimacy from rhetorically attacking Israel. Israel could reach out to Egypt to communicate with Hamas, but given Egypt's ongoing campaign in the Sinai such efforts may be of limited effect. US efforts to calm tensions will not be backed up with a threat and thus are of limited utility. Ultimately, if Hamas is looking for a conflict, it will be very hard for Israel to stop it from happening.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Slow Down - There's No Crisis In US-Israel Relations

DC analysts often have a bad habit of confusing things that are interesting with things that are important. Today's #ChickenSh*tGate is a prime example.

This morning's piece in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg proclaims "The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here," but it's hardly the first to do so. A 2010 JCPA article asks, "A Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations: Have We Been Here Before?" and a YNet article from 2009 asks, "US-Israel Relations: Is there a crisis?" Today's title is a bit more confident in declaring the existence of a crisis, but the evidence to substantiate the claim is shoddy at best.

First, the off-the-record claims made by the "unnamed official" in the Goldberg piece range from dubious to absurd. While US frustration over the Netanyahu administration's conduct in the peace talks may be warranted, other aspects of the comments say more about the official than about Bibi. The official is concerned that Bibi has "a near-pathological desire for career-preservation." But all leaders care about self preservation. The nonchalant way in which the official writes off the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran is a dangerous underestimation of Israeli fear of an Iranian nuclear program. It's also at odds with how the Obama administration has actually conducted policy.

Second, that Bibi has "written off" the White House is hardly news. Netanyahu's address to AIPAC and Congress, both in 2011, show that Israel's strategy for years has been to mobilize Congress rather than curry favor with the White House. The Hellfire missile incident during Operation Protective Edge this summer is evidence of the same. A crisis implies an immediate and impending disaster save for corrective action, but the existing dynamic between the US and Israel has remained as such for years.

Finally, US-Israel relations have been much, much worse than they are right now. President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened Israel with sanctions in 1957. In 1967, Israel torpedoed the USS Liberty, killing 34 US personnel and injuring 171. In 1991, Jonathan Pollard was caught committing espionage against the United States for Israel in 1985, a fact that Israel did not admit until 1998. Each of these constituted serious crises. And each shaped the US-Israel relationship for decades to come.

Today's comments are an embarrassment to the Obama administration and an offensive slap in the face to Israel and its leadership. They are indicative of friction between the US and Israel. But they are hardly a crisis, especially given how sustained the current relationship has been. Vague assertions to the contrary only set back US national interests: Promoting a sustainable peace agreement, fostering regional stability in the Middle East, and improving the quality of life for millions of Israelis and Palestinians who bear the burden of ongoing conflict.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Stop Politicizing The Death Of Children

On Wednesday evening, a four year-old named Mohammed Abu Jarad was killed in Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip when an unexploded missile from a previous Israeli operation went off near where he was playing. Mohammed was severely injured and rushed to Shifa Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

That same Wednesday evening, a 3-month old baby named Chaya Zissel Braun was killed when a Palestinian purposefully drove a car into a group of people exiting the Jerusalem light rail. She was thrown 30 feet, landing on her head, and died two hours later.

The death of a child, regardless of the different circumstances that cause it, is perhaps the most universal tragedy. Nothing can help family and friends make sense of such a horrible event. The juxtaposition of the pure innocence of a child with the sheer terror of a violent death is too great for any human to truly make peace with it.

But without even waiting until the small bodies had been placed in the ground, the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian spin machines swung into gear. Each side emphasized its own victimhood while denying the victimhood of the other. "Yes, but" statements splattered the Twittersphere like the blood in Beit Hanoun and Jerusalem which had not even dried. These statements excused, diluted, dodged, obfuscated, and slanted the tragedies unashamedly and with unabashed self-righteousness. Morality became meaningless as it was twisted, redefined, misappropriated, and applied with little concern for consistency.

How sick have we become when our first thought upon seeing a picture of a dead infant is "Yes, but they do it too" or "This is a perfect example of my political beliefs"? How many more dead children will it take before supporters of Israel and/or the Palestinians step back from the microphone or the keyboard and see the devastation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for what it is? This conflict is not winnable. It has never been and it will never be. Yet some are more concerned with advancing the rhetorical football than accepting the fact that it will never move beyond the 40-yard line.

We, collectively, are missing the forest for the trees. Progress doesn't look like children singing in a field. It doesn't look like justice flowing like a mighty stream. It doesn't even have to look the tired cliche of a peace treaty photo op.

Progress on Wednesday evening would have looked like pausing. Pausing to see on the sheer tragedy of this conflict for what it is. Without spin and without rhetoric. The way it has engulfed a generation too young to understand it or be complicit in it. The way it lets us so easily throw our most basic human instincts - compassion for children - to the wind. 

Chaya and Mohammed did not die as Israelis or Palestinians. They died as human beings. For their sake, we should try to live in the same way.



Monday, September 29, 2014

Bibi Panders, Hints At Chance For Cooperation In UN Speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's speech at the UN General Assembly today was intended largely for a domestic audience. However, he signaled areas in which Israel might be open to progress in a post-Operation Protective Edge environment.

Netanyahu glossed over critical differences between extremist groups, linking together Hamas (with whom Israel has been negotiating in Cairo), ISIS, Iran, the Mahdi Army, and the Nazis. His speech spared no criticism of the UN for hosting Hamas rockets in its schools, and referred at one point to the UN Human Rights Council as the "Terrorist Rights Council." Netanyahu tried to link the Islamic State (aka ISIS) with the "Islamic State of Iran" (its formal name is the Islamic Republic of Iran) and used several other well-rehearsed talking points about Iran's imminent danger to regional stability. 

Such a speech made few gains for Israel's political capital with the international community. However, it will likely be well-received by the Likud base on whom Netanyahu relies for political support. In the wake of Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu is under pressure to stem a post-war decline in popularity and demonstrate a clear victory over Hamas. Just yesterday, MK Danny Danon, a representative of the Likud's most hawkish constituency, implied that Netanyahu's response to Hamas was not sufficiently strong. As competitors seek to take advantage of the opportunity to chip away Netanyahu's base, a fiery speech to the UN is a surefire way for the Prime Minister to consolidate support.

Despite domestic pandering, Netanyahu's speech indicated the government's current negotiating position. Netanyahu's demand for "rock solid security arrangements" refers to an Israeli military presence on the West Bank - Jordan border. It will be very difficult to achieve this demand (the US has suggested cameras instead). The Prime Minister also called the need for territorial compromise "obvious," though it's unclear whether one-for-one land swaps are comparably obvious.

More significantly, Netanyahu called for regional Arab cooperation, mentioning Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia as potential partners. Invoking "joint interest," Netanyahu may be seeking to outflank the Palestinian Authority which has threatened to pursue statehood at the UN and to bring Israel to the ICC on charges of war crimes. His comments also resonate in the wake of a re-affirmation of the Arab Peace Initiative on September 25th by GCC states meeting with US officials. These comments may have particular salience given cooperation by GCC and other Arab states on the conflict against ISIS in Syria. 

If the Prime Minister's objective was to stem the tide of anti-Israel sentiment at the UN, he was certainly unsuccessful. However, if he intended to bolster domestic support while signalling the potential for cooperation with major Arab powers, Netanyahu achieved his goal.