Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Hebron Shooting And Civil-Military Relations In Israel

An IDF soldier who shot an already-incapacitated Palestinian stabber in Hebron last Thursday has drawn widespread sympathy from Israeli MKs and the Israeli public. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yaalon find themselves facing criticism for suggesting that the soldier should be subject to the judicial processes of the IDF. The resulting debate raises three important points about civil-military relations in Israel.


First, the Israeli public trusts greatly the IDF as an institution, but also supports individual soldiers. A 2016 survey of surveys by Tiargan-Orr and Eran-Jona found that even during periods of relative quiet in Israel, 71% of the Israeli public "trusts IDF senior commanders" and 76% "have confidence in the IDF's fighting abilities." As the vanguard of the state, and an institution in which nearly all Israelis serve, the IDF is a highly respected entity. 

At the same time, Israelis want assurances that their sons and daughters have the tools and rules of engagement they need to protect themselves in combat. A letter by the mother of the soldier who shot the Palestinian man in Hebron reveals a sense of betrayal by the establishment. She writes, "he isn't just my son, he is the child of all of us," This statement is evidence that public opinion over the incident is shaped by the question, "What if it had been my son?"

Second, the IDF's rule-based order is generally effective but lacks support from politicians. Footage of IDF soldiers using force in a confrontation with civilians is often designed to portray the military as unprofessional and haphazard. In individual cases this may very well be the case, as it could be with any military. At the same time, the IDF's reaction to Thursday's killing was prompt. The soldier was arrested the same day, and a murder indictment has already been filed. This comes after discussion that the charge would only be manslaughter. The IDF is taking the incident seriously in a way that befits a military in a liberal democracy. No doubt, the IDF also understands the international political implications of video footage of the incident which has been disseminated widely over social media. 

This response is indicative, however, of an ongoing process by which the IDF is forced to compensate for the failure of Israel's political establishment. That the IDF leadership has come under fire from Knesset members for investigating a murder caught on camera is not only a shocking statement of apathy for non-Israeli lives, but an abandonment of political responsibility. In a media storm where critics of Israel are rushing to portray this incident as "more of the same," the IDF has been abandoned by Knesset members who should be supporting a fair and impartial investigation. Militaries sometimes do things that are unpopular. In the US, PFC Bowe Berghdahl was given a hero's welcome upon his release by the Taliban, only to be charged with desertion by the Army. In such cases, political leaders should stress the importance of a fair and thorough judicial process as prescribed by law.


Finally, there is a low appreciation among publics, including the Israeli public, for nuanced responses to terrorism. Importantly, this is not the position of the IDF, which has invested in both non-lethal and semi-lethal weapons systems. A Channel 10 news report frames the Hebron shooting as "an IDF soldier who shot a terrorist and is now being indicted." It omits any reference to the fact that the terrorist in question was incapacitated when shot. Stabbing a soldier may be terrorism but it does not dissolve all legal protections afforded to either civilians or enemy combatants. Support for the soldier seems to be based in a perception that terrorists waive all of their rights after having committed an attack - even if they no longer pose a kinetic threat to soldiers. Even if he had been wearing a suicide vest, it seems unlikely that the IDF's standard operating procedure would call first for shooting the suspected bomber in the head - as opposed to moving at-risk individuals out of a potential blast zone.

The United States has seen similar apathy towards the legal protections of terrorists. In 2014, a majority of Americans supported torture to extract information from suspected terrorists. The point here is that Israelis are by no means unique in their willingness to deny rights protections to terrorists. But whether or not it is popular, such actions may violate international law and the laws of both the United States and Israel. 

Finding a balance between rights and security is a core challenge of liberal democracies under threat from terrorism. As a country at the forefront of this fight, Israel's adherence to its own laws and judicial process is what will ultimately allow it to find a balance between the two.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

AIPAC Must Restore Focus On Shared Values

AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus may be disappointed that her constituents applauded Donald Trump's attacks on President Obama, but she cannot possibly be surprised. Out of 18,000 people, the chances not one would respond to an attack on President Obama are virtually zero. Those concerned by the content of Donald Trump's comments should not be persuaded by the crocodile tears shed at this morning's plenary. 

AIPAC's 2016 Policy Conference was carefully designed to absolve the organization of responsibility for comments it knew Trump would make. The religious appeals and calls for bipartisanship provided a backdrop for AIPAC's leadership to state that it was shocked, shocked that Donald Trump would make comments beyond the scope of AIPAC's bipartisan platform. This morning's apology was a calculated political move designed to let AIPAC have its cake and eat it too.

AIPAC has also engendered some of the very sentiments to which its leadership now takes offense. In 2011, a spat between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over the 1967 lines played out at AIPAC. Yet speaker after speaker publicly expressed support for Netanyahu and tacit disapproval of President Obama. Last summer, AIPAC spent $30 billion dollars to counter the Iran nuclear agreement, the centerpiece of President Obama's Middle East foreign policy. AIPAC can hardly be shocked that after these initiatives, its constituents are willing to applaud attacks on the President of the United States.

The deeper problem facing AIPAC, however, is one of values. While it may have provided them with a platform, AIPAC is not responsible for the beliefs of the Republican candidates for president. Nor should it go over the slippery slope of picking and choosing which candidate is tolerant enough to deserve a platform on the AIPAC stage. However, it should take seriously the fact that many of these candidates' statements contradict the values at the heart of the US-Israel relationship. 

If the US and Israel are to have a strong relationship, they must come together - not around an Islamophobic fear of the other but around a firm determination to protect the values enshrined in their founding documents. Liberal values - tolerance, freedom of expression, pluralism, and self-reflection - are at the heart of the American and Israeli national project. Without a mutual commitment to these values, the US-Israel relationship is not sustainable. If AIPAC is offended by statements that contradict these values, it should work to bring citizens in both countries together who support them.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Three Things To Watch For At AIPAC Policy Conference 2016

AIPAC's annual policy conference begins Sunday, March 20th. The conference will be the last of President Obama's term and features several Democratic and Republican candidates who seek to replace him. The annual conference is an important indication of AIPAC's political priorities. This year there are three issues that analysts of US-Israel relations should watch closely.

1) Moving past a major loss on the Iran Nuclear Agreement. Last summer, AIPAC lobbied the US Congress to disapprove the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between the P5+1 and Iran on July 14, 2015. The lobbying effort involved about $30 million worth of ad buys, but was unsuccessful. AIPAC's lobbying campaign was strategic in that it did not directly target the White House. However, its position was directly opposed to that of the Obama Administration. The arguments it invoked during the campaign ranged from reasonable (the IRGC could use sanctions relief to buy rockets for Hizbollah) to totally unsubstantiated (the agreement raises the prospects of war). This approach alienated Democrats who understood the JCPOA as the centerpiece of the Obama administration's Middle East legacy. AIPAC's loss has not suffered the kind of "lasting damage" predicted in the Washington Post at the time. However, it showed again that AIPAC - like any Washington lobbying group - is capable of losing.

Now that JCPOA has been implemented, AIPAC has followed the Netanyahu government's lead, accepting it as ground truth and focusing on strict monitoring of violations instead. This policy line allows AIPAC to project toughness on Iran to conservatives while smoothing over ties with liberals whom it alienated during the Iran deal debate. During the policy conference, expect monitoring Iran's violations of the nuclear agreement to be a major theme. 


2) Explaining Bibi Netanyahu's Turning Down a White House Invitation - Rather than giving an in-person address as he has done in years past, Israel's Prime Minister will address AIPAC via satellite. Netanyahu had planned to come to Washington but later cancelled his visit citing President Obama's trip to Cuba at the same time. The White House, however, claimed it had offered Netanyahu a meeting with the President but was turned down. Analysts speculate the cancellation may be a result of negotiations over a new defense aid agreement between the US and Israel. Some speculate Netanyahu believes he can get a better deal from the next administration, which is likely true. 

For some in Washington, the cancellation represents another example of Prime Minister Netanyahu's disdain for President Obama. However, deliberate spurning is an unlikely motivation given that Netanyahu has come to AIPAC Policy Conference and the US Congress during the Obama presidency to appeal to the US public - including for positions that contradicted US policy. Nonetheless, the cancellation could leave a bad taste in the mouths of more liberal Israel activists who see US-Israel tensions as the Prime Minister's doing.


3) Managing Donald Trump's Address at AIPAC - AIPAC prides itself on bipartisanship. Like him or not, Donald Trump is the Republican presidential front runner, and there is a realistic chance he will be the next President of the United States. Given these conditions, it would be a poor strategic move for AIPAC to deny him a platform to speak. Such a move would involve a high cost to AIPAC's relationship with Trump supporters, Republican Party operatives, and a prospective President Trump. 

Nonetheless, AIPAC's invitation has appeared to some as a legitimization of Trump's Islamophobic, intolerant, and racist comments at a conference that highlights shared liberal democratic values between the US and Israel. Even conservative analyst (and Rubio adviser) Max Boot has indicated disapproval of the speech. Trump's speech may harm AIPAC's reputation among liberal and progressive supporters of Israel even after the conference is over. 

In addition, Trump's speech is generating friction between AIPAC and leaders in the Jewish community. Student leaders have also expressed concern over the speech. Jewish leaders of conscious are correct to take seriously the fact that AIPAC is giving a political platform to a man who has called for a national registry of religious minorities. AIPAC is obviously not doing so as a matter of deliberate strategy. However, it should also be mindful about how it presents the context of this speech, lest its conference theme of "coming together" be overshadowed by partisan controversy.



Monday, March 7, 2016

Does Israel's Joint List Support Hezbollah?

Members of the Balad and Hadash parties condemned the GCC today for declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The condemnation, which drew a sharp rebuke from Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Knesset members, is puzzling. Why issue a statement of support for a group that shoots rockets at Israeli civilians, both Jewish and Arab? Why should Sunni parliamentarians condemn a Sunni coalition for calling an Iran-linked Shi'a group a terrorist organization?" Why make a comment at all given the domestic challenges Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the West Bank face?

The comments come in the wake of several incendiary events involving the Joint List. In February, three Arab MKs were suspended after meeting with the families of terrorists over negotiations to release their bodies. Last week, the head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, accused Israel's Shin Bet of killing Yasser Arafat, a claim which extensive investigations have not substantiated. The Israeli media have covered these statements, understandably, within a narrative framework of incitement and radicalism within the Arab parties. However, there are more specific explanations that can explain today's reaction over the GCC's labeling of Hezbollah.

Domestically, internal party politics may be driving some these radical statements. MK Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, is from Hadash. The Joint List also includes Balad, whose founder Amzi Bishara is accused of passing intelligence to Hezbollah during the 2006 war. While Balad and Hadash are part of same list at the moment, they have different histories and platforms. Balad sees Israel's exclusion of Arab citizens as illegitimate and seeks a bi-national state. Hadash is rooted in Israel's first communist party and has a more policy-focused agenda (withdrawal from the West Bank, worker's rights, and equality for Arab citizens). While Balad's members have never feared being controversial, it is noteworthy that their statements of late have demolished any chance of the Joint List joining the government. The question of joining has been raised in the recent past, and Ayman Odeh has pursued a somewhat less radical agenda than his Balad counterparts. A Balad strategy of making controversial statements spoils any chance that the Joint List would join - and thus legitimize - the current government.

For MK Odeh, maintaining Balad's support is critical for a Joint List that can have policy influence. In this context, siding with Balad MKs on Hezbollah shows alignment. It is also consistent with Hadash's international communist platform since it sees Hezbollah as "resistance." Tunisia's UGTT workers union condemned the news on the same grounds. Furthermore, since Jewish Israelis condemn Arab parties all the time, they likely perceive the cost of public scorn as relatively low so long as it builds support among their electoral constituency.


Regionally, the Joint List may fear that the GCC's decision to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization further normalizes GCC-Israel relations. Normalization is a process that Palestinian activists oppose on the grounds that it reduces pressure on Israel to change its West Bank policies. If the GCC is seeking regional alignment with Israel to balance against Iran, it is less likely to speak out on Palestinian rights issues. Condemning the decision plays well with supporters of Palestinian rights in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza who fear that the issue is being drowned out in light of the plethora of other problems in the region.

In addition, a more sectarian region hurts Arab unity. The Palestinian situation as a pan-Arab issue is inextricably connected to this unity. So long as sectarianism persists in the region, the logic goes, Arab states can never join together to force a solution to the conflict. Since the GCC's declaration of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization is on sectarian grounds, such a move harms the unity that is key to solving the Palestinian problem.



Monday, February 15, 2016

Knesset Suspension Bill Would Harm Israeli Democracy

Israel's Knesset is set to debate tomorrow a bill that would allow Knesset members to suspend any member who denies Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state. Prime Minister Netanyahu supports the bill but it is opposed by President Rivlin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, and Joint List parties.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's support of the bill follows a recognizable pattern of coalition preservation that has defined his leadership. The Prime Minister first supports a conservative piece of legislation, then waits for moderate opposition, and finally moderates his position citing that pressure. Netanyahu pursued a similar course with the Yisrael Beiteinu party's controversial loyalty oath bill. In that case, Netanyahu initially supported the bill, but then ordered changes making it more palatable to moderates. He is likely to do the same with the current bill, which Knesset legal advisers warn could cause serious complications to an MK's ability to legislate.

The current bill was introduced after three Joint Arab List members met with the families of Palestinians terrorists. While the MKs claim the visit was intended to support efforts to have Israel return the bodies of the attackers, most Israelis understood the meeting as evidence of Arab leadership's support for terrorism. The three MKs have been suspended by the Knesset Ethics Committee

However, while the visits rightfully offend Israelis, the resulting bill targets speech rather than action. It may exacerbate Israeli Arab mistrust towards Israel's government and security apparatus at a time when members of that community are carrying out terrorist attacks. While certain views of Israel's Arab minority offend other Israelis, an official platform to express these views creates buy-in among Israeli Arabs for the political process. And since Israeli Arab MKs are a minority, there are also strategic incentives for the Joint List to be judicious about when it raises such opinions.

Furthermore, in a time when liberals in Israel are being labelled "foreign plants," the bill as it stands currently may have a severe chilling effect on speech in the Knesset. The limitations imposed by the bill are unclear and could be used to target political opponents rather than "safeguard" the debate. Additionally, the voting mechanism the bill uses effectively gives the Knesset power to choose which Israeli citizens get representation. In a country where 20% of the population are minorities, this would harm the efficacy of democratic governance.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Israel Misses The Point On Ban Ki-Moon Comments

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon took to the New York Times yesterday to clarify his January 26th statement against Israeli policy in the West Bank. Likely sensing a threat to the UN's legitimacy as a mediator, Ban urges Israel's supporters not to "shoot the messenger" in reacting to the piece. Some have expressed frustrations over Ban's comments for singling out Israel's settlement policy as motivating terrorism - even though he also criticized the Palestinian leadership's authoritarian tendencies and incitement to violence. 

The Israeli government's tactical response to Ban's comments focused on documenting another case of anti-Israel bias at the UN. Prime Minister Netanyahu accused the organization of losing its "neutrality and moral force" and "stoking terror." Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said the comments give "legitimacy to those murders to continue attacking," while UN ambassador Danny Danon flat-out accused Ban of "encouraging terror."

The causes of Palestinian terrorism are certainly more complex than Ban Ki-Moon represents in his editorial. But the Israeli government's response to Ban's comments are illustrative of its lack of strategic foresight.

The current Israeli government is pursuing a foreign policy of unapologetic confrontation. From publicly disagreeing with President Obama to sending settlement products as holiday gifts to disparaging the UN, Israel's policy line is: "The world is against us and it's time to call them out on it." The government drapes this policy in moral legitimacy and longstanding international bias against Israel, but tactically it still boils down to picking needless fights.

Ban's editorial, however, is the latest in a series of events that show that this policy is not working. Confrontation is weakening Israel's ability to operate in the international community by exacerbating its pariah status. Unfair treatment by the UN is harmful because pariah status limits Israel's ability to use a cooperative approach to its foreign policy. But confrontation makes Israel more of a pariah by breeding resentment. It exacerbates the very harm Israel should be seeking to reduce. 

This policy of confrontation also lacks strategic vision. The moral legitimacy of Israel's position is irrelevant in a world that sees it as responsible for the oppression of 4.2 million Palestinians. Anti-Israel bias is unfair but a static condition of the international system for the foreseeable future. Israel has two choices - accept the bias or seek to change it over the course of decades. The likelihood that it will accomplish either by alienating the UN Secretary General is exceedingly low.

Israel's response to Ban shows that its current foreign policy is dangerously short-sighted. It is taking Ban's comments as more evidence of bias against Israel. It should instead take them as evidence of the damage its policies are doing to its political capital. By refusing to commit credibly to changing the status quo, Israel is alienating major global players. Attacks on its policy are no longer coming from just the Arab League or predictably post-colonial entities, but from major international institutions like the UN as well. Furthermore, the UN will continue to be a site for unilateral Palestinian action and Israel cannot afford to alienate its leadership. In this tough environment, Israel should strategically mitigate damage by keeping channels of cooperation open where it can.

Monday, January 4, 2016

What Saudi-Iran Tensions Mean For Israel

Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on Saturday January 2nd, 2016. Among them was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi Shia cleric who had preached against the Saudi government. al-Nimr's execution sent ripples across the Shia communities in Iraq and Iran. On Saturday evening, protesters threw gasoline bombs and broke into the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, trashing the offices and stealing items from them. Saudi Arabia accused Iran of purposefully not protecting the embassy, summonsed the Iranian ambassador in Riyadh, and cut diplomatic ties with Iran on January 3rd. Today, Bahrain and Sudan followed suit. Other states have downgraded ties but not cut them off.

Israel has been following closely the conflict between Saudi and Iran as a regional power with a keen interest in Gulf politics. The conflict presents opportunities for Israel to lend support and assurances to Saudi Arabia. However, it also presents challenges as Iran looks to shift pressure away from itself and diffuse regional tensions. Given Israel's current regional posture, the Saudi-Iran tensions have three major impacts.

First, Iran may use its relations with Hizbullah and Hamas to escalate conflict on Israel's borders. Today's incident on the Lebanon border and Friday's rocket attacks from Gaza show the extent of tensions that Iran can exploit to shift attention away from it's conflict with Saudi Arabia. As the tension continues, Iran may also be tempted to push Hizbullah and Hamas to escalate conflict in order to mitigate pressure from the international community.

Second, US influence in the region will be constrained, which Israel can exploit for better or worse. The Iran nuclear deal is a Sword of Damocles over Amerca's ability to pressure Iran to de-escalate the conflict. The US has limited contact with Iran's government, and significant pressure to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely the US will determine the outcome of the current conflict. Israel can use this fact in ways that help or harm US policy. A helpful response would be to quarterback the US position towards a Saudi Arabia suspicious of American aims in the wake of the nuclear deal. A less helpful response would be to bolster Saudi saber rattling, sectarianism, and protests against the nuclear deal. 

Third, a resolution of the Syria conflict may be delayed, giving ISIS a stronger footing along the Syrian border with Israel. Saudi Arabia and Iran are major parties to talks in Vienna that seek a political resolution to the Syrian conflict. The current tensions may delay the pace of progress, leaving the door open to further fighting. Last week the IDF raised the possibility of ISIS approaching the border between Syria and Israel. ISIS, or fighters aligned with it, may have a greater opportunity to send rockets and mortars into Israel given a delayed political solution and incentive to escalate fighting between Saudi and Iranian proxies (as well as the IRGC) in Syria.

In formulating a policy response, Israel must keep each of these three factors in mind. While it had an isolationist policy during the Arab uprisings, the nuclear deal and new ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have shifted Israel's regional posture. But given the risky posture in which Israel finds itself, deeper involvement may prove a risky venture.