Monday, January 5, 2015

Likud: Looming Large And In Charge

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave a campaign speech tonight at a Likud event in Tel Aviv. While many media outlets are focusing on the dramatic rhetoric of the speech, Bibi made three important points that give analysts a sense of the campaign to come. Each point is likely to shore up the likelihood of a Likud victory in the elections to be held March 17.

First: "Likud is the only party organized enough to lead." Netanyahu referenced the multitude of Israeli political parties - a number which has increased after his announcement of new elections as MKs break away from  Likud to form their own parties. He referred to the spate of centrist parties as "trendy," implying that they lack political expertise or relevance. Suggesting a two-party system, he identified "Likud and whatever Labor decides to call itself," a reference to the Labor party's unclear messaging and frequent leadership changes. As a final show of Likud party discipline, MK Tzipi Hotovely, who is currently contesting the Likud primary results after placing 26th, spoke at the rally

Second: "Likud is the only party "strong" enough to handle international pressure. "Netanyahu used the specific rhetoric of strength against threats, a conception shared widely among the Israeli public. Directly challenging Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and HaTnuah leader Tzipi Livni, Bibi remarked, "They will stand up to Iran? To Hamas? They won't stand the pressure for even a second...They'll give up." Given that Israel's foreign policy stagnation is a major tenet of both party's criticisms of the Prime Minister, it will be important for Netanyahu to ensure these criticisms do not gain traction.

Third: "Re-electing Likud will decrease the instability of the Israeli political system." The frequency of elections in Israel is a source of frustration for some Israelis. Many Likud voters likely blame MKs Livni and Lapid for the most recent round (though Netanyahu himself is probably more responsible). Netanyahu announced plans for sweeping reforms of the political system that may resonate with the public. While they may resonate with some Likud voters, these plans lack any semblance of credibility. Netanyahu called for the largest party to automatically gain the Prime Minister's seat, but Netanyahu himself holds the position despite Kadima winning the vote in 2009. Netanyahu also called for the Prime Minister to be elected every four years, months after he himself called early elections. This point is shaky ground for the Likud, and one on which other parties may be able to gain some traction.

Overall, the speech was an indication of the success of Netanyahu's "divide and conquer" strategy. While other MKs are still politicking and forming parties, Likud is organized, campaigning, in control of the election story in the media, and making headway in the polls. Each factor solidifies the narrative of an inevitable Likud victory, one that no other party in the Israeli political space is in a position to challenge.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In 2014, Social Media Highlighted An Absurd War Of Words

For two months of 2014, social media became nothing short of insufferable. Operation Protective Edge, Israel's third foray into Gaza since 2006, was accompanied by a war for public opinion that was fierce, dirty, and headache-inducing for even the most Zen of analysts.

This blog participated in the conversation by making a number of pleas to shift the conversation towards a discussion of new ways to move past suffering on the ground. It was heartening to see voices from all sides - and some from no side at all - respond positively to this call. Months later, we have an opportunity to look more objectively and more systematically at the way the war of words  played out over social media.

There is extensive debate about whether social media has any effect whatsoever on political outcomes (see here for a great and concise piece). But whether or not it changes politics, it seems significant that at no other point in history has the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian clash of narratives been so intrusive into the daily experience of bystanders. True, anyone can narrowcast and interact only with people with whom she agrees. But when news is plastered across the social media pages - even for those who are not politically active - it is hard to ignore. By August 2011, 81% of the American public had followed Operation Protective Edge at least "a little." Conventional media sites as well as social media sites from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter were plastered up and down with pro- and anti- articles. Both narratives went head to head with each other with middle ground or apathetic members of these sites dragged into the melee.

Stated in the most charitable way possible, this discussion was an absolute and complete train wreck.

In 2014, social media highlighted the catastrophic failure of narratives to navigate the complex history and politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides offer clean and neat versions of the conflict on their own. But put two opposing activists in a Twitter fight with each other (please don't actually do that), and the result is total discursive chaos. Proponents of each narrative talk completely past each other using stylized and often ideological concepts with little relevance to facts on the ground. The worst make ad hominem attacks and lock horns in a race to the bottom rather than reach any semblance of common understanding. And outsiders to the conflict bear witness to this tragic excuse for discourse.

Ridiculous Twitter fights, unfortunately, will not remain in 2014. However, they will continue to showcase the sheer absurdity of getting so caught up in a narrative that we lose sight of facts on the ground. Perhaps over time, the showcasing of this absurdity on social media will highlight the antiquated nature of the conversation as well. When grown adults bicker like children, while real children are kidnapped, shot, and killed, there is no choice but to change course. Such a change requires recognizing the futility of the lose-lose status quo, and taking steps to engage honestly, listen, and identity opportunities for reconciliation rather than exploit pain and suffering for quick but Pyrrhic victories.

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.