Monday, March 27, 2017

It's Not Friedman. Pro-Israel Advocacy Has A "Kapo" Problem

AIPAC's 2017 conference is focused on the theme "Many voices, one mission." The slogan reflects well-placed concern over the increasingly partisan nature of the US-Israel relationship. Actors on both sides are contributing to this problem, including at the conference itself. If Not Now's protests/antics outside the Washington Convention Center yesterday make a polarized conversation more polarized and do little to legitimize serious conversations about the future of Israel's presence in the West Bank. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer's comments about there being no daylight between the US and Israel for the first time in years were a petty swipe at an Obama administration which is no longer in office. It needlessly alienated liberals who constitute a majority of the US Jewish population and voted overwhelmingly Democrat in both 2012 and 2016.

Politics in the US are polarized in general and we shouldn't expect the tide to ebb any time soon. The best approach in the meantime, therefore, is to build and re-enforce sandbag walls that mitigate further slippage of the discourse into further nastiness. A change in administration - and a new US ambassador - offers this opportunity.

During his confirmation hearing, Ambassador-designate David Friedman's comments about J Street being "worse" than "Kapos" proved divisive. It is astonishing they were not disqualifying on face. The use of Holocaust terminology in this context should be an obvious red line to liberals (who have been guilty of similar statement in the past) and conservatives alike. 

But Ambassador Friedman did not confirm himself. Ultimately, a majority of US Senators decided their careers would not be at stake if they overlooked a blatant invocation of Holocaust rhetoric against a Jewish pro-Israel organization. As it pertains to the Ambassador, this issue has been analyzed to death. But the Senate vote is indicative of a deeper problem in the American pro-Israel community itself.  

This problem is not that Ambassador-designate Friedman used (and later apologized for) a certain turn of phrase. It's that many pro-Israel Americans agree with him. And while they may disagree with the specific terminology, they truly believe J Street is a nefarious organization with the intent of destroying Israel. This belief is, to put it plainly, an alternative fact with piles of evidence to the contrary. 

Disagreeing with J Street and its policies is fair game (see earlier posts on this blog). But pro-Israel apathy toward an American official invoking the word "Kapos" toward other Jews is unacceptable. Rebuttals to J Street are (sometimes) based in fact. Deploying or ignoring Holocaust terminology against J Street is based in tribalist paranoid demagoguery that cheapens the memory of the Six Million. It is a blight on our community that a basic respect for our history and for each other has blinded us to the goodness of brothers sitting together.

It would be a mistake to instrumentalize Ambassador-designate Friedman's comments as a tool for bleeding political capital in a US relationship with a critical ally. Instead, pro-Israel Americans must see his comments as a mirror that reflects an ugly truth about the standards we accept tacitly or otherwise in the pro-Israel community. It is incumbent that each of us - working in our own ideological camps - do the hard work of self-reflection about how we represent our passion for Israel and its security. Perhaps AIPAC's admirable commitment to unity of mission could be built upon establishing these grounds for common decency.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

David Friedman Is The Next US Ambassador To Israel

The confirmation of David Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel is an opportunity for a fresh start that neither the US nor Israel can afford to squander. 

Both the United States and Israel face serious long-term challenges that only cooperation can solve. These include remedying the violence of Syria's brutal civil war, strengthening economic ties between the US and Israel, and achieving a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Critical to these challenges will be the creation of broad coalitions within and between peoples. To this end, Ambassador-Designate Friedman should focus immediately on building ties between the US and Israeli administrations. He should seek to engage not only with Israel's government but also with its diverse and ambitious people. He should work to support Israeli and Palestinian pragmatists with innovative ideas for a final status agreement based on the concept of two states for two peoples - a position consistent with decades of US foreign policy.

Most importantly, the Ambassador-Designate should reaffirm his commitment to pluralism in the American pro-Israel community. The framing of Israel as a partisan issue is one of the greatest dangers facing the State of Israel in the next decade. Furthermore, the polarization and lack of respect for pluralism within the American pro-Israel community is a serious threat to Israel's ability to ensure support in an increasingly volatile Middle East. The apologies Ambassador-Designate Friedman offered during his confirmation hearing should be the first in an ongoing series of reconciliatory measures which indicate that supporters of Israel in America have a place at the table.  

Diversity of opinion - and the ability to tolerate it - is the single greatest asset that the US and Israel share. The new Ambassador should work hard to ensure that it remains a major element of American and Israeli politics. Nothing could be more foundational to the long-term vitality of the US-Israel relationship than affirming the love of liberal democracy Americans share with the People of Israel.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Israel's Regulation Bill Will Draw Backlash

The Knesset has passed a controversial "Regulation Bill" that legalizes settler outposts in the West Bank and halts their evacuations and demolition. These outposts are different from the major settlement blocs like Gilo, Maale Adumim, and Ariel. They are also different from settlements which some in the international community say are illegal, but which Israel claims are not. The outposts affected by tonight's bill were not authorized by the Government of Israel, which means many are on privately-owned Palestinian land and place settlers in particularly dangerous situations where they are a liability to the Israeli government. 

The bill was approved by the Knesset Ministerial Committee for Legislation back in November in the wake of controversy surrounding the illegal settlement of Amona which was evacuated last week. Emboldened by outcry from settlers over the evacuation and the lack of a strong position on the issue from the new US administration, the bill could impact 4,000 settlements throughout the West Bank. While this is not the first time Israel has retroactively legalized such outposts, it is the first blanket legalization. Furthermore, it is likely to have some negative effects for Israel.

First, the blanket legalization of illegal outposts sets a precedent whereby settlers and not the government drive settlement policy. This is dangerous because settlers who live in outposts often have little respect for foreign policy nuance, international law, or quid pro quo agreements between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. In the short-term the bill will likely destabilize the relationship between both parties. In the long-term, it will likely incentivize further illegal activity by settlers who have now been rewarded for acting outside the law. 

Second, the law confirms the weakness of Israel's current governing coalition. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who took steps to delay or defer the bill, ultimately could not or did not prevent it from becoming law. Israel's far-right, for its part, has an immediate victory but in the process has demonstrated its lack of long-term vision. Rather than pursue a final status agreement, or even annexation as MK Bennett has flirted with doing, the bill perpetuates the broken status quo. In so doing, it demonstrates that the far-right's vision for Israel is "more of the same" rather than a change that has a positive impact on Israelis. With the lack of a viable alternative to the current governing coalition, Israelis are stuck with a government that is unwilling to commit to meaningful progress.

Finally, the bill opens Israel up to more "lawfare" since the international community perceives the bill as an escalation in response to UN 2334. Israelis already believe that the country is unfairly targeted under international humanitarian law - a sentiment which is well-founded. But this bill makes the problem even worse. While the main message the bill sent was directed at settlers, the message it intended to send to the international community, was an assertion of legitimate control of the West Bank. The way the bill will actually come across, however, is as a provocation that confirms Israel's "rogue" status among liberal states. This is one reason Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has expressed concerns the bill could violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. While the Trump administration in general and Ambassador Haley in particular is likely to provide diplomatic cover for Israel at the UN, the US has less influence over other international legal bodies. Furthermore, reports suggest the US asked for a delay in passing the bill until after Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to Washington next Wednesday. The bill may create frustrations in the new US administration that Israel is forcing its hand on Middle East policy.

Ultimately, the bill will likely generate blowback to a unilateral move by the Knesset rewarding behavior directed against the legal authority of the state. This conceding of power ties the Israeli government's hands in future interactions with settlers and exposes all Israelis to increased danger. Most importantly, today's action demonstrates an unprecedented level of cynicism about Israel's future. It is a surrender to a small group of extremists rather than a workable and sustainable solution to their legitimate concerns. Israel did not singlehandedly create the dispute over the West Bank. But it did single handedly make it worse by passing this bill. When hand-wringing erupts over the inevitable backlash this bill will generate, supporters of this bill will have to live with the knowledge that their actions created this self-inflicted wound that further delays the prospects for a strong, sustainable Jewish State.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Why 67% of Israelis Support a Murderer

Israeli society was rocked by a military court's decision yesterday to convict IDF soldier Elor Azaria of manslaughter after he shot an incapacitated Palestinian terrorist in the head. Several parliament ministers are now calling for Azaria to receive clemency, a move supported by over 60% of the Israeli public. 

As others have pointed out, Azaria's actions are reprehensible. He shot to death a Palestinian who incontrovertibly posed no threat. This excessive use of force is a violation of Israel's rules of engagement, those of any liberal democracy, and  Article 12 of the First Geneva Convention. Support for a soldier who violated the chain of command and Israel's rules of engagement is an affront to hundreds of thousands of IDF soldiers who, in much tougher conditions, placed the good of the state over their own personal emotion. Azaria's actions impugn their professionalism, dignity, and commitment to the security of the State of Israel. 

At the same time, it is crucial to understand what motivates this support. Israelis more than most other people understand the depth and complexity of moral dilemmas involved in fighting terrorism and insurgency. Making sense of their support for Azaria does not justify it, but rather contextualizes it for non-Israeli audiences who may not be able to grasp the context in which Israelis are giving their support. 

First, Israelis feel that the military bureaucracy places blame on low-level soldiers for strategic mistakes made at the higher levels. In fact, 60% of Israelis think Israel's Chief of Staff, Gadi Eisenkot, and the top IDF brass influenced the court's verdict. While Azaria bears responsibility for his actions, there are institutional and systemic factors that placed someone with his lack of discipline in a situation like that which exists in Hebron. Furthermore, the fact that the multiple videos of the incident were publicized by the Israeli Human Rights group B'Tselem placed additional pressure on the IDF bureaucracy to make an example. Azaria is guilty, but he is not the only guilty party.

Second, Israelis point to the fact that the victim of the shooting was a terrorist. Terrorists are understood in different terms in Israel than they are in the US. In Israel, they are not foreign evildoers who sneak into the country and kill a few people every couple years. Rather, terrorists are responsible for the pervasive sense of fear and worry that Israelis internalize every day. They are the reason Israelis think twice before riding public busses, sitting near the front of a restaurant, waiting at an un-fortified bus stop, or letting their kids go to a concert, club, or downtown. Terrorism is not a theoretical construct of political and legal discussions in Israel. It is visceral and scary, and has a deeply harmful effect on the Israeli national psyche. Israelis are hard pressed to understand how any rational human could want them to feel this visceral fear every day. Understanding terrorists as monsters or fundamentally un-human is one way to make some sense of the phenomenon. The 51% of Americans who supported the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman after he shot Trayvon Martin reasoned along similar lines, though with much less justification than Israelis have. Shooting a terrorist - one responsible for fear and anxiety through his violent actions and threats that give Israelis no moment of peace - is justified in terms of the emotional havoc terrorism wreaks on Israelis. One less terrorist is one step closer to psychological peace. 

Finally, Israelis' response to Azaria's conviction is shaped an erosion of faith in human rights norms. Israelis are proud of the IDF's respect for human rights, but the past decade has seen human rights norms weaponized against Israel and its actions in Gaza and the West Bank. In the wake of the American Abu Ghraib prison scandal, one of the major American concerns was that it degraded US credibility as a proponent of human rights. Israel, on the other hand, is condemned by the international community time and time again despite its unprecedented efforts to protect human rights in combat. It has been given little credibility to begin with despite serious efforts to act in humane ways during war. The overall effect of this condemnation - some justified and some not - is the erosion of the Israeli public's faith in international liberal human rights norms. This erosion - combined with the rise of illiberal parties in Israel's Knesset - shapes perceptions that the rights of combatants under international law are irrelevant because Israel will be condemned whether or not it respects them.

These justifications, of course, fail to speak to the overwhelming persuasiveness of arguments in favor of a chain of command, rules of engagement, and respect for wounded combatants. They also fail to speak the myriad of ways in which Israel's government perpetuates a systematic lack of respect for basic Palestinian human rights. Nonetheless, they speak to the need for all concerned with human rights to take seriously the complexity of the unique dilemmas Israelis face. They also suggest that deeper engagement with Israel's public, rather than disengagement and boycotts, are a productive way to restore strong faith in the fundamental values that are part and parcel of both liberal democracies and Israel's founding principles.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bibi v. Kerry - Arguing The Political Costs of Settlements

There will be a spate of deep dive pieces over the next few days addressing what the conflict UN resolution 2334 is "really" about. Deep dive piece are often useful, but have limited utility in this case for two reasons. Firstly, since most people who read deep dive pieces already have opinions, they do little to inform or change people's views. Second, issue linkage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the biggest practical obstacles to progress. Settlements, in other words, are never just be about settlements. For Palestinians they are about the systematic matrix of control that occupation imposes. For Israelis they are an obsession of an international community indifferent to whether the country lives or dies.

Rather than get mired in these issues, it makes more sense to look at the practical politics of the situation. In this regard, the debate over UNSC 2334 is really a dispute over the cost of international antagonism toward Israeli settlements.

1) The international community doesn't like settlements. 

International dislike of settlements is a cost of building them. We may agree or disagree that this dislike is fair, proportional, or warranted, but it exists as a cost. Specifically, Israel pays in political capital - good will with other states, willingness to cooperate, and the ability to form durable alliances. Settlements aren't the only reason Israel lacks political capital proportional to its ability to be a good ally. Systemic bias and latent Antisemitism play a role too. However, despite the claims of Israel's far right, these factors can be differentiated from international antagonism over settlements.

2) In the past, the Obama administration has mitigated this cost for Israel by spending its own political capital.

When UN resolutions against settlements came to a vote, the Obama administration exercised a US veto every time except last week. A veto prevents the text of a resolution from being used as a basis for further action on settlements. It is also a signal to the international community that Israel enjoys the support of the global superpower. 

The US pays in political capital for its support of settlements. First, it derives no direct benefit from them. In fact, settlements have been opposed by every US administration since they have existed. Second, America's Arab partners and allies deeply dislike US support for Israeli settlement building. Third, settlements create local political conflict that destabilize the region in ways unhelpful for US interests.

In the past, the US has been willing to pay the political cost of international antagonism even though it derives no direct benefit from settlements. This is because Israel has great value as a liberal democratic ally. It's also because Israel has borne costs in its support for US policy that go far beyond UN vetoes. In 1991, for example, Iraq fired 39 scud missiles at Israel. Israel didn't retaliate militarily because the US asked it to refrain from doing so.

3) Stalled progress and alienation caused the US to reconsider covering these costs at the UN.
For a variety of reasons, the Obama administration is frustrated with the lack of progress on settlements. It also resents the Netanyahu government, which it sees as having taken a consistently antagonistic stance towards many important US policies in the Middle East. After eight years, the administration decided that it would not cover the cost of international antagonism over settlement building. Thus, the administration abstained on the resolution. 

Israel's reaction is based on the idea that since it is a strong ally, the US should cover the cost. It is also based on the view of many Israelis that the cost itself is unjust. The international community imposes costs on the basis that it deplores settlements, but in the eyes of Israel's government, this is illegitimate. Israel's government has also viewed President Obama with paranoia since before his election, and experiences this abstention as the betrayal it has been expecting.

The US reaction is based on what it sees as a consistent attempt to undermine its policies in the region and prevent any meaningful action in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Obama administration came to see UN vetoes as perpetuating a cycle of settlement building that hurt US interests, rather than a costly but justified investment in a close ally. 

Regardless of which side one agrees with, the US abstention has made clear that the international political costs of settlements are real, and one for which there must be a sustainable form of payment. Arguing that since the cost is unjust it isn't real is no longer a viable strategy. Antagonism over settlements may be unfair, disproportionate, or unjust, but it is real and must factor into the Israeli government's decision-making process.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Why Bibi's Blame Game May Backfire

The passage of UNSC Resolution 2334 on Friday afternoon, after a US abstention, resulted in open hostility against the Obama administration from Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government. The Prime Minister is now deploying the insidious strategy of accusing President Obama of being personally behind the passage of the measure. Absolutely no evidence or credible on the record statement has yet appeared to confirm this bizzare accusation.

Frustration over the resolution itself is warranted to say the least. It references "terrorism" without specific reference to Palestinian terrorist groups. It also calls upon both parties to act on the basis of international humanitarian law (IHL). This rhetoric implies a laughable parity between Israel, which violates IHL in specific ways subject to internal judicial review and penalty, and Palestinian terrorist groups that aim and shoot rockets at kindergartens. Most importantly, the resolution links the issue of East Jerusalem to Israel's broader presence in the West Bank, an issue linkage which is neither useful nor helpful in moving toward a permanent status agreement. In addition to the resolution's text being problematic, the Obama administration is an easy scapegoat. Pinning the resolution on President Obama personally is a way for PM Netanyahu to deflect the broad support this unfortunate resolution obtained across the international community. It deflects from the failed efforts of the Prime Minister's government to pressure the administration into voting no. It confirms the paranoid fears of some Israelis - and many conservative Americans - that the President has it in for Israel despite approving $38 billion dollars in aid to the country over the next 10 years.

Given these absurdities, Prime Minister Netanyahu is giving into the temptation to pursue a bridge burning strategy with a lame-duck President. However, he should approach this issue with caution rather than the current policy of throwing it flagrantly to the wind, for three reasons.

First, Prime Minister Netanyahu is a far better politician than President-elect Trump. He has decades more experience and a proven track record for excellent political savvy. The bombastic campaign to pin UNSC 2334 on President Obama is possible in the current "facts don't matter" environment. But it is below a political virtuoso like Prime Minister Netanyahu and wastes valuable political capital. Additionally, the collapse of a facts-don't-matter environment will hurt PM Netanyahu far before it hurts PEOTUS Trump. In fact, PM Netanyahu risks and is already receiving blowback over the vote. Scapegoating is easy for constituencies to understand but it also deflects important questions about the resolution's passage for which the government will be called upon to answer by Israel's majority.

Second, throwing Israel's lot in with President Trump alienates the majority of American Jews who voted against him and exacerbates the problem of Israel as a partisan issue. Bibi's total alignment with PEOTUS Trump hurts Israel's standing among an American Jewish public that voted against him, and at a time when this critical diaspora community is already concerned about Israel's policies on settlements and the peace process. Managing diaspora relations requires avoiding such polemic antics. Second, and more importantly, by throwing in Israel's lot with Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu is contributing to the framing of Israel as a partisan issue. Liberals and conservatives disagree about why this partisanship has occurred, but all analysts can agree that Netanyahu's statements against Obama and for Trump do little to ease this dangerous polarization of Israel as a political issue. Even if polarization isn't Netanyahu's fault, it's still his problem, and one that his comments over the weekend exacerbate.

Finally, Netanyahu's antics signal that he is not below trashing relationships when it is politically convenient. His erratic behavior places Israel in a dangerous position at a time when the country faces international isolation and delegitimization. The world's leaders have reacted to these antics with shock. Even Donald Trump believes that individual negotiation savvy is critical in politics. Netanyahu is betting Trump will see him as a determined ally, but Trump may conclude that Netanyahu is just an erratic negotiator who would throw him under the bus too. Netanyahu is intending to signal Israel's independence, but he may actually be signalling that he is a risky partner, including for the incoming President.

While the US administration is about to change, Middle East experts and civil servants in Washington will remain the same. These experts are frustrated about the vicious cycle in which Prime Minister Netanyahu asks the US to provide diplomatic cover at the UN only to use this cover to continue settlement building. A sustainable alternative to Prime Minister Netanyahu's current embarrassment of a strategy begins with a genuine commitment to meaningful progress on the ground.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Attacks On B'Tselem Hurt Israeli Democracy

B'Tselem director Hagai El-Ad's speech to the UN Security Council on Friday has generated a strong reaction from Israel's government. In his address on Friday, El-Ad detailed the human rights violations Palestinians suffer as a result of Israel's military presence in the West Bank. 

El-Ad presented a slightly paranoid view of Israel's legal pretense for being in the West Bank, arguing that it is a "legal guise for organized state violence." While arguably all legal systems legitimate state violence, El-Ad presents a cynical view of Israel's legal system. He paints due process in Israel as a legal guise for legitimating occupation. The real story is slightly more complex. For example, Palestinian teenagers arrested for dubious reasons are sometimes freed following a legal appeal based on due process. 

Despite these broad brushstrokes, however, El-Ad's speech - along with a speech by Americans For Peace Now's Lara Friedman - was a standard facts-based description of the harms of occupation on Israelis and Palestinians one would expect from a human rights NGO. It was supported by statistics and arguments that were sound, if slightly polemic, to a layperson's ear.

Israel's government and politicians, however, were highly incensed by the speech. Prime Minister Netanyahu accused B'Tselem of joining a "chorus of slander" and banned Israelis from completing their national service with the group. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked called the group a "disgrace" and accused the group of cooperating with Israel's enemies in waging "political terrorism" against it at the UN. Even centrist MK Yair Lapid described the speech as a "declaration of divorce" from Zionism. 

To call the speech polemic or unhelpful would be fair. As Lara Friedman herself noted, the human rights records of many states that attended the meeting are themselves "abysmal." But to suggest, as a Labor party activist did Monday, that B'Tselem committed treason is an uncharacteristically chilling statement in what is normally a vibrant Israeli public discourse.

Two major factors shaped these political reactions. First, B'Tselem has been criticized in Israel for sending its activists abroad to criticize Israeli policy, which Israelis understandably feel is defamation against the state. B'Tselem was also among 25 NGOs targeted by a bill recently passed in the Knesset which imposes special requirements on those getting more than 50% of their funding from foreign governments. Second, the speeches at the Security Council came a day after UNESCO passed an absurd resolution devoid of reference to the Jewish character of the Temple Mount. Combine a biased bill with longstanding animosity in Israel toward both B'Tselem and the UN, and rhetorical fireworks are no surprise. Israelis deeply resent steps taken in the international arena to deny the liberal democratic nature of the state, and many see B'Tselem as contributing to the problem.

Yet Israeli human rights NGOs themselves were created by US Jewish groups - with the assent of Israel's government - to solve the de-legimization problem. Their purpose was to bolster Israel's claim to liberal democracy and to strengthen international human rights norms in the wake of the Holocaust. While the AJC supported Israeli policies in the United States and in the UN, it recognized that a network of Israeli human rights NGOs would strengthen the credibility of the state. In the face of false accusations by anti-Israel actors, these NGOs could provide credible data.

Governments often find human rights NGOs to be inconvenient, short-sighted, or petty. Yet the pure revulsion expressed by Israel's political leaders in the past four days reveals a concerning apathy toward the fundamental values on which Israel was founded. The idea that West Bank occupation is unsustainable is widely shared among analysts, former military officers, and activists within Israel and abroad. It is not radical. Showcasing the occupation's flaws is not the source of Israel's de-legitimization. Rather, it is the petulant reluctance of Israel's current leadership to address effectively the political realities Israel faces. These realities include systematic double-standards on Israel and global anti-Semitism. But going after B'Tselem will do nothing to mitigate either one.