Monday, March 5, 2018

AIPAC Has An Obama Problem, Not A Progressive One

In his remarks at the 2018 AIPAC opening plenary, President Mort Fridman appealed to progressives to be "partners" in the project of supporting Israel. Emphasizing the important of bipartisan support for Israel, Fridman noted the forces "trying to pull [progressives] out of this hall" and cautioned "we cannot let that happen." While AIPAC is right to court progressives, its real problem lies in the antagonizing of former President Obama and his supporters.

AIPAC's conservative streak is well-documented. Since 2008 it has courted the Evangelical right, minimized the impacts of settlement expansion, and emphasized the defense aspects of Israel's relationship with the United States over other elements of the relationship. 

Policy streaks are not problematic for AIPAC. Opinions are easily shifted in a city dominated by 24 hour news cycles. For example, in 2009, AIPAC supported the idea that the 1967 lines were "indefensible." A year later it showed a map of Israel with these same lines drawn in as temporary borders. Lobbyist groups change positions all the time, and AIPAC would not be doing anything radically different were it now to tack toward the left. AIPAC could also point out its historical support for progressive values. It has consistently emphasized Israel's democratic government and supports the two-state solution, a point which Executive Director Howard Kohr reiterated yesterday to the chagrin of the settler movement. AIPAC features democrats during its plenaries and in its breakout sessions, hosts young progressive leaders, and historically tries to tack toward the center of US politics. Its ability to capture the center-left in the future based on policy shifts should not be in doubt.

AIPAC's real problem is not its policies per se but lingering progressive resentment over its constant opposition to Barak Obama as a political figure. While AIPAC has not been radically right-wing from a US politics perspective, it stonewalled the Obama administration's major Middle East policy initiatives at almost every opportunity (Iron Dome funding and the 2016 MoU are notable exceptions). Most notable, AIPAC opposed the administration's 2009 call for a temporary settlement freeze, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In both cases AIPAC made a point of directly and publicly attacking these policies. In 2009 it hosted speaker after speaker at its annual conference who called the 1967 lines "indefensible." In 2015 it spent $1.67 million in a bid to kill the Iran nuclear deal while making ridiculous assertions like the deal would "pave a path to war."

While progressives may not remember policy talking points from AIPAC conferences in years past, they will long remember AIPAC's opposition to President Obama. Many resent AIPAC for airing its disagreements with the Obama administration in such a confrontational way. Rather than framing these disagreements as policy discussions, AIPAC called into question whether the Obama administration was pro-Israel at all. It picked open fights with the US administration while aligning consistently with Israel's more conservative government. Now it is asking the same people whom it alienated to join forces without acknowledging its own role in causing cleavages in the first place.

AIPAC took a substantial risk in directly and publicly opposing an administration which consistently had the majority support of the US Jewish community. It is now paying the price for doing so. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Ahed Tamimi's IDF Arrest Shows Israel's Political Stagnation and Frustration

Ahed Tamimi commited a crime and should be punished for doing so. The extent to which the IDF has punished her and other Palestinian minors, however, raises serious questions about the utility of such punishment and how Israel will reconcile its treatment of Palestinian minors with being a liberal democratic state.

On December 18, Mohammed Tamimi, a 15 year old resident of the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, was shot at close range with a rubber bullet. Later that afternoon, two Israeli soldiers stepped onto the property of the Tamimi family. Tensions were high following that morning's clashes. Mohammed's cousin Ahed, a 16 year old, began yelling at the soldiers. The video shows clearly what happened next. Ms. Tamimi kicked and punched the soldiers multiple times. The soldiers exercised commendable restraint, using only the force absolutely necessary to repel these attacks. The IDF highlighted these actions on a twitter account. Following the attack, Ms. Tamimi is recorded blaming President Trump for Palestinian violence and implying that such violence is a duty for anyone seeking a unified path forward for Palestinians.

There is no justification for Ms. Tamimi's use of violence against soldiers conducting non-violent and lawful operations. Soldiers are agents of the state, but they still have basic rights, including the right not to be physically assaulted. Soldiers should enter a combat zone with the understanding that violence is possible, but doing so does not negate their most basic rights as humans. At the same time, soldiers in the world's most moral army did not and should not ask for a medal for not shooting an unarmed 16 year old girl while wearing full combat gear. The video of Tamimi's attack is significant because there are misperceptions about the IDF's use of restraint, not because that restraint was above and beyond the call of duty.

At this point, the IDF could have issued the Tamimi family a hefty fine as a penalty for this violence, and moved on. Instead it overruled the commendable restraint of its soldiers and escalated the situation. Pro-Israel activists were quick to identify Ahed Tamimi by the name Shirley Temper - a sexist monniker ascribed to her since at least 2014, when she would have been 13 years old. Following its video showing restraint, the IDF threw restraint to the wind. An IDF unit raided the Tamimi residence in the middle of the night and arrested her. Then it put footage of the arrest online. Tamimi was indicted last week and now faces the possibility (though unlikely) of 10 years in prison for kicking and punching 2 soldiers wearing full combat gear and trained in self defense.

Ahed Tamimi and other Palestinian youth have grown up without citizenship in a state of their own. They have faced constant surveillance and control by the IDF and the Palestinian Authority their entire lives. Such an upbringing does not excuse the use of violence, but neither does it excuse their treatment as "future terrorists who got what they deserved," even if their political views are hateful. Such treatment also does not deter violent behavior. In fact, Tamimi's arrest has turned her into an international hero and increased the danger to IDF soldiers of future attacks. Rather than equip the IDF with better resources and practices to properly do its job, Israel's political leadership has encouraged these heavy-handed tactics. It has taken out its frustration at the stagnation of its politics on a 16 year old born after any of that stagnation was set in motion.

Any analyst who believes Israel's status quo administration of the West Bank is sustainable must reconcile how a liberal democratic state like Israel could also treat Ahed Tamimi the way it does. Tamimi is no martyr, but neither is she anywhere close to the security threat she has been treated as. Liberal democracies (including the United States) often act harshly, but they must sooner or later come to terms with this treatment to preserve the fundamental values upon which they were founded.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Why IDF Restraint Matters

The arrest of Ahed Tamimi and her mother for assault and incitement have made international news. Supporters of Palestinian rights have turned Ahed into an overnight heroine while opponents decry her use of violence and physical force against two IDF soldiers. Ultimately the ensuing debate is one about restraint - the extent and purpose of it, and whether it ought to be used.

These kinds of incidents - and arrests - are part and parcel of Israel's military presence in the West Bank. But a couple of elements make this particular one different. First, a video of the initial event was posted online by activists on both sides of the conflict, which led to it being circulated widely. Palestinian supporters pointed out the entrance of IDF soldiers onto a private driveway, while Israel supporters emphasized the restraint shown by these soldiers as they are kicked repeatedly. Second, the video shows face-to-face full contact violence. The video evokes visceral responses because it shows two humans in physical conflict with each other rather than faceless demonstrators, tanks, or soldiers with their faces covered. 

While the soldiers' professionalism and restraint is commendable, it would hardly have been becoming of a liberal democracy to have acted otherwise. Reactions in Israel and in the pro-Israel community simultaneously laud the soldiers' restraint as typical of the IDF on the one hand and imply that they could or should have used force on the other. As if using force against an unarmed Palestinian civilian teenage girl would have been either consistent with liberal norms or productive.

Ahed Tamimi's arrest happened not right after the incident but at 4:00 the following morning, with Amira Haas reporting the use of teargas as part of the extraction. These tactics hardly qualify as "restraint." The IDF then posted a video of the arrest on one of its Twitter accounts - not a usual practice by any means. This self-congratulatory posting also does not qualify as restraint. It was intended to intimidate Palestinians and hold Tamimi as a trophy. Its message was straightforward: "She challenged us and got what she deserved. We won in the end."

Tactical restraint is commendable and violence against IDF soldiers condemnable. But restraint in a truly liberal country cannot be begrudging or supported only by the IDF and its soldiers. It must be tired directly to respect for human dignity and rights, and upheld by politicians and supporters of the state.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

US Recognition of Jerusalem Fine in Theory, Flawed in Practice

Firstly - Yes, this blog is still live. Welcome back.

Today's announcement that the US will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has raised frantic speculation over the future of America's role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader Middle East. Ultimately, the speech acknowleged some realities that needed to be recognized, but did so in an unproductive and careless way.

First, the President's speech today made no mention of any of the historic and religious claims Palestinians have to Jerusalem. Arab Muslims have lived in Jerusalem for hundreds and hundreds of years. Al-Aqsa Mosque is an important Palestinian national symbol and the third holiest site in Islam. While we can argue for eternity as to whose claims are more legitimate, the reality is that neither side will give them up. While the President should be applauded for using the ambiguous phrase "Jerusalem" versus "united/undivided Jerusalem," his omission of the "East/West" division is being read across the Arab world, predictably, as an erasure of Palestinian claims to the city and a lack of recognition of centuries of history. His caveats about mutual negotiation of borders at the end of the speech came across to Arab audiences as an afterthought. This was an avoidable mistake and the speech could have easily been written to address these concerns.

Second, the Knesset, Prime Minister and President's residences, Israel's Supreme Court, and its ministries are in Jerusalem. By any reasonable definition this makes Jerusalem a capital city. It is accurate that today's statement by President Trump recognizes a reality on the ground - one that many people have taken absurd steps to deny. However, other realities exist as well that ought to be recognized. For example, Jerusalem is already divided de facto. Palestinians often face hardship traveling in and out of Jerusalem. City planning decisions often favor Jewish Israelis over Palestinians. Acknowledging realities on the ground is good, but acknowledging all realities on the ground is better for negotiating a final status agreement.

Finally, the argument "Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel because it's the capital of Palestine," is invalid. To claim on the one hand that Palestinian claims are being erased and on the other hand that Tel Aviv is Israel's capital and Jews have no claim to Jerusalem is rank hypocrisy and deeply offensive given the significance of Jerusalem to Judaism. Jerusalem is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah, it contains the holiest site in Judaism, and is a religious and cultural heart of the Jewish people. These statements can be true without denying that the city has deep and meaningful significance for other religions too. The weaponization of recognizing the significance of Jerusalem - on both sides - perpetuates our broken status quo and ultimately sets back both the Israeli and Palestinian aspiration for a state with Jerusalem as the capital.

Nobody wants a divided Jerusalem. Unfortuantely, it is the most sustainable and realistic option. An Israeli capital in the West, a Palestinian capital in the East, and a close to status quo agreement over the Temple Mount that assures access to holy sites is the least bad choice. Today's announcement could have moved the parties in that direction by offering carefully-worded assurances and forcing parties to engage rather than talk about talking about engaging. Instead, it carelesly affirmed suspicions about the United States and its leadership that will ultimately constrain even further America's ability to conduct foreign policy in the Middle East.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Israel's Gaza Power Cut Is A Humanitarian Travesty

At a time when the US has signaled less interest in human rights policy, there are a number of egregious actions being taken in the Middle East against people living there. Among these is Israel's decision to cut power to the Gaza Strip, allowing only 2-4 hours per day for nearly 2 million people during the month of Ramadan.

Facing rising political pressure from Hamas, the Palestinian Authority decided it would no longer pay the bill for Gaza's electricity which is provided by Israel. The PA then asked Israel to reduce Gaza's electricity supply. Energy Minister and Likud party member Yuval Steinetz strongly opposed the action on the grounds that the PA already owes Israel money, that Israel should not take orders from the PA, and the cutting electricity might give Hamas an excuse to start another conflict with Israel. Steinetz also emphasized the humanitarian consequences such a move could have on Gaza's residents. At the time, some supporters of Israel rightly praised the government for this hesitation. Now that the decision has been taken, however, the narrative has morphed into a diffusion of responsibility onto the Palestinian Authority and an attempt to downplay the government's moral culpability. 

This diffusion indicates two things. First, Israel's government knows it has liability for electricity provision in Gaza. Defense Minister Lieberman's comments to that end today doth protest too much the idea that Israel is simply the executioner and not the judge. Second, it indicates that Israel's government anticipates blowback from the decision and is pre-framing that blowback as the result of international bias against Israel rather than an otherwise legitimate concern. Yet the concern is in fact legitimate for a two reasons.

First, regime change in Gaza will not occur through siege tactics. Hamas is a violent organization that uses terrorism to maintain an authoritarian grip on power and constrains Palestinian society from reaching its full potential. But expecting a power cut to spark the popular overthrow of Hamas is like expecting a power cut in Mosul to spark the popular overthrow of ISIS. Nonetheless, Israel's leadership have pursued this failing policy since 2007 and seem to only have doubled down on it now. Power cuts and inadequate supply of food, medicine, and building materials into Gaza have bred popular anger against Hamas, but also against Israel and with little positive effect from Israel's point of view. Electricity cuts may pressure Hamas, but pressure without clear positive effects for Israel's government is useless when the security of Israel's people - particularly those along the Gaza border - is at stake.

More importantly, Israel has struggled against a rising tide of invective charging that it is no longer a liberal democracy. A spate of UN resolutions, the BDS movement, and even criticism of actress Gal Gadot are unreasonable and unwarranted. But Israel's government does itself no favors by cutting electricity to just hours per day to an area whose humanitarian situation has been dire for years. Electricity cuts affect hospital patients, school children, the elderly, and society's most vulnerable. And since it is currently Ramadan, many Gazans are observing a daylight fast during the longest days of the year.

Gaza's humanitarian situation is not only Israel's fault. But Israel has a responsibility as a liberal democracy to take seriously its complicity in the current humanitarian situation, which this decision to cut back power exacerbates severely. The Start-Up Nation has the creativity and expertise to find a better way to achieve its political aims than to take out its animosity toward Hamas on 2 million people with little power to change the status quo.

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.