Wednesday, October 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

Stop Politicizing The Death Of Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bibi Panders, Hints At Chance For Cooperation In UN Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kuwait Mends Ties With Palestinian Leadership

Kuwait's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah, made an historic visit yesterday to the West Bank and the Temple Mount. The significance of the visit is couched in a tumultuous relationship between Kuwait and Palestinian leadership. 

The Foreign Minister's appearance in the West Bank is the first by a senior Kuwaiti official since 1967. His visit, part of a larger tour, is likely intended to mend relations and to increase Kuwait's general influence in the region. Kuwait's regional role is not particularly activist. The Emir was congratulated just last week at the UN for Kuwait's humanitarian efforts on Syria. Yet Kuwait has been hesitant to join a Saudi-led regional force, and did not follow suit when Saudi, the Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March. Rather, it worked with Oman to mend ties and maintain regional stability. As Kuwait seeks to use its mediating power to gain regional influence, its relationship with the Palestinian leadership will be important. A quick look at the history of this relationship explains why.

In the mid-twentieth century, Palestinians played a vital role in Kuwait's development. Oil drilling required technical expertise, and many highly educated Palestinians came to Kuwait to fill these positions. Palestinian engineers in the 1950's and 60's were in high demand in Kuwait. They had the expertise to run oil extraction sites, and were also proficient in both Arabic and English.

Kuwait was originally one of the main financial backers of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and it had a presence in the country. However, governments in the region, including Kuwait, became fearful of the PLO as a political force. Since many of the region's governments were installed by Western powers, these governments feared the PLO would target them as illegitimate. As a result, Kuwait kept a close eye on PLO activism within the country.

Relations because critical after PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat met with Saddam Hussein two days after the Kuwait invasion. As Kuwait University Professor Shafeeq Ghabra describes, the PLO chairman expressed support for "the Iraqi policy" and incurred the lasting animosity of Kuwait as a result. After an attack on a Kuwaiti aircraft in October 1990 in which Palestinians were implicated, the Kuwaiti government fired over 3,000 Palestinians from government jobs. Fearing arrest and intimidation, around 200,000 Palestinians fled Kuwait during the invasion and liberation of Kuwait. 

Mutual animosity continued after the end of the Gulf War. It lasted for over a decade. In 2001, Kuwaiti MPs spoke out strongly against the visit of Palestinian Authority official Faisal Husseini to a conference in Kuwait against normalizing relations with Israel.

Relations began to mend in 2004, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas apologized for the PLO's support of Iraq during a visit to Kuwait. A Palestinian embassy opened in Kuwait last year. Currently, Kuwait chairs the Arab Peace Initiative of the Arab Summit. In the wake of the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, the Kuwaiti parliament voted to withdraw from the initiative. However, in comments at the Arab Summit meeting held in Kuwait last March, Kuwait's Amir expressed support for the initiative.

Given Kuwait's status as a close US ally, the development of stronger relations between Kuwait and the Palestinian leadership is a positive development. At the same time, the sensitive history of Kuwait-Palestinian relations is an issue in which the US should avoid becoming entangled.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Israel's "Western" Public Diplomacy Paradox

Israeli public diplomacy strategy is often based on an affiliation with the West. Its latest round of public diplomacy during Operation Protective Edge is no exception. The campaign put Israel's security challenges in Western terms and used graphics and fonts that are trendy in Western communication. Here are some examples:

The IDF also issued releases with English plays on words, such as this commentary on Hamas' breaking a ceasefire:

Israeli public affairs doesn't just look Western. Many of its spokespeople are in fact English-speaking Westerners (Anglos). The IDF's International Media spokesman, LTC Peter Lerner, is British by birth. Mark Regev, the Prime Minister's spokesman, hails from Australia. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself spent time in the US and speaks perfect English, as does haBayit haYehudi party leader Naftali Bennett and prominent Likud leader Danny Danon.

Israel's extensive Anglo outreach is helpful in reaching and resonating with many supporters in the West. It is so effective, in fact, that Palestinian activists have criticized media outlets for hosting Israelis fluent in English while hosting Arabic speaking Palestinians. But there is an important tradeoff: In affiliating with the West, Israel is no longer seen as an "other." 

In general, not being seen as the "other" is a good strategy. People are more likely to associate with those like them, and to support Israelis who look and speak like they do. At the same time, Israel's close affiliation with the West entrenches perceptions of the country as the "fifty-first state" of the United States. When people who sound and look like Westerners make statements Westerners disagree with, it creates cognitive dissonance. It generates a feeling that Israel is misrepresenting the West's values. It entrenches the perception that Israelis are immigrants and settlers on indigenous Palestinian land. It also broods frustration that Israel "ought to know better" than to take action some in the West find questionable. 

In reality, Israel's security challenges are unique among Western states. No Western country faces constant barrages of rocket attacks, an ever-existent threat of an intifada, and close international scrutiny (though not always consequences) for any security action it takes. One would be hard pressed to find a Western state that, if in Israel's situation, would react with the same level of caution. Of course, this level of caution did not stop the deaths of over 2,000 Palestinians and the injury of thousands more in Gaza. It has not, to date, resulted in the end of severe restrictions on freedom of movement or the daily humiliation of checkpoints. However, the terms under which Israel conducts security policy are very different from those of the West and need to be understood in that context.

Given that this is the case, Israel must to walk a fine line between portraying itself as Western, and affiliating so much with the West that people forget that its circumstances are different. This shift does not requires a sea change, rather a calculated adjustment in strategy. The interview below with an soldier from the IDF's Youtube channel does a good job of finding that balance. The soldier is not an Anglo but rather a Hebrew-speaking Israeli. His basic respect for civilians as a soldier sounds more genuine in Hebrew than coming from a polished Anglo spokesperson. His testimony (translated with some liberty, and including some obvious IDF talking points) evokes that of Western soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and his testimony humanizes the IDF.

Most importantly, the video invites the viewer to empathize with the soldier while recognizing the existence of a cultural and national difference. This recognition likely makes the viewer more willing to entertain, if not accept, points of view not perfectly resonant with her own.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gaza Shock Talk Isn't Engaging People, It's Scaring Them Away

Tal Abbady's editorial in the LA Times today argues that posting polarizing content on Facebook is a bad way to conduct political debates and a good way to lose friends. Abbady's point speaks to a broader irony of posting such content. Activists pushing polarizing content do so in order to engage new supporters. Yet those standing outside the cacophony of Middle East politics are often pushed away rather than pulled in by such posts.

During Operation Protective Edge, both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists have engaged in a rhetorical "Shock and Awe" campaign. Pictures of death and destruction, appeals to save women and babies, and "what would you do if it were you?" questions are the more innocuous elements of these campaigns. More notoriously, some in the conflict have misappropriated words that have no place in analysis of the ongoing conflict: Genocide. Extermination. Pogrom. Holocaust. As political scientists Evgeny Finkel and Sarah Parkinson point out, this language has been particularly present in the current conflict. 

Radical (or just ignorant) activists justify using these rhetorical trump cards by noting what they see as a desperate situation in the region. Appealing to desperation, they argue, engages people. But the problem with desperation as an engagement strategy is that it is based on radical constructs of how the world works. And these constructs are usually completely out of touch with reality. They state that the public is not in support of a given side because of propaganda or intimidation from the enemy, or else is too stupid to be aware of the conflict or care about it. Shock language is necessary, therefore, to "wake up" these complacent dullards or cause great moral reckoning among those who have thrown in their lot with the other side.

These ideas are easy to understand and compelling. They are also complete nonsense. The public is not "asleep" or "ignoring" Gaza. As of August 5, 2014,  81% of the American public has seen at least "a little" coverage of Gaza on television, 79% have seen something online, 79% have seen something in newspapers, and 80% have seen something on social media. 

The idea that support for the "other side" is based only on baseless propaganda is also out of touch with reality. Smart, educated, experienced, and highly informed analysts from across the political spectrum concur that the causes and effects of the current violence in Gaza are not black and white. While there are clear cases on both sides of wrongdoing, both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate and unaddressed claims too. Those who support the "other side" do so because the conflict is complicated, not because of evil schemes. More importantly, the use of shock language does not create a moral reckoning among supporters of the "other side." Rather, it causes anger, resentment, and fear - the exact drivers of the conflict in the first place.

More concerning, earnestly interested people turn away from discussions of the conflict when it becomes a rhetorical minefield. Rather than engagement, shock activism is breeding reluctant complacency from people who want to help but do not want to offend. This attention drain harms both Israeli and Palestinian civilians who so desperately need and deserve care. While those who use shock language might have good intentions, they are actively harming the chance for all people in the region to obtain safety, freedom, and empowerment.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Why You Shouldn't Boycott Israeli Academics

The Middle East website Jadiliyya published a call today by 100 US academics to boycott Israeli academics. The list is formidable - many scholars included are first-rate and conduct excellent Middle East research. As a website, Jadiliyya has many informative pieces and is a positive force for reason in a convoluted region. However, this call to boycott is poorly substantiated and does not represent the best tools we as an academy have to offer suffering people in the Middle East. Signing it would be a mistake.

For starters, the text of the petition relies on questionable assessments of the situation on the ground. It accuses the international community of silence with regards to Gaza. This claim is demonstrably false. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, British MP Ed Miliband, and French President Hollande, among many others, have raised questions about Israel's use of force in Gaza. Any "silence" is not due to a lack of speaking - it's because those who perceive silence aren't listening.

The petition then lists the Israeli actions which warrant a boycott. Many of these actions, as discussed in previous posts on this blog, are quite disturbing and merit investigation. But the statement omits any mention of Hamas' rockets, tunnels, or kidnappings. It omits any consideration that Hamas could bear some responsibility for shooting rockets from civilian areas. While criticizing Israel's disruption of Palestinian academic environments, it says nothing about Israeli universities which in the past have had to shut down or disrupt classes as a result of rocket fire. Such considerations do not reduce the severity of Israeli actions, but if the goal is "morality" why be partial?

In fact, partiality is the defining element of the petition. The signatories have nothing to say about Qatari academics whose work is supported by a government that funded Hamas' rockets. They have nothing to say about Iranian academics who designed the rockets that Iran admitted to giving Hamas. Again, if the basis of the boycott is supporting moral academic work, why not include these actions as well?

The most disappointing part of the petition, however, is where it tries to establish a link between Israeli academics and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This evidence is disappointingly shoddy and would certainly not pass peer review. The claim that Israel's universities have offered "unconditional support" for the Israeli military is substantiated in footnotes 6 and 7 with the following:

1. An article about Tel Aviv University which describes its role in IDF technologies like smart bandages, tunnel detection systems, and the Iron Dome system (designed by an alum of the university).

2. A Facebook post in Hebrew, which most of the signatories don't read, that shows pictures of Haifa University students packing Bamba into boxes.

3. A Facebook post from the Technion, again in Hebrew, that wishes for the safe return of students who were called up to fight in Operation Protective Edge.

4. An English statement from Bar Ilan University expressing "support and encouragement" for the IDF and security forces and wishing them a safe return.

5.  A book chapter, by an Israeli, with a BA and an MA from Tel Aviv University.

6. A broken link to the radical anti-Israel site Electronic Intifada. 

This was the best evidence one hundred academics, many of them world class, could come up with to support a boycott. Of course, these questionable links are only half the evidence. They say nothing of Israeli academics like Oren Yiftachel whose book Ethnocracy is foundational in academic criticism of Israel. They say nothing of Neve Gordon who published a book literally called Israel's Occupation in 2008There are even Israeli academics who support boycotting Israeli goods - Anat Matar and David Newman among them. These examples roundly refute the petition's claim that "our colleagues in the Israeli academy have been silent."

This call to boycott is both prejudicial and poorly substantiated. It disregards the inherent complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also fails to show how a boycott of Israeli academics would have any effect whatsoever. Rather than gloss over complexity, academic supporters of Palestinians would do better to leverage their understanding of this complexity in Mideast politics. They could exert pressure through existing channels with Israeli counterparts. They could study the phenomenon of asymmetric warfare and make recommendations of how Israel could reduce casualties while achieving legitimate ends of self-defense. Ultimately, it is engagement rather than disengagement that will give academics the best chance to make a positive difference in the region they so deeply care about.