Thursday, December 30, 2010

Katsav Verdict a Win for Israel

Splashed across the front pages of Middle Eastern media outlets today is the news that former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was found guilty of rape and sexual abuse after years of indictments and trials. The news is likely to spur a number of editorials in both the Israeli and Arab press.

On the one hand, to see such gross misconduct at the highest levels of the Israeli government is disappointing. During the trial itself, judges found that Katsav used edited tapes, partial transcripts, unrealistic datebooks, unfounded statements, and prepared testimonies which were "riddled with lies." That the culture of governance in Israel could allow for such abuse is concerning.

At the same time, the judges unanimously convicted Katsav, and his rape charge carries a minimum sentence of four years in prison. While Katsav was convicted of rape and sexual misconduct, it is hard to think of any other country in the Middle East where a victim of these abuses would have a serious shot at legal recourse against a president. While tones of racism may underlie some of the charges against Katsav (who is of a Mizrachi background), the conviction is not likely to stir civil unrest in Israel. Mizrahim did not organize to support Katsav only because he was Mizrahi, and those who opposed him did not do so because they were Ashkenazi. It is hard to imagine that a comparable indictment in many of Israel's neighboring countries would similarly be free from strong ethnic overtones.

The Katsav verdict illustrates that the Israeli legal system is still very much salient, and that not even the President of the State is above the law. While his sentence is still uncertain, the message sent by the Israeli judicial system today is one which strengthens Israel's position as a liberal democratic and Jewish state.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Calling for Pollard's Release is a Mistake

Prime Minister Netanyahu announced today that he will formally call for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. Pollard was arrested in 1985 for selling classified material to the Israeli government. He pled guilty in 1986 and was sentenced to life in prison. State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley responded to the news in a press conference later today, saying only, “all I can tell you is Jonathan Pollard remains in prison.”

The move is intended as an appeal to Netanyahu’s right wing coalition which grew increasingly irritated at Netanyahu during this year’s peace talks for his willingness to consider a settlement freeze. Tensions within the right wing between Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas have also fomented over the progression of the Rotem bill, which would certify the validity of all conversions to Judaism conducted by the IDF.

But despite coalition troubles, Netanyahu’s decision is a mistake. Freeing Pollard would not be enough to save a long-term coalition which has begun to fray. It will exacerbate the already sub-optimal relationship between Israel and the United States, and it puts American Jews in an unfairly difficult position.

Given the prominence of Wikileaks, the US Government is unlikely to free a convicted spy in a move that would be widely criticized as a double standard between Pollard and Julian Assange. Additionally, even if Netanyahu were to secure Pollard’s release, passage of a bill diluting the power of the Orthodox rabbinical establishment is a cost which Pollard's release simply does not cover.

Here in Washington, some policymakers see requests by Netanyahu for a favor after this year's settlement freeze fiasco as the height of chutzpah. The Obama was unlikely to grant Pollard’s release even as part of a final status agreement. It’s even less likely to happen as a favor to an intransigent Netanyahu government which publicly embarrassed the Obama administration and the US Government.

Finally, the move will cause bifurcation in the American Jewish community between those who support Pollard’s release and those who oppose it. Dual loyalty questions are the bane of the American Jewish establishment, and any debate over the Pollard issue is likely to be nasty. Netanyahu is needlessly putting American Jews and the organizations that represent them in a position which pits their identity as Jews against loyalty to their country. Given contemporary Jewish identity in the US, this move is not likely to win Netanyahu friends among the vast majority of Jews who will perceive Pollard’s actions for what they were, espionage and treason against the United States.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hasbara Case Study: The Middle East Channel Blame Game

Today, Maen Rashid Areikat, Chief Representative of the PLO to the United States, penned a response to Moshe Yaalon’s article on the Middle East Channel of Foreign While faulty policies are at the core of Israel’s public relations woes, the two articles are an excellent case study in the failures of Israeli rhetoric and public relations. The Foreign Policy readership is highly mobilized, educated, and invested in world affairs. A side by side comparison of three components of the articles illustrates the extent to which Areikat understands this, and Yaalon does not.

(All emphasis added for effect)

1) Title

Yaalon: The Palestinians are the Real Obstacle to Peace
Areikat: Palestinians Must be Free

The pro-Israel headline is against “The Palestinians" with a capital T, and plays the blame card from the start. The Palestinian headline personalizes the Palestinians and is in support of them and their freedom, a universally positive word.

2) Opening Blows:
Yaalon: “Unfortunately, what stands between the Palestinians and eventual statehood is their insincerity when it comes to real peace. Israel has repeatedly proposed the independence that the Palestinians ostensibly desire.”

Areikat: “Ya'alon's inflammatory rhetoric is designed to disguise the simple truth that the conflict between Israel and the Arab and Muslim worlds is the result of Israel's occupation of Palestinian and Arab territory, and the subsequent denial of equality and liberty to the people of our region.”

Many readers likely perceived Yaalon's claim of “insincerity” both vague and ironic coming from a country which has stalled on freezing settlements despite clear incentives to do so. Areikat frames the issue as a land conflict and a tangible policy problem. Areikat also links the problem to “denial of equality and liberty,” values which strongly mobilize American policy audiences. Throughout his piece, Areikat shows clear understanding of his audience, noting that discourse on negotiations “can make even a policy wonk yawn” in an attempt to connect.

3) Solutions:
Yaalon: “And all Palestinians must come to terms, once and for all, with the fact that the Jewish people will continue to exercise their historical right to sovereignty in their homeland, a sovereignty that guarantees equal rights for all of Israel's citizens.”

Areikat: “To achieve our aims, we are entitled to resort to all peaceful, nonviolent, and legal means. This includes, but is not limited to, taking our case to the United Nations and other international forums, calling on other countries to recognize a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, and working with the international community to realize Palestinian national rights of self-determination and statehood.”

Yaalon’s recommendation is the policy version of “deal with it.” Areikat addresses the insincerity argument head on by using language like “nonviolent” and “legal,” and emphasizing a commitment to the “United Nations and other international forums” and the “international community” to gain “self-determination” and “statehood.” The extent to which this has actually been the Palestinian strategy historically is a matter of debate to say the least. But Areikat understands that these buzz words are what sway American policy audiences.

For Israel to catch up, it must embody the rhetoric of human rights. Here is a reworking of each section as an example:

Old title: The Palestinians are the Real Obstacle to Peace
New Title: We Must not Allow Those who Oppose Peace to Prevent It

Old attack: ““Unfortunately, what stands between the Palestinians and eventual statehood is their insincerity when it comes to real peace. Israel has repeatedly proposed the independence that the Palestinians ostensibly desire.”

New attack: “Unfortunately, some radical ideologues with whom Israel negotiates seem to be ambivalent about the value of peace. We on the Israeli side do not share this ambivalence. We cannot afford to do so when the rights and freedoms of our people are at stake. We must move past our differences with the Palestinians to find a solution based on mutual respect and common ground.”

Old recommendation: ““And all Palestinians must come to terms, once and for all, with the fact that the Jewish people will continue to exercise their historical right to sovereignty in their homeland, a sovereignty that guarantees equal rights for all of Israel's citizens.”

New recommendation: “We call on our Palestinian brothers and sisters to work with us to guarantee equality and freedom for all citizens whose lives have been touched by this conflict. Noone understands better than the Israelis the struggle for national recognition, sovereignty, and self-determination. Together, we can make our mutual hopes and dreams a reality.

Note that while the new versions are certainly more pie-in-the-sky, they make essentially the same argument as the old versions. To be sure, they are less representative of what Israeli government officials may say behind closed doors. But public relations is less about swaying opinions and more about placing oneself squarely within the beliefs of that community of opinion. Reclaiming the rhetoric of human rights, rather than sticking to old themes of Palestinian intransigence, will serve Israel much better in the long run as it attempts to navigate the murky public relations world in support of its vital interests.

New Human Rights Watch Report on Israel

The new report can be found here. Not surprisingly, the report argues that Israel's practices in Area C (granted to Israeli civil and military control under Oslo accords) are discriminatory to Palestinians. Given the generally high visibility of this issue already, it's not clear what the value-added of the report is, but it's likely to spur a few editorials here and there.

UPDATE: The report contains an appendix of correspondence between HRW and the Mekorot water company. While the report contains all 10 pages of questions sent to Mekorot, and the Israeli government, Mekorot's response is not translated. It reads:

Re: Data for the Human Rights Watch Report

Your request was received by the Mekorot water company and referred for consideration to the appropriate professionals for response where possible.

Sara Chaklai
Director, Reception Services

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Yaalon Gives Up, Blames Palestinians

Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon's piece today on the Middle East Channel rehashes the traditional Israeli narrative that the lack of Middle East peace is the Palestinians' fault. Peace is not possible, he woefully explains, because the Palestinians reject peace, compromise, and Israel's right to exist. Yaalon reminds the reader that "Israel remains committed to the cause of peace," and generously peppers his prose with "sadly" and "unfortunately" to demonstrate the sincerity of his position.

I need not reiterate, for the thousandth time, why Yaalon's piece will fall on the deaf ears of a Washington policy community which is frustrated by the intransigence of Israel on settlements, and its willingness to compromise the US-Israel relationship. For supporters of Israel and its security, there ought to be a deeper concern with this article.

In writing this piece, Yaalon has handed over the reigns of Israeli policy to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. If the current Israel administration cannot make peace because of the Palestinians, the Palestinians are being allowed to shape the fate of Israel, meaning that Netanyahu, Yaalon, and their colleagues have become truly ineffective. Peace is an Israeli strategic interest. If Yaalon's article is describing how Palestinians determine whether Israel achieves this interest, he is describing the complete failure of the current Israeli administration to provide for that which its citizens require and deserve. To be sure, the points he makes about Palestinian intransigence are valid ones. But Israel didn't throw its hands up in defeat when it was invaded by six countries simultaneously in 1948. It didn't throw its hands up in defeat when it was invaded on Yom Kippur. To give up because the Palestinians play hard ball would be inconsistent with Israel's past of proactive, fierce defense of its interests. Israel prides itself on never letting others determine its future. Yaalon's article is inviting them to do exactly that.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Smoke Clears Between Israel and Turkey

Israel and Turkey began to mend their frayed ties today with an Israeli commitment to compensate the families of nine Turkish nationals killed in the Mavi Marmara raid this past May. Israel has also agreed to issue an apology, though the use of the word "apologizes" versus "regrets" has been the source of lingering disagreement.

Given the opportunity afforded by Turkey's aid to Israel in last week's Carmel fire, both sides have taken the first available opportunity to repair ties. Contrary to reports that Turkey has "gone over to the dark side" in its relations with Iran and Syria, Turkey's project of becoming a regional mediator between Israel, Iran, and the Arabs appears to be on track.* Based on an ambitious strategy of "Zero Problems" on Turkey's borders, the ruling AKP party in the country seeks to strengthen Turkish hegemony in the Middle East by settling historic differences and building ties throughout the region. This strategy requires advocating for Arab interests and engaging in strategic competition with Iran while simultaneously maintaining cooperation with Israel. Given the immense damage done by the Mavi Marmara issue to Israel-Turkey relations, Turkey's highly visible show of support to Israel during last week's fires is a clear signal of intention to begin the process of mending ties.

One lingering question is how Israeli government compensation to Turkey will affect Prime Minister Netanyahu's political coalition. While perhaps Netanyahu can point to the failure of US pressure towards a settlement freeze, his coalition with the conservative Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties have continued to fray. Reaching out to Turkey is not likely to slow this decline. However, given the uncertain state of the peace process, and the general support of Israelis for a strong Israel-Turkey relationship (in principle), mending differences with Ankara is a move whose benefits outweigh its costs.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

List of Countries Aiding Israel in the Carmel Fire

Haaretz reports that the Carmel Fire which has killed at least 40 people has now been contained. The response of the international community to this tragedy has been both heartening and fascinating. Israel received help from the following countries:

The list is a heartening reminder that in the wake of tragedy, inter-dependence can be the difference between unspeakable disaster and a state which can slowly begin to rebuild from the charred ashes and the terrible loss of life.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hamas Recognizes Israel - Again

For at least the third time, the senior leader of Hamas in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, has said that Hamas would recognize a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines. Verbatim the quote is:

"We accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the resolution of the issue of refugees."

And for at least the third time: This is a tacit recognition of the State of Israel. The 1967 line is not a one-sided border. There's someone on the other side. The recognition is not explicit, but it's enough. Haniyeh is making this statement in an attempt to make Hamas look moderate.* He knows Israel is not going to call him on it.

Israel needs to call him on it. Yes Hamas is being cynical. Yes Hamas is being manipulative. But Israel has ground to gain by holding Hamas to these words and pushing it to play a positive role in negotiations. Best case (and unlikely) scenario would be that Hamas negotiates these issues. Worst case scenario is that Hamas looks weak and flip-floppy, and unable to advance the interests of Palestinians. Either way Israel's security stands to gain.

*Hamas has justified its rocket attacks on Israel since 2005 based on "acts of aggression" by Israel, rather than on wanting to eliminate Israel altogether. Possible future blog post/paper/dissertation on this topic. But it links to the idea that Hamas tacitly recognizes Israel.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Bibi: The Unraveling (With Regrets to Thomas Ricks)

In between the flood of reports on Wikileaks, JPost reports today that several Likud MKs are pushing to oust Prime Minister Netanyahu over the settlement issue, saying that he was driving the party to "adopt the position of Meretz," a far-left wing party.

This news should be extremely concerning for the Prime Minister. MK Danny Danon and MK Tzipi Hotovely are far right to be sure, but they don't come close to the radicalism of Lieberman or Shas. Both are young, energetic, eloquent MKS respected by a large plurality of Israeli voters and enjoy relations with American political figures. This plurality may not be the median voter but it certainly is the party base. This move isolates Netanyahu from those who elected him, and weakens his control of the Knesset.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Burston is (Mostly) Right

Bradley Burston's editorial in Haaretz today is worth a read. Burston is his typical thought-provoking self, drawing a distinction between the traditional "Jews of the Wall" and the more progressive "Jews of the Gate." Burston concludes:

"It's time for the Federations to come clean - they are, to a great degree, Jews of the Gate as well. Next year, at the GA, it will be time to invite anti-occupation people into the tent. Until now, they've never been able to bring themselves to say the word. They can't bring themselves to name the disease. But BDS is a symptom. Flotillas are a symptom. Emotional divestment from Israel is a symptom.

Occupation is the disease."

To some extent I would urge caution about Burston's statement that "when you consider it, it's in the direct interest of pro-settlement and right-leaning forces in the U.S. Jewish community to have a government which alienates and repels as many young, energetic, moderate American Jews as possible." I'm not convinced this is entirely the truth, and it sounds like Burston is implying intentionality. Firstly, a moderate case could be made for settlements, and the pro-Settlement movement would benefit from this voice. To argue, for example, that removing every settlement would be a huge pragmatic challenge would have far more salience than invoking 1967.

And I'm also not convinced that traditional supporters of Israel are purposefully alienating young Jews. Burston isn't saying this directly, but its an implication of his comment above. A more likely possibility is that traditional supporters of Israel want to have their cake and eat it too. They want young people to be engaged in Israel, but also want them to adopt the same positions as Israel supporters who were their age in the 1970's. The issue is less that the traditional right is purposefully alienating young moderates as that it is just out of touch. They don't understand that the young generation has a serious moral crisis of faith regarding occupation. And their ideology of unity around a common cause resonates poorly with the iPod generation with its focus on individuality.

Burston's assertion is correct, though, that the "new generation" of Israel supporters is very much in touch with the fundamentals of humanistic values, values which are shared by the majority of the Western world. The ironic element seems to be that not only is the "Generation of the Gate" not an enemy of the "Generation of the Wall," but the most necessary friend. The pro-Israel movement needs moderates who can adopt thoughtful views that don't ignore the realities recognized by the international community. They need people who can wrestle with Israel as well as hugging it. They need people who can support Israel's core liberal and Jewish values, even at the expense of supporting some of its policies.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ghajar Withdrawal a WIN for Israel

Today, Israel's cabinet approved a plan to withdraw from the Lebanese town of Ghajar, on the Israel-Lebanon border. Despite some skepticism from the Arab street, and the town's residents themselves, the move is a good one, and is likely to improve both Israeli and regional security.

Firstly, withdrawal from Ghajar is a quiet but significant overture to the United States, which has been slowly ramping up its relations with Lebanon since the 2nd Bush administration. The move, in fact, is seen by some as a move by Israel to try to take US pressure off of Israel in the wake of this week's intense settlement freeze negotiations. Regardless of the motivation, the US (and the UN as well) view the withdrawal positively, which strengthens the US-Israel relationship, and gives Israel some maneuvering room with the US in peace negotiations.

Secondly, the withdrawal undercuts Hizbullah, though it does not undermine it. Hizbullah was founded as a movement which violently resisted Israeli occupation. By withdrawing now, Israel demonstrates that Hizbullah has nothing to do with its withdrawal plans. It also undercuts Hizbullah just as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is about to release an indictment which Hizbullah has threatened to violently oppose. While Hizbullah has already begun to shift its focus to "national resistance," the Ghajar withdrawal nonetheless chips away at Hizbullah's legitimacy in opposing the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. This will somewhat mitigate their ability to violently respond to the STL indictment. It won't be the straw that breaks the camel's back, but it does tighten the scews a bit on the organization.

Most importantly, the Ghajar withdrawal is a case in which Israel is actively reevaluating the status quo to improve its security. There are many areas in the security sector in which Israel would benefit from this process, and the withdrawal from Ghajar is another example of the IDF acting pragmatically to increase Israeli security. The IDF and Israeli government have wisely realized that the costs of occupying Ghajar outweigh the benefits, and have acted accordingly. Institutionalizing this kind of evaluation is one of the most important steps Israel can take to ensure its continued long-term security, regional stability, and strong relationship with the international community and the United States.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

NYT Editorial Slams Netanyahu

The New York Times called out Prime Minister Netanyahu in an editorial today for being more committed to a coalition than to peace, and called on Bibi to get moving on the settlement freeze. Most likely, it's not the end to a week in the US that Bibi was hoping for.

In light of both the editorial and this week's GA conference in New Orleans, it is interesting to note the difference in US response between Bibi's visit to the US this time, and his visit during the AIPAC conference in March 2010. In March, Bibi was able to undercut President Obama's calls for a settlement freeze by playing to his traditional base. In this case, the tactic appears to have somewhat backfired.

The key difference between the two is the start of the peace process. In March, President Obama's push for a unilateral freeze was viewed as a shift in the US-Israel relationship. This time, Bibi's comments are being perceived within the context of peace negotiations. The US-Israel relationship is about interests and power relations. The peace process is much more about people. The Israeli government is being asked to put its money where its mouth is, and is being universally understood as dragging its feet in the process.

Given that President Obama spent the week in Asia and spoke about Israel only in response to Netanyahu's statements, the week is not a "win" for Obama per se. But it is definitely a loss for both Netanyahu and the peace process. The way he reacts back in Jerusalem will be critical for determining both the future of his coalition and the peace process.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tread Lightly, Bibi

Speculation that the US government was toning down rhetoric in preparation for midterm elections appears to be validated after statements from Defense Secretary Gates, State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley, and the President himself about Israel in the past two days. The US government appears to be in a game of rhetorical hot-potato with Prime Minister Netanyahu who is at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly meeting in New Orleans. The US has responded to Netanyahu's support for a military strike on Iran, and the refusal of his government to freeze settlements.

Washington appears irked at Netanyahu's intransigence, and his flouting of it on US soil. President Obama is in Indonesia which has the largest Muslim population in the world. Eyes are on the US to see how it will move the peace process forward, and Netanyahu's comments only serve to highlight failure in this regard.

Netanyahu is taking advantage of the opportunity to build support in the US. However, he needs to be careful. The US currently has a lame-duck Congress and a President who has not yet begin his reelection campaign in full swing. This means that the pressure is doubly relaxed on President Obama. Secretary Gates has already announced his retirement, and Secretary Clinton has been in Australia, far away from the State Department Briefing Room at Foggy Bottom. The aggregate effect is that Netanyahu is operating in an environment in which the cost of a US response is lower than usual.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Israeli Security 101: Don't Bulldoze a Mosque

Last night, the Israeli Police demolished a mosque in the Bedouin city of Rahat, claiming that it was built illegally and funded by the northern branch of the Islamic Movement. The demolition caused rioting in the town of 52,000 people, to which police responded with tear gas. Five individuals were arrested (likely for throwing stones) and a general strike has been called today for Rahat.

The northern branch of the Islamic movement in Israel is well known for being anti-Israel, and its position on the use of violence has been ambiguous at best. Its leader, Sheikh Raed Saleh, was arrested last year for incitement. Like many radical Islamic movements, it works on a system of "dawa," giving funds for mosques, and scholarships for Israeli Arabs to attend Muslim religious school. The social and economic vulnerability of the Bedouin allows the Islamic movement to move in and provide these basic goods, services, and funding in lieu of the government doing so. This aid then buys the Movement tacit consent for its more radical activities.

The logical response to this situation would be for Israel to improve the socio-economic condition of the Bedouin by providing better housing, jobs, and development in their communities. This policy would a) wedge out the Islamic movement b) decrease their ability to incite violence, and c) demonstrate the salience for Bedouin of legitimate means of nonviolent political protest like litigation or lobbying.

Israel's response last night, in contrast, was to destroy a house of worship under cover of darkness. It used the justification of legality to circumvent the considerations of security which Israeli citizens, Arab and Jewish alike, expect from their government. Most importantly, the government demonstrated its ongoing lack of communication between its political and security sectors. The Israeli police, and the Israel Land Authority (ILA) are not considering the long-term security risks which the policy of demolition entails. It's not their fault per se for not doing so, but in Israel, domestic and foreign security are intimately intertwined. The government needs to better integrate the ILA and the Israeli police into its overall security strategy.

It is completely legitimate for a state to want to enforce the law. But destroying illegal construction in Rahat while ignoring it in the West Bank is the height of hypocrisy which the anti-Israel crowd will be sure to point out. More importantly, it places the technicality of the law over the pragmatic considerations of security. In the future, Israel must be careful to weigh whether an action being legal makes it the best course of action. Last night's riot shows that the government has a ways to go in successfully making this assessment.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Israeli PR in JPost

I was excited to read this op-ed in JPost but finished it a bit disappointed. The author is right that indifference to PR is a detriment to Israeli security, but I wish he had gone further to explain why PR is bad in the first place, and weigh whether or not PR being a security issue mandates policy changes. Still, the piece is certainly worth a read.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Israeli Election Coverage Roundup


In Message to Obama, Americans oust Democrats from the House of Representatives (Haaretz)

US Midterms: AIPAC Lauds re-election of pro-Israel Stalwarts (Haaretz)

Obama Will Have a Harder Time Brokering Mideast Peace Deal (Jerusalem Post)

Political Earthquake in US (Ynet News Opinion)


Midterm Elections in the US: The Republicans take the Majority in the House of Representatives (Haaretz)

"It's clear who won tonight: The American People" (Haaretz)

Midterm Elections in the US: The Republicans Have Already Removed Obama From the White House (Peter Baker, NYT, translated into Hebrew)

Democratic Leader in the Senate: This Isn't the End of the Fight (Maariv)

The Nation Says its Piece, Obama Simply Doesn't Listen (YNet News Opinion)

Analysis: The headlines and stories indicate a sense in the Israeli media that last night's election results were a swipe specifically at Obama (although Haaretz is carrying the Reuters story, not its own). The press sees the results as constraining Obama's ability to deal with Israel, and to broker a peace deal. The Hebrew articles reveal a somewhat anti-Obama sentiment from the more conservative outlets, and all the articles find the elections of great importance.

Assessment: Despite what headlines the press will run to get readership, the midterms are not likely to have a significant effect on Middle East Peace or the US Israel relationship. Support for Israel remains a bipartisan issue, and pressure for a settlement freeze and talks are initiatives from the executive, not legislative branch. If Obama is constrained by the next Congress, it will not be significantly more than he has been constrained by this one.

Monday, November 1, 2010

UN Settlement Freeze? Not Likely.

Egypt is the latest state to join in an Arab initiative at the UN to force Israel to freeze settlements as the first step towards a Palestinian State.

The initiative's chances of success are slim to none. Any initiative would likely be vetoed by the United States under the rationale of supporting a "negotiated solution between the two parties." But the real rationale appears to be twofold.

Firstly, the move is a way for Egypt to continue to play a key mediating role in the conflict. In this regard the tactic is likely to be relatively successful (certainly more so than photoshopping President Mubarak). By staying in the news cycle, Egypt is raising its importance as a key regional player not only in the eyes of the parties, but in the eyes of the Arab world, the international community, and the United States.

Secondly, the move appears to be a pressure tactic to keep Israel at the bargaining table. Even so, it's unlikely that the threat of a UN mandated freeze will make a difference for Israel, who is not the biggest fan of the United Nations (and in some ways rightly so).

Overall, the tactic will likely be beneficial for Egypt, but not particularly influential over the peace process.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rice Stands up for Lebanon

UN Ambassador Susan Rice today lambasted Syria for its flagrant disregard for Lebanese sovereignty. Ambassador Rice's comments come at a critical time for Lebanon, whose tensions over the expected indictment by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon have it bursting at the seams.

Breaking down the motivation for Rice's statement is a complex task in the wake of Syrian comments disparaging the peace process, the upcoming midterm elections, and Hezbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah's speech earlier today. Support for the tribunal is a key component of holding Syria and Hezbullah accountable. However, US support would delegitimize the Tribunal's indictment by allowing those accused to claim the indictment is a US/Israel conspiracy.

It appears that Rice is pointing out the Syrian violation of Lebanese sovereignty to demonstrate the US' commitment to Lebanon and the Special Tribunal, and to cleave between Hezbullah and its nationalistic rhetoric. Criticizing Hezbullah alone would be a gift to Nasrallah. By taking the more regional focus and supporting Lebanese sovereignty, Rice is achieving all three US policy objectives.

Given that Rice is known here in Washington as a team player, and holds a position which President Obama raised to cabinet-level, the move is likely a deliberate play on the part of the Obama administration. Obama's outreach to Lebanon has been slightly less than that of President Bush, but present nonetheless. Maintaining the stability of Lebanon is certainly an administration priority in the Middle East. This priority is raised by the now crippled Middle East peace talks. And regional inflammation will draw attention away from the talks and heighten the rhetoric of radical actors.

The move today is not likely to have significant ripple effects, but will likely be an effective component of a slow, steady US strategy of support for Lebanese stability but also the progression of the Special Tribunal.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Citizenship: The Shin Bet's Latest Weapon

The Israeli Shin Bet lent its support today to revoking the citizenship of Israelis convicted of loyalty-related crimes. Shas MK Eli Yishai, who proposed the policy, claims it would act as a deterrent to would-be traitors.

So the idea is that the best way to mitigate the negative effects of to isolate.

Not to mention that this is the same party pushing for a loyalty oath on the grounds of preserving "democracy." Evidently, it's democratic to impose ideas on minorities by signed oath, but not democratic to preserve the rights of radical fringe groups. To be sure, many of these groups tacitly profess violent action against the State of Israel. But even those who seek to destroy states are given protection in liberal democratic societies.

Perhaps more importantly, the definition of a "loyalty-related offense" is a discussion usually had in reference to authoritarian regimes like Syria, not a liberal democratic state like Israel. Is protesting a government policy a loyalty-related offense? Is supporting Arab candidates for office a loyalty-related offense? Jews tend to have a bad track record in societies who believe in defining the opposition out of citizenship. It's concerning that an Israeli MK would make such an Orwellian proposal.

Of course, the Israeli right is the Israeli right, and it says what it says. The Shin Bet, however, cannot afford to be ideological. When the lives of innocent people are at stake, there is little time for a state to indulge in the ideological delusions of radical partisans. Yet in supporting this policy, that is precisely what the Shin Bet is doing.

The most effective way to deter would-be terrorists or traitors to the state is to give them a sense of self-identity within Israeli society. Mainstreaming minority communities gives them a reason not to reject the establishment in a way that leads to terrorism. It gives them a stake in the well-being of the state, and an incentive to use political, rather than violent, action.

The Israeli police have already recognized the importance of creating this trust between minority communities and the state. Their understanding needs to be pervasive throughout the Israeli security establishment in order for the state to achieve true sustainable security.

Paul the Octopus

Paul the Octopus, who predicted the World Cup winners, has died at the age of 2 1/2. Paul was widely known in Iraq. In a classic twist of Arab humor, many Iraqi journalists jokingly suggested that Paul be brought in to help choose the new Iraqi government.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Human Rights Narrative

Today, Lebanese PM Sa'ad Hariri condemned Israel's proposed loyalty oath as "racist" and said it would hurt chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

First of all, the least qualified state on Earth to lecture about antagonism between ethnic groups is Lebanon, a state which has fought multiple civil wars between different ethnic factions. Secondly, the statement has nothing to do with Israel, and instead is a move designed to undercut President Ahmedinejad's visit to Lebanon last week in which he attempted to project Iranian power in Lebanon by himself bashing Israel.

Yet few, if any, media outlets are likely to point any of this out. And it's not because of anti-Israel bias.

Rather, Arab states like Lebanon have grasped a critical PR concept which Israel has not. Arab states have successfully mastered the human rights narrative. By couching rhetoric in these terms, these states are successfully able to mount a verbal attack on Israel in a way that resonates not only with their target audience but the international community as well. Regardless of whether this is fair, it is the reality. And Israel must respond in kind by demonstrating an improved mastery of the human rights narrative. Israel's current rhetoric is that of "self-defense," a rhetoric which in the current era is seen as a cynical manipulation of facts regardless of who does it. To be more successful at fending off PR attacks, Israel should grasp the narrative of human rights, which will more successfully advance its policy goals in the international community.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bibi Begins to Tilt

UPDATE: Senior Labor MK threatens to withdraw from coalition unless peace talks resume by the end of the year.

Original Post:

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu requested that Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman revise the loyalty oath proposed for new immigrants to Israel to apply to Jews as well as non-Jews, likely the result of pressure from the American Jewish establishment and a less-than-impressed State Department.

The shift is a latest in a series of last-minute attempts by the Prime Minister to keep all his ducks in a row, so to speak. Balancing between the US, the Palestinians, and the far right has been an act which until now, Netanyahu has been handling with finesse. The past week indicates this may be about to change. Bibi is starting to tilt.

The first sign is the lack of decisive action on a settlement freeze. A Bibi of a year ago would either have called a settlement freeze while continuing building on the side, or called off a settlement freeze while effectively freezing anyway.* Bibi of today is continuing to stall, drawing the ire of the Palestinians and testing the patience of the State Department.

The second sign is Netanyahu's original support for the Loyalty Bill without reciprocation to another party. An earlier post raised the question of whether Netanyahu's support was part of a larger deal in which he would appease the far right in order to pacify them in the wake of a settlement freeze. This appears (so far) to not have been the case. Rather, Bibi is supporting the loyalty oath to keep Lieberman happy...and for no other overt reason.

The final sign is today's switch from supporting the loyalty oath in its far right-friendly form, to form which would include both Jews and non-Jews. This quick turnaround may be deliberate, but appears to be more likely a response to reaction from parties other than Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas.

Bibi is no longer playing the long game, waiting out Obama's settlement request until it lacked political salience, and stalling peace talks. He appears to be in a much more vulnerable position, reacting to the weekly fluctuations of Israeli politics, an inevitable consequence of the Israeli political system.

In short, Netanyahu is weakening. In seeking to stay power, he has sacrificed the ability to advocate his agenda. The tyranny of coalition politics and multiple divergent actors has begun to take its toll. This is hardly Netanyahu's fault, and his political run remains an amazing example of coalition balancing, one which politicians and academics should closely scrutinize for its lessons. Yet PM Netanyahu is demonstrating an inability to execute. His premiership has a way to go, but the clock has begun to tick.

*Credit for this elegant bifurcation goes to a source speaking off-the-record.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Morning Read

This article on American Jewry from Haaretz, by an Israeli lecturer at Tel Aviv University, sums up the major issues in US-Israel relations. It's pretty non-controversial but gives an excellent sense of the field right now.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

J Street Op Ed Nails it on Youth Engagement

"For our sake, and for Israel's, there must be a change in how our community discusses these issues...When you shut the door to questions and constructive debate, you effectively shut the door to young people."

Full editorial here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bibi WIN

Bibi makes a brilliant move this afternoon on a settlement freeze. The Palestinians can't accept it, and the US can't call him on it. Checkmate once again.

Dear Danny

Dear Danny Ayalon,

Thanks for your enlightening Op-ed in the Jerusalem Post this morning. You've put all my fears about the loyalty oath bill to rest.

Your point that the oath is just like the American Pledge of Allegiance is spot on, and I'm glad to see that Yisrael Beiteinu is advocating the nuanced notions of citizenship of America in 1954. And I suppose the equivalence of "To the republic for which is stands" and "the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state" is obvious because standing for something and being something are clearly identical.

And thanks for your heartfelt warning at the end of the op-ed: "Those who disparage clearly describing Israel as the eternal aspiration of the Jewish people provide ample ammunition to those who seek the end of our national existence." Because nothing says Jewish and Democratic like accusations of treason for holding a different point of view.

Thanks for writing an op-ed which cuts to the chase, not once mentioning Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, or Christians. Omission is a strategy which has well served the cause of Zionism in the past. And thanks for naming names when you accuse three Arab members of parliament of wanting to undermine Israel's national existence. Especially considering the number of Israeli Arabs who express faith in the parliament in the first place, its important that we further alienate the few non-Jews in Israel who still bother trying to effect equality through democratic means.

Most importantly, I'm glad you and Avigdor Lieberman have been so proactive about correcting this long-standing problem in Israel's citizenship law. What more effective way to promote Israel's position as the Jewish democratic state than to force new immigrants to just say its the case. Saying something makes it true, especially for you and your friends, Danny Ayalon. Could you also just makes sure to say that Israel is secure? Considering the damage this bill does to Israeli national security we'll just need to take care of that side of things too. And could you say Hamas is defeated too please? Those kids in Sderot could really use a good night's sleep.

There are those who might argue that the best way would be for Israel to embody Jewish values and include non-Jews in the political process. That being a Jewish haven doesn't have to come at the expense of alienating those who are not Jewish. But minority rights are awfully expensive, and I'm glad to see Yisrael Beiteinu is taking a pragmatic and realistic stance on this issue. Cutting corners with cheap political stunts designed to alienate Arabs and weaken PM Netanyahu will mobilize your voter base. And what could be more democratic than that?

The Confused Sheikh
Camel's Nose Blog

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Massive Israel PR WIN

Netanyahu has now personally condemned the video depicting an Israeli soldier belly dancing next to a female Palestinian detainee. This is a strong, unequivocal signal that this incident is not tolerated by the government or representative of Israel. Needless to say, peace talks are putting the squeeze on Netanyahu, making it more likely for him to be outspoken on an easy issue like this one.

Nonetheless, this statement is an example of Israel controlling the narrative and using the media power of the Prime Minister to get Israel's message out in the media space. Kol haKavod, Government of Israel.

On an unrelated note, the Knesset's loyalty oath bill, in which Arabs whose families have lived in the region for centuries would have to refer to Israel as the Jewish homeland, looks likely to pass. Netanyahu offered a softer wording for the oath that all citizens would be required to take, but appears to not have pushed it through. Between this and the settlement stalling, Netanyahu has engaged in significant capitulation to the far right, at the expense of his capital with the American government.

Hypothesis: Netanyahu is softening up the right because he is under significant pressure to approve a new settlement freeze and will eventually do so. Discuss.

UPDATE: Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks this.

Supporters of Terrorism Arrested in Nazareth

Two Israeli Arabs, Sheikh Nazim Abu Salim, and Mohammed Naarani, have been arrested for allegedly lending support to terrorist groups, illegal unionizing, and conspiring to commit crimes.

Since these activities are all illegal it is just that the two were arrested. However, the arrests showcase the importance of working to integrate Israeli-Arabs more deeply into the fabric of Israeli life. The message of isolation which radical sheikhs preach is one which discriminatory Israeli policies bolster rather than falsify. Arresting supporters of terrorism is an important step in ensuring Israeli security, but it must be supplemented with policies which integrate communities in which those who support terrorism live.