Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Legality Isn't the Issue

As tempted as I am to comment on the Dershowitz ambush of J Street's Hadar Suskind at the AIPAC conference yesterday, I'd like to be backhanded about it and instead direct readers to an IDF report about the legality of Operation Cast Lead. The report is very clear about the procedures by which allegations of war crimes or violation of the rules of engagement are investigated by the IDF. The roughy 50-page report also details the status of ongoing investigations.

The article is both sincere and comprehensive, and it leaves little doubt that the IDF is very much committed to the principle of abiding by the laws of armed conflict. If anything, the issue is with getting this information to the press within a few days of the beginning of operations, not a year later. However, the report makes very clear that Israel is not the anti-Palestinian behemoth some on the far left might claim.

Professor Dershowitz's articles and the IDF report both discuss legality as a justification for Israel's actions. No doubt, the legal issue is a critical component of strategic decision-making. But it is just that, one component of many. Consider the example of a state or city's police force entering a mosque with an arrest warrant for a suspected terrorist.

Legally speaking, the police have every authority to enter the mosque. However, doing so will alienate the moderate Muslim members of the mosque from the police. This will harm the police's relationship with the mosque members and degrade their intelligence. It will also lead the members of the mosque to view the police as antagonistic rather than partners in fighting extremism. Both sides lose.

The example illustrates that the legal issue is only one consideration in a strategic decision. The complexities only increase in a combat situation, and tenfold over that with counter-insurgency. Even if using white phosphorous to create a smoke cover in a civilian area is technically legal, that doesn't mean it's necessarily the correct strategic decision considering the circumstances. And that's precisely the issue upon which debate on Israeli military operations should center.

But I guess Israeli members of the Knesset have more important things to do, like calling the British "dogs" for expelling an Israeli diplomat. Passport faking ain't what it used to be...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Some Good News

The past few days of posting have been somewhat depressing, so here's some good news. Israel has decided to forgo the use of flanchettes in favor of a more accurate weapon. The decision is primarily technology-based but at least there's a sense that better precision is a necessary capability of a counter-insurgent force.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Netanyahu Didn't Know

This Haaretz editorial is extremely important, and explains why Israel will react differently to the current diplomatic row with the U.S.

Israeli support for Netanyahu on the settlement issue last year was more an issue of sovereignty than actual strong support for settlements. Israelis didn't appreciate the U.S. interfering in their attempts to counterbalance the Palestinians, and hence support for the U.S. dropped. This time, however, the Israeli government has jeopardized the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is serious business. The Haaretz editorial goes so far as to say it jeopardizes Israeli national security. Most Israelis value the U.S.-Israel relationship far higher than settlements, so the reaction will likely be much stronger on Netanyahu to act. Yet Netanyahu is between a rock and a hard place. He will have to choose between the U.S.-Israel relationship and his right-wing coalition.

While one can never be sure, I doubt Netanyahu was aware of the settlement approval in advance. His reaction Friday was to call European governments about a row with the U.S. This indicates that he is seriously worried about Israel's international standing. Also, Netanyahu is a far more saavy statesman than to do something like approve settlements while the VP is in country. And to do so a week before the AIPAC conference. That the move was so sloppy indicates that the politically seasoned Netanyahu is likely not behind it.

Netanyahu's best play here is to cancel the settlement order (telling Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu that he wil re-instate it once the furor dies down). Then, to request a meeting with President Obama while he is here in Washington to make it clear that this was a unique crisis and not an indication of Israeli foreign policy. He should downplay the deal to cancel the settlement building at the AIPAC conference, telling the crowd that Israel requires the security settlements (allegedly) provide, but that a few houses are not worth the U.S.-Israel relationship. The U.S. probably won't go so far as to force Netanyahu to make Eli Yishai resign, but they will likely try to use diplomatic pressure to fracture Netanyahu's right wing coalition.

Speaking of AIPAC, it will be interesting to see how this poorly-timed diplomatic row plays out. So far, leaders in the U.S. Jewish community seem to be unable to place significant blame on the Israeli government. Now that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama have spoken out on the incident, Abe Foxman of the ADL says State Dept. spokesman P.J. Crowley was harsh in saying that the incident
“undermined trust and confidence in the peace process, and in America’s interests." Yet that's exactly what happened. Furthermore, it happened for no fault of the U.S. government. VP Biden spent American tax dollars to visit Israel for the express purpose of mending the U.S.-Israel relationship, only to be slapped in the face. It is more than fair to say this undermines trust and confidence in America's interests.

Foxman goes on in the article to call on the government to avoid such "pitfalls," as if slapping the Vice President of the United States in the face were a mere "drawback" to U.S.-Israel relations.

However, it is the ZOA that misconstrues the situation even more, saying "
Why is it that the one ally we have in that part of the world [Israel], that we have the right to publicly chastise them? We would not do that with any other friend." Firstly, it was Israel that publicly humiliated the United States, not the other way around. And secondly, in the past 3 years the U.S. has publicly chastised Syria, as well as Egypt, and Saudi Arabia (both U.S. allies in the Middle East). ZOA is dead wrong. This is yet another example of a double standard constructed on ignorance and willful blindness to the facts contradicting the foregone conclusion.

As depressing as the situation is, what ought to give policymakers hope is that in reality, the U.S.-Israel relationship is too important to jeopardize over a diplomatic spat. But a relationship takes two states that respect each other's support rather than demanding it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Double Standard Watch

The attempted swiftboating of peace negotiations by MK Eli Yishai is an act which distances Israel from its single most important strategic ally. Whether on Iran, Syria, or Palestinian peace negotiations, Israel ought to do all it can to secure the support of the United States. Our values are closely aligned and our strategic outlook for the Middle East is largely similar.

Pro-Israel activists like Alan Dershowitz write blog posts about double standards. Professor Dershowitz, as was well documented on this blog, held nothing back at calling South African Jewish Judge Richard Goldstone a traitor to Israel for publishing a report criticizing Israel using shoddy, partial methodology.

So you'd think publicly humiliating the Vice President of the United States, stepping out of the policy lines of your Prime Minister, distancing the entire country from its most important ally, and attempting to undermine peace negotiations on behalf of Israel would meet the same standard.

I'll expect Dersh to write that blog post as soon as bacon is served at the Kotel.

Hypothetical: What would Israel's response be if the U.S. removed sanctions on Iran while PM Netanyahu was in Washington?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

From the Department of Are You Even Serious

VP Joe Biden had the good sense to respond to the news that the Israel Interior Ministry approved 1600 new housing units in northeastern Jerusalem. He said the move "undermines trust," and reacted with a firm but diplomatic press statement. He deserves credit for taking the moral high road in an incident which is something of a diplomatic slap in the face. It's not so much that Interior Minister Eli Yishai and PM Netanyahu are being purposefully antagonistic. They just don't get it.

Does it not occur to the Israeli Minister of the Interior that approving new settlements while the VP of the United States is in the country might be a bad idea? Would the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. have passed the bill on Armenian genocide during a visit by PM Erdogan of Turkey? Ignorance of the approval is absolutely no excuse. The Minister should have been well aware of the activities of his own ministry. This action is yet another faux pas in the current government's total lack of diplomatic sensibility, from Sweden, to Turkey, to Syria, to the J Street delegation. The Vice President of Israel's best ally came to repair a damaged relationship, reiterated the U.S.' support for Israel, and urged progress on Iran. Israel got everything it could have asked for from this trip. And didn't even have the diplomatic sense to wait until after the Vice President had left before approving the housing units. Or better yet, to negotiate over them in the talks with the Palestininians which Israel committed itself to hours before.

It is absolutely heartbreaking to see this kind of arrogance, delusion, and complete lack of competence from the current Israeli leadership. When it comes to foreign policy, this government has consistently been an absolute circus. Their inability to show respect towards the Vice President harms the achievement of Israel's foreign policy objectives. And it prevents the Israeli people from acheiving the strong U.S.-Israel relationship, peace negotiations, and security which they deserve. This spate of events is to the detriment of the honest and well-meaning employees of Israel's ministries, its liberal democratic system, and its people. They all deserve better than this mishegas.

UPDATE: Burston concurs.

Quick Notes From DC

Apologies for the sporadic posting. The past three days have been a flurry of monitoring the developments of Iraqi elections, held this past Sunday (including at a polling station at a hotel in Ballston, not to far outside DC). Thus far it appears Prime Minister Maliki did pretty well with Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia, close behind. But the preliminary results won't be released until tomorrow and they're only with 30% of the vote counted for each province, so hold off any granular analysis until then. One thing to watch out for was that Shia militias attacked Baghdad throughout the day on Sunday. This meant some secular and Sunni people didn't end up voting, and turnout in Baghdad was only 53% versus the expected turnout of around 70%. With the majority of "electoral college" votes, Baghdad is a key province to watch to see what will happen in the country as a whole.

In Israel, Vice President Biden's visit has been a mixed bag. The purpose of the visit is clearly reconciliatory, and while Biden made lots of nice statements, he got a return to meta-talks out of it. Until today of course when Israel decided to go ahead with 1600 more homes in the West Bank and the PA decided that was a dealbreaker. As with all peace talks, be cautiosly optimistic but don't read too much into talking about talking. That being said, Netanyahu has proven his credentials as a hawk and is in a strong position political-capital-wise to broker a peace deal with Palestinians.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

From the (thin) file of Accurate U.N. Assessments

UN official John Holmes describes the situation in Gaza and the negative role played by the Israeli siege on the Gaza strip in a Haaretz article today. Holmes correctly makes the assessment that the siege encourages a smuggling economy and that it doesn't actually exert pressure on the citizens of Gaza because goods are generally available. What it does do, however, is force people to work for either the PA or...Hamas (to get enough money to pay for goods).

This is a classic counter-insurgency failure. By maintaining the siege, Israel is creating a social need which Hamas fills. This in turn creates a dependency on Hamas from Palestinians in Gaza which makes it hard to eliminate irreconcilable elements of Hamas. Israel's siege is cleaving the population and Hamas together rather than cleaving it apart. This is a serious strategic failure. In Iraq, the U.S. was able to cleave the population from insurgent groups by providing them with basic needs and security. Many people for whom the U.S. provided were suspicious, ambivalent, or even antagonistic to the U.S. However, the practical effect of this aid was to expose a critical rift between groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Iraqi population. Targeting violent members of these groups became much easier because the population was a) not assisting them and b) providing intelligence.

So regardless of the moral implications one way or the other, the siege on Gaza is not likely to provide Israel with significant benefits and in reality is likely to harm the Israeli security posture in the long run.

Monday, March 1, 2010


The Israel Ministry of Information has launched a website (masbirim.gov.il) to help Israelis better represent their own country, lauding the country's equal treatment of minorities and democratic ways. In a true demonstration of Israel's openness, some left-wing internet gurus have created a site at masbirim.co.il mocking the government's site and poking fun at its format.

It doesnt take a Hebrew speaker to realize that important dates are left out of the timeline. 2001, for example, when the 2nd Intifada began, does not appear in the timeline. Also it mentions Nobel Prize winners such as Ada Yonat, while conveniently leaving out Professor Yonat's harsh criticism of the current government.

But the most egregious mistake is the assertion that foreign media think Israelis ride around on camels. Even if this is the case, noone is accusing Israel of launching missile strikes from camels. Clearly the Ministry of Information has no quantitative data on which to base its understanding of how the foreign media views Israel. Hint: ignoring the 2nd Intifada is not going to fool them.

Israel needs better hasbara, but this website only displays what centrists have known for years: the Israeli government is painfully out of touch with reality in the foreign media. Compared to sites like arabnews.com (censored by the Saudi government) or the FARS news agency (Iran semi-official news agency), the current site is kind of a joke, and not even Israelis themselves are fooled.