Thursday, September 30, 2010

Freeze Offer Update

David Makovsky at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is claiming Obama has a new offer for Netanyahu which was expressed in a letter sent by the President of the United States to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

In exchange or a 2-month settlement freeze, Obama offered Netanyahu:
1) A guarantee the US wont ask for a longer settlement freeze extension.
2) Vetos at the UN
3) Weapons deliveries
4) Non-objection to leaving IDF forces in the Jordan Valley for a prolonged period.

Haaretz expects Netanyahu to reject the offer. Perhaps that's because UN vetos and weapons deliveries are two benefits the US will provide Israel regardless of their response to this issue. Also, the US would have a very hard time trying to "force" Israel to remove IDF troops from the Jordan Valley. And the far-right wing believes all these offers are things the US should be providing to Israel anyway, which means that it has little appeasement value for Netanyahu.

It's always possible there are other private incentives the US is offering Israel under the table. But on-face, this particular offer does not look particularly promising.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nobody Puts Bibi in a Corner

The settlement freeze has not been renewed, and by direct extension has ended. Netanyahu is stalling for time by expressing optimism about peace talks, but has essentially ended the freeze (Option 1 leaning towards Option 2 for those of you keeping score). At this point, it is questionable whether it is in Netanyahu's interest to call a settlement freeze given that the damage has already being done. Netanyahu is just letting the effects mount gradually rather than hitting Israel all in one blow.

My assessment of Netanyahu's best move being to continue construction slowly while officially "extending" the freeze miscalculated a key factor: The Obama Administration.

I assessed that given the history of the Obama administration's success on settlements, they would likely ease off calls for a settlement freeze. They would either know better than to put Bibi in a corner, or lack the confidence to push for a freeze again, especially just 2 months before midterm elections. Instead, President Obama reiterated the call 3 days before the freeze ended, in front of the entire UN General Assembly. The administration is still pushing a 60-day freeze extension.

In terms of a sustainable peace, a settlement freeze is a reasonable and productive step the Israeli government can take. However, by calling for a freeze without being able to enforce the demand, Obama fosters Palestinian maximalism while giving Netanyahu the option of closing ranks with his right wing base. The call is fine, but without placing a cost for non-compliance on it, its only a paper moon. Additionally, linking a freeze to the peace talks was an overly risky move considering that there was clearly greater than a 50% chance the freeze would not be renewed. This strategic error now jeopardizes the talks.

And Obama is still taking blame for pushing Israel too hard. He incurs all the costs with little benefit.

From here, the administration should reiterate commitment to the peace process. This will cut their losses with Netanyahu who is already reiterating commitment, and force the Palestinians to either continue with the process or risk alienating the United States. It's impossible to see this ending in a way that makes the Palestinians happy, but perhaps this is the option that will make them the least aggravated about what they'll perceive to be US capitulation to Israel.

And Bibi emerges as a brilliant strategist whose political savvy was underestimated. Again.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

BREAKING: IDF Intercepts "Jewish Boat to Gaza"

Haaretz and JPost report that at 11:30 Israel time (5:30am EDT), IDF Navy commandos boarded a small boat carrying activists from "American Jews for a Just Peace" and "European Jews for a Just Peace." The boat was taken over peacefully and there are no known casualties at present among either the activists (who were unarmed) or the IDF commandos.

The size of the boats and the intentions of the activists aboard them make this situation very different from the Mavi Marmara raid earlier this year. But the fact that the IDF waited until the boat had actually violated the blockade represents a shift in strategy from the Mavi Marmara. The IDF also carried out the raid in daylight, rather than in the early morning darkness.

To some extent the fact that this was a small lone boat gave the IDF more tactical flexibility then they had with an entire flotilla of ships. At the same time, this flexibility will be key to maintaining the advantage both militarily and politically as the flotillas continue.

Likely effects on the peace talks: None.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Livni Sets Up

Haaretz quotes Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni as saying to Netanyahu in a phone call, "You must make the necessary decisions to continue peace talks, and Kadima will back every decision you make which will achieve this goal."

From Livni's perspective this is a win-win situation. If Netanyahu capitulates, she could be seen both as supporting peace and as a likely coalition partner for Netanyahu in a unity government. Her statement is essentially a statement of intention to ally with Netanyahu in the event of a coalition breakdown. If the peace talks fail, Livni has the grounds to say she would have gone further for peace than Netanyahu (though its not clear she would actually make this claim in reality).

From Netanyahu's perspective, Livni's statement gives him more leverage with the far right. The specter of Likud breaking the coalition with right wing parties like Yisrael Beiteinu has always been a possibility, but this brings the possibility to the forefront. Netanyahu is unlikely to break ranks with the far right in the short-term, but he can use this statement to mitigate some of the damage a freeze extension would wreak on his coalition. He can leverage the threat of abandonment against threats from the right wing to cause a ruckus or break with Netanyahu.

For the United States, Livni's statements can be spun to indicate Israeli support for peace negotiations. The US can also use the statement to nudge Netanyahu to renew the settlement freeze (de facto or de jure).

Overall, Livni's statement is a positive development for the peace process because it injects stability into the calculus Netanyahu must make. And it strengthens the case that Netanyahu's best strategic option is a partial renewal of the settlement freeze.

*Discussion question: Did the US have a role, directly or indirectly in pushing Livni to make her statement?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Settlement Update

So far Netanyahu appears to be leaning towards option number 1 (see below). He clearly is not gung-ho about ending the freeze but also is being realistic that the state cannot forcibly prevent the settler demonstrations planned for today (especially considering members of his government are participating in them).

It will be interesting to see how the Israeli public responds to the settlement demonstrations. While the public is somewhat indifferent about settlements they are certainly not indifferent about a realistic chance for peace.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

To Freeze or Not to Freeze

With the settlement freeze due to expire tomorrow, negotiations have been ramping up to keep the current peace talks on track. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu faces one of the most important decisions he will ever make as Prime Minister. And there can be little doubt that the course of peace itself is at stake.

Outside actors have essentially forced Israel's hand. President Obama called for a settlement freeze extension in his speech at the UN this week. Palestinian President Abbas has said that he will walk out of talks unless the freeze is extended. There can be little doubt on the positions of the two leaders, nor who will be blamed if a refusal to extend the freeze causes talks to fail.

Netanyahu's options are limited. On the one hand, if he extends the freeze he will face opposition at home. On the other hand, if he ends the freeze, he will face consequences from the United States and international community, and will take a legacy of failing to secure peace because of what the Israeli right seems to agree is a largely trivial issue.

Given the circumstances, Netanyahu can:

1) Stall for time. He can talk about the freeze as a matter of ongoing negotiation. Building has occurred in settlements during the freeze, and activists plan to build regardless of the policy of the Israeli state. Netanyahu proved he can win the "long game" by fending off President Obama last year. He could conceivably do it again.

2) End the freeze. This would appease the right and secure Netanyahu's base for a little while longer. It would demonstrate that Israel will not pay any price for peace. However, it would entail handing the United States a crisis, something Netanyahu has no interest in doing. It would also serve to appease the far right only for a short period of time. Even just participation in the talks has made the far right suspicious. While Netanyahu could stand on principle, it is unlikely he will all-out end the freeze.

3) Extend the freeze. This would put the US and the international community at ease and would shift the burden of concession much more to the Palestinians. Israel can always cancel the freeze so its not a permanent concession. While it may cause a vote of no confidence from within his coalition, Netanyahu has already taken that risk by entering peace talks in the first place. And he would likely survive new elections or an attempt to align with Kadima. The negotiations would stay on track and Netanyahu would reap the benefits in US-mediated negotiations for taking a decisive stance for peace.

However, from Netanyahu's perspective, what he should actually do is:

4) Announce an extension of the freeze while permitting some building. It will be enough building to keep the settlers at bay but not so much that the US will be forced to call Israel out on it. It's also the option closest to the status quo, as some building has continued despite the announced freeze. Netanyahu will need to stall a little on announcing this so as not to look like he is conceding to Palestinian demands. Yet the "half and half" option is the best way for Netanyahu to balance between all the constraints being placed on him.

We'll see what happens tomorrow. Netanyahu is a smart politician, and is likely to make a decision which serves his interests. But the only thing truly reliable in Middle East politics is that there will always be surprises.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Votes for Peace?

Haaretz reports that MK Ofir Akunis intends to introduce a bill making a peace deal with the Palestinians effective only by public referendum in Israel.

A peace referendum would most likely pass in Israel, though it might depend on the exact terms of the agreement. Mostly it would be a vote of confidence in the Netanyahu administration. Having a referendum allows the right wing parties to check Netanyahu and prevent him from making any concessions that come referendum time would weaken him as Prime Minister.

It also ties the hands of MKs who would vote against a deal but are unlikely to win. This way they can be outspoken against the peace deal but not shoulder blame if the referendum passes.

Again, for peace talks which were doomed from the start, there's an awful lot of preparation for the possibility of success.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

White Phosphorous Escalation

From today's Haaretz:

"Two of the nine mortar shells fired from the Gaza Strip at southern Israel on Tuesday were actually phosphorous bombs, the Israel Defense Forces confirmed."

It will be difficult to argue in the court of public opinion that Hamas should face consequences for use of white phosphorous but it is nonetheless a dangerous escalation by Hamas against innocent Israeli civilians.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hasbara Site Goes English

Israel today unveiled it's English Hasbara Site (, demonstrating yet again that Israel is much better at reaching an audience than communicating with them.

The "Jewish Settlement" page is a key example. The page reads like a legal brief rather than a well-written public relations piece. Not to mention that it is rife with misrepresentations and gives Israel supporters advice like "When people tell you that uprooting Arab towns within the Green Line is a violation of human rights, ask how uprooting Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria values human rights."*

Again Israel's Hasbara suffers from the problem of self-reassurance rather than resonance with the moderate center. Yelling 2 + 2 = 5 louder doesn't make it more true, yet that is essentially what Israel is doing. Reaching a wider audience is a great first step, but it must be followed by a careful consideration of the message. Specifically, Israel must reclaim the rhetoric of human rights, and demonstrate a commitment to liberal values by showing, not telling.

*This is a bad strategy because it
a) Ignores the question and throws up a blatant smokescreen instead.
b) Fails to resonate with those asking about Arab rights.
c) Is tangential to the settlement issue, which is largely about control of land rather than uprooting Arab villages.
d) Conflates Jewish with Israeli.
e) Is answerable. Withdrawing from settlements values human rights by affirming the Palestinian need for national self-actualization which is a prerequisite for the economic and political development which fosters human rights. In an interview you'd say, "It values human rights by fostering Palestinian self-determination and moving forward from the status quo in which so many rights, both Israel and Palestinian, are violated every day."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Newt and Pamela's Fantasy Monument - On the Park51 Project Debate

What do a former journalist-turned-radical-blogger and a former Speaker of the House have in common?

Not much.

Yet Pamela Geller, who writes the Atlas Shrugs blog, and Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House from 1995-1999, are united by a common cause: opposition to the mosque to be built near Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan.

Together, the two have united a movement of American citizens who oppose building a mosque two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks.

Geller argues that based on "common sense," a mosque near Ground Zero is a "slap in the face" and a monument to the religion whose religious texts were used to justify 9/11. Gingrich also argues that the mosque would be seen as a monument of victory to radical Islamic extremists

Neither Geller nor Gingrich speak Arabic. Nor do they have familiarity with insurgent communications or Arab media. So it makes sense they would miss a critical detail that makes this assertion fall flat on its face.

Islamic insurgent groups are not making the case that a mosque near ground zero is a victory monument. It is not happening. Neither Geller nor Gingrich point to a single case where this claim has actually been made.

This makes sense because radical Islam perceives itself as the victim under threat. There is no huge victory in the perpetually self-defeating world of radicalism. If there were, the need to be radical would diminish, and the radical's personal identity along with it.

The groups do consider opposition to the mosque as yet another attack by America on Islam. But they and the mainstream Arab press have expressed far more outrage at the planned Qur'an burning to take place at a Florida church this September 11th.

Geller and Gingrich's world of trophy mosques is a complete, absolute fantasy.

Geller is a paranoid reactionary who was mobilized in the wake of September 11th. She is a mobilized citizen, an opinion leader on par with opinion leaders in any other social movement. But Gingrich is a former leader in the legislative branch of the United States government. He has access to the most intelligent and well informed minds. As a leader, his responsibility is to access those minds. The American people have every right to question, but a leader's job is to look for answers on their behalf.

So here are the answers:

No, the mosque is not seen as a victory monument by Sunni insurgent groups. In fact, one of those groups, Jund Allah, bombed a mosque in Iran with Muslim worshippers inside not two months ago. Also, if the mosque is so blatant a monument, why would it be so difficult to positively prove it?

No, the values of Islam are not the same as those of al-Qaeda. The Takfiri school of thought is a tiny stem of an entire tree of Qur'anic interpretation which ignores thousands of years of jurisprudence and development of the religion. To group Manhattan-based Muslims with al-Qaeda ideologically is like blaming Christianity for invading Iraq.

Leaders are shepherds, not sheep. Gingrich need not support the mosque to be a leader. But he does need to make arguments which are based in well-reasoned fact-supported arguments. The American people want a genuine discussion of this issue. Ignoring this call is tantamount to an abdication of leadership.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

How to Stop a Plane From Landing in Gaza

JPost reports that the Free Palestine Movement intends to challenge the air blockade of the Gaza strip by flying in communication equipment. The route will not take the plane over Egyptian or Israeli territory, but will violate the airspace over the Gaza strip over which Israeli still claims sovereignty.

Israel's successful response to the flight will be predicated on a clear understanding of objectives. Is the mission to enforce the aerial blockade no matter the cost? Or is it to do so without harming the passengers aboard the aircraft? Hopefully in the wake of the Mavi Marmara raid, Israel will chose the latter. Although conceivably there will be less video footage of a plane being shot down at 4000 feet than a boat full of journalists. Unless there are journalists aboard the plane. In which case Israel is killing not only civilians but journalists. As you can see, the levels of complexity quickly multiply. Irregardless, Israel has essentially five options for dealing with this situation:

Option 1: Shoot down the plane. 100% enforcement of the blockade, but the PR costs will far outweigh the benefits. Acvitists will build on the anger from the Mavi Marmara to build pressure on Israel to relax the blockade even more. The activists win, Israel wins the battle but loses the war. Bad choice.

Option 2: Shoot to disable but not destroy the plane, forcing an emergency landing. This option is extremely dangerous and runs the risk that a strike intended to damage the plane may lead to the deaths of the passengers anyway. Because footage will survive, it still allows for negative PR against Israel. Activists probably win, Israel probably loses. Dangerous choice.

Option 3: Escort the plane to the ground and arrest the activists. This raises the question of where to escort the plane, and what to do if the plane refuses to comply (a pretty safe assumption). Conceivably the Israeli Air Force might be able to force the plane to stay airborne enough for it to run out of fuel and force an emergency landing, but the details of this option are better known to aviation experts. Israel might maybe win assuming the plane can be forced to land, but it would take a more detailed understanding to realistically assess the validity of this option. Unclear choice to a non-expert, perhaps clear to an expert.

[UPDATE: According to someone who knows much more about the technical aspects of these options, a plane cannot be targeted with the intent of non-catastrophic damage. However, it can be forced to land given the pilot does not ditch the plane intentionally.]

Given the unsavory nature of all of these options, the most likely course of action will be:

Option 4: Use diplomatic pressure to prevent the flight. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and especially in this case. Israel (and the United States, who has an interest in preserving Israel's interest in peace talks) can use diplomatic pressure to prevent the activists from filing a flight plan to Gaza from the country of origin. Of course, this kind of pressure relies on the kinds of good relations which Israel is hard pressed to find in light of its government's current isolationist stance.

Given the current situation, the ideal option would be:

Option 5: Invite the activists, on international satellite networks, to be part of a "special humanitarian observer" delegation to Gaza, in which Israel delivers the aid via Israeli aircraft. Stress that the flights are part of a routine humanitarian program to the Gaza strip and cast Israel as caring more about humanitarianism than the petty enforcement of a blockade. Israel should seek to "own" the human rights turf as much as possible by using the language of human rights in its PR rhetoric. Activists should be cast as radicals who care more about political turf than helping actual Palestinian people. This option won't win over the far left activist base, but it will mitigate damage done to Israel's image in the minds of centrists. Oh and also it serves the needs of the Palestinian people, who I hear need a little help.

Of course, the bigger issue Israel will have to deal with is the validity of an aerial blockade in the first place. In the sense that Israel wouldn't want foreign cargo from enemy states (ie Iran) landing in Gaza, this blockade is pretty reasonable. However, it will take pragmatism on the Israeli side to justify its policies. The global public is much more likely to accept a blockade on illegitimate items if legitimate items are allowed through. Banning chocolate for Gazans is not really an effective means of creating this public acceptance. And the bigger picture here is that PR and military strategy for Israel are not two separate arenas, but one and the same. This situation is a perfect example for Israel to show the world that it understands the connection between the two by pursuing a nuanced, responsible course of action which meets the needs of its citizens while respecting the needs of the Palestinian people as much as possible.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Peace Talks Scorecard

Hamas kills 4 innocent Israelis: Bad.
Hamas is making its presence known, but not swiftboating talks just yet. The peace talks are at -4 in terms of lives saved by the negotiations thus far.

Israel doesn't pull out/put more conditions on talks: Good.
Israel knows the US is watching, so pulling out is a non-option.

US condemns killing: Good.
Obama himself condemned the killing with Netanyahu at his side, and reiterated the American commitment to Israeli security. This is a very strong and positive message to Israel.

PA security forces arrest 150 in the wake of the killing: Good.
PA is showing it's committed to security. Likely the response would have been less strong without the US watching, but in light of circumstances its a good sign.

The key principle emerging is that both Israel and the Palestinians are changing their actions based on expectations set out by the United States. It will be up to the US to maintain expectations that encourage both sides to pursue and agreement. Hamas' attack has raised the stakes of failure for both sides. This may end up benefitting Hamas if they can successfully swiftboat the talks, but it also raises US expectations on both leaders to deliver, which may cause the killing to backfire.

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