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.