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.