Saturday, December 31, 2011
Future generations will remember 2011 as a year in which the universal aspirations of humanity became crystal clear. For those risking life and limb in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus, and Manama, the values of freedom and self-determination are far more than words on paper. They are creeds; Rallying calls to end the era of oppression which for decades has stood between the Arab people and their destiny. Watching events unfold live on Arab satellite television, checking Facebook pages, and following feeds on Twitter, the whole world was swept up in the energy and proactivity of a young generation. Where this energy will lead is the question 2012 will begin to answer. But if the Arab Spring is a movie, we surely have seen only the first few minutes.
The new order in the Middle East brings with it many challenges. What will the role of Islamist parties be in government? Will they drive countries to radical fundamentalism, or act rationally to maintain the support of key constituencies on whom they depend?
Will the post-revolutionary states of the Middle East be able to transition fully to democracy? How much democracy is enough democracy? Will the rights of minorities be respected in this process? How long will it take before we can be sure?
While these questions raise the concern, and perhaps the fear, of outside observers, there are also many things in which we can take comfort: In the raw passion for change of the Arab revolutionaries. In the support of those outside the region who see young adults not unlike themselves making a difference. In the refusal of historically oppressed people to fear any longer. In the dedication to a cause which has cost far too many protesters their lives.
Perhaps most importantly, 2011 was a year in which the Middle East, against all odds, became better. It became a place where new opportunities flourished, where the flame of the human spirit ignited, and where the hopes and dreams of the future took root. As 2012 dawns, let us continue to make the region a freer, safer, more peaceful place.
Happy New Year
Sunday, December 25, 2011
For his part, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that if Hamas joins the Palestinian Authority, Israel will not negotiate with the Palestinians. Netanyahu said he was willing to meet with Palestinian PM Abbas. However, the move appears to be yet another move by the Netanyahu administration to avoid meaningful progress on Israel's long-term security.
This kind of reticence and foot-dragging by Israel's administration reflects its populist approach to politics. Rather than actually addressing the reasonable concerns Israelis have about their security, the government is just parroting these concerns without doing anything about them. This strategy has been sustainable thus far because it generates popular support and job security for its ministers.
But creating job security for ministers is not leadership. Rather than simply reiterate the concerns of the public, governments are also expected to present solutions to those concerns. Saying "we understand your fear" does not keep Israelis safe. It also does not mitigate the threat posed by Hamas, nor by the Arab Spring, nor by European impatience with Israel.
Peace is not a utopian objective for Israel, but rather a strategic security interest. No one has more to gain from peace than Israel, but today's actions are more focused on making excuses than making these gains. The government may argue that expectations on it to proactively seek peace are unfair. But unfair conditions on Israel's government are par for the course. In 1948, when Israel was attacked simultaneously by six countries, that was also unfair. Yet Israel did what was necessary to ensure its security interests. It must do the same today.
These days, Israel's security threats are non-conventional. When people turn to the government for solutions, they get empathy. Empathy is incredibly important, especially in a country with the level of national trauma that Israelis have experienced. But empathy and a "Lu Yehi" mentality is not enough to stop Hamas, or a Palestinian statehood bid, or BDS, or rocket attacks. Only policy solutions can make Israel safer. And the only way to get those solutions is by having a government that leads its citizens rather than leaving today's problems for tomorrow.
The Netanyahu government's failure to engage meaningfully on these security challenges is not conditions-based. It is fear-based. The government is taking the easy way out by avoiding the hard work of security-building. Ultimately, it will be regular Israelis who pay the price.
Friday, December 23, 2011
It is unlikely Hamas has permanently turned away from violence (see this book for an explanation why). Rather, it has calculated that in the present period, armed resistance is not likely to be either supported by Palestinians or effective. In this regard, Israel is right to be suspicious of a group whose charter from the late 1980's calls for armed resistance against Israel and has attacked Israeli civilians on countless occasions.
On the other hand, Hamas has signaled clearly a move towards non-violence because it is working. The Palestinian statehood bid at the U.N. has put significant international pressure on Israel. Protests in Palestinian towns like Bilin and Nabi Saleh continue to receive publicity in the international media. Israel is maintaining a status quo response to these changes, but given the high costs of doing so, cannot maintain these policies forever. Sooner or later it will have to make a policy shift.
A smart Israeli strategy right now would be to "trap" Hamas in its current policy of non-violence. This change in Hamas' policy is a reflection of a shift in its cost-benefit analysis. Whereas before Hamas calculated that the benefits of violence outweighed the costs, Hamas calculates today that the costs outweigh the benefits. Israel should make moves to cement the incentive structure which is currently keeping Hamas on the path of non-violence. That means raising the benefits to Hamas of non-violence while also raising the costs of a return to violence.
Concrete Israeli steps to cement this incentive structure include:
1) Easing the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Doing so could build support among moderate Palestinians for Hamas in Gaza. Hamas is concerned about losing popular support in the wake of the Arab Spring. This Israeli policy move would make Hamas less fearful about losing Palestinian support, which it often gets from being the party willing to "stand up" to Israel with violent attacks. By easing the blockade, Hamas would get the support, but be less likely to take drastic violent action. Israel could also send a clear signal that the shift was conditional on Hamas remaining non-violent, thus offering a stick as well as a carrot.
2) Maintaining contact with the P.L.O. and Palestinian Authority. Israeli disengagement from the Palestinian National Authority after Hamas won the 2006 elections undercut its ability to incentivize non-violent political action. Israel could learn from this mistake by engaging with the P.L.O. despite the fact that Hamas is now a part of it. Creating relationships also creates dependencies, and Hamas may think twice about a policy shift if it would mean losing the payoffs of its political investments.
3) Shift the burden of proof to Hamas. Israel loses credibility when Hamas says it is embracing non-violence and Israel doesn't respond in kind. Israel should react by calling Hamas' bluff. This means it should encourage steps which induce Hamas to send a costly signal that it is serious about non-violence. For example, it could offer increased humanitarian aid and ask Hamas to close arms smuggling tunnels between the Sinai and Gaza. That way, Hamas either complies and Israel wins, or Hamas doesn't comply - looking hypocritical - and Israel wins. Hamas is playing a careful rhetorical action game to trap Israel. Israel should play back, and play hard.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials have called the U.N. Security Council discussion on Israel's settler violence "disgusting." In a move which even the right-leaning Jerusalem Post calls "undiplomatic," These senior officials attacked European countries for their criticism of settlements, settler violence, and a lack of progress towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Given Israel's already delicate position in the international community, these irresponsible comments damage the security of the state. They also impugn the reputation of employees of the Foreign Ministry serving abroad who are now forced to deal with these comments in discussions with their host governments.
European pressure towards Israel is nothing new. The Security Council's resolution on settler violence is also consistent with that of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the state. Senior members of the Foreign Ministry might disagree with the Prime Minister's position, or legitimately may regret the double standards the Security Council applies to Israel.
But international politics is not about fairness, and Europe's frustration over Israeli policy is the state of play in the region. This is a critical time in which Palestinians have been accepted into UNESCO and are vying for state recognition. Israel is facing increasing pressure by the international community over its presence in the West Bank, and several anti-democratic bills which have been taken up by the Knesset. One of these bills seeks to limit the funding states - including European states - can give to Israeli NGOs. Thus, the Foreign Ministry's claim that European countries are becoming irrelevant in Israeli politics is simply absurd.
Expecting that Israel will instruct its diplomats to be diplomatic is not a partisan one. Diplomacy is a basic tool of 21st century statecraft no matter who does it. Just as defense ministers should not be pacifist, foreign ministry leadership should not regularly reject the basic components of diplomacy.
Real leaders don't make excuses. They're too busy creating results. At the task of advancing Israel's posture in the international diplomatic arena, Israel's Foreign Ministry leadership is failing. Israelis deserve a diplomatic leadership which actually believes in diplomacy and uses it to protect the state, not cynical isolationists who would rather pick useless fights than create real progress and security for Israel.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
On the other hand, disparities between the positions and policies of Islamist movements are both precedented and necessary in the uncertain electoral climate of the Middle East of 2011. For its part, al-Nour has fielded women candidates and generally refrained from religious rhetoric in its campaigning, though both these steps are somewhat inconsistent with Salafist ideology.
The significance of today's announcement is that it demonstrate's al-Nour's current lack of legitimacy. Recognizing the peace treaty legitimizes al-Nour among two key constituencies.
The first is the largely secular Egyptian public. To be sure, the Egyptian public is far from pro-Israel. That being said, Egyptians have far more important things with which to concern themselves than Egypt-Israel relations. Stating that it will not overturn the peace treaty is intended to demonstrate that al-Nour will not lose focus from the bigger issues confronting Egyptians. This helps to legitimize the otherwise extreme positions of Salafism, along with other steps the party has taken.
Secondly, the announcement legitimizes al-Nour in the eyes of the international community and the United States. The regional stability that the peace treaty creates is a key interest of EU countries and the United States. The exact balance of Islamist v. Secular parties in the Egyptian parliament is a second-level concern compared with Egypt's adherence to its international commitments. Al-Nour's statement will not likely give international players much confidence given the radical positions of Salafism. There is also no guarantee that al-Nour will renege on its statement at some point in the future. However, it gives European and American policymakers leverage at home to justify engagement with post-revolutionary Egypt.
Salafist parties will be very important players in elections in post-revolutionary states. In Tunisia, these parties have already caused unrest. In Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood/al-Nour parliamentary coalition would have unpredictable and potentially harmful effects if incentive structures to encourage pragmatism are not erected. Today's announcement shows that al-Nour may be willing to meet secular constituencies and international parties halfway. That may not be far enough, but it's a good start. Israel's expression of willingness today to engage with Islamist groups is a smart move in this regard, and should be replicated by other states with interests in the region.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Saturday, December 3, 2011
Monday, November 28, 2011
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
The Israeli government has also internalized these fears. However, rather than looking for solutions to the problem, leaders in the country are using populist rhetoric to generate partisan support. Today, Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed the Arab world was moving backward, not forward, and claimed that those who pushed Egyptian President Mubarak to resign from power were "naive."
Such claims serve only to bolster the fears of Israelis rather than to orient the country towards a secure future. They also indicate that Israel's leadership is thinking in the short-term about a long-term problem. That the Arab Spring has proven a sea change is incontrovertible. Given its far-reaching impacts, looking to the long term is a vital first step in crafting a strategy to maintain, or even improve, Israel's regional security posture.
In this light, PM Netanyahu's open cynicism towards the Arab Spring harm's Israel's security posture for three reasons.
First, it promotes a mindset which looks for problems rather than solutions. Contrary to PM Netanyahu's claims, the Arab Spring offers unprecedented opportunities for Israel to begin a process of deeper engagement with the Arab public. The effect of this deeper engagement would be to humanize Israel and create understanding, if not empathy, for those who inhabit the country. While the benefits will not accrue overnight, the low cost of methods such as social media outreach means that the investment risk is marginal as well. Furthermore, given Israel's close alignment with the United States and hegemonic status in the region, Arabs are unlikely to view a Youtube video as a sign of weakness.
Secondly, the Arab Spring is incredibly popular. Citizens and governments in every corner of the globe have been moved by the sight of protesters in downtown Tunis, Tahrir Square, and Pearl Roundabout. Standing against the Arab Spring is not a popular position in the international community in which Israel's isolation has become critical. At a time when settlements, Israel's presence in the West Bank, and stalling on the Peace Process have made Israel unpopular, standing for the basic principles of the Arab Spring is an easy win for a country desperately in need of some diplomatic capital.
Finally, by spurning the Arab Spring, PM Netanyahu is making a statement about Israel's values more broadly. His administration draws international concern when it limits freedom to petition the Supreme Court, limits free speech, and targets left-wing NGOs. Domestically, there are political benefits to be gained for taking such positions, but internationally, such measures incur political costs. By standing against the Arab Spring, PM Netanyahu is extending this "freedom when convenient" mentality to one of the purest expressions of democratic will our generation will ever experience. He alienates the international community by spurning those who fight for the values enshrined in Israel's own Declaration of Independence which calls for an Israel based on the values of "freedom, justice, and peace."
All the Hasbara in the world cannot compensate for an Israel which showcases its commitment to liberal democratic values by supporting the protesters in the Arab Spring. These men and women literally are risking their lives for the chance to live with the same freedoms upon which Israel was founded. Supporting them and their endeavor may incur short-term costs, but surely there is no cause more pro-Israel than the creation of a just and equitable society for those who seek to overcome a history of oppression.
Monday, November 14, 2011
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Professor Walt is legitimate to broach the subject of the US-Israel relationship, and to make criticisms of the costs it incurs for the US. But in several places in the post his arguments contradict themselves, or claim two slightly different things at the same time. These missteps undermine the overall credibility of the piece.
For example, Walt contends that, "Today, Israel is the only country in the world that mainstream U.S. politicians (and most members of the foreign-policy establishment) cannot openly criticize. It is the only country in the world that U.S. presidents cannot pressure in any meaningful way."
These statements are dramatic, but they are also demonstrably false. Open criticism from such as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, has been met with righteous indignation from the traditional pro-Israel community, but occurs nonetheless. Clearly, there is a difference between criticism being unpopular and being impossible. Walt admits this fact himself earlier in the piece but equivocates on which he believes to be the case.
While their absolute ability to pressure Israel indeed is limited, President Bush and President Obama (thus far) have both successfully pressured Israel to refrain from attacking Iran. Once again, Walt conflates his own argument, equating "difficult to pressure" with "cannot pressure." More importantly, to say Israel is the only country Presidents have trouble exerting pressure is just not the case. Analysts of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example, would be very surprised to hear such a statement.
Perhaps the weakest of Professor Walt's arguments, however, is that the special relationship between the US and Israel is a lightning rod for terrorism, claming that there is an "enormous body of evidence suggesting that U.S. support for Israel was a key cause (though not the only one) of our terrorism problem."
The argument has some validity in that a shift in US policy towards a more neutral position would probably delegitimize the claims of some Islamic insurgent groups. If this were to facilitate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that would also defang these claims. But Walt also expresses support for a "normal" US-Israel relationship at the same time. So what exactly is motivating terrorism, the special relationship or US-Israel relations in general? Yet again, Walt's piece claims both at the same time.
And while there is evidence US-Israel policy raises the ire of Islamic insurgent groups, to say there is an "enormous" body of evidence that US support for Israel is a "key" cause of terrorism against the US is a stretch. US killing of Muslims, humiliation of prisoners in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the occupation of Muslim lands in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and support for "apostate" regimes are far more salient grievances for terrorists than US support for Israel.
While bloggers making exaggerations is nothing new, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one rife with misinformation and misrepresentation. Professor Walt's attempt to expand the debate on US-Israel policy is likely earnest and well-intentioned. However, representing the truth as a larger-than-life set of talking points only delegitimizes the otherwise strong points he raises in response to the WINEP report. Challenging the dominance of one point of view on Israel is a worthy and legitimate task, but those who raise this challenge undermine themselves by devolving into half-truths and sound bytes. The pro-Israel left must come to terms with the fact that it will be most successful when it simply lets the truth speak for itself.