Saturday, December 31, 2011

One Year Later

It is now 2012 in the Middle East.  The new year brings along with it many uncertainties in the days and months to come.  The region compared to just one year ago, is fundamentally different.  While the final destination of this bus we call the Arab Spring is uncertain, it is clear that our ticket is one-way.  Compared to a year ago, the region in 2012 is fundamentally changed.

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.

שנה טובה
سنه سعيدة
Happy New Year

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Knesset Cowardice For Christmas

At a conference of Israeli ambassadors today, Foreign Minister Lieberman said that Israel should manage rather than solve its conflict with the Palestinians.  The Foreign Minister then simultaneously rejected territorial concession while accusing the Palestinians of foot-dragging on negotiations.  He reiterated his animosity towards Europe as well.

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

How Israel Should Respond To Hamas 'Non-Violence'

News of Hamas joining the P.L.O. and renouncing violence continues to stick in the headlines.  Today, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal reiterated the group's alignment towards non-violence, noting that unarmed popular protests "have the power of a tsunami." 

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

Israel's Irresponsible Foreign Ministry Leadership

Update: Defense Minister Ehud Barak concurs.

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

Egyptian Salafists To Uphold Israel Peace Treaty

Egypt's Salafist al-Nour party has announced for the first time that it intends to respect Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.  Salafism is a radical Islamist school of thought, and Salafists tend to be substantially more fundamentalist that the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates.  The news is therefore somewhat surprising to those who normally see Salafists in a threatening light.

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

Arab Spring Is Good For Israel And The World

The Jerusalem Post ran an editorial today claiming protesters in the Arab Spring have not created a better world nearly one year after it began. Citing Ismail Haniyeh - of all reliable sources - the article contends that since Hamas claims the Arab Spring helped Islamist movements, it is clearly bad for Israel.

This is a ridiculous claim, and a ridiculous editorial.

Ismail Haniyeh was speaking to a crowd of Islamists on the anniversary of the founding of Hamas. Saying the Arab Spring has helped Hamas to an Islamist crowd is as natural as a Republican saying they would annul Roe v. Wade in a presidential debate. But in neither case should we take the statement as indicative of actual policy.

Rather than looking at Hamas' rhetoric, look at its actions. The group has recently been more lenient in enforcing strict religious prohibitions in Gaza. That's because the group is reacting to the most important development of the Arab Spring: the empowerment of the Arab people.

Tunisia's Ennahda party and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are also reassessing their role in their respective societies in the wake of the Arab Spring. Both have taken a more "moderate" stance, knowing that they must appeal to the vast majority of Arabs who are secular. This has brought uncertainty even within the groups themselves now that they must actually govern instead of criticize from the sidelines. Therefore, any statement that a country like Egypt "is on the fast track to becoming a totalitarian Islamic state" is irresponsible nonsense that not even the Muslim Brotherhood itself believes.

But the Islamist issue is also just one part of a larger picture. The real impact of the Arab Spring is the self-empowement of millions of people to achieve representation, freedom, and basic rights which are engrained in Israel's Declaration of Independence and Basic Laws. The people of the Arab world are joining Israel's alignment with liberal values in a way unprecedented in history. If the Arab Spring has had any impact over the past year, it has been to demonstrate the universality of the human desire for freedom and autonomy. This affirmation has indisputably made the world a better place in addition to creating new opportunities for Israel's long-term security.

This affirmation has not been in words alone. The protesters which the editorial disparages have been beaten, arrested, tortured, assaulted, and even killed for their commitment to freedom. The complications which the Arab people have been willing to take on is many times greater than the complications the protests have caused for governments. Their courage has inspired people around the world, across religious and ethnic lines, including Israelis.

It is clear the the empowerment of Islamist parties poses new challenges to the West, and Israel in particular. But policymakers must weigh these potential costs against the real benefit of the empowerment of millions of people. Given the way we in the pro-Israel camp champion Israel's record on human rights and values, there should be nothing scary about millions of Arabs declaring full support for these values.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Why The Reuters Israel Bias Study Is Flawed

The traditional pro-Israel blogosphere has been buzzing with the release of an academic journal paper which claims Reuters employs anti-Israel propaganda in its reporting. Given that most of the evidence of anti-Israel bias in the press is anecdotal, an academic paper may lend considerable leverage to claims the media consistently discriminates against Israel in its reporting.

The paper suggests persuasively that anti-Israel bias may be at play in the media. But social science is not for suggesting. It is for demonstrating with a high degree of certainty that a given variable is causing a certain outcome. The difficulty of this task is perhaps the most intellectually honest reason many academics steer clear of policy-relevant research. Simply put, it's really hard to demonstrate anything to a high degree of certainty.

The author, a finance professor, begins by coding 50 Reuters articles randomly selected from the period of May 31 - August 31, 2010. He goes through each article with a list of 41 possible types of propaganda (rumors, euphemism, innuendo, etc), and classifies each instance of bias as one of these 41 types. Separately, he asks 33 college students to rate their affinity towards either the Israelis or Palestinians/Arabs, and their willingness to take unspecified supportive action on their behalf. The students then go through the same 50 articles, and answer the same two questions about their personal affinity after reading each one. The author finds that reading the articles shifted the students' perceptions towards the Palestinians in a statistically significant way.

Sounds pretty convincing, and for an editorial it certainly would be. But there are major flaws in the research design presented above from a social science perspective.

In the article, the author uses a fancy-sounding technique called ethnographic content analysis (ECA). Content analysis, as much as it pains this blogger to admit, is a fancy term for going through a document with a pen and circling stuff that's interesting. Ethnographic content analysis means going through the document and circling stuff "reflexively" rather than developing transparent, reliable, and fair definitions of the coding categories before doing the actual coding. It is a method even more subjective than normal content analysis. So when a pro-Israel professor goes through Reuters articles about Israel, it's hardly surprising that he finds evidence of anti-Israel bias.

This is even more the case given that the timeframe of the analysis covers the extremely emotional Gaza flotilla incident in which tempers flared on all sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict. A researcher would be hard pressed to find any truly objective account of the incident in any media or academic source.

Evidence of the author's subjectivity is compounded by the extremely questionable way in which the articles are coded. For example, the claim that the Gaza blockade harms 1.5 million Palestinians is coded as an "assertion." The UN and countless human rights groups say otherwise, indicating that this coding is false at worst and debatable at best.

The research design also has practically no controls. In other words, the coding scheme is the social science version of asking "George W. Bush: great president or greatest president?" Additionally, while the author begins by saying that demonstrating an intent to propagandize is nearly impossible for a researcher to do, he ends by accusing Reuters having an "explicit purpose to disseminate that [biased] ideology and manipulate audiences to adopt the same."

Furthermore, the student participants in the experiment read only Reuters articles. That means there is no way for the research design to speak to whether Reuters alone is engaging in so-called propaganda, nor whether students reading about an extremely emotional event (the Gaza flotilla raid) simply tend to side with Palestinians after being reminded of the incident. Nor does it demonstrate that college students are representative of Reuter's customers as a general population. Nor is the design able to speak to whether Reuters is biased or whether it is reacting to social norms about the use of force which the author considers unfair.

Most egregiously, the study tests for bias by essentially asking 33 college students, "Are you biased and if so, how much?" Such techniques are widely recognized as problematic in social science.

In conclusion, the article is far from conclusive proof of systematic propagandizing by Reuters. Attempts to explain Israeli-Palestinian media bias across academic disciplines (Vallone, Ross, and Lepper, 1985; Kressel, 1987; Giner-Sorolla and Chaikin, 1994; Gentzkow and Shapiro, 2006) have consistently pointed to the subjectivity of the coder rather than the media as the causal mechanism of the discovery of bias. This article ultimately is unconvincing at persuading the reader otherwise.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What Israel's Ad Dust-Up Says About US Jewry

The decision by the Israeli government to pull an ad campaign encouraging Israeli expats to return to Israel is an attempt by Prime Minister Netanyahu to navigate the delicate subject of differences between the U.S. and Israeli Jewish communities. The case is an interesting one and illustrates the complexity of the relationship between U.S. Jews and Israel.

In particular, the outcry of some American Jewish organizations to the ads reflects the particulars of the norm against American Jewish criticism of Israel's government. The leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Anti-Defamation League both condemned the ad campaign. ADL chairman Abraham Foxman has recently condemned what he considers anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset. However, the ADL also recently came out with a unity pledge, co-sponsored with the AJC. It called on American presidential candidates to avoid making Israel a campaign issue. But, it also called for "American voices raised together in unshakable support for our friend and ally," indicating reticence to condone criticism of the practitioners of U.S.-Israel relations.

The Israeli ad campaign dust-up indicates that there is a norm governing criticism of Israel's government. Despite calls for unity, the leaders of traditional American Jewish organizations clearly consider certain criticism legitimate at certain times. Statements from the centrist ADL and more conservative organizations like the ZOA and RJC demonstrate this point. Though their statements are directed at President Obama rather than Prime Minister Netanyahu, the criticism relates to particular tactics both leaders use in negotiating the U.S.-Israel relationship. However, for the American Jewish leadership to call for unity among the ranks while simultaneously entertaining criticism from its own apparatus is indicative of a deeper issue, one which goes beyond simple elitism.

Simply stated, the U.S. Jewish community lacks unity on Israel. The traditional American Jewish leadership is trying so hard to demonstrate unity of thought on Israel precisely because the community is ideologically fractured between traditionalists and progressives. The reason J Street is sanctioned for making similar statements to the ADL about democracy in Israel is because it is willing to openly acknowledge this fracture. Given that ideological unity is a source of political leverage, it is sensical for traditional Jewish leadership in the United States to uphold the illusion of unity for as long as possible. However, the new progressive voice in the conversation can no longer be ignored. Hillel's ideologically diverse pro-Israel initiative, the Talk Israel tent, is an excellent example of the best way for traditional American Jewish organizations to remain relevant, supported, and strong voices for Israel.

Monday, November 28, 2011

White House Saavy On Egypt

The Obama administration's statement that religious parties can still maintain democratic principles is an extremely well-crafted diplomatic move. Taking the position is contentious, but ultimately will strengthen the U.S. posture in the Middle East for three reasons.

First, the Muslim Brotherhood often mobilizes supporters over animosity towards the West. This animosity is based on historical injustices as well as a perceived Western antagonism towards Islam. However, by legitimizing the ability of the Brotherhood to follow democratic principles, the United States has taken some of the wind out of the sails of this argument. In fact, U.S. support of the Brotherhood's presence in elections is a more tolerant position than that of some very secular Egyptians.

Second, and perhaps more cleverly, the United States has sent the Brotherhood a message about its expectations. Saying that the Brotherhood can maintain democratic principles is a subtle message that the United States expects the Brotherhood to do so. It also communicates that so long as the Brotherhood maintains these principles, it will not face direct resistance from the United States government. The statement thus sets up a clear objective, and incentives for the Brotherhood to meet this objective.

Finally, the Obama administration has begun the slow process of engaging more deeply with Egyptian society. Whether or not the administrations message was communicated directly to the Brotherhood, it is nonetheless a communication between the Brotherhood and the U.S. government. Additionally, the administration's position is relatively hands-off. It seeks to guide the outcome of elections to maintain democratic principles, but is not openly stating a preference for which party it wishes to see doing this. Its pro-democracy position is uncontroversial and the position of a majority of the Egyptian public, many of whom spent hours today waiting in line to vote in parliamentary elections.

Ultimately such pragmatic statements will serve the United States well in its engagement with the post-Mubarak Egypt and the post-revolution Arab world. While pragmatism may involve admitting some sub-optimal realities, these admissions are the first step to crafting smart policy which will advance the interests of the United States and its allies in the region.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bibi Is On The Wrong Side Of History

In Israel, the Arab Spring has generated an understandable level of fear. For a country whose security is premised largely on regional stability, protests across the region have created new challenges for Israel, which is right in the middle of the raging storm. Israelis feel, quite reasonably, as if a tsunami of chaos is right on their borders.

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

Opposition Grows To Israeli NGO Bill

An Israeli Knesset committee approved yesterday two bills which would restrict foreign funding of "political" NGOs in Israel. The bill is widely considered to be targeted at left-wing NGOs such as the New Israel Fund and B'Tselem. A similar measure came before the Knesset this past July and failed.

One major difference between the last time the Israeli far right floated a similar bill and this time is that public opposition to the bill has been much higher this time around. In July, the measure was condemned by Leader of the Opposition Tzipi Livni and Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz the same day the measure was defeated.

In contract, Livni today called the measure "Draconian" and Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovitch accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of "destroying Israel's strongholds of democracy." The United States and the European Union have also exerted pressure against the bill, and the EU's ambassador to Israel said passage of the bill could "hurt Israel's standing in the West as a democratic country." An Israeli NGO called "We Will Not Be Silent" has also released a graphic which is being posted widely on Facebook by centrist, leftist, and far-left Israelis:

To the Government of Israel
For its participation in the exclusive club of nations that impose limits on international financing of not-for-profit organizations.
Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Belarus, and China

The protests of the domestic and international community against the bill indicates an incontrovertible shift in the balance of political power in Israel. In July, the voice of Israeli opposition was almost non-existent. Today it is considerably more vocal, in the wake of two major events. First, this summer's housing protest movement showed that the Israeli government was not necessarily representative of the mainstream Israeli public. It also gave this public a sense of agency and a voice. Secondly, the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN demonstrated to Israelis the very real cost of Israel's diplomatic isolation and magnifies the importance of concern from the international community over the bill.

As with the last time around, PM Netanyahu will likely play a shrewd political game, and the bill will likely be defeated. However, the political salience of the issue this time is higher than before, meaning that its political impacts on the current governing coalition, and Israel as a whole, will be magnified.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Walt Gets It Wrong On US-Israel Relationship

Professor Stephen Walt's smackdown of the new WINEP report on Israel is a perfect example of why he and Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago lack credibility on Israel.

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.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Obama And Sarko: The Problem Is Bibi, Not Israel

Today's news of comments French President Sarkozy and US President Obama made about Israeli PM Netanyahu come as no surprise to anyone the least bit in touch with Israeli foreign policy as of late. The quick comments about Netanyahu being a "liar" and difficult to "deal with...everyday" illustrate the extent to which the Prime Minister is alienated in the international community.

Such stories are blood in the water for those asympathetic to the Obama administration, and the next few days are likely to see a race to the bottom of which partisan pundit can feign the most shock and make the most outrageous demands on the President. For those closer to the center, the story presents an opportunity for the Obama administration to make amends with the Netanyahu administration. Given the decidedly unprofessional tenor of the President's comments, this request is reasonable, although it is not clearly in his interest to oblige.

While the Obama administration will need damage control here in Washington, Prime Minister Netanyahu's position is more serious. While Israelis are generally not fans of President Obama, they also value a strong US-Israel relationship. Israel's relationship with the international community is particularly critical as the UN Palestinian statehood bid makes its way through the security council.

But the fact that President Sarkozy and President Obama's comments were about Netanyahu versus Israel is proof positive that policy differences are primarily responsible for the ongoing tension between Israel and the international community. Obama and Sarkozy's comments had nothing to do with Israel as a country, and everything to do with the conduct of the current Israeli administration. That the comments were a regrettable reflection of poor relations is a given. However, to extrapolate a private aside into a fatalistic account of Israel's tragic relationship with the rest of the world would be a stretch given the content of these comments.

Monday, October 31, 2011

UNESCO Recognizes Palestine

Today UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member state. Due to legislative restrictions, the Obama administration was forced to cut funds to the UN body, which derives about 22% of its budget from the United States. The move is a coup for the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations, which has long sought full recognition as a member state and recently submitted a formal bid for statehood to the General Assembly.

Legislation passed by Congress in the 1990's banned the US from supporting any UN body which accepted Palestine as a full member. However, as the Palestinians continue to push their case at the UN, this legislation will increasingly stand to harm US interests, a point to which State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland alluded in her press conference earlier today. Given the multilateral approach of the Obama administration, spearheaded by State, no one in the administration is thrilled to be cutting aid to UNESCO. The body supports Holocaust education, African youth empowerment, and diversity promotion, causes which are very awkward for the United States to stand against. The move is also likely to spur tension between the administration and Congress, whose strongly pro-Israel members today called the UNESCO vote "an affront to the international peace process" as well as "anti-Israel and anti-peace."

Given the approach of an election year, the Obama administration's negotiations with Congress over the terms of legislation relating to Israel are not likely to be high profile. However, they should serve as a warning for the upcoming UN vote on Palestinian statehood. In this case, knee-jerk reactions to Palestinian admission ended up backfiring on the United States. They failed as a deterrent to the Palestinian leadership, which instead allowed these knee-jerk reactions to create international pressure on the US and Israel. This international pressure harms Israel by limiting the diplomatic leverage of its key ally, to say nothing of harming the key ally itself. Pro-Israel actors should keep this harm in mind in the wake of today's vote, and in the shadow of votes to come.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Partisan Chutzpah On Israel

Adam Kredo at Washington Jewish Week reports a spat between the ADL/AJC and conservative pro-Israel groups over a so-called "unity pledge" which asked leaders and political candidates to refrain from making Israel a partisan issue in the upcoming campaign. Justifiably, some have raised objections as to whether unity truly serves the value of pro-Israel discourse, and whether such a pledge is really enforceable in the highly partisan political environment of Washington DC.

Except that those raising these objections are guilty of doing the same thing. The level of hypocrisy in the American Jewish discourse on Israel has reached a new high.

The same organizations which have historically called for unity, sanctioning those who disagree with all but their own point of view, suddenly care about discourse and free speech. Organizations which mercilessly berate their counterparts with misrepresentations and smear jobs have evidently seen the light about having a civil conversation about Israel. In this twisted reality, calling on Israel to embrace the two-state solution is bad for the US-Israel relationship. Defaming the President of the United States is not.

American discourse on Israel requires both liberal and conservative voices to operate effectively. To productively contribute to vigorous debate over the US-Israel relationship, the organizations involved in this tiff need not change what they believe nor how much passion they invest in issues about which they care deeply. They just need to grow up. Political maturity will sustain the US-Israel relationship, but political hackery will destroy it. This pro-Israel infighting helps no one.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bibi Gets Heat From The Right

In the wake of tonight's stabbing of a 17 year old in Jerusalem, right wing MKs have wasted no time in going on the offensive. In comments linking the stabbing to this week's prisoner release for Gilad Shalit, several of these MKs have accused the Netanyahu administration of "surrendering" to Hamas.

That many of these comments from Likud MK Danny Danon is significant. While MK Danon is outspoken on a number of issues, he is not as radical as many of his counterparts on the far-right. Such criticism from a prominent member of the Prime Minister's own party reflects the deep internal divide in the Knesset over the prisoner swap deal earlier this week. During the cabinet vote on the deal, Netanyahu's coalition partner - Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman - voted no and walked out of the session. Additionally, earlier tonight Likud MK and Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon called Netanyahu's offer to freeze some settlement building for a return to talks tantamount to "ethnic cleansing." The Netanyahu administration is receiving heat, and not only from the far right.

Such pressures are likely to force PM Netanyahu to harden his government's line in order to prevent further fracturing of his coalition. The national excitement over the return of Gilad Shalit will soon wear off, but many members of the Prime Minister's coalition are expert grudge-holders. This pressure to hardline also comes as the UN is considering a Palestinian statehood bid which, regardless of outcome, will isolate Israel in the international community. At the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu has faced this challenge before, including during his current term as Prime Minister. While the pressure is growing, it will not be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Today.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Is 1027:1 A Racist Ratio?

A well known song in Israel by the hip-hop group Hadag Nachash goes "I to am like all the Jews, concerned with numbers 24/7." This week, that number is 1027, the total number of Palestinian prisoners to be freed in exchange for Cpl. Gilad Shalit tomorrow morning. This week's rigorous debate over the prisoner release in Israel comes at the culmination of over five years of discourse over the issue. No point of consensus has yet been reached, and its unlikely such consensus will arrive.

Outside of Israel, including here in Washington, there are those who have made the argument that the deal is indicative of a double-standard on Israel's part. The argument is that Israel devalues Palestinian life as evidenced by the 1027:1 ratio of prisoners involved in the swap. For a single Israeli life, Israel is willing to trade 1027 Palestinian lives, a gaping disparity between its valuation of the two sides of the equation. This argument is controversial but also powerful. More importantly, it raises the question of morality in policymaking, an often-ignored but important facet of the field.

In some ways, the argument is valid. States do consistently value the lives of their own citizens over the lives of non-citizens. Analysts may attribute racial or cultural differences to the disparity, and such attributions may be legitimate. Israel's valuation of Israeli life above Palestinian life is evident in the conditions imposed on Palestinians through land blockades on the Gaza Strip, checkpoints and arbitrary detention in the West Bank, and disregard for historical land claims along the route of the Separation Barrier.

But does this valuation somehow impugn the legitimacy of the prisoner swap scheduled for tomorrow? It's unclear that it doesn't, but it's also unclear that it does.

Firstly, those in the Palestinian leadership making the argument are themselves benefitting from the prisoner release. This point does not undermine the internal validity of the argument. However, it does undermine the credibility of some of its major advocates. It would be akin to someone attending a protest on oil dependence driving an SUV 6 hours to get there. The action alone doesn't delegitimize the argument but it should call into question the credibility of the actor making it.

Secondly, the argument implies that the morally superior decision for Israel would have been not to negotiate at all. Since negotiating a 1027:1 prisoner swap devalues Palestinian life, the argument implies that given Israel's choice between the asymmetric 1027:1 or the symmetric 0:0, the latter would be the optimal (more moral) choice. It bears mention that this has in fact been Israel's choice for the past five years. Thus, while the final terms may be asymmetrical, they are hardly the result of spurious action by Israel. 1027 after over 5 years of political ramifications is not the same as 1027 a week after the kidnapping. Truly demonstrating the swap is immoral requires accounting for many other variables over the 5-plus year period. If the swap is immoral, it is not only on these grounds.

Finally, one must keep in mind that policy is ultimately about tradeoffs. At the end of the day, the Israeli government valued annulling the liability of an Israeli soldier and saving his life over the release of 1027 prisoners. The move, while controversial, will likely benefit PM Netanyahu, his government, the Israeli state, and the Israeli people. No policy advisor in any country in the world would have argued that Cpl. Shalit should not be brought back on the grounds that it was immoral to devalue the lives of Palestinian prisoners by releasing so many of them. To point out the gaping disparity may be legitimate but it is hardly useful from a policymaking standpoint.

In consideration of such controversial and sensitive questions, it is important to keep an open mind. While each of the above points are salient, none ultimately undermines the original argument entirely. Ultimately, such considerations usually brood only more questions. Given Israel's policies in the Palestinian territories, is the prisoner swap the best example of a double-standard with regards to Palestinians? Would any country in the world have acted more morally? Does the swap say more about Israel or about Hamas?

To be continued(?)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

3 Likely Political Effects of the Shalit Deal

Earlier this evening the Israeli cabinet approved a deal by a vote of 26-3 which would free IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit. FM Avigdor Lieberman, National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, and Vice PM Moshe Ya'alon voted against the deal. In exchange for Corporal Shalit, abducted in 2006, Israel will release 1027 Palestinian prisoners.

The deal is likely to have three key effects:

1) Bump Netanyahu in the polls. Gilad Shalit's cause resonates deeply with Israelis, the vast majority of whom have served in the IDF themselves. The return of Corporal Shalit will be the feel-good story of the decade in Israel, and PM Netanyahu will receive great credit for overseeing the deal. While criticism from the far right may have negative implications for his coalition, the mainstream Israeli center likely will value the return of Cpl. Shalit over the inevitable exchange of prisoners it required.

2) Increase the regional political salience of Hamas. Hamas has been marginalized by the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN. Its strategy thus far has been to oppose the bid, lay low, and wait for an opportunity to spoil any move towards reconciliation between Israel and the PA. The release of Cpl. Shalit will put Hamas on the radar of the West in a way it hasn't been for a while. From the Gazan side, Hamas will likely receive credit for the release of 1027 prisoners. The prisoners issue is a very sensitive one among Gazans, meaning that this credit will likely come with emotional value for all Gazans.

3) Build confidence between Israel and Egypt. Egypt was instrumental in moderating the deal between Israel and Hamas. Given the turmoil in Egypt, many Israelis fear a slide towards extremism there. However, the deal demonstrates that Egypt's relationship with Israel is still good enough that it will play a constructive role in Israel's tense relationship with Hamas.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

COIN, Settler Style

The past four days have seen a disturbing spike in Israeli settler violence. On Monday, settlers torched a mosque in Zangaria, in Israel's northern region. Today, settlers physically assaulted IDF soldiers on patrol near the Shilo settlement after rumors spread that one of the nearby illegal outposts was to be evacuated.

The response of the Israeli government and people thus far has been both predictable and heartening. Political and religious leaders have roundly condemned the attack, and an Ultra-Orthodox newspaper called the attack 'insane.' Nonetheless, such attacks are bound to continue as the future of the settlements becomes less and less certain in the wake of increasing Israeli international isolation over its presence in the West Bank. The government is right to take the threat of right-wing settler violence seriously.

What similar cases - including the Palestinian case - have shown, however, is that condemnation can only go so far. That there is a hardcore group of irreconcilable settlers who will not be deterred ideologically from committing violence is an unfortunate given. However, a complacent or ambivalent reconcilable settler population will only impair Israel's ability to prevent further violence.

Given that the moderate settler community is a critical swing population, the Israeli government should enhance its outreach efforts to them.

Outreach does not have to mean concessions or political promises. In fact, empty political promises are more likely to breed animosity in the long run than honest and candid discussion. But engagement to actively keep the majority of settlers aligned with the Israeli government versus radical settler groups will be key to winning the fight against those who would attack civilians or soldiers for political gain.

For its part, the US should support these efforts, and look for opportunities to engage settlers when it can. While DC analysts often view settlers as the heart of the problem in the Middle East, advancing US objectives there requires engaging with moderate settlers whether their political agendas align with those of the State Department or not.