Friday, September 23, 2011

In UN Statehood Showdown, No Winners

Today, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas submitted a formal application for Palestinian UN membership to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Prime Minister Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu both spoke before the UN General Assembly as well, laying out their respective cases, and showcasing the stark disconnect between the two leaders.

Prime Minister Abbas' speech was a nationalist and hard-lining text typical of Palestinian leadership. While speaking of the desire for Palestinian statehood and peace, Prime Minister Abbas referred to Israel's presence in the West Bank as both "colonial" and as an "apartheid," while saying nothing of systematic terrorism campaigns in which Palestinian leaders like Yasser Arafat have had historic complicity.

Given the tone of the speech, Prime Minister Netanyahu's optimal strategy was to reiterate a desire for negotiations, highlight the efforts it has taken towards peace, and reiterate his acceptance of the 2-state solution. The Prime Minister did make these points...eventually.

However, he began by insulting the United Nations and the press from the podium of the UN General Assembly. His speech, rambling at times, had the tone of an off-the-record conversation in a Likud party office, not an official statement of Israeli policy. Given the global audience, and historical importance of the moment, the Prime Minister squandered a key opportunity to delegitimize the Palestinian statehood bid and frame Israel as the moderate centrist in the conflict. Instead the Prime Minister chose to invoke "crocodiles" of radical Islam, 9/11, the Holocaust, and Israel's archaeological past. That the UN has held blatant double-standards against Israel is clear. But the place to make that point is not on the podium of the General Assembly.

As the bid moves forward, the Prime Minister's inability to create international support, especially support cobbled together with the assistance of the US, will continue to be a diplomatic and security liability to the State of Israel. The Prime Minister's speech today was the diametric opposite of hasbara. It made moderate centrists less pro-Israel, not more. It harmed Israel's diplomatic leverage in the international community rather than helping it. Most importantly, it showcased an Israeli leadership completely out of touch with reality on the ground and in the international community. While the Prime Minister will sleep safe in New York City tonight, residents of Sderot and Ashkelon will sleep under the threat of rocket fire. Palestinians will sleep ready for another day of systematic discrimination. The conflict will perpetuate for another day. There have been no winners.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Palestinian Statehood: The Score So Far

Tomorrow the UN Security Council will consider a motion for Palestinian Statehood in a long-awaited motion which has created diplomatic challenges for all parties involved. Trying to predict the short and long-term outcome of the bid would be largely an exercise in futility, and the various possibilities are clearly laid on on the table. However, leading into the bid, there are three clear diplomatic effects the bid has already created.

1) The US-Israel relationship has strengthened. It's not every day MK Danny Ayalon of the Yisrael Beiteinu party says "We have not had a better friend than President Obama" next to the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. That President Obama went to bat for Israel yesterday at the UN General Assembly has not gone unappreciated by the Israeli administration, resulting in strong statements of support from both sides. For President Obama, support for Israel also takes the wind out of the sails of Republican presidential candidates who accuse him of being less than supportive.

2) US soft power among the Palestinian people has degraded. The President's UN speech sparked protests in Ramallah and Gaza City. Some Palestinians feel that despite the President's rhetoric on settlements and the 1967 borders, he has ultimately thrown the Palestinians under the bus in the diplomatic sense. Given the delicate balance the US needs to strike on this issue, alienation of Palestinians may be an unfortunate but necessary cost. However, if the bid were to result in mass peaceful protests, the US would be in an even more awkward position, trying to balance its support for free speech with its opposition to the bid. Its leverage in this situation would be somewhat constrained.

3) Israel has ramped up its peace rhetoric. Given that it already has US support and that the Palestinian leadership controls the tempo of diplomacy, the Israeli administration can call for negotiations and talks without having to actually put anything on the table. By offering negotiations too late for the Palestinians to accept without losing face, Israel can point to a Palestinian refusal to engage as proof that it wants peace more than the Palestinians. If the international community wishes to pressure Israel in the future, this action will constrain its ability to engage the Israeli administration on its own terms.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Netanyahu Plays Peacemaker

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to sit for peace talks in New York today, as the UN vote on Palestinian statehood creeps ever closer. The bid, which the US plans to veto if passed, has been the subject of significant consternation by Israel and the international community.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's move comes extremely late in the game. The call for negotiations is not 11th hour but it is pretty close. It is also an escalation from the Prime Minister's signaling late last week that he would be open to raising the level of Palestinian representation at the UN. The move towards negotiations now is likely the result of pressure from two sides. On the one hand, Prime Minister Netanyahu is likely under pressure from the United States to present the Palestinians with an alternative that can be a basis for negotiations at best, and undermine the bid's legitimacy at worst. On the other hand, Netanyahu faces domestic criticism including today's comments by opposition leader Tzipi Livni that he is damaging the US-Israel relationship in being intransigent towards the Palestinians.

Signaling a desire to come to the table, however, is an excellent political move by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Floating a willingness to negotiate in the days leading up to the bid will shield him from domestic criticism that he was intransigent. Furthermore, as with his handling of the settlement issue, Netanyahu's call will align with the United States soon enough that he can't be accused of antagonism, but late enough that the move is drained of most of its political salience. The latter component will be critical for Netanyahu's standing with his far-right coalition. Finally, the call for negotiations is consistent with Prime Minister Netanyahu's stated policies up to this point (though in practice it may be another story).

The two key questions now are whether PM Abbas sees the call for negotiations as in his interest, and if so, whether he can sit down to negotiations while saving face. Some analysts argue that Abbas intended the statehood bid as a mechanism to push Israel into negotiations in the first place. Furthermore, entering negotiations has payoffs for Abbas in terms of real gains on the ground. However, given the critical stage of the bid and the immense pressure he would be under to produce tangible results, Abbas may very well let the statehood bid go forward, calculating that he could sit down for negotiations after the statehood bid as well as beforehand.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Jews In Palestine: Anatomy Of A Meme

Yesterday's USA Today features an article with the headline "PLO Ambassador Says Palestinian State Should Be Free of Jews." The somewhat alarming headline was also reported in the conservative Daily Caller, and has received extensive coverage in Haaretz, JPost, and Yediot Achronot.

At a breakfast in Washington DC yesterday morning hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, a conservative Daily Caller reporter asked the PLO representative to the US whether a Jew could be elected mayor of Ramallah in a future Palestinian state. USA Today and the Daily Caller both framed his response as calling for Palestine to be free of Jews. But there is more to the story than meets the eye.

The first red flag is that USA Today quotes noted neo-conservative and CFR senior fellow Elliot Abrams. Given the quick turn-around time of the article, it is likely the journalist, Mr. Dorell, had a prior relationship with the highly sought-after Mr. Abrams. For his part, Mr. Dorell has a track record of conservative reporting. The right-wing website Real Clear Politics links to an earlier article Mr. Dorell published about the conservative fear of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt. In another article, he cites noted far right ideologue and Islamophobe Robert Spencer as a reliable source on Islam.

Jamie Weinstein, who reported the story for the Daily Caller, betrays a bias in her email to the Jerusalem Post about the story, saying "We hear nothing from the world community when the Palestinian ambassador to the US calls for a Jew-free state. Pushing for a state for the Palestinian Arabs is well and good, but it seems like the world should spend a little bit of time pondering what sort of state it will be." Legitimate as the sentiment may be, it is certainly not that of an unbiased observer.

That conservatives write conservative articles is certainly not a news story. But when a series of conservative journalists break a "big story" based entirely on one conservative person's interpretation of parts of a quote, it raises serious questions about the story's legitimacy.

Here's what Maen Areikat is actually reported to have said:

“Well, I personally still believe that as a first step we need to be totally separated, and we can contemplate these issues in the future...But after the experience of 44 years of military occupation and all the conflict and friction, I think it will be in the best interests of the two peoples to be separated first."

Firstly, the statement doesn't actually answer the question. Secondly, its message is that building Palestinian autonomy is the first priority of a Palestinian State. In no part of the answer does Mr. Areikat actually talk about deporting Jews from a future Palestine. This means that how one reads the comments is largely a matter of personal biases and interpretation.

However, emotionally charged half-truths spread like wildfire in the Middle East, and among the American Jewish community. Since most conservative supporters of Israel are primed to read any Palestinian statement as anti-Israel, the story at hand will not die simply because it happens to not actually be true.

Petty partisanship aside, the story demonstrates how poorly Israel's response to the upcoming Palestine bid for has been managed. Complaining about hypothetical discrimination in a non-existent state means little to an international community who sees the ongoing Israeli presence in the West Bank as contributing greatly to the conflict. Smoke-screening has failed Israel as a tactic time and time again. To mitigate the expected harm to Israel's international reputation and security, the state needs to present alternatives to the status quo and help those who support Israel to bring an effective case to the public.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Big Test For The Israeli Left

Israelis voted today in primaries for the center-left Labor party. At present, there appears to be a runoff between MK Shelly Yachimovitch and MK Amir Peretz. Turnout in the primary was about 65% of eligible party voters.

The runoff election will be comparable in many ways to the Democratic primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the start of the 2008 election season. Shelly Yachimovitch is comparable to Obama: She draws enthusiasm from young voters, has never held party leadership, and runs a social justice agenda. Amir Peretz is comparable to Hillary Clinton: a seasoned politician who runs the party line. Peretz led the Labor party between 2005 and 2007, and having served as Israel's Defense Minister during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Given that Israel votes using a closed list system, in which candidates are ranked prior to the election, the runoff will be a rare occasion for new blood in the upper echelons of the Israeli government. However, the two candidates who will drop out of the running, Amram Mitzna and Isaac Herzog, are also party regulars. It is likely that their constituencies would be more inclined to choose Peretz in the runoff.

The outcome of the runoff will have important implications for the political influence of the Israeli center-left. A more mobilized Labor party may be a tough constituency to keep inside the current Netanyahu government's coalition, especially considering its strong far right wing component. The burden would be greater should labor come under Yachimovitch leadership. Either way, the vote is a key test for the Israeli left as its constituents decide in what direction to take the Labor party.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

This 9/11, The World Needs Humanity

Today's 10th anniversary of 9/11 was the first time the day has been commemorated as history rather than a recent event. For the families and friends of the victims of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, today was a day of reflection at having reached a milestone of grief. Ten years later, America is still very much a wounded country which questions its future. Al-Qaeda's strength has been diminished, but the fear and uncertainty has only slightly begun to dissipate from a tragedy which has scarred the American psyche for years to come.

Despite mistakes (and there were egregious mistakes) made in the wake of 9/11, the tragedy brought not only Americans together, but all of humanity as well. In the days after the attacks, citizens of countries the world over stood side by side with Americans. The unity was not a calculated act of political alignment, but something more basic than that. It was an expression of human decency, and an affirmation that before we are citizens, we are people. Today, in Ottawa, in Paris, in Jerusalem, the global community gathered again to demonstrate that, despite political differences, humanity reaffirms its commitment to itself.

But others chose to use the power of the day for their political agenda. Unable to wait for September 12th, and 13th, and 14th, and 15th, some decided to make today about politics, and ill-conceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and about American exceptionalism. The arguments may be fair, and well reasoned. But they are indicative of the extent to which we are unable to see past politics, even on September 11th, 2011. The outcome was dissonant contention on a day which should have been marked by dignity and peace.

We live in an age when people are more connected than any time in history. Yet we still are so often unable to overcome the artificial boundaries of politics. To mourn some is not enough. To fight to strengthen only part of humanity is not enough. To feel pain only on behalf of Egyptian soldiers or only civilians riding to Eilat is insufficient. Both groups had human value, and neither deserved to be targeted. To start deeper conflicts over the plethora we already have is foolish and shows how quickly we channel loss into resentment, sadness into hatred, and a need to heal into more pain.

On this 9/11, we must reaffirm that while our world has changed these past ten years, our humanity has not. Our fates are bound together, and together we will succeed in meeting the challenges which confront us. Let us not turn a blind eye to any human who suffers. Let us not value one life above another. And let us revisit our shock and raw grief today, so that tomorrow we may commit to the amelioration of the human condition wherever it needs our help.

Shalom Salaam Peace.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Israel Can No Longer Ignore the Egyptian Public

Egyptian protesters knocked down a wall around the Israeli embassy in Cairo and torn down the Israeli flag for the second time today. As of present, the protesters have also breached the embassy and eyewitnesses are reporting that protesters are throwing down Hebrew documents from the window. The situation remains volatile and ongoing.

The anger which the protesters are expressing has been brewing for decades under a Mubarak regime which aligned far more closely with Israel than the Egyptian public. But while the Mubarak regime acted with little regard for the Egyptian public, it's policy was based on security interests, not any love for Israel. As a result, Egyptians have had little contact with Israelis, and Israel has had very little penetration into the Egyptian public sphere. This means that anger and frustration with Israel has been removed from serious consideration of Israel's side of the story.

The reaction in the Israeli and American Jewish community so far is one of fear. A breach of an Israeli embassy is a serious matter which is likely to put even more pressure on an already delicate relationship between the Israeli government and the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Cynics will point to the riots as proof of pervasive anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world.

In the short term, Israel's primary interest is of course to secure its diplomatic personnel and reassure its public that the event does not threaten Israel's borders. In the long term, however, the tactical prescription is clear, and must occur imminently. After the fall of President Mubarak, Israel has no choice but to engage the Egyptian public.

There are a number of Egyptians expressing concern at the chaos happening at the Israeli embassy. They argue the actions are brash and detract from the real purpose of the January 25th revolution. By empowering these moderate elements (signaling in press engagements that Israel doesn't consider violent rioters the majority of the Egyptian public, for example), Israel can help delegitimize future riots and begin building the foundation of a public diplomacy strategy in Egypt which addresses some of the misperceptions Egyptians may have about Israel.

Already, Israel has made significant progress in its engagement with the Arab world. The government's social media presence in Arabic is impressive, and there are two IDF Arabic spokesmen (Avichai Adraee and Ofir Gendelman) who regularly appear on Arabic satellite media. The next step will be to hone not only the language of the message, but the information it conveys. Empathizing with the frustration of the Egyptians and facilitating engagements between Israeli and Egyptian citizens will be key first steps to this effort.

Of course, not all of the protesters and those who oppose Israel are motivated by raw emotion. Some are frustrated over the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and many fear Israel's military prowess. In its policy deliberations, the cost of capital in the Arab public sphere should be a serious consideration given its very real impact today in Cairo. Policy changes may incur short-term costs domestically, but the protests are yet another reminder that Israel's current strategy in the West Bank and Gaza is unsustainable. Israel is not to blame for the radical and dangerous actions of the protesters in Cairo. But there are political and diplomatic steps it can take to assure the integrity of its embassy and a better strategic relationship with Egypt in the future.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Turkey And Israel Stay Frenemies

The State Department expressed concern today about the deteriorating ties between Turkey and Israel. Last Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed "regret for the loss of life," but stopped short of apologizing for the IDF raid on the Mavi Marmara which killed 9 Turkish citizens on May 31, 2010. On Thursday, Turkey refused to urge the UN to with hold publication of the Palmer Report on the incident because Israel had maintained a refusal to apologize. That afternoon, before the incident had a chance to play itself out, the Palmer Report was leaked to the New York Times. On Friday Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and top diplomatic staff. This morning, Turkey suspended defense ties with Israel and warned of more sanctions on Israel. It also plans to challenge the legality of Israel's naval blockade at the Hague.

These deteriorations come after the Palmer Report concluded the naval blockade was legal, though it expressed serious concerns about Israel's land blockade. While the report accused the IDF of escalating too quickly, not broadcasting an intention to board the Mavi Marmara, and possibly roughing up detained passengers, the report is being seen in Israel as a rare victory at the UN. Given the general anti-Israel sentiments of the UN, its consideration of the naval blockade as legal is a diplomatic coup for Israel.

This perception of victory has affected greatly Israel's reaction to the Turkey situation. Since the Palmer Report was not taken as an attack on Israel's legitimacy but a strengthening of it, Israel is in a much more reconciliatory mood. The government is consistently stating that it values its relationship with Turkey and does not intend a deterioration of relations.

Turkey's government, on the other hand, has many potential reasons to continue being antagonistic. The actual calculus might be some combination of the following foreign policy considerations:

1) The Palmer report de-legitimized Turkey's position. It declared the naval blockade legal and Israel took it as a statement of support rather than isolation. Turkey may be reacting to a perceived loss by doubling down its efforts. The strong role pride plays in the Middle East may be exacerbating these efforts.

2) Turkey-Israel antagonism draws the attention of the West. The State Department's remarks today may be just what the government was looking for. Turkey seeks to be a key regional player in the Middle East. If it can make the US pay attention, it may be a reminder that Turkey matters strategically in the region.

3) Turkey strategic position has changed as a result of the Arab Spring. With the attention of the West focused largely on Egypt and Tunisia, Turkey's role as a regional player has been downgraded. After the infamous Davos Forum walkout in 2009, Prime Minister Erdogan was hailed as a leader of the Arab popular cause, even despite the fact he is Turkish. Now that the Middle East has seen popular revolutions, Erdogan is no longer in this position. By extension, Turkey's regional role has changed as well.

Regardless of reason, the poor relations are hurting both sides. Israel needs Turkey's friendship, defense cooperation, and water resources. Turkey needs Israel's defense cooperation (the sanctions probably hurt it more than Israel), its alignment with the United States, and its shared status as a non-Arab country in the Middle East. While actions in the political arena are dramatic, the long-term relationship of Turkey and Israel is likely to maintain itself. Creating this end state sooner rather than later would benefit all parties involved.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Milestone For Israel's Protest Movement

Tonight, about 450,000 Israelis protested the cost of living in Israel, nearly 300,000 of them in downtown Tel Aviv. While not the million that protest organizers had been advertising, the numbers are formidable and illustrate that the protest movement's momentum has not slowed down, even in the wake of the Eilat terror attacks August 18th.

The protests are one of many different pressures which the Israeli government is facing this September. A UN General Assembly vote on a Palestinian State will be highly politicized in Israel, as will today's news that Turkey will try to
refer Israel's blockade of Gaza to the Hague. In addition, the Durban III conference, widely expected to be antagonistic to Israel, will be held September 22nd.

The key challenge for the protest organizers will be to maintain political pressure and momentum through the opening of the Knesset's winter session in early October (unless an emergency session is called prior). The legislature, currently on summer recess, will likely take up the protests given their extremely high political salience. However, if the protests die down, it will be easier for political leaders to focus more on the multitude of other political issues first, translating to less political leverage for the protest movement.

The protests have shown formidable sticking power and tonight's protest is be an important milestone towards that which the protesters seek. However, the movement's political capital will have to be leveraged in the Knesset once the new session opens in order for the movement to effect concrete political change. However, even if the movement fails to reach this goal, it has created irreversible social change whose effects are likely to be farther reaching than any political settlement.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Big Weekend For Israel's Housing Protest

This Saturday evening, organizers are planning to hold one of the largest protest rallies in Israeli history. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected in downtown Tel Aviv in a rally which will feature performances by music and television stars.

The protest has garnered significant attention as the first major protest following the terror attacks of August 18th in Eilat. If successful, the protest will be a critical demonstration of the persistence of the protest movement. This month, this persistence will face challenges as Israel navigates several foreign policy and security situations. Today, the UN report on the Gaza flotilla incident was leaked by the New York Times in a way which is likely to harm Israeli-Turkey relations in the short term. Later this month, the UN General Assembly will be voting on a Palestinian state. Egypt-Israel relations also remain a matter of some concern.

Protest organizers anticipate that the government will attempt to re-direct the Israeli narrative to these serious foreign policy and security issues. Saturday's protest will be an indication of whether the movement will be overshadowed by the multiple diplomatic crises Israel faces. The protests have shown the promise of sustained momentum. Whether this momentum can continue will depend largely on events in Israel 48 hours from now.