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.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Panetta's Israel Visit A Carrot And Stick Game

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's trip to Israel comes at a critical moment. In the wake of the submission of a bid for Palestinian statehood at the UN, and a US-Israel relationship increasingly being framed in terms of defense, the Secretary's visit is an important strategic move by the United States and the Obama administration.

SecDef Panetta is trustworthy from the Israeli perspective. He is former director of the CIA, and has intricate knowledge of US-Israel defense cooperation. While diplomatically the US and Israel have had differences over the past three years, US-Israeli defense cooperation has only increased. Sending SecDef Panetta is a good way for the administration to exploit its strengths vis-a-vis the Israeli government. In an election year, this objective has heightened importance.

At the same time, the changing of the guard at the Pentagon allows Panetta a chance to introduce policy modifications. While heading the department with the closest alignment with Israel, Panetta called for Israel to "try to develop better relationships" with its neighboring countries, a rather explicit recommendation which may very well have been condemned had it come from the White House.

But there is another important message the Obama administration is sending with Panetta's trip. By sending SecDef Panetta this diplomatic round, the US has created a strong incentive for Israel not to alienate their American point of contact. The SecDef has extensive executive authority and is low enough in the chain of command that his message can be slightly less politically sterile than the President. While embarrassing Vice President Biden was a diplomatic fiasco in and of itself, alienating the American Secretary of Defense would be far more risky for Israel. Not only would there be a risk that physical aid to Israel might be jeopardized, but also the political cost in Israel would be higher. Israelis may have their disagreements with the Obama administration, but they also understand the US-Israel relationship to be of high strategic importance.

SecDef Panetta's offers the Israeli government an opportunity to strengthen the core of its relationship with the United States. However, it carries with it the risk of alienating one of the US government's most important principals from the Israeli perspective. In this regard, Secretary Panetta's visit is both a carrot and a stick.