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.