Monday, December 31, 2012

GovernFAIL 2012 Not (Entirely) The Government's Fault

The last Camel's Nose Blog post of 2012 comes as news of the fiscal cliff has broken in Washington.  No vote is scheduled tonight in an embarrassing failure for a Congress torn by what appears to be partisan interests and endemic inefficacy.  This outcome is highly unfortunate and unworthy of the people American lawmakers serve.

Israel's government too has seen its share of embarrassment over the past few days.  At a meeting of Israeli ambassadors, President Peres called President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas a "partner for peace" by way of criticizing the way Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had conducted the Ministry's affairs.  This led to more partisan statements on both sides.  Today, Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely openly opposed a two-state solution, forcing Prime Minister Netanyahu to reiterate his support over the objection of a member of his own party.  While Netanyahu is expected to sail to victory in Israel's elections on January 22, deep dissatisfaction remains in Israeli society over the direction of its foreign policy (see just one example from today's Haaretz).

In both the US and Israeli cases, analysts have been quick to blame the partisanship of actors for these embarrassments.  While some blame is rightfully reserved for these actors, structural limitations act on both governments as well.  Scholars of American politics (for example, these guys) can speak with more authority than this blogger to the way the U.S. Congress is a multi-dimensional policy space where agreement hard to create.  For its part, the government of Israel suffers from structural problems of its own. These problems create the endemic shortsightedness of Israel's rational leaders.  Long-term planning is good for Israel but foolish for politicians in the current government system.

Israel was designed as a dominant party system but is now a multi-party system.  The Mapai party dominated Israeli politics until 1977, when the Likud party won a sweeping victory.  Now, Israel's parliament is more ideologically multi-faceted and therefore more unstable.  This means that every decision a leader makes has a profound impact on the state of the governing coalition.  

This is because Israel's legislators are also its executors.  While in the U.S. the executive branch's separation from the legislative branch allows it to act quickly without risk of immediate political retribution from the public, Israel's "executive" is a security cabinet comprised of Knesset ministers and headed by the Prime Minister.  This means that immediate parliamentary concerns play into every security decision the state makes.  If President Obama were risking a change in Senate leadership from Democratic to GOP every time he made a security decision, it would restrict the time horizon of his foreign policy options to a more short-term focus.  This is the status quo for most decision-makers in Israel.  

Two notable exceptions are members of the Israeli Supreme Court and the Israel Defense Forces, a point Anshel Pfeffer reiterates in today's Haaretz.  Yesterday, the Supreme Court overturned a politically-motivaed ban on an Arab Knesset member's candidacy in the upcoming elections, for which it drew criticism.  For its part, the Israel Defense Forces play such a vital political role in Israel precisely because their mission success requires understanding long-term as well as short-term threats to Israel.  However, in single-handedly conveying the importance of political foresight, the IDF fills a political vacuum which siphons resources from its more pressing threats and blurs the civil-military distinction in Israel even more than it is otherwise blurred.

While blaming Bibi and Lieberman for some of Israel's more questionable foreign policy decisions is to some extent warranted, a real change of direction will require modifying Israel's governing institutions.  Israel has made such institutional changes in the past.  For example, in 1996 Israelis voted for Prime Minister on a separate ballot (the practice was later switched back to the current single ballot system in 2001).  Ultimately, those who decide Israeli foreign policy are rational politicians who will do what they must to remain in power.  Israel's institutions should therefore better insulate these politicians from immediate political retribution, freeing them to take a longer term perspective on the long road to a secure Israel which lies ahead in the new year.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Gravel For Gazans, Step One Of Many

Yesterday, Israel's Defense Ministry confirmed it was easing restrictions on items entering the Gaza Strip.  Almost definitely a result of Israel's cease-fire agreement with Hamas, important construction items including gravel will now be permitted to enter.  

Easing the blockade is a good move by the Government of Israel.  It sends a credible commitment to Hamas, Israel's Arab neighbors, and the international community that it is committed to the terms of the cease-fire agreement.  It is evidence of Israel's aversion to re-igniting tensions with Hamas, at least in the short term. However, most importantly, it is a prime example of the effect of international pressure on Israel's foreign policy.  While Israel is loathe to admit it, international pressure plays a role on the country's foreign policy decision making process - as such pressures do in any state.  Allowing gravel into the Gaza strip not only demonstrates a credible commitment to Hamas.   It also signals a closer alignment with the international community which has expressed concern over the Gaza blockade.  Allowing gravel into the Gaza Strip is of course only one part of a larger blockade whose secondary effects include malnourishment and severe economic difficulties. However, this policy change indicates that policymakers in the Israeli government are smartly taking a wider set of Israeli interests into account.  One can only hope that the resignation of Israel's inept Foreign Minister two weeks ago will further empower these policymakers.

The move also shows that certain restrictions on certain dual-use items are superfluous to Israel's security and incur a disproportionate political cost (as I argued here and here).  The security threat from the Gaza Strip is real, but the relative threat of allowing gravel into the area has not changed between now and November 21st when the cease-fire was signed.  What has changed is Israel's political calculus.  These changes are welcome and will advance the security of the Jewish State.  However, if it takes a near war to achieve such changes in the future, Israel is in for a tough road ahead.  Acting preemptively to change ineffective security policies allows Israel to dictate the pace and terms of these changes rather than being pressured into them by the international community.  Controlling the terms of these changes is the best choice for a secure Israel.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Arab Parties In Israel Under Pressure

In a rambunctious Knesset hearing today, the Central Election Committee voted against allowing MK Hanein Zoabi to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections.  Lahav Harkov of the Jerusalem Post who live-tweeted the hearing, reports that Zoabi's party, Balad, will still be permitted to participate.

MK Zoabi famously drew criticism after her participation in the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010.  Her choice led to a rowdy Knesset session during which the MKs voted to remove Zoabi's diplomatic passport, entitlement to financial assistance, and the right to visit countries with whom Israel has no diplomatic relations.  Today's hearing was partially centered on Zoabi, but the discussion of Balad ultimately put on the table the role of Israel's Arab political parties more broadly.

The hearing reflects the deep political mistrust which exists in Israeli society towards Arab political parties, including Balad, Raam-Taal, the United Arab List, and the Arab Democratic Party.  In his remarks to the committee today, Likud MK Danny Danon said that it is important to have Arab parties in the Knesset, but not ones which take advantage of democracy and use government funds to harm the country.  He then accused Balad of helping Hizbullah during the 2006 war in Lebanon, a reference to former Balad MK Amzi Bishara.  At the same time, Arab parties are often cited as exemplary of the extent of Israel's openness and democratic practices.  These dual views on Arab parties create a tension common in many ethnically-divided democracies, wherein many parliament members support the party's existence in principle but are wary of its politics in practice. 

Arab parties in Israel are also under pressure because Arab youth are less engaged with them than in years past.  As of late, these parties have come into competition with the Islamic movement, which often takes a more youth populist line over social issues such as national service as well as Israel's relationship with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  These positions resonate more with youth than those of Arab parties like Balad which historically allies with the communist Hadash party.  

To remain relevant political actors, Arab political parties in Israel face the task of aligning more closely with Arab youth while also building trust between themselves mainstream Knesset parties other than Meretz on the far-left.  This balancing act is very difficult, and leaves Arab youth in Israel in a bind as well.  Increasingly, these youth face the choice of either turning to the Islamic movement, or becoming disenfranchised from politics completely.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Self-Interest And The Israeli-Arab Conflict

Last week's post concerned the strategy and decision-making process behind Hasbara.  it argued that the pro-Israel community as an institution ultimately was not meeting its goals of "supporting" Israel, a controversial point sure to raise debate...and raise debate it did.  @EliasAriel responded that "support" is not a monolithic concept, an important point which future iterations of this argument will need to address head-on.  That is, the argument will need to demonstrate the accuracy of what it treats as the "intended outcome." 

On such a polarized issue as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is often difficult to distinguish the objective self-interests of states from the subjective preferences of American policy analysts, or at the least to acknowledge that a debate exists.  Analysts make a mistake by overlooking these debates, and I am grateful to have been nudged in the right direction early on in the process of crafting my own argument.  Even if the goal of highlighting the debate is to take a side in it, acknowledging the difficulty of defining its terms is important to a strong and persuasive argument.

One of the most egregious examples of a failure to acknowledge this difference is The Israel Lobby, a text by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer that argues the American "Israel Lobby" causes the U.S. to support Israel in certain ways that are against its self-interest.  Walt and Mearsheimer's book suffers from many shortcomings, but one of the biggest is the failure to acknowledge the debate around U.S. self interest.  Ask a liberal and a conservative what U.S. self-interest is regarding foreign policy and one is likely to get different answers.  While at the moment both parties are aligned on some foreign policy issues, this has not historically been the case and is not at all guaranteed to persist in the long term.  Walt and Mearsheimer are concerned about U.S. interests, but interests as they subjectively define them.  The outcome is an argument about the "Israel Lobby" which is less than convincing, to say the least.

Analysts must be careful to note their own subjective biases in framing their research.  While such preferences are the sign of a deep investment in the subject matter, they also can lead us astray.  Most importantly, no analyst should consider him or herself above the subjective perceptions which all people bring to their understanding of politics.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On "Defending" Israel During Pillar Of Defense

During Operation Pillar of Defense, the U.S. Jewish community was vocal in its defense of Israel.  Pro-Israel organizations released statements, held press conferences and rallies, and made media appearances in which they reiterated support for Israel.  In many cases, this support was not only for Israel as a State or Israelis as a people, but for specific policies of the Government of Israel.

When Israel announced Operation Pillar of Defense on November 14, 2012, the U.S. pro-Israel community expressed support for the operation.  "We stand with Israel as it fulfills its most basic responsibility as a democracy: defending the nation," stated the Jewish Federation of Atlanta on the first morning of the operation.  The David Project tweeted a similar response, specifically referencing the operation: "What would the US govt do if rockets were fired at its citizens?  Does Israel have other options than military force in the short or long run?"  StandWithUs retweeted the justification given by the Israel Defense Force Spokesperson: "135 rockets have been fired at Israel in the last 11 hours alone.  What would you do if you country was under attack?"  Such messages of support were intended to advance the legitimate goal of supporting Israeli public diplomacy with the American public.

On November 21st, Israel and Hamas implemented a joint cease-fire agreement.  In a press conference hours before the cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that "the right thing for the State of Israel is to take advantage of the opportunity for a protracted cease-fire."  The Prime Minister's sentiments were echoed in subsequent statements by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The U.S. pro-Israel community, however, was skeptical of the Israeli government's decision.  "Sirens sounding in Sderot now. Ceasefire over. That lasted 18 minutes if you don't count Beer Sheva at 9 exactly," tweeted StandWithUs.  While statements about Israel's decision to open Operation Pillar of Defense framed it as an Israeli government decision, the U.S. pro-Israel community tended to frame the cease-fire agreement in more neutral terms.  While Israel "defended itself" with the military operation, a cease-fire agreement "took effect" according to the Jewish Federations of North America.  "Israel-Hamas ceasefire to take effect at 9pm - Do you think it will hold?" asked the David Project, linking to a Times of Israel piece which was similarly skeptical. The next day, the David Project asked "are you thankful the Israel-Hamas cease-fire is holding thus far?" to which a constituent responded "Yes.  You Guys?"  The David Project responded with a demure statement, "We are thankful and happy the rockets have stopped falling on Israel."

The point is not the pro-Israel organizations hate cease-fires.  On the contrary, most of the organizations reiterated their commitment to peace, and supported Israel's pursuit of peace.  The point is that the phrase "support for Israel" has a very particular meaning as the pro-Israel community deploys it.  Supporting Operation Pillar of Defense was supporting Israel.  Specifically supporting the government's decision to sign a cease-fire agreement was not.  Why?

The difference is not accounted for by the idea that pro-Israel activists are warmongers.  Rather, this difference is explained by the inward focus of the pro-Israel community.  Had the community been focused on engaging moderates outside the community, actively supporting a cease-fire agreement would have promoted Israel's (rightful) image as a peace-seeking society and would have given the Israeli government much-deserved credit for taking a long-term focus.  A previous post on this blog explains just how important and praiseworthy this decision was.  

But the pro-Israel community is focused on internal unity, not engaging those outside its ranks.  Many members of this community believe that unity underlies a "strong" defense of Israel, but the failure to exploit the cease-fire agreement for Israel's public relations benefit is a textbook example of how the focus on unity is setting back pro-Israel advocacy in the United States.  

To successfully defend Israel in the future, the pro-Israel community will need to do two things.  First, it must engage more outside its ranks than inside them.  Second, It will need to embrace the inherent diversity of pro-Israel opinion rather than fighting it (this goes for the pro-Israel left as well as the pro-Israel right).  Military operations are easy points of unity but they do not sell Israel to a public legitimately concerned about Palestinian human rights and innocent casualties. 

These changes are institutional and require deep introspection and changes.  But the state on behalf of whom these changes would be made is worth the time and effort of a strong defense.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Support Israel's Pivot To The Long-Term On Gaza

Negotiations over a cease-fire agreement continue between Israel and Hamas in Cairo and both sides show willingness - in principle - to accept a deal.  Many analysts on both sides of the conflict remain skeptical that an agreement is possible, but may be overlooking the importance of the timing of this conflict.  Leaders from Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia have been highly visible in supporting Palestinians but also have been working to mediate a deal between them and the Israelis.  Given that each of these countries has risen in prominence during the Arab Spring, it may be that these efforts are more likely to be successful than in years past.  This development is positive for the long-term future of the region despite some of the polarizing and downright offensive rhetoric their involvement has entailed.

For its part, Israel's government appears to be taking a longer-term focus as well.  As mentioned in an earlier post, Israel is mobilizing slowly to give the negotiation process time and is not eager to repeat the experience of Operation Cast Lead in 2008.  In other words, Israel's government has learned from past experience and is actively responding to earlier mistakes.  Importantly, it is shifting from a more short-term consideration of its interests to one which takes the medium-term and long-term into account as well (more on this subject here).  To the extent Prime Minister Netanyahu is responsible, he deserves credit for this policy choice.

The importance of a broadened consideration of interests on the part of Israel's government cannot be understated.  This expansion of the timeframe in which Israel considers its interests will make the difference between an Israel which is able to choose its future and an Israel which is forced to accept sub-optimal arrangements under great international and domestic pressure.

To that end, the global pro-Israel community should support, and support strongly, the efforts of the Israeli government to conclude a negotiated settlement to the current conflict in Gaza.  If the agreement falls through, the community will still gain credibility among the broader public by supporting non-violence over more intense violence and more civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip.  This support would not only mobilize the pro-Israel base, but also resonate with non-affiliated or moderate but concerned communities.  Some U.S. pro-Israel organizations have begun supporting this critical move by Israel's government.  More of them should do so.  

When Israel began airstrikes, pro-Israel groups worldwide mobilized and went full-court press in support of the decision.  Now, it is critical that they support Israel's demonstration of a fact true supporters of Israel have always known: Israel is strong in war-fighting, but stronger in peacemaking.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Proportionality In Gaza A Complex Issue For IDF

There have been a number of analysts and journalists raising the issue of proportionality in Gaza.  Israelis and their supporters argue that Israel's targeting of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas leaders and weapons storage facilities is a clearly proportionate response to Hamas' blatant targeting of the Israeli civilian population.  Palestinians and their supporters argue that those rockets have done little damage, while in contrast Israel has incurred numerous civilian casualties during Operation Amud Anan.

The doctrine of proportionality is codified in Article 51 of the Draft Articles of State Responsibility.  The text of the article reads:

"Countermeasures must be commensurate with the injury suffered, taking into account the gravity of the internationally wrongful act and the rights in question."

While international lawyers can much better explain what each of those key components mean, political analysts can explain the complexities of measuring a "commensurate" response.  The issue is far from simple and the standard is highly subjective.  Examining three potential metrics sheds light on just how complex an issue proportionality is.

First, we could define commensurate in body counts, as some Palestinians and their supporters have done.  In this regard there is no question that Palestinian deaths (53) outweigh the number of Israeli deaths (3).  However, this metric leaves out the fact that these casualties occur as part of a two-sided process.  One side is attacking but the other side is defending.  So, should analysts measure a commensurate response in terms of capabilities?  If so, should they consider capabilities of offense, defense, or some combination of both?  Is a country with better defensive capabilities less entitled to respond than a country without them given the same severity of attack?  

Further complicating the picture is the question of strategic intentions.  The impossible question of "who started it?" ultimately shapes the way analysts understand these intentions, but certain aspects of the conflict widely are understood.  Gaza-based groups targeted Tel Aviv specifically because it was a populated urban area.  The strategy of these groups is to target civilians with no connection to policymaking whatsoever.  On the other hand, Israel targeting Palestinian civilians on purpose is clearly outside the boundaries of proportionality.  Yet even the most carefully planned IDF response involves a risk of killing civilians because in 2012, the West's technological advancement is inferior to its moral advancement. Israel simply cannot strike the Gaza Strip without risking killing innocent people.  When the Government of Israel fails to use political measures effectively (threatening to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages, for example), the IDF is forced to choose between an imperfect response or to continue letting the Israeli population continue to live under fire.

Of course, strategic intentions mean very little when measured against outcomes.  Explaining to a Palestinian family in Beit Lahiya whose 3 and 5 year old children have been killed that "it was an accident" is not very persuasive.  One of the tenets of effective counterinsurgency is that actions speak louder than words.  All the hasbara in the world is not going to convince Palestinians, the Arab world, or the international community that the civilian deaths Israel has incurred are justified.  Additionally, many analysts confuse a justified response with an effective one.  Even if Israel is justified in striking urban-based objectives, doing so still may not be an effective strategy since a fatal outcome for civilians limits future decision-making.

As a bookend to the debate, it bears consideration that perfectly proportionate outcomes would not create peace but rather stalemates which can easily kill as many people as an all-out war.  States win wars when they can project more force or leverage more capabilities than their adversary, not proportional force.  Practically no one is satisfied with the ongoing stalemate between Israel and Gaza, and as long as it continues perfectly good people on both sides will continue to die.  Of course, at the same time, an Israeli show of overwhelming force would in reality kill many innocent people on both sides and would risk widening the conflict to a regional level.  

The real question which emerges from the debate is whether military superiority can be effective at all in an asymmetric conflict, and how a doctrine of proportionality applies to two entities that play by different rules.  What does a proportional response to a Hamas' armed wing look like in the real world?  The complexities of the issue are ones that scholars, military commanders, and policy decision-makers will continue to grapple with far after the end of Operation Amud Anan.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Israel's Mobilization: Credible Commitment?

As rumors swirl about the possibility of a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, an important fact bears note: Israel has been ramping up its military operations for nearly a week.  Yet time is not on Israel's side.  Every day brings more international pressure and more animosity from the Arab world.  In 2008, Israel pursued airstrikes and ground strikes simultaneously.  With any operation in Gaza, Israel is racing against a diplomatic clock.  Yet its timeline of escalation has been extended for nearly a week.  What explains this puzzling behavior?

The answer is that Israel is reluctant to enter into a ground war in the Gaza Strip.  The Prime Minister knows that such an operation would be a risky move, and the IDF is likely apprehensive about repeating the ordeal of Operation Cast Lead.  Israel's slow mobilization indicates its genuine desire to avoid an invasion if possible.  Regardless of whether rumors of a cease fire are true, Israel has not rushed into war, as it did in 2006 when the discussion preceding the war lasted only a few hours.  

To the government's credit, it has explored alternatives to full out war.  The coming hours will tell if that hesitance is enough of a credible signal to Hamas that it is willing to abide by the terms of a negotiated agreement.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Israel Ties Its Hands In Gaza

Israel's airstrike earlier today on Ahmed Jabari has effectively tied its hands and committed the Jewish State to a military campaign against Hamas.  Given the response from Hamas today - at least 55 rocket attacks on Southern Israel - it will be hard for Israel to prevent an escalation in the use of force.  It will be under increased pressure from the Israeli public and Jewish diaspora to reduce rocket fire, and has a very limited number of options left on the table.  Meanwhile, four Israelis have suffered shrapnel wounds from the rocket attacks.  In Gaza, two children have been killed in Israeli airstrikes, one 7 years old and one 11 months old.

In effect, Israel has selected the middle of three options with regards to the intensity of a response.  On the one hand, Israel can do nothing in response to the rocket fire which has affected hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the South.  However, this option is unrealistic given Israeli public opinion and the basic obligation of a state to defend its citizens.  On the other hand, it can go guns blazing into Gaza in what is sure to be a repeat of Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9.  As mentioned in yesterday's post, the execution of that operation remains controversial and the Israeli public is not anxious to repeat it.  The middle option, which Israel has selected, is targeted airstrikes.  With this option, Israel uses force to degrade Hamas' capabilities to target Israeli citizens but holds short of committing to the intrinsic risks of an armed invasion of Gaza.  The problem of course is that once Israel commits to some form of military action, the risk of escalation from that point remains high.  There is still a significant chance that Israel will either choose or be forced into a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.  If Hamas targets Tel Aviv, an invasion is almost certain.

This risk could not possibly have been overlooked by Israel's decision makers, and it makes the ultimate choice to pursue airstrikes puzzling.  Has Israel chosen the least bad among a number of terrible options, having learned the true costs of ground invasion from Operation Cast Lead?  Is Israel starting with a relatively low-intensity response with the intent of blaming Hamas for a highly possible escalation?  While Israel has invoked the doctrine of self-defense over its decision to strike, it has not yet defined what outcome it seeks in the Gaza Strip.  Its inability to articulate this specific outcome will limit not only the support it receives from the international community, but the IDF's ability to achieve the mission.

Exacerbating the situation, the Arab League has announced intentions to meet Saturday over the violence in Gaza.  While the meeting's outcome will be symbolic at best, it will formally place the Arab League's position at odds with that of the United States, which is likely to issue a more-or-less boilerplate statement.  This US-Arab League tension will harm U.S efforts elsewhere in the region, including its attempt to solidify new Syrian rebel leadership.  Israel has calculated that the chance of alienating the newly re-elected President is worth the benefit of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.  However, the long-term cost will be paid in U.S and Israeli soft power (what little it has) in the region.

In addition, any military action by Israel will only shorten the timeline in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will come to a head.  As it stands, analysts of all political shades concur that the status quo is unsustainable.  Israel has two choices: make small and calculated concessions now to cut its losses, or be forced to accept the terms of a suboptimal agreement under international pressure.  While military action may be all but assured at this point, the long-term consequences will not be in Israel's favor.  For the residents of Gaza and Southern Israelis, the consequences are assured to be nothing short of devastating.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Facing Facts On Gaza And Israel's Iron Dome

Yesterday, Israel's Iron Dome missile system intercepted several incoming rockets from the Gaza Strip.  Media reports indicate that the system intercepted at least 2 rockets in Ofakim, 2 in Netivot, 2 in Ashkelon, and 1 in Beer Sheva.  

Deployed in 2011, the political purpose of Iron Dome is to relieve public pressure on the Israeli government to take military action in the Gaza Strip.  The system was deployed in the wake of Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon in which Hezbullah launched thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel's north.  In 2008, rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip also preceded the start of Operation Cast Lead.  When such rockets fall in civilian areas, residents have a 15-second window to find shelter.  Post-traumatic stress disorder in areas which see frequent rocket attacks is well-documented, and the attacks create public pressure on the Israeli government to respond.

The question of how the government should react, however, is far more complicated.  The risks of armed invasion are clear from Israel's last invasion of Gaza in 2008, Operation Cast Lead.  The invasion drew legitimate criticism from the international community for Israel's tactics, including the use of white phosphorous - a weapon which caused severe burns and even death - in Palestinian civilian areas.  

Iron Dome was deployed in part to prevent the inherent risks of another Operation Cast Lead.  But even if Israel chooses not to invade Gaza - this time - there can be little doubt that deployment of the system was not enough to ensure a long-term cease-fire between the two sides.  It was never intended to do so.  The Iron Dome system is one small tool in a large array of military and political strategies.  Yet the Israeli Government has used it as a mainstay of its Gaza policy.  This move is a mistake.  It turns Iron Dome into a bandaid on a festering wound which other Israeli policies needlessly are exacerbating, damaging Iron Dome's efficacy.

Israel's blockade on Gaza includes prohibitions on materials and items with no clear national security purpose.  Five years after the blockade initially was imposed, there has been little observable security benefit from banning these non-military and non-dual-use items.  Internationally, Israel's Foreign Minister has pursued a condescending and disrespectful foreign policy while simultaneously decrying the lack of respect the international community shows his government, including on its policy towards Gaza.  Israel's Prime Minister invites Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table while simultaneously expanding settlement activity and alienating them.  

Supporters of these policies may point to the "rights" of the Israeli government to pursue them, and it may very well be the case that the steps are legitimate policy options.  However, they have done little to advance the security of the border communities in Israel's south, and even less to advance Israel's security overall.  If anything, they have made the situation worse.

Ultimately, Israel will be secure when it expands the short-term outlook of its foreign policy decision making process.  In Israel's early days, the short-term was the only one for which Israel could plan.  It faced the prospect of imminent destruction, attacks on multiple fronts, and wary great power allies.  However, Israel's leadership now has the opportunity to adjust its security posture to a longer or at least more medium-term framework.  Such a reframing doesn't mean Israel should neglect completely the short-term.  However, Israel's inability to broaden the time horizon upon which it makes decisions explains many of its ineffective policies.  On the Gaza border, these are shortcomings for which the Iron Dome system alone cannot be expected reasonably to compensate.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Will Bibi Go To War With Hamas In Gaza?

Over the past 72 hours, over 100 rockets have fallen in Israel, closing schools in the South and prompting the Israeli government to action.  The Knesset is meeting despite being in a state of recess, and this morning  Israel's diplomatic corps received a briefing on Israel's right to respond.  In addition, Israel has responded to being hit with a Syrian army shell in the Golan Heights.  This is the second Israeli response to a spillover in Syrian fighting in as many days.

It may be that such measures are designed to demonstrate a credible commitment to a military response.  In the wake of numerous operations and airstrikes in Gaza over the past decade, Israel needs to do more and more to show that this time it is in fact serious.  It is possible that the severity of Israel's preparations for war are designed as a signal to scare Hamas into reducing rocket fire as part of an Egypt-brokered agreement.  At the same time, they may be a signal based on Israel's actual intentions to invade the Gaza Strip.

At the center of the decision-making process in this latest flare-up in violence is Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.  After calling for early elections, the Prime Minister is in a precarious position.  His Likud party's alliance with the Yisrael Beiteinu party is expected to do well, but not win by a landslide.  In addition, centrist and leftist parties in the Knesset are beginning to gain traction.  While the leaders of these parties support, in principle, some armed intervention into Gaza, they are a liability for the Prime Minister and could quickly balance against him politically by criticizing any mistakes the government makes during the execution of a potential war.  Netanyahu would know this effect well, given that he used it back in late 2008-early 2009 to degrade support for then-PM Tzipi Livni and the Kadima party.  In this regard, it may be the case that in late 2012, the tables will turn.

In addition, the Israeli public has been concerned with Netanyahu's apparent support for Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Israelis, while not resounding supporters of the Obama administration's Israel policy, fear that Netanyahu is unnecessarily distancing himself and Israel from the United States.  Given that a Middle East war is not exactly line one of the Obama administration's foreign policy agenda, invading Gaza could be seen, in the medium-to-long term, as a policy which only exacerbates these differences.  As many analysts have pointed out (Here, here, and here, for example), Obama is unlikely to seek "revenge" against Netanyahu.  At the same time, Israelis may not want to take the risk of further alienating the administration.

At the same time, the severity of the situation in Israel's south may very well force a response by the Prime Minister.  He likely will conceptualize this response in the short term, consistent historically with Israeli foreign policy decision-making.  While the wisdom of an armed invasion of Gaza is very much in question given the nature of Hamas, the state of the Arab World, international public opinion, and an uncertain U.S. response, there can be little doubt that the situation requires a response.  While the Iron Dome missile system has intercepted some rockets it has failed to hold back political pressure.  At the same time, Israel would be well within its rights as a sovereign state to act in its self defense with a kinetic response to rockets.  

In addition, PM Netanyahu might calculate that the Obama administration is also seeking to repair ties with Israel.  Or more likely, he might calculate that the need to defend Israel's short term interests outweighs any cost it will have to pay in terms of a hit to its political capital with the United States.

In the Knesset, Netanyahu may suffer in the long term, but may be thinking in the short term.  The long-term risk of political opposition may be worth it to the Prime Minister for the short-term rally-around-the-flag effect.

Ultimately, the rapid escalation of the situation is shortening the time-horizon in which the Prime Minister and his advisors are making decisions.  The shorter the timeframe one considers, the more efficient armed intervention appears as an option.  However, while Israel would be within its rights to respond militarily, its leaders should take a moment to plan for the medium and long term consequences of such an intervention.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Middle East Memo For President-Elect Obama Or Romney

Dear Mr. President-Elect,

     Congratulations on your election/re-election.  Your term beginning in 2013 will bring with it a number of challenges both domestic and foreign.  The Middle East is likely to remain a critical area of focus for United States foreign policy during your term.  In particular, there are three major trends which will require your attention.

First, the Arab Spring will continue to test American moral authority.  The Arab Spring is ongoing and will likely continue for the duration of your presidency.  Protests demanding reform continue to spread throughout the region, including a major protest yesterday in Kuwait. As conflicts unfold, the U.S. will need to continue to play a careful supporting role in the region.  It must support peaceful reforms without interfering in countries' internal affairs.  In Syria, American moral authority is being tested and it is failing that test.  I urge you to put resolution of the Syrian conflict, which has claimed 36,000 lives so far, at the top of your Middle East agenda.

Second, Iran will continue to destabilize the region and threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East.  Sanctions are taking their toll on Iran's government and its people.  In the early days of your term, it will be important to strike a policy with the right balance of carrots and sticks to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions.  Military intervention must remain an option, but economic and diplomatic pressure are the best tools for inducing Iran to cease weaponizing Uranium.  You must work closely with Israel and strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship to ensure the success of any actions taken against Iran's government.  You must also work closely with the GCC and Gulf States, important allies in a geopolitically strategic position.

Finally, the United States must re-posture its outreach in the region.  Arab publics have never been more important to U.S. foreign policy decisions as they are in the wake of the Arab Spring.  The Arab public, like the U.S. public, hold a multitude of opinions and are often impatient with U.S. policymaking.  However, making inroads to individuals via social media and face-to-face engagement are critical steps to mitigating animosity and building trust between the Arab public and the U.S. government.  Investing in infrastructure and advising political transitions are two ways to show that the U.S. commitment to the region is not superficial, but rather part of a long-term partnership.

Mr. President-Elect, you are inheriting a Middle East in transition.  Managing these transitions to advance U.S. interests is a tricky and tedious process.  The policies explained above will preserve the United States' position as an important influencer in the Middle East.  This self-interest need not be mutually exclusive with the needs of citizens of the Middle East.  Ultimately, finding overlap between the two is the best way to ensure the long-term vitality of America's position in the region.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Netanyahu Splits Israel's Center In Knesset Elections

The blogosphere has produced some excellent pieces over the past few days regarding the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu merger.  The move is a puzzling one for a couple of reasons.  First, Yisrael Beiteinu is already the coalition partner of the Likud.   What the Prime Minister has in effect done is to call new elections, only to preemptively create the same coalition in the Knesset that exists now.  Second, Likud's aligning with Yisrael Beiteinu leaves the political center wide open.  Given that this is where the majority of Israeli voters are,  PM Netanyahu is pursuing a policy that Michael Koplow is correct in calling "strange and risky" in his Ottomans and Zionists post this morning.

Yet while the merger is admittedly strange, it may make a certain amount of sense.  As an earlier post on this blog argues, this election is about the small parties in the center of the Israeli political spectrum.  Ultimately, it may be the cost of co-opting these parties that explains PM Netanyahu's decision to run the Likud on a joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu.

In these next Israeli elections, there are a number of small centrist parties running candidates.  These include Yesh Atid, Atzmaut, a possible Olmert/Ashkenazi party, and Tzedek Chevrati, a new social justice party which may swing far left but would be well-advised to remain more-or-less centrist.  These parties are new, their leaders are inexperienced, and are not necessarily likely to form a joint list on their own.

However, these small parties might be persuaded to run on a joint list with a larger party.  There are three such parties on the current Israeli political scene: Likud, Labor, and Kadima.  Each of these parties would certainly be strengthened by drafting smaller centrist parties into its ranks on a joint list.  So why has Netanyahu aligned with Yisrael Beiteinu and effectively pushed this option off the table?

The answer may be that co-opting these parties takes time, effort, and political capital, and is not guaranteed to work.   By calling elections, PM Netanyahu drew these small parties into the political fray.  By aligning with Yisrael Beiteinu, PM Netanyahu is in a sense "buck passing" the cost to Labor and Kadima.  This move creates a fight for the center between the Labor and Kadima parties, which in the grand scheme of things will be a fight for second place.  The Likud-Beiteinu alignment keeps the Prime Minister and his party above the fray while Shaul Mofaz and Shelly Yechimovitch duke it out with each other.  Netanyahu has left the center open, but there are so many parties vying for centrist votes that it might not make a difference in the election.

Further bolstering the Likud Party is the fact that Shelly Yechimovitch has lambasted Shaul Mofaz for his alignment with Likud this summer, calling it "the most ridiculous zigzag in Israel's political history."  Nothing is impossible in Israeli politics, but the likelihood of a Labor-Kadima coalition remains low for the time being.

The biggest question, of course, is whether PM Netanyahu actually intended any of this to happen.  One hypothesis is that he originally called elections to raise the number of Likud seats in the Knesset.  However, seeing polls indicating that was unlikely, he made a move to align with Yisrael Beiteinu.  Given that the joint list does not appear to have increased support from its constituency, other surprises may be in store.  Ultimately, the situation affirms one of the cardinal rules of Israeli politics: Expect the unexpected.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Israelis Support Apartheid? Not So Fast.

Yesterday, Haaretz ran as its top headline a story by Gideon Levy that "Most Israeli Jews would Support Apartheid Regime in Israel."  The actual poll, commissioned by Dialog, was released in Hebrew today by Avi Mayer of the Jewish Agency.

One of the few useful skills Ph.D students acquire during our graduate studies is the ability to analyze research designs.  With regards to research on controversial subjects, a good design is all the more important.  Previous research by Tel Aviv University, ACRI, the Center for Racism, and Dahaf have shown that racism is in fact an issue in contemporary Israel society.  Especially given that Israel was founded as a democracy, that any Israelis would support banning Arabs from voting for Knesset is concerning and worth researching.  The same holds for similar attitudes in Europe or the United States.  

Thus, the academics who set out to conduct a poll of Israeli public opinion are right in their desire to better assess such attitudes in Israeli society.  What their poll also gets right is that it interviews a random sample of 503 Israelis.  503 is a slightly small sample size but carries a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4%.  Statisticians like about a 3% margin of error, but getting enough respondents (about 1,000) is expensive, especially for a small firm like Dialog.  

However, the claim that this poll shows Israelis support apartheid or accept that Israel is currently an apartheid is unsubstantiated by this poll.  Yesterday, the Daily Beast's Noam Shelef was able to show, without the full poll, that the poll was not saying what Levy claimed it was.  Now that the poll itself is released, here are three more problems:

1) The poll has unclear coding.

The poll reports respondents in five groups: Russian, Haredi, Religious, Traditional (Masorti), and Secular.  There are three problems with these groupings:

a) It's unclear whether each respondent was put into each category according to a set of objective criteria, or self-selected.

b) It's unclear whether the size of each sample is representative of the general population.  A group which is 10% of the population might have been 20% of the sample size.

c) There's overlap between categories.  Russian Jews could easily be coded as secular, for example. 

2) The poll results show large in-group variation.

An engineer, physicist, and statistician go hunting for deer.  The engineer shoots too far to the left.  The physicist shoots too far to the right.  The statistician says "We got him!"

The problem with the reported data is that it over-generalizes the results of the sample.  In reality, the poll data demonstrate large variation across each group.  For example:

"#6: In your opinion, is it desirable to pass a law that would ban Arabs from voting for Knesset?"

                  Russians   Haredi    Religious   Traditional   Secular   Total
Desirable:      7%         70%        52%          43%          18%     33%

To generalize about "Israeli society" given such huge variation across sub-groups is tricky.  The 33% "total" is probably a mean, but a median would also be informative in this regard.  It would likely reveal a skewed (i.e. hard to generalize) distribution given the strong preferences of Haredim.  A more accurate claim than "Israeli Jews are racist" would be "Religious Jewish Israelis tend to support restricting Arab rights in Israel."  

2) The poll does not control for ethnicity.

The poll does not break down the response of the Mizrahi population of Israel, who are Arab Jews.  Based on previous research, this would likely bolster the findings of the poll as Mizrahim generally tend to be socially conservative.  However, If the intent of the poll is to demonstrate a convincing correlation between religion and racism against Arabs in Israel, it needs to show that controlling for ethnicity does not harm the significance of the results.  Translation: How do we know its Israeli Jews, and not Israeli Ashkenazim (or any other sub-group) that support discrimination?  If we don't, the poll isn't saying what people are claiming it says.

As a side note, the poll doesn't ask the responses of Israeli Muslim Arabs.  This isn't a problem with the poll itself, but it is a point which isn't explicit in the original Haaretz article and most other reporting on the poll.  Arab Israelis represent about 20% of the state's population.  That means the polls results cannot be generalized to the Israeli public at large, but only to Israel's Jewish population. While Israel's population is itself a majority, polling Jews to draw inferences about Israelis is over-generalization.

3) The poll is based on perceptions, not legal definitions of apartheid.

The poll supports the claim that Israeli Jews, as a generalized population, support specific policies, which when combined with other policies, hypothetically in the future, could reasonably constitute apartheid.  Most of the assessments in the poll which respondents are asked to make about apartheid are about the respondent's own perceptions, not legal definitions of apartheid.  Besides the fact that the questions could be understood in a biased way (a "transfer" to PA control versus a physical transfer of Arab citizens of Israel), apartheid is not whatever a majority of Israelis think it is.  The poll also does not ask whether Israelis think Israel is currently an apartheid as a specific question.

With regards to respondents' support for discriminatory policies, this is a problem of necessity but not sufficiency.  In other words, support for institutionalized discrimination is a part of apartheid, but is not the all-inclusive definition.  All elephants have four legs, but that doesn't mean all four-legged animals are elephants.  In a manner of speaking, the poll does not demonstrate the existence of a trunk and big floppy ears. 

In conclusion, the poll raises questions about Israelis attitudes towards Arabs which merit further research and the kind of self-reflection in which all democracies should engage.  However, it has not conclusively demonstrated the Israel is an apartheid, nor that Israelis support apartheid.  Given the importance of Israel's democratic values, Arab rights, and international public opinion, research on questions of racism and apartheid must be done often and done well.  Good research is the key to legitimizing the push for equality and the strengthening of public debate in Israel (and for that matter, here in Washington).  

Analysts should not ignore the findings of this poll, some of which raise serious questions about the level of equality in Israeli society.  However, they also should not accept an interpretation of the poll's results which are demonstrably unsubstantiated.  If Israel is indeed an apartheid, this poll does not show it.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hasbara Kills The Messenger On Gaza Blockade

Over the past few days, there has been much ado about a leaked Israeli presentation on providing a "minimum basket" of food to Gaza so as to prevent malnutrition which could be used to legally classify the blockade of Gaza as a "humanitarian disaster."  In particular, the pro-Israel community has largely downplayed the significance of the report.

Yesterday, the community took to task the Huffington Post, for suggesting - inaccurately - in its headline that Israel intended to force malnutrition on the Palestinians.  After blowback, the Huffington Post corrected the headline to read "avoid malnutrition" a phrase taken from the presentation itself.  

This headline was factually inaccurate.  It was therefore important to correct the headline so as not to unfairly imply that Israel was doing something that it was not.  The point of the calculations the Ministry of Health made was to maintain a bare minimum so as to avoid accounts of malnutrition from the Gaza Strip which would put Israel's blockade into more serious legal question.  To say it was trying to "force" malnutrition on Gaza is in fact the exact opposite of the truth.  Those who pointed out this inaccuracy clearly were correct in doing so.

However, what is also clear is that malnutrition was and remains a problem in the Gaza strip.  If the Israeli government's intention is to avoid malnutrition, it is failing.  The ICRC, FAO/WFP, AmeriCares, and Save the Children concur.  However, the pro-Israel community as a whole largely ignores these arguments, touting the millions of tons of aid which have entered Gaza and posting pictures of supermarkets in Gaza where food is available.  Yet it argues simultaneously that the blockade is necessary to engage in economic warfare against Hamas by limiting the goods available to Palestinians.  Arguing that Israel must limit goods while arguing simultaneously that such goods are getting through means that the blockade is either unnecessary or ineffective.

To be fair, building consensus on a pro-Israel message is hard because it requires coordination across a spectrum of different views.  The reason why most pro-Israel initiatives focus on media bias or egregious cases of anti-semitism is because these are the few cases where a critical mass of support exists for action.  Given the complexity of defining "anti-Israelism" and "anti-semitism," the initiatives of the community represent key points of agreement in an otherwise factional pro-Israel arena.  Whether formal or informal, the structure of decision-making institutions has an important role to play in policy outcomes.  The pro-Israel community is no different from others in this regard, but given the importance of defending Israel, the structural shortcomings of the community have important implications for Israel's future.

The problem is this: the current approach of the pro-Israel community towards the Gaza blockade fails to build trust between the pro-Israel community and fair-minded skeptics who don't oppose Israel on face, but have concerns about its conduct vis-a-vis Gaza.  When the pro-Israel community ignores an incontrovertibly real problem, it sends a tacit message to a critical support community that its opinions are silly or don't matter.  

Taking the Huffington Post to task for its "journalistic ethics" while refusing to engage seriously in the ethical questions raised by a blockade on two million Palestinian civilians in the first place does not help Israel.  Nor does engaging only the diehard radicals of the pro-Palestininan community who will never change their minds, while ignoring the legitimate concerns of a moderate and open-minded center.  To fix the widely-acknowledged problems of Hasbara that plague Israel and its supporters requires changing the decision-making structures of the community to take more seriously the concerns of the moderate center.  While these changes may be difficult and costly, those with the power to make such changes should keep in mind that Israel's future is at stake.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bibi Calls Elections In Israel: Three Things To Watch

The Knesset came back into session earlier today after a lengthy summer recess.  The first major item of business it faces is a vote to dissolve the government and move to elections which would be held January 22, 2013.  After announcing he would seek early elections last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu's initiative is likely to pass in the Knesset by tonight.

The announcement of early elections, which otherwise would not be held until October 2013, has prompted shuffling within the Israeli political system and numerous meetings between unlikely political bedfellows.  Rather than try to parse the meaning of each individual meeting - whose purpose and outcome are largely unknown- analysts would do well to form their assessments of Israeli electoral politics with three key questions in mind.

First, will centrist parties be able to form a coalition?  Kadima, Atzmaut, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party, and some kind of Ehud Olmert run/Gabi Ashkenazi endorsed party will be vying for the votes of Israel's political center.  Given the multitude of parties, running as a coalition may allow for the most number of centrist MKs.  In addition, Bibi's intent in calling the elections was to a) strengthen his own party's hold in the Knesset and b) create a less ideological coalition.  There is a good chance he will seek to align with centrist parties while kicking Yisrael Beiteinu to the side.  On the other hand, Kadima would only lose from aligning with smaller parties who would chip away at the number of Knesset seats it holds.  It may not be in Kadima's interest to support a centrist coalition which would only diminish Kadima's own political influence.

Second, will the social justice movement's political capital translate to votes for the left?  Stav Shaffir, one of the movement's leaders, announced her intent to run as a Labor MK yesterday.  Other movement leaders may join her as well.  While some movement activists may see such a move as "selling out to the establishment," others will accept her candidacy and vote for the Labor party.  At the same time, Labor has not been particularly aggressive in getting its message out.  Labor leader and MK Shelly Yachimovich is expected to lead the Labor party to increase its Knesset representation and considers herself a viable candidate for Prime Minister.  However, to do so she will have to be more outspoken than her tenure as Labor leader up until this point, and will have to compete with other voices in the political arena.  Additionally, she may have to do so while tacking centrist to pick up centrist votes while Stav Shaffir rallies the votes of the further left constituency.  Whether the Labor party will play a significant role in Israeli politics after the next election is an important question, but very much up in the air.

Finally, how will Netanyahu prevent being constrained by the right-wing of the Likud?  MKs Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon lead an important and vocal constituency on the right edge of the already conservative Likud.  While defection is not necessarily in the interest of more right-wing MKs, they still have the ability to cause Bibi a significant headache even if they remain in the coalition.  If Bibi is calling elections to tack Israeli politics in a more center-right direction, this will be against the preferences of the right-wing of the Likud.  He will either have to offer some kind of guarantee on specific issues of concern to that wing of the Likud, or else promise post-election alignment with Shas, United Torah Judaism, or another religious conservative party.  Moving to elections early and forming a more centrist coalition is in PM Netanyahu's interest because it allows him to pass the kind of center-right legislation he prefers, and to avoid further alienation from the center/center-right Israeli public and international community.  However, the cost of this investment will be paid to the far right of the Israeli political spectrum, including to MKs within the Prime Minister's own party.

As the campaign in Israel takes its course, the Prime Minister will be seeking to form a new coalition with a stronger Likud that allows him to better achieve his preferences.  However, his ability to do so will depend on whether each of the three factions above - left, center, and right - can coordinate internally, or will fall prey to splits and internal disagreements.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Netanyahu And Barak, Relationship Status: Complicated

Al-Monitor correspondent and foreign policy telepath Laura Rozen asks in a tweet this evening whether the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak signifies a legitimate political dispute or is merely political kabuki.  Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly called the meeting after DM Barak's trip to the United States during which he met with former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

The question is a good one because the answer is unclear.  Both reasons -manufactured crisis and genuine dispute - have credible support.

On the one hand, Israeli MKs have opined that Barak and Netanyahu are distancing themselves from each other in order to gain center-left support for the governing coalition, of which the Labor party (led by Barak until he split and formed the further left Atzmaut party in 2011) remains a partner.  For Netanyahu, the fighting allows him to keep in the good graces of his far-right coalition partners and the more conservative wing of Likud.  In fact, his accusation that Barak's visit to the United States is harming Israel is a talking point of conservative Likud MK Danny Danon.  For his part, Barak's standing up to the Prime Minister gains the Labor party support from left-wing partners.  This empowers Barak, but also Netanyahu, since Labor is part of the coalition.  In addition, Netanyahu is playing the long game with regards to the next elections, with some reports suggesting he is considering calling early elections in February 2013.  Shoring up political support now is a useful way to shape the political arena for those elections.

On the other hand, that relations between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations are suffering is no secret.  Last month, PM Netanyahu questioned the moral authority of the United States after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the United States is "not setting deadlines" for Iran and considers diplomacy the best approach.  In late August PM Netanyahu got into a shouting match with U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro over policy differences between Israel and the United States.  At last week's meeting of the United Nations, PM Netanyahu was given a phone call to President Obama but not a face-to-face meeting.  It is likely the Prime Minister is a true believer that setting red lines is crucial to stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability.  Given that this is the case, it is reasonable that he would perceive the more centrist DM Barak's visit to the U.S. as undermining the national interest.  Barak may be setting himself up as a new Shimon Peres (with whom the Obama administration enjoys good relations), but diluting the message of urgency coming out of Jerusalem could easily be understood by PM Netanyahu as threatening to his attempts to deter Iran.  This policy motive may also explain why the meeting between them occurred tonight, before the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, rather than a more visible time in the news cycle.  It also explains why after the meeting DM Barak released a statement specifically noting that he and PM Netanyahu "see eye-to-eye on every aspect of the Iranian threat" even though DM Barak came out opposing an airstrike just one month ago.

The question of which motivation is the real one is difficult because both are plausible.  Both elections and Iran are strong motivators for the Prime Minister, and his reasons for any given action may relate just as much to one as to the other.  As the issue plays out over the coming weeks, it may become more clear why Prime Minister Netanyahu and DM Barak continue to clash with each other.  Until then, taking seriously the idea that both motivations may be at play is worthwhile.  Good policy and good politics need not always clash (though the American checks and balances system incentivizes it here in Washington).  Perhaps the most plausible explanation at the moment is that Prime Minister Netanyahu is sanctioning DM Barak in order to kill two birds with one stone.