Saturday, January 28, 2012

Settlement Bill Fractures Israel's Right

Internal tensions have developed on Israel's political right as a result of a Knesset bill that would make it harder for Israel to evacuate settlements, including illegal ones such as Migron.  The bill has once again brought the contentious settlement issue into the fray, and put the Prime Minister at odds with his far-right Yisrael Beiteinu coalition partners who support the bill.

PM Netanyahu likely is against the bill because of the international condemnation it would draw, and the harm it would do to Israeli government control and sovereignty.  True to form, the Prime Minister has played a balancing game, asking residents of Migron to accept a deal in which the state would build them new homes on nearby state-owned land.  This compromise has been spurned by the settlers.  In addition, the Prime Minister's far-right coalition partners see the bill largely as a test of how "committed" Netanyahu is to basic principles of the rightist platform.  He must be careful to keep them satisfied while simultaneously opposing the bill.  

This balancing game is not new.  PM Netanyahu also played in on the loyalty oath bill, when he supported introducing the bill for debate to please his base but then pushed for significant changes on it to please the international community.  What makes this bill different from the loyalty oath is that its target population are Jewish conservative Israelis, not liberal Arabs.  This means that the political importance of the bill is much higher to PM Netanyahu this time around.  If the bill does not pass, he will take a significant amount of political heat from settlers, not to mention his coalition partners.  At the same time, supporting the bill would weaken the rule of law and Israel's control over its territories.  If any group of settlers can establish an illegal settlement whenever they please, it undermines the Israeli government's sovereignty and credibility.

This blog predicted last year that settlements would be the core issue on which the current ruling coalition in Israel would collapse.  The current fracturing among Israel's right-wing politicians suggests this prediction is at least plausible.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Clowns Run The Circus On Israel Discourse

Nothing can compare to the shock of reading a call by a member of one's own community to assassinate the President of the United States.  The sick and delusional editorial published by Andrew Adler of the Atlanta Jewish Times yesterday is a stain on the discourse of the American Jewish community.  In it, Mr. Adler considers a Mossad strike on President Obama as a legitimate policy option of the Netanyahu government.  Amazingly, Adler underscores the policy option and tries to justify what is essentially terrorism against the elected leader of the United States of America.

What has the American Jewish community come to when individuals like Mr. Adler are the ones moderating its discourse?  Editors are tasked with providing their readership a thought-provoking and engaging debate on critical issues of the day.  They play an essential role in informing the public and its public debates.  They ensure that this task is accomplished in a respectful and fair manner.  That an individual with Mr. Adler's beliefs could be put in charge of the editorial pages of an American Jewish publication demonstrates the extent to which the clowns are running the circus in the opinion leadership of the American Jewish community.  

Week after week, opinion leaders in the American Jewish press lambast President Obama mercilessly, calling him an Israel-hater who is in the pocket of the Muslim countries.  Playing on anecdote after anecdote, they begin with a conclusion and pick and choose the relevant facts as they please.  Obviously, criticizing the administration's policies on settlements, Iran, or Hamas is fair and legitimate.  But some opinion leaders in the American Jewish community are using these criticisms to construct a fear-based narrative about the Obama administration which is simply ludicrous.  Yet the narrative persists in American Jewish discourse because opinion leaders in that community advance it, and members of the community believe it.  And it was in the context of this paranoid narrative that Mr. Adler believed it was legitimate to call for the assassination of the President.  There can be no clearer evidence that the scare-mongering about President Obama's position on Israel has gone too far.

Real support for Israel means educating American Jews, not scaring them.  It means separating fact from fiction, and carrying out these characteristically vigorous debates in an air of respect.  If this has historically not been the tone of debate, it must be so now.  No love for Judaism and no love for Israel could justify assassination.  No editor committed to free and respectful discourse should tolerate such comments.  No community should be satisfied with anything less than full accountability when one of their own espouses casual hatred and incites violence.

Mr. Adler, please resign.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Don't Read Into The RNC Israel Resolution

The pro- and (not-so-pro)- Israel Left was quick to jump today on a recently-passed Republican National Committee resolution which reads:

"NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, by the Republican Nation Committee that the committee by this resolution commends the nation of Israel for its relations with the United States of America.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the members of this body support Israel in their natural and G*d-given right of self-governance and self-defense upon their own lands, recognizing that Israel is neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others; and that peace can be afforded the region only through a united Israel governed under one law for all people."

It is certainly no stretch of the imagination to read "united Israel governed under one law for all people" as supporting a one-state solution.  This was the interpretation of former B'Tselem Washington branch head Mitchell Plitnick who broke the story earlier today.  J Street, +972 Magazine and ThinkProgress endorsed this interpretation as well.

J Street's somewhat fatalistic take on it, that the "bipartisan consensus on a two-state solution is shattered," is probably an overstatement, especially since it assumes this is the first move the RNC or Republican party has made against the two-state solution.  In addition, American foreign policy in the Middle East is full of apparent contradictions and overlapping policy positions that spin a policy analyst's head in circles.

Ultimately, Foreign Policy magazine's David Kenner has it right in contending that the resolution is merely "a collection of platitudes [the RNC] thinks support Israel."  The resolution's contradictions with well-understood and longstanding policies of the RNC make the validity of this assessment clear.

For example, the resolution stresses "one law" in Israel for "Jewish and non-Jewish citizens," basing this claim in Leviticus 24:22 (#exegesisFAIL, this verse refers to foreigners, not non-Jews).  However, the RNC is clearly not calling for legal parity for Israeli Arabs, especially given that neither the word "Arab" nor the word "equality" appears in the text of the resolution.  This line contradicts the understood policies of the RNC.

The resolution also claims that "the roots of Israel and the roots of the United States of America are so intertwined that it is difficult to separate one from the other under the word and protection of almighty G*d."  Firstly, its unclear what the RNC means by this statement.  Secondly, the RNC has no problem making statements which exacerbate tension between the United States and Israel when it entails attacking President Obama on his comments regarding settlements.  Again, the line contradicts the understood RNC policies.

By the end of the resolution, the reader is left with a convoluted statement based loosely in Bible verses whose core assumptions are not reflected in their conclusions. Given its heavily religious tone, the statement is much more likely intended to maintain RNC support among Evangelicals and pro-Israel Christians than to delineate RNC foreign policy preferences.  It has very little policy value.  Thus, by jumping on the statement, the Left may have read a bit too far into the extent to which the statement, at the end of the day, matters.

The role the Left plays in countering baseless and ill-informed policy statements about Israel is of course an important one.  But in responding to the politicization of Israel in U.S. politics, it must be careful not to only further engage making Israel a partisan issue.  It is important that this RNC resolution was spotlighted.  However, fatalistic and hyperbolic language about its importance will only contribute to the very problem of polarization on Israel that Americans are counting on the left to solve.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Perry, On Turkey

Rick Perry claimed yesterday that Turkey "is being ruled by what many consider to be Islamic terrorists."  Anyone taking 30 seconds to look over the AKP's Wikipedia article could quickly evaluate the validity of this claim.  

Problem: Wikipedia is down today in protest against SOPA.  This protest has a silver lining however.  Namely, it affords students of Middle East foreign policy like Rick Perry and this blogger to say literally anything about Middle Eastern politics without fear of being fact-checked. 

For example, now that Wikipedia is down, it would be much harder to evaluate the claim that many people believe Rick Perry was himself educated at a secret madrassa in Sri Lanka alongside Abd-el Rahman al-Rahim, the uncle of the cousin of the son of Al-Qaeda Number Two Ayman Zawahiri.  It would also be difficult to deny that many people believe Perry knows the words to not only America The Beautiful, but also the Star Spangled Banner, in Arabic (Yemeni dialect) and recites them regularly in that language. 

Additionally, since the claim is only that many consider the statement to be true, the tidbit itself need not be what social scientists refer to as "accurate."  So while it would be accurate to say that one time the Turkish government supported a flotilla operated by the IHH which has links to Islamist groups with members who some people consider to have been engaged in some activities which are terrorist in nature, such a claim would be an unnecessarily precise one.  Besides, nuance in foreign policy is overstated. What, should we spend our entire day reading Wikipedia, that great bastion of substantiated and fact-checked nuance?

Perhaps though, Perry ought to be admired for his consistency.  Once Wikipedia comes back online, made-up, offensive, and unsubstantiated claims about madrassas and Arabic lyrics would quickly undermine the credibility of this blog.

Perry, in contrast, will retain the support of his followers.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reacting To Hamas Instability

Three senior leaders of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzouk, Mohammed Naser, and Izzat Risheq, have moved their families from Damascus in the wake of increasing instability in Syria.  Abu Marzouk's family is in Egypt.  According to Palestinian sources speaking to al-Hayat, Abu Marzouk, deputy politboro chief of Hamas, may have himself been received by Egypt on the condition that he refrain from political activity.  The moves come after the family of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was moved to Amman, Jordan.

Hamas has not been immune to the effects of the Arab Spring, and like many actors in the Middle East, its current position is unstable.  This instability opens opportunities to make progress towards a more secure order in the region.

As Syria becomes increasingly violent and the Muslim Brotherhood gains influence in Egypt, Hamas leaders naturally are looking to more stable countries from which to base their operations.  While the three senior leaders mentioned above are staying in Damascus for the moment, they likely have contingency plans for if - or when - the Assad regime collapses.  However, whether or not Egypt will be a safe haven for Abu Marzouk largely depends on the final breakdown of the new Egyptian parliament, as well as the extent to which the SCAF views him as a threat to stability.  

Hamas' scramble to adapt to the new realities of the Middle East has also brought cleavages in the movement to the surface.  An essay posted on Facebook today by the Lebanese senior official of Hamas recognized Khaled Meshaal as a "brave leader" for planning to step down at the end of his term as the head of Hamas.  However, Meshaal had made no such statement, and Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, roundly denied that Meshaal would step down.  Such incidents may indicate internal disagreement within Hamas about how to pursue its political agenda, including the contentious reconciliation process with Fatah.  

For those in the Middle East to whom Hamas poses a security threat, now is the time to engage with key players who can reduce Hamas' ability to threaten or inflict harm.  Concerned actors should quickly to signal support for a SCAF decision to limit Hamas' ability to project power from inside Egypt.  They should also maintain contact with the Muslim Brotherhood who will have substantial influence in Hamas' decisions should the group gain a foothold in Egypt.  

On the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation process, concerned actors should reiterate their support for free and fair Palestinian elections.  This move would condition Hamas' legitimacy on following through with elections, and incentivize political rather than violent action.

Finally, concerned actors should recognize the blow to Iran posed by a Hamas evacuation from Syria.  While Iran and Hamas will likely try to maintain alignment, it will be much harder to do so from Arab countries with Sunni governments.  This harms Iran's regional influence, and alters the strategic calculus of all players on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Israel's Political Shakeup

In the past 48 hours, two major Israeli figures have entered the political arena.  On Sunday, Israeli talk show host Yair Lapid announced he would run for Knesset as the head of a new, likely centrist, political party.  Today, Noam Shalit, the father of Gilad Shalit, announced he would run as part of the center-left Labor party.

The announcements are probably bad news for Prime Minister Netanyahu.  Both Lapid and Shalit are popular political outsiders who are not particularly ideological.  There is little doubt that they can carry much of the Israeli ideological center.  Many on the far right in Israel likely will resent what they will perceive as opportunism by the two men.  It is highly likely, for example, that a Jerusalem Post editorial in the next four days will attack Noam Shalit for "forcing" Israel to exchange 1027 Palestinian prisoners for his son.  However, such attacks speak only to the influence Mr. Lapid and Mr. Shalit may command in Israeli politics.

[Update: That editorial can be found here]

Lapid's influence is based in the trust the Israeli public has in him as a talk-show host and journalist.  The switch from journalism to politics in Israel is a well-trodden path.  Both Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovitch and prominent Kadima MK Nachman Shai were journalists before entering politics as well.  Yair Lapid is said to represent the quintessential Israeli, and guests on his television show have come from across the political spectrum.  Whether his party will siphon votes from Kadima will depend on the party's exact platform, and whether it runs as part of a list with another party (or parties).  However, if Lapid positions his party right of center, he may very well win the votes of former Likud voters who are disillusioned with the way PM Netanyahu's coalition has veered to the far right under pressure from Yisrael Beiteinu.  Lapid's run will also put pressure on Netanyahu to come out strongly against religious radicals, including those in Beit Shemesh, who are wildly unpopular in Israel. 

Noam Shalit's alignment with the Labor party comes just months after the election of Shelly Yachimovitch as the new party leader.  The participation of both of them in the Labor party brings significant change after the party's poor performance in the 2009 parliamentary elections.  Shalit's alignment with the Labor party is a slap in the face to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who made a point of meeting with him repeatedly and working proactively to bring his son home.  Some Israelis may resent that after Netanyahu extended himself for Gilad Shalit, his father has now joined an opposition party.  However, Labor's constituents may very well see it as a strong stance against the inefficiency of government in that it took five years to bring Gilad Shalit back home.

Whether or not Lapid and Shalit will change the face of Israeli politics is a completely open question.  However, the entrance of both men into the Israeli political scene at the same time is significant.  It indicates that both men see an Israeli public which is weary of the status quo and may be sympathetic to new leadership.  While neither man comes completely out of nowhere, both will be new actors on the political scene.  In the highly entrenched world of elite Israeli politics, fresh ideas and fresh players will be key to fostering strong leadership regardless of how the political pie is divided.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

US Should Keep Close Eye On Hamas Leader

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is in Tunisia today as part of a four day visit to the country.  Haniyeh arrived from Turkey, where he met with Prime Minister Erdogan.  Haniyeh has also visited Egypt and Sudan, and intends to visit Qatar and Bahrain in the coming days.  

Given that these visits are Haniyeh's first trip outside the Gaza Strip since 2007, their impact is unclear.  However, given the increased prominence of Islamist movements in Egypt and Tunisia, the United States and Israel should keep a close eye on the outcomes of these visits, which likely have three objectives:

1) Haniyeh's visits are largely intended to raise Hamas' legitimacy and create new relationships with other Islamist movements in the region.  It is also intended to legitimize Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinian people.  The Palestinian Authority and the Fatah party must be careful about engaging with post-revolutionary states given their dependence on Israel and the United States for influence.  In contrast, Haniyeh is openly engaging not only with several major players in the Arab world, but with Islamist leaders like Mohammed Badie in Egypt and Rached Ghannouchi in Tunisia as well.

2) Haniyeh's visits are intended to create a pro-Palestinian coalition in the Arab world by putting the Palestinian issue on the agenda of the Arab Spring.  This move speaks to the broader trend of an internationalized Palestinian issue.  Alongside political maneuvers at the UN, diplomatic visits abroad contribute to a (successful) policy of pressuring Israel via international proxies.

3) Haniyeh's visits are intended to raise the political salience of Hamas.  They are a concrete example of non-violent steps Hamas is taking in order to increase its influence.  By engaging with other Islamist political parties, Haniyeh is trying to associate Hamas with these movements which wield considerable political influence in their respective countries.

While today's defense strategic guidance document mentions the Arab Spring and supports Israel's security, it says little about engagement with political parties in the region.  It will be important for the Obama administration to have clear strategies to achieve US objectives and support US allies in the region.  The terms of engagement with Islamist groups will be one of the most important of these strategies.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Israel And Palestinians Agree To Disagree

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators currently are meeting in Jordan at the behest of Jordanian FM Nasser Judeh. The meeting is largely a move by Jordan to increase its legitimacy among the international community, and perhaps with its Palestinian majority as well.  

Both Israel and the Palestinians have extremely low expectations for the meeting.  Israel today approved the construction of over 300 new housing units in the West Bank, while the Palestinians threatened to take unilateral steps should the talks fail.

The meeting is entirely an exercise in futility, and similar meetings are likely to result in a similar lack of progress in the near future.  Here's why: 

Israel and the Palestinians both have bargaining ranges.  For a peace deal to be possible, these ranges would have to overlap.  However, over the past year or so, Israel and the Palestinians have been careful to hold the lowest extreme of their bargaining range just outside the high extreme of the other side.  The two sides are involved in a sort of reverse bargaining game, where the objective is to avoid, rather than create, disagreement.  Their issue of choice is the settlements, which have become a toxic issue politically despite having only secondary importance on the ground.  When the Palestinians refuse to take Israel seriously while settlement building is ongoing, and Israel refuses to freeze settlements, it creates an equilibrium of disagreement.  This equilibrium prevents either side from having to actually make changes on the ground.

Since negotiations are designed to identify a specific agreement point within overlapping bargaining ranges, they are highly unlikely to be successful at the present time.  International actors should avoid pushing for negotiations if they will be ineffective.  Rather, they should work to push the incentive structures of the two governments closer together.  Given the non-sustainability of the status quo, this pushing is largely a matter of altering perceptions.  However, until both Israel and the Palestinians operationalize the understanding that peace is a strategic security interest, face-to-face negotiations will have little real-world effect.