Tuesday, February 28, 2012

At AIPAC 2012, Iran Will Take Center Stage

The 2012 AIPAC policy conference kicks off this weekend at the Washington Convention Center here in D.C. with speeches by President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Secretary of Defense Panetta, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich.  The conference was pushed up to March this year versus May last year.  This may be in order to give the organization a chance to steer clear of a multitude of contentious political issues including the Republican presidential campaign and possible tension in the Middle East.

In many ways, this year's conference is shaping up to be the least contentious of the Obama administration.  In 2009, the administration was balancing support for Israel over Operation Cast Lead with a liberal constituency opposed to some of the IDF's heavy-handed tactics.  In 2010, the US and Israel sparred over the Obama administration's decision to push Israeli settlement freezes as a first step towards peace negotiations with the Palestinians.  In 2011, a late-breaking conflict erupted over the 1967 borders.  While President Obama invoked the lines as the basis of an agreement on two states for two peoples, Prime Minister Netanyahu saw his language as reneging on previous agreements between the US and Israel.  During his speech to AIPAC he reiterated his claim that "the 1967 lines are indefensible" to a standing ovation from the crowd.

This year, however, a number of factors have incentivized close alignment between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu.  Firstly, this being an election year, the Obama administration is fighting an uphill battle to portray itself as sufficiently pro-Israel, especially among middle-aged and senior citizens who may have voted for Obama in 2008.   This election year pressure translates to US and Israeli policy on Iran.  While the US has a much higher rational threshold for preemptive military action against Iran (being 6,000 miles further away from it than Israel), the Obama administration is not eager to be perceived as jeopardizing the security of the Jewish state.

From the Israeli perspective, now is not the time to alienate the country's closest ally.  That the US will express regret if Israel strikes Iran is certain.  However, Israel has little incentive to make this inevitable regret even worse than it has to be.  Responding to any Iranian retaliation, especially from proxy actors like Hezbullah, will require US support.  A lack of such support would seriously constrain Israel's ability to defeat Hezbullah's considerable military capabilities.  Therefore, speeches by Israeli government officials are unlikely to emphasize differences, and will more likely focus strongly on unity against Iran.

The greatest level of conflict at the conference is likely to come from the Republican candidates, who will spar subtly with each other, and not-so-subtly with the Obama administration's agenda.  It would not be unreasonable to expect the candidate's speeches to be more hardline than PM Netanyahu's.  Bibi should play this to his advantage, letting the Republicans take the hardline, saying what must be said, and appear as the grateful recipient of US support and the determined defender of Israeli security.

As the weekend draws closer, both US and Israeli officials will begin framing the message that they will drive home at the conference.  Analysts should pay close attention to these statements, and should anticipate that they will be much more likely to reflect unity than divergence on Iran and issues of Israel's security.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fight Delegitimization, Try Khader Adnan

Khader Adnan, a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), has been on a hunger strike for 10 weeks protesting his lack of due process at the hands of the Israeli government.  The government has yet to assign him a trial date, and Adnan remains under administrative detention.  The hashtag #KhaderExists has been gaining traction on Twitter to build pressure on Israel to assign him a trial date.  

The issue of due process for those suspected of involvement in security threats to the state affects all liberal democracies.  In the United States, similar protests have arisen of the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.  For American and Israeli leadership alike, the cost of protests is lower than the potential cost of letting an alleged terrorist go free, only to commit an attack on innocent civilians. 

The Israeli government's response options to this hunger strike campaign are therefore a choice of bad or worse.  Giving Adnan a trial date capitulates to the protesters and may cause a spate of hunger strikes by other prisoners, delegitimizing the government's detention process as a whole.  Not giving Adnan a trial date will only draw more attention to the issue, and will just set the stage for more protests if he is convicted.  Additionally, given that the issue of Palestinian prisoners is deeply personal for thousands of Palestinians, Israel could risk mobilizing a larger Palestinian popular movement if Adnan dies.  From an Israeli perspective, this would not be an ideal second act for the Arab Spring.

Faced with these two choices, Israel has taken the seemingly rational decision not to assign a trial date.  If protests and delegitimization will happen anyway, it may as well occur in a framework where a suspected terrorist is not at risk of being freed, and where copycat hunger strikes can be mitigated.  Israel is calculating that popular mobilization is unlikely at the current time (not entirely unreasonable).  Most of Israel's partners and allies, including the United States, are unlikely to criticize this choice because they likely would do the same thing.

However, the #KhaderExists campaign is occurring not in a vacuum but rather in a multi-dimensional issue space in which Israel is fighting delegitimization on all fronts.   The protests are, of course, about far more than Adnan himself.  The protesters seek a comprehensive change to Israel's administrative detention policy as a whole, with some seeking far more.  At the same time, maintaining this policy may be handing opponents of Israel a victory anyway.  The government should understand that mitigating delegitimization is not an issue of hasbara, or in Adnan's case, ignoring the issue.  Rather, it is an issue of policy and how Israel chooses to approach the difficult business of being a democracy under constant threat from terrorism. 

It is unlikely that giving Adnan a trial date will allay protesters no matter how moderate or radical their demands.  However, it will reduce their ability to argue that Israeli policy is unbecoming of a liberal democracy.  Given the unique and substantial challenges facing Israel, the government must do all it can to mitigate attacks on its legitimacy.  Ultimately, this mitigation will come down to policy choices.  Giving Adnan a trial is therefore the better policy choice at the current time.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Car Bombs Hit Israeli Embassies

Two Israeli embassies were targeted with car bombs this morning, one which detonated in India and one which was defeated in Georgia.  The culprit is presumably Hizbullah, whose deputy leader Imad Mughniyeh was killed in a car bomb attack four years ago yesterday.  Since his death, Israel has been on high alert around the anniversary for retaliation by Hizbullah. 

Today's attacks were somewhat expected by the Israeli government.   Since Hizbullah lacked the element of surprise, the government was able to mitigate damage to its property and personnel.  Tali Yehoshua-Koren, the wife of an Israeli diplomat who was injured in the blast in New Delhi, is seriously injured but stable enough to be flown back to Israel for medical treatment.  Without planning and diligence by Israeli diplomatic security personnel, the damage could have been a lot worse.

The question in Washington this morning is what Israel's reaction will be.  IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is in an emergency meeting with the head of intelligence and commander of the air force, and may make a statement later today.  Foreign Minister Lieberman has stated simply that Israel will not be swayed from its policies and sees the attacks as evidence of the threats Israel faces.  

For his part, Prime Minister Netanyahu has placed blame squarely on Iran though it is unlikely he has sufficient evidence so soon after the attacks to back up the claim.  It appears thus far that the Israeli government will use the incident to build pressure on Iran rather than engage with Hizbullah and risk being dragged into another 2006-esque conflict.  This response benefits the United States since it builds diplomatic pressure on Iran and does not distract media coverage of the Levant from the ongoing violence in Syria.  

But Israel's metered response is not out of pressure from the United States or the international community.  Rather, it is likely the Israeli government  pre-calculated a response from Hizbullah when it decided to take action against Mughniyeh (an attack for which it has not claimed credit) back in 2008.  That is to say, Hizbullah's response is the cost of business in the tough neighborhood that is the Middle East.

Monday, February 6, 2012

What The White House Can Do About Syria

The United States has closed its embassy in Syria and asked Americans in the country to evacuate. The ambassador from the UK has been recalled for consultation but the embassy itself remains open.  These actions come in the wake of brutal attacks by the Assad regime in Homs and elsewhere in the country.

Attempts to pressure the Assad regime took a setback Saturday morning when a draft UN resolution passed with 13 votes but was vetoed by Russia and China, generating considerable ill-will towards those countries from the US, UK, France, and other bill supporters.

The United States now finds itself in a complex foreign policy dilemma.  Even if Saturday's resolution had passed it would have had only a small effect on the Assad regime, which has recklessly killed more than 4000 people since protests in Syria began last year.  Given international support of the US for upholding human rights, the normative power of R2P, and American citizens' support of action on behalf of at-risk populations abroad, the American government is compelled to act.  At a more primal level, no American with any basic sense of decency can feel complacency towards images of children with their jaws blown off their heads and having limbs amputated. 

At the same time, US military action is virtually out of the question.  Syria is using tanks to target opposition forces, limiting the potential efficacy of a no-fly zone.  American support for military intervention in the Middle East is low in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Finally, intervention in Syria could easily become a proxy war with Iran given that the head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) is aiding the Syrians in their military operations.

In addressing the carnage in Syria, the United States should employ two strategies.  The first is to continue to pass sanctions and urge partners and allies in the international community to do so.  Tanks cannot get to Homs, Hama, and Deraa without fuel.  It may very well be that other actors will continue to fund and fuel Syria's military regardless of international action.  However, making it as hard as possible for Syria to continue targeting its own civilians will ensure a minimum of support to the Assad regime.  Additionally, international solidarity against human rights violations may make actors who support Syria now less willing to do so over the long term.

The second capability is to actively support the efforts of regional partners to stabilize Syria's human rights situation.  The violence in Syria is destabilizing for the entire region, and the heavy Iranian hand in that violence is concerning for those who fear the rise of Iranian hegemony.  Israeli intervention is out of the question given its historic conflict with Syria and other states in the region.  That being said, the US should reassure Israel of its support for Israeli security in the event of cross-border violence.  In turn, it should ask the Israeli government not make statements on Syria which exacerbate tensions or de-legitimize rebel forces as affiliated with the "Zionist aggressor."  

Saudi Arabia may be a wiser choice for more direct engagement on Syria.  Saudi hegemony in the region is threatened by Iran-Syria coordination.  If Saudi does not take steps to balance Iran in Syria soon, it's regional strength may weaken.  The United States should signal that Saudi diplomacy to deter Iranian interference in Syria will be supported.  Saudi action in this regard may bring awkward questions about Saudi's influence on human rights in Bahrain.  Saudi intervention in Syria based on concern for human rights would be highly ironic given heavy tear gassing and use of live fire by security forces in Manama.  However, the US can express support for "containment" of Iranian influence in ways which meet security objectives for Saudi Arabia and human rights stabilization for the United States.  

The US can also support Turkish and Lebanese efforts to deal with refugees coming from Syria.  Turkey and Lebanon have both accepted refugees from Syria despite Turkey's tension with Syria and Lebanon's deep mistrust of the country which occupied it from 1976-2005.  This support could manifest itself as physical relief items such as tents and stoves, to granting Syrian refugees in those countries the opportunity to seek political asylum in the United States.

Both strategies are important actions the US government can take towards mitigating the already dire situation in Syria.  The situation there is more than a debate about humanitarianism.  It cuts to the core of who Americans are as a nation, and how we respond to civilians in immediate and preventable mortal danger.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Syria Scorecard

Today the UN Security council voted 13-2 to approve a resolution condemning Syria for the violent repression of its citizens.  Russia and China both vetoed the resolution.

The Bad
The news of a veto comes just hours after a Syrian military operation in Homs killed a number of Syrians on the anniversary of a similar event in Hama.  The news will undermine Syrian confidence and trust in the international community, and sets a precedent for future action.  The vetoes also represent the difficulty of coordinating on humanitarian concerns.  Today's resolution called for a cessation of violence only.  It had no provisions for intervention and did not call for President Assad to step down.  Finally, the veto is likely to affect US relations with Russia and China.  As a State Department officer, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice worked on Rwanda, and the issue of responsibility to protect (R2P) is deeply personal for her.  Before and during today's meeting, her body language indicated personal disdain, and her speech after the resolution failed was fiery.  While she did not call out Russia and China by name, she was very clear later to contrast the American position against those who advance their own "narrow interests."  While the situation is far from a crisis, relations between the US, Russia, and China have hit a sour note on this issue.

The Good
Today's resolution was sponsored by Morocco and consistent with a plan drafted by the Arab League.  It was supported by 13 out of 15 Security Council members and demonstrates a broad coalition for taking action on behalf of Syrians.  Realistically speaking, this would have been the outcome had the resolution passed as well, only slightly more so.  

Most importantly, the Obama administration has put the United States in the lead of an international coalition the Bush administration could only dream about.  While diplomacy is often downplayed as a set of meaningless formalities, today's security council meeting is proof that leadership by example rather than by threat produces outcomes.  Russia and China may have vetoed the resolution, but they paid a substantial political cost for doing so.  Both countries have been alienated in the international community and especially in the Arab World where tweets expressing profanity towards the countries were copious this morning.  They have also demonstrated a lack of leadership on an issue behind which the majority of the world is united.  Ambassador Rice's statements were clear that U.S. policy in will be to exact as heavy a political penalty as possible on Russia and China for standing against the resolution.  Anyone who believes the current US administration projects weakness internationally is deluding themselves in light of today's direct attack on countries which fail to uphold important American values.  

Ultimately, today's Security Council drama proves that while the United States may make mistakes, it learns from those mistakes and tries to be on the right side of history.  The ambassador of a global power does not use terms like "disgusted" and "blood on their hands" on the floor of the Security Council unless they mean it.  The United States means it.  While military intervention is unlikely at this point, the United States will likely implement other measures to deter President Assad from continuing to brutally target his own people.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Lieberman and Clinton, Oil and Water

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will be meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton here in Washington next week. This will be only the second time the Israeli FM has come to visit Washington during his term.  

The contrast between the two officials could not be greater.

Secretary Clinton has rebuilt America's soft power by engaging relentlessly with partners and allies around the world.  Even when these contacts disagree with US policy, the Clinton State Department has been vital at restoring American international respect.  Her bold decision to openly engage with Islamist movements will safeguard US interests in the Middle East.  Her work to shift the world from being complacent about Iran to unified against it has weakened Iran's government and severely constrained its room for error.  She also played a critical role in the intervention in Libya which may have saved thousands of innocent lives and reaffirmed America's commitment to the values of Responsibility To Protect.

In contrast, Foreign Minister Lieberman has alienated Israel in the international community.  By estranging Israel's partners and allies, he has decreased the country's security.  His reactionary and irresponsible statements put him at odds not only with the majority of the Israeli people but with the government he serves.  He has supported racial discrimination in Israel.  He decries the corruptness of the international community while himself being investigated for corruption.  He understands the fine nuances of diplomacy the way an elephant understands the fine nuances of ballet.  He consistently has been the greatest liability of the Netanyahu administration.

Next week in Washington will be a veritable Goofus and Gallant guide to foreign policy.