Tuesday, May 29, 2012

US Expels Syria Envoy To Pressure Russia, China

The State Department has announced the expulsion of Syrian Charge D'Affaires Zuhair Jabbour from the United States.  He will have 72 hours to leave the country.  The expulsion, which follows a string of expulsions by European states earlier today, comes in the wake of a brutal assault on the Syrian city of Houla in which 108 civilians were killed, many of them children. 

Expulsion of diplomatic staff is a serious move in international diplomacy which sends a strong message to the target of the expulsion.  However, since the emergence of protests in Syria in January 2011, Syrian President Bashar Assad has shown little concern for the opinion of the international community.  The killings in Houla are the latest in a series of attacks by Syrian government forces on civilians in the country.  Additionally, Assad enjoys the backing of Russia and China, two global and regional powers with vetoes at the UN Security Council.  While the US expulsion of the Charge D'Affaires sends a strong symbolic message, it is unlikely to alter significantly the calculus of the Syrian President.  It is unlikely, of its own accord, to save lives in Syria.

Rather, the expulsions (which were likely coordinated) are probably intended to put pressure on Russia and China.  Arab states and citizens can see very clearly which countries have and have not expelled Syrian diplomats in the wake of the attacks in Houla.  The expulsions illustrate a clear divide between the US and its Western allies on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other.  Both Russia and China are already under international pressure for standing against an earlier UNSC resolution on Syria this past February.  They now will be under heightened pressure to be less active in their support of President Assad.  While by this point they are unlikely to call for Assad to step down, their hesitation to condemn the attacks in Houla will harm the legitimacy of their Syria policies.  This increases the leverage of the United States and Western powers who seek a resolution to the situation in Syria which involves the restoration of peace and order and the ouster of President Assad.

Thus the expulsion of Syrian diplomats has less to do with immediate leverage in Syria, and more to do with the long game.  The US and its allies are posturing for maximum maneuvering room in Syria, and key to this strategy is pressuring Russia and China to stand aside.  Regardless of whether the endgame in Syria involves military intervention, the multilateral coalition which coordinated expulsion solidifies will be an important component of any successful strategy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

MK Danon, Deportation Now Is Absurd

Likud MK Danny Danon's editorial today in the Jerusalem Post on African illegal immigration to Israel is nothing short of ludicrous.  MK Danon showcases himself as a virtuoso chutzpan in the piece, which argues that Israel's 25,000 African illegal immigrants are a "strategic threat that endangers the existence of the Jewish homeland."

Calling these economic and political refugees a "strategic demographic threat," Danon glosses over the many different kinds of African refugees who have come to Israel.  In the eyes of his Deportation Now! organization, all illegal immigrants are the same.  Even if they come from highly undeveloped countries and face no prospects for employment back home.  Even if children of the immigrants were born in Israel and speak Hebrew.  Even if they are refugees from Darfur, Sudan who fled to Israel seeking protection from the janjaweed militia during the genocide in the region.  

Unfortunately, in making these blanket generalizations MK Danon delegitimizes what is a real problem for Israel.  In Israel, demographics are important and an influx of non-Jews from outside the region challenges the Jewish character of the state.  Additionally, Israel - like any country - is entitled to enforce legal immigration measures.  "Deportation Now" is a ridiculous response, but given the Israeli government's ad hoc approach to refugees, asking for a more comprehensive response is not unreasonable. 

Many Israelis are also sensitive to the real dangers immigrants face back home.  For example, thanks to the advocacy of grassroots organizations like the Migrant Workers Hotline, many refugees from Darfur were able to serve their jail time doing farm work on kibbutzim with the assent of the Israeli government.  Some of these refugees were later granted residence.*  Additionally, this blogger has witnessed personally an auditorium of Israeli university students stunned into dead silence by a Darfuri doctor (and illegal immigrant) describe how he was forced to kill his patients.  When he nearly collapsed from recounting the ordeal, a pin drop would have been audible in the room full of previously boisterous students.

Yet MK Danon caricatures these heartfelt responses as the tactics of "political opponents looking to score cheap political points against the Likud government."  He overlooks the complexity of the Israeli public's response to illegal immigration just as much as the complexity of the issue itself.  

Most egregiously, MK Danon neglects his own country's history.  Jewish immigration to Israel was limited by the British Mandate in the 1930's.  Yet Jews at the time faced increasing economic and (predominantly) political persecution in Europe and had few outlets of escape.  In response, the Hagana subverted British attempts to put quotas on Jewish immigration by smuggling Jews into Mandate Palestine.  Illegally.  

In fact, historians claim about 18,100 Jews entered illegally between 1934 and 1939.  Illegal Jewish immigration accounted for about half of Jewish immigration between 1938 and 1939.  Such a history should not prohibit Israel from exercising its powers as a sovereign nation to control immigration.  However, a past built heavily on illegal immigration by refugees under duress mandates far more sensitivity than the callousness with which MK Danon addresses African illegal immigration to Israel.

At a time when the eyes of the world are on Israel for its policies in the West Bank, it's stance towards Iran, and its treatment of minorities, MK Danon's editorial harms Israel's reputation and its well-being.  All the hasbara in the world cannot overcome the dogmatism and incitement which last night led protesters to vandalize shops and smash the car of an African resident of Tel Aviv.

A sensible immigration policy for Israel is just.  But persecuting refugees in the country built as a refuge to ingather the exiles is unacceptable.  

*An earlier version of this post claimed the refugees were granted citizenship.  The Hotline for Migrant Workers clarifies that the Sudanese refugees were granted temporary residence on an A5 visa, but not citizenship.  ACRI corroborates the clarification.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Settler Attack Delegitimizes Israel

Two new videos (one and two) posted by B'Tselem show settlers shooting a Palestinian man during clashes in Asira al-Qibliya yesterday.  The video depicts a brush fire of unclear origin.  Palestinians are throwing rocks at IDF soldiers and settlers who are carrying M-16 rifles and a pistol.  The settlers had come from the nearby settlement of Izhar. While the soldiers retreat and do not open fire in the video, the settlers remain where they are.  24-year old Fathi Assayara then throws a large rock at the settlers.  They respond by firing about five shots.  Protesters run to Assayara, and carry him from the scene with a bloodied head.  Mr. Assayara is reported to be in stable condition at a Nablus hospital.

As the IDF Spokesman has noted regarding the incident, the full details of what transpired are as yet unclear.  The rock Mr. Assayara threw was large and could easily have been fatal had it hit a settler.  As civilians, the settler's right to self defense differs from those delineated by the IDF's rules of engagement for soldiers.  However, the existing evidence suggests the soldiers did not remove settlers from the area, nor did any of the IDF soldiers attempt to stop them from firing at what appears to be an unarmed crowd of Palestinians.

Most importantly, while the settlers may have some legal right of self-defense in this case, the Palestinians whom they appear to have been harassing have none.  Such incidents only contribute to the sense of powerlessness Palestinians feel when the government tasks the IDF with protecting settlers rather than maintaining general law and order.

The shooting is also likely to exacerbate international concern over Israel's presence in the West Bank.  While the actions of these settlers do not necessarily speak for the majority of the population (who would generally not carry or fire a weapon on the Sabbath if avoidable), the event only contributes to the notion that settlers are radical and have little concern for Palestinian life.  

If the Israeli government is serious about fighting delegitimization it will condemn the violence, continue to have the IDF investigate the incident, and indict those responsible for shooting.  It should also make sure IDF soldiers in clash-prone areas are equipped with sufficient non-lethal means to protect themselves and maintain order.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Albright and Hadley at CFR: Assad Must Go

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Steven Hadley urged the Obama administration to begin planning for an intervention in Syria, and noted that "Assad must go."

Speaking at an event this afternoon at the Council on Foreign Relations, Albright supported the Obama administration's use of diplomacy and sanctions to pressure Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, to step down.  She noted that  "The Obama administration is using the toolbox in a very sequential sort of way" and praised the administration's multilateral approach.

Hadley urged the administration to help organize Syria's opposition along cross sectarian lines, arm resistance through the political opposition there, and prepare now for a possible intervention.  He noted that the "lesson if Assad survives" is a bad one for other authoritarian leaders in the Middle East.

Albright quickly cautioned the audience that "intervention" has many different meanings, including humanitarian intervention to help Syrian refugees streaming across the border into Turkey.  She also pointed out the need for U.S. actions on Syria to be seen as legitimate in the international community.

Both Albright and Hadley cautioned that a military intervention in Syria would not be the same as in Libya.  "Libya was easy, there were population centers on the coast near NATO bases," Hadley pointed out.  "We gotta stop kidding ourselves...we haven't yet deployed all the tools to make that happen," he added, in reference to military intervention.

Albright responded to Hadley's comments noting that "The American public is tied of war from Iraq and Afghanistan," and urging policymakers to think about the impact of overthrowing another Muslim country.  "What's the exit strategy?" she asked.  "What if you make it worse?"  She cautioned that "contingency planning is a very big word" in an apparent disagreement with Hadley's focus on military intervention.

The event, moderated by New York Times columnist David Ignatius, marked the release of a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations entitled U.S.-Turkey Relations: A New Partnership.  The report urges deeper ties between businesses in the United States and Turkey, and urges policymakers to be wary of claims that Turkey is "leaving the West."

"Turkey's major trading partner is Europe," said Steven Cook, a Senior Fellow at CFR who directed the study.  He noted that while Turkey was expanding economic trade South, it was by no means disengaging from the West.

With regards to democracy, Hadley was optimistic that the AKP, an Islamist party, could be a force for democracy in Turkey.  He also noted that "Turkey and the AKP can be an example for Egypt and Tunisia."  Albright was more cautious, noting that "Democracy is not an event, it's a process," though she did agree with Hadley that "Erdogan won elections fair and square."  She pointed out that while greater democracy required changes on Erdogan's part, "opposition parties in Turkey were not very functional...they need to get their act together."

Cook ended the event on a similar note, pointing out that while Turkey has organizations to promote small and medium-sized business ties, there are no similar U.S. organizations.  He cautioned that the problem is not only on the Turkish side.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Three Reactions From The Israeli Left

The following posters are a sample of reactions on Facebook to the Kadima agreement with Likud.  They indicate strong opposition to the deal.  Such sentiments are likely to favor more left-wing parties in the next round of elections in Israel.

3 March:
"I will not enter Bibi's government.  Not today.  Not tomorrow. 
 It's a bad government."
8 May
Minister Without Portfolio
in Bibi's government.

Shaul Mofaz.  The story of his leadership. 
[in reference to the capsized ship]

Here there was intended to be a funny picture
That offers an opinion on the situation
With the use of a humorous comparison
to memes and cultural pop figures,
But in the end it was decided to convey
the message in a more direct way:

Shaul Mofaz is a Zero.

BB Chairs

An unprecedented offer to members of the Kadima Party

Comfortable orthopedic chair made of elephant skin
Especially appropriate for those without a spine.
Moves forward [ in Hebrew, Kadima], backward, right and left.
Available in a variety of different colors.

Price: Principles.  Term of completion: 15 months.

*Same model that was sold to members of the Atzmaut party in 2011.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Will The Knesset Deal Impact US-Israel Relations?

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz have agreed to form a unity government.  This means that elections, scheduled for September of this year, are cancelled.  The deal puts Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovitch in the position of Leader of the Opposition.  The status of Avigdor Lieberman and the Yisrael Beiteinu party is unclear at the current time.

As more details of and reaction to the deal come out, analysts will be able to get a clearer picture of the next chapter of Israeli politics.  Until then, here are some immediate reactions to what remains a dynamic situation.

Implications for the United States

1. Labor matters again.  It has gone from becoming a small coopted faction after the last round of Israeli elections in 2009 to the lead opposition party in the Knesset.  Shelly Yachimovitch, the party's new leader, will have a much higher profile in Israeli politics, and is therefore more likely to be taken seriously by more traditional pro-Israel groups here in Washington.  Analysts should keep a close eye on Yachimovitch in order to determine whether she poses a real threat to the new government or not, and adjust Israel policy accordingly.

2. Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely be the Israeli premier to face a second term Obama.  Since there is no longer a need to campaign, however, Netanyahu will not have to balance between mobilizing his conservative party base and alienating the United States further.  Kadima, like Yisrael Beiteinu, supports West Bank settlements.  However, its leader Shaul Mofaz is the ex-IDF Chief of Staff and is likely more pragmatic than Avigdor Lieberman on the issue.  This means that Netanyahu will be under less pressure from his own government to tow a hard line on settlements, which is good news for a hypothetical second Obama administration.  Mofaz is also likely to be pragmatic on Iran, and has supported President Obama on the issue.

3. Iran politics will remain as they are.  Yachimovitch said last week that Prime Minister Netanyahu was "mistaken" on Iran.  However, given the real fear among Israelis of Iranian nuclear capability, she is unlikely to use this issue to gain political leverage.  Continuing to push economic issues is much more likely to mobilize her party base.  Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz is pragmatic but has said Iran "must stop" its nuclear program.  Ultimately, there is not likely to be significant change in the Israeli position on Iran, and U.S. policymakers should plan accordingly.

Update 9:46pm---

4. The policy calculus for US-Egypt relations has stabilized.  Given violence in the Sinai, the rise of Islamist candidates into politics, and an Israel terrified of both, the US has had to walk a very careful line in its support for democratic transition in Egypt.  Since Mofaz has a defense background and likely has extensive knowledge about the Egypt security situation, Israeli policy is likely to remain pragmatic on that front for the forseeable future.  This is good news for the U.S. considering that the Egypt side of the equation is about to destabilize in the wake of protests last week in the Abbasiya neighboorhood of Cairo.  Additionally, policymakers in Washington have been concerned about an Israeli incursion into Sinai based on a threat the government made last month which could severely destabilize the Middle East.  That Mofaz likely understands the high risk of an Israeli incursion should be heartening to analysts in DC.


The news of the new coalition government is unexpected.  However, that does not mean that its implications are necessarily significant.  A unity government will be more centrist than the current coalition.  However, on the major issues of interest to the United States - settlements and Iran - U.S. policymakers are unlikely to see major change in the Israeli position.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Israel's Elections - The Yachimovitch Factor

In the next round of Israeli elections, the second place finisher is likely to be a major centrist party led by a woman who is respected by the left.

No, not Tzipi Livni.  Rather, Shelly Yachimovitch, the Labor party's newly-elected leader, will likely play a critical role in the elections scheduled for September 4, 2012.  A poll last week predicted that the Labor party would garner 18 seats out of a total 120.   Today, Yachimovitch attacked Prime Minister Netanyahu's Iran policy, calling it a "mistake" and supporting the U.S. position of sanctions and diplomacy first and foremost.  As Yachimovitch moves herself more into the public eye (at which she should be adept given her background as a journalist), the Labor party stands only to gain after its dismal performance in the 2009 elections.

However, the real wildcard is not what happens in the elections but what happens the day after.  Given the conservative mood of the Israeli public, Labor is not likely to win a plurality of seats, but it will likely take seats currently held by the centrist Kadima party.  If Labor wins second place, Yachimovitch will have to make a critical choice whether to align with the winning party (which polls predict to be Likud), or to be Leader of the Opposition.

Aligning with the coalition could allow Yachimovitch significant influence over Israeli policy.  Given that Yachimovitch, while leftist, is pragmatic as well, this outcome is certainly a possibility.  However, the result of the political compromises required for Labor to join the coalition might only further alienate the party base.  This could open opportunities for Kadima and Yair Lapid's new party Yesh Atid.  Additionally, Netanyahu may be wary of bringing in Labor if he can cut a deal with more center and right-wing parties.  He may not offer Labor a spot in the next government at all.

Yachimovitch's other possible choice would be to become Leader of the Opposition.  Playing defense would certainly not be a new position for either the Labor party or Yachimovitch herself at a time when the Israeli public is leaning conservative.  Additionally, the reshuffling of Prime Minister Netanyahu's cabinet indicates rifts between Likud and the further right Yisrael Beiteinu party, particularly on the issue of settlements.  Yachimovitch might be able to use a position as Leader of the Opposition to wedge between the two parties and create a new round of elections in a few years in which more centrist or leftist parties would have an opportunity.

However, the Israeli public might resent the Labor party playing a wedge role if it agrees with the policies of the Netanyahu government.  Additionally, the leader of the opposition, as Tzipi Livni's tenure demonstrates, has only a small policy effect.  Beyond hastening the demise of the Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu coalition, it is unclear that a Leader of the Opposition Yachimovitch would advance any real agenda.

One major factor that will affect Yachimovitch's ultimate decision is her performance in the campaign this summer.  To date, Yachimovitch has not been a serious national candidate for office and Netanyahu has ignored her.  Once ignoring is no longer an option however, he will go on the offensive.  How Yachimovitch responds to these attacks will determine the number of seats the Labor party gains in September, and whether her optimal strategy will be to work from the inside of the government, or push from the outside.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Israel Calls Elections, What Next?

Elections for the Israeli Knesset will be held September 4, 2012. The current Knesset is expected to dissolve itself next week, opening the door for the formation of a new government.  Both developments are omens of a long summer campaign ahead.

The elections will open the door for new key players in the Israeli political system.  Yair Lapid and his new centrist Yesh Atid party are expected to gain a number of seats as the former Israeli talk show host enters the political sphere for the first time.  Shelly Yachimovitch and the Labor Party which she now leads are also expected to make gains.  Yachimovitch may attain a cabinet position in the new government if she choses to join, or be Leader of the Opposition if she does not.  Finally, Shaul Mofaz, who recently replaced Tzipi Livni as head of the centrist Kadima party, also will have a spoiler role to play in the post-election bargaining.  Kadima is not expected to do well on its own, but may play a key role in determining the ideological character of the new coalition.

Israeli elections will also have important implications for the future of US-Israel relations.  They will be held two months and two days before the U.S. presidential elections November 6.  PM Netanyahu called the elections strategically to consolidate his mandate, and is thus expected to do well.  A newly emboldened Israeli Prime Minister may have important implications for relations with either a new Republican president, or a second Obama administration.   

In either scenario, drastic changes are unlikely.  A Republican president will support Israeli settlement building to the extent that years of State Department policy to the contrary permit.  

A second Obama term, however, is unlikely to bring the kind of sea changes some on the left may be hoping for with regards to Israel.  Obama has little incentive to pick a fight with a newly emboldened Prime Minister that he may not win.  Additionally, while President Obama may not be beholden to elections in a 2nd term, prominent members of his party will be.  Republicans could easily use an anti-Netanyahu stance Obama takes to wedge between progressive and moderate Democrats in the House and Senate.

At the same time, analysts should be also careful to take polls suggesting Netanyahu will win as a snapshot of attitudes now, not a projection of attitudes come September.  Between now and then, major developments on Iran, tension over the illegal Migron settlement, social protests, Egyptian elections, continued pro-Palestinian activism, and pressure from the international community all remain challenges facing the Prime Minister.  PM Netanyahu has chosen elections as the least risky strategy, but not necessarily as a risk-free strategy.  That a new round of elections are set to take place does not free the Prime Minister from the delicate balancing act he must play between the far right parties, mainstream Israelis, international community, and the United States.