Monday, July 23, 2012

In Kadima-Likud Fallout, An Opening For J14

While Israeli MK Tzachi Hanegbi's attempt to get 7 Kadima members to leave the party seems to have failed for reasons Michael Koplow discusses here, the internal tensions of the party are undeniable.  In the wake of Kadima's departure from the Likud-led coalition last week, fractures within the party are becoming even more evident than they were in weeks prior.  This afternoon's announcement by Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz that he will not join Prime Minister Netanyahu's "operational adventures" is a clear attempt by Mofaz to distance his policy from that of the PM.  Whether elections happen in the next 90 days or as scheduled in October 2013, Mofaz and other major party leaders have an interest in posturing themselves against Bibi's government.

This turmoil, inherent in the Israeli political system, represents a political opportunity structure of which the J14 social justice movement could take advantage.  Originally theorized by Charles Tilly (1978), political opportunity structures are facets of a political system which affect the efficacy of a social movement.  Doug McAdam (in McAdam, McCarthy, and Zaid, 1996) outlines four dimensions of political opportunity:

1) The relative openness or closure of the institutionalized political system.
2) The stability or instability of that broad set of elite alignments that typically undergird a polity.
3) The presence or absence of elite allies.
4) The state's capacity and propensity for repression.

With regards to Israeli politics, the second dimension should be of great interest to the leadership of the J14 movement and those who track it.  Elite alignments are highly unstable in Israel, and have been particularly so over the past 80 days.  The J14 movement has an opportunity to take advantage of these shifting alignments in ways that leverage itself into institutionalized political discourse.

Kadima leader Mofaz has an incentive to capture a broad base of constituents who are disillusioned with the current government in order to dominate the elite power structure in Israel come elections.  Mofaz also faces distrust from the left wing of the Kadima party for his alignment with PM Netanyahu.  If Kadima is to hold together as a party, Mofaz will need to overcome this lack of trust from the left, a problem with which Kadima as a party has dealt since the departure of Tzipi Livni.  

Prime Minister Netanyahu also has an interest in working with J14, if only to quell the small scale civil unrest and disturbing trend of self-immolation which has taken place over the past month or so in Israel.  If the face of the protest movement shifts from being Tel Aviv urban elites to frustrated IDF veterans, it could reenergize J14 in a way that would not benefit the Prime Minister.  Given that IDF service is compulsory in Israel, a movement whose faces are IDF veterans is a group no elite in Israel wants to oppose.

The next few weeks in Israel are likely to give leading roles to a large cast of political characters.  However, it is important that analysts not overlook the role played by actors outside the formal political system.  The J14 movement is not a part of the ongoing wrangling in the Knesset at the moment, but it may have an important role to play in the outcome of this wrangling.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Predictions In Social Science: The Benefits Betting On Bibi

Political scientists are not meteorologists.  Social science is not meant to predict the future.  At the same time, prediction as a method plays a critical role in testing our assumptions about the way politics works.  Today's discussion over social media of Israel's coalition breakdown between myself, Allison Good, Michael Koplow, and Brent Sasley is a good example of the positive role prediction can play in social science and policy analysis alike.

This exercise was (I hope) useful for the policymaking community.   While prediction is not systematic enough for social science, it does have value for the policymaking community.  While political scientists seek comprehensive explanations of political phenomena, policymakers seek to advance a state's interests in the long-term by making a series of decisions about the state's international posture in the short-term.   At some point, decision makers need to make choices based on a best guess about the future.  Prediction is imperfect but in policymaking an imperfect guess is usually better than no guess at all.

For academics, prediction is more problematic.  In an article on e-IR today, fellow political science grad student Dillon Tatum explains the paradox of prediction in social science.  He argues that human agency and the opacity of states and institutions makes it impossible to predict the future.  Given that the point of social science is to systematically investigate a phenomenon, the discipline considers prediction into the future somewhat reckless.  Since we cannot systematically investigate variables which have not yet come into existence and choices that actors have not yet made, making predictions is not systematic.  This is because we can't account for variables that don't yet exist.

However, there is a difference between social science being predictive and social science using prediction as a tool.   Political science in particular would benefit by recognizing this distinction.  While we should not try to predict the future as an ends, predictions can be a useful means to test the validity of our assumptions.  Prediction lies at the core of the scientific method, specifically the hypothesis.  A hypothesis is a guess about the outcome of a yet-to-be conducted experiment.  It is a prediction based on underlying assumptions.  In our Israel coalition debate, this blogger, Allison Good, and Michael Koplow all hypothesized that given variables would lead to given outcomes (the fall or persistence of Israel's coalition).  When all of us were to some extent wrong, re-examination of our explicit hypotheses helped our analytical community to better understand the variables at work in the Israeli political system. 

Recognizing this distinction would also help us realize when our assumptions were wrong.  For example, over the past 10-15 years political science essentially has predicted that the Middle East would remain authoritarian for the long-term.  The prediction was not explicit in the literature but it directly followed from arguments made by Ross, Fish, Heydemann, Lynch, Bellin, Gause, Brown, and others.  The Arab Spring has forced a wonderful and highly productive debate on whether these predictions were accurate.  These same authors are making plans to evaluate all kinds of new variables and conduct research with implications for work on authoritarianism, democratization, rebellion and revolution, social movements, and political economy.

Yet the opportunity cost of writing a predictive article and waiting months for it to be peer-reviewed, revised and resubmitted, and published only to be proven wrong is extremely high in the discipline.  Making wrong predictions, even if you explain why you were wrong, is not likely to get you tenure in a political science department in the United States.  Given that peer-review is one of the core characteristics of academic inquiry, the speed of journal publication is unlikely to change.  

However, social media offer political scientists another avenue to disseminate ideas.  The speed of social media, when used correctly, can allow political scientists to run predictions which solidify arguments they make in academic journals.  They allow such predictions - and the assumptions which underlie them - to be explicit and better documented.  Social science cannot lower the opportunity cost of prediction in peer-reviewed journals and book manuscripts.  However, it can shift its incentive structures and become more tolerant of using blogs and social media to make predictions as a precursor to more systematic academic inquiry.  It can recognize that blogging is not a waste of time that could be better spent on writing articles, but rather an important part of the research process.  Finally, it can recognize that such predictive processes allow social science to demonstrate its own worth to those who fund it and build bridges between policymakers and academics.

Mofaz's Kadima Quits Netanyahu's Coalition

The Kadima party has voted to withdraw from Prime Minister Netanyahu's governing coalition in Israel.  The coalition was formed only 70 days ago, and its dissolution opens the door to new elections in Israel.  Some Kadima MKs may try to remain part of the coalition by leaving the party.  This split severely fractures Kadima and calls into question its future existence as a major political player.

For the reasons behind the coalition's downfall, look no further than Allison Good's post from just a few weeks ago when the two of us made a bet about whether the coalition would last out the week.  While the coalition did last out the week (and long enough for this blogger to gain a free beer out of it), Allison's reasoning was solid for a slightly longer timeframe.  Today's coalition collapse has born out her prediction and she deserves credit for calling the fall so early.

This blogger's post on the subject listed three reasons the coalition would last out the week. Let's now grade how accurate the assumptions underlying these reasons turned out to be.  

1) Never. Underestimate. Bibi.  Grade: A-/B+

Ultimately this is still a good rule of thumb.  PM Netanyahu will be able to either re-form his old coalition, or win in new elections.  However, if Netanyahu does join up again with the far right, his actions on Tal Law will have damaged his political capital there.  This means that such a coalition will force Bibi to tack hard to the right, alienating him from the Israeli public who support Haredi service in the IDF.  He will also be forced to take a softer line on settlements, harming Israel's capital with the US and the international community.  Elections may be Netanyahu's best bet at this point, but clearly are risky given that Bibi put in the effort to form a coalition with Kadima in the first place.  Today's coalition breakdown is a loss for Bibi in the short-term.  However, one loss does not a washed-up politician make.  

2) MK Mofaz would gain little by quitting and a lot by remaining part of the coalition.  Grade: A

Michael Koplow considers today's move by Kadima party head Shaul Mofaz a mistake and that's probably correct.  If there are enough defections from Kadima over today's split, Mofaz will be less influential in the next government even if he wedges out Shelly Yachimovitch to become Head of the Opposition.  In the time until elections, I agree with Michael in saying that Mofaz has political leverage against Bibi for supporting Haredi participation in the IDF.  At the same time, Mofaz has become something of an Israeli Mitt Romney, aligning himself with the position that will most likely get him the power he wants at any given time.  The key question for elections is whether Israelis dislike Netanyahu's equivocation on the Tal Law more or less than they dislike Mofaz's opportunism.  At the moment opinion is probably split.  However, a lot can and will change between now and elections.  Which leads us to:

3) The Israeli public sides with MK Mofaz.  Grade B-

This assumption is probably the most faulty of the three and was a risky one.  A better way to frame it would have been "The Israeli public sides with MK Mofaz's position on the Tal Law."  It remains the case that the majority of the Israeli public supports Haredi IDF service and resents that Netanyahu is constrained by demands from the far right.  However, as the last point reveals, it's unclear that Mofaz is now the poster child for equal service.  A smart Yachimovitch would gain a lot from saying "We in Labor supported Haredi service from the beginning.  And we did so on principle, not in order to get into bed with PM Netanyahu."  While a statement like this is highly unlikely, the point is that the Israeli public may not associate Mofaz with the issue.  Mofaz will need to convince the public to do so if he is to be successful in the elections.

As Allison Good, Michael Koplow, and this blogger stated, prediction in Middle East politics is a risky business.  At the same time, re-examining our underlying assumptions may never have happened in such a public way without having gone on the record a few weeks ago.  Our posts today are less about who was right and who was wrong, and more about analysts who are willing to have an honest discussion of Israeli politics, admit when they are wrong, and better inform the discourse on Israeli politics taking place here in Washington.  Such transparency ultimately improves the quality of our future predictions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

J Street On BDS And Settlements - Too Little Too Late?

The past week has been a big one for J Street, which bills itself as the home of the pro-Israel pro-Peace lobby in Washington.  The organization has taken two major steps that are critical to its success as a lobby.  However, it is unclear whether the changes will have the desired effects, especially if the November presidential election goes in favor of Republican Mitt Romney.

J Street's first success this week was to alienate the radical left with its strong opposition to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).  In a widely-circulated editorial, J Street's President Jeremy Ben-Ami echoed the sentiments of the mainstream American pro-Israel community in saying that "BDS deepens divisions and fails to promote reconciliation."  The editorial was timed to coincide with a meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which ultimately nixed divestment in a highly contentious and publicized vote.  For its opposition to BDS, J Street came under fire from far left opinion leaders such as MJ Rosenberg and Max Blumenthal, who opined that the organization had caved in to pressure from AIPAC and the Israeli government.

As this blogger has said here, here and here, J Street will need to alienate the far left to have legitimacy in DC and among American Jews.  It appears the organization has taken a real step towards doing so in strongly opposing BDS.  It took a clear stance on an issue relevant to Israel, and was able to align ideologically with the center of the U.S. Jewish community without compromising its support for progressive values.

The second success is a petition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to oppose the Levy Report's denial that the West Bank is occupied.  From an analystical perspective, the actual policy impact the petition will have is dubious.  The State Department has already condemned the report which contradicts U.S. policy dating back to the Johnson Administration.  In addition, it is highly likely Secretary Clinton will express disapproval of the report during her visit to Israel this weekend regardless of petitions since it is so controversial.  

However, J Street's petition campaign is a smart one because it expands the object of the group's pressure from the Congress (where AIPAC overwhelmingly has more clout) to the executive branch.  As it is, J Street is considered the Obama administration's "blocking back" in Congress, and J Street's policies overwhelmingly align with those of the Obama administration.  It thus makes more sense for the organization to rally support among the administration's base than to focus exclusively on competing with organizations like AIPAC in Congress and alienating Representatives in the process.  While the cause of J Street's petition will not significantly be impacted, the shift to a balanced targeting is a smart change.

The key question on both of these developments, of course, is whether they will make a difference for pro-Israel advocacy in Washington.  With the presidential election just months away in a struggling economy, J Street's first move if Romney wins is unclear.  Under a second Obama administration, J Street may have a role to play, but faces the prospect of a President burned from the settlement issue and largely hands-off with regards to the Middle East (as Allison Good has pointed out).  Ultimately, while the shifts are welcome, it remains unclear whether they will be sufficient to vault J Street to a position where it can compete with other major pro-Israel organizations.  It may be that these shifts, welcome as they are, will be too little too late.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Denying The Occupation Hurts Israel

Today in Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu received a document called the Levy Report.  Among other things, the report contends that Israel's presence in the West Bank does not qualify as military occupation.  Michael Koplow blogs here about the report and the critical domestic implications it has for the Likud party and Israel's future.  In the wake of the report, Prime Minister Netanyahu will need to carefully politically maneuver to prevent losing the support of the center, especially in the wake of issues such as Haredi military service.

But in the United States, the report brings to the surface a larger problem: the refusal of the pro-Israel community to recognize Israel's military presence in the West Bank as an occupation.  

Consistently, pro-Israel organizations in the United States including, CAMERAJewish Federations of North America,, promote this idea.  While debate in Israel is characteristically spirited over today's report, the U.S. pro-Israel community continues to underserve Israel by refusing to seriously engage this issue in an honest way.  

For the good of the state and the pro-Israel community in the United States, this situation needs to change.  The pro-Israel community in the United States is failing to seriously engage legitimate concerns about the treatment of Palestinians when it will not even accept that the IDF's actions constitute "occupation."  It needs to stop pretending that by not talking about the occupation it will go away.  Doing so is hurting the community's credibility.  And it is hurting Israel.

Everyone in the pro-Israel community seems to recognize that the general failure of hasbara is bad for Israel.  Yet when it comes to making actual changes to hasbara, we refuse on the basis that any change would appear to be a "concession" to pro-Palestinian movements.  The pro-Israel community in the United States is mistaken in thinking that not changing its rhetoric after 45 years is a sign of strength.  We focus instead on soft topics like tree-planting and camel-riding in Israel rather than taking seriously the concerns of a generation raised to have concern for human rights.  We talk about other countries' occupations such as Turkey in Northern Cyprus, and Syria's former occupation of Lebanon.  Anything and everything to avoid addressing the one issue on which people are actually making decisions about whether or not to support Israel.  As a result, Israel loses credibility and potential supporters.

Simply using the term occupation does not have to mean that Israel would withdraw tomorrow from the West Bank.  It would not have to mean Jewish abandonment of holy sites with great importance to the religion.  It would not have to mean conceding a right of return which would threaten Israel's basic nature as a Jewish democratic state.  However, it would mean correcting the pro-Israel narrative to align with the basic reality of power in the West Bank.  It would inject complexity into a narrative which must compete in the complex media environment of the 21st century.  Most importantly, it would cause moderate audiences to reconsider their lack of engagement with Israel by taking seriously their concerns about Palestinians rather than emailing around pictures of them in grocery stores in the Gaza Strip.

Most importantly, recognizing the basic fact of occupation would prompt serious thinking about the complex and dangerous challenges Israel faces in the years ahead.  There is universal understanding that the status quo in the West Bank is unsustainable.  Assessing accurately that status quo is the first step to creating a pro-Israel hasbara strategy that allows the state to achieve its full potential as a Jewish and democratic state.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Bet On Bibi - Why The Coalition Will Last

Making bets about the political future of the Middle East is a horrible idea.  The politics of the region are complex and often unstable, and one need only look to the Arab Spring as proof.  Which is why making a bet with Foreign Policy's Allison Good that the Israeli governing coalition will last out the week is risky on the part of this blogger. 

Nonetheless, policymaking often involves taking an educated guess.  If the guess is wrong, we can then reexamine which of its underlying assumptions were faulty.  At the present time, here are what appear to be the most salient of these assumptions in regards to Israeli politics:

1) Never.  Understimate.  Bibi.   Prime Minister Netanyahu is an intelligent and cunning head of state.  He knew very well that scrapping the Keshev Committee (on expanding IDF enlistment) would jeopardize the newly formed coalition with Shaul Mofaz and the Kadima party.  The Prime Minister has faced down much bigger challenges to his coalition in the past, and the odds are in favor of him doing so again.

2) MK Mofaz would gain little by quitting and a lot by remaining part of the coalition.  He has little to gain by quitting such a large coalition in which he has so much power, especially in such a short period of time.  If he can pressure the Prime Minister but remain in the coalition, Mofaz will emerge out of this debacle stronger than he went into it.  If he leaves the coalition, elections will be a messy business that are likely not worth the effort.  

3) The Israeli public sides with MK Mofaz.  The reason PM Netanyahu scrapped the Keshev Committee is that several MKs had defected from it and the committee was not being effective.  The Israeli public may support ending an unproductive committee.  However, it also largely supports the committee's end goal of legislating more inclusive service in the IDF by Arabs and Haredim.  If Bibi loses the coalition, this issue will likely be a major campaign item for Mofaz that will resonate with Israelis.  The odds are that PM Netanyahu will go to great lengths to find a deal with Mofaz (as he's already been trying to do).  If the coalition breaks down, Netanyahu's credibility with the Israeli public may be damaged as a result.