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.