Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Brief Farewell For Now

Dear Readers,

  The new year is a time of transition.  In the Middle East, regimes struggle to retain power while the people seek reform.  In the United States, the discussion of norms against chemical weapons have entered a new level of self-awareness.

  It is a time of personal transition as well.  Having advanced to Ph.D candidacy over the summer, I'll be conducting extensive research that I look forward to sharing with you.  However, my schedule will be extremely busy and fraught with travel - including several trips to the Middle East.  

I am therefore taking a temporary hiatus from blogging and tweeting until Spring 2014 in order to focus on this research.  I will update this blog when possible but I won't be on any regular schedule until Spring.  Upon my return to blogging, I will be expanding the focus of these posts in exciting new directions that I am looking forward to sharing with you.

In the meantime, I encourage you to read the other excellent analysis to which I link frequently on this blog and on Twitter.  Now more than ever, Middle East policy is an area where smart analysis is a necessity.  I invite you to listen closely, discuss vigorously, and question frequently.

Best wishes for a successful and healthy winter, and see you in the Spring.

Best,
The Confused Sheikh 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Rejecting The All-Or-Nothing Approach On Egypt

To say that Egypt is a mess is an understatement. After Islamist demonstrations against the removal of President Morsi on July 4th, the military responded with force. In the aftermath of ensuing clashes between protesters and security forces, 1,000 people have been killed. A more peaceful path forward appears unlikely in the next few days.

Much of the debate in Washington DC has focused on whether or not to cut aid to the Egyptian government. In 2012, the US gave Egypt about $1.6 billion dollars in foreign aid. With a slowly recovering economy and anti-American sentiment in Egypt over American support of Morsi the military liberals Israel terrorism one of the adversarial groups in the conflict, some question the utility of continuing to provide aid - even questioning whether aid has an impact on US interests in the first place.

On the other side of the debate, some experts argue that withdrawing aid may hurt day-to-day cooperation between the US and Egypt. It could also have ramifications for Egyptian coordination with Israel over its counter-terrorism operations in the Sinai. Indirectly, withdrawing aid could exacerbate policy gaps between the US (which has expressed "serious concern" over the military's actions) and Israel (which supports the military so long as it creates and maintains stability). Given that the domestic debate in Egypt has reached a fever pitch, legitimate questions remain as to whether a regime who sees the future of the country at stake will be swayed by the US withdrawing foreign aid.

The Obama administration has cancelled a joint military exercise planned for next month and rhetorically put aid on the table by mentioning "further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the US - Egyptian relationship." However, its response otherwise has been tepid. Given the unclear outcome of events in Egypt and a tide of anti-Americanism regardless of what move the US makes, caution is understandable. At the same time, the poster child of the Arab Spring is slowly slipping into the throes of ideological civil war. A failure of transition in Egypt will have ramifications throughout the Arab world and working to prevent it needs to be the priority for the administration.

One middle-ground step the Obama administration can take is to reject the all-or-nothing debate surrounding aid. There are middle-ground options which send a clear signal to those in Cairo who act recklessly with regards to the rights of the people without jeopardizing the long-term US relationship with a critical ally. The Obama administration can work with with Congress to put more stipulations and benchmarks on aid. It can cut aid overall but not withdraw it completely. It can also be more rhetorically assertive in threatening to withdraw aid unless the military can provide assurances of a return to a gradual and peaceful transition process. Each of these options comes with its own costs and benefits, and those with more expertise on Egypt than this blogger can better predict likely outcomes for any given option. However, this administration is unlikely to take drastic action, and this policy is likely well-advised.  

Doing nothing or pulling the plug are not the only policy options in Egypt. A new Middle East requires policymakers to think in new, more creative ways. Restoring influence and credibility in the Middle East will require complex and nuanced policy. Focusing the policy conversation in Washington on these kinds of options is the best way to ensure a speedy stop to the suffering in Egypt and a return to a government accountable to the Egyptian people.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks Will Need To Succeed

This afternoon's announcement of renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is welcome news. Even if the coming round of talks fail, the small chance of progress is an improvement over this unsustainable status quo. In this light, US Secretary of State John Kerry deserves considerable credit for locking in a commitment to peace talks from both sides. I noted yesterday that moving two sides to agree to peace talks is a messy and tenuous process. Secretary Kerry's big win today is a testament to his capable leadership as Secretary of State.

That being said, there is still a long road between where things are now and a sustainable peace agreement. It would be presumptuous to nix any prospect of success before the talks even get off the ground. However, there are three factors which pose major obstacles to a successful outcome (Professor Brent Sasley at UT Arlington has a few more):

1) Spoilers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition partner, Naftali Bennett, has already threatened to leave the coalition over the issue of dividing Jerusalem. Settler price tag attacks are also a distinct possibility given that land swaps in the West Bank are on the table. Hamas has flatly rejected the peace talks, calling them futile. A few barrages of rockets on Southern Israel could easily spoil chances for peace should Hamas get antsy over progress towards an agreement. Spoilers have yet to make their move, but they will move. They have done so every other time there have been peace talks. If this time is to be successful, parties to the talks will have to defeat these groups' ability to spoil the agreement.

2) Public Opinion. The negotiations test each side's ability to build public support for the agreement as it will be written. That of course assumes that either side makes an honest effort to negotiate in the first place. Many are doubtful that Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas even want a peace agreement in the first place, pointing to short-term political gain as the true motivation.  At the same time, spoilers on both sides are not lone actors - they are supported by sizable constituencies of Israelis and Palestinians who deeply mistrust the other side. Public opinion among parties to the conflict ranges from passively cynical to actively antagonistic. Even if Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas are serious about a peace deal, shaping public opinion presents a major challenge to acceptance of the plan.

3) Pro-Israel community support in Washington. It's odd to list the role of pro-Israel groups in Washington as a potential liability to peace but the relationship between these groups and the Obama administration is extremely important. Despite Secretary Kerry's attempts to rally support for talks from the pro-Israel crowd in a recent AJC speech, most pro-Israel groups were silent in response. Kerry brought about peace talks largely without the support of these organizations. This apathy is not based in ill-intentions but in historically-motivated cynicism similar to what Israelis experience. 

As peace talks move forward, the US and Israel will not always be on the same page. When that happens, the pro-Israel community plays a critical role. Whether it sides with the US in supporting an agreement above short-term concessions or whether the Netanyahu administration is able to coopt the community to relieve US pressure on Israel is a crucial variable.  Given the pluralistic nature of this community, it's not something entirely in either the US' or Israel's control. However, Secretary Kerry must be careful to manage relations with pro-Israel groups well in order to enhance the trust which will be crucial for a sustainable peace in the Middle East. 


Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Missed Opportunity Model: Mideast Negotiation as a Two-Level Game

"About the time we can make the ends meet, somebody move the ends"
  - Herbert Hoover 

Israelis and Palestinians always say they want to negotiate for peace but it somehow never happens.  That's because supporting negotiations is almost always good politics, but actually negotiating is not.  Here's why.

The News

News that the Palestinian Authority did not approve Secretary of State Kerry's plan for renewed Mideast peace talks is disappointing but not particularly surprising.  Many Secretaries of State have tried and failed before to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.  In the coming days, Secretary Kerry will likely try to salvage the talks by framing the Palestinian rejection as a counter-offer to Israel.  However, Prime Minister Netanyahu is unlikely to agree to the Palestinian demands: Negotiations based on the 1967 lines, releasing Palestinian prisoners, and stopping settlement building.

The Puzzle

More difficult to understand is the sudden switch from cautious acceptance to what is more or less a rejection of the plan.  Signalling early enthusiasm only to switch to stonewalling is a pattern that plagues Mideast peace negotiations.  As early as this morning, news reports indicated the Palestinian leadership might look favorably upon the plan, which also has the backing of the Arab League.  Yet later today the plan was met with indecision from the Palestinian leadership.  

This particular incident is likely a matter of internal divisions in Palestinian politics.  But these switches (which are not unique to the Palestinians) are puzzling.  Why do Israeli and Palestinian leaders indicate a willingness to engage in peace talks only to stonewall later?  

Stonewalling is understandable.  Domestic constituencies, radical groups on both sides, and the prospect of likely failure are rational deterrents.  But given there challenges, it's puzzling that leaders express enthusiasm in the first place.  This morning, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinians were keen on making Secretary Kerry's mission succeed and called today's meeting "urgent."  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been equally enthusiastic.  On Sunday he called President Abbas and expressed hope for a resumption in peace talks.  What explains this enthusiastic rhetoric?

Partial Explanations

Western pressure plays a role.  Neither Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas has an incentive to say no to Secretary Kerry on the principle of peace talks given each side's relationship with the US.  But the Secretary's extensive time in the Middle East (6 trips in 6 months) and an extension of his current trip show that this is more than just rhetoric.  No doubt, he has discussed the specifics with both sides and asked for informal guarantees.  Given this drawn out process, jumping right to stonewalling would be politically feasible for both leaders.  This explanation is insufficient on its own.

Partisan politics plays a role as well.  Naftali Bennet, leader of Israel's right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party has threatened a coalition crisis over negotiations with the Palestinians.  On the Palestinian side, Hamas has flatly rejected peace talks, calling them a "waste of time."  However, if partisanship were the main issue, both leaders could have been more pessimistic.  Cautious pessimism is a popular position among those who are party to the conflict, and it would have mitigated the blowback from the more partisan fringes now sounding off.  This explanation too is insufficient.

The Missed Opportunity Model

At the Geneva Peace Conference in 1973, Israel's Foreign Minister at the time Abba Eban remarked, "The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."  The quote has become a common platitude among the pro-Israel crowd and sums up a strategy which both Israelis and Palestinians have used to avoid actual negotiations.  This strategy produces the best outcome for the rational incentives given by what I will call the Missed Opportunity Model.

In 1995, Professor James Fearon wrote a groundbreaking article about bargaining and war.  He asked why countries go to war when it's against their interest.  His answer is that for a bunch of reasons, both sides bargain too hard.  Fearon's model is game theoretic and full of algebraic proofs, but it is essentially a fancy venn diagram:




James Fearon, "Rationalist Explanations for War," International Organizations 3 no. 49 (1995): 387

The model is pointing out that when either Country A or Country B's offer falls outside the other's bargaining range, it becomes less costly to fight the war than to continue bargaining.  The set of all possible offers where both sides win the game is aply called the win-set.  It's all values inside the bargaining range, which is all kinds of awesome.

To make this model applicable to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, let's change two rules of the game.  First, instead of bargaining over war, the two sides are bargaining over a peace agreement.  This agreement involves costly concessions by both sides that neither is thrilled to make.  In other words, the win-set is now a lose-set.  Long-term benefits aren't irrelevant but let's assume they're not the most important thing at the moment.  Second, let's make this a two-level game.  The bargaining model is the second level.  The first level is a game in which supporting bargaining in and of itself carries a positive payoff for both sides, with a slight benefit if both sides are bargaining and a slight loss if one side rejects but the other side supports negotiation.  Here's the payoff matrix for the game-theory inclined (I welcome your improvements wholeheartedly).


This is a slightly modified Battle of the Sexes payoff matrix.  It's saying the best strategy for each side is to support negotiating since doing so always carries a payoff.  

The actual negotiating, however, inherently involves a loss.  By definition, negotiation means you give up something. That means that in the entire two-level game, your best strategy is to support negotiation but not actually negotiate.  It's like signing up for a subscription that gives you a free toaster for doing so, cancelling the subscription, and keeping the toaster. 

For this scheme to pay off however, you need to cancel the subscription before you get charged.  This is what Israel and the Palestinians do in negotiations.  In Fearon's model, the players will bargain as close to the outside of the other side's best offer without falling outside it.  In the Missed Opportunity Model, both sides will bargain as close as possible to the outside of the other side's best offer without falling inside it.  Missed opportunity isn't a mistake, it's a strategy. 

In fact, you could try to lure the other side into your bargaining range by obfuscating your true best offer and enticing your opponent.  With enthusiasm. And signalling a willingness to negotiate.

This explains, along with the factors mentioned earlier, why both Israel and the Palestinians begin rounds of talking about negotiation with willingness and enthusiasm, only to stonewall.  Talking about bargaining gets each side political capital.  They then stonewall to avoid the cost of actual negotiations and keep the payoff supporting negotiation.

What does all this mean for the US?

Given this model, Secretary Kerry's best strategy is to push each side to improve their best offer but not tell the other side exactly what that offer is.  By engaging this two-level game, Secretary Kerry can then move each side into the others' bargaining range, ensnaring them into actual negotiations.  Given the ongoing and private negotiations, it appears Secretary Kerry is playing the game well.  The question is whether the actual values for each of these variables will lead to ensnarement in negotiations when the theoretical rubber hits this empirical road.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Obama's No Terrorist But Morsi Ouster Means Change

The past few days have seen accusations by Egyptian demonstrators that President Obama has been "supporting terrorists" (see also here and here).  Rather than the normal partisan hackery, these accusations come from frustrated liberal Egyptians upset that the Obama administration recognized and worked with the Islamist-aligned government of ex-President Mohamed Morsi.  Liberal Egyptians are no fans of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and millions of them protested on June 30th to demand change, leading to Morsi's ouster last Wednesday.

Ironically, the Obama administration's decision to work with the Morsi administration was motivated by previous experience.  In 2006, Palestinians held legislative elections in which Hamas (an ideological sibling of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) won a surprising 74 out of 132 parliament seats, versus only 45 by the Fatah party (favored by the United States).  At the time, the George W. Bush administration gave Hamas the cold shoulder.  President Bush stated flatly that "the United States does not support political parties that want to destroy our ally, Israel, and that people must renounce that part of their platform."  This policy attracted criticism since it ignored the will of a majority of Palestinians and impaired America's ability to influence outcomes in Gaza, including the 2007 violent takeover by Hamas. 

After the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) recognized Mohamed Morsi as the winner of Egyptian presidential election on June 30, 2012, the Obama administration tried to avoid the missteps of 2006.  President Obama called President Morsi to congratulate him and said he was interested in "working together with the new Egyptian president and all Egyptian political groups."  This was a marked shift from the Bush administration which, while working with Muslim Brotherhood-aligned parliamentarians was not nearly as conciliatory to Islamist movements when they gained real power, as Hamas did in 2006.  In addition to signalling a marked change of approach from the Bush era, part of the Obama administration's intent was to respect the "will of the people" in Egypt who had elected Mohamed Morsi by majority vote.  

This week's harsh criticism by Egyptians of the Obama administration is thus frustrating to many Washington policy makers.  Washington is criticized for not working with Hamas in 2006, but also for recognizing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012.  The Obama administration's decision to work with the Brotherhood was intended to support democracy and respect the will of the people in the region - a stance the US has been criticized for not taking towards Hamas.  However, The US is now being criticized for not supporting liberal causes when they contradicted the platform of the duly elected leader of Egypt. 

The question of whether the US should support illiberal winners of free and fair elections is hardly a new one.*  However, it is a question which comes into renewed focus as Washington attempts to re-posture itself for a post-Morsi Egypt.  While liberals now have control of the narrative, Muslim Brotherhood supporters remain a major player in Egyptian politics.  

The United States thus finds itself in a catch-22 with regards to Middle East diplomacy.  Urbanization, social media, and the Arab Spring have prompted a need for the United States to have deeper relationships with multiple constituencies in Middle Eastern countries.  These constituencies are diverse, shift positions frequently, and often do not agree with one another on policy matters.  But the tradeoff for relationships with antagonistic constituencies is a less-decisive policy.  Policy-by-alignment will now give way to policy-by-consensus building in the Middle East.  It is no longer enough to have strong alignment with government policy alone.  The United States must now also have policy resonance with NGOs, civil society, political opposition, and citizen constituencies.  

Regardless of whether calling President Obama a terrorist supporter for working with President Morsi is fair (it's obviously not), the United States will now need to find a balance between resonating with multiple constituencies and taking the decisive policy stances of the past.

*See here for a political science take on the issue.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Israel Should Think Long-Term On Egypt

After massive protests yesterday in Egypt against President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian military today gave the parties 48 hours to resolve their differences.  If they cannot do so, it will force a power transition in Egypt.  In the wake of the statement, five Egyptian ministers have resigned from the Morsi government: Tourism, Communications and IT, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Water, and Environment.  

Today's ultimatum sets up a showdown that is unlikely to be resolved without major and potentially violent conflict.  16 people have been killed so far in the protests.  The army's threat to intervene is credible, precedented, and supported by the throngs of people in Tahrir Square (though not necessarily by all Egyptians).  On the other hand, President Morsi is the elected leader of Egypt and likely to appeal to his base for legitimacy.  Despite a lack of progress towards economic recovery or political stability, the army's intervention could uproot the nascent democratic process in Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) are also likely to mount major resistance against removing President Morsi.  In other words, neither side is likely to back down.

For Israel, the situation merits considerable caution.  The Egyptian military has positioned at lease 30 tanks on the Sinai-Gaza border for the first time in years.  Given their good post-1979 relationship with the Israel Defense Forces, Israel is likely to look favorably on Egyptian military intervention in the political crisis.  The fact that this intervention is against an Islamist who once referred to Jews as "apes and pigs" doesn't hurt either.  

However, Israel may be well-advised to temper its support.  The popularity of military intervention would wear off quickly in Egypt if it were to occur.  When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) held power in the months following President Mubarak's downfall in 2011, Egyptians became frustrated with its grip on power.  The excitement over a potential for change and progress will give way to similar feelings if the military again holds power for a long time.  Israel does not stand to benefit from aligning to closely with this regime.  Doing so would harm both its legitimacy and that of the military itself.  

In a greater sense, a more democratic Egypt in the long-term would be beneficial for Israel.  While there are strong anti-Israel voices in Egypt - not all of them fair - a neighbor with similar values would overall open up more opportunities for collaboration and interdependence.  Egyptians have proven tenacious in their thirst for better governance, and this tenacity shows a common respect for the values of representation, fairness, and justice between the two countries.  The path towards a better Israel-Egypt relationship will be long and rocky at best, but is worth the costs given the other sources of animosity against Israel in the region and the international community.  

As the dynamic and potentially dangerous situation continues to play out in Egypt, Israel should keep its analytical head above water.  It should consider the long-term as well as the immediate effects of any action it takes towards this precarious situation.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Kerry Changes The Israel Game At AJC

While perhaps not as eye-catching a story as unclad female IDF soldiers (a blog post for another time), Secretary of State John Kerry's speech to the AJC yesterday was an important signal from the new Secretary about his seriousness towards pursuing a two-state solution.

Secretary Kerry's remarks signalled a sharp turn to the left from his predecessor, Hillary Clinton.  Former Secretary Clinton has had historical success by towing the centrist Democratic party line, and her rhetoric on Israel reflected as much.  In addition, Clinton was constrained by the Obama administration's initial missteps on settlements in its early days.  

Three things have changed since 2008.  Firstly, President Obama has a renewed mandate given his re-election.  This mandate - along with term limits - gives him more flexibility with regards to Middle East policy since he is less beholden to centrist independents.  Secondly, Prime Minister Netanyahu has warmed towards the United States, a change driven by concern from the Israeli public over US alienation and a new round of elections which resulted in a centrist government.  President Obama's visit to Israel in March 2013 signaled a clear warming in relations between himself and the Prime Minister.  Thirdly, the severity of America's soft-power deficit is much lower now than in 2008, thanks largely to the work of former Secretary Clinton.  Given the abysmal state of US soft power following the Bush administration, Secretary Clinton's priorities were on rebuilding American soft power and navigating those challenges in the midst of the Arab Spring.  Due largely to her success, Secretary Kerry can now focus on other issues, including the Middle East peace process.

These changes explain largely why yesterday's speech was anything but boilerplate.  In a speech which much more closely reflected J Street than AIPAC talking points, Secretary Kerry challenged many of the safe Washington talking points about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In addition to raising Palestinian concerns about a lack of self-determination, suffering of innocent victims, and economic blight, the Secretary mentioned four noteworthy items.

1) "Empowerment of Moderates in the West Bank and Gaza." What Secretary Kerry did not say here was "Palestinian" moderates in the West Bank and Gaza.  Given events like the price tag attack by radical settlers in the village of Zubeidat just last week, there may be reason to think that Secretary Kerry's vagueness was intentional.

2) The Arab Spring is the time to "recast Israel's relationships."  The current boilerplate rhetoric is the opposite and emphasizes that the Arab Spring has made the region more dangerous and Israel passively wait out the turmoil.

3) The Gaza withdrawal failed because it was "unilateral." This point was the most striking departure from boilerplate rhetoric.  Secretary Kerry went so far as to present the boilerplate idea that the Gaza withdrawal was a peace move, and then directly challenged it in his speech.  

4) Israel and the US would be stronger if Israel had more international support.  This statement was more a departure from Israeli than American rhetoric, but the case for building Israeli soft power is highly understated in Washington.

Critically, Secretary Kerry challenged the attendees to identify an alternative to the two state solution.  In a line met with applause, he noted that, "a realistic one-state solution simply does not exist for either side."  While he delivered the boilerplate line that "the status quo is unsustainable," the Secretary followed up with a realistic and viable alternative.  In a peace process where rhetoric is all but worthless, hinting at a realistic preferred outcome is an important statement of resolve by the Secretary of State.

The actual likelihood of progress towards a two-state solution remains slim.  Unfortunately, the best intentions of an American Secretary of State are not on their own enough to create the mutual trust necessary for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  However, Secretary Kerry's remarks signal a State Department with the right starting posture to begin this process.  Furthermore, that Secretary Kerry made such remarks serves to legitimize many of the points in his speech which are traditionally a matter of debate.  In a speech about empowering moderates, Secretary Kerry did just that by providing a strong basis for reasonable and pragmatic steps to advance peace in the Middle East.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Massad Op-Ed Saga In GIFs

On May 14, Professor Joseph Massad published an editorial on Al-Jazeera about Zionism and he was like:


And some readers were like:




Some reactions were stronger than others:




So Al-Jazeera tried to be like:


And by Saturday it was like:



The piece had been removed from the site.  Advocates for free speech were confused like:


Some were incredulous:


And soon they had al-Jazeera on the defensive like:


So yesterday Al-Jazeera was like:




And reposted the article with an explanation walking back their actions like:



Some readers were like:



While others were like:



But ultimately it helps to put everything in perspective:



Monday, May 20, 2013

Massad Is A Dangerous Distraction

A Ramallah-based Ph.D candidate and I engaged recently in a debate over the exact same issues Professor Joseph Massad of Columbia University raised in a now-infamous editorial last week on al-Jazeera.  Our discussion focused on the same topic as Massad's piece: Zionist coordination with the Nazi regime.  To say that such coordination occurred in a limited scope is a matter of plain historical fact.  It is entirely legitimate for my colleague and I to discuss these issues with the basic mutual respect we showed each other.

But Professor Massad shows little respect for his audience or for history.  At a core passage in the piece, he quotes Theodore Herzl's Der Judenstaat as saying, "The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England."  Massad uses as evidence that Zionism sees anti-Semitism as valid and encouraged it.  He ignores the next paragraph where Herzl describes anti-Semitism in 1800's Europe: "In countries where we have lived for centuries we are still cried down as strangers. and often by those whose ancestors were not yet domiciled in the land where Jews had already had experience of suffering."

Massad's over-generalization in the lengthy piece equates the actions of Jewish Zionists with those of the Nazis.  This is deeply offensive to Jews and supporters of Israel, especially given that the Zionists who worked with the Nazi regime were only a small subset of the diverse global Zionist movement.  This movement also included 50,000 Jewish Americans who rallied for a Nazi boycott under the organization of American Zionist Stephen S. Wise.  

Palestinians like Professor Massad deplore - and rightfully so - efforts to hide IDF participation in the forcible removal of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 or the denial of their struggle for national recognition.  But Massad's argument just creates the same pain on the other side of the conflict.  His piece stokes divisions between sides rather than dealing in a reality in which both Zionist Israelis and anti-Zionist Palestinians must negotiate a final status agreement to avoid mutual destruction.  

After six days of hosting Professor Massad's piece on its website, Al-Jazeera removed the editorial.  Immediately after, accusations flew that al-Jazeera was engaging in "censorship" stoked by "Zionists."  As if the media organization which refers consistently to Israel's capital as "occupied Jerusalem" were concerned primarily with not offending Zionists.  As if the content in the article was not itself highly incendiary and factually incorrect.

The idea that removing an editorial after six days constitutes censorship is ludicrous.  A 15-page Justice Department document on surveillance guidelines with all 15 pages blacked out is censorship.  Trying to ban Harry Potter because it indoctrinates Wicca is censorship.  Al-Jazeera removing an editorial off its own website after running it for six days is not censorship.  The piece is still on other websites and enjoyed wide dissemination.

More concerning, the idea that influential Zionists are responsible for censoring arguments that challenge their beliefs is unsubstantiated.  In the rush to stake out victimhood status, Massad's defenders miss the forest for the trees.  The Massad article is offensive because it accuses Jews of complicity in the creation of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, not because it identifies linkages between the Nazi government and Zionist elements.  The manically articulated arguments to the contrary reek of a conspiracy theory along the lines of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  

For proponents of the censorship conspiracy, playing the victim of discourse policing is a cowardly defense.  It is not anti-semitic to point out linkages between Zionists and Nazis.  But it is blatantly anti-semitic to extend this evidence to the conclusion to claim that Jews were complicit in the forces of their own destruction and are trying to censor this "truth."  Professor Massad's tinfoil hat-wearing defenders are without a shred of justification to stand on.  And in the blame-shifting and rhetorical house of mirrors they construct, real people suffer.  Israelis and Palestinians gain no benefit from the circle jerking of ideologues.  Rather, they benefit from careful historical examination and the confrontation of history as a basis for a sustainable future.

Ultimately, Professor Massad's piece is little more than a dangerous distraction from the real and important work ahead.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Summary Of The Syria Sh** Show

Israel is the Middle East's only liberal democracy.  It strikes Syria, but not for liberal reasons.  Syria, which technically has been at war with Israel for 40 years, declares war on Israel.  The Israeli strike targets weapons and is condemned by Iran.  Iran condemns the strike on weapons it denies trafficking in the first place.  Although this trafficking has been going on for years, the Arab League condemns the Israeli strike as a "violation of an Arab state's sovereignty."  Egypt, a country which is prosecuting those expressing dissent, condemns Israel for violating "international principles."  

Or as it's known in the Middle East: Sunday morning.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Preconditions And Key Conditions: Distinction Without A Difference

Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated today that Israel has no preconditions for peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.  However, he indicated that Palestinian recognition of a Jewish State would be necessary to "finish negotiations."  Such recognition is highly unlikely, since Palestinians understand recognition of Israel as a Jewish State to be a denial of the historic Arab Muslim presence in what is today Israel.

The statement raises the important issue of preconditions in Middle East peace talks.  Israel has been keen to highlight its willingness to sit down "tomorrrow" with Palestinian negotiators to discuss final status issues.  For their part, the Palestinian leadership have listed preconditions.  Chief among these is asking Israel stop settlement building entirely - a position which President Obama has regarded with dismay as of late.

After a brief Twitter exchange with Professor Brent Sasley today, Prime Minister Netanyahu's Spokesman Ofir Gendelman took the time to clarify for me that for Israel's part, Palestinian recognition of a Jewish State is not a precondition.  Rather, it is a "key component in ending the conflict."  Yet in a practical sense, this terminology is a distinction without a difference.

Let's say you have a good friend who has recently decided to become vegan.  A precondition is telling her, "You can only come for dinner tonight if you will agree to have chicken soup."  A key condition is "You can come for dinner tonight but keep in mind that I'm making chicken soup."  In both cases, knowing the friend has chosen to be vegan, the outcome will be the same.  Whether it's framed as the former or the latter makes no practical difference.

Critically, you have every right to serve whatever you like in your own home.  And Israel as the Jewish State has every right to ask for recognition as such.  But if it behooves you to see your friend, maybe you should just watch a movie instead.  That doesn't mean you have to stop making chicken soup for dinner.  You just have to not let it get in the way of seeing your friend since that is the outcome that really matters to you.  In other words, focusing on the outcome versus the principle allows you to get the best outcome possible.

Outcome-based negotiation will be critical for Israelis and Palestinians to make progress.  Standing on principle is both justified great for politics.  But it devastates the lives of those who suffer the consequences of political conflict in the Middle East.  Palestinians and Israelis - and the U.S. for that matter - have all stood on principle historically, and no final status agreement has been set in place as a result.  Changing the status quo in the region requires changing our collective approach to negotiations.

Official Palestinian recognition of Israel's Jewish nature is important - very important.  But it is not more important than the well-being of innocent civilians in Sderot who run into bomb shelters with 15 seconds' notice.  It is not more important than the lives of IDF soldiers who put their lives on the line on behalf of the State.  And it is not more important than the shared desire among Israelis to see the next generation come of age in a region free of the violence and conflict.  In an emergency like this one, triage is the best strategy.  Even an imperfect peace agreement is better than this status quo.  And focusing on problems which are both critical and treatable is the best way for a Jewish, democratic, secure state of Israel to ensure its national well-being.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Zionism, Palestinians, And Ideology - A Response

"Reflections of a Mumkin" is an excellent blog that my colleague - a Ph.D candidate in political science - maintains from Ramallah.  The blog is very well-written and engages analytically in the very controversial subject of Palestinian nationalism.  For anyone interested in both atmospherics and analysis on the Palestinian territories, following the blog is highly recommended.

The blog's latest post on Zionism takes a critical look at the linkages between Zionism, racism, and illiberal governance.  Unlike many pieces on the subject, my colleague has approached the topic in an analytical way.  His piece opens a rare opportunity for reasonable discussion in what is usually a cacophony of talking points and mud-slinging.  In that respect, this response to the piece is analytical as well.

The response below contends that the blog post glosses over complexities in Israeli history and society.  Understanding this complexity is critical both for understanding the conflict as it stands today, and determining ways to ease the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians alike.  Of course, certain aspects of Israel's treatment of Palestinians - segregation, division, arbitrary arrests, and the like - are not complicated.  They are injustices which weigh on the Palestinian people, and do not serve the long-term interests of Israel.  But ignoring other complexities is dangerous in a conflict where the price of misunderstanding is too often blood.

The piece begins with a discussion of the Elad-funded tour at the City of David, describing the slanted narrative the tour guide at the site as "contentious" and a "historical inaccuracy."  Those judgements are both correct.  They are also the judgement of Israeli NGOs such as Emek Shaveh and Professors of Archaeology such as Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University and Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University.  True, the Israel Antiquities authority looks with favor upon archaeological digs that establish an Jewish presence in Israel - but on digs that present real archaeological evidence versus highly contested stories based on biblical accounts as a source.  The point is that there are far more criticisms of the one-sided narrative by Israelis than a read through the piece might indicate.

The main thrust of the piece however, is the equation of Zionism with a) extreme racism, and b) colonialism.  Again, since the piece is analytical rather than the often charged rantings on the topic, it deserves an honest examination.


Zionism as Racism?

The piece describes Zionist "cooperation" Nazi policies of racist segregation of Jews under the Haavara agreement.  Under this agreement, the Nazi regime agreed to allow Jewish emigration to historical Palestine.  The agreement was controversial (even among Zionists) - but primarily because it lent support to Germany's economy during a time of increasing discrimination against Jews.  History has shown clearly the harm of racial segregation.  But let us be clear: collusion with racial segregation is very different than support for Nazism, especially as we conceive of it today.  Objectively speaking, even a "shared ideology" of racial segregation does not equate to support for the Holocaust.  Segregation is not the same thing as mass genocide, torture, or senseless violence.  Perhaps that is why the piece can make no explicit causal connection between some Zionists who colluded with the German government and Israel's contemporary treatment of Palestinians - none exists.  The piece is not equating Zionism with Naziism.  It is, however, implying a link between Zionist collaboration with Naziism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2013.  Ultimately, this linkage as it is described in the piece is unconvincing.

Of course, the Haavara agreement is not the only example of contact between Germany and some elements of the Zionist movement.  For example, Lehi leader Avraham Stern attempted to cooperate with the German military against the British in historical Palestine.  But Stern experienced blowback from other members of the radical Lehi militant group, and from the broader Zionist community.  Just months before the Haavara Agreement, American Zionist leader Stephen S. Wise organized an anti-Nazi boycott at Madison Square Garden in New York.  55,000 people attended the rally, captured in this iconic image.  

Today, Zionism remains a movement of many ideas.  Some of these ideas are hurtful while others are helpful to the region's people.  But to say that "Zionism" is the cause of Palestinian suffering ignores the fact that there is no one "Zionism."  Religious Zionism argues that Jews have a divine right to land on which Palestinians have lived for centuries.  Liberal Zionists - such as the leadership of Israel's far-left Meretz party - support the immediate withdrawal of the IDF from Palestinian territories.  Acknowledging these vast differences is essential for making sense of this conflict.


Zionism as Colonialism?

In response to the points above, my colleague might identify support for colonial rule as the common thread across these shades of Zionism.  The piece argues that colonialism is one of the "ideological underpinnings" of the Zionist movement.  It argues that "Zionism was forged in the crucible of European colonialism," which is true.  But the piece then writes off Western academia for shying away from "lumping Israel together with other colonial cases."

The debate over "colonialism" is largely a debate over definitions, and this debate is not mere academic navel gazing.  Definitions frame causes of problems, which in turn frame solutions.  Since the choice of a definition is ultimately arbitrary, the piece is not "wrong" per se.  However, its understanding of colonialism is, in this blogger's opinion, unhelpful.

Calling Israel's presence in the West Bank "colonialism" is controversial in two respects.  The first is that colonialism implies that the colonizer is foreign.  Delving into this topic would take an encyclopedia-long blog post and still would not address every consideration on the issue.  Whether Jews or Palestinians are "foreign" or "indigenous" in historical Palestine is a subjective matter of how far back one begins retelling the history.  For this reason, calling Israelis "foreign" to Israel is an analytical non-starter for the question at hand.  It crashes the discussion before it ever leaves the ground.

Secondly, many forms of colonialism imply an economic element.  In the piece's context of 19th century European colonialism, colonists were part of a mercantilist system in which raw goods were shipped back to a mother country to be made into goods and sold in that country's economy.  This economic model does not fit the Israeli case as it fits most other colonialist cases.  Israel not only does not gain money from settlements, it loses money on them.  Settlements are subsidized and require the protection of the Israel Defense Forces.  

Worse, those who accept the economic aspect of colonialism have jumped onto the bandwagon of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).  While BDS may be admirable in that it is a non-violent form of protest, its track record of success is limited at best.  Unfortunately, the act of not buying Ahava face cream at the mall has little effect on the daily hardships Palestinians face as a result of Israel's presence in the West Bank.  This is because ideology and perceptions, not economics, are motivating Israeli policy in the Territories.  Using words like "colonialism" which imply otherwise leads well-meaning supporters of Palestinian self-determination astray, and indirectly perpetuates the status quo in the region.


In conclusion, the piece is a well-constructed attempt to tackle the underbelly of Zionist ideology.  It illustrates the benefits of an analytical approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  My colleague expresses concern that the slant of the piece may "crush his chances of an academic job" but its thoughtfulness suggests otherwise (as does its ideology, as the political science department at that academic backwater Columbia University might concur).  At the same time, the nuances of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not go without consideration.  Regardless of whether those nuances reveal unsavory truths or thought-provoking insights, grasping fully these complexities is the only way to move the region forward from the pain and suffering its people currently face.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

UMD Sorority Emailer Takes On Syria

*****Warning: The following post is satire and may gloss over the intricacies of the policy issue it discusses*******


BREAKING NEWS: The Delta Gamma sorority sister who sent an incendiary email picked up by Gawker late last week has taken a newfound interest in Syria.  The following is a message she composed on the subject of Syria's apparent use of chemical weapons.  Strong language follows.


"To: Washington, D.C.
Re: U.S. Syria Policy


If you just opened this like I told you to, tie yourself down to whatever spinning chair you're sitting in, because this is going to be a rough f**king ride.

For those of you that have been up at the tiki bar at The Big Hunt, which apparently is the majority of this city, we have been F**KING UP in terms of preventing mass killing and general interactions with Syria.  I've been seeing State Department cables on cables about people LITERALLY being so f**king AWKWARD and saying analyzing the merits of intervention in Syria is so f**king BORING. If you're reading this right now and saying to yourself "But oh em gee, I've been having so much fun at the Cherry Blossom Festival this week!" then delete your Twitter account right now so I don't have to come find you and do it for you.

I do not give a flying f**k, and Syrians do not give a flying f**k, about how much you f**king love to hang out in DC.  You have 361 days out of the f**king year to hang out in DC, and this week is NOT, I f**king repeat NOT ONE OF THEM. This week is about recognizing that Syria has used chemical weapons and building a pragmatic response, and that's not f**king possible if you're going to stand around and talk to each other and not about Syria. Newsflash: SYRIANS DONT CARE HOW SLOW THE METRO RUNS. Oh wait, DOUBLE F**KING NEWSFLASH: SYRIA IS NOT GOING TO SUPPORT THE US POST-TRANSITION IF WE F**KING SUCK, which by the way in case you're an idiot and need it spelled out for you, WE F**KING SUCK SO FAR. This also applies to you little s**ts that have talked openly about letting all the sects kill each other IN FRONT OF SYRIANS.  If Assad openly said "Yeah we're gonna let Syrians attack each other", would you be happy? WOULD YOU? No you wouldn't, so WHY THE F**K WOULD YOU DO IT TO THEM?? IN FRONT OF THEM?!! First of all, you SHOULDN'T be going to panels on other conflicts, I don't give a F**K if your boyfriend works on it, if your brother works on it, or if your entire family is on the CSIS Working Group for it. YOU DON'T GO. YOU. DON'T. GO. And you ESPECIALLY do f**king NOT convince other Syria analysts to go with you.  Even if they have the big chocolate chip cookies from Corner Bakery.

"But wait!" you say in a whiny little voice to your computer screen as you tab switch back from your Words With Friends game to read this email, "I've been supporting taking a tough line with Assad and drawing red lines, doesn't that count for something?" NO IT F**KING DOESN'T. DO YOU WANNA KNOW F**KING WHY?!! IT DOESN'T COUNT BECAUSE YOU'VE BEEN F**KING UP AT LETHAL AID TOO. I've not only gotten texts about people being f**king WEIRD on Libya (for example, being stupid s**ts and saying stuff like "durr Susan Rice dropped the ball on Benghazi?" is not f**king funny), but I've seen op-eds about people actually saying we should support Islamist militias in Syria. Islamist. F**king. Militias. ARE YOU F**KING STUPID?!! I don't give a S**T about realpolitik, YOU SUPPORT WESTERN INTERVENTION AND NOT ANY OTHER ONE, HAVE YOU NEVER WORKED IN US FOREIGN POLICY? ARE YOU F**KING BLIND? Or are you just so f**king dense about what it means to make people like you that you think being a good little supporter of UN Security Council resolutions is going to make Syrians happy? Well it's time someone told you, NO ONE F**KING CARES ABOUT SECURITY COUNCIL RESOLUTIONS, ESPECIALLY F**KING SYRIANS. 

"Ohhh, I'm now crying because your email has made me oh so so sad". Well good. If this email applies to you in any way, meaning if you are a little !@#$ that trolls Jenan Moussa's articles at night or if you're a weird s**t that blogs about weird s**t during the day, this following message is for you:

DO NOT COMMENT ON TODAY'S NEWS.

I'm not f**king kidding. Don't comment. Seriously, if you have done ANYTHING I've mentioned in this email and have some rare disease where you're unable to NOT do these things, then you are HORRIBLE, I repeat, HORRIBLE PR FOR THIS FOREIGN POLICY ESTABLISHMENT. I would rather have 40 analysts that are serious, talk realistically, and not f**king morally bankrupt than 80 that are f**king myopic. If you are one of the people that have told me "Oh nooo boo hoo I can't take a position I'm non-partisan", then I pity you because I don't know how you got this far in life, and with that in mind don't f**king comment unless you're going to stop being a fence sitter on a morally imperative issue. Seriously. 

And for those of you who are offended at this email, I would apologize but hundreds of innocent people have been murdered in Syria in the past few days and no one seems to care enough to do anything."

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Post For Boston

As a Boston native and alum of a Boston-area university, I've decided to break the blog's self-imposed hiatus to comment briefly on what is almost certainly an act of terrorism at the Boston Marathon Monday afternoon.

The deaths and injuries of marathon runners and those cheering them on is tragic.  Marathoners represent the best in humanity: dedication, perseverance, achievement, and good will.  To target athletes is a heinous act, and to target those cheering them on (as I had the chance to do in college) is heinous as well.  

Today's attack reminds us that the victims of terrorism are not politicos or partisans or ideologues.  They are human beings caught up in an act of political violence whose target is the government, but whose casualties are people.  Be it in the Middle East or the East Coast, the reaction is eerily similar.  Shock, disbelief, grief, and mourning know no national boundaries.  The realization that "it can happen here too" is unsettling regardless of whether one realizes it in Arabic, Hebrew, or English.  Today is Israeli Memorial Day, on which the country pauses to remember its fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism.  Here in the U.S. we now face the morbid coincidence of empathy with that day and all for which it stands.

The days ahead will not be easy for Boston, nor for the country.  However, we Bostonians are a strong and resilient bunch.  We should have every confidence that this is a tragedy out of which Boston and the entire United States will emerge stronger.  And while they may have showed strength today, those who perpetrated these attacks will be held accountable.  

And with jurors who will be Red Sox fans, Gd help them.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Posting to Resume After Yom HaAtzmaut

Blogging has been light the past week or so in light of academic conferences and preparation for the end of the semester.  The plan is to post a new piece later this week in reply to a colleague conducting field work in Ramallah.  Given the imminent onset of Yom HaZikaron tonight and out of respect for those men and women and their families, that post will go up after the conclusion of Israel's Independence Day Tuesday evening.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Israel Responds To Gaza Rocket Fire

A recent spate of rocket attacks from Gaza into Southern Israel has drawn the new Israeli government's focus outward.  As negotiations over the budget continue, security has once again taken center stage in Israeli politics.  While this return to security as the focus was predictable, the flare up has important impacts on Israeli security.  

The instigator of the latest attacks is not Hamas, but rather a group called "The Mujahideen Shura Council of the Jerusalem Environs," (known as MSM) a Salafi organization with a Gaza presence since June 19, 2012.  WINEP Boren Fellow and frequent Tweeter Aaron Zelin (@azelin) has written extensively about the group, its links to al-Qaeda and its consolidation from other Jihadist groups operating in Gaza.  The April 3, 2013 attack claim which Aaron posted in Arabic on his fantastic Jihadology blog references a 64-year old Palestinian prisoner, Maysara Abu Hamdiya, who died in Israeli prison.  Hamdeya was given a life sentence for planning to bomb a Jerusalem cafe in 2002.  His death sparked protests in the West Bank over accusations of Israeli mistreatment, and comes on the heels of other prisoner deaths over the past month.  The issue of mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners strikes a personal note for many Palestinians who have relatives in jails in Israel.

Hamas held a mock funeral and protest for Hamdeya in Gaza and said that Israel would "regret its continuing crimes."  However, it did not engage in rocket attacks.  Since Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, there has been an unstable truce that neither Hamas nor Israel is interested in destabilizing.  The attacks by the MSM terrorist group may very well undermine those plans.

Last night, Israel struck targets in the Gaza Strip in response to the rocket attacks.  Israel's new defense minister Moshe Yaalon said in the wake of the strike that "we see Hamas as being responsible for everything that is fired from the Strip at Israel."  While Israel's linkage of all attacks to Hamas delegates responsibility away from the IDF and helps maintain the fragile calm, whether Hamas can actually control all movements in the Strip is a matter of debate.

From the Israeli perspective, the government has an interest in maintaining calm, but also in starting off the new government in a position of strength against Hamas.  Especially given that Minister Ya'alon is hawkish and the current security cabinet consists of two coalition partners without governing experience (as Brent Sasley has explained), Israel will want to demonstrate strength.  In so doing, it must also be careful to show Hamas that maintaining the truce is in its best interest.