Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In Israeli Coalition Building, Netanyahu Feels The Pressure

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly likely to ask President Shimon Peres for a 14-day extension on building Israel's new governing coalition.  The extension would be on top of the normal 28-day period granted to the winning party after elections.  The news is consistent with this blog's election night prediction that Israel's coalition building process would be drawn out.

Part of the delay stems from an agreement between the Prime Minister's two potential coalition partners, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett of HaBayit HaYehudi.  The two parties have entered a strategic alliance to either join the coalition together, or not join at all.  The alliance complicates the Prime Minister's efforts to play each party off the other in order to ease the terms on which each would sign a coalition agreement with the Likud Beiteinu joint list.

Such an alliance could signal decreased power for the Prime Minister in the next government.  Bennett and Lapid have formed a strong counterbalance to the Likud, and may have incentives to continue to keep this balance.  In the long term, Lapid is much better off downgrading Prime Minister Netanyahu's influence and dealing with Bennett, a political newcomer with a solid but not majoritarian constituency.  Lapid has explicitly stated an interest in challenging Netanyahu for the Prime Minister position, ambition bolstered by a poll out today indicating increased support for Yesh Atid among Israelis.  For his part, Bennett is a mover and shaker on the Israeli political scene whose major obstacle is the Prime Minister.  However, Bennett has the potential to activate an insurrection among the more conservative wing of the Likud party, and stands to be a major player in future coalitions if he plays his cards right.

At a systemic level, the political impasse signals a shift in the nexus of power within Israel.  While Likud may have gotten the most votes, the kingmakers are two ambitious and pragmatic newcomers with ambitious agendas.  While Prime Minister Netanyahu may still be able to cleave Lapid and Bennett apart, the odds are looking increasingly unlikely.  In a longer term perspective, Lapid and Bennett's strong showing indicates an appetite for change among Israelis.  In contrast to the familiar stability for which Israelis voted in 2009 after Operation Cast Lead, voters today seem more confident in Israel's ability to improve its own situation - particularly with regards to domestic issues.  Here in Washington, policy makers should be attuned to this appetite for change and look for opportunities to improve the status quo both for the Middle East as a region and the United States as a key regional player.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Why The White House (Tacitly) Supports Israel's Syria Strike

Last Wednesday morning Israeli aircraft struck a Syrian weapons convoy en route to Syria.  While the Syrian government claimed the target was a military research facility, U.S. officials have indicated that the primary target was in fact a weapons shipment carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles

This incident is important because Syrian weapons trafficking poses a real and serious threat to Israel.  Israel's strike came two days after it moved an Iron Dome battery to the North where Hizbullah has strike capabilities.  The move may have been to preempt a Hizbullah retaliation and reassure nervous Israelis, but may also have been a first response to knowledge of the convoy.  In either case, Syrian WMD are a threat which the Israeli government is right to take seriously.  Striking Syria demonstrates that Israel does view Syrian WMD as a concern.  The strike risked blowback from key regional players (Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have condemned the strike), exacerbating tensions with Iran (which has now threatened Israel over the strike), and delegitimizing Syrian opposition fighters as Zionist rebels.  Israel knew these responses were likely but saw the threat of Syrian weapons in Hizbullah's hands as a greater risk and decided to strike.

Such decisions have been the subject debate here in Washington.  Often occurring along partisan lines, questions about whether the Obama administration supports Israel's legitimate right to self-defense have been copious.  Last week's Senate nomination hearing for former senator Chuck Hagel brought these questions - and the ugly partisanship behind some of them - front and center in Beltway politics.

What is common to the myriad hand-wringing and fretting about the Obama administration's position on Israel, however, is that it is almost entirely hypothetical with regards to Israel's defense.  Less responsible parties paint a picture in which the administration is just about to sell Israel's security down the river.  But the Syria strike is a good case study of what actually happens in the relationship, not what hypothetically could happen.  So what was the Obama administration's response?  The answer is especially important given that a) Israeli officials allegedly gave the United States advance warning of the strike and b) Israel's chief of Military Intelligence was in Washington meeting with Pentagon officials when the strike occurred.  In other words, the administration was informed throughout the strike and had time to prepare a response.  

Here's what happened: The White House had no official comment on the strike on either Wednesday or Thursday.  White House Spokesman Jay Carney referred questions on the matter to the Israeli government.  But he knew full well that the Israeli government was not commenting on the strike either.  It was not until yesterday that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, often at odds with Prime Minister Netanyahu and possibly interested in ending his tenure as Defense Minister on a strong note, implied Israel was behind the strike at all.  The White House deferred to the Israeli timeline on announcing responsibility for the strike despite questions about it from the press.

In addition, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday when asked about the strike that "we have grave concerns not only about security and safety of chemical weapons in Syria and responsibility the regime has there but about any other diversion of weaponry to Lebanese Hezbollah, et cetera."  She would not even comment on whether the airstrike constituted a breach of sovereignty.

In other words, the administration supported Israel's legitimate right to self-defense.  It was careful to avoid naming Israel as the party responsible for the airstrike while supporting the motives behind the strike.  Despite the regional condemnation the strike has generated, the administration reiterated the danger posed by Syrian WMD.  Such a response should assuage concerns from those fearful that Israel will be left to fight legitimate battles on its own.  Despite all the hypotheticals, the reality is that in this case the Obama administration had Israel's back.