Friday, March 22, 2013

Has The Obama Visit To Israel Helped?

President Obama's trip to Israel has been a whirlwind tour of museums, holy sites, and convention centers.  The Onion's insinuation that the visit resembles a Birthright Trip is not too far off (though someone should notify the Onion that the minimum age for participation is 18, not 16).

The real question, however, is whether the President's trip will have a political impact.  Has President Obama convinced the Israeli people that no, seriously, he does have their back?  Has he mended frayed ties between himself and Prime Minister Netanyahu?  And what are the implications of these dynamics on the US-Israel relationship on the whole?

Clearly the President's trip has not been a panacea.  The heckler in yesterday's speech at the Jerusalem's International Convention Center (subtly but closely reminiscent of his Cairo speech in 2009) makes clear that despite the carefully selected audience and otherwise highly staged photo ops, opposition to and mistrust towards the President persist in Israel.  While polling data will reveal the extent to which perceptions have changed, four years of mistrust have not been erased by a 2-day visit.

That being said, the visit signaled improved ties between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.  The question is whether these talks caused improved relations, or are the effect of an already improved relationship as both leaders begin new terms.  The issue of joint focus during their talks on Wednesday was Iran - an issue on which both the US and Israel are in rhetorical alignment.  While Vice President Biden's admission that differences exist on "tactic" reveals some daylight, the President and the Prime Minister avoided focusing on the more contentious issue in their talks. 

In his speech yesterday, President Obama highlighted some of these controversial issues, discussing settlements, checkpoints, and Palestinian rights.  Yet he did so in a way that was consistent with the underlying value principles upon which he premised his support for Israel.  The administration knew it could not erase four years of mistrust, so it opted for honesty.   

The President's strategy was to focus on demonstrating sincerity - even if that meant sincere disagreement on certain points.  President Obama's sincerity in opposing settlement expansion is the same sincerity he brings to the more worrisome issue of Iran. Israelis may not agree with US policy on these issues, but they now can be assured their points of overlap with the administration's positions are genuine areas of alignment.

The ultimate impact of the President's visit will become clearer in the days ahead.  It remains unclear whether the visit has helped the President's standing in Israel, his ability to advance U.S. policy in the Middle East, or his domestic approval in the United States.  However, the visit has certainly not hurt the President, and will likely have a positive impact on each of these objectives.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Obama's Israel Kishkes Test Cause For Indigestion

In anticipation of President Obama's visit to Israel, the American pro-Israel community has stressed the importance of a factor which has come to be known as the kishke test.  Kishke is the Yiddish word for gut, and the test refers to how much Israelis and American Jews trust President Obama to support Israel.  The kishke issue has been contentious since as early as May 2008 and remains a weak spot of the Obama administration.  

Elsewhere in American politics, this factor would be called "likability" - that certain charm or charisma that makes a constituent really trust a candidate on an emotional level.  Passing the kishke test is a critical part of any election or public opinion blitz, and is endlessly frustrating to strategists and political scientists for how hard it is to define.  Nonetheless, it remains crucial for any politician seeking greater popularity.  When your business is people, your currency is how many people like you.  Kishkes may be a frustrating variable, but they matter.

The problem, however, is that the kishke test is a lousy strategy for foreign policy making.  No example is more illustrative of this point than the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Prior to the invasion, 80% of the American public believed in their kishkes that Iraq had WMD.  This sentiment was due largely to the efforts of Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, and others who also made the case based on kishkes and not on evidence.  Yet nearly 10 years later to the day, evidence that Iraq possessed WMD is sketchy at best.  The foreign policy blunder of the 2003 Iraq War illustrated the dangers of relying too heavily on kishkes.  It also highlighted the importance of an informed American public. Luckily, American pro-Israel organizations and opinion leaders expend substantial effort and money on such efforts - from policy conferences to newsletters to Youtube videos.   

However, with too much focus on the kishke test in the coming weeks, the American pro-Israel community risks ceding ground to those who make assessments of the President based on what they feel he thinks about Israel rather than what the actual record reflects.  This discussion will be predictably partisan and do little to advance US-Israel relations.  It will also based on the historic insecurities of the global Jewish diaspora rather than evidence against the Obama administration which is anything more than petty. 

Instead, U.S. pro-Israel organizations and opinion leaders should judge any U.S. policy changes not by how they make Israel supporters feel but rather the extent to which they actually advance joint US-Israel strategic interests.  Such assessments will serve to better inform the American pro-Israel community.  They will also give the Obama administration a more tangible set of policy items for better securing Israel and the United States.  While the kishke test matters for voters, pro-Israel organizations and opinion leaders should seek to inform their constituents rather than persuade them with blind emotion.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Imminent Knesset Deal Means Fractures For Likud

While Israel analysts await news of an Israeli coalition agreement, there are two items of interest taking place within the Likud party.

First, Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely support MK Yuli Edelstein to be the Knesset speaker, ousting Reuven Rivlin.  Likud MKs speaking off the record have been very upset by the news, accusing the Prime Minister of caving to the more extreme Yisrael Beiteinu party and threatening an internal intifada in the Likud.  Rivlin is conservative but more centrist than other wings of the Likud.  In 2010, he ignored a committee's advice to withdraw parliamentary privileges for MK Hanin Zoabi after her participation in the Gaza flotilla.  In 2012, he sparred with Prime Minister Netanyahu over the terms of a migrant workers bill, citing international public opinion as a concern.

From the other side of the Likud, the Prime Minister has received criticism from MK Tzipi Hotovely over his choice of the more centrist MK Limor Livnat for a ministerial position.  Many of the far-right MKs in Likud placed higher in the primaries than MK Livnat, and resent their lack of ministerial representation.  This wing of the Likud is already feeling the heat from the all-but-certain coalition between Likud and Yesh Atid.  Since Yesh Atid is a centrist party, right-wing MKs like Hotovely, Danny Danon, and Miri Regev stand to be marginalized - depending on how haBayit haYehudi plays its cards.  They will likely do whatever they can to spoil any policy making that takes Israel in a more centrist direction.

The bigger picture is that the Prime Minister faces a tough balancing act within his own party upon his announcement of the new coalition.  Aligning with Yesh Atid will bolster his policy leverage and standing among the Israeli public.  However, Prime Minister Netanyahu has paid for this alignment with Likud party unity.  In the first few months of the new coalition's tenure, he will have to manage this split in the party to prevent a far-right insurrection which could seriously destabilize the government.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

AIPAC 2013 Kicks Off With Focus On Syria

The 2013 AIPAC annual conference began this morning at the Walter Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington DC.  During the opening plenary, attendees heard from Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, Former Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross, and former Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams.

Syria took particular prominence in the opening hours of the conference, linked to - and even overshadowing - the Iran issue.  Ambassador Oren emphasized that Israel supports Syrian President Assad's departure from power, and reiterated that Syria would be crossing a red line if it passes chemical weapons to Hizbullah.

Dennis Ross took a particularly forward posture on Syria, calling for the US "to provide lethal assistance" to the Syrian opposition, though he did not specify the kind of aid or to whom it should go.  The statement may have been intended to put pressure on the Obama administration with which Mr. Ross is closely aligned.  The administration has recently pledged $60 million dollars worth of non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, but has shied away from providing lethal aid.

AIPAC's policy agenda this year appears slightly less focused than in years past, when the slogans "The 1967 borders are indefensible" and "Containment is not an option" were crystal clear in the opening hours of the conference.  This is because of the ongoing coalition building process in Israel in which Israel's policy platforms are being actively negotiated.  Since Prime Minister Netanyahu will be forced to make compromises - especially now that the talk have gone into overtime - a strong AIPAC policy agenda might have the impact of tying Israel's hands. 

As a result, much of the opening plenary session focused on US issues like bi-partisan support for Israel and the challenge of high Congressional turnover to Israel advocacy in the United States.  Current AIPAC President Michael Kassen warned about the "growing allure of isolationism" on the part of the American public and the US Congress, which has a "different relationship" with Israel than older generations.  He also highlighted the increased representation of minorities in the population of likely voters as a  "challenge."  This framing was an honest but somewhat awkward formulation of the issue - especially in the wake of an African American pastor referencing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's role in the US civil rights movement and Jews' historic alignment with other American minorities.

The plenary concluded with a showcase of Israeli technology, designed to highlight the non-political aspect of Israel and pro-Israel advocacy in the United States.  While Israeli technology has been a feature of many AIPAC conferences, this was the first time in recent memory it was featured prominently in the opening plenary session.  It is significant that this time block, usually used for a prominent speech by a politician (President Obama in 2011 and 2012), was allocated for non-political use.  It indicates that AIPAC is being cautious in this period of political change not to draw lines in the sand that could limit the same Israeli and American politicians on whose behalf AIPAC tries to create leverage.