Monday, September 29, 2014

Bibi Panders, Hints At Chance For Cooperation In UN Speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's speech at the UN General Assembly today was intended largely for a domestic audience. However, he signaled areas in which Israel might be open to progress in a post-Operation Protective Edge environment.

Netanyahu glossed over critical differences between extremist groups, linking together Hamas (with whom Israel has been negotiating in Cairo), ISIS, Iran, the Mahdi Army, and the Nazis. His speech spared no criticism of the UN for hosting Hamas rockets in its schools, and referred at one point to the UN Human Rights Council as the "Terrorist Rights Council." Netanyahu tried to link the Islamic State (aka ISIS) with the "Islamic State of Iran" (its formal name is the Islamic Republic of Iran) and used several other well-rehearsed talking points about Iran's imminent danger to regional stability. 

Such a speech made few gains for Israel's political capital with the international community. However, it will likely be well-received by the Likud base on whom Netanyahu relies for political support. In the wake of Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu is under pressure to stem a post-war decline in popularity and demonstrate a clear victory over Hamas. Just yesterday, MK Danny Danon, a representative of the Likud's most hawkish constituency, implied that Netanyahu's response to Hamas was not sufficiently strong. As competitors seek to take advantage of the opportunity to chip away Netanyahu's base, a fiery speech to the UN is a surefire way for the Prime Minister to consolidate support.

Despite domestic pandering, Netanyahu's speech indicated the government's current negotiating position. Netanyahu's demand for "rock solid security arrangements" refers to an Israeli military presence on the West Bank - Jordan border. It will be very difficult to achieve this demand (the US has suggested cameras instead). The Prime Minister also called the need for territorial compromise "obvious," though it's unclear whether one-for-one land swaps are comparably obvious.

More significantly, Netanyahu called for regional Arab cooperation, mentioning Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia as potential partners. Invoking "joint interest," Netanyahu may be seeking to outflank the Palestinian Authority which has threatened to pursue statehood at the UN and to bring Israel to the ICC on charges of war crimes. His comments also resonate in the wake of a re-affirmation of the Arab Peace Initiative on September 25th by GCC states meeting with US officials. These comments may have particular salience given cooperation by GCC and other Arab states on the conflict against ISIS in Syria. 

If the Prime Minister's objective was to stem the tide of anti-Israel sentiment at the UN, he was certainly unsuccessful. However, if he intended to bolster domestic support while signalling the potential for cooperation with major Arab powers, Netanyahu achieved his goal. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kuwait Mends Ties With Palestinian Leadership

Kuwait's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah, made an historic visit yesterday to the West Bank and the Temple Mount. The significance of the visit is couched in a tumultuous relationship between Kuwait and Palestinian leadership. 

The Foreign Minister's appearance in the West Bank is the first by a senior Kuwaiti official since 1967. His visit, part of a larger tour, is likely intended to mend relations and to increase Kuwait's general influence in the region. Kuwait's regional role is not particularly activist. The Emir was congratulated just last week at the UN for Kuwait's humanitarian efforts on Syria. Yet Kuwait has been hesitant to join a Saudi-led regional force, and did not follow suit when Saudi, the Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March. Rather, it worked with Oman to mend ties and maintain regional stability. As Kuwait seeks to use its mediating power to gain regional influence, its relationship with the Palestinian leadership will be important. A quick look at the history of this relationship explains why.

In the mid-twentieth century, Palestinians played a vital role in Kuwait's development. Oil drilling required technical expertise, and many highly educated Palestinians came to Kuwait to fill these positions. Palestinian engineers in the 1950's and 60's were in high demand in Kuwait. They had the expertise to run oil extraction sites, and were also proficient in both Arabic and English.

Kuwait was originally one of the main financial backers of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and it had a presence in the country. However, governments in the region, including Kuwait, became fearful of the PLO as a political force. Since many of the region's governments were installed by Western powers, these governments feared the PLO would target them as illegitimate. As a result, Kuwait kept a close eye on PLO activism within the country.

Relations because critical after PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat met with Saddam Hussein two days after the Kuwait invasion. As Kuwait University Professor Shafeeq Ghabra describes, the PLO chairman expressed support for "the Iraqi policy" and incurred the lasting animosity of Kuwait as a result. After an attack on a Kuwaiti aircraft in October 1990 in which Palestinians were implicated, the Kuwaiti government fired over 3,000 Palestinians from government jobs. Fearing arrest and intimidation, around 200,000 Palestinians fled Kuwait during the invasion and liberation of Kuwait. 

Mutual animosity continued after the end of the Gulf War. It lasted for over a decade. In 2001, Kuwaiti MPs spoke out strongly against the visit of Palestinian Authority official Faisal Husseini to a conference in Kuwait against normalizing relations with Israel.

Relations began to mend in 2004, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas apologized for the PLO's support of Iraq during a visit to Kuwait. A Palestinian embassy opened in Kuwait last year. Currently, Kuwait chairs the Arab Peace Initiative of the Arab Summit. In the wake of the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, the Kuwaiti parliament voted to withdraw from the initiative. However, in comments at the Arab Summit meeting held in Kuwait last March, Kuwait's Amir expressed support for the initiative.

Given Kuwait's status as a close US ally, the development of stronger relations between Kuwait and the Palestinian leadership is a positive development. At the same time, the sensitive history of Kuwait-Palestinian relations is an issue in which the US should avoid becoming entangled.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Israel's "Western" Public Diplomacy Paradox

Israeli public diplomacy strategy is often based on an affiliation with the West. Its latest round of public diplomacy during Operation Protective Edge is no exception. The campaign put Israel's security challenges in Western terms and used graphics and fonts that are trendy in Western communication. Here are some examples:

The IDF also issued releases with English plays on words, such as this commentary on Hamas' breaking a ceasefire:

Israeli public affairs doesn't just look Western. Many of its spokespeople are in fact English-speaking Westerners (Anglos). The IDF's International Media spokesman, LTC Peter Lerner, is British by birth. Mark Regev, the Prime Minister's spokesman, hails from Australia. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself spent time in the US and speaks perfect English, as does haBayit haYehudi party leader Naftali Bennett and prominent Likud leader Danny Danon.

Israel's extensive Anglo outreach is helpful in reaching and resonating with many supporters in the West. It is so effective, in fact, that Palestinian activists have criticized media outlets for hosting Israelis fluent in English while hosting Arabic speaking Palestinians. But there is an important tradeoff: In affiliating with the West, Israel is no longer seen as an "other." 

In general, not being seen as the "other" is a good strategy. People are more likely to associate with those like them, and to support Israelis who look and speak like they do. At the same time, Israel's close affiliation with the West entrenches perceptions of the country as the "fifty-first state" of the United States. When people who sound and look like Westerners make statements Westerners disagree with, it creates cognitive dissonance. It generates a feeling that Israel is misrepresenting the West's values. It entrenches the perception that Israelis are immigrants and settlers on indigenous Palestinian land. It also broods frustration that Israel "ought to know better" than to take action some in the West find questionable. 

In reality, Israel's security challenges are unique among Western states. No Western country faces constant barrages of rocket attacks, an ever-existent threat of an intifada, and close international scrutiny (though not always consequences) for any security action it takes. One would be hard pressed to find a Western state that, if in Israel's situation, would react with the same level of caution. Of course, this level of caution did not stop the deaths of over 2,000 Palestinians and the injury of thousands more in Gaza. It has not, to date, resulted in the end of severe restrictions on freedom of movement or the daily humiliation of checkpoints. However, the terms under which Israel conducts security policy are very different from those of the West and need to be understood in that context.

Given that this is the case, Israel must to walk a fine line between portraying itself as Western, and affiliating so much with the West that people forget that its circumstances are different. This shift does not requires a sea change, rather a calculated adjustment in strategy. The interview below with an soldier from the IDF's Youtube channel does a good job of finding that balance. The soldier is not an Anglo but rather a Hebrew-speaking Israeli. His basic respect for civilians as a soldier sounds more genuine in Hebrew than coming from a polished Anglo spokesperson. His testimony (translated with some liberty, and including some obvious IDF talking points) evokes that of Western soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and his testimony humanizes the IDF.

Most importantly, the video invites the viewer to empathize with the soldier while recognizing the existence of a cultural and national difference. This recognition likely makes the viewer more willing to entertain, if not accept, points of view not perfectly resonant with her own.