Monday, December 21, 2015

Why Im Tirzu Sees The West As Israel's Enemy

Im Tirzu's accusations that leaders of Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem are "foreign agents" is a strange move. Lashing out against left-wing organizations is not a new phenomenon in Israel. However, the accusation that these groups are made up of foreign agents answering to the European Union and its member states is puzzling given that Israel's biggest foreign adversaries are Arab and Persian, not European. Ultimately, Im Tirzu's focus on "foreign European agents" is designed to manipulate Israeli anxiety over strained ties with Europe, and control the Zionist discourse in Israel.

Accusations that someone is a "foreign agent" are popular in the Middle East. Shi'a are labeled "Iranian agents," Liberals are labeled "Western agents," and almost anything else (including sharks and pigeons) are labeled "Zionist agents." While such conspiracies also exist in the West (ie Jews as Israeli agents, Muslims as ISIS agents) the lack of government transparency and accountability in the Middle East can exacerbate the traction of these ideas. They are usually directed toward entire communities in the political opposition as a way of undermining the legitimacy of their participation in political debate.

Israel and its supporters usually point out that Israel's Arab minority would rather live in Israel than a Palestinian state. However, Im Tirzu targets not Arabs but rather Ashkenazic Jewish individuals and the NGOs they lead. In 2010, Im Tirzu blamed the New Israel Fund for the controversial UN Goldstone Report against Israel and mentioned that NIF was registered in the United States. They later published an ad featuring a caricature of NIF President Naomi Chazan sporting a horn. In light of the discourse around leftist NGOs, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has come under fire for submitting a bill earlier this year that would cut off foreign funding to NGOs that, in the opinion of the state, undermine Israel. 

Given that Israel's biggest international threats come from Arab states and Iran, it is odd that Im Tirzu would construct Europe and the US as enemies planting foreign agents. Especially given that until 2009, Im Tirzu itself received funding from American Pastor John Hagee ($100,000 to be exact). What explains this puzzling (and, one might say, hypocritical) criticism?

One reason is that Israel has faced increasing pressure from European states, generating domestic resentment. These include Germany's support for labeling settlement products, Sweden's declared intention to recognize Palestine, the election of pro-Palestinian MP Jeremy Corbyn as head of Britain's Labor Party, a British academic boycott of Israel, and an EU ban on funding Israeli activity beyond the Green Line. Israelis consider these actions unfair and unnecessary, and react with fear over the extent to which Israel-Europe ties have been harmed (though Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's reactionary policies hardly helped). The idea that Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem are exacerbating the crumbling of this vital relationship plays upon these fears while also absolving Israel of any responsibility for the diplomatic mess in which it finds itself.

The other reason is that Im Tirzu seeks to advance its own particular version of Zionism, and left wing Ashkenazic Israelis threaten this ability. Im Tirzu is unapologetic about its desire to suffocate the debate that has been at the core of Zionism since 1897 and led to the creation of Israel's modern democratic political system. It intends to police the Zionist debate and have authority over which forms of Zionism are "acceptable" in Israel. In May 2010, for example, Im Tirzu demanded that Ben Gurion University shut down it's political science department for representing "the radical Left." Framing liberal Zionist leaders as "foreign agents" is an easy way to undermine opponents of Im Tirzu's version of Zionism while constructing the group as a "gate keeper" of Zionist discourse.

While Israel's reaction to these accusations has been representative of its strong democratic discourse, analysts should not underestimate the danger of radical populism in Israel. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem, but they are nonetheless a part of Israel's civil society and play an important role in the discourse over what Israel represents and for what it should strive in the future.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

GOP Candidates Must Condemn Islamophobia

The silence at last night's Republican debate over Donald Trump's screed against Muslim Americans is an insult to the American people. Some candidates pointed out that Trump's plans are unrealistic. Not a single one pointed out that they are deeply prejudiced and an affront to the religious freedoms guaranteed to American citizens.

The men and woman on stage in Las Vegas last night are candidates for the presidency of the United States and have a responsibility to lead. But not a single one was willing to call out blatant unapologetic bigotry against an entire religion. This silence is not only an affront to Muslim Americans, 5,000 of whom serve in this country's military, but to all religious minorities in the United States. 

The United States Constitution protects "religion," and not just the ones a certain plurality of the American public happens to like. Restrictions on Muslim American rights limit constitutional religious protections in ways that hurt Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Bahai rights as well. That is why members of these groups have condemned Trump's comments. Millions of Americans have experienced religious discrimination firsthand, and know that progress on religious tolerance in the United States is reversible. Whether Donald Trump believes his own rhetoric is irrelevant to whether it should be condemned. The lack of attention to this issue in last night's debate is cause for legitimate concern.

The idea that Muslim Americans deserve less rights because of Da'esh is without merit. The President is being chastised for spurning the term "Islamic terrorism" by candidates who clearly have no concept of either Islam or terrorism. The threat Da'esh poses to Americans requires continued coalition airstrikes, strong intelligence, outreach to US allies, engagement with key communities, and public awareness promotion. It does not require the blanket targeting of an entire group of American citizens. Da'esh is not a "special case." It is far less threatening than many adversaries the United States has faced.

As the campaign progresses, Republican candidates must be more vigilant in calling out religious prejudice from within their ranks. This position is consistent with the Republican party platform of protecting freedom, and is literally the least the candidates can do to convince Americans they are serious contenders to lead a country whose constitution ensures liberty and justice for all.

Monday, November 23, 2015

BDS Resolution Poorly Proven, Positional

This weekend the American Anthropological Association voted 1040-136 to boycott Israeli academic institutions. As opposed to last year's Middle East Studies Association resolution which called only for discussion of a boycott, this resolution tells the AAA to "boycott Israeli academic institutions until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights." The resolution was submitted by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. An annotated version of the resolution makes a poor attempt to justify claims in the text. Here are three examples:


Claim: "The United States plays a decisive role in enabling Israel's systematic violations of Palestinians' basic rights under international law."

Citations: Statistic of US annual aid to Israel. Link to Jeremy Sharp's June 2015 CRS Report about radar and missile defense technology (though it mentions the F-35, which could be used against Palestinians). The report does not say the US enables Israeli violations in the West Bank and Gaza - in fact, it notes several cases where the US rebuked Israel for using US aid beyond the 1967 borders. Finally, a statistic about US vetoes of anti-Israel resolutions at the UN with no mention of how many related to Palestinians. None of the sources explain how US monetary aid actually creates systematic Israeli violations.


Claim: "U.S. academic institutions facilitate Israeli academic institutions' complicity by continuing to maintain close, extensive and privileged ties with them."

Citation: Jewish Virtual Library list of American universities that have institutional connections to Israeli universities, even those merely exploring "future potential partnerships." There is no evidence given that US-Israeli academic collaboration is facilitating "complicity" in Palestinian rights abuses.


Claim: "Israeli academic institutions have been directly and indirectly complicit in the Israeli state's systematic maintenance of the occupation and denial of basic rights to Palestinians."

Citations: Link to a report from the Alternative Information Center linking Israeli universities to the IDF, but not specifically to "systemic maintenance of the occupation." Link to an article about Ariel University which, being in a settlement, is an outlier among Israeli universities. Links discussing how Ariel University's location makes it an outlier among Israeli universities. Link to an article about the IDF's urban warfare doctrine developed 8 years ago at Tel Aviv University with no explanation of how these tactics "systematically maintain" occupation. Link to a book about the architecture of occupation but no specific citation about academic complicity.


These oversights are egregious because in academia, citations matter. Believing that Israel's academy might be complicit in occupation doesn't make it so. That being said, not every claim in the resolution is unsubstantiated - The resolution makes important points, for example, about targeting Palestinian universities and harassing academics going to and from the West Bank and Gaza. Yet in its over-generalizations, the resolution departs from the fact-based inquiry that is at the heart of social science.

The resolution also suffers from a critical under-appreciation of its authors' positionality. American and European academics bring their own experiences and biases into their work, including their activism. This resolution suffers from under-appreciated positionality as evidenced by its singular focus on Israel. One could level the majority of its grievances, for example, against the American and European academies themselves. 

This is not just an argument about the resolution being "unfair." As written, the resolution implies that Palestinian suffering merits more attention than, for example, Yemenis killed in US drone strikes using technology desgined by US academics. The authors also ignore the complicity of universities across the Middle East in the human rights violations of their government. The suffering of Shia in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is not inherently less important than Palestinian suffering - both matter. AAA members should consider the message the resolution sends to these at-risk communities about how much academic rhetoric about responsibility is credible.






Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Open America's Doors To Syrians

One night during my field work in the Arab Gulf, I received a dinner invitation. Since I had no car, I asked my host if someone might be able to give me a ride. My host obliged and I arranged to meet his friend, Hamid (not his real name) promptly at 8:00pm. At 8:30pm he pulled up and I introduced myself. Upon learning I was American, he apologized and I asked him why. He replied, "If I had known you were American, I would have come on time."

On that car trip and on many other, I learned more about my colleague. Hamid is a Syrian who had lived his whole life in the Gulf. He is kind and genuine, and has a good sense of humor. He is married and works in the banking sector. His son likes to play with plastic airplanes. His daughter is a fan of "Gangnam Style" by Psy, and is named after one of the many types of flowers in the Boston Public Garden, where Hamid went to graduate school.

Eventually I stopped hearing from Hamid, but thought little of it, recognizing that sometimes people get busy. Months later, he called out of the blue. Apologizing for his radio silence, Hamid explained he had been very stressed. His mother and sister were still in Syria. They were close to where fighting had been taking place between Bashar al-Assad's military and rebel forces. "Honestly, I support Bashar," he told me. "Because if he wins at least there will be peace."

Hamid's story is just one among millions. For Syrians caught in an impossible situation, the only solution is to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere. Awaiting them in Syria is death - often by chemical weapon or barrel bomb attacks - and destruction. The political situation is complicated but the humanitarian situation is clear - Syria has become, for its residents, a living hell.

The story is one familiar to many Americans, or their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Many members of my American Jewish community fled a Europe ravaged by antisemitism, assaults, pogroms, and eventually exterminations. In Manhattan, a Jewish immigrant community emerged on the Lower East Side. Many spoke only Yiddish. They lived alongside other communities - Italians, Greeks, and Irish - seeking respite from war. 

The Jewish immigrant community was not necessarily less of a security threat than today's Syrian refugees, and was probably a greater one. Jews were actively involved in or supporters of radical communist movements at the time, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the children of immigrants from this community. Nonetheless, the contributions of Jewish immigrants to the US from Albert Einstein to Irving Berlin speak for themselves, and  the success of that Jewish community is a fundamentally American story. It's no wonder the US Holocaust Museum, Anti-Defamation League, Joint Distribution Committee, Reform Action Center, and HIAS have been outspoken on behalf of Syrian refugees - their story is ours.

Now a new generation of refugee families - fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters - await the opportunity to write the next chapter of this story. 

Practically, admitting Syrian refugees is good politics. It is relatively cheap, demonstrates American leadership, allows us to capitalize on the skills and expertise of the 39% with college degrees, gives the US leverage to pressure the EU over its refugee policies, and highlights the pluralism at the heart of the American nation. These refugees are not a significant security threat. They are vetted extensively, and seek only the opportunity afforded to every single one of the families whose children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now sit in governors offices across the United States of America. 

But it is also consistent with our fundamental values to admit Syrian refugees. As a country of immigrants, we work together to address not only out challenges, but those of the world. We are risk takers, entrepreneurial and tenacious when we find ourselves in a bind. Most importantly, we are compassionate beyond material self-interest. Accepting refugees is good politics, but it is also consistent with our most fundamental American values.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Settlement Labeling A Wake Up Call To Bibi

Today's decision by the European Union to label products from West Bank settlements is both unfair and hypocritical. The decision singles out Israel while ignoring other ongoing settlement in the region, most prominently Turkey's decades-long settlement project in Northern Cyprus. The EU calls this project an "internal matter" yet has no problem interfering in Israel's conflict with Palestinians.

At the same time, Israel's government has completely failed in its reaction to increasing isolation in the international system. Isolation isn't (entirely) Israel's fault, but it is Israel's problem. Yet Israel's policy reaction to today's decision shows how ill-equipped the Netanyahu government really is to address isolation as a political threat.

In response to the EU's decision, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called settlement labeling anti-Semitic. Liberman went so far as to make reference to Holocaust imagery of Jews wearing yellow stars. These assertions are without merit. People are not vegetables, and settlements are not Jewish. Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reacted somewhat more reasonably, saying the EU should be "ashamed of itself" and pointing out that the labeling comes as Jews in Israel are being stabbed in the streets.

Both of these statements play well with a frightened Israel domestic public and Jewish diaspora. But neither solve the problem. In fact, they make it worse.

International isolation is a major threat to Israel. The labeling initiative is the latest in a series of moves to make Israel a pariah in the community of liberal states. To weather this storm, Israel must convince a critical mass of the international public that it is a member of the community. This goal should not be impossible to achieve. Israel has a stronger democracy than any other country in the Middle East, extensive economic and political ties to liberal states, and an open discourse on the ways in which it falls short at protecting liberal values. It can't convince everyone, but Israel can convince enough people to mitigate the threat isolation poses.

Yet for all its speeches and antics, the Netanyahu government has shown total incompetence at actually addressing the problem. Rather than try to mitigate isolation, the Prime Minister has appointed a UN ambassador who has no place in a diplomatic setting, and an English spokesman who thinks the President of the United States is anti-Semitic. Rather than frame Israel as a member of the community of nations in his UN speeches, Netanyahu castigates it. Rather than downplaying settlement labelling by calling it a "disappointing move that casts a shadow on Israel's strong historic relationship with its European friends," the Netanyahu government's statements only strengthen the growing attempt to "other" Israel. The reaction is strong - and plays right into the hands of those seeking to frame Israel in ways that harm it.

More importantly, today's decision will not be the last time Israel faces isolating attacks over its settlement policy. Over the long term, isolation can be stopped only by demonstrating a credible commitment toward reducing settlement growth and pursuing a sustainable alternative to the status quo. Settlement labeling is smoking gun evidence that conflict management will not work. The status quo cannot be maintained - it is getting consistently worse. And the Netanyahu government's reactionary tactics are exacerbating the very threats it should be trying to prevent.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Honoring Rabin's Legacy

Today marks 20 years since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Prime Minister was shot moments after speaking at a peace rally in downtown Tel Aviv. In the years following his death, tensions between Israel and the Palestinians led to the Second Intifada, numerous wars, and the stagnation of the peace process.

Rabin's death strikes pain among a young generation of Israelis who, unlike today's youth, knew a real hope for peace. Rabin's assassination was a dream deferred for Israelis who hoped that in 20 years time, Israelis and Palestinians could have peaceful if not amicable relations. Instead of hope, a cold cynicism grips Israeli society today. Israelis see no realistic alternative to a constantly deteriorating status quo, endless rounds of violence, and leadership which cannot or will not take action to change course.  

Hope did not die along with Prime Minister Rabin. During the 2011 protests, for example, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in support of social change. Across the political spectrum, the people assembled in support of a sustainable future. They reaffirmed the idea that the State of Israel is an important achievement - one worth protecting, improving, and preserving. 

Yet it also cannot go unnoticed that certain aspects of Israel's politics are simply unsustainable in the real world. Israel's government continues to fund a settlement project which diverts money away from young families, Holocaust survivors, security needs, and economic growth. It has no plan for changing a military presence in the West Bank that is economically and politically unsustainable. It continues to under-serve the poorest members of Israeli society. Its antics in the international community create more isolation at a time when international support is critical.

At the heart of the Rabin legacy was a vision for the future. While there is reasonable debate over whether the vision is achievable, it was a vision nonetheless. On this somber anniversary, Israel's leadership can best honor Yitzhak Rabin by adopting the same long-term outlook that created the Oslo Accords and the Israel-Jordan peace treaty that pays dividends to this day. Long-term planning in the Middle East is never easy. But a long-term vision of what Israel ought to be as a state is a critical element of its future survival.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

MSNBC "Palestine" Map Isn't What You Think

Yesterday MSNBC ran a graphic showing what appears to be a startling loss of land for Palestinians since 1946:


This set of maps was created by pro-Palestinian activists - the originals can be accessed with a quick Google search. Every map is inaccurate as labeled, and the colors mean different things in different maps.


Map 1: 1946
What it's a really map of: Palestine. As in, British Mandate Palestine.

Why it's wrong: Palestine was never a nation-state. The British established Mandate Palestine following their defeat of the Ottomans in World War I. Palestinians inhabited but did not control the land in green. Anecdotally, while the yellow area is small, Jews were about 30% of the population of Mandate Palestine in 1946.


Map 2: UN Plan 1947
What it's really a map of: The 1947 UN Partition Plan of November 29, 1947 [Resolution 181(11)].

Why it's wrong: It never happened on the ground. Violent attacks and reprisals broke out soon after the plan was approved at the UN, and by May 1948 Israel was at war with six Arab states. The map doesn't show boundaries that ever existed in the real world. The UN partition plan also did not include the Golan Heights, shown as "Israeli" land on the map.


Map 3: 1949-1967
What it's really a map of: Israel between 1949 and 1967.

Why it's wrong: Palestinians didn't control the green areas. Gaza was under Egyptian control and the West Bank was under Jordanian control. Also, while Map 1 shows "Palestine" as green because Palestinians lived in the green areas, Map 3 doesn't show major Arab cities and towns in Israel where Palestinians lived. The criteria shift between maps.


Map 4: Israel (Present)
What it's really a map of: The State of Israel, The West Bank, and Gaza.

Why it's wrong: This is the only map that shows land actually controlled by Palestinians. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, and parts of the West Bank - Area A under the Oslo accords - are controlled by the Palestinian Authority. However, the map shows Area B as "Israeli." This is wrong - Area B includes areas of joint Israeli-Palestinian control. There has been some illegal settlement expansion into Area B but not all of it. While the status quo shifts daily, here is a map showing Area B (since it's old, it reflects less settlement buildup than exists today).


MSNBC's airing of this set of maps was highly irresponsible and severely harms the network's credibility on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a breach of trust between MSNBC and its viewers and raises serious ethical questions about accurate journalism. Any story on the Israeli-Palestinian will draw accusations of bias, but these maps are not flawed because of spin or narrative. They are simply inaccurate.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

There's No "Iron Dome" For Stabbings In Israel

Israel has responded to stabbing attacks today in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by installing metal detectors in predominantly Muslim areas of Jerusalem. These include the Damascus and Yaffo gates of the Old City.

Deployed strategically, metal detectors may help reduce the incidence of attacks and restore a sense of safety among a frightened Israeli population. However, these measures are a partial solution, and they indicate the limitations of a purely technological response to terror.

Israel is famous for using technology to solve its security problems. The quintessential example is of course the Iron Dome system which shoots down rockets from Gaza intended for civilian targets in Israel. Iron Dome, while expensive, is an amazing piece of technology. 

However, an Iron Dome for person-on-person violence is simply not a realistic option. During the spate of car ramming attacks last year in Jerusalem, Israel installed concrete blocks at Jerusalem's light rail station. While it may have deterred some attacks, it didn't stop them entirely. In this latest round of stabbing attacks, Israel faces a similar challenge. It simply cannot install a metal detector on every street in the country. Given limited resources, Israel is being smart by placing metal detectors in highly trafficked areas. But there are too many streets and too many people for any technological response to stabbings to work on its own.

The point is not that Israel should stop using its available resources to protect its population. Rather, it's that when the underlying problems are political, the solutions must be political as well. If Israel blocks rockets, Palestinian terrorists will respond with cars. If Israel blocks cars, Palestinian terrorists will respond with knives. These attacks are heinous acts of terrorism against innocent people. But they are politically motivated and require a political solution. This round of stabbings will stop, but without a change in the political status quo, the next round of stabbings will come, stronger than ever.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Israeli-Palestinian Violence Sparks Crisis Of Legitimacy

A Palestinian terror cell linked to Hamas attacked an Israeli settler family driving through the West Bank last Thursday evening, killing the two parents, Naama and Eitam Henkin. 

The attack set off riots, reprisal attacks, security operations, and low-intensity violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Over the weekend, two more Israelis were killed in a stabbing attack and two Palestinian teenagers were shot and killed by the IDF during clashes. Several Israelis, including a 2 year-old, were wounded in attempted stabbings and scores of Palestinians have been wounded by an IDF crackdown and the resulting clashes.

In the wake of this unrest, Israeli and Palestinian leadership are taking steps to calm tensions. Despite antagonism over the speeches both leaders made at last week's UN General Assembly, cooperation on the ground remains effective thus far. Under extreme pressure from the far right, including members of his own government, Prime Minister Netanyahu has deployed an extra four battalions to the IDF deployment in the West Bank and thousands of police in Jerusalem. President Abbas issued orders to Palestinian security forces to quell protests in the West Bank. For their part, Israeli officials have told the Palestinian authority that Israeli security forces intend to take firmer measures to prevent settler violence. 

While rumors of a Third Intifada are premature, the violence poses a real threat to control for both Israel's government and the Palestinian Authority. Israel's far-right is literally out for blood and the Prime Minister has already begun a security crackdown that will provide good theatrics but do little to prevent the next wave of attacks. The Palestinian Authority has lacked legitimacy for years among a Palestinian public increasingly frustrated with settlement expansion and a lack of national recognition and basic rights.

"Conflict management" advocates should recognize that the current flare up is proof positive such a strategy is short-sighted. The conflict becomes increasingly difficult to manage over time as more and more Israelis and Palestinians lose faith in their governments' ability to meet their needs. The violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem is not just a crisis of security, it is also a crisis of legitimacy for both Israeli and Palestinian leadership. The alternatives on both sides are radical groups itching for a fight that will leaves hundreds of innocent people dead. 

Once the current round of senseless violence ceases, it will be incumbent on both parties to prevent the next outbreak. The stakes of this negotiation are not only the survival of Israel and the Palestinian national cause. They are the survival of Netanyahu and Abbas' respective political power as well.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

AIPAC Iran Deal Loss An Opportunity For Change

This morning, Senator Barbara Mikulski indicated she would support the Iran nuclear deal. This brings the total number of supporters in the Senate to 34, meaning that the Senate will not have the 66 votes necessary to override a presidential veto of a congressional resolution of disapproval.

After Congress gave itself authority to review the deal in May, the 159-page document became a partisan battleground, and a source of contention between the United States and Israel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the deal an "historic mistake," raising US-Israel tensions and putting American pro-Israel groups in a tough position (Brent Sasley explains why here). 

AIPAC's mission is to "strengthen, protect and promote the US-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of Israel and the United States." It aims to support policies that enhance the US-Israel relationship rather than Israeli security itself. Given this mission, a successful strategy for the Iran deal would have been for AIPAC to act as a conduit. It should have tried to clarify the terms of the deal to Israel's leadership, while communicating Israel's specific security concerns to the US government. Sanctions relief for the IRGC, for example, entails real risks for Israel - ones to which the Obama administration has been sympathetic. In turn, Israel has expressed concerns about the text of the deal that US assurances could assuage. There are differences in the American and Israeli positions, but these differences could have been mitigated and Israel's security enhanced had AIPAC acted as a communicative conduit between the administrations.

Instead, AIPAC chose blanket opposition to the entire deal, alienating the administration and empowering its Republican adversaries. It raised $30 million for television ads to oppose the deal in key congressional districts and released fact sheets opposing the agreement. These materials were not only explicitly opposed to the deal, they were often based on arguments with no basis in reality. These frantic but fallacious messages polarized debate and delegitimized Israel's legitimate concerns about the deal. What could have been an opportunity for communication that would have enhanced Israel's security became a partisan political circus. The Iran nuclear deal became a cheap political football in a game based on arguments that would not survive the second week of an "Introduction to International Relations" class. 

AIPAC's campaign was not only ineffective, it was poorly strategized and based on egregious factual errors. It harmed the US-Israel alliance and alienated a Democratic base that will be critical for the future of that alliance. $30 million would have been better spent on taking leaders to Israel, enhancing security dialogues between the US and Israel, or investing in bilateral efforts to improve living conditions for poor or under-served Israelis. 

AIPAC has seen setbacks before, and will likely see them again. However, it should take the time to seriously reconsider the utility of an adversarial and reactionary approach to its stewardship of the US-Israel relationship.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Is Iran's Antisemitism A Credible Threat To Israel?

Israel and its supporters are particularly wary of Iran's intentions given its regime's record of constant anti-Israel and antisemitic statements. Jeffrey Goldberg's latest article in The Atlantic considers how Iran's antisemitism affects the debate over the nuclear deal. In the piece, which is very well-argued, Goldberg repeats a line often cited in Israeli and pro-Israel policy making circles: "If, in the post-Holocaust world, a group of people express a desire to hurt Jews, it is, for safety’s sake, best to believe them." Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed similar sentiments in speeches to AIPAC, although it is not by any means unique to the Israeli right.

Ayatollah Khomenei and other religious leaders in Iran have called for the annihilation of Israel. Iran's leaders make no secret of these sentiments (although they are not universal in Iran). Famously, Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, called for Israel to be "wiped from the pages of time." For Jews to respond to these comments with deep mistrust toward an Iran nuclear deal is as understandable as Kurdish mistrust of the Iraqi government or Armenian mistrust of Turks. But just how much trust should analysts put in Iran's statements as a matter of foreign policy? In other words, Should we trust Iran's statements that it intends to wipe out Israel?

First we need to establish whether Iran is rational. Goldberg's article uses the phrase "rational self-interest" but these are two different concepts. In social science, rational means that an actor weighs the pros and cons of a policy using fixed, ranked preferences. It wants X most, Y second most, Z third most, and it makes choices based on what policy optimizes its achieving X,Y, and Z. Self-interest is defined in realist international relations literature primarily as survival, and takes as axiomatic that survival is the primary interest of states. Secretary of State John Kerry argues to Goldberg that states usually prioritize antisemitism when the harm to self-interest is low. Goldberg is unconvinced, and he has good reason for it. The roughly 15,000 Nazi concentration camps, for example, cost money and diverted resources, including soldiers, from the German war effort in WWII. But if states frame antisemitism in terms of self-interest, this decision becomes less irrational. Hitler genuinely believed that Jews were a threat to the survival of Germany. Understood this way, valuing antisemitism and national self-interest are not mutually exclusive.* And of course, saying a decision is rational doesn't make it any less abhorrent or morally repugnant.

So if Iran can be antisemitic and rational, how credible are its leader's threats to annihilate the Jewish State? Should analysts "believe" or otherwise trust Iran's threats?

Trust is a major problem for countries in an anarchic international system. Since any country can lie, cheat, or change its mind, it takes considerable effort to figure out whether anything a country says is credible. The overwhelming majority of analysis and intelligence gathering is based on trying to figure out a) whether a country's statements are credible and b) how to respond in a way that country will assess as credible.
  
Credibility is a factor of capability, intentions, and resolve. A threat is credible if a country can strike, wants to strike, and wants it badly enough to prioritize it over other things. Hitler's threats against Western Europe were credible not just because he made speeches about Lebensraum (intentions) but also because he was amassing actively the military power to invade (capability) and was willing to prioritize invasion over domestic and other concerns (resolve). For Iran's threat against Israel to be credible, it also needs these three things.

If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it would have the capability to strike Israel via missile attack. Theoretically Iran could also make use of its terror proxies but it's unlikely that it would entrust these proxies with a nuclear capability. A nuclear attack would do catastrophic damage to Israel's cities and could effectively destroy the state.

There's also evidence that Iran has some intention to harm Israel. The regime has attacked Israeli interests, puts limits on its own Jewish population, and has a leadership with an ideological opposition to Israel's existence. On the other hand, Iran knows that such a strike would provoke an international response, especially if it were nuclear. Leaders in authoritarian countries like staying in power, especially because the alternative is often death. A nuclear strike on Israel would at the least invite regime change that no leader would welcome.

Most importantly, there's evidence that Iran's resolve to strike Israel is low. Iran has limited political and material capital to spend against other threats - Saudi Arabia, ongoing sanctions, a suffering economy, and an urban population deeply unsatisfied with aspects of the current leadership. More importantly, despite over 35 years of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements from Iran's leadership, there has not yet been a major Iranian strike on Israel. The Ayatollah has also made statements against using a nuclear weapon for offensive purposes. In other words, Iran has had low resolve to act on its threats. Thus far, Iran's threat to destroy Israel and the Jews has not been credible.

Of course, the threat could at some point become credible, and this raises the key question: If Iran's threats became credible, how would we know? What observable evidence would indicate a shift in the credibility of Iran's threat to annihilate Israel? It's not an easy question to answer, but its critical for assessing how much of a threat Iran poses, and thus how much risk a nuclear deal is worth. 

The bottom line is that since the line between credible and not-credible is fuzzy, Israel should assume that there is some credibility to Iran's threat to annihilate Israel based on its status as the Jewish State. However, it should also understand that Iran has low resolve to make good on its threat. That doesn't mean Iran would never strike Israel, just that it's highly unlikely. Consequently, Israel should devote some resources to countering Iran's threat while being mindful more credible and dangerous threats. It should also continue to monitor the Iranian regime for signs that a non-credible threat has become credible. 

Most importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that the current nuclear deal has made Iran more likely to annihilate Israel. To the contrary, the deal provides incentives that reduce Iran's nuclear capability, while shifting its intentions and further reducing its resolve. The deal does not eliminate the nuclear threat, but no deal can. Given the nature of Iran's threat, the Iran nuclear deal is an important opportunity for Israel to exist in a region of reduced threat and fulfill its purpose as a safe haven for the Jewish people.




*See the Bounded Rationality and Schema Theory literature for other accounts of rational decision making.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Netanyahu Puts US-Israel Relations At Risk

The American people should be outraged over Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks today to the Jewish Federations of North America. 

Israeli concerns over the nuclear deal are understandable and warranted. But Prime Minster Netanyahu's blatantly false statements about the effects of the Iran nuclear deal are a flagrant abuse of the US-Israel relationship. His remarks make a mockery of decades of US support for Israel. If the Prime Minister is truly committed to a "real debate" he should avoid statements with absolutely no basis in reality. Claims that the deal "paves Iran's path to the bomb" or "will bring war" are absolutely ludicrous. There is no logical or evidence-based case for either of these statements. That the Prime Minister would risk the state of the US-Israel relationship on such utter nonsense is an astounding display of recklessness. The American pro-Israel community should be deeply concerned about the cynical and baseless attacks levied tonight by the Prime Minister of Israel against the foreign policy of the United States of America.

If Israel's leadership means to have a debate, let it be one which reflects the intelligence of the American and Israeli public. Let it be one based on facts. Let it be one predicated on the notion that a strong US-Israel relationship is one of the most important defenses against Iranian expansion in the Middle East. The people of Israel and the United States deserve a respectful debate grounded in reality. Their mutual security depends on it.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Israel Reacts To Jewish Terrorism

The deaths of two children in Israel and the West Bank last Thursday and Friday underscore the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Thursday, a radical Jewish terrorist stabbed 16 year old Shira Banki to death and seriously wounded 5 others. On Friday, an Israeli Jewish settler set fire to a Palestinian house, killing 18-month old Ali Dawabsha and seriously wounding his mother Reham, father Saad, and brother Ahmad.

Israel's national anthem Hatikva expresses the aspiration for Jews "to be a free people in our land." When LGBT Israelis and their straight supporters put their lives at risk by parading through Jerusalem, this aspiration goes unmet. When settlers terrorize Palestinians and endanger all Israelis with the threat of Palestinian reprisals, this aspiration goes unmet. 

Israelis, like most decent people, have taken steps to respond to these tragedies. It is disappointing to see these steps taken too late. But it is also disappointing to see that instead of embracing these actions, some commentators downplay them. Here are some of the steps Israel took as a society in the wake of last week's attacks:

- The term "terrorism" was used to describe the attacks by Israel's Prime Minister, President, Defense Minister, and Leader of the Opposition.

- 100 Jews visited the Dawabsha family to pay their respects.

- Thousands of Israelis rallied in support of gay rights across Israel.

-300 settlers held a vigil with Palestinians for the Dawabsha family.

- Israel arrested right-wing extremists including the grandson of Meir Kahane.

- The lack of prevention for the attacks was condemned by major opinion leaders in Israel, including MK Yair Lapid.

Neither these actions - nor any actions - can prevent what has already happened. That structural problems remain in Israel is a given. At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat all Israelis as a monolith, or equally responsible for these attacks. Opponents of Israel often decry calls for "moderate Palestinians" to condemn terrorist attacks on Israelis. The same opponents should be consistent with regards to Israeli terrorist violence and give credit to the Israeli public where it is due. This consistency is important not only for fair debate. Preventing future violence will require sustaining the current sentiments in Israel's public discourse and translating them into meaningful action.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Paranoia On Iran Deal Reaches Fever Pitch

GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee made comments Sunday comparing the Iran nuclear deal to marching Israelis "to the door of the oven." While most groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, condemned the comments because they misappropriate Holocaust imagery, the Zionist Organization of America took a shockingly different stance. The organization's president Mort Klein said in a press release:

"Empowering with an eventual nuclear weapons capacity - as this deal does ...an Iranian regime that has repeatedly spoken of wiping out the Jewish state of Israel does bear some relationship to the Nazi era and Governor Huckabee therefore did not speak out of place."

ZOA is making the claim that the Iran nuclear deal concluded by the P5+1 and Iran empowers the latter to essentially conduct a second Holocaust. This is absolutely ludicrous. The terms under which this statement would be true do not exist in reality. There is not a single well-respected expert on international security, nuclear proliferation, Iranian decision making, or Middle East politics who agrees with this claim. It's not just offensive, it's bonkers.

The Iran nuclear deal is a long shot in some respects. It requires making concessions and hoping an enemy state does stuff we want them to do. But the worst case scenario - the absolute worst case that exists within the boundaries of reality - is that Iran uses some of the sanctions relief money for terrorism and doesn't stop enrichment, leading to the collapse of the agreement. This is a bad worst case, but it's not a second Holocaust. No serious expert on Iran, Mideast politics, nuclear proliferation, or international security would seriously disagree with that assessment.

Debates about the nuclear deal are important, but they are being poisoned with paranoia. Invoking the Holocaust is an extreme example but less crazy ones exist. Prime Minister Netanyahu's characterization of the deal as an "historic mistake" is one example. The deal might fall through. But an historic mistake is invading Russia in the winter, or assuming trench warfare would lead to victory in World War I. It's not signing a deal that at worst would leave the international community with a marginally worse status quo. The lack of nuance in AIPAC's blanket opposition to the deal is another example. AIPAC claims in one of its many factsheets that the Iran deal will "raise the prospect of war." It will not. If anything, the deal creates at least a decade-long opportunity to restrain Iran's nuclear enrichment, which decreases the prospect of war. Iran might continue enrichment after the deal but it's not more likely to do so in a decade than it is now.

While Saudi and the Gulf states are no strangers to paranoia themselves, too many members of the pro-Israel community are basing their positions on paranoia rather than evidence. Policy positions on the deal within the pro-Israel community are based on a shamefully poor understanding of text of the deal, Mideast politics, or freshman-level international relations theory. Let's be clear that this isn't universally the case - there are some pro-Israel people making arguments against the deal that are reasonable and many pro-Israel activists who are earnestly trying to understand exactly what the deal does and doesn't do. But others eschew evidence and broad consensus across the foreign policy community. They mistrust Iran because it's a bad actor, but fail to recognize that even bad actors exist are constrained by material political realities.

There is a deeper harm to this paranoia. Firstly, not once has it actually protected Israel. Secondly, fear is a driving factor in an anarchic international system, but paranoia means bearing the cost of going it alone when trying to cooperate is substantially cheaper. Paranoia is less scary but it's more costly. Whether the issue is an Iran deal, negotiating with Palestinians, or fighting delegitimization, the least scary action is not always the most effective. As it stands, paranoia is discrediting pro-Israel lobbying efforts in Washington and harming the efforts of people expressing legitimate concerns about the deal. Until more of Israel's friends are able to accurately assess and react to threats in the region, they will be unable to advocate with maximum efficacy for policies that protect the Jewish State.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

AIPAC Plays A Risky Game On Iran Deal

AIPAC's decision to oppose the Iran deal sent a clear message about its opinion of the Obama administration's Israel policy. As JTA's Ron Kampeas reports, AIPAC has raised $30 million dollars for television ads against the deal. The landing page of its website has been overtaken by fact sheets and memos about the harm the deal will incur against the US and of course Israel. Many of these documents raise important points about snapback provisions, the lifting of sanctions, and covert enrichment.

However, AIPAC's strategy of blanket opposition to the deal is a little risky. Roughly 49% of US Jews support the Iran nuclear deal while 31% oppose it. In taking a decisive stance against the deal, AIPAC is - in theory -  leaving its centrist constituency vulnerable. J Street has a dedicated website for supporting the deal, as well as a factsheet responding to AIPAC's arguments. But its websites say little about why supporting the Iran deal is a decidedly pro-Israel position, and its factsheet shows it is letting AIPAC set the agenda. AIPAC is leaving the center flank open because it knows J Street will have difficulty bleeding centrists from its ranks.

AIPAC's confidence that it holds the center of the American pro-Israel community is a statement about the lack of true debate over the deal from an Israel perspective. Sure, the debate over the deal itself is extensive. But no actor in the American pro-Israel community has argued as a major tenet of its platform that the Iran deal might actually be good for Israel. Checks on enrichment aren't perfect but they're a lot better than what Israel has now. Lifted sanctions are potentially risky but they also allow Israel and its allies to trace cash flows among their dangerous adversaries. The deal may fail, but that wouldn't preclude Israeli or American military action on Iran. The case does exist, but nobody is making it.

Rather, the community's position reflects an addiction to cynicism that is hampering its ability to make its legitimate concerns heard in Washington. Israel is "causing problems" for the Obama administration, but at the end of the day it may have very little to show for calling Obama's foreign policy crown jewel an "historic mistake." AIPAC touts Saudi criticism of the deal but stops short of urging Israel to emulate the Saudi position of official support but with specific reservations. Instead, it has wholeheartedly embraced Israel's unconditional rejection of the Iran deal. This is not a position in support of the group's mission to "strengthen, protect, and promote the US-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of Israel and the United States." Instead, it encourages the alienating behavior for which both American and Israeli leaders are responsible, but from which neither side benefits.




Monday, July 20, 2015

What Is A "Good" Iran Nuclear Deal?

In his March 3rd speech to Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu expressed support for "A better [Iran nuclear] deal that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live." Yesterday, he urged Congress to "hold out for a better deal."

Israel is not opposed to a diplomatic solution in principle, a position which will give it leverage in Washington. But its talking points, and those of its more conservative supporters, are making arguments that conflate this deal with any deal. Separating the two would improve the credibility of Israel's bargaining position. In general, analysts should recognize the difference between the argument "this is a bad deal" and the argument "deals are bad."

For example, some opponents argue the deal is flawed because Iran might engage in covert enrichment. There is no mechanism in the 159-page deal that guarantees Iran will not "cheat" and covertly enrich nuclear material. This is problematic because any "snapback" of sanctions requires the P5+1 to actually know that a violation of the deal is occurring. The argument has been compounded by confusion over the lack of an "anywhere, anytime" provision for inspections. But while it's true the P5+1 can't prevent covert enrichment, the argument ignores the underlying issue: Even if the P5+1 had total access to any site it wanted, it would still have imperfect information about which sites should be inspected. This imperfect information is not because of this current deal. It's systemic - a direct effect of the anarchic nature of the international system. Since there is no global police than can make countries tell the truth 100% of the time, there will always be a danger that a given state is cheating and lying about it. Iran may very well violate the terms of a nuclear deal, but the risk exists in any deal concluded in the existing state system. This argument isn't against this deal, its against deals more broadly.

Opponents also argue that the deal "appeases" Iran by taking the military option off the table. Some opponents of the deal argue that it removes a credible US military option from the table while Iran consistently makes military threats. The argument often takes the form of a quirky comparison between President Obama and Neville Chamberlain, whose treaty with Hitler proved meaningless, except for signalling Britain's intention not to instigate war. The problem with this argument is that the threat from Hitler had nothing to do with rhetoric, and everything to do with material capabilities and the domestic support to use them. Any realist scholar would point out that treaties always carry a risk of cheating, and that military capabilities are more important. The US is aware of this fact, having ramped up its military presence in the Gulf region, increased support for regional allies, and reiterating yesterday that the military option remains on the table. The argument that Iran might cheat is an argument against deals more broadly, and also ignores the material superiority of the United States and its allies in the region.

There are aspects of the Iran nuclear deal that are specific to the current agreement. The mechanics of "snapback" provisions, release of funds to the IRGC, and procedure for inspections are all areas of legitimate debate among those who oppose the deal and those who support it. But it's important to differentiate between these issues, and more general critiques of the diplomatic versus military approach. And if Israel does in fact support a deal, a focused message is the best way to ensure its long-term security.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

What The Iran Deal (Really) Means For Israel

This morning, the EU/EU+3 and the Islamic Republic of Iran agreed to a Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran's nuclear program. The 159-page agreement sets limits on Iran's enrichment capacity in return for a staged lifting of international and US sanctions.

Israel's leadership across the political spectrum has expressed concern about the deal. Prime Minister Netanyahu called it an "historic mistake,"centrist MK Yair Lapid called it a "bad deal," and Head of the Opposition Isaac Herzog expressed concern over the agreement as well. 

Without judging whether the deal is good or bad, it will likely generate three outcomes of interest to Israel.

Most importantly, Iran will have a real but reduced capacity to threaten Israel. While Israel would likely be unsatisfied with any agreement with Iran, many of its security concerns are legitimate. Sanctions relief on unsavory entities like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) may increase the money available to sew instability in the Middle East and to target citizens of Western countries including Israel. Additionally, no agreement can fully prevent covert enrichment of fissile nuclear material. Given Israel's proximity to Iran, and Iran's constant threats to destroy the country, Israel has a lower capacity to tolerate Iranian violation of the deal than the EU/EU+3. 

On the other hand, an extended time for breakout capacity and the 3.97% limit on enrichment gives Israel and the West significantly more time to act against Iran should it decide to go nuclear. While no agreement can guard against all covert enrichment, the agreement does increase significantly the amount of monitoring that the international community can conduct in Iran. Furthermore, under the JCPOA, companies that sell equipment to Iran will also be able to verify that Iran is using it for a stated purpose. The agreement is not perfect from an Israeli perspective, but it does reduce some of the risk Israel faces at the current time.

Second, the Obama Administration will be slightly more hesitant to threaten the use of force against Iran. The effects of this hesitancy, however, will be largely diplomatic. While the administration may tone down its rhetoric to incentivize compliance with the JCPOA, it will maintain a heavy military presence in the Arab Gulf. The US presence in the Gulf acts as a check on Iran's violation of the agreement, and as a sign of support for its jittery Gulf allies. Israel will be doing more saber rattling at Iran over the next decade than the United States, and may seek reassurances that if Iran were to decide to pursue breakout capacity, the US would not take military action off the table.

Finally, the deal incentivizes further Israel-Gulf cooperation. While Israel has begun to broach the subject publicly, it will likely have greater domestic and American support to strengthen its Gulf alignments. The alignment may open opportunities for defense collaboration, and may set the ground for economic cooperation in the longer term. However, it will also put Israel under pressure to capitulate to demands from Gulf States including a) acquiring defense technology that could threaten Israel and b) accepting the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative. Making gradual shifts on both these issues will create opportunities for Israel to maximize the security benefits of an Arab Gulf alliance against Iran. 


While Israel's concerns are reasonable, its best strategy is not to make pre-fabricated statements that alienate its security guarantors. Rather, Israel should be vigilant and urge vigilance from the United States and other parties to the JCPOA. While any international agreement runs a chance of failure, the agreement could also, in the long-term, significantly improve Israel's security by sustaining its role as a regional hegemon. While Israel should be cautious, it also should not reject the potential for these benefits out of hand. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Four Predictions For Israel's Future

Recently, your humble blogger spoke at a small event on the future of Israeli politics. Here are shortened versions the four predictions highlighted in the talk:

Domestic
1) Israeli politics will remain unstable. The two reasons for this instability are that a) Israel was designed as a dominant party system but now has competitive elections, and b) There has been a fracturing of small and medium-size parties in the center of the political spectrum. The result of both factors is uncertainty about who will be in power next in Israel's Knesset, and for how long they will govern. It also means that coalitions are often made up of many parties. This requires a prime minister to spend substantial political capital appeasing the various and often competing agendas of each party. 

2) The United Arab List's win in the 2015 elections is an important opportunity but one Israel is likely to miss. Despite attempts to keep the Arab parties out of the current Knesset by raising the electoral threshold to 3.25%, these parties banded together as the United Arab List and won 10.55% of the vote (14 seats). The fact that an Arab party is the third largest out of ten is a testament to Israeli democracy. It also represents an opportunity to engage with an Israeli-Arab public that comprises 20% of Israel's population, and historically has engaged in low-intensity violence. Showing this community that politics is an effective means of addressing grievances mitigates the security risk from riots, stone-throwing, and other forms of violent resistance. Unfortunately, both Israel's government and opposition refuse to work with the United Arab List, citing its support for and participation in Gaza flotillas. Nonetheless, if there are domestic issues on which parties can collaborate, that would send a strong signal to Israel's Arab citizens that engaging in politics carries meaningful benefits.

International
1) Israel will continue losing the hasbara (public relations) battle until it accepts the structural constraints of the international system. Israel is disproportionately criticized and scrutinized compared to other countries in the Middle East. However, the combative tone Israel's diplomats and elected officials take in their international public speeches on the issue is ineffective. Disproportionate criticism of Israel is unfair, but it is static. Rather, Israel should work to mitigate the loss of political capital this criticism creates. Israel should stop trying to convince people to become pro-Israel and start trying to show people that they already are pro-Israel (ie they align with Israel's core values).

2) BDS now represents a strategic threat to Israel but not in the economic sense. BDS has little economic effect on a country with a GNP of about $260 billion dollars, a highly diversified economy, and substantial US support. BDS is a tactic without a strategy and whether people buy a SodaStream machine has minimal effect on Israel's economy. However, BDS is raising debates inside Israel about how to respond to it. These debates put pressure on Israel's government. Internationally, BDS is legitimizing more assertive actions by the international community. These actions will become more frequent and more assertive until Israel demonstrates a credible commitment to changing the status quo. Waiting puts more pressure on Israel and reduces the viability of a conditions-based approach to West Bank withdrawals.

While some may see Israelis as complacent or cynical, the 2011 social justice movement protest shows that Israelis will act when there is a viable alternative to the status quo. Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home party are most likely the short-term future of Israel. However, in the long-term, a leader who presents a viable alternative to the status quo would not only enjoy support from a broad base of Israelis, but would be taking steps to ensure the long term security and well-being of the State of Israel.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Lack Of A Strong BDS Response Threatens Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu commented this morning on the UK's National Union of Students decision to support a boycott of Israel. However, the comments missed the mark with regards to mitigating the harm such a decision incurs. 

BDS is a threat to Israel's international political legitimacy. But Israel's response to the threat is just as important as the movement itself. In this regard, the Prime Minister's comments this morning alongside Canada's Foreign Minister are concerning. Netanyahu wondered aloud why the Union's Executive Council voted to boycott Israel (again) but voted against an October 2014 resolution to condemn ISIS. Detailing ISIS' human rights abuses, Netanyahu claimed the move told observers "everything you want to know about the BDS movement."

The Prime Minister is correct that shying away from offending Muslims while zealously offending Israelis and their supporters is a double standard. It's also hypocritical to tell the British government to stop arms sales to Israel for its human rights record while ignoring, for example, plans to build a new military base in Bahrain. But Netanyahu's framing of BDS in these terms is problematic for three reasons.

First, ISIS and Israel aren't comparable and it plays into the hands of Israel's opponents to suggest otherwise. While some pundits in the Middle East delight in drawing comparisons between the two, Israel as a liberal democracy is not comparable in any analytically meaningful way to ISIS. Detailing ISIS' human rights abuses as a counter to BDS only legitimates these comparisons. Israeli leaders should avoid even entertaining the notion that ISIS and Israel should be judged by the same standards.

Second, the National Union of Students is not the same as the BDS movement. To suggest that being a BDS supporter means one supports ISIS because of the National Union of Student's voting history is inaccurate and invokes the polarizing rhetoric that turns people off from supporting Israel. Surely there are people who support both ISIS and BDS, but the movement itself is concerned with punishing Israel, not with ISIS. The issue with the National Union of Students is one of attitudes towards Muslim minorities in the UK, not ISIS or Israel. Israel's leadership would gain more from questioning the legitimacy of the entire movement rather than going after one student union.

Finally, the comments frame Israel's values by what they're not rather than by what they are. The slogan "Israel: At least we're not ISIS" is not persuasive. A better approach would be to highlight the extent of political debate in Israel and to point out the ways in which Israeli products improve the quality of life for millions of people. Rather than contrasting Israel to the Middle East, Israel's leadership should draw comparisons with the West. 

While the attitudes of some in the West understandably frustrate Israel, an approach based on resonating with average Western citizens will do far more to mitigate the harm of BDS than polarized and ill-conceived comparisons between Israel and an insurgent group. The BDS movement frames its cause in terms that resonate with many in the West. Rather than trying to "unmask BDS," Israel should challenge the movement's hold on this normative "turf" by using similarly resonant language to highlight the more radical elements of the movement.