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:

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.

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.