Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bibi v. Kerry - Arguing The Political Costs of Settlements

There will be a spate of deep dive pieces over the next few days addressing what the conflict UN resolution 2334 is "really" about. Deep dive piece are often useful, but have limited utility in this case for two reasons. Firstly, since most people who read deep dive pieces already have opinions, they do little to inform or change people's views. Second, issue linkage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the biggest practical obstacles to progress. Settlements, in other words, are never just be about settlements. For Palestinians they are about the systematic matrix of control that occupation imposes. For Israelis they are an obsession of an international community indifferent to whether the country lives or dies.

Rather than get mired in these issues, it makes more sense to look at the practical politics of the situation. In this regard, the debate over UNSC 2334 is really a dispute over the cost of international antagonism toward Israeli settlements.

1) The international community doesn't like settlements. 

International dislike of settlements is a cost of building them. We may agree or disagree that this dislike is fair, proportional, or warranted, but it exists as a cost. Specifically, Israel pays in political capital - good will with other states, willingness to cooperate, and the ability to form durable alliances. Settlements aren't the only reason Israel lacks political capital proportional to its ability to be a good ally. Systemic bias and latent Antisemitism play a role too. However, despite the claims of Israel's far right, these factors can be differentiated from international antagonism over settlements.

2) In the past, the Obama administration has mitigated this cost for Israel by spending its own political capital.

When UN resolutions against settlements came to a vote, the Obama administration exercised a US veto every time except last week. A veto prevents the text of a resolution from being used as a basis for further action on settlements. It is also a signal to the international community that Israel enjoys the support of the global superpower. 

The US pays in political capital for its support of settlements. First, it derives no direct benefit from them. In fact, settlements have been opposed by every US administration since they have existed. Second, America's Arab partners and allies deeply dislike US support for Israeli settlement building. Third, settlements create local political conflict that destabilize the region in ways unhelpful for US interests.

In the past, the US has been willing to pay the political cost of international antagonism even though it derives no direct benefit from settlements. This is because Israel has great value as a liberal democratic ally. It's also because Israel has borne costs in its support for US policy that go far beyond UN vetoes. In 1991, for example, Iraq fired 39 scud missiles at Israel. Israel didn't retaliate militarily because the US asked it to refrain from doing so.

3) Stalled progress and alienation caused the US to reconsider covering these costs at the UN.
For a variety of reasons, the Obama administration is frustrated with the lack of progress on settlements. It also resents the Netanyahu government, which it sees as having taken a consistently antagonistic stance towards many important US policies in the Middle East. After eight years, the administration decided that it would not cover the cost of international antagonism over settlement building. Thus, the administration abstained on the resolution. 

Israel's reaction is based on the idea that since it is a strong ally, the US should cover the cost. It is also based on the view of many Israelis that the cost itself is unjust. The international community imposes costs on the basis that it deplores settlements, but in the eyes of Israel's government, this is illegitimate. Israel's government has also viewed President Obama with paranoia since before his election, and experiences this abstention as the betrayal it has been expecting.

The US reaction is based on what it sees as a consistent attempt to undermine its policies in the region and prevent any meaningful action in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Obama administration came to see UN vetoes as perpetuating a cycle of settlement building that hurt US interests, rather than a costly but justified investment in a close ally. 

Regardless of which side one agrees with, the US abstention has made clear that the international political costs of settlements are real, and one for which there must be a sustainable form of payment. Arguing that since the cost is unjust it isn't real is no longer a viable strategy. Antagonism over settlements may be unfair, disproportionate, or unjust, but it is real and must factor into the Israeli government's decision-making process.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Why Bibi's Blame Game May Backfire

The passage of UNSC Resolution 2334 on Friday afternoon, after a US abstention, resulted in open hostility against the Obama administration from Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government. The Prime Minister is now deploying the insidious strategy of accusing President Obama of being personally behind the passage of the measure. Absolutely no evidence or credible on the record statement has yet appeared to confirm this bizzare accusation.

Frustration over the resolution itself is warranted to say the least. It references "terrorism" without specific reference to Palestinian terrorist groups. It also calls upon both parties to act on the basis of international humanitarian law (IHL). This rhetoric implies a laughable parity between Israel, which violates IHL in specific ways subject to internal judicial review and penalty, and Palestinian terrorist groups that aim and shoot rockets at kindergartens. Most importantly, the resolution links the issue of East Jerusalem to Israel's broader presence in the West Bank, an issue linkage which is neither useful nor helpful in moving toward a permanent status agreement. In addition to the resolution's text being problematic, the Obama administration is an easy scapegoat. Pinning the resolution on President Obama personally is a way for PM Netanyahu to deflect the broad support this unfortunate resolution obtained across the international community. It deflects from the failed efforts of the Prime Minister's government to pressure the administration into voting no. It confirms the paranoid fears of some Israelis - and many conservative Americans - that the President has it in for Israel despite approving $38 billion dollars in aid to the country over the next 10 years.

Given these absurdities, Prime Minister Netanyahu is giving into the temptation to pursue a bridge burning strategy with a lame-duck President. However, he should approach this issue with caution rather than the current policy of throwing it flagrantly to the wind, for three reasons.

First, Prime Minister Netanyahu is a far better politician than President-elect Trump. He has decades more experience and a proven track record for excellent political savvy. The bombastic campaign to pin UNSC 2334 on President Obama is possible in the current "facts don't matter" environment. But it is below a political virtuoso like Prime Minister Netanyahu and wastes valuable political capital. Additionally, the collapse of a facts-don't-matter environment will hurt PM Netanyahu far before it hurts PEOTUS Trump. In fact, PM Netanyahu risks and is already receiving blowback over the vote. Scapegoating is easy for constituencies to understand but it also deflects important questions about the resolution's passage for which the government will be called upon to answer by Israel's majority.

Second, throwing Israel's lot in with President Trump alienates the majority of American Jews who voted against him and exacerbates the problem of Israel as a partisan issue. Bibi's total alignment with PEOTUS Trump hurts Israel's standing among an American Jewish public that voted against him, and at a time when this critical diaspora community is already concerned about Israel's policies on settlements and the peace process. Managing diaspora relations requires avoiding such polemic antics. Second, and more importantly, by throwing in Israel's lot with Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu is contributing to the framing of Israel as a partisan issue. Liberals and conservatives disagree about why this partisanship has occurred, but all analysts can agree that Netanyahu's statements against Obama and for Trump do little to ease this dangerous polarization of Israel as a political issue. Even if polarization isn't Netanyahu's fault, it's still his problem, and one that his comments over the weekend exacerbate.

Finally, Netanyahu's antics signal that he is not below trashing relationships when it is politically convenient. His erratic behavior places Israel in a dangerous position at a time when the country faces international isolation and delegitimization. The world's leaders have reacted to these antics with shock. Even Donald Trump believes that individual negotiation savvy is critical in politics. Netanyahu is betting Trump will see him as a determined ally, but Trump may conclude that Netanyahu is just an erratic negotiator who would throw him under the bus too. Netanyahu is intending to signal Israel's independence, but he may actually be signalling that he is a risky partner, including for the incoming President.

While the US administration is about to change, Middle East experts and civil servants in Washington will remain the same. These experts are frustrated about the vicious cycle in which Prime Minister Netanyahu asks the US to provide diplomatic cover at the UN only to use this cover to continue settlement building. A sustainable alternative to Prime Minister Netanyahu's current embarrassment of a strategy begins with a genuine commitment to meaningful progress on the ground.