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:

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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A New Gaza War? Not So Fast.

Two significant statements today are indications of the Israeli Prime Minister's defense posture in the opening months of the new coalition. Specifically, they indicate that a Gaza operation in the short term is unlikely.

In the first statement, Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, said he would be open to negotiations with Hamas. Coming in the wake of a rocket attack last night, the statement is - on the surface - an appeal for calm. However, coming from the conservative Rivlin, the statement is significant for its willingness to admit to what has been informal Israeli protocol for years. The statement is also significant for its timing. Rivlin may be making the statement to deter Prime Minister Netanyahu from escalating militarily with Hamas beyond last night's airstrike. A broader response would be unpopular and likely ineffective given Israel's mixed success in Operation Protective Edge last year. Were Netanyahu to escalate this time, it would spend political capital with Rivlin, who lately has been aligned with the Prime Minister on issues of domestic and international policy.

Luckily the second statement makes escalation with Hamas look unlikely. As this blog predicted, Netanyahu's cabinet has begun focusing rhetorically on Iran. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said that Iran has "not allowed stability in Iraq" and wants it to remain a failed state. The statement puts Iran on the foreign policy agenda, although it was addressed to a foreign rather than domestic audience. Nonetheless, the return of Iran as the major foreign policy challenge facing Israel is a move that is not only consistent with analysts' best assessment of Prime Minister Netanyahu's genuine beliefs, but also allows him to unify a fractured coalition. Today's statement by the Defense Minister might be setting the stage for a new round of rhetorical posturing that could mitigate the Prime Minister's governance difficulties. However, it will take more evidence to judge decisively whether or not this is the case.

Both statements indicate that Israel is not seeking an armed conflict in Gaza in the near future, and would rather focus on the Iran threat as negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 move forward.