Monday, March 2, 2015

On Pro-Israel Bill, AIPAC Speakers Invoke Arab Security

AIPAC's annual Policy Conference kicked off yesterday in Washington, D.C. with a program featuring Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Ben Cardin (D-MD). AIPAC's Executive Director, Howard Kohr, also spoke to the 16,000 assembled participants. Both panels focused on a potential Iran nuclear deal and urged Congressional oversight for the bill. This push for oversight is the focus of AIPAC's conference and is a theme that will be repeated often over the next two days.

In supporting a strong deal, both Senator Graham and Executive Director Kohr emphasized the value of reassuring America's Arab allies, particularly those in the Gulf. Given that this is an Israel conference, these statements are significant. The US relationship with Arab countries often takes a backseat at AIPAC conference plenaries. Arab states are grouped together as a common enemy confronting Israel, which must defend itself. AIPAC has lobbied the US government with regards to individual Arab states like Egypt but, does so in reference to Israel's security. These comments are an explicit recognition that the US has ties with Arab states as well as Israel, and that these ties matter to America's strategic posture in the Middle East.

Yesterday's comments are indicative of a shift in the pro-Israel camp towards acceptance of America's relationship with Arab countries. They demonstrate recognition of the strategic importance of the Gulf and other key regions of the Middle East to the United States. In other words, Israel is not the only country whose interests matter to the US in the Middle East. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups have been criticized for trying to shape US policy in the Middle East based only on US-Israel ties. However, invoking the security of Arab states against a nuclear Iran demonstrates an acceptance in the pro-Israel crowd of a multilateral approach.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Zionist Union Gains Aren't Enough To Govern

A new Times of Israel poll shows the center-left Zionist Union block in a slight lead over Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud party. However, the poll also shows that the largest plurality of Israeli voters are "undecided" on which party to vote for in the March 17th election. The poll was a phone survey of 824 likely Israeli voters.

It is important to keep in mind that the largest party may not necessarily form the next government in Israel. Precedents as recent as 2009, where Likud won one fewer seat than Kadima but was chosen to form the government, are events that could easily be repeated. 

A winning party cannot form a coalition without a 61-seat majority in Israel's 120-seat parliament. However, it's unclear that the Zionist Union would be able to cobble together enough seats. Exacerbating the difficulty, the Zionist Union has been pushing to exclude Arab-Israeli MK Hanin Zoabi from running in the elections, a move which has raised the ire of the United Arab List. Even if the parties reconciled post-election, it's not clear that a Zionist Union/Meretz/United Arab List/Religious party coalition would be possible or stable.

On the other hand, PM Netanyahu would likely have the support of HaBayit HaYehudi, which has created competition for the Yisrael Beiteinu party. The leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, is already vying for the Defense Ministry portfolio, indicating that he expects to be a major coalition partner. Netanyahu would also likely retain the support of religious parties if Likud were to win.

In the 2013 elections, the centrist Yesh Atid party did surprisingly well in elections and was vital to forming a governing coalition. This time around, the centrist Kulanu party gives the Prime Minister more options, and he is likely to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy with regards to each party's support. However, if the Zionist Union party were to win, it's likely each of those parties ultimately would join the government as well. However, both parties are likely to stay neutral until after the elections to keep their options open. All small parties will continue to vie for votes to increase their bargaining power post-election. Especially given the large number of undecided Israelis voters, analysts should pay close attention to these parties.

Reacting to these small parties, Prime Minister Netanyahu's strategy has been to siphon votes from the far-right into Likud. His focus on the Iran issue, most notably in his upcoming speech to Congress, is evidence of such. Iran is not a particularly partisan issue in Israel, but Netanyahu's speech could appeal to the far right base which mistrusts the international community and a potential nuclear deal. In giving this speech, however, Bibi must be cautious not to give the Zionist Union a critical opportunity to mobilize the party base in opposition to a speech which has been controversial in both Israel and the United States.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Why Netanyahu's Plans To Address Congress Are Backfiring

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has faced a barrage of criticism over plans to address Congress on Iran's nuclear program in March. The speech, in which Bibi is expected to oppose Obama administration policy on Iran sanctions, has drawn controversy because it was scheduled without informing the White House.

The extent of this criticism is surprising. Both Netanyahu and media outlets that support him have a solid track record of portraying the Obama administration as blameworthy for slumps in US-Israel relations. It would not have been unreasonable for Netanyahu to conclude that his speech would generate the same sentiments as previous visits. However, news of Bibi's speech generated opposition not only from liberals (including Democratic party leadership), but also the Wall Street Journal, The American Conservative, and Fox News.

This is not the first time Netanyahu has spoken in conjunction with an AIPAC conference to oppose the Obama administration's policy. In 2011, President Obama reiterated that a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would be "based on the 1967 lines." Netanyahu called these lines "indefensible" in speeches to AIPAC and Congress. These comments generated widespread pro-Israel support and diminished the Obama administration's leverage over the Prime Minister. 

So why did Netanyahu's strategy backfire this time where it succeeded in 2011?

One reason is that the Obama administration has realized the extent to which its Israel policy is a weak spot. President Obama issued no comment on the upcoming speech, since in the past his administration has been burned by its own statements. This silence has led to more media attention on the Netanyahu administration's copious comments on the issue.

Secondly, Israeli domestic politics are not on the Prime Minister's side. In the campaign season, the Israeli public interprets practically every political move as election-driven. Netanyahu's speech has also bred concern that he is harming the US-Israel relationship, an opinion which parties opposing him have pointed out for political gain. Even if some Israelis disagree with one particular aspect of US foreign policy, they still value US support overall. Given comments he has made about the speech, Bibi's indication that Obama administration support is expendable has generated discomfort on both ends of the US-Israel relationship.

Most importantly, the Iran sanctions bill is a matter of US foreign policy, whereas the 1967 lines issue was a matter of Israeli foreign policy. Furthermore, it was a policy with which conservatives agreed. In 2011, it was easy to frame President Obama as interfering in Israeli security politics. Given that many pro-Israel Americans prefer the West Bank stay under Israeli control if possible, this target audience was receptive to the message. This time around, the Israeli Prime Minister is interfering on matter of US foreign policy. While the US-Iran deal impacts Israeli security, it has important implications for many other core US interests. Off the record comments by military officials indicate considerable concern at the Defense Department about an Israeli strike on Iran. Given these concerns, annoyance at Netanyahu's attempts to influence the debate are understandable.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Likud: Looming Large And In Charge

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave a campaign speech tonight at a Likud event in Tel Aviv. While many media outlets are focusing on the dramatic rhetoric of the speech, Bibi made three important points that give analysts a sense of the campaign to come. Each point is likely to shore up the likelihood of a Likud victory in the elections to be held March 17.

First: "Likud is the only party organized enough to lead." Netanyahu referenced the multitude of Israeli political parties - a number which has increased after his announcement of new elections as MKs break away from  Likud to form their own parties. He referred to the spate of centrist parties as "trendy," implying that they lack political expertise or relevance. Suggesting a two-party system, he identified "Likud and whatever Labor decides to call itself," a reference to the Labor party's unclear messaging and frequent leadership changes. As a final show of Likud party discipline, MK Tzipi Hotovely, who is currently contesting the Likud primary results after placing 26th, spoke at the rally

Second: "Likud is the only party "strong" enough to handle international pressure. "Netanyahu used the specific rhetoric of strength against threats, a conception shared widely among the Israeli public. Directly challenging Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and HaTnuah leader Tzipi Livni, Bibi remarked, "They will stand up to Iran? To Hamas? They won't stand the pressure for even a second...They'll give up." Given that Israel's foreign policy stagnation is a major tenet of both party's criticisms of the Prime Minister, it will be important for Netanyahu to ensure these criticisms do not gain traction.

Third: "Re-electing Likud will decrease the instability of the Israeli political system." The frequency of elections in Israel is a source of frustration for some Israelis. Many Likud voters likely blame MKs Livni and Lapid for the most recent round (though Netanyahu himself is probably more responsible). Netanyahu announced plans for sweeping reforms of the political system that may resonate with the public. While they may resonate with some Likud voters, these plans lack any semblance of credibility. Netanyahu called for the largest party to automatically gain the Prime Minister's seat, but Netanyahu himself holds the position despite Kadima winning the vote in 2009. Netanyahu also called for the Prime Minister to be elected every four years, months after he himself called early elections. This point is shaky ground for the Likud, and one on which other parties may be able to gain some traction.

Overall, the speech was an indication of the success of Netanyahu's "divide and conquer" strategy. While other MKs are still politicking and forming parties, Likud is organized, campaigning, in control of the election story in the media, and making headway in the polls. Each factor solidifies the narrative of an inevitable Likud victory, one that no other party in the Israeli political space is in a position to challenge.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In 2014, Social Media Highlighted An Absurd War Of Words

For two months of 2014, social media became nothing short of insufferable. Operation Protective Edge, Israel's third foray into Gaza since 2006, was accompanied by a war for public opinion that was fierce, dirty, and headache-inducing for even the most Zen of analysts.

This blog participated in the conversation by making a number of pleas to shift the conversation towards a discussion of new ways to move past suffering on the ground. It was heartening to see voices from all sides - and some from no side at all - respond positively to this call. Months later, we have an opportunity to look more objectively and more systematically at the way the war of words  played out over social media.

There is extensive debate about whether social media has any effect whatsoever on political outcomes (see here for a great and concise piece). But whether or not it changes politics, it seems significant that at no other point in history has the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian clash of narratives been so intrusive into the daily experience of bystanders. True, anyone can narrowcast and interact only with people with whom she agrees. But when news is plastered across the social media pages - even for those who are not politically active - it is hard to ignore. By August 2011, 81% of the American public had followed Operation Protective Edge at least "a little." Conventional media sites as well as social media sites from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter were plastered up and down with pro- and anti- articles. Both narratives went head to head with each other with middle ground or apathetic members of these sites dragged into the melee.

Stated in the most charitable way possible, this discussion was an absolute and complete train wreck.

In 2014, social media highlighted the catastrophic failure of narratives to navigate the complex history and politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides offer clean and neat versions of the conflict on their own. But put two opposing activists in a Twitter fight with each other (please don't actually do that), and the result is total discursive chaos. Proponents of each narrative talk completely past each other using stylized and often ideological concepts with little relevance to facts on the ground. The worst make ad hominem attacks and lock horns in a race to the bottom rather than reach any semblance of common understanding. And outsiders to the conflict bear witness to this tragic excuse for discourse.

Ridiculous Twitter fights, unfortunately, will not remain in 2014. However, they will continue to showcase the sheer absurdity of getting so caught up in a narrative that we lose sight of facts on the ground. Perhaps over time, the showcasing of this absurdity on social media will highlight the antiquated nature of the conversation as well. When grown adults bicker like children, while real children are kidnapped, shot, and killed, there is no choice but to change course. Such a change requires recognizing the futility of the lose-lose status quo, and taking steps to engage honestly, listen, and identity opportunities for reconciliation rather than exploit pain and suffering for quick but Pyrrhic victories.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How Netanyahu Beat Israel's Political System

On March 17, 2015, Israelis will go to the polls for the third time since 2008. Analysts have framed these elections as a mistake hastened by low-intensity violence in Jerusalem, settlement building, and this summer’s war in Gaza. However, they are actually the result of a deliberate and masterful political maneuver by Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s leadership strategy since his election in 2009 has been characterized by undermining opposition. Since that time, he has faced two opposition threats. First, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of the HaTnuah party and Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party are centrist members of Israel’s governing coalition, holding a solid 25 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Netanyahu coopted them in the short term by bringing both into his Cabinet. He put Lapid in charge of cutting popular social services in Israel’s national budget, and Livni in charge of a hopeless peace process. However, Lapid and Livni’s visibility as cabinet members and conflicting policies posed a longer-term threat to his leadership. Second, this summer’s war in Gaza threatened to spur significant opposition after Deputy Minister of Defense Danny Danon, a far-right member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, criticized Netanyahu’s handling of Israel’s military operation. Netanyahu (who leans center-right) fired Danon but needed to do more to undermine the long-term threat of an insurrection from the Likud’s far-right base.

His solution was as deliberate as it was elegant: tack far-right, manufacture a coalition crisis, and divide potential opposition. On November 16, Netanyahu expressed support for a bill introduced back in 2011 that would enshrine Israel’s nature as a Jewish State in the country’s Basic Laws. The proposal was popular among the far-right, undermining any attacks Likud’s far right ministers could launch against him. As an added bonus, the bill drew sharp but predictable criticism from both Lapid and Livni. Now Netanyahu had a “political crisis.” In a fiery but deliberate speech, Netanyahu accused Lapid and Livni of conspiring to destroy the coalition. In reality, both ministers had acted exactly as Netanyahu had hoped, giving him a reason to dissolve the coalition and move to the elections he had wanted for months. On November 29, he cancelled the Knesset vote on the bill, and on December 7 he told an audience at Brookings' Saban Forum 2014, "I will never agree to legislation that undermines Israel's democratic character. Not now, not ever."

By holding elections at strategic moments, Netanyahu has solved major problems of instability in Israel’s government. From its founding in 1948 until 1977, Israel’s dominant party system meant that there was little instability in government, since one party was virtually guaranteed to win each election. Many of Israel’s major political institutions, for example, those dealing with religion and education, were shaped by the dominant Mapai party. However, when Likud beat Mapai's follow on, the Labor Alignment, in 1977, it was a surprise upset that changed fundamentally the nature of Israeli politics. Israel was no longer a dominant party system since every party could potentially lose. Coalition instability became a larger threat since the Prime Minister (who generally comes from the winning party) could suffer a vote of no confidence at any time. Additionally, the system forced parties with fundamental disagreements to govern together. This arrangement constrained ruling parties since smaller parties could always threaten to leave the coalition and collapse the government.

By holding new elections, Netanyahu can potentially solve this problem of instability. The elections give him a chance to renegotiate his coalition with parties more aligned with Likud’s policy platform. Coalition partners inevitably grow tired of rubber stamping another party’s agenda, see opportunities for growth, and bolt from the coalition. By calling elections now, Netanyahu is preempting the collapse by engineering it on his terms. Such an arrangement will very likely leave Likud on top, and forces potential allies to compete with each other rather than challenge Likud. When it comes time to form a coalition, these parties will likely be weakened and faced with the choice of joining the government or being politically irrelevant in the short term.

However, while engineering election timing is effective for remaining in power, it takes time and resources away from governing. Netanyahu’s tactic is likely to be copied by future Israeli leaders. However, its utility speaks to the need for greater stability in leadership positions in Israel. Such guarantees would allow the Prime Minister to focus on Israel’s long-term challenges rather than on staying in power. These challenges will pose critical threats to Israel over the next few decades, but a political system equipped to handle them is the first step to navigating the treacherous road ahead.

*An earlier version of this post stated elections were held in 2008. They were held on February 10, 2009. It also identified the Mapai party as losing the 1977 elections, but by that point Mapai had merged with Ahdut HaAvoda and Rafi into the Israeli Labor Party, which merged with Mapam in 1969 to form the (second) Labor Alignment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

No, Ferguson Is Not Palestine

The debate over recent events in Ferguson, Missouri is far too extensive to unpack in a single blog post. However, one of the more wonky facets of the response to these events has been what academics call "issue linkage." Protesters, bloggers, and social media mavens have linked events in Ferguson to the plight of Afghanis, Iraqis and Palestinians. The means of linkage is often the use of terms like "oppression," "extra-judicial killing," "occupation," and even "colonialism." It is ironic that activists so quick to invoke Orwell have appropriated such terms based on their strategic emotional connotation rather than their meaning. 

Here are the distinctions.

Oppression in Ferguson is the fact that laws about the use of police force disproportionately affect Americans of color because of systemic social attitudes of racism. Oppression in the Palestinian territories is the result of a set of laws imposed without consent by a military administration which engages in belligerent occupation.

Assassinating Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004 is an example of extra-judicial killing. Targeting Anwar al-Alawki in 2011 is an example of an extra-judicial killing. Both are premeditated strikes against an individual (in the latter case, a citizen) that deliberately deny due process under the law.  A police officer shooting an unarmed 18-year old six times under unclear circumstances is an example of an excessive use of force. There is no evidence to suggest his horrific death was a premeditated act of targeting by the State.

Belligerent occupation refers to the governing presence of a military force without the assent of the governed population. Scholars, lawyers, and judges (including Israel's Supreme Court) consider the West Bank to be under belligerent occupation. Ferguson, Missouri is an American town under the jurisdiction of the American government and officials elected by citizens. In no sense of the word is Ferguson occupied.

This blog has seen previous discussion as to whether or not the West Bank is "colonized," but even arguments in the affirmative cannot reasonably be applied to Ferguson. No "foreign" power is expanding its territory, settling a foreign population, or exploiting resources.

There are other differences.

A protest in Ferguson is an act of constitutionally-protected speech. A protest in the West Bank is a "security incident."

Police in Ferguson may be disproportionately white but all are US citizens. Members of the IDF are (almost always) Israeli citizens administering a Palestinian population without such citizenship.

Extreme violence by a small minority in Ferguson looks like looting stores or low-intensity acts against police. Extreme violence in the West Bank by a small minority looks like stabbings, car attacks, kidnappings, and other forms of terrorism.

The very existence of Palestinians as an ethnic and national group continues to be denied in the (conservative) mainstream. That African Americans are a cohesive minority group in the United States and that this group is constitutionally entitled to equality is a fact denied by only the most radically conservative Americans, who are widely ridiculed.

The use of poorly-constructed and inaccurate comparisons is an attempt to invoke notions of a global struggle. While the fight for recognition and rights may very well be global, the ways in which this struggle takes place and the conditions these struggles seek to change vary widely. Misappropriating analytical terms to highlight emotional similarities does a disservice to those to whom the term actually applies (now or historically). It is analytically lazy, since it invokes connections based on feelings rather than a well-constructed argument. Finally, it disempowers the people at the heart of such struggles by constructing them as essentialized agents of a grandiose theory rather than as people with multi-faceted ideas, needs, and agency to change their circumstances.