Wednesday, November 19, 2014

BDS And Free Speech At #MESA2014: A Contradiction In Terms

Next Monday, members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) will be voting on a resolution which asks the membership to “affirm the right of MESA members to engage in open and transparent discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” What this boycott would entail and how far it would go are left unspecified in the text. The resolution comes in the wake of a letter by MESA President Nathan Brown which took a fairly neutral stance towards the issue of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). BDS supporters at MESA are hardly the target of persecution. In fact, MESA has announced a special Presidential Forum on BDS where participants will have a chance to speak on the issue.

Nonetheless, the resolution frames itself as affirming members’ free speech, highlighting the membership’s “right” to discuss BDS. Deploring unspecified “measures of intimidation” against similar academic associations, the resolution encourages members to discuss BDS in the name of freedom of expression.

This position is contradictory. Discussing BDS is indeed legitimate. However, by specifically targeting “Israeli academic institutions,” supporters of the resolution are prima facie restricting freedom of expression. A MESA boycott of these institutions and their academics would, by definition, restrict their access to the discourse MESA fosters. Discussing ways to end Palestinian suffering and Israel's military policies in the West Bank are valid topics of academic conversations. However, a body which calls for Israelis to be excluded from those discussions cannot logically do so in the name of free speech.

The resolution also gives no justification for dis-aggregating an Israeli academic boycott specifically from the plethora of actions that fall under the umbrella of BDS. Is it because the Israeli academy has ties with a defense establishment that commits human rights violations? If so, the resolution should also include mention of the plethora of Middle Eastern academies - and the American academy - who have such links. The resolution gives no universally applicable standard for its unique mention of Israel. It seeks to advise MESA members, but gives unsatisfactory justifications for its most noteworthy recommendation.

True academic discourse evaluates speech based on the quality of its ideas, not the identity of the speaker. If MESA members value the forum that the Association provides, they will opt to engage their colleagues through discourse, not exclude them through boycotts and restricting access. The current iteration of the resolution is inconsistent with the ideals MESA upholds, and should not be adopted by the membership.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Jerusalem Tensions Hit Critical Levels

Tensions in Jerusalem escalated significantly today. These tensions began with a Palestinian attack on light rail passengers October 22. Next, activist Yehuda Glick was shot by a Palestinian assailant on October 29. This morning a Palestinian drove a minivan into a crowd waiting for the light rail, killing one and injuring 13. Hours ago another Palestinian drove a car into 3 IDF soldiers in the area of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and members of his security cabinet blamed Palestinian President Abbas for the 10/22 attack. Netanyahu's primary aim in doing so was to shore up support among his base in preparation for Likud party primaries, which may be held December 25. His secondary aim was to de-legitimize President Abbas as a leader and ease international and US pressure on Israel to negotiate a solution to the conflict that Bibi fears would leave Israel vulnerable. 

However, the original attack turned out to be a spate of attacks by Hamas. The group claimed responsibility for the attack this morning and an earlier attack on October 22. President Abbas, a Fatah party member, extended condolences to the family of the man who shot activist Yehuda Glick, and called Israel's closure of the Temple Mount a declaration of war. Both are extremely unhelpful steps to say the least. But the available evidence points much more towards Hamas than to Abbas as the culprit. Unfortunately, Netanyahu's talking points were set before the Israeli government may have realized the 10/22 attack was not a one-off event. The result is that the Israeli government finds its hands tied, rhetorically speaking.

By attacking soldiers in the West Bank, Hamas can provoke an Israeli reaction in Palestinian areas of the West Bank versus in Jerusalem. These terrorist attacks are designed to polarize Israel's population and rally Palestinian support behind a fragile unity government between Hamas and Fatah. In addition, Netanyahu's Likud adversaries have put political pressure on him to act. Yet IDF action in the West Bank, even in response to terrorism or militant action, would exacerbate tensions. Checkpoints, roadblocks, and searches for attackers in heavily Palestinian areas would look eerily reminiscent of 2001-2005. Since Prime Minister Netanyahu has framed Abbas for the violence, Israel is unlikely to get support from the Palestinian Security Forces for these activities. Jordan's recalling its ambassador from Israel today legitimizes these acts of violence against Israeli soldiers and civilians. It is also a move of dubious wisdom given protests which may occur in the country should a sustained campaign of violence break out.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is calling for restraint, and it's likely he knows how dangerous the current situation is - both in the West Bank and in his party. But conflict is a two-player game and as with Operation Protective Edge, Israel could get drawn into a conflict.  

Israel is low on options here. It could communicate to President Abbas that car attacks show Fatah is losing control of the West Bank. However, Bibi must maintain an anti-Abbas line to remain consistent, and Abbas gains legitimacy from rhetorically attacking Israel. Israel could reach out to Egypt to communicate with Hamas, but given Egypt's ongoing campaign in the Sinai such efforts may be of limited effect. US efforts to calm tensions will not be backed up with a threat and thus are of limited utility. Ultimately, if Hamas is looking for a conflict, it will be very hard for Israel to stop it from happening.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Slow Down - There's No Crisis In US-Israel Relations

DC analysts often have a bad habit of confusing things that are interesting with things that are important. Today's #ChickenSh*tGate is a prime example.

This morning's piece in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg proclaims "The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here," but it's hardly the first to do so. A 2010 JCPA article asks, "A Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations: Have We Been Here Before?" and a YNet article from 2009 asks, "US-Israel Relations: Is there a crisis?" Today's title is a bit more confident in declaring the existence of a crisis, but the evidence to substantiate the claim is shoddy at best.

First, the off-the-record claims made by the "unnamed official" in the Goldberg piece range from dubious to absurd. While US frustration over the Netanyahu administration's conduct in the peace talks may be warranted, other aspects of the comments say more about the official than about Bibi. The official is concerned that Bibi has "a near-pathological desire for career-preservation." But all leaders care about self preservation. The nonchalant way in which the official writes off the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran is a dangerous underestimation of Israeli fear of an Iranian nuclear program. It's also at odds with how the Obama administration has actually conducted policy.

Second, that Bibi has "written off" the White House is hardly news. Netanyahu's address to AIPAC and Congress, both in 2011, show that Israel's strategy for years has been to mobilize Congress rather than curry favor with the White House. The Hellfire missile incident during Operation Protective Edge this summer is evidence of the same. A crisis implies an immediate and impending disaster save for corrective action, but the existing dynamic between the US and Israel has remained as such for years.

Finally, US-Israel relations have been much, much worse than they are right now. President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened Israel with sanctions in 1957. In 1967, Israel torpedoed the USS Liberty, killing 34 US personnel and injuring 171. In 1991, Jonathan Pollard was caught committing espionage against the United States for Israel in 1985, a fact that Israel did not admit until 1998. Each of these constituted serious crises. And each shaped the US-Israel relationship for decades to come.

Today's comments are an embarrassment to the Obama administration and an offensive slap in the face to Israel and its leadership. They are indicative of friction between the US and Israel. But they are hardly a crisis, especially given how sustained the current relationship has been. Vague assertions to the contrary only set back US national interests: Promoting a sustainable peace agreement, fostering regional stability in the Middle East, and improving the quality of life for millions of Israelis and Palestinians who bear the burden of ongoing conflict.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Stop Politicizing The Death Of Children

On Wednesday evening, a four year-old named Mohammed Abu Jarad was killed in Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip when an unexploded missile from a previous Israeli operation went off near where he was playing. Mohammed was severely injured and rushed to Shifa Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

That same Wednesday evening, a 3-month old baby named Chaya Zissel Braun was killed when a Palestinian purposefully drove a car into a group of people exiting the Jerusalem light rail. She was thrown 30 feet, landing on her head, and died two hours later.

The death of a child, regardless of the different circumstances that cause it, is perhaps the most universal tragedy. Nothing can help family and friends make sense of such a horrible event. The juxtaposition of the pure innocence of a child with the sheer terror of a violent death is too great for any human to truly make peace with it.

But without even waiting until the small bodies had been placed in the ground, the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian spin machines swung into gear. Each side emphasized its own victimhood while denying the victimhood of the other. "Yes, but" statements splattered the Twittersphere like the blood in Beit Hanoun and Jerusalem which had not even dried. These statements excused, diluted, dodged, obfuscated, and slanted the tragedies unashamedly and with unabashed self-righteousness. Morality became meaningless as it was twisted, redefined, misappropriated, and applied with little concern for consistency.

How sick have we become when our first thought upon seeing a picture of a dead infant is "Yes, but they do it too" or "This is a perfect example of my political beliefs"? How many more dead children will it take before supporters of Israel and/or the Palestinians step back from the microphone or the keyboard and see the devastation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for what it is? This conflict is not winnable. It has never been and it will never be. Yet some are more concerned with advancing the rhetorical football than accepting the fact that it will never move beyond the 40-yard line.

We, collectively, are missing the forest for the trees. Progress doesn't look like children singing in a field. It doesn't look like justice flowing like a mighty stream. It doesn't even have to look the tired cliche of a peace treaty photo op.

Progress on Wednesday evening would have looked like pausing. Pausing to see on the sheer tragedy of this conflict for what it is. Without spin and without rhetoric. The way it has engulfed a generation too young to understand it or be complicit in it. The way it lets us so easily throw our most basic human instincts - compassion for children - to the wind. 

Chaya and Mohammed did not die as Israelis or Palestinians. They died as human beings. For their sake, we should try to live in the same way.



Monday, September 29, 2014

Bibi Panders, Hints At Chance For Cooperation In UN Speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's speech at the UN General Assembly today was intended largely for a domestic audience. However, he signaled areas in which Israel might be open to progress in a post-Operation Protective Edge environment.

Netanyahu glossed over critical differences between extremist groups, linking together Hamas (with whom Israel has been negotiating in Cairo), ISIS, Iran, the Mahdi Army, and the Nazis. His speech spared no criticism of the UN for hosting Hamas rockets in its schools, and referred at one point to the UN Human Rights Council as the "Terrorist Rights Council." Netanyahu tried to link the Islamic State (aka ISIS) with the "Islamic State of Iran" (its formal name is the Islamic Republic of Iran) and used several other well-rehearsed talking points about Iran's imminent danger to regional stability. 

Such a speech made few gains for Israel's political capital with the international community. However, it will likely be well-received by the Likud base on whom Netanyahu relies for political support. In the wake of Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu is under pressure to stem a post-war decline in popularity and demonstrate a clear victory over Hamas. Just yesterday, MK Danny Danon, a representative of the Likud's most hawkish constituency, implied that Netanyahu's response to Hamas was not sufficiently strong. As competitors seek to take advantage of the opportunity to chip away Netanyahu's base, a fiery speech to the UN is a surefire way for the Prime Minister to consolidate support.

Despite domestic pandering, Netanyahu's speech indicated the government's current negotiating position. Netanyahu's demand for "rock solid security arrangements" refers to an Israeli military presence on the West Bank - Jordan border. It will be very difficult to achieve this demand (the US has suggested cameras instead). The Prime Minister also called the need for territorial compromise "obvious," though it's unclear whether one-for-one land swaps are comparably obvious.

More significantly, Netanyahu called for regional Arab cooperation, mentioning Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia as potential partners. Invoking "joint interest," Netanyahu may be seeking to outflank the Palestinian Authority which has threatened to pursue statehood at the UN and to bring Israel to the ICC on charges of war crimes. His comments also resonate in the wake of a re-affirmation of the Arab Peace Initiative on September 25th by GCC states meeting with US officials. These comments may have particular salience given cooperation by GCC and other Arab states on the conflict against ISIS in Syria. 

If the Prime Minister's objective was to stem the tide of anti-Israel sentiment at the UN, he was certainly unsuccessful. However, if he intended to bolster domestic support while signalling the potential for cooperation with major Arab powers, Netanyahu achieved his goal. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kuwait Mends Ties With Palestinian Leadership

Kuwait's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah, made an historic visit yesterday to the West Bank and the Temple Mount. The significance of the visit is couched in a tumultuous relationship between Kuwait and Palestinian leadership. 

The Foreign Minister's appearance in the West Bank is the first by a senior Kuwaiti official since 1967. His visit, part of a larger tour, is likely intended to mend relations and to increase Kuwait's general influence in the region. Kuwait's regional role is not particularly activist. The Emir was congratulated just last week at the UN for Kuwait's humanitarian efforts on Syria. Yet Kuwait has been hesitant to join a Saudi-led regional force, and did not follow suit when Saudi, the Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March. Rather, it worked with Oman to mend ties and maintain regional stability. As Kuwait seeks to use its mediating power to gain regional influence, its relationship with the Palestinian leadership will be important. A quick look at the history of this relationship explains why.

In the mid-twentieth century, Palestinians played a vital role in Kuwait's development. Oil drilling required technical expertise, and many highly educated Palestinians came to Kuwait to fill these positions. Palestinian engineers in the 1950's and 60's were in high demand in Kuwait. They had the expertise to run oil extraction sites, and were also proficient in both Arabic and English.

Kuwait was originally one of the main financial backers of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and it had a presence in the country. However, governments in the region, including Kuwait, became fearful of the PLO as a political force. Since many of the region's governments were installed by Western powers, these governments feared the PLO would target them as illegitimate. As a result, Kuwait kept a close eye on PLO activism within the country.

Relations because critical after PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat met with Saddam Hussein two days after the Kuwait invasion. As Kuwait University Professor Shafeeq Ghabra describes, the PLO chairman expressed support for "the Iraqi policy" and incurred the lasting animosity of Kuwait as a result. After an attack on a Kuwaiti aircraft in October 1990 in which Palestinians were implicated, the Kuwaiti government fired over 3,000 Palestinians from government jobs. Fearing arrest and intimidation, around 200,000 Palestinians fled Kuwait during the invasion and liberation of Kuwait. 

Mutual animosity continued after the end of the Gulf War. It lasted for over a decade. In 2001, Kuwaiti MPs spoke out strongly against the visit of Palestinian Authority official Faisal Husseini to a conference in Kuwait against normalizing relations with Israel.

Relations began to mend in 2004, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas apologized for the PLO's support of Iraq during a visit to Kuwait. A Palestinian embassy opened in Kuwait last year. Currently, Kuwait chairs the Arab Peace Initiative of the Arab Summit. In the wake of the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, the Kuwaiti parliament voted to withdraw from the initiative. However, in comments at the Arab Summit meeting held in Kuwait last March, Kuwait's Amir expressed support for the initiative.

Given Kuwait's status as a close US ally, the development of stronger relations between Kuwait and the Palestinian leadership is a positive development. At the same time, the sensitive history of Kuwait-Palestinian relations is an issue in which the US should avoid becoming entangled.


 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Israel's "Western" Public Diplomacy Paradox

Israeli public diplomacy strategy is often based on an affiliation with the West. Its latest round of public diplomacy during Operation Protective Edge is no exception. The campaign put Israel's security challenges in Western terms and used graphics and fonts that are trendy in Western communication. Here are some examples:






The IDF also issued releases with English plays on words, such as this commentary on Hamas' breaking a ceasefire:




Israeli public affairs doesn't just look Western. Many of its spokespeople are in fact English-speaking Westerners (Anglos). The IDF's International Media spokesman, LTC Peter Lerner, is British by birth. Mark Regev, the Prime Minister's spokesman, hails from Australia. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself spent time in the US and speaks perfect English, as does haBayit haYehudi party leader Naftali Bennett and prominent Likud leader Danny Danon.

Israel's extensive Anglo outreach is helpful in reaching and resonating with many supporters in the West. It is so effective, in fact, that Palestinian activists have criticized media outlets for hosting Israelis fluent in English while hosting Arabic speaking Palestinians. But there is an important tradeoff: In affiliating with the West, Israel is no longer seen as an "other." 

In general, not being seen as the "other" is a good strategy. People are more likely to associate with those like them, and to support Israelis who look and speak like they do. At the same time, Israel's close affiliation with the West entrenches perceptions of the country as the "fifty-first state" of the United States. When people who sound and look like Westerners make statements Westerners disagree with, it creates cognitive dissonance. It generates a feeling that Israel is misrepresenting the West's values. It entrenches the perception that Israelis are immigrants and settlers on indigenous Palestinian land. It also broods frustration that Israel "ought to know better" than to take action some in the West find questionable. 

In reality, Israel's security challenges are unique among Western states. No Western country faces constant barrages of rocket attacks, an ever-existent threat of an intifada, and close international scrutiny (though not always consequences) for any security action it takes. One would be hard pressed to find a Western state that, if in Israel's situation, would react with the same level of caution. Of course, this level of caution did not stop the deaths of over 2,000 Palestinians and the injury of thousands more in Gaza. It has not, to date, resulted in the end of severe restrictions on freedom of movement or the daily humiliation of checkpoints. However, the terms under which Israel conducts security policy are very different from those of the West and need to be understood in that context.

Given that this is the case, Israel must to walk a fine line between portraying itself as Western, and affiliating so much with the West that people forget that its circumstances are different. This shift does not requires a sea change, rather a calculated adjustment in strategy. The interview below with an soldier from the IDF's Youtube channel does a good job of finding that balance. The soldier is not an Anglo but rather a Hebrew-speaking Israeli. His basic respect for civilians as a soldier sounds more genuine in Hebrew than coming from a polished Anglo spokesperson. His testimony (translated with some liberty, and including some obvious IDF talking points) evokes that of Western soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and his testimony humanizes the IDF.



Most importantly, the video invites the viewer to empathize with the soldier while recognizing the existence of a cultural and national difference. This recognition likely makes the viewer more willing to entertain, if not accept, points of view not perfectly resonant with her own.