Monday, February 1, 2016

Israel Misses The Point On Ban Ki-Moon Comments

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon took to the New York Times yesterday to clarify his January 26th statement against Israeli policy in the West Bank. Likely sensing a threat to the UN's legitimacy as a mediator, Ban urges Israel's supporters not to "shoot the messenger" in reacting to the piece. Some have expressed frustrations over Ban's comments for singling out Israel's settlement policy as motivating terrorism - even though he also criticized the Palestinian leadership's authoritarian tendencies and incitement to violence. 

The Israeli government's tactical response to Ban's comments focused on documenting another case of anti-Israel bias at the UN. Prime Minister Netanyahu accused the organization of losing its "neutrality and moral force" and "stoking terror." Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said the comments give "legitimacy to those murders to continue attacking," while UN ambassador Danny Danon flat-out accused Ban of "encouraging terror."

The causes of Palestinian terrorism are certainly more complex than Ban Ki-Moon represents in his editorial. But the Israeli government's response to Ban's comments are illustrative of its lack of strategic foresight.

The current Israeli government is pursuing a foreign policy of unapologetic confrontation. From publicly disagreeing with President Obama to sending settlement products as holiday gifts to disparaging the UN, Israel's policy line is: "The world is against us and it's time to call them out on it." The government drapes this policy in moral legitimacy and longstanding international bias against Israel, but tactically it still boils down to picking needless fights.

Ban's editorial, however, is the latest in a series of events that show that this policy is not working. Confrontation is weakening Israel's ability to operate in the international community by exacerbating its pariah status. Unfair treatment by the UN is harmful because pariah status limits Israel's ability to use a cooperative approach to its foreign policy. But confrontation makes Israel more of a pariah by breeding resentment. It exacerbates the very harm Israel should be seeking to reduce. 

This policy of confrontation also lacks strategic vision. The moral legitimacy of Israel's position is irrelevant in a world that sees it as responsible for the oppression of 4.2 million Palestinians. Anti-Israel bias is unfair but a static condition of the international system for the foreseeable future. Israel has two choices - accept the bias or seek to change it over the course of decades. The likelihood that it will accomplish either by alienating the UN Secretary General is exceedingly low.

Israel's response to Ban shows that its current foreign policy is dangerously short-sighted. It is taking Ban's comments as more evidence of bias against Israel. It should instead take them as evidence of the damage its policies are doing to its political capital. By refusing to commit credibly to changing the status quo, Israel is alienating major global players. Attacks on its policy are no longer coming from just the Arab League or predictably post-colonial entities, but from major international institutions like the UN as well. Furthermore, the UN will continue to be a site for unilateral Palestinian action and Israel cannot afford to alienate its leadership. In this tough environment, Israel should strategically mitigate damage by keeping channels of cooperation open where it can.

Monday, January 4, 2016

What Saudi-Iran Tensions Mean For Israel

Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on Saturday January 2nd, 2016. Among them was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi Shia cleric who had preached against the Saudi government. al-Nimr's execution sent ripples across the Shia communities in Iraq and Iran. On Saturday evening, protesters threw gasoline bombs and broke into the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, trashing the offices and stealing items from them. Saudi Arabia accused Iran of purposefully not protecting the embassy, summonsed the Iranian ambassador in Riyadh, and cut diplomatic ties with Iran on January 3rd. Today, Bahrain and Sudan followed suit. Other states have downgraded ties but not cut them off.

Israel has been following closely the conflict between Saudi and Iran as a regional power with a keen interest in Gulf politics. The conflict presents opportunities for Israel to lend support and assurances to Saudi Arabia. However, it also presents challenges as Iran looks to shift pressure away from itself and diffuse regional tensions. Given Israel's current regional posture, the Saudi-Iran tensions have three major impacts.

First, Iran may use its relations with Hizbullah and Hamas to escalate conflict on Israel's borders. Today's incident on the Lebanon border and Friday's rocket attacks from Gaza show the extent of tensions that Iran can exploit to shift attention away from it's conflict with Saudi Arabia. As the tension continues, Iran may also be tempted to push Hizbullah and Hamas to escalate conflict in order to mitigate pressure from the international community.

Second, US influence in the region will be constrained, which Israel can exploit for better or worse. The Iran nuclear deal is a Sword of Damocles over Amerca's ability to pressure Iran to de-escalate the conflict. The US has limited contact with Iran's government, and significant pressure to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely the US will determine the outcome of the current conflict. Israel can use this fact in ways that help or harm US policy. A helpful response would be to quarterback the US position towards a Saudi Arabia suspicious of American aims in the wake of the nuclear deal. A less helpful response would be to bolster Saudi saber rattling, sectarianism, and protests against the nuclear deal. 

Third, a resolution of the Syria conflict may be delayed, giving ISIS a stronger footing along the Syrian border with Israel. Saudi Arabia and Iran are major parties to talks in Vienna that seek a political resolution to the Syrian conflict. The current tensions may delay the pace of progress, leaving the door open to further fighting. Last week the IDF raised the possibility of ISIS approaching the border between Syria and Israel. ISIS, or fighters aligned with it, may have a greater opportunity to send rockets and mortars into Israel given a delayed political solution and incentive to escalate fighting between Saudi and Iranian proxies (as well as the IRGC) in Syria.

In formulating a policy response, Israel must keep each of these three factors in mind. While it had an isolationist policy during the Arab uprisings, the nuclear deal and new ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have shifted Israel's regional posture. But given the risky posture in which Israel finds itself, deeper involvement may prove a risky venture.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Why Im Tirzu Sees The West As Israel's Enemy

Im Tirzu's accusations that leaders of Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem are "foreign agents" is a strange move. Lashing out against left-wing organizations is not a new phenomenon in Israel. However, the accusation that these groups are made up of foreign agents answering to the European Union and its member states is puzzling given that Israel's biggest foreign adversaries are Arab and Persian, not European. Ultimately, Im Tirzu's focus on "foreign European agents" is designed to manipulate Israeli anxiety over strained ties with Europe, and control the Zionist discourse in Israel.

Accusations that someone is a "foreign agent" are popular in the Middle East. Shi'a are labeled "Iranian agents," Liberals are labeled "Western agents," and almost anything else (including sharks and pigeons) are labeled "Zionist agents." While such conspiracies also exist in the West (ie Jews as Israeli agents, Muslims as ISIS agents) the lack of government transparency and accountability in the Middle East can exacerbate the traction of these ideas. They are usually directed toward entire communities in the political opposition as a way of undermining the legitimacy of their participation in political debate.

Israel and its supporters usually point out that Israel's Arab minority would rather live in Israel than a Palestinian state. However, Im Tirzu targets not Arabs but rather Ashkenazic Jewish individuals and the NGOs they lead. In 2010, Im Tirzu blamed the New Israel Fund for the controversial UN Goldstone Report against Israel and mentioned that NIF was registered in the United States. They later published an ad featuring a caricature of NIF President Naomi Chazan sporting a horn. In light of the discourse around leftist NGOs, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has come under fire for submitting a bill earlier this year that would cut off foreign funding to NGOs that, in the opinion of the state, undermine Israel. 

Given that Israel's biggest international threats come from Arab states and Iran, it is odd that Im Tirzu would construct Europe and the US as enemies planting foreign agents. Especially given that until 2009, Im Tirzu itself received funding from American Pastor John Hagee ($100,000 to be exact). What explains this puzzling (and, one might say, hypocritical) criticism?

One reason is that Israel has faced increasing pressure from European states, generating domestic resentment. These include Germany's support for labeling settlement products, Sweden's declared intention to recognize Palestine, the election of pro-Palestinian MP Jeremy Corbyn as head of Britain's Labor Party, a British academic boycott of Israel, and an EU ban on funding Israeli activity beyond the Green Line. Israelis consider these actions unfair and unnecessary, and react with fear over the extent to which Israel-Europe ties have been harmed (though Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's reactionary policies hardly helped). The idea that Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem are exacerbating the crumbling of this vital relationship plays upon these fears while also absolving Israel of any responsibility for the diplomatic mess in which it finds itself.

The other reason is that Im Tirzu seeks to advance its own particular version of Zionism, and left wing Ashkenazic Israelis threaten this ability. Im Tirzu is unapologetic about its desire to suffocate the debate that has been at the core of Zionism since 1897 and led to the creation of Israel's modern democratic political system. It intends to police the Zionist debate and have authority over which forms of Zionism are "acceptable" in Israel. In May 2010, for example, Im Tirzu demanded that Ben Gurion University shut down it's political science department for representing "the radical Left." Framing liberal Zionist leaders as "foreign agents" is an easy way to undermine opponents of Im Tirzu's version of Zionism while constructing the group as a "gate keeper" of Zionist discourse.

While Israel's reaction to these accusations has been representative of its strong democratic discourse, analysts should not underestimate the danger of radical populism in Israel. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem, but they are nonetheless a part of Israel's civil society and play an important role in the discourse over what Israel represents and for what it should strive in the future.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

GOP Candidates Must Condemn Islamophobia

The silence at last night's Republican debate over Donald Trump's screed against Muslim Americans is an insult to the American people. Some candidates pointed out that Trump's plans are unrealistic. Not a single one pointed out that they are deeply prejudiced and an affront to the religious freedoms guaranteed to American citizens.

The men and woman on stage in Las Vegas last night are candidates for the presidency of the United States and have a responsibility to lead. But not a single one was willing to call out blatant unapologetic bigotry against an entire religion. This silence is not only an affront to Muslim Americans, 5,000 of whom serve in this country's military, but to all religious minorities in the United States. 

The United States Constitution protects "religion," and not just the ones a certain plurality of the American public happens to like. Restrictions on Muslim American rights limit constitutional religious protections in ways that hurt Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Bahai rights as well. That is why members of these groups have condemned Trump's comments. Millions of Americans have experienced religious discrimination firsthand, and know that progress on religious tolerance in the United States is reversible. Whether Donald Trump believes his own rhetoric is irrelevant to whether it should be condemned. The lack of attention to this issue in last night's debate is cause for legitimate concern.

The idea that Muslim Americans deserve less rights because of Da'esh is without merit. The President is being chastised for spurning the term "Islamic terrorism" by candidates who clearly have no concept of either Islam or terrorism. The threat Da'esh poses to Americans requires continued coalition airstrikes, strong intelligence, outreach to US allies, engagement with key communities, and public awareness promotion. It does not require the blanket targeting of an entire group of American citizens. Da'esh is not a "special case." It is far less threatening than many adversaries the United States has faced.

As the campaign progresses, Republican candidates must be more vigilant in calling out religious prejudice from within their ranks. This position is consistent with the Republican party platform of protecting freedom, and is literally the least the candidates can do to convince Americans they are serious contenders to lead a country whose constitution ensures liberty and justice for all.

Monday, November 23, 2015

BDS Resolution Poorly Proven, Positional

This weekend the American Anthropological Association voted 1040-136 to boycott Israeli academic institutions. As opposed to last year's Middle East Studies Association resolution which called only for discussion of a boycott, this resolution tells the AAA to "boycott Israeli academic institutions until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights." The resolution was submitted by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. An annotated version of the resolution makes a poor attempt to justify claims in the text. Here are three examples:

Claim: "The United States plays a decisive role in enabling Israel's systematic violations of Palestinians' basic rights under international law."

Citations: Statistic of US annual aid to Israel. Link to Jeremy Sharp's June 2015 CRS Report about radar and missile defense technology (though it mentions the F-35, which could be used against Palestinians). The report does not say the US enables Israeli violations in the West Bank and Gaza - in fact, it notes several cases where the US rebuked Israel for using US aid beyond the 1967 borders. Finally, a statistic about US vetoes of anti-Israel resolutions at the UN with no mention of how many related to Palestinians. None of the sources explain how US monetary aid actually creates systematic Israeli violations.

Claim: "U.S. academic institutions facilitate Israeli academic institutions' complicity by continuing to maintain close, extensive and privileged ties with them."

Citation: Jewish Virtual Library list of American universities that have institutional connections to Israeli universities, even those merely exploring "future potential partnerships." There is no evidence given that US-Israeli academic collaboration is facilitating "complicity" in Palestinian rights abuses.

Claim: "Israeli academic institutions have been directly and indirectly complicit in the Israeli state's systematic maintenance of the occupation and denial of basic rights to Palestinians."

Citations: Link to a report from the Alternative Information Center linking Israeli universities to the IDF, but not specifically to "systemic maintenance of the occupation." Link to an article about Ariel University which, being in a settlement, is an outlier among Israeli universities. Links discussing how Ariel University's location makes it an outlier among Israeli universities. Link to an article about the IDF's urban warfare doctrine developed 8 years ago at Tel Aviv University with no explanation of how these tactics "systematically maintain" occupation. Link to a book about the architecture of occupation but no specific citation about academic complicity.

These oversights are egregious because in academia, citations matter. Believing that Israel's academy might be complicit in occupation doesn't make it so. That being said, not every claim in the resolution is unsubstantiated - The resolution makes important points, for example, about targeting Palestinian universities and harassing academics going to and from the West Bank and Gaza. Yet in its over-generalizations, the resolution departs from the fact-based inquiry that is at the heart of social science.

The resolution also suffers from a critical under-appreciation of its authors' positionality. American and European academics bring their own experiences and biases into their work, including their activism. This resolution suffers from under-appreciated positionality as evidenced by its singular focus on Israel. One could level the majority of its grievances, for example, against the American and European academies themselves. 

This is not just an argument about the resolution being "unfair." As written, the resolution implies that Palestinian suffering merits more attention than, for example, Yemenis killed in US drone strikes using technology desgined by US academics. The authors also ignore the complicity of universities across the Middle East in the human rights violations of their government. The suffering of Shia in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is not inherently less important than Palestinian suffering - both matter. AAA members should consider the message the resolution sends to these at-risk communities about how much academic rhetoric about responsibility is credible.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Open America's Doors To Syrians

One night during my field work in the Arab Gulf, I received a dinner invitation. Since I had no car, I asked my host if someone might be able to give me a ride. My host obliged and I arranged to meet his friend, Hamid (not his real name) promptly at 8:00pm. At 8:30pm he pulled up and I introduced myself. Upon learning I was American, he apologized and I asked him why. He replied, "If I had known you were American, I would have come on time."

On that car trip and on many other, I learned more about my colleague. Hamid is a Syrian who had lived his whole life in the Gulf. He is kind and genuine, and has a good sense of humor. He is married and works in the banking sector. His son likes to play with plastic airplanes. His daughter is a fan of "Gangnam Style" by Psy, and is named after one of the many types of flowers in the Boston Public Garden, where Hamid went to graduate school.

Eventually I stopped hearing from Hamid, but thought little of it, recognizing that sometimes people get busy. Months later, he called out of the blue. Apologizing for his radio silence, Hamid explained he had been very stressed. His mother and sister were still in Syria. They were close to where fighting had been taking place between Bashar al-Assad's military and rebel forces. "Honestly, I support Bashar," he told me. "Because if he wins at least there will be peace."

Hamid's story is just one among millions. For Syrians caught in an impossible situation, the only solution is to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere. Awaiting them in Syria is death - often by chemical weapon or barrel bomb attacks - and destruction. The political situation is complicated but the humanitarian situation is clear - Syria has become, for its residents, a living hell.

The story is one familiar to many Americans, or their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Many members of my American Jewish community fled a Europe ravaged by antisemitism, assaults, pogroms, and eventually exterminations. In Manhattan, a Jewish immigrant community emerged on the Lower East Side. Many spoke only Yiddish. They lived alongside other communities - Italians, Greeks, and Irish - seeking respite from war. 

The Jewish immigrant community was not necessarily less of a security threat than today's Syrian refugees, and was probably a greater one. Jews were actively involved in or supporters of radical communist movements at the time, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the children of immigrants from this community. Nonetheless, the contributions of Jewish immigrants to the US from Albert Einstein to Irving Berlin speak for themselves, and  the success of that Jewish community is a fundamentally American story. It's no wonder the US Holocaust Museum, Anti-Defamation League, Joint Distribution Committee, Reform Action Center, and HIAS have been outspoken on behalf of Syrian refugees - their story is ours.

Now a new generation of refugee families - fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters - await the opportunity to write the next chapter of this story. 

Practically, admitting Syrian refugees is good politics. It is relatively cheap, demonstrates American leadership, allows us to capitalize on the skills and expertise of the 39% with college degrees, gives the US leverage to pressure the EU over its refugee policies, and highlights the pluralism at the heart of the American nation. These refugees are not a significant security threat. They are vetted extensively, and seek only the opportunity afforded to every single one of the families whose children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now sit in governors offices across the United States of America. 

But it is also consistent with our fundamental values to admit Syrian refugees. As a country of immigrants, we work together to address not only out challenges, but those of the world. We are risk takers, entrepreneurial and tenacious when we find ourselves in a bind. Most importantly, we are compassionate beyond material self-interest. Accepting refugees is good politics, but it is also consistent with our most fundamental American values.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Settlement Labeling A Wake Up Call To Bibi

Today's decision by the European Union to label products from West Bank settlements is both unfair and hypocritical. The decision singles out Israel while ignoring other ongoing settlement in the region, most prominently Turkey's decades-long settlement project in Northern Cyprus. The EU calls this project an "internal matter" yet has no problem interfering in Israel's conflict with Palestinians.

At the same time, Israel's government has completely failed in its reaction to increasing isolation in the international system. Isolation isn't (entirely) Israel's fault, but it is Israel's problem. Yet Israel's policy reaction to today's decision shows how ill-equipped the Netanyahu government really is to address isolation as a political threat.

In response to the EU's decision, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called settlement labeling anti-Semitic. Liberman went so far as to make reference to Holocaust imagery of Jews wearing yellow stars. These assertions are without merit. People are not vegetables, and settlements are not Jewish. Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reacted somewhat more reasonably, saying the EU should be "ashamed of itself" and pointing out that the labeling comes as Jews in Israel are being stabbed in the streets.

Both of these statements play well with a frightened Israel domestic public and Jewish diaspora. But neither solve the problem. In fact, they make it worse.

International isolation is a major threat to Israel. The labeling initiative is the latest in a series of moves to make Israel a pariah in the community of liberal states. To weather this storm, Israel must convince a critical mass of the international public that it is a member of the community. This goal should not be impossible to achieve. Israel has a stronger democracy than any other country in the Middle East, extensive economic and political ties to liberal states, and an open discourse on the ways in which it falls short at protecting liberal values. It can't convince everyone, but Israel can convince enough people to mitigate the threat isolation poses.

Yet for all its speeches and antics, the Netanyahu government has shown total incompetence at actually addressing the problem. Rather than try to mitigate isolation, the Prime Minister has appointed a UN ambassador who has no place in a diplomatic setting, and an English spokesman who thinks the President of the United States is anti-Semitic. Rather than frame Israel as a member of the community of nations in his UN speeches, Netanyahu castigates it. Rather than downplaying settlement labelling by calling it a "disappointing move that casts a shadow on Israel's strong historic relationship with its European friends," the Netanyahu government's statements only strengthen the growing attempt to "other" Israel. The reaction is strong - and plays right into the hands of those seeking to frame Israel in ways that harm it.

More importantly, today's decision will not be the last time Israel faces isolating attacks over its settlement policy. Over the long term, isolation can be stopped only by demonstrating a credible commitment toward reducing settlement growth and pursuing a sustainable alternative to the status quo. Settlement labeling is smoking gun evidence that conflict management will not work. The status quo cannot be maintained - it is getting consistently worse. And the Netanyahu government's reactionary tactics are exacerbating the very threats it should be trying to prevent.