Monday, April 14, 2014

A Passover Note

In the spirit of Passover renewal, it's exciting to be renewing regular posts here at The Camels Nose.

I'm writing from Israel after spending the past six and a half months in the Arab Gulf. In that time, it became apparent that the DC policy community knows very little about the politics of this increasingly important region. Like many of my colleagues who write at the nexus of two political issue areas, I will be slowly expanding the scope of the blog to compare domestic and regional politics in Israel and the Gulf. These new posts are intended to generate feedback (and correction when necessary) that will better inform my own conclusions and those of the blog's readers.

In the meantime, I will continue to post about Israeli domestic politics, including the recent murmurs from Naftali Bennet about a split from the coalition. Best wishes for a happy Passover for those of you who celebrate. Stay tuned for new posts!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Fighitng Unilateral Recognition is a Losing Battle for Israel

The 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty stipulated that Egypt would cease attacks on Israel, and in return Israel would withdraw from the Sinai peninsula. This kind of trade-off became known as "land for peace." The Egypt case was unique. Both sides had fought to exhaustion, and both Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were in danger of losing a popular mandate. But most importantly, the conflict had already resulted in an Israeli military victory. Giving back the Sinai was a way to maintain a peace that already existed.

In the 1993 Oslo accords, Israel made the mistake of agreeing to land for peace with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. It failed for two reasons. First, peace is ambiguous. It's hard to accuse Palestinians of violating the peace when there's no agreement about what exactly peace is. Second, peace is reversible. Re-taking land involved a much higher cost for Israel than restarting violence did for Palestinians.

In the current flailing negotiations (see here for an explanation why), Israel is making the same mistake it made with land for peace. "Pursuing unilateral international recognition of a Palestinian state" is also ambiguous and reversible. It's difficult to say exactly what "pursuit" entails, and it's something the Palestinian Authority can always do in the future. Even if a deal were to be signed, Israel's condition that the Palestinians not pursue peace would be a sword of Damocles over future interactions.

If Israel really wants the Palestinians not to pursue unilateral recognition, it should address these efforts by offering elements of recognition in return for tangible concessions that bolster its security. Israel may not believe such recognition is deserved, but neither is perpetuating the conflict upon another generation of Israelis. Israel also faces an international community which is increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Managing this tide is good policy. But trying to stave it off entirely is a losing battle.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Brief Farewell For Now

Dear Readers,

  The new year is a time of transition.  In the Middle East, regimes struggle to retain power while the people seek reform.  In the United States, the discussion of norms against chemical weapons have entered a new level of self-awareness.

  It is a time of personal transition as well.  Having advanced to Ph.D candidacy over the summer, I'll be conducting extensive research that I look forward to sharing with you.  However, my schedule will be extremely busy and fraught with travel - including several trips to the Middle East.  

I am therefore taking a temporary hiatus from blogging and tweeting until Spring 2014 in order to focus on this research.  I will update this blog when possible but I won't be on any regular schedule until Spring.  Upon my return to blogging, I will be expanding the focus of these posts in exciting new directions that I am looking forward to sharing with you.

In the meantime, I encourage you to read the other excellent analysis to which I link frequently on this blog and on Twitter.  Now more than ever, Middle East policy is an area where smart analysis is a necessity.  I invite you to listen closely, discuss vigorously, and question frequently.

Best wishes for a successful and healthy winter, and see you in the Spring.

The Confused Sheikh 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Rejecting The All-Or-Nothing Approach On Egypt

To say that Egypt is a mess is an understatement. After Islamist demonstrations against the removal of President Morsi on July 4th, the military responded with force. In the aftermath of ensuing clashes between protesters and security forces, 1,000 people have been killed. A more peaceful path forward appears unlikely in the next few days.

Much of the debate in Washington DC has focused on whether or not to cut aid to the Egyptian government. In 2012, the US gave Egypt about $1.6 billion dollars in foreign aid. With a slowly recovering economy and anti-American sentiment in Egypt over American support of Morsi the military liberals Israel terrorism one of the adversarial groups in the conflict, some question the utility of continuing to provide aid - even questioning whether aid has an impact on US interests in the first place.

On the other side of the debate, some experts argue that withdrawing aid may hurt day-to-day cooperation between the US and Egypt. It could also have ramifications for Egyptian coordination with Israel over its counter-terrorism operations in the Sinai. Indirectly, withdrawing aid could exacerbate policy gaps between the US (which has expressed "serious concern" over the military's actions) and Israel (which supports the military so long as it creates and maintains stability). Given that the domestic debate in Egypt has reached a fever pitch, legitimate questions remain as to whether a regime who sees the future of the country at stake will be swayed by the US withdrawing foreign aid.

The Obama administration has cancelled a joint military exercise planned for next month and rhetorically put aid on the table by mentioning "further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the US - Egyptian relationship." However, its response otherwise has been tepid. Given the unclear outcome of events in Egypt and a tide of anti-Americanism regardless of what move the US makes, caution is understandable. At the same time, the poster child of the Arab Spring is slowly slipping into the throes of ideological civil war. A failure of transition in Egypt will have ramifications throughout the Arab world and working to prevent it needs to be the priority for the administration.

One middle-ground step the Obama administration can take is to reject the all-or-nothing debate surrounding aid. There are middle-ground options which send a clear signal to those in Cairo who act recklessly with regards to the rights of the people without jeopardizing the long-term US relationship with a critical ally. The Obama administration can work with with Congress to put more stipulations and benchmarks on aid. It can cut aid overall but not withdraw it completely. It can also be more rhetorically assertive in threatening to withdraw aid unless the military can provide assurances of a return to a gradual and peaceful transition process. Each of these options comes with its own costs and benefits, and those with more expertise on Egypt than this blogger can better predict likely outcomes for any given option. However, this administration is unlikely to take drastic action, and this policy is likely well-advised.  

Doing nothing or pulling the plug are not the only policy options in Egypt. A new Middle East requires policymakers to think in new, more creative ways. Restoring influence and credibility in the Middle East will require complex and nuanced policy. Focusing the policy conversation in Washington on these kinds of options is the best way to ensure a speedy stop to the suffering in Egypt and a return to a government accountable to the Egyptian people.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks Will Need To Succeed

This afternoon's announcement of renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is welcome news. Even if the coming round of talks fail, the small chance of progress is an improvement over this unsustainable status quo. In this light, US Secretary of State John Kerry deserves considerable credit for locking in a commitment to peace talks from both sides. I noted yesterday that moving two sides to agree to peace talks is a messy and tenuous process. Secretary Kerry's big win today is a testament to his capable leadership as Secretary of State.

That being said, there is still a long road between where things are now and a sustainable peace agreement. It would be presumptuous to nix any prospect of success before the talks even get off the ground. However, there are three factors which pose major obstacles to a successful outcome (Professor Brent Sasley at UT Arlington has a few more):

1) Spoilers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition partner, Naftali Bennett, has already threatened to leave the coalition over the issue of dividing Jerusalem. Settler price tag attacks are also a distinct possibility given that land swaps in the West Bank are on the table. Hamas has flatly rejected the peace talks, calling them futile. A few barrages of rockets on Southern Israel could easily spoil chances for peace should Hamas get antsy over progress towards an agreement. Spoilers have yet to make their move, but they will move. They have done so every other time there have been peace talks. If this time is to be successful, parties to the talks will have to defeat these groups' ability to spoil the agreement.

2) Public Opinion. The negotiations test each side's ability to build public support for the agreement as it will be written. That of course assumes that either side makes an honest effort to negotiate in the first place. Many are doubtful that Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas even want a peace agreement in the first place, pointing to short-term political gain as the true motivation.  At the same time, spoilers on both sides are not lone actors - they are supported by sizable constituencies of Israelis and Palestinians who deeply mistrust the other side. Public opinion among parties to the conflict ranges from passively cynical to actively antagonistic. Even if Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas are serious about a peace deal, shaping public opinion presents a major challenge to acceptance of the plan.

3) Pro-Israel community support in Washington. It's odd to list the role of pro-Israel groups in Washington as a potential liability to peace but the relationship between these groups and the Obama administration is extremely important. Despite Secretary Kerry's attempts to rally support for talks from the pro-Israel crowd in a recent AJC speech, most pro-Israel groups were silent in response. Kerry brought about peace talks largely without the support of these organizations. This apathy is not based in ill-intentions but in historically-motivated cynicism similar to what Israelis experience. 

As peace talks move forward, the US and Israel will not always be on the same page. When that happens, the pro-Israel community plays a critical role. Whether it sides with the US in supporting an agreement above short-term concessions or whether the Netanyahu administration is able to coopt the community to relieve US pressure on Israel is a crucial variable.  Given the pluralistic nature of this community, it's not something entirely in either the US' or Israel's control. However, Secretary Kerry must be careful to manage relations with pro-Israel groups well in order to enhance the trust which will be crucial for a sustainable peace in the Middle East. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Missed Opportunity Model: Mideast Negotiation as a Two-Level Game

"About the time we can make the ends meet, somebody move the ends"
  - Herbert Hoover 

Israelis and Palestinians always say they want to negotiate for peace but it somehow never happens.  That's because supporting negotiations is almost always good politics, but actually negotiating is not.  Here's why.

The News

News that the Palestinian Authority did not approve Secretary of State Kerry's plan for renewed Mideast peace talks is disappointing but not particularly surprising.  Many Secretaries of State have tried and failed before to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.  In the coming days, Secretary Kerry will likely try to salvage the talks by framing the Palestinian rejection as a counter-offer to Israel.  However, Prime Minister Netanyahu is unlikely to agree to the Palestinian demands: Negotiations based on the 1967 lines, releasing Palestinian prisoners, and stopping settlement building.

The Puzzle

More difficult to understand is the sudden switch from cautious acceptance to what is more or less a rejection of the plan.  Signalling early enthusiasm only to switch to stonewalling is a pattern that plagues Mideast peace negotiations.  As early as this morning, news reports indicated the Palestinian leadership might look favorably upon the plan, which also has the backing of the Arab League.  Yet later today the plan was met with indecision from the Palestinian leadership.  

This particular incident is likely a matter of internal divisions in Palestinian politics.  But these switches (which are not unique to the Palestinians) are puzzling.  Why do Israeli and Palestinian leaders indicate a willingness to engage in peace talks only to stonewall later?  

Stonewalling is understandable.  Domestic constituencies, radical groups on both sides, and the prospect of likely failure are rational deterrents.  But given there challenges, it's puzzling that leaders express enthusiasm in the first place.  This morning, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinians were keen on making Secretary Kerry's mission succeed and called today's meeting "urgent."  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been equally enthusiastic.  On Sunday he called President Abbas and expressed hope for a resumption in peace talks.  What explains this enthusiastic rhetoric?

Partial Explanations

Western pressure plays a role.  Neither Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas has an incentive to say no to Secretary Kerry on the principle of peace talks given each side's relationship with the US.  But the Secretary's extensive time in the Middle East (6 trips in 6 months) and an extension of his current trip show that this is more than just rhetoric.  No doubt, he has discussed the specifics with both sides and asked for informal guarantees.  Given this drawn out process, jumping right to stonewalling would be politically feasible for both leaders.  This explanation is insufficient on its own.

Partisan politics plays a role as well.  Naftali Bennet, leader of Israel's right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party has threatened a coalition crisis over negotiations with the Palestinians.  On the Palestinian side, Hamas has flatly rejected peace talks, calling them a "waste of time."  However, if partisanship were the main issue, both leaders could have been more pessimistic.  Cautious pessimism is a popular position among those who are party to the conflict, and it would have mitigated the blowback from the more partisan fringes now sounding off.  This explanation too is insufficient.

The Missed Opportunity Model

At the Geneva Peace Conference in 1973, Israel's Foreign Minister at the time Abba Eban remarked, "The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."  The quote has become a common platitude among the pro-Israel crowd and sums up a strategy which both Israelis and Palestinians have used to avoid actual negotiations.  This strategy produces the best outcome for the rational incentives given by what I will call the Missed Opportunity Model.

In 1995, Professor James Fearon wrote a groundbreaking article about bargaining and war.  He asked why countries go to war when it's against their interest.  His answer is that for a bunch of reasons, both sides bargain too hard.  Fearon's model is game theoretic and full of algebraic proofs, but it is essentially a fancy venn diagram:

James Fearon, "Rationalist Explanations for War," International Organizations 3 no. 49 (1995): 387

The model is pointing out that when either Country A or Country B's offer falls outside the other's bargaining range, it becomes less costly to fight the war than to continue bargaining.  The set of all possible offers where both sides win the game is aply called the win-set.  It's all values inside the bargaining range, which is all kinds of awesome.

To make this model applicable to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, let's change two rules of the game.  First, instead of bargaining over war, the two sides are bargaining over a peace agreement.  This agreement involves costly concessions by both sides that neither is thrilled to make.  In other words, the win-set is now a lose-set.  Long-term benefits aren't irrelevant but let's assume they're not the most important thing at the moment.  Second, let's make this a two-level game.  The bargaining model is the second level.  The first level is a game in which supporting bargaining in and of itself carries a positive payoff for both sides, with a slight benefit if both sides are bargaining and a slight loss if one side rejects but the other side supports negotiation.  Here's the payoff matrix for the game-theory inclined (I welcome your improvements wholeheartedly).

This is a slightly modified Battle of the Sexes payoff matrix.  It's saying the best strategy for each side is to support negotiating since doing so always carries a payoff.  

The actual negotiating, however, inherently involves a loss.  By definition, negotiation means you give up something. That means that in the entire two-level game, your best strategy is to support negotiation but not actually negotiate.  It's like signing up for a subscription that gives you a free toaster for doing so, cancelling the subscription, and keeping the toaster. 

For this scheme to pay off however, you need to cancel the subscription before you get charged.  This is what Israel and the Palestinians do in negotiations.  In Fearon's model, the players will bargain as close to the outside of the other side's best offer without falling outside it.  In the Missed Opportunity Model, both sides will bargain as close as possible to the outside of the other side's best offer without falling inside it.  Missed opportunity isn't a mistake, it's a strategy. 

In fact, you could try to lure the other side into your bargaining range by obfuscating your true best offer and enticing your opponent.  With enthusiasm. And signalling a willingness to negotiate.

This explains, along with the factors mentioned earlier, why both Israel and the Palestinians begin rounds of talking about negotiation with willingness and enthusiasm, only to stonewall.  Talking about bargaining gets each side political capital.  They then stonewall to avoid the cost of actual negotiations and keep the payoff supporting negotiation.

What does all this mean for the US?

Given this model, Secretary Kerry's best strategy is to push each side to improve their best offer but not tell the other side exactly what that offer is.  By engaging this two-level game, Secretary Kerry can then move each side into the others' bargaining range, ensnaring them into actual negotiations.  Given the ongoing and private negotiations, it appears Secretary Kerry is playing the game well.  The question is whether the actual values for each of these variables will lead to ensnarement in negotiations when the theoretical rubber hits this empirical road.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Obama's No Terrorist But Morsi Ouster Means Change

The past few days have seen accusations by Egyptian demonstrators that President Obama has been "supporting terrorists" (see also here and here).  Rather than the normal partisan hackery, these accusations come from frustrated liberal Egyptians upset that the Obama administration recognized and worked with the Islamist-aligned government of ex-President Mohamed Morsi.  Liberal Egyptians are no fans of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and millions of them protested on June 30th to demand change, leading to Morsi's ouster last Wednesday.

Ironically, the Obama administration's decision to work with the Morsi administration was motivated by previous experience.  In 2006, Palestinians held legislative elections in which Hamas (an ideological sibling of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) won a surprising 74 out of 132 parliament seats, versus only 45 by the Fatah party (favored by the United States).  At the time, the George W. Bush administration gave Hamas the cold shoulder.  President Bush stated flatly that "the United States does not support political parties that want to destroy our ally, Israel, and that people must renounce that part of their platform."  This policy attracted criticism since it ignored the will of a majority of Palestinians and impaired America's ability to influence outcomes in Gaza, including the 2007 violent takeover by Hamas. 

After the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) recognized Mohamed Morsi as the winner of Egyptian presidential election on June 30, 2012, the Obama administration tried to avoid the missteps of 2006.  President Obama called President Morsi to congratulate him and said he was interested in "working together with the new Egyptian president and all Egyptian political groups."  This was a marked shift from the Bush administration which, while working with Muslim Brotherhood-aligned parliamentarians was not nearly as conciliatory to Islamist movements when they gained real power, as Hamas did in 2006.  In addition to signalling a marked change of approach from the Bush era, part of the Obama administration's intent was to respect the "will of the people" in Egypt who had elected Mohamed Morsi by majority vote.  

This week's harsh criticism by Egyptians of the Obama administration is thus frustrating to many Washington policy makers.  Washington is criticized for not working with Hamas in 2006, but also for recognizing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012.  The Obama administration's decision to work with the Brotherhood was intended to support democracy and respect the will of the people in the region - a stance the US has been criticized for not taking towards Hamas.  However, The US is now being criticized for not supporting liberal causes when they contradicted the platform of the duly elected leader of Egypt. 

The question of whether the US should support illiberal winners of free and fair elections is hardly a new one.*  However, it is a question which comes into renewed focus as Washington attempts to re-posture itself for a post-Morsi Egypt.  While liberals now have control of the narrative, Muslim Brotherhood supporters remain a major player in Egyptian politics.  

The United States thus finds itself in a catch-22 with regards to Middle East diplomacy.  Urbanization, social media, and the Arab Spring have prompted a need for the United States to have deeper relationships with multiple constituencies in Middle Eastern countries.  These constituencies are diverse, shift positions frequently, and often do not agree with one another on policy matters.  But the tradeoff for relationships with antagonistic constituencies is a less-decisive policy.  Policy-by-alignment will now give way to policy-by-consensus building in the Middle East.  It is no longer enough to have strong alignment with government policy alone.  The United States must now also have policy resonance with NGOs, civil society, political opposition, and citizen constituencies.  

Regardless of whether calling President Obama a terrorist supporter for working with President Morsi is fair (it's obviously not), the United States will now need to find a balance between resonating with multiple constituencies and taking the decisive policy stances of the past.

*See here for a political science take on the issue.