Thursday, October 8, 2015

There's No "Iron Dome" For Stabbings In Israel

Israel has responded to stabbing attacks today in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by installing metal detectors in predominantly Muslim areas of Jerusalem. These include the Damascus and Yaffo gates of the Old City.

Deployed strategically, metal detectors may help reduce the incidence of attacks and restore a sense of safety among a frightened Israeli population. However, these measures are a partial solution, and they indicate the limitations of a purely technological response to terror.

Israel is famous for using technology to solve its security problems. The quintessential example is of course the Iron Dome system which shoots down rockets from Gaza intended for civilian targets in Israel. Iron Dome, while expensive, is an amazing piece of technology. 

However, an Iron Dome for person-on-person violence is simply not a realistic option. During the spate of car ramming attacks last year in Jerusalem, Israel installed concrete blocks at Jerusalem's light rail station. While it may have deterred some attacks, it didn't stop them entirely. In this latest round of stabbing attacks, Israel faces a similar challenge. It simply cannot install a metal detector on every street in the country. Given limited resources, Israel is being smart by placing metal detectors in highly trafficked areas. But there are too many streets and too many people for any technological response to stabbings to work on its own.

The point is not that Israel should stop using its available resources to protect its population. Rather, it's that when the underlying problems are political, the solutions must be political as well. If Israel blocks rockets, Palestinian terrorists will respond with cars. If Israel blocks cars, Palestinian terrorists will respond with knives. These attacks are heinous acts of terrorism against innocent people. But they are politically motivated and require a political solution. This round of stabbings will stop, but without a change in the political status quo, the next round of stabbings will come, stronger than ever.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Israeli-Palestinian Violence Sparks Crisis Of Legitimacy

A Palestinian terror cell linked to Hamas attacked an Israeli settler family driving through the West Bank last Thursday evening, killing the two parents, Naama and Eitam Henkin. 

The attack set off riots, reprisal attacks, security operations, and low-intensity violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Over the weekend, two more Israelis were killed in a stabbing attack and two Palestinian teenagers were shot and killed by the IDF during clashes. Several Israelis, including a 2 year-old, were wounded in attempted stabbings and scores of Palestinians have been wounded by an IDF crackdown and the resulting clashes.

In the wake of this unrest, Israeli and Palestinian leadership are taking steps to calm tensions. Despite antagonism over the speeches both leaders made at last week's UN General Assembly, cooperation on the ground remains effective thus far. Under extreme pressure from the far right, including members of his own government, Prime Minister Netanyahu has deployed an extra four battalions to the IDF deployment in the West Bank and thousands of police in Jerusalem. President Abbas issued orders to Palestinian security forces to quell protests in the West Bank. For their part, Israeli officials have told the Palestinian authority that Israeli security forces intend to take firmer measures to prevent settler violence. 

While rumors of a Third Intifada are premature, the violence poses a real threat to control for both Israel's government and the Palestinian Authority. Israel's far-right is literally out for blood and the Prime Minister has already begun a security crackdown that will provide good theatrics but do little to prevent the next wave of attacks. The Palestinian Authority has lacked legitimacy for years among a Palestinian public increasingly frustrated with settlement expansion and a lack of national recognition and basic rights.

"Conflict management" advocates should recognize that the current flare up is proof positive such a strategy is short-sighted. The conflict becomes increasingly difficult to manage over time as more and more Israelis and Palestinians lose faith in their governments' ability to meet their needs. The violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem is not just a crisis of security, it is also a crisis of legitimacy for both Israeli and Palestinian leadership. The alternatives on both sides are radical groups itching for a fight that will leaves hundreds of innocent people dead. 

Once the current round of senseless violence ceases, it will be incumbent on both parties to prevent the next outbreak. The stakes of this negotiation are not only the survival of Israel and the Palestinian national cause. They are the survival of Netanyahu and Abbas' respective political power as well.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

AIPAC Iran Deal Loss An Opportunity For Change

This morning, Senator Barbara Mikulski indicated she would support the Iran nuclear deal. This brings the total number of supporters in the Senate to 34, meaning that the Senate will not have the 66 votes necessary to override a presidential veto of a congressional resolution of disapproval.

After Congress gave itself authority to review the deal in May, the 159-page document became a partisan battleground, and a source of contention between the United States and Israel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the deal an "historic mistake," raising US-Israel tensions and putting American pro-Israel groups in a tough position (Brent Sasley explains why here). 

AIPAC's mission is to "strengthen, protect and promote the US-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of Israel and the United States." It aims to support policies that enhance the US-Israel relationship rather than Israeli security itself. Given this mission, a successful strategy for the Iran deal would have been for AIPAC to act as a conduit. It should have tried to clarify the terms of the deal to Israel's leadership, while communicating Israel's specific security concerns to the US government. Sanctions relief for the IRGC, for example, entails real risks for Israel - ones to which the Obama administration has been sympathetic. In turn, Israel has expressed concerns about the text of the deal that US assurances could assuage. There are differences in the American and Israeli positions, but these differences could have been mitigated and Israel's security enhanced had AIPAC acted as a communicative conduit between the administrations.

Instead, AIPAC chose blanket opposition to the entire deal, alienating the administration and empowering its Republican adversaries. It raised $30 million for television ads to oppose the deal in key congressional districts and released fact sheets opposing the agreement. These materials were not only explicitly opposed to the deal, they were often based on arguments with no basis in reality. These frantic but fallacious messages polarized debate and delegitimized Israel's legitimate concerns about the deal. What could have been an opportunity for communication that would have enhanced Israel's security became a partisan political circus. The Iran nuclear deal became a cheap political football in a game based on arguments that would not survive the second week of an "Introduction to International Relations" class. 

AIPAC's campaign was not only ineffective, it was poorly strategized and based on egregious factual errors. It harmed the US-Israel alliance and alienated a Democratic base that will be critical for the future of that alliance. $30 million would have been better spent on taking leaders to Israel, enhancing security dialogues between the US and Israel, or investing in bilateral efforts to improve living conditions for poor or under-served Israelis. 

AIPAC has seen setbacks before, and will likely see them again. However, it should take the time to seriously reconsider the utility of an adversarial and reactionary approach to its stewardship of the US-Israel relationship.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Is Iran's Antisemitism A Credible Threat To Israel?

Israel and its supporters are particularly wary of Iran's intentions given its regime's record of constant anti-Israel and antisemitic statements. Jeffrey Goldberg's latest article in The Atlantic considers how Iran's antisemitism affects the debate over the nuclear deal. In the piece, which is very well-argued, Goldberg repeats a line often cited in Israeli and pro-Israel policy making circles: "If, in the post-Holocaust world, a group of people express a desire to hurt Jews, it is, for safety’s sake, best to believe them." Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed similar sentiments in speeches to AIPAC, although it is not by any means unique to the Israeli right.

Ayatollah Khomenei and other religious leaders in Iran have called for the annihilation of Israel. Iran's leaders make no secret of these sentiments (although they are not universal in Iran). Famously, Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, called for Israel to be "wiped from the pages of time." For Jews to respond to these comments with deep mistrust toward an Iran nuclear deal is as understandable as Kurdish mistrust of the Iraqi government or Armenian mistrust of Turks. But just how much trust should analysts put in Iran's statements as a matter of foreign policy? In other words, Should we trust Iran's statements that it intends to wipe out Israel?

First we need to establish whether Iran is rational. Goldberg's article uses the phrase "rational self-interest" but these are two different concepts. In social science, rational means that an actor weighs the pros and cons of a policy using fixed, ranked preferences. It wants X most, Y second most, Z third most, and it makes choices based on what policy optimizes its achieving X,Y, and Z. Self-interest is defined in realist international relations literature primarily as survival, and takes as axiomatic that survival is the primary interest of states. Secretary of State John Kerry argues to Goldberg that states usually prioritize antisemitism when the harm to self-interest is low. Goldberg is unconvinced, and he has good reason for it. The roughly 15,000 Nazi concentration camps, for example, cost money and diverted resources, including soldiers, from the German war effort in WWII. But if states frame antisemitism in terms of self-interest, this decision becomes less irrational. Hitler genuinely believed that Jews were a threat to the survival of Germany. Understood this way, valuing antisemitism and national self-interest are not mutually exclusive.* And of course, saying a decision is rational doesn't make it any less abhorrent or morally repugnant.

So if Iran can be antisemitic and rational, how credible are its leader's threats to annihilate the Jewish State? Should analysts "believe" or otherwise trust Iran's threats?

Trust is a major problem for countries in an anarchic international system. Since any country can lie, cheat, or change its mind, it takes considerable effort to figure out whether anything a country says is credible. The overwhelming majority of analysis and intelligence gathering is based on trying to figure out a) whether a country's statements are credible and b) how to respond in a way that country will assess as credible.
Credibility is a factor of capability, intentions, and resolve. A threat is credible if a country can strike, wants to strike, and wants it badly enough to prioritize it over other things. Hitler's threats against Western Europe were credible not just because he made speeches about Lebensraum (intentions) but also because he was amassing actively the military power to invade (capability) and was willing to prioritize invasion over domestic and other concerns (resolve). For Iran's threat against Israel to be credible, it also needs these three things.

If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it would have the capability to strike Israel via missile attack. Theoretically Iran could also make use of its terror proxies but it's unlikely that it would entrust these proxies with a nuclear capability. A nuclear attack would do catastrophic damage to Israel's cities and could effectively destroy the state.

There's also evidence that Iran has some intention to harm Israel. The regime has attacked Israeli interests, puts limits on its own Jewish population, and has a leadership with an ideological opposition to Israel's existence. On the other hand, Iran knows that such a strike would provoke an international response, especially if it were nuclear. Leaders in authoritarian countries like staying in power, especially because the alternative is often death. A nuclear strike on Israel would at the least invite regime change that no leader would welcome.

Most importantly, there's evidence that Iran's resolve to strike Israel is low. Iran has limited political and material capital to spend against other threats - Saudi Arabia, ongoing sanctions, a suffering economy, and an urban population deeply unsatisfied with aspects of the current leadership. More importantly, despite over 35 years of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements from Iran's leadership, there has not yet been a major Iranian strike on Israel. The Ayatollah has also made statements against using a nuclear weapon for offensive purposes. In other words, Iran has had low resolve to act on its threats. Thus far, Iran's threat to destroy Israel and the Jews has not been credible.

Of course, the threat could at some point become credible, and this raises the key question: If Iran's threats became credible, how would we know? What observable evidence would indicate a shift in the credibility of Iran's threat to annihilate Israel? It's not an easy question to answer, but its critical for assessing how much of a threat Iran poses, and thus how much risk a nuclear deal is worth. 

The bottom line is that since the line between credible and not-credible is fuzzy, Israel should assume that there is some credibility to Iran's threat to annihilate Israel based on its status as the Jewish State. However, it should also understand that Iran has low resolve to make good on its threat. That doesn't mean Iran would never strike Israel, just that it's highly unlikely. Consequently, Israel should devote some resources to countering Iran's threat while being mindful more credible and dangerous threats. It should also continue to monitor the Iranian regime for signs that a non-credible threat has become credible. 

Most importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that the current nuclear deal has made Iran more likely to annihilate Israel. To the contrary, the deal provides incentives that reduce Iran's nuclear capability, while shifting its intentions and further reducing its resolve. The deal does not eliminate the nuclear threat, but no deal can. Given the nature of Iran's threat, the Iran nuclear deal is an important opportunity for Israel to exist in a region of reduced threat and fulfill its purpose as a safe haven for the Jewish people.

*See the Bounded Rationality and Schema Theory literature for other accounts of rational decision making.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Netanyahu Puts US-Israel Relations At Risk

The American people should be outraged over Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks today to the Jewish Federations of North America. 

Israeli concerns over the nuclear deal are understandable and warranted. But Prime Minster Netanyahu's blatantly false statements about the effects of the Iran nuclear deal are a flagrant abuse of the US-Israel relationship. His remarks make a mockery of decades of US support for Israel. If the Prime Minister is truly committed to a "real debate" he should avoid statements with absolutely no basis in reality. Claims that the deal "paves Iran's path to the bomb" or "will bring war" are absolutely ludicrous. There is no logical or evidence-based case for either of these statements. That the Prime Minister would risk the state of the US-Israel relationship on such utter nonsense is an astounding display of recklessness. The American pro-Israel community should be deeply concerned about the cynical and baseless attacks levied tonight by the Prime Minister of Israel against the foreign policy of the United States of America.

If Israel's leadership means to have a debate, let it be one which reflects the intelligence of the American and Israeli public. Let it be one based on facts. Let it be one predicated on the notion that a strong US-Israel relationship is one of the most important defenses against Iranian expansion in the Middle East. The people of Israel and the United States deserve a respectful debate grounded in reality. Their mutual security depends on it.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Israel Reacts To Jewish Terrorism

The deaths of two children in Israel and the West Bank last Thursday and Friday underscore the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Thursday, a radical Jewish terrorist stabbed 16 year old Shira Banki to death and seriously wounded 5 others. On Friday, an Israeli Jewish settler set fire to a Palestinian house, killing 18-month old Ali Dawabsha and seriously wounding his mother Reham, father Saad, and brother Ahmad.

Israel's national anthem Hatikva expresses the aspiration for Jews "to be a free people in our land." When LGBT Israelis and their straight supporters put their lives at risk by parading through Jerusalem, this aspiration goes unmet. When settlers terrorize Palestinians and endanger all Israelis with the threat of Palestinian reprisals, this aspiration goes unmet. 

Israelis, like most decent people, have taken steps to respond to these tragedies. It is disappointing to see these steps taken too late. But it is also disappointing to see that instead of embracing these actions, some commentators downplay them. Here are some of the steps Israel took as a society in the wake of last week's attacks:

- The term "terrorism" was used to describe the attacks by Israel's Prime Minister, President, Defense Minister, and Leader of the Opposition.

- 100 Jews visited the Dawabsha family to pay their respects.

- Thousands of Israelis rallied in support of gay rights across Israel.

-300 settlers held a vigil with Palestinians for the Dawabsha family.

- Israel arrested right-wing extremists including the grandson of Meir Kahane.

- The lack of prevention for the attacks was condemned by major opinion leaders in Israel, including MK Yair Lapid.

Neither these actions - nor any actions - can prevent what has already happened. That structural problems remain in Israel is a given. At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat all Israelis as a monolith, or equally responsible for these attacks. Opponents of Israel often decry calls for "moderate Palestinians" to condemn terrorist attacks on Israelis. The same opponents should be consistent with regards to Israeli terrorist violence and give credit to the Israeli public where it is due. This consistency is important not only for fair debate. Preventing future violence will require sustaining the current sentiments in Israel's public discourse and translating them into meaningful action.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Paranoia On Iran Deal Reaches Fever Pitch

GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee made comments Sunday comparing the Iran nuclear deal to marching Israelis "to the door of the oven." While most groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, condemned the comments because they misappropriate Holocaust imagery, the Zionist Organization of America took a shockingly different stance. The organization's president Mort Klein said in a press release:

"Empowering with an eventual nuclear weapons capacity - as this deal does Iranian regime that has repeatedly spoken of wiping out the Jewish state of Israel does bear some relationship to the Nazi era and Governor Huckabee therefore did not speak out of place."

ZOA is making the claim that the Iran nuclear deal concluded by the P5+1 and Iran empowers the latter to essentially conduct a second Holocaust. This is absolutely ludicrous. The terms under which this statement would be true do not exist in reality. There is not a single well-respected expert on international security, nuclear proliferation, Iranian decision making, or Middle East politics who agrees with this claim. It's not just offensive, it's bonkers.

The Iran nuclear deal is a long shot in some respects. It requires making concessions and hoping an enemy state does stuff we want them to do. But the worst case scenario - the absolute worst case that exists within the boundaries of reality - is that Iran uses some of the sanctions relief money for terrorism and doesn't stop enrichment, leading to the collapse of the agreement. This is a bad worst case, but it's not a second Holocaust. No serious expert on Iran, Mideast politics, nuclear proliferation, or international security would seriously disagree with that assessment.

Debates about the nuclear deal are important, but they are being poisoned with paranoia. Invoking the Holocaust is an extreme example but less crazy ones exist. Prime Minister Netanyahu's characterization of the deal as an "historic mistake" is one example. The deal might fall through. But an historic mistake is invading Russia in the winter, or assuming trench warfare would lead to victory in World War I. It's not signing a deal that at worst would leave the international community with a marginally worse status quo. The lack of nuance in AIPAC's blanket opposition to the deal is another example. AIPAC claims in one of its many factsheets that the Iran deal will "raise the prospect of war." It will not. If anything, the deal creates at least a decade-long opportunity to restrain Iran's nuclear enrichment, which decreases the prospect of war. Iran might continue enrichment after the deal but it's not more likely to do so in a decade than it is now.

While Saudi and the Gulf states are no strangers to paranoia themselves, too many members of the pro-Israel community are basing their positions on paranoia rather than evidence. Policy positions on the deal within the pro-Israel community are based on a shamefully poor understanding of text of the deal, Mideast politics, or freshman-level international relations theory. Let's be clear that this isn't universally the case - there are some pro-Israel people making arguments against the deal that are reasonable and many pro-Israel activists who are earnestly trying to understand exactly what the deal does and doesn't do. But others eschew evidence and broad consensus across the foreign policy community. They mistrust Iran because it's a bad actor, but fail to recognize that even bad actors exist are constrained by material political realities.

There is a deeper harm to this paranoia. Firstly, not once has it actually protected Israel. Secondly, fear is a driving factor in an anarchic international system, but paranoia means bearing the cost of going it alone when trying to cooperate is substantially cheaper. Paranoia is less scary but it's more costly. Whether the issue is an Iran deal, negotiating with Palestinians, or fighting delegitimization, the least scary action is not always the most effective. As it stands, paranoia is discrediting pro-Israel lobbying efforts in Washington and harming the efforts of people expressing legitimate concerns about the deal. Until more of Israel's friends are able to accurately assess and react to threats in the region, they will be unable to advocate with maximum efficacy for policies that protect the Jewish State.