About the New NGO Bill

Far-right members of the Israeli government are planning to submit a bill that requires any Israeli NGO receiving funds from foreign governments to register as a foreign agent. The bill would require, as Lahav Harkov explains, groups

to report any aid they receive from countries overseas and any commitments they have to them, as well as any “foreign activity” they conduct or plan to conduct, and any communication relating to the activity and commitments, among other details, all of which will be accessible to the public, with exceptions like national security or professional secrets.

In short, organizations will have to spend considerable time wasting engaged in reporting their activities and meeting the government’s approval, and will be unable to keep their discussions and planning out of the public eye. The bill will also limit the ability of Israeli NGOs to raise funds abroad. All this while Israel’s existing Amutot Law (Law of Associations) is already more intrusive than comparable laws in other countries. In Israel, NGOs are subject to the supervision of the state, which sets out rules for things like membership and board requirements. An NGO also cannot be formed or maintained if “any of its objects negates the existence or democratic character of the State of Israel.”

Let’s put aside the point that a mature democracy can handle criticism and even calls for new political arrangements. Some have argued that because the bill is modeled on an American version, it’s really nothing so drastic and is well within Western political norms.

The problem with this argument is that it completely ignores context. It’s disingenuous to pretend this isn’t about shutting down criticism from left-wing groups and defining acceptable political discourse. A glance at those sponsoring the bill (and the rhetoric they regularly employ against those they disagree with) should make this obvious enough.

A second argument is that because many leftist NGOs receive funding from European governments and European institutions, and because they often cooperate with outside agencies or organizations to provide information on the Israeli occupation, they are, in effect, foreign agents and undermining the interests of the State of Israel.

But it should also be obvious that it’s acceptable for domestic groups to perform watchdog duties on the government, particularly when government policy has clear moral and physical consequences for Israelis and for others. Indeed, this kind of accountability and citizen participation should be encouraged. There is no indication that Israel is weakened because Israeli organizations want to end the occupation, or even call for the prosecution of Israeli soldiers; indeed, Israel has never been more accepted into world affairs through economic integration and participation in political institutions. Nor has there ever been evidence that European entities control or direct the activities of Israeli NGOs.

An argument might be made that groups focused on the Arab community and Arab political demands undermine the “Jewish and democratic nature of the state.” But a close look at the politics of the Arab minority indicates that the demands most worrisome to rightist politicians (changing the Jewish state into a “state for all its citizens”) occurs primarily at the level of the political and intellectual leadership, not in the community more broadly. These demands are also predicated on the decades of marginalization and discrimination the Arab community has faced. Addressing these underlying conditions would do far more to engender acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state than coercive measures. Finally, since comparisons to the West are common, it should be noted that Canada’s political system has for a long time included a party devoted to breaking up the country–the Bloc Québécois–while other Western democracies have their own legitimate separatist movements. In any event, Arab-oriented NGOs are primarily engaged in protecting and expanding the civil and communal rights of Arab citizens.

Finally, regarding context, comparisons to the U.S. law are misleading. American non-profits and NGOs have a very large source of potential funding to draw on—the American people. The Israeli population is much smaller, and there is no history or norm of widespread giving to support NGOs or other similar institutions. This makes it difficult for any NGO to rely on domestic sources for funding.

This connects back to the first point about the bill serving as a vehicle for shutting down left-wing activity, rather than being applicable to all Israeli groups. In theory, legally, of course, the bill doesn’t distinguish between left and right. But it does in practice: most right-wing NGOs get their funding from private sources abroad, rather than public sources. Leftist groups get much of their support from public rather than private sources. So the bill’s effect is designed to apply primarily to certain organizations only.

It’s hard, then, to avoid the conclusion that this is another effort—in a long line of efforts stretching back to the second Netanyahu government—to define Zionism, patriotism, and loyalty very narrowly.

Why the Israeli Government Isn’t Going to Western Africa

It came as a bit of a surprise to me that Israel refused the American government’s request to send government aid to western Africa to contend with the outbreak of Ebola. After all, Israel has long prided itself on the immediate relief aid it provides to stricken countries, as well as its successful cooperative programs in Africa (longstanding but interrupted in the 1960s and 1970s). Others on Twitter were equally surprised, and wondered whether, because Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon made the final decision over an initial Foreign Ministry recommendation, this was a poke in Barack Obama’s eye.

According to one government official familiar with the details of the decision, it was indeed the case that the Foreign Ministry first recommended acceding to the request. But once the bigger picture was sketched out, it was decided that other considerations as laid out by the Defense Ministry were relevant enough that the request should be turned down. There is, according to the source, “[n]o friction between ministries or ministers on this one.”

The decision not to get involved at the governmental level was made in light of the “tough summer” Israel just experienced. The Israeli military, which typically runs the large-scale aid interventions, is focused right now on building up its own capacities given the lessons of the conflict with Hamas as well as existing and perhaps expanding regional threats to the state. In any event, the IDF’s area of expertise is disaster relief, rather than helping develop a healthcare structure to deal with an ongoing epidemic. The decision not to participate was underlined by the fact that the non-governmental sector, including IsraAID, is active there; indeed, Jerusalem supports their efforts.

A reasonable decision, I think, under the circumstances.

Update:

It appears that discussions on the topic continued after Ya’alon officially rejected the request. Some in the Foreign Ministry, particularly in the sustainable development division, pushed back hard to send aid. It was eventually agreed that the Ministry would contribute a modest effort through MASHAV, but there would be no IDF involvement.

On Liberal Zionism

At Haaretz I recently argued that public laments over liberal Zionism—that it’s “dead,” at a “crossroads,” or simply untenable—were oriented around prominent male commentators writing in prominent American publications. I noted this has the effect of dismissing or neglecting others, particularly but not only women, who write on the topic elsewhere. This is a follow-up post, in which I point out some of these other writers. I don’t agree with all of them (in fact I often disagree), but many of them are much more well-versed in Israeli and Jewish history than some of the commentators driving the conversation. And if the conversation is to be genuine, then it needs to account for other serious writers.

Certainly there are others out there. But just because one writes on Israel and on Jewish politics doesn’t mean one understands Israel and Jewish politics.

I don’t think all of those listed below would call themselves liberal Zionists, or advocate all of the positions we typically associate with liberal Zionism; but they all have things to say about the issue that are worth reading.

In no particular order:

Mira Sucharov. A Canadian professor, Mira has a blog at Haaretz. She often explores the difficult choices and trade-offs liberal Zionists in the diaspora have to face.

Dahlia Scheindlin. Dahlia is an Israeli political analyst and consultant. In addition to her other important work, read her to track changing attitudes among the Israeli left toward the two-state solution.

Noam Sheizaf. Noam is an Israeli journalist and analyst. He explores similar issues as Dahlia, but has moved further away from the main tenets of liberal Zionism as necessarily structuring solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and illiberalism in Israel.

Rebecca Steinfeld. Rebecca has been challenging liberal Zionists on the dual nature of their commitments long before the people I mentioned in my Haaretz piece.

Joel Braunold. A longtime participant in Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution efforts, Joel raises important questions about the diaspora-Israel relationship.

Dov Waxman. Among other topics, Dov writes on the U.S. Jewish community’s politics, particularly the place of Israel there.

The folks at Molad. Molad is a recently-established think tank in Israel, with a focus on rejuvenating both the Israeli left and Israeli democracy. Because it’s comprised mostly of the religious left, it disproves the notion that religion and secular democracy are not compatible in Israel.

Sarah Posner. Sarah writes on developments in the American Jewish community, which are useful for tracking changes in its religious and political trajectories.

Shmuel Rosner. An Israeli political commentator, Shmuel writes about both Israeli politics and the diaspora-Israel relationship. He’s a frequent critic of others who write on these topics.

That Genocide Post

I hate to waste the space here, but since that Times of Israel blog post arguing that genocide against the Palestinian is permissible because Hamas just won’t give up (I won’t link to it here; it’s been taken down anyway, though others have captured images of it) is making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and online media, it’s important to make a few points clear.

Having been a blogger at ToI, I know how blogging works there.

  • The blog post is just that: a blog post. It appeared in an open, largely un-moderated blog, written by what is for all intents and purposes a random blogger.
  • It was not vetted by ToI editors. Once you are approved as a blogger there, you get a password and you can post whenever and whatever you want. Sometimes an editor will see the post and make some minor changes; mostly, given the high quantity of pieces submitted, it simply gets passed through.
  • The post doesn’t represent the paper’s editorial line.
  • Even less does it represent either Israeli public opinion or elite opinion.

Given all this, if you are promoting the piece as a sign of Israeli opinion in any way, you are not a serious person.

This isn’t the first silly, offensive, or dangerous piece to be posted there. Obviously, then, it behooves ToI to immediately change its moderation policy. Immediately.

Update: The ToI editors explain their decision to remove the blog (and the blogger) from their website.

What To Read on Gaza

The ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas is causing enormous suffering, and the human toll the war has taken is horrible and getting worse. But for a sense of the “bigger picture,” here are some good pieces written by smart analysts. I don’t agree with all of their conclusions (except the ones written by me), but they are well thought-out and provide a larger, necessary, context to the fighting. I’ll update as new analyses become available.

In no particular order:

Nathan Thrall in the New York Times: “How the West Chose War in Gaza,” on the effects of broader regional politics leading up to the conflict.

Hussein Ibish in Foreign Affairs: “Bibi’s First War,” on why Netanyahu has been reluctant to use force in Gaza, and why that changed now.

Haviv Rettig Gur in the Times of Israel: “The Tragic Self-Delusion behind the Hamas War,” on Israeli and Hamas conceptualization of their own weakness and how this informs their decisions about war, and comparisons to the Algerian War of Independence.

Hugh Naylor in The National: “Hamas Home-Made Rockets No Match for Israel,” on Hamas’ efforts to construct a domestic missile industry.

Allison Beth Hodgkins in Political Violence @ a Glance: “Why Hamas Escalated, When Before They Didn’t,” on the motivations behind Hamas’ decisions to escalate the fighting.

Yossi Melman in The Forward: “Hamas Has Nothing to Lose,” on Israel’s military and tactical goals in Gaza.

Me in The National Interest: “Israel’s Real Problem: It Has No Strategy,” on Israel’s lack of a strategic agenda and how that undermines its ability to defeat Hamas.

Me in The Monkey Cage/Washington Post: “Does the Gaza Operation Threaten Netanyahu’s Political Future,” on the politics of elections and war in Israel.

Update: New, additional readings

Me in Politico Magazine: “Israel Is Winning This War,” on the wrong measurements analysts have used to argue Hamas will ultimately win the Gaza war.

J.J. Goldberg in The Forward: “Gaza Tunnels: How They Work, What Israel Knew.”

Nathan Thrall in London Review of Books: “Hamas’s Chances,” on why Hamas went to war and what’s driving it during the war.

Michael Walzer in The New Republic: “Israel Must Defeat Hamas, But Also Must Do More to Limit Civilian Deaths.” Walzer’s work on just war is among the best out there; he applies his finding to the Gaza war.

Interview with Amos Oz in DW: “Oz: Lose-Lose Situation for Israel.” Given that Oz is one of Israel’s most prominent doves, this interview captures well the general mood in Israel regarding the Gaza war and Palestinian casualties.

Dean Obeidallah in The Daily Beast: “Do Palestinian Really Exist,” a personal story tied into a national story, with implications for the Gaza war.

Dahlia Scheindlin in +972: “Who Are the Israelis Fighting This War?” a glimpse into the lives of Israeli soldiers fighting in Gaza. “Every day that goes by – I’m different.”

Elisheva Goldberg in The Atlantic: “Israel’s Bedouin: Caught Between the Iron Dome and Hamas,” on the in-between place the Bedouin in Israel seem to have fallen–with no protection.

Erdoğan as Özal

As expected, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared his presidential candidacy, making it all but assured that he’ll become the country’s first directly-elected president. Despite the widespread criticisms of his heavy-handed rule, his dismissal of the rule of law, his contempt for dissent, and his general insensitivity to problems not his own, Erdoğan remains very popular in a large portion of the electorate, while much of the rest does not dislike him (or the AKP) or mistrust him enough to vote for any other candidate.

Like a previous prime minister and president, Turgut Özal, Erdoğan is running for president for a simple reason: he’s not ready to retire from power. He loves it too much, and genuinely believes he’s a force for good for Turkey. He doesn’t have any other options to meet these needs: He’s not well liked on the international stage, like Abdullah Gül, and so cannot transition into a position at an international organization like the United Nations. Nor is there any other office in Turkey that, after the prime ministry, can afford him the chance to continue to influence Turkish politics and development.

Though he failed to get the parliament to endorse his version of a stronger presidency, Erdoğan will—like Özal before him—continue to dominate Turkish political life. As I noted, “It’s unlikely that whoever the AKP runs for prime minister will be strong enough to resist Erdoğan’s all-but-assured interference in governing.” We can expect that he’ll continue to pronounce on the conduct of Turks’ private lives and on how to develop the country. He’ll view the election as a mandate for his vision, which will make him even less interested in hearing criticisms of how he’s handled things—if that’s possible.

There are some rumors or hints that Abdullah Gül is considering running for prime minister. This might qualify what I said above: Gül will pose a stronger challenge to Erdoğan. Though Gül doesn’t have a solid power base in the party, he does have supporters. As prime minister he’ll have legal and statutory powers with which to withstand Erdoğan’s meddling. And as prime minister, he’ll be expected to make firm decisions on issues, unlike the hesitant and waffling pronouncements he made as president in order to avoid conflict with Erdoğan. If Gül acts assertively, then, we can anticipate some clashes over governing.

What will be interesting to see is how Erdoğan acts on the world stage. He’s not as popular among world leaders as the current president, or as Özal was, which probably irks Erdoğan. This will constrain his ability to be taken as seriously. I don’t think it’s likely he’ll moderate his conduct to play the role of elder statesman; it’s not in his nature. Also, there could well be further troubles for him in Turkey related to financial inappropriateness, the government’s harsh response to Gezi and the anti-corruption probe, and the mining accident, which will put him on the defensive. Erdoğan gets very ornery when he’s on the defensive.

In short, we can expect Turkish politics to continue to be exciting during Erdoğan’s presidential term.

 

Riyadh’s Diplomatic Overture Toward Tehran

While everyone’s attention was focused on the start of another round of nuclear talks in Vienna between Iran and the EU3+3, there have been signs of a diplomatic break in the bitter rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, May 13th, Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said that he would welcome a visit from his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The invitation has spurred speculation that Saudi Arabia was softening its stance on Iran looking for ways to deescalate Sunni-Shi’a tensions in the region. Indeed, even US secretary of State John Kerry said he was delighted by the Saudis’ invitation. This turn of events begs two interrelated questions. First, why did the Saudis change their approach to dealing with Iran? And second, how much of a change are the Saudis willing to make?

The easy answer to the first question is that the Rouhani government has been able to charm the Saudis much in the same way it has charmed the rest of the international community. Shortly after his election Rouhani made it clear that he wanted better relations with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, he already had a history of working with Saudi King Abdullah ibn Abdilazīz. Iran’s diplomatic efforts toward Saudi Arabia were also guided by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had established his credentials with Riyadh in the 1990s when he orchestrated an earlier rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While the Saudis were initially skeptical, Rouhani and his representatives were able to convince them after several months of back-channel diplomacy.

Although this explanation is plausible, and there is little doubt that Riyadh feels more comfortable with Rouhani than they did with the man he replaced, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia go deeper than personalities. The Saudis still do not trust the conservative elite that make up the backbone of the Iranian regime regardless of who holds the presidency. Moreover, the recent tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia did not begin to with the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005. They began with invasion of Iraq in 2003, while Muhammad Khatami was still president. From that point on, Iranian-Saudi relations gradually deteriorated under the weight of regional events such as the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, and the Arab Spring. Ahmadinejad actually visited Riyadh in 2007.

At present, the regional environment is still not conducive to good Iranian-Saudi relations. Tehran and Riyadh continue to compete in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. In part this competition is driven by both state’s desire for status and leadership, but it is also a defensive struggle that neither side can afford to lose. Iran needs to maintain a network of regional influence as part of its deterrent strategy against the west and Israel. The Saudis fear encirclement, particularly since the start of the Arab Spring. They see Tehran consolidating its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and potentially extending it through the Shi’a populations to the south along the Arabian Peninsula.

What has changed is that the Saudi’s efforts to keep Iran isolated are failing. The United States has made it very clear that it is committed to following through on the nuclear negotiation process regardless of its Israeli and Saudi protests. Since the negotiations began, Iran has been host to a number of European trade delegations. While this has been happening, several long-standing rifts within the GCC have suddenly re-emerged. Both Qatar and Oman have long chaffed at Saudi domination within the organization and preferred maintaining proper diplomatic relations with Iran. Recently, tensions between Doha and Riyadh erupted when Qatar refused to cut ties with Egypt’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The spat grew so intense that Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain and the UAE recalled their ambassadors. The Saudi even accused Doha of conspiring with the late Muammar Gaddafi to assassinate King Abdullah and threatened to block Qatar’s land and sea borders. Not surprisingly, Doha responded by improving relations with Tehran. Oman, for its part, recently conducted joint naval maneuvers with Iran and signed a $1bn gas pipeline agreement with Tehran. Finally, the situation in Syria appears to have been reversed. With military help from Hezbollah and the Iranian government, Bashar al-Assad is on the offensive. He may not be able to ‘win’ the civil war but the momentum has swung back in the regime’s direction. To make matters worse for Riyadh, Iran recently brokered a deal between the opposition in Homs and the Assad regime, allowing rebel forces to withdrawal. It would seem that even the Saudi’s allies in Syria feel the need to engage Iran.

Conversely, if the Saudis had been convinced that they could trust Iran, it is hard to explain why Riyadh was complaining about US policy at virtually the same time they were extending the invitation to Tehran. Indeed, the Saudi “invitation” came during a press conference covering the visit of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, which was intended to deal with the growing rift between Riyadh and Washington. In a subsequent interview, Prince Saud al-Faisal complained about “super-powers” putting their own national interest ahead of the “sovereignty and independence of less powerful states.” While he did not name the United States outright, the target of his ire was obvious. It is also difficult to understand why Riyadh continued to press a union plan for the GCC. The Saudi proposal was mostly symbolic, but the apparent goal was to bolster the GCC as an anti-Iranian alliance.

Assuming the Saudis are reacting to a weakening of the anti-Iranian alliance instead of some new-found trust in the Iranian government, it is hard to be optimistic about the second question. Rather than fundamentally changing their policies toward Tehran, Riyadh is likely maneuvering for position. Opening talks with Iran now may yield some concessions. For example, there has been speculation that Iran promised to cooperate with the Saudis in solving the political stalemate in the Lebanese government. Talking also looks better than trying to force hardline policies like a GCC union, and failing. If nothing else, talking also allows Riyadh to bide its time. Although the Saudi’s position is on the wane now, it will likely improve in the not-too-distant future. First, the nuclear talks are hardly a sure thing, if they fail, the US will be back on side. Even if the talks succeed, no one expects them to yield the kind of “Grand Bargain” that would allow the US and Iran to reestablish their pre-revolutionary alliance. In short, the US will still need the Saudis one way or the other. Oman and Qatar will also come back, probably. Both states have had similar spats with Saudi Arabia in the past, but they have always managed to patch things up. There are important economic and military connections between them and the rest of the GCC. Moreover, if independence is what Oman and Qatar want, there is a limit to how far they can get from Saudi Arabia before they get too close to Iran. In fact, there are already reports that the crisis with Qatar has been defused.

The Saudis have played this game with Iran before. When Hashemi Rafsanjani took over the Iranian presidency in 1989 he too launched a charm offensive. The Saudis response was a ‘start-stop’ diplomatic strategy. They signaled a willingness to talk, pocketed whatever concessions the Iranians would make, such as opposing Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait, but gave little in return. Eventually the Saudis were ready for a real rapprochement, but it was not until 1997, eight years later.