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.

Warnings about Israel’s Jewish Future

Humans use language to set out the parameters and boundaries of our ideas, shape the ideas of those who come next, and to transmit emotions and memories to each other. It is how we structure our interactions and behavior, and, at the group level, our policies. To understand the priorities of people or the dominant issues of a given time, then, we can look to the discourse most prominent at that moment.

The dominant discourse changes over time, usually in response to changed conditions or the actions of specific individuals. A glance at the history of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking demonstrates this well. Until the 1960s, there was almost no sense that Palestinians themselves were independent actors in this process, or that an independent Palestinian state was on the agenda. After Likud came to power in 1977, “autonomy” was the policy idea everyone—including the Americans—focused on. The 1993 Oslo Accords changed the discourse forever, and normalized both the PLO and a Palestinian state in the West Bank-Gaza. Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech formalized even the right’s acceptance of two states.

On settlements, specifically, concerns over their building have been around for a long time. George H.W. Bush’s very public fight with Yitzhak Shamir was about precisely that. But his son’s letter to Ariel Sharon in 2002 promising that “new realities on the ground” (i.e., major settlement blocs) would now be incorporated into the solution meant that Washington officially didn’t see settlements as a problem that would undermine peace efforts.

Martin Indyk’s speech last night at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy represents another turning point. In explaining why the most recent round of talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down, he focused most of his attention on Israeli settlements. He did put some of the blame for the breakdown on Mahmoud Abbas, and he also blamed broader governing elements in both parties.

But most of the culpability fell on the government that allowed for continued—indeed, unrestrained—settlement activity. In addition to laying out just how much settlement planning and building took place, he was very explicit about the consequences for the breakdown of peace talks. More importantly, he argued that settlements would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state:

The settlement movement on the other hand may well drive Israel into an irreversible binational reality. If you care about Israel’s future, as I know so many of you do and as I do, you should understand that rampant settlement activity – especially in the midst of negotiations – doesn’t just undermine Palestinian trust in the purpose of the negotiations; it can undermine Israel’s Jewish future. If this continues, it could mortally wound the idea of Israel as a Jewish state – and that would be a tragedy of historic proportions. (My emphasis.)

Though he didn’t use the word “apartheid” or warn of potential delegitimization of Israel in the world, as John Kerry has, both ideas were lurking just behind Indyk’s assessment. And though President Obama himself has warned about these things, that Indyk—accused by many of being too close to the Israelis—used them publicly, to put much of the blame on Israel, in a forum considered very sympathetic to the Israeli position, has helped change the discourse on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking forevermore.

Warnings about and concern over settlement activity for the future of both Palestine and Israel will now be part of American peacemaking efforts. Leftwing activists and organizations have long been making this same argument, and have laid the groundwork for a rethinking on settlements among the grassroots. The White House’s shift toward their position has strengthened this understanding at a broader level.

Settlements are now on the public agenda in a way they have never been before. Of course, this will only matter if Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking begins again, and I won’t make any predictions on that…

Putting Kerry’s Comments into Context

John Kerry’s use of the a-word (“apartheid”) to warn what Israel might become if a peace agreement establishing two states is not implemented soon has, unsurprisingly, ignited a firestorm from Israeli politicians (though, interestingly, Benjamin Netanyahu has remained quiet) and several American Jewish organizations.

It’s true that this kind of rhetoric really only serves to stoke the flames of intransigence and anger at a delicate moment in the effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. (I actually think the under-reported story here is the diminished ability of leaders to talk openly amongst themselves.) But while I share Kerry’s concerns for the future of Israel, I’m not sure that the argument that Israeli leaders have used the same term to issue similar warnings of what will happen without peace is as strong as it first appears.

It’s to be expected that citizens of one country can say things about their state that is more problematic coming from the leaders of a close ally. It’s considered bad form, particularly when it’s such a sensitive issue and a loaded term—and even more when it’s said to third parties.

This isn’t unique to Israel: Canadians are sometimes very belligerent about Quebec separatism, but Washington doesn’t say much at all about the issue except to support the national government’s position. Similarly, the White House has largely remained silent regarding the Turkish government’s suppression of Turks’ individual and political freedoms. While the West Bank isn’t part of sovereign Israel, and therefore falls into the category of foreign affairs, it’s still closely tied to Jerusalem’s domestic politics.

Having said that, some of the criticism of Kerry—for example, that he should resign, that he’s not “pro-Israel” (whatever that means)—is over the top. The big takeaway here, I think, is that the taboo in the United States of using apartheid to describe a future Israel that maintains legal, political, and military control over the West Bank has been broken. Israelis long ago got over that taboo (which isn’t to say they like the term), but it’s natural that it took time to break down here. Kerry’s comment might just be—for good or bad—the beginning of a new conversation on Israel in Washington.

Bring J Street In

Theodore Sasson is right that while the Conference of Presidents has, in recent years, ceased being the consensus institution it was created to be, admitting J Street as a member-organization is the appropriate thing to do.

J Street’s inclusion will contribute to the Conference’s claim to represent American Jewry—all of the big national organizations are already members (the ADL, AJC, AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Federations of North America). In addition, leaving J Street out of the communal tent because some consider it too partisan and left-wing ignores the fact that there are already several highly partisan member-groups from both ends of the spectrum (American Friends of Likud, the ZOA, JINSA, Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now).

But there’s another, more instrumental, reason to bring J Street in: it will bring its lobbying machine with it. J Street has close ties to the Democratic Party, including President Obama. Although far-right partisans have tried to tie being pro-Israel with being Republican, it’s a highly problematic and misleading equation. Nor is it an effective way to maintain the ability to advocate in a political system comprised of parties on both the right and the left. J Street also has a large, committed, and active grassroots organization that can be mobilized for advocacy efforts.

As a side note, that grassroots base would provide more legitimacy to the Conference since it incorporates a much larger portion of the Jewish community than some of the other organizations that are already members.

Communal consensus has broken down within the US Jewish community along political, religious, and ideological lines. Excluding J Street with only help harden those divisions, but including it will go some way to helping overcome them.