Bibi’s Not in Trouble

For all the talk that Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to be the one to walk away from peace talks, that he fears the global campaign of delegitimization of Israel, and of the dire consequences of failure for Israel, Bibi’s not in any real trouble at the current impasse (assuming it really is an impasse) in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at this point. He can coast on the status quo, I think, for some time to come. Indeed, his balking at the release of the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners indicates he thinks there’s room to do so.

I’ve argued before that Bibi is a pragmatic opportunist. He prefers the status quo but everything about his temperament, his history, and his politics demonstrate that he’ll move if pushed. But that push has to be serious, and it has to come from outside as well as from within the country.

Thus far the external pressure in talks has been pretty mild. John Kerry has bent over backwards to accommodate Bibi’s demands, seemingly working to get Bibi’s approval of an issue or proposal first before then taking it to the Palestinians for discussion. There doesn’t appear to have been any serious sticks applied to the Israeli delegation (though to be sure, we do not have a lot of information about the specifics of the negotiations), but there have been a lot of carrots—the Jewish state demand, Israel’s position on the Jordan Valley.

Whether it’s because President Obama is distracted by other events, because he doesn’t think he has the necessary domestic political capital, or because Kerry believes the key to genuine progress lies with Bibi rather than with Abbas, the Americans have simply been unwilling to bring the necessary pressure to bear.

On the domestic front, Bibi is doing well. The rebels in Likud who have been consistently challenging him on policy have not gotten anywhere. They haven’t been able to take control over the party’s governing institutions, and they haven’t been able to stop the talks or the prisoner releases (though it seems some movement on the latter issue is growing). Former Shas member Haim Amsalem has now joined Likud, and while it seems to be because he had nowhere else to go, the move still demonstrates the importance of Likud in Israeli politics. Recent polling has the electoral list of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu gaining a few seats.

More importantly, the left still does not pose a serious electoral challenge to Bibi. It hasn’t presented an alternate message, and there doesn’t seem to be a coherent strategy to create one. In fact, Labor leader Isaac Herzog, for all the talk of him being able to present a more serious threat to Bibi than Shelly Yachimovich, seems to be agreeing more with Bibi’s bargaining positions than Shelly ever did. His main argument is that he doesn’t think Bibi is willing to go all the way to a peace deal. It’s not a message the electorate can rally around.

Of course a lot can happen to disrupt things and generate pressure on Bibi: a breakdown in talks over Iran’s nuclear program, a sudden uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence. But these are unplanned developments rather than carefully thought out policies designed to bring the conflict to a resolution. That’s not an effective strategy for such an important issue.

Still Going Strong

At Foreign Affairs, I argue that many American commentators who write on Israel fail to account for processes of change within its domestic politics, leading to incomplete analyses on how Israel reacts to the Iran deal. A close examination of shifts within Israel’s security establishment yields a more complete picture:

Most depictions of how Israel sees the recent nuclear accord with Iran are consistently shallow. When explaining what the deal means for Israel, Western analysts and journalists tend to focus on the differences between close political allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced it as a “historic mistake,” and the Israeli security establishment (that is, serving and retired officials from the military and intelligence agencies), which is generally more tolerant of the deal. But it is misleading to think of Israeli policymaking just as a tug of war between those two camps, because disagreements between civilian and security leaders are normal, and because the public rhetoric on which such assumptions rest doesn’t allow for a consideration of wider trends and changes. Such a view leads to needlessly alarmist predictions about a coming split between Israel and the United States.

Follow the link for the full piece.

 

Working with Bibi

My piece in Open Zion yesterday argued that, although he’s not actively interested in withdrawing from the West Bank and helping create a Palestinian state in the entire WB, Benjamin Netanyahu is the Prime Minister of Israel, and so needs to be worked with. Moreover, he’s a pragmatist and opportunist; he can be pushed toward that end.

Follow the link for more.

US Policy in Turkey: White House and State

Steven Cook and Michael Koplow suggest the United States government has held Turkey up as a democratic model even as, they write, “Turkey has essentially become a one-party state.” But prior to the recent protests, have U.S. public statements refrained from noting deficiencies in Turkish democracy? It depends where you look, the White House or the Department of State. U.S. rhetoric has not been uniform.

The White House has chosen to highlight military and economic cooperation, not political reform, in a way very consistent with Cook and Koplow’s piece. With nearby states in the Middle East like Egypt in the midst of political upheaval, Turkey served as convenient model of success. Turkey = Islam + democracy + US ally. What could be a better illustration for the president?

When Prime Minister Erdogan came to the White House on May 16, 2013, President Obama did not raise concerns about illiberal Turkish behavior in either the joint press conference or in an op-ed Obama published that day in the Turkish Daily Sabah. Obama focused on trade and investment, mutual security (NATO, terrorism), and Syria. Reporters did not ask either leader about the state of Turkish democracy.

Four years ago, when Obama traveled to Turkey in April 2009, his language was a little different; he did mention democracy. Obama highlighted a shared U.S.-Turkish commitment to “religious freedom, respectful of rule of law, respectful of freedom.” More importantly, in his speech to the Turkish parliament, Obama carefully asked for continued Turkish progress on reform: “These achievements have created new laws that must be implemented, and a momentum that should be sustained.” He went to great lengths not to single Turkey out, juxtaposing his comments (concerns?) on Turkish democracy with a reminder of how U.S. democracy too is a work in progress: “I say this as the President of a country that not very long ago made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote, much less be President of the United States.” (The fact that he was speaking in the Turkish parliament might very well have shaped how such comments were delivered!)

They were not earth-shattering words, but he did explicitly mention the need for Turkey to do more work on the issue.

What about State? In late 2011, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a different tack. In a speech in Washington, DC, hosted by the American-Turkish Council, Clinton focused mostly on economics and mutual security. But she also, gently I thought, raised substantive concerns about democratic reform:

The third point is that Turkey’s ability to realize its full potential depends upon its resolve to strengthen democracy at home and promote peace and stability in the neighborhood. The ongoing constitutional reform process is a valuable opportunity, and I’ve had very productive conversations with President Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, and others about this process, about its inclusivity and transparency that results in a document that deepens respect for human rights for all Turkish citizens, including the right to speak and worship freely. All minority groups need to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. I was particularly impressed by Prime Minister Erdogan’s statement during Ramadan that property would be returned to religious minority groups, and we also hope to see other positive steps, such as reopening of the Halki Seminary.

A vibrant economy depends upon the free exchange of ideas, the free flow of information, and the rule of law. Strengthening due process, cracking down on corruption, helps any country grow more rapidly, and also protecting a free and independent media, which plays a role that is very important.

She hits a lot of the key points: the constitution, a free media, rule of law, and human rights for all Turkish citizens. She did not juxtapose it with America’s own imperfections and continuing democracy implementation agenda. Fast forward 18 months and I can imagine those kinds of talking points were intentionally left out during Erdogan’s visit.

Department of State reports are even more at odds with Obama’s May 2013 comments. State’s Human Rights Report said many positive things about Turkey but also highlighted a number of shortcomings. The report’s executive summary listed the “most significant human rights problems during the year” including:

-      “Deficiencies in effective access to justice”

-      “Government interference with freedom of expression”

-      “Inadequate protection of vulnerable populations”

The summary continued:

Other significant human rights problems during the year included: Security forces committed unlawful killings. Authorities obstructed demonstrations. Security forces allegedly used excessive force during sometimes violent protests related to the Kurdish issue, students’ rights, and labor and opposition activities. The government obstructed the activities of human rights organizations, particularly in the Southeast. Impunity remained a problem. The government investigated reports of abuse by security forces, but the number of arrests and prosecutions was low, and convictions remained rare, although the number increased from previous years.

As is typical with the State report, the full text of the Turkey section includes a variety of examples. Also typical of coverage of US allies, the criticism is usually embedded in positive statements. For example:

The constitution and law provide citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections based on universal suffrage. However, the government restricted the activities of some political parties and leaders.

That kind of good cop, bad cop statement is similar to comments by Daniel Fried, U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, on February 27, 2009 in advance of a Secretary Clinton trip to Turkey and elsewhere:

And Turkey itself has been going through a very important evolution at home, moving in a democratic direction, but also with a lot of strains as Turkey addresses issues of its democracy in its – under its secular – its secular system.

(Another annual State report worth considering is on International Religious Freedom. This from May 20, 2013: “Embassy and consulate representatives, as well as visiting U.S. officials, met frequently with government officials and representatives of religious groups to discuss religious freedom,…”)

And even outside the Obama administration, one can see that pros and cons writing. In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations released a major report on U.S.-Turkish relations. It noted: “Over the course of the past decade, Turkey has simultaneously become more European, more Muslim, more democratic, and more modern.” The report also notes many concerns about the practice of Turkish politics (pp. 20-26). Overall, it takes a middle ground: “On balance, it is clear that though the AKP took dramatic steps in 2003 and 2004 to forge a more open, modern, and pluralist society, questions remain about Turkey’s democratic transition. In some areas, the AKP-led government has used the same nondemocratic tools as its predecessor, making it appear no more liberal than previous Turkish governments.”

What it looks like, then, is a clear difference in past reports and statements from State – which criticize Turkey on democracy issues – versus the White House line as exemplified by the Erdogan visit in May. So when Cook tweets “Nary a word of criticism. It’s always sunny in Istanbul,” perhaps he meant the White House only.

Three broader thoughts:

1. IR 101: Different U.S. agencies may have different perspectives and policies on the same issue.

2. Public statements alone are not policy (and may be at odds with actual policy). Do they have any effect? Why issue them at all? Who does consume such words?

3. If the White House is ignoring illiberalism in Turkey, it looks like Turkey fits as a classic US ally: strategic needs (Syria, Israel, Arab Spring writ large, economics, NATO) trump pressing an ally on liberal reform. So what we may be hearing with changes in Obama’s rhetoric from April 2009 to May 2013 is a changed region in which the White House is even more willing to underplay the question of political openness and reform In Turkey (which, of course, would be ironic because you underplay illiberalism so as to highlight Turkey as…a liberal democratic model).

UPDATE: Thanks to @tcwittes for suggesting two other State examples: Clinton criticism in July 2011 and comments by William J. Burns in January 2012.

An Opportune Moment For Peace Talks

Last week I wrote in Open Zion that this is an opportune moment for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, followed by some suggestions for how to take advantage of that opportunity:

I get the exhaustion that everyone feels each time reports of “new” efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together emerges. Especially since, as usual, the contradictory statements of Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans make for a confounding experience. But having said that, and while certainly there are plenty of suspicions still in the way, we are at the most opportune moment to restart serious talks in the last five or six years, if not more.

Obama’s recent trip to the Middle East is now paying dividends. Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing hard to create the conditions for a return to negotiations, while the Arab League has revised its Arab Peace Initiative to be more flexible to meet Israel’s demands. More importantly, the political winds in Israel seem to be blowing in the same direction: members of Israel’s government have accepted the change and called for Jerusalem to begin negotiations (not unexpectedly Tzipi Livni, but even the Prime Minister’s Office and Netanyahu himself have hinted at the moment); Labor has publicly stated its willingness to serve as a safety net should the coalition fall on account of real negotiations; and the opposition in the Israeli Knesset has done what it should have been doing all along—critiqued the official government policy and pushed back against it.

Lots of work remains to be done, of course, to overcome serious obstacles. These include: Israel’s insistence on being recognized as a Jewish state; Yair Lapid’s ambivalence on the peace process; the inability to mobilize Israeli public opinion on the issue; Hamas; events in Syria and or Iran; a deflation of will in the Obama Administration in the face of resistance from the Israeli or Palestinian governments; and timidity on Mahmoud Abbas’s part.

We cannot overstate these impediments and difficulties. But if this is an opportune moment to restart genuine peace talks, it’s also time for us to recognize that standard methods must at the least be supplemented by new initiatives and ideas. Let’s be honest: Yes, there are spoilers out there who might derail the process; no, settlement projects won’t be halted beforehand; yes, Palestinian rhetoric in Arabic will continue to rail against Israel; no, the Arab states aren’t going to suddenly love and accept Israel.

But there are some things that can be done outside of existing conditions that might help smooth the process from here.

First, Washington will need to recommit itself, firmly, to the peace process. It seems like it might have done this already, but given new developments in Syria, growing American interest in Africa, and plenty of other foreign policy issues for the administration to deal with, the temptation to put the peace process back on cruise control and leave it “for now” might be strong. American will and commitment are needed to keep Israelis and Palestinians on track.

Second, real American pressure will need to be applied on both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (I think Hamas can be left aside for the moment). Carrots are great and necessary, but if the history of U.S. involvement in the peace process has taught us anything, it’s that sticks are relevant, too. Regarding both, real consequences in the international diplomatic arena (e.g., initiatives in the United Nations or other international organizations) are a good choice: the consequences for either actor are serious (loss of international political support) but won’t be life-threatening.

Third, a genuine and powerful leftist movement in Israel must be constructed outside of existing parties and groups (which is not to say these are irrelevant or should not be part of such a movement). There are already indications that Israeli leftwing groups are aware of this, but I’d argue that this needs to be translated into concrete action: the formation of grassroots movements across the country that will mobilize in the political arena and promote an agenda that calls for an end to the occupation not through dreamy slogans but through awareness of the actual costs to Israelis, which in turn will change the balance of external forces to influence the Knesset and the government.

This is the reality in which we’re operating. It’s time to simply accept it and work around it.

The Resurgence of American Diplomacy in the Middle East

When President Barack Obama announced his trip to Israel, there was widespread speculation for the motivations. I thought it was a grab-bag of reasons, including for domestic political purposes, to connect (finally) with the Jewish-Israeli public, to improve personal relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and to talk about Iran and Syria.

On these grounds the visit has already been a success. But it seems the trip was about American regional diplomacy at least as much as it was about the American-Israeli relationship. This makes sense: In his second term Obama is looking to shape his legacy, and can now be more proactive—as opposed to reactive, as he was at the onset of the Arab Awakening—in foreign affairs without having to worry about re-election. It’s clear now that the point of the visit was to set the conditions for an improvement in the U.S. position in the region.

For some time analysts have been convinced that the U.S. is on its way out of the Middle East, retreating or simply impotent in the wake of the Arab Awakening. But this argument rests on a consideration of American hard power only, reads Obama’s hesitation in his first term into his second, and ignores Obama’s own modus operandi.

To understand Obama’s foreign policy we need to look at the preference he’s had for engaging with Republicans on domestic policy. Here he’s adopted a patient, low-key role. His habit has been to let other prominent individuals or groups engage in public battles over a given issue, and at some moment near the end move quietly in to offer suggestions—not orders or demands—to both sides of a dispute. In this way, he persuades them that butting heads has not worked, but that compromise will.

Obama’s trip to Israel was an exercise in in this type of American soft power. First, during his time in Israel, he charmed Netanyahu, a man with whom he previously had very tense personal relations. Having created space with its leaders, Obama then gave a stirring speech to Israeli students at the Jerusalem Convention Center. He highlighted the Jewish connection to the area, bore witness to the Jewish/Zionist struggles over time (including their contemporary security concerns), and called on them to act now in the name of Israeli Jewishness and democracy, and justice for Palestinians. These themes were echoed in a shorter speech at Yad Vashem. His visit to sites of memory and identity in Israel also validated Jewish-Israelis’ Zionism.

While critics argue that this is pandering or represent the usual ignoring of Palestinians, connecting with Israeli public opinion is important. No final agreement will be ratified in Israel unless politicians know enough Israelis (particularly Jewish Israelis) are on board with it. Given the skepticism of the Palestinians and the peace process more generally among that cohort, laying the groundwork isn’t just good politics, it’s essential.

Second, at the very end of his trip, Obama brought together Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan through a phone call that, for all intents and purposes, settled the most outstanding of their immediate disagreements (an Israeli apology for and compensation over the deaths of Turkish citizens killed during the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010).

It’s not clear that Obama promised either of the two anything specific, but what he did do was remind Netanyahu and Erdoğan that the region is at a critical moment, and that the two countries have common interests that trump these kinds of disputes. Like a mediator, he made sure that they knew all of their interests—including that of the United States—required coordination, even if it didn’t include full agreement on all issues.

Third, Obama appears to have convinced the Israelis that the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank really is their only partner for peace, particularly as Hamas’s regional stature continues to rise. To this end, the Administration has managed to unblock $500 million in aid to the PA, which Congress had previously frozen, at the same time that Jerusalem has decided to resume transfer of tax revenues to the PA, also frozen after Mahmoud Abbas asked the United Nations General Assembly to grant the Palestinians non-observer member state status.

Finally, Obama has publicly discussed bringing the Arab states more directly into the peace process. This will provide political cover for the PA to make unpopular decisions about concessions during talks. But tying the Arab states to the negotiations further isolates Iran, and also gives them a stake in the outcome.

The conventional wisdom is that the Israelis and Palestinians aren’t interested at this point in resolving their conflict, and that the Arab Awakening, Syria, and Iran are forcing the White House to wait on events more than seek to manage them. But Obama’s trip to the region has demonstrated that this isn’t true.

Certainly there is a long way to go before Israelis and Palestinians make peace, before Saudis and Israelis overcome decades of hostility, or even before Israelis and Turks return to full normalized relations. But even still, it’s clear that Obama is preparing a network to support Washington’s leadership vis-à-vis Iran and Syria, and to better respond to the Arab Awakening.

He’s done all this quietly, by lowering expectations beforehand, and by convincing Israelis, Palestinians, Turks, and Arabs that they share common goals. This is the essence of persuasion. Obama’s ability to project American hard power in the region might be fading, but that’s not the case with American soft power.

Obama’s Successes in Israel

At Open Zion I argue that Barack Obama’s trip to Israel was very successful:

On Twitter, Blake Hounshell asked if President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel was a “huge” success or not. I think we first have to define what we mean by “success.” But by the definition that Obama himself set out, albeit vaguely, and the unforeseen consequences, I think it was, certainly, a “huge success.”

In fact, it was this very vagueness that underlined the success. By downplaying expectations of any dramatic new initiatives on any policy issue, Obama laid the groundwork for excitement whenever he did touch on these (whether Iran or the peace process). By pulling back from an active American role, he also helped Israelis feel in control of their foreign policy at a time when the country has been subject to intense demands from all corners about how to behave and what to do regarding Iran or the Palestinians.

He washed away some of the personal tension that existed between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which in turn builds the necessary capital for coordinating with him on Iran and pressing him on the peace process.

Obama gave Israelis the impression that he does care about them, he is looking out for their security, and he does understand them. His speeches at the Jerusalem Convention Center and at Yad Vashem both invoked the Jewish past and connection to the Land of Israel, the insecurity that drives much Israeli behavior, and the rightness of their Zionism. To this end he also visited all the right sites in Israel, tying together the Jewish-Israeli experience over centuries.

In a country with such fractured political and ideological opinions, Obama could never make everybody happy. But there was enough there for most: for leftists he laid heavy emphasis on the immorality and injustice of the occupation. For the right he repeatedly committed himself to Israel’s security, implicitly noting that it’s not just about the balance of material forces but also about perceptions and history. (Of course, his comments regarding the former undermined some of the goodwill his comments for the latter might have generated.)

We cannot judge the success of the trip by looking at the Palestinian reaction simply because the trip wasn’t about them. There was a small detour—and that’s what it was—to visit President Mahmoud Abbas and then Bethlehem, and this gave the impression of American support for the Palestinian Authority. But Obama wasn’t out to reassure the Palestinians. Fair or not, Washington thinks that it’s Israel that needs to be warmed up for negotiations; the Palestinians will probably come along (perhaps with some necessary arm-twisting) because they aren’t in a position to do anything but. And they can’t be bought off with a few speeches and visits to sites of identity because the occupation will still be there once Obama leaves.

But in his Jerusalem speech Obama did humanize the Palestinians in a way they rarely have been in Israeli political discourse. This might not seem like much from Hebron, but it can make a difference among the Israeli public, which will be needed to pressure Bibi into making any progress in peace talks.

Unexpectedly, Obama also brokered a reconciliation between Bibi and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Not only did they speak by phone, but Bibi apologized to Erdoğan for the deaths of Turkish citizens killed during the Mavi Marmara affair. The repairing of that relationship is good for everybody, but it also enhances Obama’s position as facilitator of regional diplomacy. This is necessary as the American position in the Middle East changes in the wake of the Arab Awakening, and as things with Iran come to a head.

So yes, this was a successful visit in the short term. In the longer term it’s obviously too early to say: regional events can take an unanticipated turn with unforeseen consequences. The politics of the new Israeli government have yet to play out, and it’s not clear what that will mean for Israeli foreign policy. But for now, Obama can deservedly bask in the glow of his trip to Israel—at least until his return to the drama of Washington politics snaps him out of it.

Bibi’s apology to Turkey

Barack Obama really is a magician. Just as he was about to leave Israel, he announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had spoken by telephone. Even more, Bibi apologized to Erdoğan for the deaths of Turkish citizens during the Mavi Marmara affair.

I did not see this coming, and I’d be surprised if anyone else did, either. The trip that everybody (including me) thought was about domestic American politics, Iran, resetting the relationship with Bibi, giving comfort to Israelis, and demonstrating support for the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank was also, it turns out, about Obama’s broader regional diplomacy.

Here are my initial thoughts about the phone call and its aftermath:

1. Turkey gained much without compromising anything. Erdoğan got the biggest thing he had been demanding since the attacks, which was an Israeli apology. His other demands—compensation and an end to the siege of Gaza—are either easily met (compensation) or non-starters (ending the siege), so this was the most important. Starting to repair relations with Israel also removes major irritants that affected Turkey’s relations with the United States, some European countries, and NATO, disrupting processes and regional security plans. Turkey easily came out on top here.

In return, Erdoğan said Ankara would drop charges against Israeli military for their role in the killings. But this was a very minor concession: it would never have resulted in actual prosecution or sentencing. If Turkey had pursued it, it might have constrained the ability of some officers to travel around the world, but even then it would be more irksome than anything else.

2. It’s hard to avoid noticing that the apology was only realized with Avigdor Lieberman gone from the Foreign Ministry. Blustering and belligerent, Lieberman was never the right choice for the position. If Bibi’s apology can warm his relationship with Obama, reset the relationship with Turkey, and lead to the inclusion rather than exclusion of Israel in global and regional forums, conferences, and exercises, then it’s hard to argue bringing Lieberman back is a good thing. In fact, the obvious conclusion is the opposite one: Israel can accomplish much with Foreign Minister who’s pragmatic and has a broader sense of Israel’s position in the world.

3. I’d like to know how Obama persuaded Bibi to call. Did Obama promise extra aid to Israel? Was this a quid pro quo, and if so, for what?

4. It remains to be seen what happens next between Israel and Turkey, of course. I don’t think we’ll see a return to the mid-1990s levels of cooperation and warmth. But this is a good start as both countries seek to find their place in a changing Middle East.

Why Is Obama Going to Israel?

Yesterday I tweeted that I was pre-empting speculation and that no, Obama’s coming trip to Israel wasn’t about Iran. It was a response to the conventional wisdom that seems to always assume everything about Israel is about Iran—from last year’s short-lived Likud-Kadima government to the recent elections. But I did receive some pushback on the point, so here’s a fuller accounting of why I made the remark.

It should, though, be obvious that Iran will be near the top of the agenda. It’s a major issue for Israelis, including security officials, and despite the progress made on convergence of their positions, there are still gaps between the American and the Israeli understanding of how to deal with Iran. An Obama trip to the country gives him a direct sense of what the government is thinking and why, which could close some of this distance.

Beyond that, there is the fact that Colin Kahl, who worked for Obama during the election campaign, all but promised during a conference call with the media last July that there would be a visit if Obama was re-elected. Not following through would raise serious questions about Obama himself and his administration at a time when he’s facing all sorts of domestic pressure from pro-Israel Jewish groups and politicians to Republicans.

At the same time, the rest of Obama itinerary provides clues to his motivations. He’ll also be visiting with Palestinian and Jordanian leaders. These countries aren’t important for the confrontation against Iran, but they are for the peace process. Jordan’s domestic problems and its proximity to the Syrian civil war highlight its importance in other ways. In fact, given Israel’s growing concern about the consequences of the breakdown of central authority in Syria, that country is likely to be as high as Iran on the agenda.

The optics count, too. It’s the diplomatic version of smoothing things over and establishing a more personal basis with Benjamin Netanyahu on which to conduct the next four years of policy.

All of this raises the question of timing. In theory Obama could have gone later in the year. But reports are that he is going in March or April. I can think of several reasons.

His new Secretary of State, John Kerry, has already called Israeli and Palestinian leaders to tell them the peace process is one of his priorities. He’ll be visiting the region possibly within the month. An Obama follow-up will underline the importance of the relationship and demonstrate commitment to issues of concern to both countries.

Also, it’s likely that the new Israeli government will have been formed by the time of the visit. The weakening of Likud-Beiteinu and the strengthening of the soft right (Yesh Atid) and the left (Labor, Meretz) have opened up space for a different kind of government than the previous one. Although there is some debate over whether the likely inclusion of Yesh Atid can kick start the peace process, the unexpected priority that the administration has placed on this issue indicates that the president sees this as an opportune moment to remind Israel and Israelis that the US has their back, that peace is necessary for Palestinians and Israelis, and to provide some cover for Netanyahu on this issue against members of his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu, and possibly Jewish Home (if it’s included in the coalition).

Finally, Obama has been stung by accusations that his administration is at best insensitive to Israel and at worst anti-Israel. A visit to Israel is the most effective visible way to counter these attacks. We are constantly reminded by the president’s supporters that only four sitting presidents have ever visited Israel. Joining this small club is an effective way for Obama to address these kinds of domestic and Israeli concerns.

More specifically, the AIPAC conference is scheduled for March 3-5. It’s not clear yet whether Obama will be again speaking to the convention. If he does, he’ll be able to claim not only that he continues to show his commitment to Israeli security through military support, but can demonstrate a personal interest as well—the all-important kishkes factor. And if he’s not speaking at the conference, a visit to Israel is surely the next best thing.

Coordinating against Iran will be an important topic of discussion during Obama’s visit. But the president doesn’t have to travel to Israel for that; his political and defense officials can and do exchange visits with their Israeli counterparts for such purposes. I think, rather, that this convergence of factors explains the motivation and the timing of Obama’s visit.

Why I oppose Hegel for Secretary of Defense

I think nominating Hegel for Secretary of Defense is a terrible idea.

1. He is dead. And not recently dead. He died in 1831. I imagine it would be hard to run the Pentagon if you are dead. Not impossible but, as we say in Boston, wicked hard.

2. Not only is he dead, but he is buried in Berlin. Do we really want the Secretary of Defense running DOD from Germany? OK, Germany is a NATO ally but that is a far cry from Secretary Panetta running off to California every weekend.

3. Is someone generally associated with the idealist camp properly qualified to run a modern military? To run the most advanced military in the world?

4. Though he was friends with Schelling, it is not that Schelling, so Hegel’s knowledge of issues like bargaining and nuclear doctrine was probably quite limited.