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.

Defining the Arab State

Issandr el-Amrani has a very angry response to Aaron David Miller’s piece on the post-Arab Spring decline of the Arab state. Though el-Amrani raises a couple of important points, the piece seems as full of misperceptions that he accuses Miller of.

El-Amrani’s underlying point—that the Arab states are not simply “tribes with flags”—is a strong one, and I think Miller undermines his own argument by falling back on that assertion. But contrary to what el-Amrani seems to indicate, Miller wasn’t arguing that the state has collapsed everywhere in the Arab world, much less so in the Middle East (where he notes Israel, Turkey, and Iran have remained coherent and strong). El-Amrani uses the examples of the UAE, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to prove his point. But apart from the fact that Miller explicitly put Saudi Arabia in the category of states “holding their own,” these examples underline Miller’s point that it’s about “basic coherence and governance.”

It’s not about feeling good about the Arab Spring, as el-Amrani dismisses Miller’s piece, but about questions of legitimacy and governance. That’s a legitimate concern to note, as different groups compete with each other, either violently or non-violently, to define the state and its basis for legitimacy, laws, and norms.

Indeed, Karl reMarks notes this in his own response to Miller, and which el-Amrani cites approvingly. He acknowledges that “the collapse of the state, in varying degrees in each of the three states [Egypt, Iraq, Syria], is an undisputable phenomenon.” reMarks’ critique is centered on the reasons for the failing nature of these states, and that’s certainly something to engage and debate.

Also contrary to what el-Amrani seems to assume, Miller wasn’t providing a normative take on the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but more like a logistical take. Will these Arab states remain functioning as central authorities, with institutions capable of asserting that authority across all of society?

I share el-Amrani’s yawn with the language Miller uses in his piece, which is—as with his other ones—filled with clichés. I suspect this is because Miller simply writes too much, and for a non-specialist audience. It seems the easiest thing to do. But that’s a different motivation than the implicit orientalism that el-Amrani hints at.

Finally, el-Amrani inserts his own cliché as much as he criticizes Miller for doing so. Referencing Miller’s take on the Hamas-Fatah split and the sectarian divisions in Iraq, el-Amrani faults Miller for ignoring the Israeli occupation and the American invasion. Obviously both are relevant, and I seriously doubt Miller isn’t aware of these as constraining factors. (In fact, he references colonial interference as a contributing factor.) But neither was relevant to his particular point, which is that Palestine and Iraq are simply unable to get their internal houses in order so as to provide good governance to their people. Explaining why certainly requires an account of the Israeli and American presence, but that wasn’t the point of Miller’s piece.  Moreover, Miller puts Palestine and Iraq in the category of “pre-Arab Spring” countries with governance problems.

The underlying problem seems to be that Miller and el-Amrani are approaching the issue from two different angles. Miller doesn’t claim that states don’t exist in the Arab world, or even that they will collapse entirely tomorrow. He admits that borders are well entrenched, and that efforts to redraw them have been few in number, and failed completely. Rather, Miller defines the state as “effective” and “possessing the capacity to protect the wellbeing of all of its citizens.” Surely, with the violence being visited upon the citizens by the governments and other citizens, this is an obvious and legitimate argument to make.

El-Amrani seems to assume that Miller is making the opposite argument. He contends that Miller confuses “the dysfunctions of Arab states with the absence of a state.” But that line of thinking doesn’t appear in Miller’s argument. Nowhere does he say there is the absence of a state; at best, only Lebanon is listed as a “non-state,” but Miller doesn’t connect this to the Arab Spring but its own long-standing internal divisions and problems.

Perhaps El-Amrani disagrees with Miller’s proposals for stabilizing the Arab states, which include strengthening national institutions and broadening their legitimacy. After all, if the Arab state is already doing fine, then it requires something else to fix the problems currently roiling them.

Miller’s assumptions of the weak foundation of the Arab states—something that’s been a perennial concern throughout the literature on the Arab state—should be engaged on their merits. Otherwise, serious policy solutions can’t be debated.

Mr. Abbas Goes to Ankara

Fatah leader and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas is in one of the toughest positions I’ve ever seen for a leader of a somewhat-recognized-but-not-really state. He’s physically hemmed in on all sides by Israel; his rival for control over Palestinian politics (Hamas) is growing stronger than him all the time; and he seems genuinely uncertain, or scared, about his options.

And yet with one visit to Turkey he made two moves that deserve not only commendation for their boldness, but also an immediate and positive response by Israel.

Israel has long demanded that Abbas separate himself from Hamas, in order to be recognized as a true moderate. During his visit to Turkey, Abbas did just that: he publicly disagreed with a very popular Hamas over the right of Israel to exist, which in turn underlines his support for two states.

And the location of the comments could not be more symbolic. Abbas took on his rival in the presence of the Turks, who have been growing closer to Hamas at the expense of ties with the PA, and who have been at fierce odds with Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians. It was a mild rebuke to Ankara at the same time.

The claim, then, that there is no Palestinian partner for peace is at best an incomplete one.

Unfortunately, in his characteristic way, Abbas undermined his own effort at the very same time. During the same visit that he chided Hamas, he also hinted—at a press conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gül—that if Israel continued with its settlement project, particularly in the explosive E1 area, he might go to the International Criminal Court.

On the one hand, you can understand Abbas’s frustration. Since the Oslo Accords, Israel has continued expanding settlements throughout the West Bank and around East Jerusalem—a unilateral action if ever there was one. Yet after Abbas asked the United Nations General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a non-member state, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu accused Abbas of unilateral action and, flying into a rage, immediately began building more settlements.

At the UN, Abbas gave what can only be described as a vicious speech accusing Israel of every possible wrong and absolving Palestinians of their own responsibilities and agency. And one might argue that Abbas’s effort to form a unity government with Hamas is a sign of his secret tendencies toward extremism.

But on the other hand, one can see that Abbas has little choice but to take such a tough rhetorical stance. Israel has all but ignored him, preferring to lend credibility to Hamas and its violent ways instead of the PA’s diplomacy. And Israeli leaders themselves engage in harsh comments about and display a lack of sensitivity toward Palestinians. In a conflict increasingly incorporating collective memory, identity, and claims to victimhood, perhaps this is to be expected.

In the same hateful UN speech, Abbas explicitly recognized the 1967 Green Line as the border of the Palestinian state. Israel and Palestine can disagree over the exact route of the border, but that’s what negotiations are for. The focus on the Green Line is the very essence of the two state solution that Israel, including Netanyahu, has accepted.

And Abbas might contend that his calls for unity with Hamas are no different from the center-right Likud allying with far-right parties in an Israeli coalition. (I’m not convinced it’s the same, but the argument is there to be made.)

Abbas is trying, in his way. Given his circumstances, and despite his fumbling, this deserves Israel reciprocation, not condemnation. He’s clumsy, and he’s certainly made mistakes. But if leaders never negotiated with others who’d made blunders, we’d never get international agreements.

Why I Support the Palestinian Request at the UN

When Mahmoud Abbas said last year he was going to ask the Security Council for recognition, I was at first opposed to the idea, thinking the price would be too high. I changed my mind, believing it might help light a fire under Israel. That didn’t happen, mostly because the bid itself failed.

And so I still support the Palestinian request for non-member state status. Mostly it’s because the Palestinian Authority under Fatah and Abbas is never going to get a shot at genuine negotiations so long as domestic conditions in Israel don’t change.

That’s not to say, of course, that only Israel is responsible for past failures and potential future progress. Nor do I think Israel should unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank.

But looking at Israel specifically, all I see are obstacles. The Israeli public is less interested in the Palestinians than it’s ever been. The electoral list that emerged from Likud’s primaries this week is composed of members who take a hard line on negotiations over land, settlements, and a Palestinian state. Given that the party is most likely to still be the core of a new coalition government, I’d guess we can expect even less government interest than there is now.

Israel, of course, argues that it’s always ready for negotiations. Yet the hard truth is that it’s not. It’s insistence that the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state first is a red herring; worse, it’s an excuse to avoid talks. As has been argued by many countless times before, there is no necessary or good reason for the Palestinians to do this, and every reason not to. And it’s a precondition that Israel insists on even as it calls for Abbas to sit down without preconditions.

Israel’s insistence that settlements are not an obstacle to negotiations is also misleading. The reality is that, as facts on the ground, they shrink the potential land area open to negotiations. The Israeli government insists that any final agreement accounts for settlements blocs as part of Israel.  Yet the manner by which “neighborhoods” are spun off from existing settlements and then included as part of the settlement’s territory, plus the physical, legal, and security infrastructure that is built up around them, absorbs more and more land considered off-limits.

Progress on peace talks is essential for Israel’s well-being, too. World trends are moving against the occupation and the settlements. Hamas is growing stronger all the time. If it doesn’t get ahead of the curve, Israel’s ability to contribute to management of the conflict and shaping of outcomes will diminish.

There’s just no evidence that a successful Palestinian bid will change things for Israel for the worse. Rather, all the evidence points to the conclusion that not changing the status quo is the most dangerous for Israel.

Winners and Losers

My first reaction of who comes out stronger and who comes out weaker from the Gaza conflict was posted at Open Zion. It is reprinted in full below.

A ceasefire was announced between Israel and Hamas and came into force an hour ago. It’s early yet, but an initial glance at potential winners and losers gives some insight into how the ceasefire came about, and how it might play out in the region—if it holds.

Some short-term losers: Turkey and Egypt, both of whom claimed to be staunch supporters of Hamas but failed to press for anything that might resemble a Hamas victory. Turkey was at first extraordinarily quiet, pretty much abdicating any responsibility for Hamas and Gaza after spending a few years damaging relations with Israel for their sake and thus undermining its effort to enhance its appeal to the Arab world. Then, once he got going, Prime Minister Erdoğan ruined any chance in the near future for a reconciliation with Israel by calling it a “terrorist state” and condemning the US for supporting it. (See Michael Koplow’s excellent discussion of this.)

For its part, Egypt, despite President Morsi’s declarations, didn’t do anything that hadn’t been done under the Mubarak regime. It’s true that Morsi’s rhetoric was far more supportive of Hamas, and reports are that his ideas for a ceasefire annoyed the Israelis because it so overtly favored Hamas. But the outcome was the same as under Mubarak: the status quo ante, with Hamas getting no promises from Israel to lift the blockade (though Israel seems to have said it would ease up on attacks on Hamas).

Long term losers: Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah. Jonathan Schanzer asked whether Hamas was upstaging the PLO. Abbas displayed total impotence during the conflict; more, he was pushed completely to the side. Hamas’s strategy of sticking to its “resistance” guns and gathering increasing legitimacy and recognition from others makes Abbas/Fatah/the PLO/the PA less and less relevant in Palestinian politics. As far as I can see, the only things that can save them are a successful bid at the U.N., or tangible progress in negotiations with Israel.

The other long-term loser is Israel. As I’ve argued before, Israel has no long term strategy regarding Gaza. Its victory in a limited military campaign will only strengthen the perception that its tactical-military emphasis works and doesn’t need to be changed. This means it’ll be harder for Israel to accept a new formula for maintaining security and achieving peace. It also means we’re likely to see a repeat of November’s events again.

Winners: The obvious one is Netanyahu, for pulling off a clear military victory and moving past his blunder in the Western Wall Tunnel riots of 1996, and for now having a clear foreign policy victory to point to during the campaign; Ehud Barak for showing he still matters (first polls give his Independence the greatest numbers of seats since the campaign began, though I’m not sure it will last to January); Qatar for inserting itself into this arena; and missile/rocket defense systems.

Steven Cook argues the U.S. was in a very difficult position during the conflict, but I think President Obama also comes out a winner. I’d argue he handled the crisis extremely well, by hanging back and letting local actors—especially Egypt—take the lead, thus giving them a stake in the post-war system. He also provided continual encouragement and prodding, through phone calls to Morsi and Netanyahu and with Secretary of State Clinton assuring Netanyahu in person that this was a good idea and the US supported Israel’s right to self-defense.

On second thought, we might consider putting Egypt in this category instead. It navigated very well the shoals of public opinion, Muslim Brotherhood pressure, Hamas’s demands, its own strategic interests, and Israel’s actions. That Morsi was able to pull off a Mubarak-style outcome, even under changed conditions, suggests Egypt remains a regional player, and the outside player when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The more things change…

Time Loops and Israeli Decision-Making on Hamas

Palestinian militant groups are again firing tens of rockets across the Gaza border toward Israeli civilian targets. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak immediately warned that Hamas is responsible for the violence coming out of Gaza, and that the Israel Defense Forces might react by invading—again.

Others have already discussed the potential implications of the decision to use more military force against Gaza (here and here). In this extra-long piece, I want to consider the bigger picture of Israeli policymaking, and recommend that, notwithstanding the sensitive nature of the issue, it’s long past time for Israel to develop a new policy toward Gaza and Hamas.

Instead of conceptualizing Hamas as a tactical problem with short-term solutions—coerce it into accepting a short period of Israeli deterrence—Israel should think in strategic terms, with a policy accounting for how to engage Hamas long term. To do this, it needs to stop relying on its historical patterns of thinking.

Otherwise, it will be doomed to repeat the scenario again in the near future.

This is along the lines of what Giora Eiland, Israel’s former National Security Advisor, has been arguing for some time. Eiland contends that Israel should treat Gaza as an enemy state, and hold its rulers—Hamas—responsible for the attacks that come from it.

This makes sense, but it’s not clear that this will shift Israel’s view of Hamas from a short term military problem to be solved by military means—air strikes, incursions, and siege. The deeper problem is that Israel continues to use decision-making frameworks that have served it well in its past, but don’t reflect its needs in this moment.

The historical trend has been to rely on short-term, tactical maneuvering in response to real-time and urgent threats. There was good reason for this. The Jewish communities in Europe, under constant threat of persecution and isolation, had to improvise on a daily basis to remain safe. The Zionists in the Yishuv (Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine) followed this blueprint: struggling under difficult environmental and security conditions, with an unsteady supply of funds from outside the country and no protection from the governing authorities, it had to quickly develop self-sufficient methods of agriculture, politics, and security while adapting to changing local, regional, and global circumstances.

The 1947-49 War and the first decades of its existence furthered this pattern. Having to cope with more security threats—this time from the Arab states as well as Palestinian irregular militias—Israel also had to absorb hundreds of thousands of new immigrants and build the political, social, and economic infrastructure of the new state. This, without an assured and large enough stream of revenue, arms, and diplomatic support.

All of this forced Israel to react on the tactical level, making do with what it had. The ingenuity, informality, and heavier responsibility devolved to local leaders and commanders worked well enough under these conditions. Israel survived all of the threats against it, and thrived. But the cost was an ability to think strategically, and to re-conceptualize threats as challenges—which in turn require non-military solutions in addition to military ones. As Alan Dowty put it, the “filter of security” had come to dominate the Israeli worldview.

Such a framework is less effective in an established state that is the most prosperous and strongest power in its region.

Today, Israel has a flourishing domestic arms industry, a reliable flow of revenue from the diasporic Jewish community and the United States, a tight relationship with the latter (the world’s preeminent power), and an economy strong enough to survive better than others the recent economic crisis. It’s far more integrated into international forums than at any time since 1948, and it’s a veritable font of academic, scientific, and financial entrepreneurship and innovation.

At the same time, the nature of regional and global threats are changing—meaning Israel’s old framework for responding to them are increasingly less applicable. Where in the past, Israel successfully undermined its enemies’ ability to threaten it, today the Iranian nuclear program is more likely to remain in place than not, even if delayed. Where in the past Israel could count on the hostility of the Arab regimes but, by the 1970s, also their interest in avoiding direct conflict, today the Arab Awakening has changed the politics, and therefore the foreign policies, of some of these Arab states.

This is especially the case with Hamas. Indeed, Hamas has only grown stronger over the years, despite Israel’s efforts to degrade and contain it. It is at least partially responsible for Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005; it won the 2006 Palestinian legislative election; it seized by force control of all Gaza in 2007; and it’s increasingly being recognized as a legitimate player by Egypt, Turkey, some Gulf states, Europe, and even the United States, either explicitly or implicitly. Unlike Israel, Hamas has adapted well to the vicissitudes of the Arab Awakening, all the while expanding its rocket arsenal.

For its part, Hamas retains tight control over Gaza. It is now rooted in what Eiland called the Gazan state, and while Gazans themselves appear to resent its repression they give no indication of the will or ability to overthrow it. Nor is Fatah, Israel’s preferred Palestinian interlocutor, in any condition to overtake it in Palestinian politics.

At the same time, Hamas is under intermittent pressure to “prove” itself to Palestinians and others that it cannot be ignored. It is in constant competition with smaller paramilitary/terrorist groups, but it cannot shut them down completely. Yet it cannot allow them to set the “resistance” agenda. At some point, given these external threats and internal challenges from other domestic groups, Hamas will determine it needs to reassert its position as leader of the “resistance” against Israel, as we would expect from authoritarian regimes suffering from a lack of popular legitimacy.

Unable to close off its financial and diplomatic pipelines, Israel cannot destroy Hamas short of a full-scale invasion and sustained occupation. Given the sheer uncertainty of such a campaign, this is an unlikely outcome. Yet anything less will continue to impose severe threats on the Israeli population and considerable costs on the country in financial, military, and political terms.

It’s time for Israel to get ahead of the curve. Continually trying to restore the status quo ante is not a viable policy, and it cannot be effective long term.

Israel needs to rethink its approach to foreign policy, beginning by recognizing that while it is connected, it is not the same as security policy. The National Security Council (more accurately, the National Security Staff), Eiland’s former agency, should be given more legitimacy among decision-makers, and its discussions taken more seriously. The Winograd Commission that studied the 2006 Lebanon War recommended just such a change.

More concretely, Israel should encourage other states to engage with Hamas, to act as a conduit for discussion. Though it comes across as hypocritical when Turkey hits Israel for its reactions to Hamas yet sees nothing wrong with its own policies toward the PKK, Turkey has in the past proven a responsible mediator between Israel and Arab actors.

Israel should also engage others, like the US, the EU, Russia, and the Arab states to treat with Hamas more directly and openly. Trying to prevent them from doing so has clearly failed. But having multiple voices telling Hamas moderation is the only plausible avenue out of its siege will help the message sink in.

Jerusalem should also encourage Fatah and Hamas to resume their negotiations, by not treating them differently. The settlement enterprise might seem like a fait accompli to many, but the West Bank is a time bomb, which won’t spare anyone. Giving Hamas a stake in the entire Palestinian system and tying it to Fatah could well force it to work more responsibly.

At the same time, it should give the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank some sense that things are moving forward. Currently, both Fatah and Hamas have been rejected by Israel, despite adopting very different policies. But both need to see that negotiation, forswearing of violence, and cooperation are the only way to achieve positive outcomes.

Finally, Israel should respond immediately with limited aerial force to any barrage of rockets, with a set of pre-arranged contingency plans. Hamas needs to understand that its own security is more threatened by Israel than by fellow militant groups.

This will, in turn, require a more direct public conversation in Israel, rather than the blustering that substitutes for it in Israeli politics. Honesty about Israel’s real options regarding Hamas and the long-term efforts is important for the Israeli public, too.

However unpleasant it might be to recognize, every indication is that Hamas is here to stay. It will take a long time to convince it to change its behavior. The sooner Israel recognizes this, the sooner it can craft more effective policies toward it.