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.

Diskin’s Prayer: On Israel, Gaza, and the next war

Yuval Diskin was head of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, from 2005-2011. He posted this prayer in Hebrew earlier today on Facebook. 

A Prayer of a Father in a War of No Choice?
by Yuval Diskin

My heart is with my brothers and sisters and the masses of Israeli citizens currently under attack from rockets and missiles. My heart is also with those Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that did not choose this war, have become, against their wills, human shields for the terrorists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the other terror organizations, and have absorbed hundreds of tons of explosives from the air.

My heart is with all the parents whose sons are on the front and who may – in a few more hours or days – enter this miserable place whose name is the Gaza Strip. Everyone who has seen and spent days and nights with sewage flowing in the streets of the miserable refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank (or for those who want, Judea and Samaria), and Lebanon is able to understand how much we must find a way to resolve this bloody conflict at least partially.

And yes… in the current situation, I think that it is necessary to do everything possible in order to the stop the rockets from the Gaza Strip. And, if there is no other choice, also a ground invasion provided the invasion will have real goals and will not be intended just for the consumption of the incited masses in the hands of the religious fanatics and cynical politicians.

Whoever is familiar with this endless cycle of bloodshed and hatred knows how much the next war is already filled with the blood of the current war. I know and remember this frustrating sense before every operation or war. It is the moment when you realize deep inside yourself the futility and the foolishness of it and, especially, how much in war there are not really any winners…as much as the war escalates and continues, one can see more and more clearly how much it is unnecessary and how much one could have been spared from it if only we had been truly talking out of a desire to solve the conflict, to compromise and build a better future for all of us…

I pray that after everything is finished, we will remember that really at that moment everything starts anew…And when the hourglass is turned over and we begin to count down until the next war, I hope that we will remember that is forbidden for us and for our enemies to pay attention to the same religious fanatics and war-mongering politicians seeking to satisfy the lust of their supporters – on both sides. And how much it is preferable to sit and to resolve what is possible in this bloody conflict.

Until then, I offer a deep prayer that peace and quiet will return quickly to the citizens of Israel in the south, the center, and the north, and that all our regular, reserve, and career soldiers return home in peace, including our four beloved sons. Let it be.

 

In Thinking about New Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

John Kerry has just announced a basis for restarting talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Washington. More specifically: “We have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.” He added that “The agreement is still in the process of being formalized.”

This probably doesn’t sound all that exciting or new to most. But it needs to be remembered that, under the current conditions in the Middle East, with Benjamin Netanyahu struggling with a rightist party and government coalition, and with Abbas struggling against Hamas, institutional decay, and growing dissatisfaction among the Palestinian population, it’s no easy thing to bring the two sides together for direct talks at a high level.

That said, lots can still happen to derail things, including even before the talks start. Here are some other things we should bear in mind as the process moves forward:

1. Most people expected Netanyahu to keep putting this off and not be serious about it. As I’ve been arguing for many months now, Bibi can be pushed into talks. He isn’t an ideologue; he’s a pragmatic opportunist. He does believe, deeply, that Jews have a historical and biblical claim to the West Bank, and if nothing were standing in his way he probably would do his utmost to extend Jewish sovereignty over it all. But there are obstacles, and more than anything Bibi wants to remain in power and focus on external threats to Israel (primarily Iran). Under these conditions, getting him to talk was always more possible than many presumed.

2. Similarly, most people assumed Mahmoud Abbas was too weak or uninterested to agree to genuine talks. If we didn’t already realize it with the Oslo negotiations, that both he and Netanyahu have been able to—thus far, anyway—tells us something about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: namely, avoiding deterministic assumptions.

3. Importantly, this is only a beginning to talks, not an agreement. There are plenty of material and emotional obstacles blocking an easy pathway to success. Building on the point above, I’m not convinced Bibi would be willing to sign a final agreement ending all Jewish claims to the West Bank. (I’m not so sure Mahmoud Abbas wants to be the one to end it all, either.) But making progress is important and highly relevant. It will set positive conditions for the continuation of talks, build confidence, and make it easier for the next Israeli and Palestinian leaders to finish the work begun here.

4. It seems that Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat will be leading the talks. I’m not so sure how useful that is. Both are experienced, and both have proven—despite some backpeddling at times—genuinely interested in a deal. But it’s not clear how much support from their political masters either has. Both are politically weak, without much of their own power base, and so will be limited by the specific instructions Bibi and Abbas give them. Time will tell if that’s enough to construct a stable platform for continuing.

5. Kerry expended enormous energy to make this happen, devoting most of his time to this one issue even while developments elsewhere in the Middle East require urgent attention. It remains to be seen whether he can maintain that level of determination and pressure to help the talks along. Without it, I’m less optimistic the process will move forward.

6. Hamas won’t be happy.

7. On Israel’s domestic front, there are lots of questions remaining about what Naftali Bennett (leader of Jewish Home) and Yair Lapid (leader of Yesh Atid) will do. Neither has been all that enthusiastic about the peace process. (I realize that’s a gross understatement about Bennett.) They’ll be put to the test now: will they support the talks and anything that comes out of it? It’s likely that Livni will have to report back to Bibi (either directly or through his personal emissaries to the peace talks) on any substantive issues, no matter how minor. How much support his coalition gives him will help determine how likely Bibi is to keep the talks going.

Bennett had previously said he wouldn’t break the coalition apart over talks; just yesterday he reversed himself. That’s not surprising. In addition to being ideologically opposed to any withdrawals from the West Bank (he wants to outright annex all of Area C), Bennett’s party is made up of at least a couple factions that struggled against each other before being united into Jewish Home; and all are opposed to giving up Jewish control over the West Bank. Bennett’s election as party leader was never a sure thing, and was contested from the beginning. His institutional position is threatened as well, then; he can’t afford to agree to anything that might endanger his place at the top of the party. Either he’d be forced out (and it wouldn’t be easy to find another institutional home), or he’d remain but the party would break apart, weakening Bennett’s ability to win seats in the next election.

As for Lapid, nobody knows what he might do. His party has many doves in it, but his ambition to become prime minister means he needs to play more to the right for votes. If he sees the population is increasingly in favor of talks, though, he’ll probably go with it.

8. This could be Shelly Yachimovich’s opportunity to seize the mantle of promoter of the peace process. Assuming Bennett pulls out of the government, Labor could fill the gap. Even if he doesn’t, Bibi might be thinking about bringing Labor in for extra insurance.

9. Look what Israel has been able to accomplish without Avigdor Lieberman in the government: the apology to Turkey, and now progress in peace talks. Just saying.

10. All of what I’ve just written could well prove to be meaningless. This is, after, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Will the Egyptian Coup Affect Other Islamist Groups?

In the aftermath of the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government, observers have started to wonder what effect the coup will have on Islamist groups throughout the region. Shadi Hamid argues that the coup will have “profound implications for the future of political Islam, reverberating across the region in potentially dangerous ways.” It could well, he continued, convince such groups that participation in the political process is unwise. Less apocalyptically, Barbara Slavin contends that “Morsi’s removal is a warning that Islamic parties cannot count on religious identity alone to govern successfully and need to work constructively with others.”

The juxtaposition of these two pieces highlights the difficulty in trying to understand the coup’s potential consequences for the kinds of decisions other Islamist groups might make. But short of direct knowledge of the discussions Islamist leaders are holding behind closed doors, we cannot know for certain what drives their decisions. A glance at the history of Islamist involvement in pluralist politics suggests that the response is likely to be diverse and not a simple “no to elections.”

First, the specific countries or actors used for comparison matter. Hamid looks only at al-Qaeda, a group that has never suggested it might engage in the political process or that it should lay down its arms for a trial run at democracy. There’s no evidence that jihadist groups will change much of their behavior because of the coup. Alternately, will they plan more attacks out of fear they are on the defensive? Target more governments? Perhaps, but it’s also likely they would have done so if countries were becoming more democratic anyway, without the participation of Islamist parties.

Will McCants suggests that of comparable groups that do decide to participate, Salafi parties tend to be too radical and small to obtain broad support within the political system and so can participate without having to face the kind of choice the Brotherhood did. What Salafi violence might be precipitated seems due as much to intra-Islamist politics as anything else. (McCants continues that it’s too early to draw firm predictions.)

Slavin considers Turkey and Iran. But in the former, the AKP split off from the more hardline Welfare Party and may already have been undergoing a mild internal struggle over the character of the party. In fact, the military coup that ousted the first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and the subsequent campaign to shut the party down convinced Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that participation in the democratic process was quite necessary. In Iran, the government is structured along a strict but specific interpretation of Shia Islam as conceived of by Ayatollah Khomeini that none of the main actors within the state want to change.

Second, the history of Islamist groups in the Middle East suggests that coups or similar “shocks” against them or Islamist parties in other states haven’t prevented non-jihadist groups from participating in democratic processes. In December 1991 the Algerian military cancelled elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front appeared to be doing very well, leading to a vicious civil war that lasted into the 2000s and killed over 100,000 Algerians. In 1997 the Turkish Armed Forces removed the first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and then proceeded to purge Islamists from government, the bureaucracy, and the military.

Yet in 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP by its Turkish acronym) participated in national Turkish elections. In January 2006 Hamas participated in Palestinian elections. After its victory, Israel, the United States, Canada, and others began to hold back funds they had been channeling to the Palestinian Authority; after Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Israel—again supported by the US and Canada—imposed a blockade on the entire Strip. In July 2007 and then in 2011, the AKP continued to participate in parliamentary polls (winning the government both times). In 2008-2009 and 2012 Israel attacked Hamas in Gaza, forcing it to seek a ceasefire in both wars. And in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt actively participated in elections despite the fact that the military—once their nemesis—remained a powerful actor, while in Libya the process is complicated by the existence of both jihadist groups and parties that want to participate.

The evidence is only suggestive, but it’s enough to demonstrate that coups or similar shocks against Islamists haven’t precluded participation in subsequent democratic processes. But we need more than sweeping statements for effective comparisons, so that our conclusions are not skewed.

Politics and Pathologies in Israeli National Security Decision Making

Yesterday in The Atlantic I wrote about the politics and pathologies in Israeli national security decision-making, with a specific focus on the National Security Council.

Here’s how it starts:

Imagine this: Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities, destroying some and damaging others. Iran fires missiles back at Israel and “activates” Hezbollah on the northern border. Hamas, deciding this is an opportune moment, starts shooting its own rockets into the southern and coastal areas of Israel.

This is an entirely plausible scenario. It’s also one that Israel expects. What’s less clear is whether Israel has thought through the rest of the implications of a strike on Iran: the impact on the economy; the length of time citizens will need to be mobilized for military service; the reaction of its friends, allies, and neutral states; and how it will coordinate a multi-tiered response on all these fronts.

Follow the link for more.

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.

On Gaza-Israel, 2008-09

I published an article review of two articles that dealt with the 2008-09 battle between Israel and Gaza. The articles are Benjamin S. Lambeth, “Israel’s War in Gaza: A Paradigm of Effective Military Learning and Adaptation,” International Security 37:2 (Fall 2012): 81-118, and Jerome Slater, “Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008-09 Israeli Campaign in Gaza,” International Security 37:2 (Fall 2012): 44-80.

Why Apologize?

Some folks at Commentary are, as expected, unhappy that Israel has apologized to Turkey for the deaths of Turkish citizens (and one Turkish-American) on the Mavi Marmara. Jonathan Tobin argues that it means far less than assumed, since the Turks aren’t interested in a genuine reconciliation (though he later wrote that he wasn’t as worried about Israel’s future being endangered by the apology as others on the right are).

On the other hand, Michael Rubin called the apology a “disaster.” Contending that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyp Erdoğan is “a deeply ideological man who, at his core, does not believe Israel should exist,” he believes that the apology will makes matters much worse for Israel because it emboldens its enemies, including those—like Erdoğan—who facilitate and support terrorism.

There has long been a debate over whether Erdoğan and the AKP more generally are radical Islamists in disguise, or whether they are pragmatic religious conservatives. Rubin seems to follow Daniel Pipes’ perception of Erdoğan as a wild-eyed fanatic bent on re-imposing the Ottoman Empire on the Middle East.

Putting that specific argument aside, Rubin and, to a lesser extent, Commentary pundits generally harbor a vision of Israel that harkens back to Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir—that of a people who dwells alone in the world. In this conceptualization Israel’s rivals, antagonists, and enemies can never be trusted, and so Israel—supported by the Jewish diaspora—must hunker down into a defensive position and never leave the “safety” of its shell. Because when it does, it will always be attacked. Instead, it must wait for others to come around to its own perspective.

This argument is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It doesn’t allow for any Israeli agency or initiative, and it puts Israel at a disadvantage by making it reactive instead of proactive. It prevents Israel from controlling of its own security and forces it to rely on the actions and dictates of others. And, in its darkest moments, it opens the door to accusing those in Israel and abroad who support a less aggressive policy of bad faith, weakness, or ill intent.

There’s no evidence that hunkering down and refusing to engage with others out of anger or fear benefits states. Indeed, it seems more petulant than anything else.

On the apology specifically, there is a growing body of work that explores the benefits of apologies in international relations. It suggests that Jerusalem can be unhappy with Turkish policy and remain at odds on some issues, but still reap several advantages from apologizing.

First, the specific type (or “ritual”) of apology is important, not least because there are cultural differences in how apologies are offered and received (which may, in turn, be at the heart of Rubin’s and others’ negative perception of the issue). There is a world of difference between prostrating oneself before an adversary, and acknowledging mistakes that were made. Recognizing the latter is a common form of communication. Note that Netanyahu’s specific apology was for “operational mistakes” that led to the loss of life. It was not—as Tobin does point out—a recognition of the wrongness of the military action. Nor does it absolve the flotilla members of any responsibility, or say anything about Israel’s future use of force.

Second, apologies of whatever sort are useful for putting embittering issues behind the parties and then moving forward to discuss contemporary issues of importance, or common interests. There is some evidence that acts of contrition can serve as a first step toward reconciliation (though not in all cases), and certainly trust between countries engaged in negotiations is critical to success.

But when an act of violence in particular is left to fester as an act of perfidy in the minds of the group against whom the “crime” was committed, it reifies the violence itself and grows into a larger obstacle to normalization; and the longer it remains the harder it is to overcome. In this case, it’s clear that Israel has much to benefit from improved relations with Turkey (shared intelligence, airspace, trade, to name only a few); allowing the Mavi Marmara affair to continue to block progress on these other fronts is just counter-productive. If the lack of an apology serves to remind Turkish negotiators of Israel’s untrustworthiness and inability to empathize with Turks’ needs (as they see it), then the negotiations are more likely to falter.

Third, apologies between political leaders can trickle down to societies, which may come to view each other in more positive terms. This can have a feedback effect on leaders who wish to account for public opinion. In Turkey’s case, Erdoğan’s populism has long been remarked on. If the Turkish public sees Israel more positively, he, too, will have to incorporate that into his own policies.

Fourth, a country that refuses to acknowledge when it was wrong, or when its actions led to serious and unintended harm to others, is less likely to be taken seriously when it demands the same from others. Terrorism is an ever-present threat to Israelis. Jerusalem cannot expect sympathy and support from others when its citizens are murdered if it doesn’t provide the same. No, I am not saying the deaths on the Mavi Marmara are akin to terrorism. I am putting the killing of civilians in a larger context, and like it or not Israel does have to operate in the broader world of norms and legal structures. If it ignores these norms and laws even in more ambiguous cases such as this one, it will be harder to demand justice for its own causes.

While Turkey under the AKP may well sympathize more with the Palestinians, even Hamas, than Israel, there are still plenty of issues that draw the two countries together that need to be addressed—including terrorism, Syria, Iran, energy, trade, and relations with the United States. It’s simply good foreign policy to recognize the differences between enemies, rivals, friends, and neutrals, and to recognize the importance of common interests.

Perhaps most telling when considering the balance sheet of the Israeli apology is that most Israeli security and political leaders attributed strategic and tactical benefits to one. Avigdor Lieberman was the only main player in Israel who opposes the apology as vehemently as Rubin.

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.