The Domestic Politics of Israeli Peacemaking

At Foreign Policy’s The Middle East Channel I have a piece on how Israel’s domestic politics might facilitate a genuine Israeli effort in peace talks with the Palestinians. Here’s a teaser:

The (possible) resumption of direct and high-level talks between Israel and Palestine has generated a wide range of reactions among analysts and pundits. Much of it has been negative, particularly when it comes to presumptions about Israeli intentions. The standard assumption among observers is of a stronger rightwing government, with a couple maybe-centrists here and there, facing off against a weaker leftwing opposition — a formula that many assume can only mean the continuation of the status quo.

Things may turn out that way, but we simply cannot know at this point. Information is contradictory and incomplete. More importantly, the domestic politics of peacemaking in Israel encompasses multiple considerations among a variety of parties. It is too simplistic to contend that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a rightwing ideologue who is only stalling for time, while Israel’s intra- and inter-party struggles and politicians’ personal ambitions will exert considerable influence over how committed Israel is to talks.

Follow the link for the rest of the piece.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.