Warnings about Israel’s Jewish Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Developments in Israeli Politics

In the last couple weeks there have been some important developments in Israeli politics, with the potential to have short- and medium-term effects on policy. It’s hard to speak of these with certainty, since the outcome of talks to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks could easily shift things around and make some of the points below irrelevant.

First, Moshe Kahlon—the former Likudnik, Sephardic champion of social justice—has announced he’s returning to politics. The mere announcement, before he has even formed an actual party, has already sent ripples through the system. Polls give him 10 or 11 seats, drawing largely from Likud, Yesh Atid, and Labor.

Kahlon is another white knight who has the potential to disrupt the political system, but probably won’t have any staying power. What he will do is weaken both Likud and Labor, because he’ll represent voters from both. It’s not completely clear how hawkish or dovish he would be on the peace process. Most likely, he’ll be like Yair Lapid, trying to stay within the Israeli consensus (an independent Palestinian state but with main settlement blocs going to Israel, reluctant but somewhat willing to divide Jerusalem). Like Lapid, he’ll be known for his position on economic issues primarily, only moving on security-foreign affairs when he has to.

But what his presence will do undermine whatever comeback Labor was foretold to make under new leader Isaac Herzog. I’m skeptical of the claim that by focusing a lot more on the peace process and the settlements, Labor can reclaim the mantle of the party of peace and will suddenly bump up in the polls and pose a serious challenge to Likud. But even assuming this is possible, Labor can’t do it anymore without also maintaining a strong lead on social and economic issues. Kahlon undercuts Labor’s ability to do so.

Second, the big news on the right is that Ronen Shoval, a founder of the rightist Im Tirzu organization, has joined Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Though he won’t be running in Israeli elections, he will be running as a Yisrael Beiteinu candidate in the World Zionist Congress. It’s a signal, I think, that Lieberman is starting to ramp up his campaign to be prime minister by amassing credentials on the right and by obtaining more strength in Zionist and Israeli institutions.

While this is primarily a challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s also a challenge to Naftali Bennett’s position as a leader of the right. Bennett is already in a difficult position—his threat to leave the government over the release of Palestinian prisoners who are citizens of Israel might be put to the test. I think he’ll have trouble out of government, since his party is already factionalized. And while he might be able to represent the national-religious, he’s already facing a challenge from the far-right Strong Israel. Lieberman is angling to claim representation of the secular nationalists. It’s a two-front threat (within the party and among the right), and it’s not clear Bennett has enough strength to fight both.

Finally, despite the ups and downs of the peace process, Labor’s new leader, and polls showing Labor and Meretz increasing their representation in the Knesset, I still don’t see that the left has a strong, appealing alternate message to Netanyahu and the right. Noam Sheizaf writes that if Netanyahu falls, there will be several people rushing to replace him, on the left, right, and in the center. It’s possible, but they’d be temporarily filling a gap. Without an attractive platform that combines security issues with socio-economic concerns, the left—whose best chance at regaining power is still Labor—won’t have any staying power.

And even that won’t be enough. Israelis’ attitudes toward peace reflect a duality. On the one hand, they support negotiations and two states; on the other, they don’t trust the Palestinians and are skeptical talks will lead to a final resolution of the conflict. They aren’t coming out in the streets or at the grassroots level to do anything about it. If the left can’t mobilize these doubting-yet-hopeful voters, and keep them mobilized, they cannot take and hold power from the right.

Bibi’s Not in Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognizing Israel as Jewish Won’t Protect It

John Kerry’s focus of late has been to convince the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state (or some version of one) as part of the framework for continuing negotiations. Many in Israel and in the U.S. have picked up on this call as a necessary component to achieving real peace, because it would convince Israelis that the Palestinians have truly given up all claims on the State of Israel.

In addition to what such a recognition would do to Palestinian citizens of Israel and to Palestinian identity (both concerns are, I think, dismissed too easily), formal Palestinian identification of Israel as Jewish won’t protect it against future claims. In Haaretz I explain why, with an emphasis on international law and the ingredients for successful settlement of border disputes.

Here’s the basic point:

But asserting that Israelis’ concerns might be eased because Mahmoud Abbas says so is questionable. Even more importantly, there are no legal or political mechanisms that can translate such recognition into protection against future claims. But there are legal and political mechanisms, as well as historical precedents, that can protect the State of Israel against claims on its territory—which is the real issue.

Follow the link for the complete piece.

Some Implications of the Geneva Deal

An interim deal between the P5+1 powers and Iran has just been signed. There is certainly a lot to talk about, but here are some implications for Israel and the American Jewish community.

1. From Israel’s perspective, there are some pretty big holes in the agreement. But that was to be expected: it’s an interim deal only, and could not have addressed all the big issues. The question that Jerusalem will be thinking about for the next six to 12 months is whether it’s a genuinely strong foundation for a final deal, or whether it’s just a façade for Iran to build a nuclear bomb.

2. Given these holes, what does this say about Washington’s commitment to Israeli security? I don’t expect the American-Israeli relationship to stumble or collapse. It’s simply too strong, rooted in too many areas (public opinion, shared interests, strategic cooperation, and more) to fall apart over this single issue.

Nor is there anywhere else Israel can turn for military aid or diplomatic cover. The notion that France could ever have replaced the United States was simply silly; not only are those ties not as intense, but you cannot replace the genuinely special relationship between the U.S. and Israel overnight with a country that is as interested in building ties with Iran as it might be in building them with Israel. And Israeli politics and society is oriented toward the United States, and has been for a long time; shifting such attitudes isn’t easy.

3. It’s unclear how Israel will react in concrete terms to the deal. The choice is between sitting back and letting the deal take its course, with some independent monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program; or continuing to take action against it, through covert means. It’s not an easy choice—doing the latter could prompt Iran to end up pulling out of the agreement, leaving Israel to blame and further isolating it in the international community on this issue.

4. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handled the process leading up the Iran deal badly. In Raphael Ahren’s terms, he gambled and lost. He was belligerent and condescending; he threatened; and he directly called on both Congress and the U.S. Jewish community to fight against their president’s policy because he, Bibi, told them it was wrong.

It’s not clear he would have gotten much better terms, but he would have been more intimately involved in the process, demonstrated Israel is a responsible actor on an issue of critical importance, and been in a stronger position to make demands in the aftermath of the deal. He also would likely have garnered more sympathy for Israel’s position. It’s not that he cried wolf too often, but rather that he did it so belligerently and derisively, even hysterically. He doesn’t care that others started to roll their eyes by the end, but it is a problem if they start to think Israel isn’t being constructive but just obstructive; then it gets shut out of the process. This is important as Iran is now seen as a full partner in this process, rather than just the enemy against which sanctions and threats had to be applied.

Still, Bibi should be content that at least one part of his strategy paid off. It seems clear that without the severe economic sanctions and believable threat of military action, Iran wouldn’t have come to the table. Bibi can build on these in the time leading up to negotiations over a final deal.

5. Don’t expect this to change Israel’s domestic political conditions. Israelis might not be happy with a deal, but plenty of analysts and security officials have said it’s a good deal to begin with; it’s not at all clear that Israelis would vote Bibi out on this issue alone; and there’s still no serious challenger to him and to Likud. And there’s still some time to go before the consequences of the deal will be known and before the outcome of bargaining over a final deal; lots can happen in Israel between now and then to change Israelis’ minds one way or the other. That said, Bibi would be coming up on his fourth term—which would be unprecedented. It’s just as likely that he decision to step down before then or to lose an election would be the result of too much time at the top, rather than Iran.

6. Expect Israel to take a harder line in talks with the Palestinians. Bibi is angry and frustrated with Obama, and already thinks he’s been ignoring Israel’s concerns. It’s not that Bibi will stop the talks, but that he’s likely to become more intransigent.

7. Israel’s and AIPAC’s failure to change President Barack Obama’s mind on the negotiations underlines what serious observers of Jewish lobbying have long know: that the ability to “win” is conditioned by several factors, including external conditions and the determination of the president. Congress has always been more open to AIPAC’s (and other groups’) advocacy; but because Congress’s role in foreign policy is limited, so, too, is the ability to change the president’s mind when he is set on something. The Iran deal and the failure to get Congress to vote yes on Syria strikes are some good recent case studies to use in discussions of how American policy toward the Middle East gets made.

8. On the dynamics in Jewish advocacy more generally: The political polarization of the last several years hasn’t diminished, and that has made it easier for groups on the left and on the right to fight against each other, putting the big centrist groups in the difficult position of trying to maintain a balance between them. But I think the far-right groups (like the Zionist Organization of America and the Emergency Committee for Israel) will be weaker for it. Their loud and ultimately futile opposition to much of the Obama Administration’s agenda has demonstrated that while they get notice (see how often their claims are cited in news accounts), they don’t get results. The big question is whether groups like AIPAC and the ADL will recognize this and adjust their tactics accordingly. The evidence isn’t clear at this point. But like Bibi, they will have much to reflect on in the coming months.

Lieberman is Back

Avigdor Lieberman has been acquitted of all charges of fraud and breach of trust. This will have considerable effects on Israeli politics and foreign policy.

As Carlo Strenger writes, Lieberman will now feel emboldened and be in a stronger position to pursue his goal of becoming the top leader of the right in Israel. This will, as Amir Mizroch notes, have a direct impact on coalition politics in Israel.

In foreign policy terms it’s likely the impact will be even starker. A country like Israel—small, in a protracted conflict, surrounded by hostile forces—relies heavily on great power support. Yet Washington is already suspicious of Jerusalem’s intentions, while Europe is increasingly willing to separate Israel from the West Bank. These conditions require Jerusalem to navigate varied and sometimes conflicting interests and pressures with nuance, tact, a long-term perspective, and a commitment to maintaining friendly and close relations with its benefactors. Lieberman is not the man to do this.

He is better known for his bombast and belligerence than his discretion and diplomatic skills. In 2001 he proclaimed that Israel should bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam if Cairo turned its back on Israel. In 2009, when Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert apologized to Hosni Mubarak for Lieberman’s comment that Hosni Mubarak can “go to hell,” Lieberman compared their behavior to that of a “battered wife.” In 2010, at a private dinner, he scolded French and Spanish leaders on solving Europe’s problems first before turning to the Middle East; he then gave his comments to the Israeli press. In 2012, he equated Europe’s position toward Israel with its position toward the Jews in the period leading to the Holocaust. This August he compared Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

None of this is helpful and there’s no evidence Lieberman has learned to temper his reactions to decisions and events he doesn’t agree with. Take two of Israel’s most urgent foreign policy issues: the peace process and reconciliation with Turkey.

The peace talks with the Palestinians have certainly been difficult from the beginning, and they may be breaking down even sooner than expected. But if Lieberman disdains Arab and European leaders for not adopting Jerusalem’s positions, he seems to hate Palestinian leaders, particularly Mahmoud Abbas. In theory he supports a two-state solution, and has even claimed he’d leave his home in the settlement of Nokdim if it is actually achieved. But in practice his conditions don’t leave much room for progress: he mistrusts the Palestinians, wants a very constrained Palestinian state, opposes the division of Jerusalem, and prefers to exchange Palestinian citizens of Israel for settlers.

Israel is also at a delicate moment in the reconciliation process with Turkey. Granted, the process is stalled because of the Turkish government’s reluctance to move forward. But at least there is a process, a forum for discussion. Lieberman would prefer there be no process at all. Recall that the Israeli apology to Turkey for what happened on the Mavi Marmara took place only after Lieberman left office. He was adamantly opposed to any expression of wrongdoing, and generally thinks apologizing is poor policy and a reflection of weakness.

It is certainly not all Israel’s fault that it’s in the position it is. The Palestinians and Turks deserve their full share of the blame for lack of movement in their negotiations, for instance. But Jerusalem cannot escape its responsibilities, either. With Lieberman as Foreign Minister and a member of the innermost cabinet, Israel’s positions on these and other issues will harden. Even apart from his personal inclinations, his reinvigorated effort to follow Benjamin Netanyahu into the prime ministry will push him and his rivals to adopt more hardline policies as they compete for support from their rightist base. All of this will make it much more difficult to strengthen ties, build trust, and persuade others of the validity of Israel’s position.

Foreign policy—again, especially for small states—requires the ability to adapt to changing conditions, constraints, and opportunities. It’s just not clear Lieberman is interested in doing so.

Doves in Israel’s Security Network?

Yesterday, Israel’s outgoing National Security Advisor, Yaakov Amidror, said that if peace talks with the Palestinians fail, Israel’s international standing will worsen. Though he didn’t lay it out specifically, the logical extension of his argument is that the talks need to succeed if Israel is to be in a stronger regional and global position; and to succeed, Jerusalem will need to take them more seriously and be prepared to offer serious concessions.

Amidror is no lefty. He is a member of the religious Zionist community, which believes that the Land of Israel was given to the Jews by God, and therefore should not—indeed, cannot—be given up to an independent Palestinian state. But his comments reflect similar comments made by many, many former security officials once they’ve left their work in the military and intelligence communities. Out of office, they’ve all publicly mused—and some have been downright accusatory—about whether Israel’s policy toward the West Bank and settlements is creating unnecessary threats and leading Israel into moral corruption and physical danger.

• Former Chief of Staff Ehud Barak said that without a Palestinian state, Israel risked becoming an apartheid regime.

• Former Mossad head Meir Dagan argued that Israel’s needs to present a viable peace initiative, and that the Netanyahu government isn’t doing so.

• Former Mossad head Efraim Halevy has criticized Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a non-starter.

• And, of course, there are the highly critical comments by all of the living former chiefs of the Shin Bet.

These are only the most recent prominent examples. Before them, there was Shimon Peres (a notable hawk during his time in the Defense Ministry), Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Amram Mitzna, and others.

What gives? Do all these hard men, who have engaged in deception and violence during their careers, suddenly become soft and dovish out of office? Is there something about being a member of the security network that makes one a dove?

The short answer is “no.” But the long answer is “yes.”

To some extent it’s about personality and individual beliefs. Plenty of former security officials have become rightwing politicians: Rechavam Ze’evi joined Moledet and Rafael Eitan founded Tzomet, both far-right political parties. Effi Eitam joined the protests at the settlement of Amona in 2006, which tried to prevent the Israel Defense Forces from demolishing the buildings in accordance with government policy. Moshe Ya’alon became the pro-settlement Likudnik and current Defense Minister.

But there are also some structural and bureaucratic forces at play here that “hide” what are widely considered leftwing views among security officials while they are active, so that by the time they are able to speak publicly and freely it seems as though they have been “converted” to leftist ideology.

I’d argue that being privy to all kinds of detailed information about threats, challenges, and enemies’ intentions and capabilities certainly makes these security officials aware of the problem, but also aware that a range of policies is needed to both lessen the burden on the military/security forces as the primary or only units able to respond to these particular policy problems, and to undermine the ability of enemies and challengers to expand operations, gain supporters, and weaken Israel in the broader regional and global structures.

In other words, these officials understand that serious peace initiatives by Israel and an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank-Gaza are important policies that need to be pursued and have a good chance of diminishing threats to Israel.

Outside observers, though, don’t realize that many security chiefs might already be thinking these are necessary responses while they are on active duty because they aren’t going to publicly call out the government of Israel for not trying (or at least, most officials won’t do that). Thus working in agencies by nature secretive (like intelligence and defense) doesn’t allow for a comparison of their views during and after their service.

At the same time, there is the question why these officials cannot make such policies happen, if they really are convinced these are valid policy options. Part of it has to do with the nature of security decision-making in Israel, which—like in other states—is such that agencies often have to struggle for resources, attention, and influence. They have less ability to focus on already-difficult policy options when the process of decision-making takes up so much time.

There is also, of course, the nature of civilian leadership and the seeming lack of commitment to a serious peace process. This isn’t a Bibi thing, though many critics like to hold him accountable for the problem today. All civilian governments since before Bibi have had a difficult time moving forward on the peace process, including, in recent years, under Labor and Kadima governments.

Finally, I think there’s a process of prioritization that pushes serious efforts at peace to a secondary or subordinate position to more immediate physical-military threats to Israel. These security officials are the individuals responsible for the frontline defense of Israel; failure to protect Israel will result in the killing of Israeli citizens and the weakening of Israel’s borders and defenses. It seems likely that compared to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, which has its own host of issues and problems, figuring out how to undermine terrorist organizations, defend against missiles, or disrupt enemies’ military capabilities are much “easier,” producing quicker and more obvious results.

Only after they leave active service might these officials have the breathing space to look back and wonder if they—and the country itself—have missed an opportunity to take a longer view.