Questions about Syria’s Future

An interview with Prof. Joshua Landis addressed some important questions about Syria’s future. Read the interview if you want to see how Landis views where things are headed. I just wanted to flag some questions it left me pondering:

Does the Kurdish region of Syria remain autonomous or even become independent? Does the US use that region as a military ally and base, in part to be less dependent on Turkey (Erdogan) and Iraq (too close with Iran)? Does Turkey eventually accept – rather than oppose – an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, as it eventually did with the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq?

How long will Jordan, the US, and Saudi Arabia seek to maintain a pocket of supportive militias in the southern Daraa province as a source of leverage versus the Assad government? Will the US require some concessions (what?) vis a vis Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria before relenting for fear that Hezbollah could use control of southern Syria to get closer to border with Israel, its adversary?

Can Alawite-led Syrian (secular) nationalism maintain supremacy over “a very powerful Sunni national spirit” whose organizational manifestations – ISIS, AQ, other Islamists – mostly have been defeated in the civil war? Will that Sunni spirit rise again to challenge the Syrian state? Is it just a question of when, not if, that happens?

Can the Assad state re-establish itself as a strong state in the territory it controls? Or is it more likely to remain weak and rely on greater de-centralization than pre-2011 in terms of things like the provision of social welfare and state services, tax collection, and the control of security personnel?

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The Best Books on the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian Conflicts

Jared Kushner’s speech to several congressional interns has been making the rounds. Also garnering attention is his comment on how to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict:

So the two successes that we’ve had so far is—I don’t know if you’re familiar with the deal we’ve had on the water with the Jordanians and the Israelis and the Palestinians—so I was saying that they’ve talked about in concept for a lot of years where [unintelligible] and we were able to figure out how we were going to negotiate a solution which simply [unintelligible] talking for a very, very long time. But again, that happened just because we’re talking to all sides. We don’t let them get caught in the past.

You know everyone finds an issue, that “You have to understand what they did then” and “You have to understand that they did this.” But how does that help us get peace? Let’s not focus on that. We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books. Let’s focus on, How do you come up with a conclusion to the situation. That was one thing that we achieved, which we were quite happy about—which is, you know, small thing, but it’s actually a pretty big thing over there. But something that we thought was a pretty big step.

The other thing was working through, in this past week, it really showed us how quickly things can ignite in our history, and you have some people who don’t want to see and achieve an outcome of peace. And other people sometimes thrive in the chaos, and they thrive [unintelligible] and that’s not new to politics and it’s not new to that conflict. It’s just the way it is, and you always have people on all sides [unintelligible].

My point is that these things are very, very combustible and very, very delicate in terms of how you can do, but I think the fact that all these conversations were all done in quiet and nothing leaked out [unintelligible]. But I think we were able to keep things quiet. But I mean, any day something could happen.

So, what do we offer that’s unique? I don’t know … I’m sure everyone that’s tried this has been unique in some ways, but again we’re trying to follow very logically. We’re thinking about what the right end state is, and we’re trying to work with the parties very quietly to see if there’s a solution. And there may be no solution, but it’s one of the problem sets that the president asked us to focus on. So we’re going to focus on it and try to come to the right conclusion in the near future.

The Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are indeed very difficult to resolve. But Kushner’s shrugging off of previous analyses and efforts and lessons learned (or not learned) is at best an ignorance of what has been said and done about them; has he really read all these books he’s dismissing? Certainly there are a lot of bad books (and bad commentary) on the conflict, but there is a lot of good stuff out there as well.

For Kushner or anyone else who’s interested, here are some very good English-language books to read on the conflict that provide important information on and insights into history, causes, narratives, emotional connections, politics, and goals. There are a lot more, to be sure, including articles and other short pieces. But in the interests of brevity these nicely cover all the ground. They are also among the least partisan or ideological.

Shlomo Avineri. The Making of Modern Zionism: Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State. New York: Basic Books, 1981. Helps explain why Israeli Jews are so attached to the land and why their needs must be accounted for.

Ian J. Bickerton and Carla L. Klausner. A History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 7th ed. New York: Routledge, 2015. Balanced overview of the entire history of the conflict, with lots of extra but interesting details.

Neil Caplan. The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Good summary of the positions and sensitivities of various actors in the conflict.

Alan Dowty. Israel/Palestine, 3rd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. Very good overview of narratives and histories of both sides.

Rashid Khalidi. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Helps explain why Palestinians are so attached to the land and why their needs must be accounted for.

Fred J. Khouri. The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, 3rd ed. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985. An overview of the Arab position in the conflict.

Dan Kurzman. Genesis 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1970. Multiple first-person accounts of the war, which helped lay the foundation for the contemporary condition.

Daniel C. Kurtzer, Scott B. Lasensky, William B. Quandt, Steven L. Spiegel, and Shibley Z. Telhami. The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013. Detailed examination of the American role in a specific period and lessons to be learned from lack of ultimate success.

Benny Morris. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2001. Detailed history that highlights atrocities committed by both sides.

William B. Quandt. Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967, 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005. Good summary of American efforts to resolve the conflicts.

Paul Scham, Walid Salem, and Benjamin Pogrund. Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue. New York: Routledge, 2016. A collaborative collection of thoughtful essays by people involved in the conflict, providing a nuanced discussion.

Gershon Shafir. Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914, updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. On the land question.

Mark Tessler. A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Very detailed history.

 

Diaspora Jews Won’t Force Netanyahu to Pay Any Price

The idea that the non-Orthodox segments of American Jewry—however incensed it is—will force Israel to pay a price for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cancellation of the Western Wall compromise is unfounded. Rather, a convergence of factors makes the bulk of the American Jewish community unwilling to put material pressure on Netanyahu. And since Netanyahu responds only to actual threats to his position, this means he can continue to thumb his nose at diaspora Jewry and focus on his own priorities: remaining in power and maintaining the status quo—with some increases in settlements—in the West Bank.

First, most American Jews do not donate funds or direct their political activity to Israel, but to specific ideological, cultural, religious, or policy causes in Israel close to their hearts. As Theodore Sasson, a prominent researcher of American Jewry, has noted, 78% of Jewish Federations’ campaign fundraising was allocated directly to Israel in 1967; that percentage fell to 23% in 2004. Funds have increasingly been oriented toward local Jewish communities. Filling the gap, today there are several “friends of” groups that direct their activities to, for example, universities, liberal causes, or the Israeli military. Orthodox and conservative Jews focus their donations on West Bank settlements or their religious kin.

Second, the Western Wall controversy is not a crisis in diaspora-Israel relations. To see what a real crisis looks like, one needs to go back to the “who is a Jew”? disputes of the 1980s and early 1990s. While Israel’s understanding of Jew uses both a religious (Orthodox rabbinical authorities control personal status issues in Israel) and a non-religious (the Law of Return allows for any Jew to become an Israeli citizen but there is no reference to religious determination) foundation, it also recognizes conversations to Judaism performed abroad. Jewish Orthodox parties have tried for decades to enshrine the religious definition—born to a Jewish mother or converted under Orthodox standards—in Israeli law.

In 1988 the Orthodox parties pushed for an amendment in the Law of Return that would stipulate Orthodox-approved conversions. What made such change more likely (it did not ultimately pass) was that in the aftermath of an election, Likud and Labor were jostling for support of the Orthodox parties and so trying to entice them with promises to pass (Likud) or review (Labor) such legislation. For American Jewry there was a real chance the status quo would change, which would directly affect American Jews who wanted to move to Israel. The scrapping of the Western Wall compromise means a return to the status quo, and does not materially affect diaspora Jews.

Yet as tense as those moments were, American Jews quickly rallied around Israeli governments and put aside their misgivings. They did so because events quickly became more important than intra-Jewish disputes: the First Intifada in 1987, the Oslo process in the mid to late 1990s, and the Second Intifada in 2000.

Third, American Jews are increasingly fractured in their attitudes toward Israel. But while criticisms of Israel by prominent Jewish leaders and headlines by an assertive grassroots movement against both the occupation of Palestine and the policies of the Netanyahu governments make it seem as though American Jewry is on the verge of breaking with Israel, the majority of American Jews want no such thing.

According to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 66% of American Jews think security is Israel’s biggest long-term problem. In practice this has meant American Jews rally around Israel when its safety is under threat. This is what happened in 1967, 1990, 2000, and during the Gaza wars of 2008-09, 2012, and 2014. In such moments diaspora criticism of Israel was muted or shouted down within the community.

None of the national Jewish organizations that consider themselves Zionist and are usually labeled “pro-Israel” want such a break, either. While they might disagree with and even publicly critique Israel on specific issues, advocacy that supports the existence of a Jewish state is part of their mandates—even the essence of their existence.

These reasons indicate that Israel under Netanyahu is unlikely to consider warm relations with American Jewry as a priority. The Islamic State, the Syrian war, the continuing Iranian threat, among other security concerns, are of much more immediate concern. In addition, Netanyahu and his rightwing government are keenly interested in either precluding the establishment of a Palestinian state or continuing to avoid negotiations that could lead substantively toward such an end—both policies that the non-Orthodox American Jewish population generally opposes.

Finally, political trends in Israel suggest that the left is not likely to win power in the near future. The right and the center, which leans right, are too strong.

The spate of illiberal bills and laws that Netanyahu has promoted, facilitated, or let pass combined with the breaking of the Wall compromise are proof that American Jews have less power over Israeli policy even on issues of great importance to them. Without an alternative to Netanyahu or his government, they have little leverage over either.

Trump, Obama, and Israel

So much has happened in the last days of the Obama presidency regarding Israel-Palestine, much of it including Donald Trump, that it’s sometimes feels hard to keep up. I’ve had a few pieces out trying to analyze different elements of what this process of transition from Obama to Trump means for American Jews and for Israel. I’ve put excerpts of them below.

Monkey Cage:

Here I lay out why Jerusalem’s status is so difficult to resolve, and therefore why Trump’s claim that he’ll move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is problematic.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has resisted resolution for decades. But Trump has insisted that “a deal is a deal” and that because he is “a negotiator,” he will be successful where others were not. In this case, presumably Trump plans to offer the Palestinians compensation to accept Israel’s claims to Jerusalem.

But it is not that simple.

The “let’s make a deal” approach assumes that each negotiating party has a series of material things that can be traded off. In this approach, both sides understand they will be better off with more than they currently have.

But that doesn’t apply to a place like Jerusalem.

Follow the link for more.

Texas Jewish Post:

Here I argue that Donald Trump, his team’s, and the American Jewish right’s ideas regarding Israel should worry American Jews. This is because they are trying to define what constitutes being Jewish as being all about Israel. Because this is a rightwing version, criticisms of Israel and dissent from its government’s policies are cast as heretical and anti-Israel. It also means domestic concerns that matter to US Jews, particularly social policies, are pushed aside in favor of a focus on Israel. But being Jewish in the diaspora is about much more than Israel.

The National Interest:

Ilan Goldenberg and I argue that Barack Obama’s abstention from UN Security Council resolution 2334 and John Kerry’s last speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were both quite reasonable, and should not be considered a betrayal of Israel. We conclude:

Contrary to claims that President Obama has, in his final days in office, engaged in an unprecedented betrayal, the United States has voted for or abstained on Security Council resolutions critical of Israel under every administration since 1967. The 2016 abstention represented a reasonable approach to one obstacle to peace while the Obama administration’s other policies over the past eight years – captured and updated in the Kerry speech – reflect a deep commitment to Israel’s security and reaffirmed Israel’s and Palestine’s right to exist together side-by-side in peace and security.

Read our full explanation.

Haaretz:

Finally, here I set out what I think is an over-looked element of the American-Israeli relationship: There’s nothing automatic or inherent about its closeness. Indeed, the relationship has grown closer over time due to domestic changes in both countries and shifts in international politics. That means, though, that as these conditions change again, the relationship can grow more distant. I think that’s what is happening now. I think it will remain strong, certainly for the near future, and there is no way to predict what it will look like in 10 or 20 years. But I do think we are witnessing a shift at this moment.

The Israeli government’s commitments to the settlement enterprise – discussed also in the National Interest piece – are a big part of this:

What has changed is that the international community now firmly opposes the settlement enterprise, and is willing to push Israel hard on them. UN Resolution 2334, for example, explicitly calls on the world to “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.”

Any Israeli government that promotes settlements will find itself increasingly isolated on this issue in world opinion and in international institutions. Israel’s domestic politics reinforce that type of government. The country’s electorate has shifted to the right. It’s not a permanent move. But the lack of a viable leftwing alternative to the political right and to Mr. Netanyahu specifically has facilitated the dominance of the nationalist right. That segment of the political class is committed to expanding settlements. Any international effort to push Israel to end that enterprise is a threat to both the right’s political position and to its deeply held beliefs.

Here is the full piece.

 

UNSC 2334, Kerry’s Speech, and Two States

In the days since UNSC approved Resolution 2334, I’ve been puzzled, though not surprised, by the hyperbolic Israeli government reaction.

Starting with Richard Nixon, every US president has abstained or even supported substantive UNSC resolutions that Israel opposed and protested. Sometimes a president did so in multiple cases during his administration. The US abstention on December 23, 2016, was part of a decades-long pattern of US voting at the UNSC: usually support the Israeli position with a veto but on occasion abstain or vote yes.

Instead, this current disagreement is mostly about a left-wing US government and a right-wing Israeli government that both support strong US-Israeli ties but disagree on two central policy issues – two states/peace process and Iran’s nuclear program – and that disagreement has shaped their relationship in a very negative fashion.

I also suspect that Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t have much use for bipartisan US support for US-Israeli ties. The GOP would love to use the Israel issues as a wedge to drive some American Jewish Democrats to vote GOP. Netanyahu, e.g. the speech to Congress, seems happy to help. (Which seems counter-productive for Israel, not the GOP, but his choice.)

If you like the status quo, support settlements, and want to prevent a two-state solution, by all means oppose Obama and Kerry. Because the UNSC resolution and Kerry’s speech favor two states, Israel and Palestine, living in peace and that would require some settlements to be withdrawn and the Israeli occupation to end.

I get that pro-settlements people are upset with a UNSC resolution, not the first, which says settlements have “no legal validity.” But I think if you have been listening to US officials over the decades, you would notice a pattern of displeasure with and rejection of continued settlement expansion. This is not the first time over the last fifty years the United States has called settlements illegal or having no legal validity. But even calling settlements obstacles to peace or illegitimate, and saying settlements must stop now, are not exactly friendly verbiage.

How long can the United States still essentially say we’ll defer comment on the legality of settlements and let the parties, Israel and the Palestinians, negotiate a mutual resolution of the settlements question when there is no diplomatic process, little hope of one starting anytime soon, and important members of the Israeli government are calling for annexation of the West Bank?

Israel can try to win allies, or at least trading partners, all over the world, but the UNSC vote demonstrates those states don’t suddenly forget about settlements and occupation. (Relations with China, New Zealand and Russia, all of whom voted YES at the UNSC, are perfect illustrations). If that is an enduring combination, Israel will periodically pay a diplomatic price for avoiding a two-state solution and instead embracing occupation. I tend to think that price is manageable in global affairs, though many others disagree with me and think it will be a very heavy price. I think the heavier cost will be in repeated violent confrontations with the Palestinians as long as Palestinian self-determination is stymied.

I do wonder if Netanyahu’s tantrum made the situation worse for Israel. It makes the UNSC resolution seem bigger and more important and powerful than it would have been if he had given a short, calm speech that said, ‘We reject yet another UNSC resolution. Happy Hanukah, pass the latkes.’

Peres, Nuclear Weapons, and Avoiding Responsibility

One of the arguments put forward by those criticizing Shimon Peres’ legacy as well as excusing Arab leaders’ decision not to attend his funeral focuses on Peres’ critical role in developing Israel’s nuclear arsenal. This includes the leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, who gave as one of his reasons for not paying his respects to Peres as, among other things, “strong opposition in Arab society to the architect of the occupation who introduced nukes to the Middle East.”

The argument is at best tendentious, and dismisses the context in which Peres operated at the time.

Along with David Ben-Gurion and Ernst Bergmann, Peres was the primary architect of Israel’s nuclear program. He was also the main driver of the French-Israeli alliance in the 1950s and 1960s. He also launched the creation of the country’s defense industry, promoted the development of Israeli technology, and laid the foundation for the shift from a socialist to a free market economy, which contributed to further developments in defense and high tech.

All of this makes Peres one of the giants in Israeli history; he developed and strengthened the country, making it the secure and prosperous state it is today. But I don’t see how it makes him unfit to be remembered and grieved.

For Israeli leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, the Holocaust was a real event. By the 1967 war Israel had engaged in 2 major wars with its neighbors (1948 and 1956), and was under constant attack from Palestinian guerillas and terrorists. Israeli reprisal raids and efforts to undermine the capacity of its enemies to attack broadened the scope of the violence. In addition, Arab leaders were consistently threatening Israel not only with attack but with destruction.

To claim that Israeli leaders at the time should have dismissed these attacks and threats as un-implementable or easily fended off is to apply today’s conditions to that period. It also assumes Israeli leaders had perfect information, could accurately assess the outcomes of their actions all the time, and could predict whether nuclear weapons would or would not come to the region without Israel’s own nuclear program. In fact, Israeli leaders and others did debate amongst themselves many of these issues; but the decision to move forward with a nuclear program was ultimately made as the safest course of action.

In addition, the claim that Peres’ introduction of nuclear weapons to the Middle East means he should be remembered poorly also assumes, without evidence, that the decision to do so was made with malicious intent.

One can certainly criticize the decision, and consider what did in fact occur in the wake of the nuclear program. But to contend that it was, without qualification, the wrong decision is ahistorical and decontextualized and therefore any conclusions drawn from that decision are skewed and misleading.

Finally, to also claim that Peres’ efforts to protect his people, which did not involve attacking or repressing other people, mean he is undeserving of last respects is just an excuse to avoid making hard choices about coexistence. That, of course, says much more about those making the excuse than it does about Peres.

Saideman, ISA, BDS

A quick thought on one small argument embedded in Prof. Steve Saideman’s post, “BDS and the ISA.” (The ISA is the International Studies Association, a grouping of many political scientists and other scholars.  Steve and I have both been members.)

I have plenty of issues with BDS, the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement that targets Israel, but I wanted to comment on one line in Saideman’s post: “While I am not a fan of slippery slope arguments, it is not clear why Israel is targeted and not heaps of other places where there is significant repression: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, Trump’s America, etc.”

I hear variants of that argument a lot. But I do not actually think it is that puzzling, even leaving aside that once the BDS ball gets rolling, BDS probably has a certain appeal or cache on some campuses. If you look at the list, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China are all authoritarian countries. They are not democracies.

In other words, I think the interesting comparison regarding Israel and BDS is not just repression (We’re better than Saudi Arabia!) but repression + democracy. If, as Israel or its supporters often note, you claim to be a democracy (the region’s only democracy) and claim to have the most moral army in the world, maybe you make yourself more vulnerable to this kind of campaign. You self-impose different standards by which to be judged. Not to mention that democracies tend to be more porous with information, whether from opposition politicians, civil society, or other elements that counter the power establishment. Maybe Turkey is a fair comparison (though I’d trust someone who knows something about Turkey unlike me).

Trump’s America? Well, we’re not there yet…