Using the term “refugee”

For people in the United States, admitting refugees could, in theory, easily be perceived as a safer bet than other categories like asylum-seekers and tourists. After all, tourists seeking to visit the United States are not generally subjected to anything near the same level of scrutiny as refugees who face 1 ½ to 2 years of document gathering, interviews, and background checks. Asylum seekers also face extensive scrutiny by the US government, but many are already in the United States while that process is underway.

My point is that if you chose one of these categories about which to be afraid, I am not clear why “refugee” would be number one. But that assumes something that we should not take for granted: that we all mean the same thing when we say refugee. Yet what is apparent is that we do not. Instead the word refugee has becomes a catch-all for any foreigner coming to the United States, thus erasing a distinction, say, between refugees and asylum seekers. The crucial nuance is lost.

Moreover, for proponents of greater restrictions on US immigration, refugees may be thought of as less in terms of foreigner writ large and more in terms of Muslim. The general danger, especially after the attacks in Paris, is seen as letting in more Muslims. Take the House bill that passed. It does not ask for extra certification for all refugees, just those from Syria and Iraq. Or: Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz are fine with Christian refugees but keep out the Muslims, thank you very much. You get the idea.

I mention this as a warning to those explaining the intricacies of migration. By all means, carry on, but recognize that the subtleties and distinctions that are so central to understanding human movement are not necessarily heard, especially by those who either don’t follow migration issues regularly, oppose immigration, or both.

New Book on Israeli Politics

Harold Waller and I have co-authored a text on Israeli Politics, due out with Oxford University Press in February 2016. The Politics of Israel: Governing a Complex Society serves as an introduction to the topic, and covers a wide range of issues and areas, including the impact of Zionism on Israel’s political culture, religion in politics, the politics of the Arab minority, interest groups and public protest, and debates over the meaning of Israel as a Jewish state.

Don’t Be So Quick To Count AIPAC Out

Given AIPAC’s prominent role in the fight against the Iran deal, questions have already been raised about the impact of its defeat—it won’t convince enough Democratic members of Congress to vote against the agreement—on its influence in DC. It’s a perhaps inevitable question to ask, but the answer should be obvious: the effect will be minimal. The influence of interest groups like AIPAC can’t be measured by a single political fight.

It was never likely that AIPAC could derail the deal in Congress. Presidents are the dominant players in the making of foreign policy. When they are committed to a specific policy, there is little that can push them back. Since the mid-twentieth century Congress and the Supreme Court have generally accepted that preeminent role.

So AIPAC was starting at a disadvantage. Add to that the fact that this Democratic President sees the Iran accord as his signature piece of foreign policy, and the chance of lining up Democratic Senators and Representatives became even slimmer.

The incline was made steeper by the fact that a lot of security and nuclear proliferation experts—both in the United States and in Israel—contended that the deal wasn’t so bad, or was good enough to build on. This made the case for opposing it weaker.

Nobody with any experience in DC who drops their ideological blinders thinks that under these conditions, a failure to gather enough opposition votes means AIPAC is losing influence.

More important is the fact that AIPAC is embedded in the policymaking system. That’s what gives it influence, not its wins or losses in specific cases. It’s the fundamentals of participation that matter.

AIPAC’s ability to influence Congress stems from Israel’s place in the political game, and the conflation (as inaccurate as it is) between Israel and American Jewry. Jewish voters are concentrated in key electoral districts; public sympathy and support for Israel is consistently high, and politicians don’t pick unnecessary fights; Republicans have for the last few presidential cycles worked under the assumption that US Jews are about to migrate en masse to their party; and both Democrats and Republicans think taking a position on Israeli security wins Jewish votes.

Elected officials are open to hearing the ideas of an organization claiming to represent the Jewish community on Israel-related issues. AIPAC officials regularly participate in the writing of bills that touch on the American-Israeli relationship, even if indirectly (such as aid to third parties in the region).

AIPAC officials and board members have regular access to politicians and their staff. AIPAC-approved donors are courted during election campaigns.

So to judge the influence of AIPAC, or any lobby group, look to its daily operations and to policy outcomes over time. On the most important issues that define its mandate, such as military aid to Israel and a close American-Israeli relationship, AIPAC “wins” all the time. Partly that’s because the issues are easy for politicians to endorse, and partly because AIPAC has successfully built its capacity over time.

AIPAC picked a losing issue to spend its money on this time. But nobody in Congress is going to ignore AIPAC when it comes to thinking about the next foreign aid bill or funding for an Israeli anti-missile system. Nobody is going to refuse an invitation to its annual policy conference. Nobody did any of these things after previous defeats to American presidents on specific issues.

Where AIPAC might be constrained is the growth of other Jewish advocacy organizations making claims on the community’s resources and representation and intensifying divisions within the community at large. The fight over the Iran deal might represent an example of how this process play out, but it’s not a cause of it.

These divisions are related not just to expanding fractures in the community across religious, denominational, political, and generational lines, but also due to changes in Israel itself. The community’s once-famous ability to mobilize in support of Israel during moments of crisis is declining as individuals and specialized organizations now donate to and work on behalf of specific social, religious, or political issues in Israel that fit with their narrow mandates.

This is a long term process. We need more time, and more political fights, before the outcome becomes clear.

On AIPAC and Lobbying

AIPAC’s prominent role in the fight against the Iran deal has, unsurprisingly, led to increased attention about its advocacy activities. Those who support the deal, and oppose AIPAC’s own position against the deal, have made some inaccurate or misleading claims about its activities. The crudest simply argue that AIPAC is a foreign agent and is looking out only for Israel.

But the more sophisticated have tried to draw a connection between AIPAC’s stance on the Iraq War and the Iran deal. That is, they claim AIPAC lobbied in favor of the war, and so cannot be trusted to make smart policy arguments today.

But there’s no evidence that AIPAC did lobby for the invasion of Iraq. The claim is supported only by statements by AIPAC leaders and others (sometimes second hand) that they lobbied. But while those seeking to undermine AIPAC’s arguments credit these few statements as truth, they ignore statements by other AIPAC people saying the exact opposite. That’s selection bias.

Moreover, some of these statements aren’t explicit acknowledgement of actual lobbying, but hypotheticals and qualified “we might do so.” One should also note that lobby groups prefer to play up their credentials and their successes; power is partly perception, especially in a place like D.C.

Finally, this is D.C. we’re talking about. People meet other people all the time, and talk about policy and political issues all the time, sharing ideas and information. That’s perfectly normal, but it’s not lobbying.

I’ve yet to see any actual evidence of lobbying. This might include specific meetings or strategy documents about lobbying, a chronological discussion of a politician changing her mind on the invasion of Iraq after a series of meetings with AIPAC officials or board members, or highlighting the same language used by AIPAC on a potential Iraq invasion in a Congressional resolution or some other official policy document.

Without any of this, claims about AIPAC and the Iraq war are at best uninformed, at worst conspiratorial. Surely a serious public debate about an important foreign policy like the Iran deal deserves much more than either of those.

Three Thoughts on the release of FRUS: Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1969-1972

A new Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume is out on US policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, 1969-1972.[1] While I was not able to read the whole volume yet, I set aside some time to read through the documents from the year 1970. I wanted to share three impressions. Without going back and looking at the existing secondary histories, I cannot tell you that these are new revelations. But either way, I found the documents of interest.

1. First, on October 23, 1970, CIA Director Richard Helms reported that a Fatah official had contacted the United States and wanted to talk with the United States, including about the idea of a two-state resolution.[2] As I read the texts, the clear implication was that Fatah was open to discussing a two-state solution in 1970. The US government kept the backchannel conversation going but declined to set an agenda and send a representative to hold official secret talks with Fatah.[3]

A month later, on November 24, Helms told Kissinger, then the National Security Advisor, that the Fatah contact told the CIA that Fatah had completed plans for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and the idea had the support of all the Arab states except Jordan. In terms of territory, the state would include the “West Bank of Jordan, the Gaza Strip – with unimpeded access between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – certain (unstated) portions of the East Bank of Jordan, and internationalization of the Old City of Jerusalem.” So not only was the United States aware that Fatah was interested in two states but also aware that the idea had wider Arab support.[4] The CIA continued contact at least into early 1971; the Fatah official was pressing the United States to set an agenda for an official (secret) dialogue but the USG did not. Though it is now 45 years later, the name of the Fatah contact was kept classified in the FRUS volume.

2. Second, as this was happening, a much larger discussion was taking place at the highest levels of the US government to consider changes in US policy toward the Palestinians.[5] The first shift was straightforward. Was the Palestinian question now more than just a refugee question? (For example, remember that the only reference to Palestinians in UNSC Resolution 242 of 1967 was as refugees and without even using the word Palestinian.) The US answer was yes; the Palestinians had become an independent, if fragmented, political force. “The Palestine question can only be settled with the Palestinians.”[6]

But that left two other challenging and inter-related questions. What endpoint did the United States favor, an independent Palestine or an autonomous Palestine in association with Jordan? Also, what role would King Hussein play? Should the United States bypass the King, consult the King, or should the King be able to veto changes in US policy toward the Palestinians?

At a December 17, 1970 meeting of the Senior Review Group, US policymakers agreed they favored a Palestinian entity, maybe a state, in the West Bank and Gaza in association with Hashemite Jordan.[7] They did not want to specify what would be the borders of the state in the West Bank and instead used the phrase with “whatever frontiers might be agreed.” Kissinger was against the idea of committing to the 1967 lines. They did not favor an independent Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza and feared Palestinian irredentism toward Jordan in such a scenario. Consequently, they also did not favor an independent Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza, and parts or all of the East Bank of Jordan.

In theory, US officials knew they could dump Hussein and work directly with the fedayeen – Arafat, PLO – but they were unwilling to do so. In the internal US minutes and memos, one senses US loyalty to King Hussein. Kissinger had mixed feelings about consulting Jordan: “Would we ask [King] Hussein if he minds if we deal with the [Palestinian] fedayeen? This is like a wife asking her husband if he minds if she commits adultery.”[8] But in the end, the United States wanted to get a feel for the King’s view of how to handle the Palestine issue and the possibility of US contacts directly with Palestinians. Washington instructed the US Ambassador to Jordan to discuss the “Palestinian factor” with King Hussein. The King had a measured response.[9]

Hal Saunders, a key US official on Arab-Israeli matters, correctly noted a central “con” to Palestinians getting a separate voice and, ultimately, a separate entity: “The Israelis would choke.”[10]

As an aside, two other comments struck me as spot on. After a discussion of possible Palestinian-Jordan endpoints, David Packard, Deputy Secretary of Defense, noted something true to this day: “The problems arise in trying to move from here to there.”[11]

Helms, the CIA director, also predicted what would happen if Palestinian nationalism was not addressed in political fashion: “In effect, resistance has finally restored the essential degree of national pride to the younger Palestinian generation, and if this pride is not permitted to channel itself into constructive effort (for example, within the context of a Palestine entity), it will vent itself violently and destructively against all foes, real or imagined.”[12]

3. Third, and just briefly, reading documents around the Egyptian-Israeli fighting in 1970, the War of Attrition, it kind of suggests another part of the story of the growth of tighter US-Israel ties: the United States felt pushed toward Israel in reacting against Soviet support for Egypt. Much of this discussion turned on Israeli arms requests. I am familiar with the argument that Israeli support for Jordan during Black September demonstrated to Washington that Israel could be a useful strategic asset for the United States. But I had not thought about the way in which Israel served as the US proxy in competition with the Soviet Union and its Egyptian proxy and that that might have cemented US-Israeli ties as well.


[1] Steven G. Galpern, ed, Foreign Relations of the United States: Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1969-1972, vol. 23 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2015).

[2] Document 174. Alexis Johnson, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, made a similar point in Document 172. For an op-ed on CIA-PLO contacts that fingers Ali Hassan Salameh, see Kai Bird, “Robert Ames and the CIA’s history of back-channel talks with ‘the bad guys’,” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2014.

[3] Helms to Kissinger, Document 180, November 5, 1970. See also document 185, November 20, 1970, p. 647.

[4] Document 186, p. 649. Another report suggested the Palestinians meant the portion of the East Bank of Jordan west of the Ramtha-Amman-Ma’an line.

[5] This larger discussion preceded the Fatah contact. See Document 112 (May 7, 1970), Section D on p. 371 (also Sisco in document 114). Also Kissinger comment, briefly, p. 599. Also documents 181, and especially document 182 (November 13, 1970). Document 176 (October 24, 1970) – NSC summary of a longer State paper on US Policy Toward Palestinians.

[6] Document 170, p. 576.

[7] Document 192, December 17, 1970, pp. 673-680. Among others, the meeting included Kissinger, Deputy Secretary of Defense Packard, CIA Director Helms, Harold Saunders, Joseph Sisco, and the Chairman of the JCS.

[8] Document 183, p. 635  (Senior review group meeting, November 13, 1970. Good discussion here of the possible roles of the King and of the fedayeen in future US policy.)

[9] Document 185, p. 647.

[10] Document 182, p. 632.

[11] Document 192, p. 674.

[12] Document 180, p. 617.

Danny Danon at the UN

There is no doubt that the appointment of Danny Danon as Israel’s next ambassador to the United Nations is a bad move. Danon is belligerent, uninterested in hearing alternative views about issues he cares about, and exhibits a disdain for the international community, which he seems to think is generally hostile to Israel. He is a member of Israel’s younger generation of secular ultra-nationalists, and as such is unapologetic about anything Israel does. He is also staunchly opposed to a Palestinian state.

All of that is fine for Israel’s domestic arena, particularly in the current political climate. But it’s highly problematic for an envoy to the world’s premier multilateral body—one dominated by countries that already view Israel’s international policy with skepticism and support a Palestinian state. At a time when his prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ticked off much of the international community (partly on the basis of policy, partly because people like to dislike Netanyahu) even while concern over Israel’s occupation is transforming into active policies against it, Danon is not the man to repair Israel’s relations with the outside world.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter all that much. Netanyahu, and most of his government, already views the world as at best indifferent, at worst inimical to Israel. That’s doubly true of the United Nations specifically. Netanyahu’s policy on settlements and on Israeli control over the West Bank isn’t going to change. The best chance of that—the John Kerry talks—has passed and won’t come around again.

While Netanyahu does care what other governments think, I think he prefers direct diplomacy to public pressure. The only place where he is willing to use public diplomacy is in America, where he thinks he can sway public opinion to his side. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to sway public sentiments in Europe, Africa, or Asia. Trade and direct humanitarian aid in the latter two places are more likely to matter than speeches at the United Nations.

The days when Israel could change minds in the General Assembly are gone, probably by the 1980s if not earlier. And even then Israel needed the help of the United States and other allies to help persuade others.

Today Netanyahu has pushed many of Israel’s traditional allies away. At the same time his settlement building and public statements overshadow anything his UN ambassador might say. Danon’s predecessor, Ron Prosor, was far more articulate and sympathetic, and yet even he couldn’t do much for Israel’s case.

Danon might be able to push Israel’s interests further in the quieter interactions that take place out of the spotlight of the General Assembly. He certainly won’t be deterred by polite rejections and brush-offs. But even here Danon is up against a wall of concern about Israeli policy, and he simply can’t allay those concerns because he doesn’t view these policies as problematic. If anything, they aren’t forceful enough for him. I mean policy regarding the expansion of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, toward Hamas in Gaza, toward Iran, and so on.

Maybe Danon’s views about the occupation, about the UN, and about the world have changed, and maybe they haven’t. It doesn’t matter. Even Abba Eban would have trouble making Israel’s case at the UN today.

Israeli Intelligence in favor of Iran Agreement

For several weeks, we’ve been hearing that former Israeli security leaders and generals are more supportive of the Iran agreement than Israel’s current political leaders. (I wrote about it here) Now, Shimon Shiffer has written in Yediot Aharonot (Eng), a major Israeli newspaper, that current Israeli intelligence told Israel’s political leaders the deal was okay:

But alongside the outrage at Obama’s style – his speech was intended primarily to show who wears the pants in the world of international relations – there is also a need to listen better to the Israeli intelligence community. The research division of Aman [Military Intelligence] and the Mossad provided senior decision makers an assessment based on an analysis of the nuclear agreement between the five powers & the EU and Iran, according to which it is a reasonable and even good agreement that includes the means of preventing Iran [from attaining] nuclear weapons in the coming decade. 

The Mossad, the Israeli Secret Intelligence Service*, and Military (IDF) Intelligence, known as Aman, are two of the three major pillars of the Israeli state’s intelligence community, with the third being the Shin Bet or Israeli Security Agency (which focuses on internal and Palestinian issues, not Iran). So while Israel’s government and much of the Israeli Jewish public oppose the agreement, Israel’s intelligence community sees it as a reasonable, if not good, agreement. 

Meanwhile in the US debate, you would hardly know that anyone in Israel, let alone the official intelligence community, is okay with the agreement. Go figure.

(Unfortunately, I have not seen the article posted on-line. A picture is below.)


*This is the wording the Mossad uses on its English website. One could translate its longer Hebrew name as the agency for intelligence and special operations.