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.
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.
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.
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.
Guest post by James Devine:
Everyone expected the vitriolic reaction to the Iran nuclear deal from the Republicans and Benjamin Netanyahu. The rhetoric coming out of Iran, however, is less easily understood. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, recently tweeted a picture of what appeared to be Barak Obama with a gun to his own head. He also claimed that Iran’s hostility toward the US was unabated and that the deal needed to be examined very carefully before it was accepted, suggesting his support was in doubt. Similarly, Ali Jaffari, the head of the powerful Republican Guard, claimed the deal crossed several of Iran’s red lines and was therefore unacceptable.
It is not surprising that there was some hardline opposition to the deal in Tehran. A segment of the political elite prefers to maintain an ideologically driven confrontational policy toward the West no matter what the economic and diplomatic cost. Iran’s current moderate president also has political enemies who would rather see the deal fail than allow their adversary to score a political victory. Nevertheless, Khamenei is the dominant figure in Iranian politics and if he approves the deal, it would be very difficult for Rouhani’s opponents to attack it too vigorously without seeming to be challenging his authority. There is little doubt that Khamenei was well briefed throughout the negotiating process, and he made it clear on numerous occasions that the negotiating team had his support. While it is possible that he was not aware of a few details before the deal was signed, it is not likely that there was anything so unexpected in the deal that he would change his position. Indeed, Jaffari had also given his support to the draft framework earlier. So why the change in heart?
Part of the reason is Iran’s complex and tumultuous political system. Khamenei is the most powerful figure in the state, but he guards his political capital jealously. He has traditionally avoided getting too closely associated with any one of Iran’s political factions for fear of alienating the others. He has only broken this pattern under the most extreme circumstances, such as the 2009 election unrest. This allows him to maximize his political influence and maintain the stability of the political system. Khamenei’s current rhetoric can therefore be seen as consistent with his leadership style. He could push the deal through if he wanted to, but it would mean snubbing his traditional power base among the conservatives, and moving closer to Rouhani and his pragmatist-Green party supporters, whom he does not trust. Moreover, if the deal does get blocked in Congress, or somehow breaks down later, it is better for Khamenei that the deal is seen specifically as Rouhani’s work. That way its failure would be a black mark on the President’s resume, not his. Therefore, distancing himself from the deal, at least a little, makes good political sense.
The rhetoric is also likely a response to the debate taking place in the US. With the deal under attack, the Obama Administration has defended it by saying the US can reapply the pressure on Tehran whenever it wants, and bring the Islamic Republic to heel. Khamenei therefore needs to send a message back to Washington: Tehran cannot be bullied. At the same time, it is also a message for the Iranian people. The regime may have compromised with the Great Satan, but it has not lost its teeth.
It is possible that the rhetoric is a sign that the deal is in serious trouble in Iran, as some have suggested. The spiral of inflammatory rhetoric continues to escalate, it could reach such a point that Khamenei feels he has to disavow the deal to protect his own position. However, it is more probable that the rhetoric will have an impact on the US side, where no one will want to look soft on Iran lest they weaken their position for the upcoming presidential elections. In all likelihood though, the deal will be ratified in both countries. Obama still has a veto over congressional overview, and Khamenei would probably not have let the process get so far if he did not really want to have a deal in place.
The real problem is likely to be further down the road. Indeed, the rhetoric we are experiencing now is likely just a taste of what there is to come. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a complex document. As it is put in practice, there will be debates at each step about what was agreed upon and how it must be implemented. Both sides will fight strenuously to protect their interests and demonstrate resolve. If the rhetorical posturing grows too intense, one side or the other may decide that they no longer have a negotiating partner, or that the domestic costs of the agreement are too high.
Bargaining always involves both carrots and sticks. It would be unrealistic to hope for no rhetoric or posturing, or for either side to make concessions without the threat of punishment at least implied. However it is essential that both parties recognize the complex dynamics behind the other’s signaling, and understand the underlying meaning. They must also realize their own rhetoric and coercive threats strengthen hardliners on the other side, and force their negotiating partners to respond in kind. Carrots and sticks therefore need to be carefully calibrated.
Rouhani and Obama have been able to manage these dynamics so far, something few people would have predicted as recently as 2013. If the deal is to survive, there is 10-15 years of more work ahead.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to stop the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He just doesn’t know it yet. That’s dangerous for Israel, because it undermines Israel’s ability to react proactively to the agreement, putting the ball in Iran’s court to carry or drop.
But while observers love to blame Netanyahu for Israel’s foreign policy problems, they should also hold Israel’s Jewish opposition parties accountable for their role in Israel’s unwillingness to address the aftermath of the deal. Not only have they consistently failed to challenge Netanyahu on his foreign policies and to propose new ideas for dealing with a resurgent Iran, but they have actively supported his claims.
It’s understandable why Netanyahu holds to his position. He believes in the biblical maxim that Israel is a “nation that dwells alone,” and that the world is a hostile place for Jews and for Israel—and always will be. So the deal is only one event in a long line of iniquities the Jews have suffered their entire existence. Most members of his government share this worldview.
But we should expect Israel’s Jewish opposition parties to hold a different view; at a minimum they should at least challenge Netanyahu for political gain. While crass, this would still mean a public debate on a security issue of critical importance. Instead they have failed to put forward any alternate proposals for reacting to the agreement, compounding the government’s failures with their own.
Their silence is all the more striking given that several former and serving security officials have publicly stated that the deal, while not perfect, does contribute to Israel’s security and can serve as the core element of a broader regional strategy. Israeli public opinion is also skeptical but there are hints of tolerance for the deal. The foundation for a challenge to the prevailing mindset is there; but no-one is opening their eyes to it.
Instead they’ve hewed to Netanyahu’s line. Yair Lapid, leader of the center-right Yesh Atid party, has criticized the prime minister’s handling of the crisis, but he committed to “fighting to the last minute so that the whole world and the US Congress understand that lifting sanctions without changing the issue of inspections would be wrong.”
Avigdor Liberman, of Yisrael Beiteinu, repeated the Netanyahu line and called the deal “a total surrender to terrorism.”
Labor leader Isaac Herzog even decided to travel to Washington to convince the Obama Administration that the deal is a terrible one and should be re-negotiated. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the leader of the main opposition party is acting as Netanyahu’s personal envoy. This might be appropriate during wartime, but it’s hardly suitable as a reaction against an international treaty.
The reason for their submission is that most of them, with the exception of the leftwing Meretz, are competing for the same electorate. They think there is no room in the public’s mind for a different position on Iran.
Surveys seem to bear their concerns out. On political and security issues, 29.1 percent of the Israeli public identifies as “right,” while 20.7 percent identity as “moderate right,” 23.9 percent as “center” and only 8.3 percent as “moderate left.” Also, 45 percent of the Jewish public identifies to varying degrees with the national religious camp in Israel—the sector of the population that is more nationalist, more rightist, and more suspicious of the outside world.
The proliferation of smaller, centrist parties in 2000s and the Labor Party’s shift toward the center has intensified the competition for these voters. Given these voters’ skepticism toward the Palestinians, Obama, and most of all Iran, the parties believe they need to avoid saying anything that might be construed as positive about these issues.
Only Meretz head Zahava Gal-On has unconditionally taken Netanyahu to task. But her party is marginalized within Israeli Jewish politics. Only 7.8 percent of Israeli Jews identify as “left” and therefore would be likely supporters. In the 2015 election Meretz received only 3.93 percent of the vote, barely above the 3.25 percent threshold for entry into the Knesset. She is considered naïve on foreign policy, too.
But looking at surveys tells only one part of the story. A broader view suggests that there is space to present different ideas. Historically, on major issues of security and peace, the Israeli public has followed its leaders. Even when polls indicate Israelis oppose a particular policy, once the government decides to pursue it, support increases—particularly when the prime ministers works to sell it.
This was true of the Yitzhak Rabin’s Oslo Accords and the major concessions it entailed to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and it was true of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza.
This “follow the leader” position stems from the country’s history. Its precarious security situation for the first two decades of its existence facilitated a trust in and tolerance for secretive government decisions, without public debate. While that has diminished over time, Israelis have retained their sense that government decisions necessarily should be supported in major security decisions outside of war. Israel’s wars have, since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, increasingly been challenged by its citizens.
With Israel’s Jewish opposition parties accepting Netanyahu’s limits on the terms of the public debate over the JCPOA, Iran is free to react as it pleases. Its ability to expand its regional activities and its influence is its own to lose. It seems most of Israel’s leaders have forgotten the ultimate purpose of Zionism: for the Jews to exert their own agency, rather than be subject to history.
By now Michael Oren’s holding Barack Obama personally responsible for ruining the American-Israeli relationship is well known. No reasonable person argues that Obama doesn’t share blame for complicating the relationship. But as a number of very good assessments of Oren’s arguments have noted (see, for example, here, here, and here), there is a much larger context that Oren thinks is irrelevant, but can’t be.
A number of common points run through these critiques.
- The idea that American presidents before Obama maintained “no daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem has no basis in fact.
- The stipulation that Washington would never surprise Israel has no basis in fact.
- Oren was not present for all discussions pertaining to either the Iran deal or American-Israeli relations, and so is speculating as much as describing events.
- Oren completely ignores Israel’s, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s, own agency, which is morally problematic and strategically bad for Israel.
- The arm-chair psychoanalysis of Obama’s issues of male abandonment is made without any evidence.
It is this last point where I think Oren makes his biggest mistake. It hasn’t been a major point in his public writings and interviews, but it’s a telling one.
All politicians—all individuals—are influenced by their life experiences. But a major problem with Freudian psychoanalysis like this is that the same cognitive and emotional state can be used to explain opposite outcomes.
That is, there is plenty of evidence of individuals who have suffered from the same childhood experience—say, being beaten by a parent—yet who have taken very different paths later in life. Some have turned to a life of violence, others have not. Some become aggressive, some become meek. Clinical experiments in psychology demonstrate behavioral tendencies, but these are generalizations rather than explanations for every individual action. Plenty of other factors intervene, including levels of education, social circles, and so on. So the assumption (or rather the supposition, as Oren couched the accusation) was unnecessarily inflammatory without more development.
Oren’s comments on the topic would have been more effective if he had just argued—as he started to—that Obama’s interactions with Muslim activists and leaders early on helped shape his worldview, by teaching him certain ideas about Islam and about America’s policies toward the Islamic world. That is, that he developed impressions and came to believe they were important enough to translate into policy. (In fact, this is the argument Peter Beinart makes about Obama’s interactions with Jewish leaders in Chicago.)
It’s possible Oren sees himself as so embedded in history that he’s convinced this really is a crossroads moment for Israel, and so ringing the warning bells as loudly as possible is necessary; the end justifies the means. But as defenders of Oren’s claims have pointed out, he is a very smart man. Surely he should have known better than to rely on such a characterization devoid of proof and that touches on some of the worst accusations Republicans and conservatives made against Obama during his first run for presidency—about his identity, about his presumed negative feelings toward America, that he’s anti-Israel, and so on. Indeed, as a public figure, an intellectual, and an Israeli politician who wants to maintain a strong US-Israel connection, he must.