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.

 

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…

Putting Kerry’s Comments into Context

John Kerry’s use of the a-word (“apartheid”) to warn what Israel might become if a peace agreement establishing two states is not implemented soon has, unsurprisingly, ignited a firestorm from Israeli politicians (though, interestingly, Benjamin Netanyahu has remained quiet) and several American Jewish organizations.

It’s true that this kind of rhetoric really only serves to stoke the flames of intransigence and anger at a delicate moment in the effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. (I actually think the under-reported story here is the diminished ability of leaders to talk openly amongst themselves.) But while I share Kerry’s concerns for the future of Israel, I’m not sure that the argument that Israeli leaders have used the same term to issue similar warnings of what will happen without peace is as strong as it first appears.

It’s to be expected that citizens of one country can say things about their state that is more problematic coming from the leaders of a close ally. It’s considered bad form, particularly when it’s such a sensitive issue and a loaded term—and even more when it’s said to third parties.

This isn’t unique to Israel: Canadians are sometimes very belligerent about Quebec separatism, but Washington doesn’t say much at all about the issue except to support the national government’s position. Similarly, the White House has largely remained silent regarding the Turkish government’s suppression of Turks’ individual and political freedoms. While the West Bank isn’t part of sovereign Israel, and therefore falls into the category of foreign affairs, it’s still closely tied to Jerusalem’s domestic politics.

Having said that, some of the criticism of Kerry—for example, that he should resign, that he’s not “pro-Israel” (whatever that means)—is over the top. The big takeaway here, I think, is that the taboo in the United States of using apartheid to describe a future Israel that maintains legal, political, and military control over the West Bank has been broken. Israelis long ago got over that taboo (which isn’t to say they like the term), but it’s natural that it took time to break down here. Kerry’s comment might just be—for good or bad—the beginning of a new conversation on Israel in Washington.

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.

What’s Different This Time Around

Earlier this week at Open Zion I gave my first, quick reaction to John Kerry’s press conference, at which he announced the rules of the game for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. I noted there were two things, in particular, that might go some way in helping these talks achieve genuine progress: putting all issues “on the table” and the secret nature of the discussions.

Read the piece in full here.

What Would A Referendum on Peace Ask?

At Open Zion I continue the discussion about an Israeli referendum on a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. Drawing on Canada’s experience with the 1995 referendum on Quebec’s secession, I argue that the question on the ballot matters a great deal–and that it’s not at all easy to construct an effective one in this case.

A teaser:

On the other hand, a detailed question that includes elements of the agreement would be too long and complex. It might prompt Israelis who want a final agreement but who disagree with specific provisions to reject the thing in its entirety. It might also prompt a renewed fight over specific clauses, even after they’ve been hashed out between Israelis and Palestinians and agreed to—probably after an intense struggle—by the Israeli government.

Follow the link for more.

Martin Indyk and His Critics

At Open Zion I have a piece arguing that Martin Indyk would be a good choice to lead John Kerry’s negotiating team in Israeli-Palestinian discussions in Washington. It’s wrong to blame him, as some have, for the failures of America to force Israel and Palestine into an agreement. It’s also wrong to presume that his former association with AIPAC and WINEP taints him.

Follow the link for the piece.

The Domestic Politics of Israeli Peacemaking

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

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

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

Follow the link for the rest of the piece.

 

 

In Thinking about New Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

John Kerry has just announced a basis for restarting talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Washington. More specifically: “We have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.” He added that “The agreement is still in the process of being formalized.”

This probably doesn’t sound all that exciting or new to most. But it needs to be remembered that, under the current conditions in the Middle East, with Benjamin Netanyahu struggling with a rightist party and government coalition, and with Abbas struggling against Hamas, institutional decay, and growing dissatisfaction among the Palestinian population, it’s no easy thing to bring the two sides together for direct talks at a high level.

That said, lots can still happen to derail things, including even before the talks start. Here are some other things we should bear in mind as the process moves forward:

1. Most people expected Netanyahu to keep putting this off and not be serious about it. As I’ve been arguing for many months now, Bibi can be pushed into talks. He isn’t an ideologue; he’s a pragmatic opportunist. He does believe, deeply, that Jews have a historical and biblical claim to the West Bank, and if nothing were standing in his way he probably would do his utmost to extend Jewish sovereignty over it all. But there are obstacles, and more than anything Bibi wants to remain in power and focus on external threats to Israel (primarily Iran). Under these conditions, getting him to talk was always more possible than many presumed.

2. Similarly, most people assumed Mahmoud Abbas was too weak or uninterested to agree to genuine talks. If we didn’t already realize it with the Oslo negotiations, that both he and Netanyahu have been able to—thus far, anyway—tells us something about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: namely, avoiding deterministic assumptions.

3. Importantly, this is only a beginning to talks, not an agreement. There are plenty of material and emotional obstacles blocking an easy pathway to success. Building on the point above, I’m not convinced Bibi would be willing to sign a final agreement ending all Jewish claims to the West Bank. (I’m not so sure Mahmoud Abbas wants to be the one to end it all, either.) But making progress is important and highly relevant. It will set positive conditions for the continuation of talks, build confidence, and make it easier for the next Israeli and Palestinian leaders to finish the work begun here.

4. It seems that Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat will be leading the talks. I’m not so sure how useful that is. Both are experienced, and both have proven—despite some backpeddling at times—genuinely interested in a deal. But it’s not clear how much support from their political masters either has. Both are politically weak, without much of their own power base, and so will be limited by the specific instructions Bibi and Abbas give them. Time will tell if that’s enough to construct a stable platform for continuing.

5. Kerry expended enormous energy to make this happen, devoting most of his time to this one issue even while developments elsewhere in the Middle East require urgent attention. It remains to be seen whether he can maintain that level of determination and pressure to help the talks along. Without it, I’m less optimistic the process will move forward.

6. Hamas won’t be happy.

7. On Israel’s domestic front, there are lots of questions remaining about what Naftali Bennett (leader of Jewish Home) and Yair Lapid (leader of Yesh Atid) will do. Neither has been all that enthusiastic about the peace process. (I realize that’s a gross understatement about Bennett.) They’ll be put to the test now: will they support the talks and anything that comes out of it? It’s likely that Livni will have to report back to Bibi (either directly or through his personal emissaries to the peace talks) on any substantive issues, no matter how minor. How much support his coalition gives him will help determine how likely Bibi is to keep the talks going.

Bennett had previously said he wouldn’t break the coalition apart over talks; just yesterday he reversed himself. That’s not surprising. In addition to being ideologically opposed to any withdrawals from the West Bank (he wants to outright annex all of Area C), Bennett’s party is made up of at least a couple factions that struggled against each other before being united into Jewish Home; and all are opposed to giving up Jewish control over the West Bank. Bennett’s election as party leader was never a sure thing, and was contested from the beginning. His institutional position is threatened as well, then; he can’t afford to agree to anything that might endanger his place at the top of the party. Either he’d be forced out (and it wouldn’t be easy to find another institutional home), or he’d remain but the party would break apart, weakening Bennett’s ability to win seats in the next election.

As for Lapid, nobody knows what he might do. His party has many doves in it, but his ambition to become prime minister means he needs to play more to the right for votes. If he sees the population is increasingly in favor of talks, though, he’ll probably go with it.

8. This could be Shelly Yachimovich’s opportunity to seize the mantle of promoter of the peace process. Assuming Bennett pulls out of the government, Labor could fill the gap. Even if he doesn’t, Bibi might be thinking about bringing Labor in for extra insurance.

9. Look what Israel has been able to accomplish without Avigdor Lieberman in the government: the apology to Turkey, and now progress in peace talks. Just saying.

10. All of what I’ve just written could well prove to be meaningless. This is, after, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.