Lieberman is Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Doves in Israel’s Security Network?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.



Points of (Dis)agreement on a Two-State Solution

With rumors swirling that US Secretary of State John Kerry is close to convening Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it seems like a good time to remind ourselves about the various aspects of a two-state solution. In short, what issues are likely settled and what issues are open to question? The list is admittedly not set in concrete, especially number two, but why not start somewhere:

1) The aim is two states, Israel and Palestine.

2) The June 4, 1967 lines are the starting point or basis (exact word matters) for the border between Israel-Palestine.

3) Land swaps (concept).

4) West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital.

5) No full implementation of the Palestinian right of return.

6) Isolated Israeli settlements in West Bank are withdrawn.

Lingering questions:

A) What happens to the holy sites in Jerusalem?

B) Is Palestine demilitarized, non-militarized etc? Pick a word.

C) Will Israel acknowledge Palestinian suffering (exact wording matters) in 1948?

D) Will Israel agree to the token admission of Palestinian refugees?

E) Do Palestinians concede the Ariel salient? Maale Adumim?

F) Will Palestinians accept the “Israel is the Jewish State” language?

G) Will Israel hold out for a Jordan Valley presence?

A lot of judgment calls. What would you add or change?

The Resurgence of American Diplomacy in the Middle East

When President Barack Obama announced his trip to Israel, there was widespread speculation for the motivations. I thought it was a grab-bag of reasons, including for domestic political purposes, to connect (finally) with the Jewish-Israeli public, to improve personal relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and to talk about Iran and Syria.

On these grounds the visit has already been a success. But it seems the trip was about American regional diplomacy at least as much as it was about the American-Israeli relationship. This makes sense: In his second term Obama is looking to shape his legacy, and can now be more proactive—as opposed to reactive, as he was at the onset of the Arab Awakening—in foreign affairs without having to worry about re-election. It’s clear now that the point of the visit was to set the conditions for an improvement in the U.S. position in the region.

For some time analysts have been convinced that the U.S. is on its way out of the Middle East, retreating or simply impotent in the wake of the Arab Awakening. But this argument rests on a consideration of American hard power only, reads Obama’s hesitation in his first term into his second, and ignores Obama’s own modus operandi.

To understand Obama’s foreign policy we need to look at the preference he’s had for engaging with Republicans on domestic policy. Here he’s adopted a patient, low-key role. His habit has been to let other prominent individuals or groups engage in public battles over a given issue, and at some moment near the end move quietly in to offer suggestions—not orders or demands—to both sides of a dispute. In this way, he persuades them that butting heads has not worked, but that compromise will.

Obama’s trip to Israel was an exercise in in this type of American soft power. First, during his time in Israel, he charmed Netanyahu, a man with whom he previously had very tense personal relations. Having created space with its leaders, Obama then gave a stirring speech to Israeli students at the Jerusalem Convention Center. He highlighted the Jewish connection to the area, bore witness to the Jewish/Zionist struggles over time (including their contemporary security concerns), and called on them to act now in the name of Israeli Jewishness and democracy, and justice for Palestinians. These themes were echoed in a shorter speech at Yad Vashem. His visit to sites of memory and identity in Israel also validated Jewish-Israelis’ Zionism.

While critics argue that this is pandering or represent the usual ignoring of Palestinians, connecting with Israeli public opinion is important. No final agreement will be ratified in Israel unless politicians know enough Israelis (particularly Jewish Israelis) are on board with it. Given the skepticism of the Palestinians and the peace process more generally among that cohort, laying the groundwork isn’t just good politics, it’s essential.

Second, at the very end of his trip, Obama brought together Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan through a phone call that, for all intents and purposes, settled the most outstanding of their immediate disagreements (an Israeli apology for and compensation over the deaths of Turkish citizens killed during the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010).

It’s not clear that Obama promised either of the two anything specific, but what he did do was remind Netanyahu and Erdoğan that the region is at a critical moment, and that the two countries have common interests that trump these kinds of disputes. Like a mediator, he made sure that they knew all of their interests—including that of the United States—required coordination, even if it didn’t include full agreement on all issues.

Third, Obama appears to have convinced the Israelis that the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank really is their only partner for peace, particularly as Hamas’s regional stature continues to rise. To this end, the Administration has managed to unblock $500 million in aid to the PA, which Congress had previously frozen, at the same time that Jerusalem has decided to resume transfer of tax revenues to the PA, also frozen after Mahmoud Abbas asked the United Nations General Assembly to grant the Palestinians non-observer member state status.

Finally, Obama has publicly discussed bringing the Arab states more directly into the peace process. This will provide political cover for the PA to make unpopular decisions about concessions during talks. But tying the Arab states to the negotiations further isolates Iran, and also gives them a stake in the outcome.

The conventional wisdom is that the Israelis and Palestinians aren’t interested at this point in resolving their conflict, and that the Arab Awakening, Syria, and Iran are forcing the White House to wait on events more than seek to manage them. But Obama’s trip to the region has demonstrated that this isn’t true.

Certainly there is a long way to go before Israelis and Palestinians make peace, before Saudis and Israelis overcome decades of hostility, or even before Israelis and Turks return to full normalized relations. But even still, it’s clear that Obama is preparing a network to support Washington’s leadership vis-à-vis Iran and Syria, and to better respond to the Arab Awakening.

He’s done all this quietly, by lowering expectations beforehand, and by convincing Israelis, Palestinians, Turks, and Arabs that they share common goals. This is the essence of persuasion. Obama’s ability to project American hard power in the region might be fading, but that’s not the case with American soft power.

Bibi’s apology to Turkey

Barack Obama really is a magician. Just as he was about to leave Israel, he announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had spoken by telephone. Even more, Bibi apologized to Erdoğan for the deaths of Turkish citizens during the Mavi Marmara affair.

I did not see this coming, and I’d be surprised if anyone else did, either. The trip that everybody (including me) thought was about domestic American politics, Iran, resetting the relationship with Bibi, giving comfort to Israelis, and demonstrating support for the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank was also, it turns out, about Obama’s broader regional diplomacy.

Here are my initial thoughts about the phone call and its aftermath:

1. Turkey gained much without compromising anything. Erdoğan got the biggest thing he had been demanding since the attacks, which was an Israeli apology. His other demands—compensation and an end to the siege of Gaza—are either easily met (compensation) or non-starters (ending the siege), so this was the most important. Starting to repair relations with Israel also removes major irritants that affected Turkey’s relations with the United States, some European countries, and NATO, disrupting processes and regional security plans. Turkey easily came out on top here.

In return, Erdoğan said Ankara would drop charges against Israeli military for their role in the killings. But this was a very minor concession: it would never have resulted in actual prosecution or sentencing. If Turkey had pursued it, it might have constrained the ability of some officers to travel around the world, but even then it would be more irksome than anything else.

2. It’s hard to avoid noticing that the apology was only realized with Avigdor Lieberman gone from the Foreign Ministry. Blustering and belligerent, Lieberman was never the right choice for the position. If Bibi’s apology can warm his relationship with Obama, reset the relationship with Turkey, and lead to the inclusion rather than exclusion of Israel in global and regional forums, conferences, and exercises, then it’s hard to argue bringing Lieberman back is a good thing. In fact, the obvious conclusion is the opposite one: Israel can accomplish much with Foreign Minister who’s pragmatic and has a broader sense of Israel’s position in the world.

3. I’d like to know how Obama persuaded Bibi to call. Did Obama promise extra aid to Israel? Was this a quid pro quo, and if so, for what?

4. It remains to be seen what happens next between Israel and Turkey, of course. I don’t think we’ll see a return to the mid-1990s levels of cooperation and warmth. But this is a good start as both countries seek to find their place in a changing Middle East.

Changing the operative principle of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?

I agree with Shai Feldman that if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations start up under President Obama, the way in which talks are conducted needs to change:

Requirement 5: Change the operative principle of negotiationsThe principle upon which Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from Camp David to Taba were based—nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon—should be dropped. It had a toxic effect because it meant that any progress achieved was held hostage to the most difficult issues. Instead, the opposite principle should be adopted: whatever is agreed upon should be implemented. This will allow Israelis and Palestinians to see progress on the ground. And however small that progress might be, it will be very significant given the present pessimism among Palestinians and Israelis alike.

But I think it is also important to note that his new principle creates a new problem. Negotiating parties may want to see the whole picture before they make fundamental concessions. That is, before Israel concedes Palestinian sovereignty in many parts of East Jerusalem or before the PA accepts the right of return in theory but not (really) in implementation, they may want to see the big picture and make sure they get reciprocal concessions of equal value.

In other words, Feldman assumes the issues can be disentangled and that may be true to an extent with initial measures and minor issues. But I wonder especially if on the core issues that will be hard to do. Both sides may need to construct hypothetical scenarios of mutual concessions before they commit. Since you cannot always negotiate about parallel issues at exactly the same time or pace, you may end up with breakthroughs at different times, in which case you may have to wait for other issue baskets to ‘catch up.’

We may really need both principles with clearly demarcated areas in which they apply.

Mr. Abbas Goes to Ankara

Fatah leader and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas is in one of the toughest positions I’ve ever seen for a leader of a somewhat-recognized-but-not-really state. He’s physically hemmed in on all sides by Israel; his rival for control over Palestinian politics (Hamas) is growing stronger than him all the time; and he seems genuinely uncertain, or scared, about his options.

And yet with one visit to Turkey he made two moves that deserve not only commendation for their boldness, but also an immediate and positive response by Israel.

Israel has long demanded that Abbas separate himself from Hamas, in order to be recognized as a true moderate. During his visit to Turkey, Abbas did just that: he publicly disagreed with a very popular Hamas over the right of Israel to exist, which in turn underlines his support for two states.

And the location of the comments could not be more symbolic. Abbas took on his rival in the presence of the Turks, who have been growing closer to Hamas at the expense of ties with the PA, and who have been at fierce odds with Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians. It was a mild rebuke to Ankara at the same time.

The claim, then, that there is no Palestinian partner for peace is at best an incomplete one.

Unfortunately, in his characteristic way, Abbas undermined his own effort at the very same time. During the same visit that he chided Hamas, he also hinted—at a press conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gül—that if Israel continued with its settlement project, particularly in the explosive E1 area, he might go to the International Criminal Court.

On the one hand, you can understand Abbas’s frustration. Since the Oslo Accords, Israel has continued expanding settlements throughout the West Bank and around East Jerusalem—a unilateral action if ever there was one. Yet after Abbas asked the United Nations General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a non-member state, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu accused Abbas of unilateral action and, flying into a rage, immediately began building more settlements.

At the UN, Abbas gave what can only be described as a vicious speech accusing Israel of every possible wrong and absolving Palestinians of their own responsibilities and agency. And one might argue that Abbas’s effort to form a unity government with Hamas is a sign of his secret tendencies toward extremism.

But on the other hand, one can see that Abbas has little choice but to take such a tough rhetorical stance. Israel has all but ignored him, preferring to lend credibility to Hamas and its violent ways instead of the PA’s diplomacy. And Israeli leaders themselves engage in harsh comments about and display a lack of sensitivity toward Palestinians. In a conflict increasingly incorporating collective memory, identity, and claims to victimhood, perhaps this is to be expected.

In the same hateful UN speech, Abbas explicitly recognized the 1967 Green Line as the border of the Palestinian state. Israel and Palestine can disagree over the exact route of the border, but that’s what negotiations are for. The focus on the Green Line is the very essence of the two state solution that Israel, including Netanyahu, has accepted.

And Abbas might contend that his calls for unity with Hamas are no different from the center-right Likud allying with far-right parties in an Israeli coalition. (I’m not convinced it’s the same, but the argument is there to be made.)

Abbas is trying, in his way. Given his circumstances, and despite his fumbling, this deserves Israel reciprocation, not condemnation. He’s clumsy, and he’s certainly made mistakes. But if leaders never negotiated with others who’d made blunders, we’d never get international agreements.

Why I Support the Palestinian Request at the UN

When Mahmoud Abbas said last year he was going to ask the Security Council for recognition, I was at first opposed to the idea, thinking the price would be too high. I changed my mind, believing it might help light a fire under Israel. That didn’t happen, mostly because the bid itself failed.

And so I still support the Palestinian request for non-member state status. Mostly it’s because the Palestinian Authority under Fatah and Abbas is never going to get a shot at genuine negotiations so long as domestic conditions in Israel don’t change.

That’s not to say, of course, that only Israel is responsible for past failures and potential future progress. Nor do I think Israel should unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank.

But looking at Israel specifically, all I see are obstacles. The Israeli public is less interested in the Palestinians than it’s ever been. The electoral list that emerged from Likud’s primaries this week is composed of members who take a hard line on negotiations over land, settlements, and a Palestinian state. Given that the party is most likely to still be the core of a new coalition government, I’d guess we can expect even less government interest than there is now.

Israel, of course, argues that it’s always ready for negotiations. Yet the hard truth is that it’s not. It’s insistence that the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state first is a red herring; worse, it’s an excuse to avoid talks. As has been argued by many countless times before, there is no necessary or good reason for the Palestinians to do this, and every reason not to. And it’s a precondition that Israel insists on even as it calls for Abbas to sit down without preconditions.

Israel’s insistence that settlements are not an obstacle to negotiations is also misleading. The reality is that, as facts on the ground, they shrink the potential land area open to negotiations. The Israeli government insists that any final agreement accounts for settlements blocs as part of Israel.  Yet the manner by which “neighborhoods” are spun off from existing settlements and then included as part of the settlement’s territory, plus the physical, legal, and security infrastructure that is built up around them, absorbs more and more land considered off-limits.

Progress on peace talks is essential for Israel’s well-being, too. World trends are moving against the occupation and the settlements. Hamas is growing stronger all the time. If it doesn’t get ahead of the curve, Israel’s ability to contribute to management of the conflict and shaping of outcomes will diminish.

There’s just no evidence that a successful Palestinian bid will change things for Israel for the worse. Rather, all the evidence points to the conclusion that not changing the status quo is the most dangerous for Israel.