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.


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.



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.

Samantha Power and Israel On The Hill

Over at Open Zion I made a few comments about Samantha Power’s performance during her Senate confirmation hearing. I thought that overall she gave intelligent, honest answers, with some avoidance of certain issues–but hey, it’s an opportunity for Senators to grandstand more than anything else! Still, there was some serious discussion, and that’s a good thing:

I don’t know Samantha Power personally, but I’ve followed much of her work; I’ve used her seminal book A Problem from Hell in my university courses. Based on what I’ve read, her performance in the hearing, and everything that’s been written about her passion, sense of moral responsibility, and awareness of the constrains of actual policymaking, I’m not worried she’ll “throw Israel under the bus” (to use Mitt Romney’s favorite term), nor do I think she’ll give up American sovereignty in order to be ruled by the United Nations.

Follow the link for more.

Turkey Won’t Be Invading Syria Any Time Soon

Yesterday’s Syrian shelling of the Turkish town of Akçakale, which killed five civilians, is certainly a cause for concern. On Twitter many were asking whether Turkey was about to commit military action in response. Close Turkey-watchers noted that Turkey’s military capabilities were more limited than presumed, that the logistical issues were very complicated, that political will and public support was lacking, and that there was no good reason—from Ankara’s perspective—to bog itself down in a drawn-out conflict and occupation in a country tearing itself apart through civil war. That Turkey has been trying to seal the border, including clamping down on Syrian refugee camps in the country, is further evidence of this.

A Turkish response was practically necessary, though, after the shooting down of its military planes and other provocations across the border. It came in the form of artillery shelling of Syrian targets.

But although the Turkish parliament has passed a resolution authorizing a one-year measure allowing the government to send the Turkish Armed Forces into “foreign countries” [i.e., not Syria specifically] if deemed necessary, and although Turkey asked NATO to convene an urgent meeting and demanded UN Security Council action, this is not the first step to an invasion or large-scale attack.

Michael Koplow effectively demonstrates why no-one—Turkey, NATO, or Syria—wants another, bigger war right now. Turkey, he continues, is simply stuck in a “lose-lose situation” regarding Syria—there are no good answers to the problems Syria poses for Turkey’s regional policy and its concern for Syrian civilians.

I would only add to his list that Turkey has many other concerns it is trying to balance out, including the simmering dispute with Israel, growing tensions with Iran, hints of domestic discontent with the ruling AKP government, possible internal competition between two of the AKP’s leaders (Abdullah Gül and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), signs of emerging problems in the Turkish economy, the Arab Awakening, and an overall uncertainty about how to respond to regional changes and developments and reorient Turkish foreign policy.

A war with Syria, particularly one in which there is no clear objective, a real uncertainty as to the likely outcome, and no specific exit strategy, would throw all of these issues into further confusion and exacerbate the difficulties of constructing a new Middle East policy, one in which Turkey plays a leadership role that is respected by the new Arab governments.

Turkey’s shelling of Syria was a very flexible, limited, and safe military response that served as an indication of Turkish anger, capability, and willingness should it be pushed too far by Syria. The parliamentary resolution demonstrated political resolve. My guess is that Ankara is hoping this will be enough for quite a while.

Debate the Cause and Effects of “Occupation,” But Not Its Existence

John Podhoretz has an op-ed in the New York Post in which he defends Mitt Romney’s comments on culture being determinative of economic development. To make his case, he lists the bad decisions Palestinians have made (corruption, kleptocracy, violence over negotiation). He then contends that “the PA has dominion over almost all of the West Bank and Hamas has control over all of Gaza, so the word ‘occupation’ is all but meaningless.”

This assessment is representative of the right in the United States (the right in Israel is more aware of the facts). The problem is that it’s simply not an accurate representation of reality: by any material criteria, Israel and the Israeli military control much of what goes on in the West Bank. (It should be obvious that Hamas does control all of the Gaza’s internal politics, economy, and society.)

First, of the entire West Bank, 42% of the land mass is out of Palestinian hands—and primarily under settler control. And the geographic spread of Israeli settlements and outposts throughout the West Bank means that Palestinians exercise the kind of control Podhoretz seemed to have in mind only over several separate, limited, constrained pieces of territory, surrounded by Israeli areas.

Second, Israel—through the security barrier, checkpoints, and other army obstructions—blocks Palestinians from freely accessing their farmlands and pastures (and the military admits it). I’d bet that Romney didn’t have agriculture in mind when he trumpeted Israel’s economic development, but it’s still a source of livelihood for many Palestinians. Regardless, the most recent World Bank report on the Palestinian economy (April 2012) argued that Palestinians could do much more to improve their economic structures, but it also noted that

[t]he major constraints to private sector activity are the tight Israeli restrictions, and growth will not be sustainable until Palestinians have access to resources and are allowed to move freely.

Third, the roads in the West Bank are constructed to give Israeli settlers and the army far more access than Palestinians have, interrupting easy movement of individuals. During my recent tour of the West Bank with Lior Amihai of Peace Now, we traced where once-existing roads out of Palestinian areas were blocked off, leaving only a single road for access, so that the military could more easily monitor who went in and out. The Israeli checkpoints (both permanent and “flying” ones), physical obstructions like dirt mounds, instructions that Palestinian travelers move out of the way to accommodate passing Israeli vehicles, and 232 kilometers of roads designed only for Israelis all severely restrict Palestinian movement and hamper economic activity.

Similarly, Israel controls virtually all of the borders of the Palestinian areas (with the exception of Gaza-Sinai border). Israeli management of Gaza’s borders is well known, but Israel is the sovereign power on the West Bank side of the border with Jordan as well (which falls in Area C). That means it decides who and what goes in and out—in other words, it controls the bulk of Palestinian trade.

Fourth, taxation is an important means by which government earns revenue and disburses it throughout the economy. Israel

collects the equivalent of more than $1 billion annually in customs and other taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and transfers the revenue to the Palestinian side under terms that were part of the Oslo accords.

And Israel regularly withholds or threatens to withhold that critically-necessary income when it hasn’t agreed with Palestinian politics or PA decisions. No economy can function well with such interruptions.

Finally, even within Palestinian towns and villages such as those found in the map linked to above, where Israeli control is not directly imposed, the Israel Defense Forces can still enter at will to arrest, harass, and disrupt normal life.

All of the information listed above is taken from detailed studies by credible agencies. 

One can argue whether these measures are necessary or not, temporary or long-term, the fault of Palestinians themselves or Israel, and so on—and these are reasonable debates. And most certainly the Palestinians share much of the blame for their own mismanagement and poor decision-making, inability to let go of outdated but deeply-held narratives and myths, and more.

But it’s such an unreasonable distortion of reality to deny occupation. Or if the term “occupation” seems legally and morally problematic, at least don’t pretend that Israel isn’t the primary controlling power in the area. Doing otherwise is not worthy of serious analysts.

I figured out the whole Iran thing

So let me get this straight about the US and Iran.
Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.  No, it is not.
Iranian aggression (e.g. closing Hormuz) is bad for Iran.
Iran won’t do it anyway (but might attack Iraqi oil facilities instead).
The US should attack Iran. If not, the US will be seen as weak.
The US should not attack Iran.  An illegal, unprovoked attack would raise the proliferation risk. A war with Iran will weaken the US.
Diplomacy still has a chance. Diplomacy is appeasement. Isolate Iran, pressure works. Sanctions are a bad idea and could cost Obama and the global economy. Pressure leads to escalation. (The economic war is underway. Or not.)
Obama kept all options on the table. So did Romney. But the US has decided to attack as a last resort. Or never.
And we have not even talked about Israel yet.

After the UN Showdown: Back to Square One

After months of anticipation and hype, weeks of intense diplomacy, and days of high drama and political grandstanding at the United Nations (UN), the Palestinian bid for statehood—more precisely, UN membership—has been a bit of an anti-climax.  Nothing has really happened, not at the UN and not in Palestine.  The Palestinian application for membership is now being reviewed by a committee made up of Security Council members, and it is unlikely that it will be put to a vote in the Security Council any time soon, if indeed there is even enough support within the Security Council for such a vote.  Of course, if and when a vote does take place, the outcome is clear since the Obama Administration has promised to veto the Palestinian bid.  Palestine will not become the 194th member of the UN.  At most, the General Assembly will vote to upgrade the status of the PLO to nonmember observer state.  This might allow the Palestinians to join a variety of international organizations, potentially including the International Criminal Court—the prospect of which is particularly worrying for Israel.

So far, then, the “trainwreck” or “diplomatic tsunami” (choose your metaphor) that many feared has not come to pass.  Instead, as if last week’s UN drama never happened, it seems that the situation (Hamatzav, as Israelis call it) is much the same.   The Netanyahu government continues to profess its willingness to make peace with the Palestinians, while doing nothing to promote this and much to prevent it by announcing more settlement construction in Jerusalem (in the southeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo).  The Abbas government continues to refuse to negotiate unless Israel freezes all settlement construction and commits to the pre-1967 boundary as the basis for negotiations over the future border between Israel and Palestine.  The Obama Administration, meanwhile, continues to express tepid criticism of Israeli settlement construction and issues vain calls for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—negotiations that no-one really believes will actually result in a peace agreement.

Although this resumption of the status quo may please Netanyahu and his right-wing supporters in Israel and the United States, it will ultimately prove to be far more damaging to Israel and the United States than any UN vote could be.  The Palestinians’ UN gambit was a desperate attempt by President Abbas to elevate the Palestinian issue on the international agenda, to bring greater international pressure to bear on Israel, and to boost his own flagging domestic popularity and credibility.  While it has temporarily succeeded in doing the latter, it has not changed the basic dynamics of the conflict—pitting a divided and occupied Palestine against a dominant Israel backed by the United States (to be sure, those who hoped that going to the UN would be a game-changer were always overestimating the significance of an organization long derided as a “talking shop”).  Once the Palestinians come to the realization that their UN bid has not changed the status quo in the way they hoped, they will then have to decide what options they have left.   Perhaps the one option that they have available to them which is certain to change the status quo is to dissolve the Palestinian Authority (PA) altogether—something that Abbas hinted at in his speech to the UN.  By pressing the self-destruct button, the PA will make Israel take over full responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the approximately 4.2 million Palestinians who live in these territories.   Israel will be forced into directly ruling over the Palestinians, as it did before the Oslo Accords established Palestinian self-governance in the early 1990s.   This would be a nightmare for Israel and a major headache for the United States.

Thus, if their UN gambit fails, the Palestinians could well resort to even more desperate measures.   If the choice is between Palestinian membership in the UN or the end of the PA, Israel would surely choose the former.  One day it may wish it had.

The UN Move and the Palestinian Diaspora

Jeremy Pressman:

Judith Butler argues at LRB that the Abbas move at the UN is the end of Oslo as a negotiating framework. I take her point, but don’t forget at least two things she does not mention live on:

1)    Palestinian Authority control inside the cities of the West Bank. (so-called Area A from Oslo II)

2)    Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation.

My point is not to judge the merits of these two manifestations of Oslo but only to note that they emerged with Oslo and continue today. So even if Oslo crumbles as a negotiating framework, as Butler predicts, important vestiges of Oslo may remain in play for years.

Butler also implied that the Abbas appeal to the UN created tension between Palestinian statehood and the rights of all Palestinians, including those in the diaspora:

And yet, a serious debate remains about whether the present bid undermines the broader political right of Palestinian self-determination. Those who oppose the internationalisation of the process underscore that half of all Palestinians may well be disenfranchised if this bid is successful. Can the brokering of statehood through an international body such as the UN confirm the rights of Palestinians to self-determination without external interference? If the Palestinian Authority becomes synonymous with statehood, does that imply a sacrifice of the right of return for millions of Palestinians outside the region?

But this tension is not new. The Oslo process, even when seen in the best light, was ultimately about a core trade: Palestinian statehood and a foothold in East Jerusalem in exchange for the effective renunciation of the right of return. Palestinians could return to what would be the new state of Palestine, not to Israel. And that trade, which started to crystallize in 2000-01, lived on in the Annapolis talks between Olmert and Abbas in 2008. It is in the Clinton parameters and the Ayalon-Nusseibeh plan.

Butler may not like that trade, but it has been a part of the talks and proposals for years. If the UN effort undermines “the broader political right of Palestinian self-determination,” it does so in the spirit of Oslo. In some important ways, Oslo is more alive than people think.

A medium-term benefit from the Palestinian UN bid?

I’ll admit that at first I wasn’t convinced that the Palestinian UN bid was a good idea. I thought—and still think—it will prompt Israel to feel ever more isolated at a time when the BDS and Israel-is-an-apartheid-state movements are continuing and in some ways seemingly gaining ground; when the Arab Spring is overturning the comfortable status quo; and when Turkey and Egypt have turned against it. Underscoring Israel’s siege mentality will only make it less forthcoming in efforts to restart negotiations and to adopt an even harder line in the event. I also think it raises unrealistic expectations for Palestinians. And it simply can’t be operationalized at a time when Palestine is divided into two blocs run by rival groups competing for power.

But I also now think that one medium-term benefit that it does provide is to light a fire under Israel. Or to be more specific, under certain Israeli leaders. There appears to be very little otherwise to convince the current government that it needs to take any prominent steps toward peace without piling on more of its own conditions.

To be sure, the stagnation in the peace process isn’t all Israel’s fault. It is also the fault of Hamas, which continuously attacks (rhetorically and physically) Israel’s right to exist; of Mahmoud Abbas, who has been much less forthcoming on final status issues than commonly assumed—during the ten-month (partial, at best) settlement freeze that he had demanded, he came to the table only at the end; and of Arab states, most of whose leaders still refuse to show the slightest gesture of humanity to Israel. It is also the fault of Republicans and Democrats in the US who seem convinced—wrongly—that the Jewish vote is in play for 2012, and therefore, in playing politics with Israel without concern for those who actually live there, pushed President Obama into the position of having to “defend” Israel by not pressing it to make any concessions to the Palestinians. The result is a completely unbalanced negotiating strategy that has no hope of bringing the Palestinians on board.

But still, it is clear that Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu has done almost nothing to push the peace process forward. But the UN bid might show Israel that time and events really are moving against it. Many in the government will not, of course, be convinced of this. But there are enough pragmatists around who might pay attention to the signs of the times.

Ehud Barak and many members of Shas understand the occupation is problematic, and are either actively interested in ending it or ambivalent about how to respond to it; in both cases, there is space for considering new policies toward the West Bank. Similarly, Labor and Kadima are both committed to actively dealing with the situation rather than pretending there is no situation. And in Likud there are leaders who understand the moral, strategic, and tactical drawbacks of continuing the status quo. Even Netanyahu has shown himself grudgingly willing to accommodate to such realities and, though as reluctantly and minimally as possible, proven able to make changes (e.g., the Wye River Memorandum). Finally, the Israeli public itself has a long history of impatience with leaders who are perceived to have weakened relations with the United States, and expressing it through the polls.

The only way the peace process will gain any traction in Israel—one of the two key parties to the conflict—is if the pragmatists are convinced it’s time to move. The Palestinian efforts at the UN are a prominent reminder that the time is here.