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.

 

 

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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.

Some More Questions on the Inevitability of Military Coups

There are lots of important questions to ask about the military coup in Egypt and what comes next. Both Nathan Brown and Jeremy Pressman raise important points about the Muslim Brotherhood’s possible options in the aftermath, while Marc Lynch considers the American reaction.

But what we shouldn’t do is condemn the coup out of misplaced expectations and pique. I don’t, of course, mean that military takeovers are an appropriate means of politics and should be encouraged as regular practice. Rather, there is a tendency, it seems to me, to look at Egypt as though the election that brought the Muslim Brotherhood (a) existed in a vacuum, and (b) is the only instance of an autocracy-to-democracy transition gone awry.

On the first point, there was in Egypt a convergence of a myriad of problems that conditioned the likelihood of success of first elections. A short list would include: an unstable transition from autocracy to democracy; deeply divided population; immature party system; a Muslim Brotherhood government that believed its moment had arrived and that was intolerant toward the opposition; a military used to its autonomy; and an American government unsure how to respond except to avoid severing the relationship.

But more than that, though, is the fact that a wide range of opposition groups, the Coptic community, and religious authorities actively supported the coup. This tells us that however legitimate the 2011-2012 elections that brought the Brotherhood to power were, its governing was not—certainly, as Michael Koplow has noted, not enough to justify the controversial decisions that they, under President Mohamed Morsi, took.

To assume under these conditions that Egyptian democracy was not fragile would be to ignore the interests and feelings of those groups both in power and out of it. The political system was not strong enough to handle either the over-accumulation of power or the widespread dissatisfaction with it.

This leads to the second point, which is that a comparison of Egypt to other transitions can tell us much about the potential success of the revolution. Historical patterns suggest that violence is the norm, that much time is needed before the transition is finished, and that a successful outcome (defined as the establishment of a real democracy) is never guaranteed.

Sheri Berman has a very good piece in Foreign Affairs comparing the Arab Awakening to transitions in France, Italy, and Germany. Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans (hat tip to Pressman) have a paper that uses quantitative analysis to determine the consequences of military coups (their conclusion is that coups are not as harmful to the establishment of democracies as we might think). Finally, commenters on Pressman’s piece in the Monkey Cage provide several more interesting comparisons.

Our energies are better focused, then, on understanding why the military coup occurred in Egypt so that another similar development can be avoided and the transition away from authoritarianism is smoothed. Understanding the particularities of Egypt’s transition should be complemented with a mining of lessons learned from other cases of transition.

A first glance indicates that while military intervention isn’t necessarily a good thing, it’s not unexpected; and it doesn’t mean the transition is knocked off course. This would be a good starting point for analysis and work.

Working with Bibi

My piece in Open Zion yesterday argued that, although he’s not actively interested in withdrawing from the West Bank and helping create a Palestinian state in the entire WB, Benjamin Netanyahu is the Prime Minister of Israel, and so needs to be worked with. Moreover, he’s a pragmatist and opportunist; he can be pushed toward that end.

Follow the link for more.

Erdogan’s Democracy

Yesterday at The National Interest I analyzed the conditions that helped lead to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP’s particular understanding of democracy. I also considered how the United States should respond to the Turkish protests:

The protests that have roiled Istanbul, Ankara, and several other cities in Turkey over the weekend have caught most observers by surprise. But the conditions that led to them—and shaped the government’s reaction—have been building for some time. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has emerged out of decades of a particular Islamist experience in Turkey, which has shaped its understanding of democracy and the role of government. The party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to have internalized this experience to an even greater degree. All this makes the demonstrations in Turkey a particularly difficult thing for the United States to respond to.

Follow the link for more.

US Policy in Turkey: White House and State

Steven Cook and Michael Koplow suggest the United States government has held Turkey up as a democratic model even as, they write, “Turkey has essentially become a one-party state.” But prior to the recent protests, have U.S. public statements refrained from noting deficiencies in Turkish democracy? It depends where you look, the White House or the Department of State. U.S. rhetoric has not been uniform.

The White House has chosen to highlight military and economic cooperation, not political reform, in a way very consistent with Cook and Koplow’s piece. With nearby states in the Middle East like Egypt in the midst of political upheaval, Turkey served as convenient model of success. Turkey = Islam + democracy + US ally. What could be a better illustration for the president?

When Prime Minister Erdogan came to the White House on May 16, 2013, President Obama did not raise concerns about illiberal Turkish behavior in either the joint press conference or in an op-ed Obama published that day in the Turkish Daily Sabah. Obama focused on trade and investment, mutual security (NATO, terrorism), and Syria. Reporters did not ask either leader about the state of Turkish democracy.

Four years ago, when Obama traveled to Turkey in April 2009, his language was a little different; he did mention democracy. Obama highlighted a shared U.S.-Turkish commitment to “religious freedom, respectful of rule of law, respectful of freedom.” More importantly, in his speech to the Turkish parliament, Obama carefully asked for continued Turkish progress on reform: “These achievements have created new laws that must be implemented, and a momentum that should be sustained.” He went to great lengths not to single Turkey out, juxtaposing his comments (concerns?) on Turkish democracy with a reminder of how U.S. democracy too is a work in progress: “I say this as the President of a country that not very long ago made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote, much less be President of the United States.” (The fact that he was speaking in the Turkish parliament might very well have shaped how such comments were delivered!)

They were not earth-shattering words, but he did explicitly mention the need for Turkey to do more work on the issue.

What about State? In late 2011, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a different tack. In a speech in Washington, DC, hosted by the American-Turkish Council, Clinton focused mostly on economics and mutual security. But she also, gently I thought, raised substantive concerns about democratic reform:

The third point is that Turkey’s ability to realize its full potential depends upon its resolve to strengthen democracy at home and promote peace and stability in the neighborhood. The ongoing constitutional reform process is a valuable opportunity, and I’ve had very productive conversations with President Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, and others about this process, about its inclusivity and transparency that results in a document that deepens respect for human rights for all Turkish citizens, including the right to speak and worship freely. All minority groups need to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. I was particularly impressed by Prime Minister Erdogan’s statement during Ramadan that property would be returned to religious minority groups, and we also hope to see other positive steps, such as reopening of the Halki Seminary.

A vibrant economy depends upon the free exchange of ideas, the free flow of information, and the rule of law. Strengthening due process, cracking down on corruption, helps any country grow more rapidly, and also protecting a free and independent media, which plays a role that is very important.

She hits a lot of the key points: the constitution, a free media, rule of law, and human rights for all Turkish citizens. She did not juxtapose it with America’s own imperfections and continuing democracy implementation agenda. Fast forward 18 months and I can imagine those kinds of talking points were intentionally left out during Erdogan’s visit.

Department of State reports are even more at odds with Obama’s May 2013 comments. State’s Human Rights Report said many positive things about Turkey but also highlighted a number of shortcomings. The report’s executive summary listed the “most significant human rights problems during the year” including:

–      “Deficiencies in effective access to justice”

–      “Government interference with freedom of expression”

–      “Inadequate protection of vulnerable populations”

The summary continued:

Other significant human rights problems during the year included: Security forces committed unlawful killings. Authorities obstructed demonstrations. Security forces allegedly used excessive force during sometimes violent protests related to the Kurdish issue, students’ rights, and labor and opposition activities. The government obstructed the activities of human rights organizations, particularly in the Southeast. Impunity remained a problem. The government investigated reports of abuse by security forces, but the number of arrests and prosecutions was low, and convictions remained rare, although the number increased from previous years.

As is typical with the State report, the full text of the Turkey section includes a variety of examples. Also typical of coverage of US allies, the criticism is usually embedded in positive statements. For example:

The constitution and law provide citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections based on universal suffrage. However, the government restricted the activities of some political parties and leaders.

That kind of good cop, bad cop statement is similar to comments by Daniel Fried, U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, on February 27, 2009 in advance of a Secretary Clinton trip to Turkey and elsewhere:

And Turkey itself has been going through a very important evolution at home, moving in a democratic direction, but also with a lot of strains as Turkey addresses issues of its democracy in its – under its secular – its secular system.

(Another annual State report worth considering is on International Religious Freedom. This from May 20, 2013: “Embassy and consulate representatives, as well as visiting U.S. officials, met frequently with government officials and representatives of religious groups to discuss religious freedom,…”)

And even outside the Obama administration, one can see that pros and cons writing. In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations released a major report on U.S.-Turkish relations. It noted: “Over the course of the past decade, Turkey has simultaneously become more European, more Muslim, more democratic, and more modern.” The report also notes many concerns about the practice of Turkish politics (pp. 20-26). Overall, it takes a middle ground: “On balance, it is clear that though the AKP took dramatic steps in 2003 and 2004 to forge a more open, modern, and pluralist society, questions remain about Turkey’s democratic transition. In some areas, the AKP-led government has used the same nondemocratic tools as its predecessor, making it appear no more liberal than previous Turkish governments.”

What it looks like, then, is a clear difference in past reports and statements from State – which criticize Turkey on democracy issues – versus the White House line as exemplified by the Erdogan visit in May. So when Cook tweets “Nary a word of criticism. It’s always sunny in Istanbul,” perhaps he meant the White House only.

Three broader thoughts:

1. IR 101: Different U.S. agencies may have different perspectives and policies on the same issue.

2. Public statements alone are not policy (and may be at odds with actual policy). Do they have any effect? Why issue them at all? Who does consume such words?

3. If the White House is ignoring illiberalism in Turkey, it looks like Turkey fits as a classic US ally: strategic needs (Syria, Israel, Arab Spring writ large, economics, NATO) trump pressing an ally on liberal reform. So what we may be hearing with changes in Obama’s rhetoric from April 2009 to May 2013 is a changed region in which the White House is even more willing to underplay the question of political openness and reform In Turkey (which, of course, would be ironic because you underplay illiberalism so as to highlight Turkey as…a liberal democratic model).

UPDATE: Thanks to @tcwittes for suggesting two other State examples: Clinton criticism in July 2011 and comments by William J. Burns in January 2012.

Khamenei’s Gamble

Guest post by James Devine:

In a sense, the decision to reject the candidacies of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s protégée, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, was a safe choice. With them out of the way, the regime will be spared an inflammatory campaign, and none of the remaining candidates poses a threat to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, it was a risky decision. Both candidates represent large and potentially powerful constituencies. In the face of economic sanctions, international isolation, and the Arab Spring, this might not seem like a good time to be alienating large parts of the population. It is likely though, that Ali Khamenei and his conservative followers thought out their moves quite carefully. In the short-term, their gamble is likely to payoff. The long-term however, may be a different story.

With Rafsanjani disallowed, the Green Party and Reform Movement are likely going to be in disarray. Rafsanjani was too much of a political insider to be their inspirational or intellectual leader. However, he had earned some respect by publically challenging the election results in 2009. He also gave them someone to rally around in this year’s election. With him gone, they may look to Hassan Rouhani as an alternative. However, he is probably too much of an establishment figure to inspire them. With the election route closed-off, the Greens and Reformers could take to the streets as they did in 2009. However they are nowhere near as organized as they were then.

Moreover, the regime has been remarkably effective at containing them since 2009. It has kept their leadership isolated, and journalists and activists have been arrested and intimidated. Indeed, as the elections have approached; the regime has acted preemptively, closing down newspapers and detaining activists. It is betting that without an election campaign to rile them up, and without leaders to call them out to battle, the Greens and Reformers will simply stay home. If there is any trouble, it will be isolated and manageable.

In the short-term, the regime may be right on this score. However, Rafsanjani was the last link the regime had to a large part of the population. Many of the Greens and Reformers have given up on the political system, but some still believe the Islamic Republic can be fixed. In the long-term, the regime may need these supporters. It is also possible that given time, they will get themselves sufficiently organized to be a real threat. The regime’s biggest advantage so far has been that the liberal opposition is too divided to act effectively. Some want to fix the system, some want to overthrow it and many are in between. The Council of Guardians may have finally given them common cause. The message they have just sent is that there will be no change, incremental or otherwise.

Ahmadinejad and his Islamic “neo-conservatives” are likely to be more of an immediate problem. In his eight years, Ahmadinejad has aggressively promoted his supporters, particularly in the security services and the interior ministry. He is therefore in a good position to be disruptive and he has never been one to shy away from a fight. Indeed, he has already challenged the decision to reject Mashaie’s candidacy.

Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad’s followers are all supporters of the Islamic Republic. They have internalized the ideology of the revolution and their political futures are tied to the continuation of the system. They are therefore unlikely to ally themselves with the Greens, or in any way try to overthrow the government. In the short-term, Khamenei is likely gambling that they will make some trouble, but that the regime will be able to ride it out. They will co-opt a few key members, arrest a few for corruption, and ignore the rest.

In the long-term though, this is a dangerous strategy, perhaps even more dangerous than alienating the Greens and Reformers. Ahmadinejad was the first real leader to emerge from outside the revolution’s original inner circle, and his followers are the Islamic Republic’s second generation of elite. Ahmadinejad also remains popular with the rural and urban poor, who make up the bedrock of the regime’s support. If the regime is not able to renew its elite, and if it alienates what’s left of its popular support, it risks the same fate as the ossified Arab Republics in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. They could only rule by inertia and coercion for long.

Of course, the future is always uncertain, and Khamenei faces serious problems right now. In the short term, he is likely content to have the election fought over the economy. The candidates can debate which is more to blame: American sanctions or Ahmadinejad’s incompetence. As for the long-term consequences, people have been predicting the collapse of the Islamic Republic since 1980. They were wrong then; no doubt Khamenei is betting they will be wrong again.