On Iran, Don’t Just Blame Bibi

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to stop the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He just doesn’t know it yet. That’s dangerous for Israel, because it undermines Israel’s ability to react proactively to the agreement, putting the ball in Iran’s court to carry or drop.

But while observers love to blame Netanyahu for Israel’s foreign policy problems, they should also hold Israel’s Jewish opposition parties accountable for their role in Israel’s unwillingness to address the aftermath of the deal. Not only have they consistently failed to challenge Netanyahu on his foreign policies and to propose new ideas for dealing with a resurgent Iran, but they have actively supported his claims.

It’s understandable why Netanyahu holds to his position. He believes in the biblical maxim that Israel is a “nation that dwells alone,” and that the world is a hostile place for Jews and for Israel—and always will be. So the deal is only one event in a long line of iniquities the Jews have suffered their entire existence. Most members of his government share this worldview.

But we should expect Israel’s Jewish opposition parties to hold a different view; at a minimum they should at least challenge Netanyahu for political gain. While crass, this would still mean a public debate on a security issue of critical importance. Instead they have failed to put forward any alternate proposals for reacting to the agreement, compounding the government’s failures with their own.

Their silence is all the more striking given that several former and serving security officials have publicly stated that the deal, while not perfect, does contribute to Israel’s security and can serve as the core element of a broader regional strategy. Israeli public opinion is also skeptical but there are hints of tolerance for the deal. The foundation for a challenge to the prevailing mindset is there; but no-one is opening their eyes to it.

Instead they’ve hewed to Netanyahu’s line. Yair Lapid, leader of the center-right Yesh Atid party, has criticized the prime minister’s handling of the crisis, but he committed to “fighting to the last minute so that the whole world and the US Congress understand that lifting sanctions without changing the issue of inspections would be wrong.”

Avigdor Liberman, of Yisrael Beiteinu, repeated the Netanyahu line and called the deal “a total surrender to terrorism.”

Labor leader Isaac Herzog even decided to travel to Washington to convince the Obama Administration that the deal is a terrible one and should be re-negotiated. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the leader of the main opposition party is acting as Netanyahu’s personal envoy. This might be appropriate during wartime, but it’s hardly suitable as a reaction against an international treaty.

The reason for their submission is that most of them, with the exception of the leftwing Meretz, are competing for the same electorate. They think there is no room in the public’s mind for a different position on Iran.

Surveys seem to bear their concerns out. On political and security issues, 29.1 percent of the Israeli public identifies as “right,” while 20.7 percent identity as “moderate right,” 23.9 percent as “center” and only 8.3 percent as “moderate left.” Also, 45 percent of the Jewish public identifies to varying degrees with the national religious camp in Israel—the sector of the population that is more nationalist, more rightist, and more suspicious of the outside world.

The proliferation of smaller, centrist parties in 2000s and the Labor Party’s shift toward the center has intensified the competition for these voters. Given these voters’ skepticism toward the Palestinians, Obama, and most of all Iran, the parties believe they need to avoid saying anything that might be construed as positive about these issues.

Only Meretz head Zahava Gal-On has unconditionally taken Netanyahu to task. But her party is marginalized within Israeli Jewish politics. Only 7.8 percent of Israeli Jews identify as “left” and therefore would be likely supporters. In the 2015 election Meretz received only 3.93 percent of the vote, barely above the 3.25 percent threshold for entry into the Knesset. She is considered naïve on foreign policy, too.

But looking at surveys tells only one part of the story. A broader view suggests that there is space to present different ideas. Historically, on major issues of security and peace, the Israeli public has followed its leaders. Even when polls indicate Israelis oppose a particular policy, once the government decides to pursue it, support increases—particularly when the prime ministers works to sell it.

This was true of the Yitzhak Rabin’s Oslo Accords and the major concessions it entailed to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and it was true of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza.

This “follow the leader” position stems from the country’s history. Its precarious security situation for the first two decades of its existence facilitated a trust in and tolerance for secretive government decisions, without public debate. While that has diminished over time, Israelis have retained their sense that government decisions necessarily should be supported in major security decisions outside of war. Israel’s wars have, since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, increasingly been challenged by its citizens.

With Israel’s Jewish opposition parties accepting Netanyahu’s limits on the terms of the public debate over the JCPOA, Iran is free to react as it pleases. Its ability to expand its regional activities and its influence is its own to lose. It seems most of Israel’s leaders have forgotten the ultimate purpose of Zionism: for the Jews to exert their own agency, rather than be subject to history.

Don’t count out the influence of Education on Policymakers

I was surprised by a claim in Byman and Kroenig (Security Studies, 2016) that we should be wary of assuming education has much impact on policymakers later on: “Policymakers may not fully recognize how their educations shape their worldviews, but with an absence of supporting evidence academics should also not overstate how classroom teachings might affect real-world results.” (pp. 26-27) Yet the evidence in Avey and Desch (2014), the article cited by Byman and Kroenig, is more revealing than that. There is supporting evidence.

Avey and Desch surveyed high-level national security policymakers in the Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations; they received 234 completed responses. How one interprets two pieces of evidence bears directly on whether education affects policymakers.

In their survey, Avey and Desch asked how scholars should contribute to policymaking. 54% of former officials agreed that one role was as “trainers of policy-makers.” That 54% was lower than both “informal advisors” and “creators of new information/knowledge.” For Avey and Desch, the 54% is a glass half-empty moment: “we were surprised that support for this role was so limited.”

But stepping back from Avey and Desch’s expectations going into the survey, how should we assess that 54%? Does it square with the idea that scholars have little influence on policymakers? Or, does it suggest that more often than not, policymakers view scholars as trainers? I think the latter; if in reality professors played that training role just over half the time, that would be a significant impact, through education, on policymaking.

The second relevant question Avey and Desch asked policymakers was where they acquired their most relevant skills. The answers:

  • field or work experience (49.5%)
  • formal education (27.1%)
  • professional education / job training (11.4%)
  • independent research / reading (5.7%)
  • mentoring (3.3%)
  • other (2.9%)

Again here, to Avey and Desch, the 27.1% is a low number, a glass half empty. While I see their point, I think that 27.1% is more significant. It means formal education programs led to the most relevant skills for just over one-quarter of US policymakers. That is significant and does not fit with the claim that academia, here translated through teaching and coursework, is irrelevant to policymaking.

I was especially intrigued by their survey evidence that one sub-group, policymakers who had PhDs, chose formal education as the most relevant by a wide margin.

One could also imagine more revealing ways to ask this question in a survey more deeply focused on assessing the impact of education on policymaking. It might be, for example, that many of the policymakers who listed field or work experience as #1, would have listed formal education as the the second most important place where they acquired relevant skills. The way the question was asked does not reveal how 72.9% of the respondents view formal education beyond that it was not number one in relevance.

Based on Avey and Desch’s evidence I have noted here, Avey and Desch conclude, “these findings raise important questions about the curriculum and content of much graduate professional education in international affairs.” It is a big leap from that finding to Byman and Kroenig asserting that there is an absence of supporting evidence. We have two pieces of evidence from Avey and Desch that education has a significant impact on some policymakers. Secretaries Albright, Clinton, and Rice, all supportive of that notion from their personal experience and cited by Byman and Kroenig, appear to be onto something.

Michael Oren’s Misuse of Psychology

By now Michael Oren’s holding Barack Obama personally responsible for ruining the American-Israeli relationship is well known. No reasonable person argues that Obama doesn’t share blame for complicating the relationship. But as a number of very good assessments of Oren’s arguments have noted (see, for example, here, here, and here), there is a much larger context that Oren thinks is irrelevant, but can’t be.

A number of common points run through these critiques.

  1. The idea that American presidents before Obama maintained “no daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem has no basis in fact.
  2. The stipulation that Washington would never surprise Israel has no basis in fact.
  3. Oren was not present for all discussions pertaining to either the Iran deal or American-Israeli relations, and so is speculating as much as describing events.
  4. Oren completely ignores Israel’s, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s, own agency, which is morally problematic and strategically bad for Israel.
  5. The arm-chair psychoanalysis of Obama’s issues of male abandonment is made without any evidence.

It is this last point where I think Oren makes his biggest mistake. It hasn’t been a major point in his public writings and interviews, but it’s a telling one.

All politicians—all individuals—are influenced by their life experiences. But a major problem with Freudian psychoanalysis like this is that the same cognitive and emotional state can be used to explain opposite outcomes.

That is, there is plenty of evidence of individuals who have suffered from the same childhood experience—say, being beaten by a parent—yet who have taken very different paths later in life. Some have turned to a life of violence, others have not. Some become aggressive, some become meek. Clinical experiments in psychology demonstrate behavioral tendencies, but these are generalizations rather than explanations for every individual action. Plenty of other factors intervene, including levels of education, social circles, and so on. So the assumption (or rather the supposition, as Oren couched the accusation) was unnecessarily inflammatory without more development.

Oren’s comments on the topic would have been more effective if he had just argued—as he started to—that Obama’s interactions with Muslim activists and leaders early on helped shape his worldview, by teaching him certain ideas about Islam and about America’s policies toward the Islamic world. That is, that he developed impressions and came to believe they were important enough to translate into policy. (In fact, this is the argument Peter Beinart makes about Obama’s interactions with Jewish leaders in Chicago.)

It’s possible Oren sees himself as so embedded in history that he’s convinced this really is a crossroads moment for Israel, and so ringing the warning bells as loudly as possible is necessary; the end justifies the means. But as defenders of Oren’s claims have pointed out, he is a very smart man. Surely he should have known better than to rely on such a characterization devoid of proof and that touches on some of the worst accusations Republicans and conservatives made against Obama during his first run for presidency—about his identity, about his presumed negative feelings toward America, that he’s anti-Israel, and so on. Indeed, as a public figure, an intellectual, and an Israeli politician who wants to maintain a strong US-Israel connection, he must.

Oren’s Op-ed Lacks Historical Context

This is a guest post from Prof. Boaz Atzili of American University:

Let me offer a few observations on Michael B. Oren’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “How Obama Abandoned Israel”:

  1. Oren’s article is full of historical misrepresentations. For example, Oren’s statement that Israel has offered the Palestinians statehood in “Gaza, almost the entire West Bank, and half of Jerusalem” is a gross exaggeration. And Obama’s insistence on the total freeze was a result of Israel taking advantage of loopholes in similar previous arrangement that were less explicit.
  2. Oren’s argument that Barack Obama is the first US President to abandon the principle that there should be “no daylight” (no public disagreement) between Israel and the US is simply wrong. The United States, for example, has always publicly opposed Israeli settlements (though less so under President George W. Bush), and never accepted Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
  3. Moreover, Oren seems to think that this principle runs only one-way: When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly and vehemently calls US policy on a nuclear agreement with Iran dangerous, that’s okay. When Obama disagrees with Israel’s expansion of settlements that’s breaching the trust. How so?
Israel makes sure never to deliberately surprise the United States, Oren claims. Really? I cannot believe that the Suez War, the bombing of Osirak, and announcing settlement expansion whenever a high ranking US official is visiting, were all unintended mishaps. Even in the Israeli land of improvisation that is unlikely.
  5. After trying for too long to pressure Israel privately to change its policy (which is basically talk the talk but make sure nobody can walk the walk), the Obama administration did decide to go public with the disagreements. But so long as this is not accompanied by a willingness to actually press Israel by threatening financial or military aid (as, for example, President George H. W. Bush did) or by refusing to veto UNSC resolutions that Israel is opposed to (basically anything that has the words “Palestine” and “Peace” in it), Netanyahu can easily keep on his obstructionist policy. And keep on complaining about Obama through his ambassador-turned-Knesset Member.

The Student is not a Consumer: Further Thoughts

Dan Drezner’s smart post had me speculating thinking about two other related points. Drezner noted that 1) a university is not a corporation and students are not consumers and 2) the real university crisis is in the growing number of college instructors without tenure who are thus vulnerable to poor student evaluations and general student whinging.

First, this might also help us understand grade inflation. If the students-as-consumers expect high grades, and will threaten job security when they don’t get those grades, why not give out high grades like candy? (Though to be transparent, more like the cheap, corn-syrup based candies than good chocolate.) People who have actually researched this possibility seem to agree.

Second, evaluations are so appealing because they boil everything down to a number. A number can be discussed and weighed quickly as well as easily compared to other instructors at the university, as in, “Oh, look, this professor’s average is above the mean for the university as a whole.” This ease and speed could be appealing to administrators or committees that have to supervise and evaluate many instructors. Moreover, in a field like political science where many faculty are pushing quantitative research, the primacy of numbers in evaluation should come as no surprise. It avoids some squishy, qualitative judgment based on, say, actual classroom observation by a professional.

Now please grade this blog post on a scale of 1 to 10. Anonymously.

The Unlikely Winners of Israel’s Election

No one can confidently predict the outcome of tomorrow’s Israeli election. It will undoubtedly be a close contest between Likud and the Zionist Camp for the most seats in the Knesset. In any case, which of the two will lead the next government and who will be the next prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu or Yitzhak Herzog, will not be determined at the polls, but in the inevitable inter-party negotiations and deal-making that follows it.

Netanyahu, a seasoned expert in such coalition building, is still the most likely candidate to form the next government and become prime minister. Despite a lack of popular support and a widespread desire for change at the top, Netanyahu is a savvy politician who has often been able to outmaneuver his rivals. More importantly, it will probably be much easier for him to put together a governing coalition than it will be for Herzog. Not only is the right-wing bloc—composed of Likud, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party—likely to have more Knesset seats than the center-left bloc of the Zionist Camp and Meretz, but also the ultra-Orthodox parties (United Torah Judaism, Shas, and its new offshoot Yahad) are more inclined to sit in a rightwing government than a center-left one, partly because many of their voters hold rightwing, hawkish views on the Palestinian issue. A narrow coalition of rightwing and religious parties, probably joined by the new center-right Kulanu party led by the former Likud member Moshe Kahlon, is therefore a more likely outcome than a left-of-center government. Many analysts, however, believe that a broad national unity government, including both Likud and the Zionist Camp, is the most likely outcome of the election, even though most Israelis are decidedly unenthusiastic about this.

Sadly, this does not bode well for the already dim prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Those people, both inside and outside Israel, desperately hoping (with more desperation than hope) that the next Israeli government will be more serious and determined about pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians, are likely to be disappointed, yet again. Even if the Zionist Camp wins the most seats and Herzog is somehow able to cobble together a coalition, he will have to rely upon the support of parties whose leaders are much less willing to make major concessions to the Palestinians, particularly concerning the future of Jerusalem.

But although the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace is unlikely to be significantly advanced by the results of this election, another cause—no less important to Israel’s future—could well receive a major boost. This is the cause of Jewish-Arab coexistence and cooperation in Israel. Since the late 1990s, and especially since the notorious events of October 2000 when Israeli police killed 12 Arab citizens of Israel during large-scale, and sometimes violent, protests, Arab-Jewish relations in Israel have been dangerously deteriorating. The Palestinian-Arab minority, 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, has become increasingly alienated from the Israeli state and from Israeli Jews. After suffering from decades of discrimination and government neglect, and after having recently endured racist attacks (both verbal and physical), rightwing Zionist agitation against them (led by Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu colleagues), and parliamentary legislation targeting them, many, if not most, of Israel’s Arab citizens now firmly believe that they will always be ‘second-class’ citizens in a Jewish state.

This election could challenge that demoralizing and pernicious belief and help convince Arabs that they can in fact be fully equal citizens, and that Israel can really be a Jewish and democratic state. If the Joint List, a union of three Arab parties and the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, succeeds in winning thirteen or fourteen seats (as the polls suggest it might) it could be the third largest party in the next Knesset. While it is unlikely to join the government—there is an informal rule against including Arab parties in Israeli government coalitions—the Joint List could become Israel’s main opposition party, a status that confers many practical and symbolic benefits. For example, its leader, Ayman Odeh, would meet with visiting foreign dignitaries, receive official government briefings, and get to address the Knesset after every speech by the prime minister.

The potential electoral success of the Joint List, and the political influence and prestige it would enjoy as a result of this, could turn out to be a game changer in Israeli politics. It could emerge not only as the unified and representative voice of the Arab minority, one that Israeli and foreign leaders and the Israeli-Jewish public would have to pay attention to, but also as a future government coalition partner. Above all, its success would send a powerful and much–needed message to the Arab minority that voting in Israeli elections is not a sham or a waste of time, as many Arab citizens have come to believe it is (which is why Arab voter turnout has declined in previous elections). This would encourage future Arab political participation and strengthen Israeli democracy.

Whether the Zionist Camp or Likud lead the next Israeli government, therefore, perhaps the biggest winner of the election will be the Joint List, and its most significant outcome may be in the often ignored, but deeply troubled, relationship between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

Predicting the Israeli Election

Israel’s election is almost upon us. There’s been no shortage of analysis of its trends, but most of these have rightly come with the caveat that polling in Israel is subject to several methodological problems. In addition, the outcome in several past elections (e.g., 1977, 2006, 2013) has been a surprise to both analysts and pollsters in part because many people only make up their minds on the day they vote.

Bearing this in mind, Michael Koplow, Guy Ziv, and I thought it might be fun–which is not to say stake our professional reputations on it–to try to predict the vote, and then to compare our predictions. The results are interesting.

Note that voting in Israel closes the night of Tuesday, March 17. It will take an extra couple of days to count all the ballots, including those from abroad (diplomats and soldiers).

Comments welcome!

Party Michael






Likud     23     20       20
Zionist Union     22     24       25
Yesh Atid     15     13       13
Joint Arab List     12     13       12
Koolanu     12      9        9
Bayit Yehudi     11     13       12
United Torah Judaism      7      7        7
Shas      6      8        8
Yisrael Beiteinu      4      4        5
Meretz      4      5        5
Yachad      4      4        4
TOTAL    120    120      120