Your humble blogger has been pretty quiet about this week's Israeli/Hamas conflict. That's for a bunch of reasons:
1) I've had a few day job papers to bang out;
3) My bar to blogging about Israel and Palestine is whether I can offer anything more insightful than The Onion. It's a disturbingly high bar.
That said, I do think there are a few interesting political science questions that are worth asking after the past week. After all, we've just had an election in this country where it turns out that political science explained an awful goddamned lot. I wonder if some of that knowledge is being imbibed -- in uneven amounts -- in the Middle East.
In particular, I have three questions:
1) Has Bibi Netanyahu been reading Romer and Rosenthal? One of the landmark articles in political science is Thomas Romer and Howard Rosenthal's paper on the effect of the status quo on political positioning. One of the key takeaways is that in a two candidate race, if Candidate A takes an extreme position on the central policy issue, it allows Candidate B to adopt a policy position that is further away from the median voter and still win.
After reading Ethan Bronner's story in the New York Times on how the Gaza conflict is radicalizing the West Bank away from Fatah and towards Hamas (see also Haaretz), I wonder if Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu has figured out the following political jujitsu:
STEP 1: Take actions that radicalize the Palestinian population -- particularly in the West Bank;
STEP 2: Have Fatah look less and less like a credible negotiating partner, have the world acknowledge that Hamas now represents the median Palestinian preference on peace talks;
STEP 3: Have Likus win Israeli election without changing its policy position, which suddenly doesn't look so bad to Israeli voters.
Actually, I'd posit that there's an element of this in the Israeli's right's strategy of the past decade, but it seems to be particularly blatant this time around.
2) Has Hamas been reading Stephen Walt? And if so, which Stephen Walt? No, I don't mean that Stephen Walt. I mean the author of The Origins of Alliances and Revolution and War. I bring this up cause those books would offer contrasting takes on what Hamas would expect the rest of the Middle East to do. It seems pretty clear from the press reportage that Hamas believed that This Time Was Different: the Arab Spring had eliminated authoritarian despots who had used the Palestinian issue as a useful vent for domestic unrest. Newly democratic regimes would -- according to Walt's Revolution and War -- be more likely to identify with Hamas' cause, thereby taking more aggressive action to undermine and isolate Israel. And, indeed, at the rhetorical and symbolic level, this has happened. Libya is sending a "solidarity delegation" to Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled Israel a "terrorist state," and Egypt's Morsi governmment has been pretty plain in blaming Israel for the latest hostilities.
The thing is, my bet would be on Walt's Origins of Alliances playing the larger role here. What's interesting about Arab government's reactions to this Operation Pillar of Defense is that they seem.... an awful lot like how Mubarak et al would have reacted. It would seem that once Islamic movements are charged with running a government, they suddenly start to care about things other than the occupied territories (this appears to be Dennis Ross' take as well, by the way). For example, I'd argue that these negotiations matter far more to the Morsi government than brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
3) Does the Israeli right really want to make U.S. Middle East policy a partisan football? CNN polled Americans on the conflict in Gaza, and just like every other poll on this question, Americans backed Israel pretty strongly. 57% of American sympathize with the Israelis; only 13% side with the Palestinians. But as The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper notes, there's a catch:
CNN's poll director, Keating Holland, finds that there is a great discrepancy in which Americans think the action is justified, however. Of particular note is that only about 40 percent of Democrats believe the self-defense measures are "justified."
"Although most Americans think the Israeli actions are justified, there are key segments of the public who don't necessarily feel that way," Holland tells CNN. "Only four in ten Democrats think the Israeli actions in Gaza are justified, compared to 74% of Republicans and 59% of independents. Support for Israel's military action is 13 points higher among men than among women, and 15 points higher among older Americans than among younger Americans."
Now, you can speculate all you want about the source of this partisan divergence -- *COUGH* Netanyahu gambled on Obama being a one-termer and lost *COUGH* -- but friends of Israel should be disturbed by this growing split. If Israel becomes a partisan issue, it's not really going to help Republicans all that much, because all it will do is mobilize the evangelical vote -- which they've already pocketed. And eventually, Israel will have to face a Democratic president with a base that no longer cares about Israel's security. That's not going to be a good day for Israel.
[Yeah, we still liked the Onion story better--ed. Yeah, me too.]
It appears that I owe Mitt Romney a partial apology. In yesterday's blog post I quoted from a video procured by Mother Jones' David Corn regarding Romney's perspective on the peace process between Israel and Palestine. The tape suggested that Romney had zero hope for peace. As Politico's Dylan Byers notes, however, the unedited version of the tape contained the following passage right after Romney had said that an ex-Secretary of State had told him that there was a prospect for a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis after the Palestinian elections. After Romney said he didn't "delve" into it, he then added the following:
But I always keep open: the idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world. We have done that time and time and time again. It does not work. So the only answer is show them strength. American strength, American resolve, and the Palestinians will some day reach the point where they want peace more than we’re trying to force peace on them. Then it’s worth having the discussion. So until then, it’s just wishful thinking (emphasis added).
OK, so it would appear that Romney does proffer a way of getting the two sides to talk. My deepest apologies to Governor Romney for only printing the part of the statement that Mother Jones initially released.
And yet... I have anothert question now. I fear that Romney's "more resolve" strategy -- a theme he's echoed since making these comments in May -- raises more questions than answers.
For exhibit A, let's go to the Financial Times' Najmeh Bozorgmehr, who interviewed Speaker of the Iranian Parliament (and possible future PM) Ali Larijani. Here's what he had to say to Bozorgmehr about Mitt Romney:
Military action against Iran would be “highly costly” for the US and threats issued by Mitt Romney as he tries to become the next American president are campaign rhetoric only and can be largely ignored, Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Iranian parliament, has told the FT.
Mr Romney has sought to portray himself as much tougher on Iran than President Barack Obama and more sympathetic to Israel’s concerns. But Mr Larijani is unimpressed, saying the Republican candidate has the “little bit of wisdom” needed to understand the consequences of waging war on the Islamic Republic.
So it would seem that Mr. Larijani doubts Romney's strength and resolve. This is a problem. Romney's Theory of Statecraft seems to be that all U.S. problems in the world can be soled with Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength. Now, even one accepts this premise, the failure of adversaries to believe Romney's promises means he's gonna have to display even more Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength to convince people that he is being strong... and resolute.
The thing is, though, even Romney's allies doubt his strength and resolve... at least, they doubt his strength and resolve with respect to his China policy:
Mitt Romney is hoping his tough talk on China policy will win him votes — but few of his big business donors or fellow Republicans support what he’s saying or believe he’d follow through if elected.
And if he did, many analysts say, he’d likely spark a disastrous and counter-productive trade war that would hurt both American consumers and the workers he says he’s trying to protect....
An actual Romney policy, many corporate executives believe, would have the same kind of focus on bringing cases before the World Trade Organization and negotiating behind closed doors — the same approach of Obama and George W. Bush.
“On his first day on the job, Romney is not going to put himself on the immediate defensive with the world’s second largest economy,” said one top financial industry executive who strongly supports Romney....
Romney hopes his tougher words will make Obama look weak. But the question remains whether Romney’s tough talk is just that: talk.
“It’s kind of a head scratcher,” said the senior financial services executive who supports Romney but questions his China policy. “Is this just rhetoric or is this really the view of the candidate?”
Now, to be fair, it's not just Romney supporters who don't believe Romney's resolve on China. A Bloomberg Global Poll of 847 "decision makers in finance, markets and economics" showed that 82% of respondents were skeptical that Romney would designate China as a currency manipulator, for example.
So we have a presidential candidate who thinks the way to get things done is to show resolve -- but neither his allies nor his adversaries believe Romney's own resolve. Which leads to the following question: is it possible that there is simply no amount of Extra-Strength Resolve and Strength that will allow Romney to bend the rest of the world to his will? And if that's the case, what's his fallback option?
So yesterday David Corn at Mother Jones made some waves when he released a video of Mitt Romney loc
king up the Ayn Rand Institute's vote explaining that he had no chance of winning the "47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government."
Well, this morning, the foreign policy shoe dropped from the Romney video. Here's the excerpt of Romney musing about the two-state situation for Israel and Palestine:
I'm torn by two perspectives in this regard. One is the one which I've had for some time, which is that the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish. Now why do I say that? Some might say, well, let's let the Palestinians have the West Bank, and have security, and set up a separate nation for the Palestinians. And then come a couple of thorny questions. And I don't have a map here to look at the geography, but the border between Israel and the West Bank is obviously right there, right next to Tel Aviv, which is the financial capital, the industrial capital of Israel, the center of Israel. It's—what the border would be? Maybe seven miles from Tel Aviv to what would be the West Bank…The other side of the West Bank, the other side of what would be this new Palestinian state would either be Syria at one point, or Jordan. And of course the Iranians would want to do through the West Bank exactly what they did through Lebanon, what they did near Gaza. Which is that the Iranians would want to bring missiles and armament into the West Bank and potentially threaten Israel. So Israel of course would have to say, "That can't happen. We've got to keep the Iranians from bringing weaponry into the West Bank." Well, that means that—who? The Israelis are going to patrol the border between Jordan, Syria, and this new Palestinian nation? Well, the Palestinians would say, "Uh, no way! We're an independent country. You can't, you know, guard our border with other Arab nations." And now how about the airport? How about flying into this Palestinian nation? Are we gonna allow military aircraft to come in and weaponry to come in? And if not, who's going to keep it from coming in? Well, the Israelis. Well, the Palestinians are gonna say, "We're not an independent nation if Israel is able to come in and tell us what can land in our airport." These are problems—these are very hard to solve, all right? And I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, "There's just no way." And so what you do is you say, "You move things along the best way you can." You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem. We live with that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it. We don't go to war to try and resolve it imminently. On the other hand, I got a call from a former secretary of state. I won't mention which one it was, but this individual said to me, you know, I think there's a prospect for a settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis after the Palestinian elections. I said, "Really?" And, you know, his answer was, "Yes, I think there's some prospect." And I didn't delve into it (emphasis added).
Well, I'm tired of Mother Jones having all of the video exclusives!! Here's my exclusive of how one Middle East expert responded to Romney's explanation:
So I'm not a Middle East expert, but I do know a few things:
1) Neither all Palestinians not their leaders in the West Bank are committed to the destruction of Israael;
2) Whatever contours a possible Palestinian state would have, it won't border Syria
3) One of the best critiques that a GOP challenger can make of Barack Obama's administration is that he's made a hash of the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. In this video, Romney pretty much revealed that he wouldn't be changing that policy anytime soon.
David Brooks, in responding to the first part of the Romney video, concluded that Romney "really doesn't know much about the country he inhabits." Unfortunately, with this video, Romney has demonstrated that the doesn't know that much about the world he inhabits either.
We've had a week where riots in the Middle East have raged against the United States, NATO's Afghanistan policy seems to be falling apart, and China seems bound and determined to foment crises in the Pacific Rim. A smart presidential candidate could find a lot of material to criticize the Obama administration on foreign policy. Instead we have a GOP nominee that can't manage his own campaign, much less deep thoughts on geopolitics.
So if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna be doing a double face-palm for the rest of today.
Foreign policy didn't play much of a role at all in last night's GOP debate, but there were a few telling moments about Newt Gingrich's foreign policy worldview -- telling in that they scared the living crap out of your humble blogger.
The foreign policy portion was devoted entirely to Newt Gingrich's description of the Palestinians an "invented people". Gingrich doubled down during the debate, labeling all Palestinians as terrorists. When pushed by Romney on the wisdom of going further rhetorically than Israel's Likud government on this point, Gingrich fell back on the "I'm speaking blunt truths like Reagan when he called the USSR an 'evil empire'" gambit.
This is pretty odd. Last I checked Israel was a democracy, had a healthy amount of free specch, and has a ruling coalition that seems pretty hardline with respect to the Palestinians. I don't think the Israelis need an American candidate to speak truths to them that their government is hiding.
To be honest, however, that wasn't the scariest part of Gingrich's rhetoric. No, the part that set my hair on edge was during the last question on the night, when the candidates were asked what they'd learned from the other candidates.
Gingrich responded by praising Rick Santorum's "consistency and courage on Iran." He then added:
If we do survive, it will be in part because of people like Rick who've had the courage to tell the truth about the Iranians for a long time. (emphasis added)
Now, this was practically a throwaway clause, but still, how can I put this clearly.... this is f***ing insane. Totally, completely, utterly f***ing insane.
Even a nuclear-armed Iran led by the current regime of nutball theocrats cannot threaten America's survival. I get why the United States is concerned about Iran going nuclear, and I get why Israel is really concerned about Iran going nuclear. The only way that developments in Iran could threaten America's survival, however, would be if the US policy response was so hyperbolic that it ignited a general Middle East war that dragged in Russia and China. Which... come to think of it, wouldn't be entirely out of the question under a President Gingrich.
Gingrich's apocalyptic rhetoric will go down well with many neoconservatives and GOP hawks, but to resuscitate a point I've made before:
I'm about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don't equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Gingrich, as he is fond of pointing out nowadays, is a 68-year old grandfather and trained as a historian. He should know better than to sound as apocalyptic in his foreign policy statements as the very mullahs he lambasts.
As Andrew Sullivan (the only other debate-watcher who picked up on this line) observed, "Wow. Does Gingrich really believe that the US faces an existential threat from Iran? Or is he running for the Likud party?"
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
My latest Bloggingheads diavlog is with NSN's Heather Hurlburt. We discuss Greece, Palestinian recognition, and the state of the foreign policy debate among the GOP 2012 candidates.
Given those topics, be warned: I might have been liberal in my use of profanity in the diavlog below.
The Days of Rage seem to be persisting in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak is gunning for 2011's Marie Antoinette Award for Most Clueless Political Response By a Leader, and Egyptian protestors have completely and repeatedly ignored the 4 PM curfew announced on Friday. The police have withdrawn, the armed forces are out but not exactly stopping the protestors, and anyone vaguely related to Hosni Mubarak appears to have decided this was a swell time to shop at Harrod's. The official U.S. take on the situation is to
tap-dance as fast as humanly possible not say all that much.
So.... what now? What's going to happen? Like I said last week -- and like Paul Krugman -- I don't know. But having spent the morning watching the Sunday talk shows and the afternoon feverishly updating my Twitter feed, let me take this opportunity to ask as many provocative questions as I can:
1) Why is Mubarak toast? Everyone assumes that the Egyptian leader is a dead man walking, and given his speech on Friday, I can understand that sentiment. There are, however, remaining options for Mubarak to pursue, ranging from a full-blown 1989 Tiananmen square crackdown to a slow-motion 2009 Tehran-style crackdown.
Obviously, these aren't remotely good options for anyone involved. The first rule in political science, however, is that leaders want to stay in power, and Mubarak has given no indication that he wants to leave. He could be packing up as I type this -- but 80-year old strongmen don't tend to faint at the first spot of trouble.
The Days of Rage have clearly altered the future of Egypt -- Gamel Mubarak is not going to succeed his father. How much additional change will take place is unclear.
2) Could the army crack down if it wanted to? Contradicting my first question, the one thing I wonder is whether the Egyptian state has the capacity to crack down any more. Egypt's internal security forces have failed miserably. This leaves the army, an institution that has, to date, commanded respect across all walks of life in Egypt and refrained from direct internal coercion activities .
The fact that jets buzzed Tahrir Dquare suggests two things. First, the military is trying to signal to protestors to, you know, go home. Second, the military might not have the available tools to make this point more effectively, and might not be able to efficiently dispatch protestors if so desired. If this cable is accurate, the Egyptian military has long-focused on developing its conventional warfare capabilities, which is great for an armored attack in the desert and lousy for subduing a restive civilian population.
I'm sure the military could restore order if necessary, but it would be a hugely inefficient enterprise. The hit to their reputation would be massive.
3) Has U.S. influence over the situation increased and not decreased? Again, lots of talk today about how U.S. can't really shape the outcome. OK, except that I don't think the following statements add up:
a) The Egyptian armed forces are now the central pillar propping up the Egyptian state;
b) The Egyptian and American defense establishments have strong ties;
c) U.S. aide to Egypt is roughly $3 billion a year;
d) U.S. influence over the situation has waned.
As the Obama administration's rhetoric shifts -- going from calling on Mubarak to take action to talk about "transition" -- I wonder whether the U.S. is simply following the situation on the ground, or whether the situation on the ground has allowed the administration to start exerting more leverage.
4) After Egypt, which country in the region is the most nervous? This ain't Tunisia, it's the heart of the Arab Middle East. Regime chage in Egypt will send shockwaves across Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Libya and Syria.
That said, I suspect the most nervous country in the region will be Israel. When I was there this summer listening to their top security experts, Egypt was barely mentioned. The cornerstone of Israel's security was the notion that Egypt was a partner and not a threat. A region in which Iran, Turkey and Egypt all adopt hostile attitudes towards the State of Israel is, let's say, not an ideal situation. If both Turkey and Egypt look like democracies a year from now, that makes things even worse.
5) Is the Muslim Brotherhood really all that and a bag of chips? The MB wasn't behind the latest protests, and it's not entirely clear how much support they actually command in Egypt. This hasn't stopped speculation about what an MB-led Egypt would look like. While everyone is evoking what happened in Iran in 1979, I keep thinking that the Egyptian military is a lot more robust now than the Iranian military was back then. Stratfor speculates otherwise, but they don't have much data to back up their claim. I find it interesting that the MB threat has not deterred neoconservatives from supporting, at a minimum, regime change in Egypt.
[So do you have any answers?--ed. The U.S. should be pursuing a broad-spectrum policy of engaging any and every actor in Egypt right now, but the key is the military. All available pressure -- including an aid cutoff -- should be put on that institution to not intervene and not attack civilians. If that happens, I think that all the other dominoes fall.]
[NOTE: This was written on Thursday, but I foolishly forgot to 'publish" it. It's still relevant, however -- ed.]
Longtime readers know I'm fond of the phrase "going Vizzini" when policymakers or reporters keep using a word incorrectly.
Today, I'm adding "going Goodman" in honor of The Simpson's Brad Goodman. In the episode Bart's Inner Child, he said, "There's no trick to it, it's just a simple trick!" I hereby award the Goodman to anyone who says something to the effect of, "We're not asking that you do A, just do A instead!"
For today's Goodman, let's go to the New York Times and Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren's op-ed explaining Netanyahu's latest offer to the Palestinians:
Benjamin Netanyahu, for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, enabling his government to consider extending the moratorium on West Bank construction. "Such a step by the Palestinian Authority would be a confidence-building measure," Mr. Netanyahu explained, noting that Israel was not demanding recognition as a prerequisite for direct talks. It would "open a new horizon of hope as well as trust among broad parts of the Israeli public."…
For Palestinians, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state... means accepting that the millions of them residing in Arab countries would be resettled within a future Palestinian state and not within Israel, which their numbers would transform into a Palestinian state in all but name. Reconciling with the Jewish state means that the two-state solution is not a two-stage solution leading, as many Palestinians hope, to Israel’s dissolution.
While the cliché is that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, that's not what Oren and Netanyahu are offering. They're offering two months of doing nothing on settlements in return for Palestinians giving up the right of return, which is one of the core bargaining issues in any final settlement negotiations.
This might have the distinction of being one of the worst bargains ever offered in the history of Israeli/Palestinian negotiations. True, everyone knows that, eventually, the Palestinians will have to give up the right of return for there to be a final peace. Everyone also knows, however, that the only way that happens in a politically viable manner is if it's part of a package deal on the final status of the occupied territories.
Regardless of what Oren is writing in his op-ed, this offer amounts to the following: "We're happy to enter into final status negotiations, just as soon as you throw in your biggest bargaining chip to get what you want in final status negotiations."
If Oren and Netanyahu think they can cadge it from the Palestinians in return for a two-month moratorium on settlements, well, then they win this week's Brad Goodman Award.
A few days ago my group went to Ramallah to meet with some leading figures in Fatah and the Palestinian Authority - including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Here are my impressions from that seven-hour visit:
1) As much as the Israeli economy is booming, Ramallah is in the middle of the mother of all construction booms. Practically every block has a crane with construction going on - and not an empt6y crane either, but one with actual work going on. While the city is poorer than a comparable Israeli village, I should note that an awful lot of those new buildings look like the Palestinian version of McMansions.
2) For all the talk about Fatah being a secular movement, most of the people we saw outside of the Palestinian Authority (PA) buildings looked a bit more religious. Except for those women working for the PA, every woman I saw on the street was wearing the hijab.
3) The one Palestinian all of our Israeli interlocutors praised was Fayyad, so it was quite interesting to meet him. He's not a Fatah member, and has all the charisma of an economist. That said, he has one thing that few people on either side possessed - a healthy dollop of optimism. Fayyad has been hard at work trying to build the Palestinian state from the ground up, focusing on both the mundane (garbage collection) and the not-so-mundane (security). The general consensus is that the West Bank is far safer and far better run than it was five years ago. Fayyad's goal seems to be to get the Israelis to realize that the Palestinians are competent at statebuilding. So far, the Israelis appear to concede that progress has been made. That said, both the PA and the Israelis fear a reversal if further progress is not made during the peace talks.
4) There is a wide disagreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians about the explanation behind the disappearance of terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank - and, more generally, the lack of violence during Operation Cast Lead or even the recent flotilla incident. The Israelis credit Operation Defensive Shield, the security barrier, and the Israeli Defense Forces (a joke repeated by many Israelis we met was that Abu Mazen has the best security force in the word - the IDF). PA officials credited improved Palestinian security forces and the conscious self-restraint of the Palestinian people. One PA official claimed - and an former Israeli official confirmed - that 25,000 Palestinians cross the barrier undetected for economic reasons, and should the PA want to cause trouble, the barrier would be only a minor impediment. This official later claimed that the PA could launch missiles onto Tel Aviv if they so decided.
5) There is also a wide divergence of preferences about the status quo. As noted previously, the Israelis are pretty happy. Fatah is less happy - they feel like they're doing the dirty work to enhance Israeli security without realizing any benefits in terms of peace negotiations. They worry that unless progress is made on final status negotiation soon, they will lose power to Hamas. I have every confidence that fair-minded FP readers can evaluate these claims.
6) About the border crossing and the security barrier. Getting into Ramallah was pretty easy - the Israelis don't care who goes through, and the PA had no checkpoints. Once inside, it's impossible to look at the concrete barrier and not think of the Berlin Wall. Same concrete, same distribution of graffiti (no graffiti on the Israeli side, plenty on the Palestinian) and similar message content (though an awful lot of it was in English, which I found convenient ). Getting back into Israel was much more onerous. The lines were long, and the wait was interminable. The Palestinians were pretty unfazed by the wait - for them, this was standard operating procedure. On the other hand, Dalia Rabin, the head of the Rabin Institute and daughter of the late prime minister, had to be detained because she couldn't walk through the metal detector for health reasons.
7) I have something very controversial to say, so let's just get this out in the open: the hummus at the Mirador Hotel in Ramallah is better than the hummus at the King David in Jerusalem [Way to inflame tensions!!-ed. I call them as I see them.]
UPDATE: Yes, I meant seven thoughts, not six. My counting skills are the first thing to go when I'm jet-lagged.
Tel Aviv is a charming, modern, cosmopolitan city with a thriving high-tech sector, powder-sand beaches and the most temperate of seas. Apparently, it is also the most insidious threat to the state of Israel.
You might think that Hamas or Hezbollah want to take out Tel Aviv. Well, maybe, but right now it's the Israelis who have a beef with the lovely city on the Mediterranean Sea. Simply put, the problem with Tel Aviv is that it's sucking up all of the young, secular Israelis from across the country. As well it should - it offers good jobs and an easygoing lifestyle, like the Bay Area in the U.S.
This migration within Israel creates a number of long-term policy headaches. First, residents of Tel Aviv simply don't care that much about making peace with the Palestinian Authority, Syria, or the rest of the Arab world. Tel Aviv is almost exclusively Jewish, it's too far south for Hezbollah to hit and too far north for Hamas to hit. You can live in Tel Aviv and not think about long-term security concerns - which is exactly what most Israelis do. This is the majority of the population, and they're politically apathetic.
This leaves other parts of the country - most obviously Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements - to the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox and those Israeli nationalists who believe in Greater Israel. These are the people driving the Israeli government to expand settlement construction in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. The short-term political logic is to appease the settler and ultra-Orthodox movements. Both IDF officials and Israeli politicians know that at some point Israel will have to let go of most of this territory. The demographics are already getting ugly. One negotiator quoted Thomas Jefferson on this: "We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."
Finally, because of the rush to Tel Aviv, Israel isn't populating more strategic parts of its country, like the Negev or the Galilee. Instead, they're expanding into the West Bank, which is pretty stupid because most (though not all) of that territory will be ceded to Palestine at some point. Officials kept talking about creating a high-speed rail network to encourage more population spread away from Tel Aviv, but that's a ways off. As the Palestinian population outpaces the growth of the Jewish population, there's going to be incentives to move to those areas. One demographer worries about an expanding, J-shaped mass of Palestinians that shrinks Israel down to Tel Aviv and its environs. That fear might be exaggerated, but it's similar to the Russian fear of Chinese expansion into Siberia.
The longer this trend continues, the more the cosmopolitans of Tel Aviv will cede power to the ultra-orthodox and the ultra-nationalists. That augurs badly for Israel's strategic situation.
So what do the Palestinians think about all of this? That will be the subject of my next post.
Halfway through my Israel vist, I've heard from a lot of high-ranking officials, strategists and academics about how they see Israel's security situation. It would be safe to say that there are a few paradoxes.
On the one hand, there are ways in which Israel's security situation has been better over the past 18 months than it has been for a long time. The rocket attack in Ashkelon was striking because it was the first one since Operation Cast Lead. Rocket fire from Gaza went from 20-30 a day to one every other week or so. Hamas is running Gaza, but Israel has enough reconnaissance equipment overhead and along the border to, as one IDF soldier put it, "know enough to know the brand of olive oil they put on their hummus."
Similarly, in the north, there has been no rocket fire since the 2006 Lebanon war. As for the West Bank, suicide terrorism has disappeared from Israel proper, and the Israelis sound confident that terrorist networks are pretty much nonexistent. The Israeli officials believe that the Palestinian Authority under
Salid Fayyam Salam Fayyad are slowly and steadily developing administrative competencies, which help to ease the likelihood of Hamas developing a foothold.
Why are things so good right now? The Israelis believe it's because Hezbollah and Hamas now control territory, which means that they can be deterred. As one official put it, both Hezbollah and Hamas have transformed themselves from strong terrorist networks to weak armies. Israel fought bitterly against these outcomes, but they're comfortable with the status quo.
Actually, most Israelis are too comfortable with the status quo. The bad news is that Israeli security experts also recognize that all of the long-term trends are working against them. As military forces, both Hamas and Hezbollah are only getting stronger, with rockets that can hit further into Israel proper. Iran is developing its nuclear capabilities and supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. The demographics are such that, unless Israel lets go of the West Bank very soon, Jews will become a distinct minority. The window for a viable two-state solution is closing fast.
So, what should be done? Israelis don't have a great answer to this question, beyond "let the status quo continue." They think containment can work in Gaza, and that engagement can work in the West Bank. The wishful thinking that regime change will solve Israel's problem runs strong and deep within Israeli security circles (coincidentally, this is the only issue on which Israelis sound more optimistic than their America counterparts). Mostly, however, Israeli officials are concerned that the attractiveness of the status quo will lull the population into inaction. At a time when Israel could exploit its temporary advantages into the best deal possible, there isn't a lot of forward progress on any of Israel's security issues. And normal Israeli citizens just want to go to the beach - which creates a problem that I'll discuss in my next post.
Earlier today, we were given a tour of the Green Line and the physical barrier that separates Isreal proper from the West Bank (note -- the Green Line and the location of the barrier are not the same thing, which is a source of furious and intractable debate some mild contestation among the interested parties.)
We were driven to an overlook that contrasted a small Israeli settlement with the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. The settlement looks like a leafy exurb in the middle of a lot of brown, dilapidated neighborhoods. In case you were wondering, the material incentive for settlement housing is that it's 40 percent cheaper than living in Tel Aviv, the climate is more temperate, and it's still close to the city.
Our tour guide was a former IDF brigadier general, and without getting into specifics let's just say that he knew an awful lot about the West Bank. He gave us a brief lecture explaining the humanitarian issues that arose with the creation of the barrier, the security gains that came from it, the economic disparity between the Palestinian cities and the settlements, and so forth.
As he was talking, a second tour group showed up and the other tour guide started talking, also in English. I sidled up to the edge of that group to listen. The second guide's spiel was rather different. He talked about the dangers of disengaging from the West Bank, because of the possibility of a takeover by either Hamas of Hezbollah. Instability in Iraq and Jordan were also mentioned as possibilities.
Now this was a curious statement, given that Hezbollah is Shiite and based in Lebanon -- they have a tacit alliance with Hamas, but would be unlikely to find hospitable ground in the West Bank under any contingency.
It turns out that this tour was run by -- wait for it -- AIPAC. The guide was shepherding a group of Hispanic politicians around the country.
Take from this what you will.
Your humble blogger will be a bit more focused on the Middle East for the next ten days. That's because I'll be going on the road to Israel and the Occupied Territories as part of
IR summer camp a fact-finding trip sponsored by the good people at Academic Exchange.
I tried talking the folks at MTV into bringing along a camera crew to film a Jersey Shore-type of show:
ME: This is an awesome trip. You'll get lots of good footage!!
MTV: Who else is going?
MTV: No, no, what are their Jersey Shore monikers?
ME: Oh, well, let's see, there's LJ, Bobby, Debbie, Marty, Mad Skillz Mikey, Steph, Goldie, Work of Art, A-Down, KupKake, D-Lake, Valentino, B-Woww, and "The Drezner," among others.
MTV: Cool names!! Whatcha gonna be doing?
ME: Meeting with high-ranking Israeli, Palestinian and civil society leaders to get a nuanced sense of what's really going on.
Well, their loss.
Seriously, as embarrassing as it is for a Jewish kid raised in Connecticut to admit, this will be my first visit to Israel. The trip will hopefully afford me an opportunity to be
co-opted by the Israel Lobby get a better understanding of how Israelis and Palestinians think about the situation over there. I'm sure I will learn a lot - and I'll be sure to provide the readers of Foreignpolicy.com plenty of updates about B-Woww's binge drinking what I've learned along the way.
Sure, you can argue that the people on the ships weren't exactly Christ-like in their embrace of nonviolence. Based on the number of e-mails I got from the flotilla organizers in the last 72 hours, they were dying for a confrontation with Israeli forces. That said, it should be possible to gain control of an unruly ship without, you know, killing more than ten people, further worsening relations with your primary regional ally, and forcing the UN Security Council into emergency session. At this rate, Israel and the Netanyahu government will be blamed for the sinking of the Cheonan and the cancellation of Law & Order by the end of the week.
Gideon Rachman thinks Israel is placing itself in an increasingly untenable situation:
There are three particular angles for the Israelis to worry about. First, that there will be some sort of new intifada. Second, the continued deterioration in their relationship with Turkey. Third, their fraying ties with the Obama administration.
My colleague in Israel, Tobias Buck, seems to rate the chances of renewed unrest in the Palestinian territories as fairly high. That would obviously be a major blow. For the last year, Israel has been quietly building a fairly decent relationship with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. And Hamas, bottled up on the West Bank with the connivance of the Egyptians, has also been relatively quiet....
Ironically, a sanctions package against Iran is arguably as much in the interests of Israel, as in the interests of the US itself. The US may now feel that it has to go along with a UN condemnation of Israel to preserve the chances of getting its Iran resolution through. It would be a classic Israeli own goal, if their assault on the Gaza ships sank the choices of a new resolution on Iran.
I concur with Jeffrey Goldberg -- episodes like this are exposing the lack of Israeli wisdom in thinking about its situation:
There is a word in Yiddish, seichel, which means wisdom, but it also means more than that: It connotes ingenuity, creativity, subtlety, nuance. Jews have always needed seichel to survive in this world; a person in possession of a Yiddishe kop, a "Jewish head," is someone who has seichel, someone who looks for a clever way out of problems, someone who understands that the most direct way -- blunt force, for instance -- often represents the least elegant solution, a person who can foresee consequences of his actions....
I'm trying to figure out this story for myself. But I will say this: What I know already makes me worried for the future of Israel, a worry I feel in a deeper way than I think I have ever felt before. The Jewish people have survived this long in part because of the vision of their leaders, men and women who were able to intuit what was possible and what was impossible. Where is this vision today? Israel may face, in the coming year, a threat to its existence the likes of which it has not experienced before: A theologically-motivated regional superpower with a nuclear arsenal. It faces another existential threat as well, from forces arguing that Israel's morally disastrous settlement policy fatally undermines the very idea of a Jewish state. Is Israel ready to deploy seichel in these battles, rather than mere force?
Ha'aretz columnists are saying no -- and based on Israel's foreign policy and approach towards the occupied territories, I can't say I disagree with them. Indeed, the parallels between Israel and -- gulp -- North Korea are becoming pretty eerie. True, Israel's economy is thriving and North Korea's is not. That said, both countries are diplomatically isolated except for their ties to a great power benefactor. Both countries are pursuing autarkic policies that immiserate millions of people. The majority of the population in both countries seem blithely unaware of what the rest of the world thinks. Both countries face hostile regional environments. Both countries keep getting referred to the United Nations. And, in the past month, the great power benefactor is finding it more and more difficult to defend their behavior to the rest of the world.
The Obama administration has reacted to this incident in remarkably similar ways to China's reaction to the Cheonan incident -- with a call for more information. Rachman wonders if there will be a quid pro quo on Iran and Israel at the Security Council. I wonder if the quid pro quo will involve Jerusalem and Pyongyang.
Developing.... in a ridiculously bad way for Israel.
I bring this up because Ethan Bronner's news analysis in the New York Times today nicely captures divisions within the United States and Israel over the importance of the peace process going forward. It also suggests two more questions that should be asked:
[T]wo main issues are keeping American-Israeli tensions on the front burner: disagreement on the effects of what happens in Jerusalem on the rest of the Middle East, and the strength of the Palestinian leadership.
The Obama administration considers establishing a Palestinian state central to other regional goals; it also believes that the Palestinians, led by Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, are ready to run a country. The Netanyahu government disagrees on both counts. It thinks the issue of Palestinian statehood has little effect on broader American concerns and is also dubious about the ability of the Palestinians to create an entity that can resist a radical takeover.
So, my questions to you:
1) Do you believe that the Israel/Palestine issue is central to wider regional policy concerns?
2) Is the current Palestinian leadership capable of running an independent Palestine?
Being a moderator on a conference panel is a thankless task. By implication, you're the least important person on the dais (otherwise you'd be on the panel rather than moerating it). If you're good and you're lucky, no one notices you. For every other scenario, however, you get noticed for bad reasons.
Reading this New York Times account by Katrin Bennhold, I feel some small measure of sympathy for Washington Post columnist David Ignatius:
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey walked off the stage after an angry exchange with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, during a panel discussion on Gaza at the World Economic Forum on Thursday, and vowed never to return to the annual gathering.
Mr. Erdogan apparently became incensed after he was prevented by the moderator from responding to remarks by Mr. Peres on the recent Israeli attack. The panel was running late and Mr. Peres was to have had the last word, participants said....
In a news conference immediately following the panel discussion, Mr. Erdogan said that he was particularly upset with Mr. Ignatius, who he said had failed to direct a balanced and impartial panel.
By all accounts, the discussion of the Gaza incursion was a lively one, with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, joining Mr. Peres and Mr. Erdogan. For the most part, participants said, Mr. Peres was alone in defending the Israeli role in Gaza, which is why he was given the final 25 minutes to speak. Earlier, Mr. Erdogan had spoken for 12 minutes about the sufferings of the Palestinians.
In an ideal world, as a moderator you always want each panelist to have two minutes apiece for closing remarks. In that same ideal world, politicians are capable of limiting their remarks to 120 seconds. In the real world, Ignatius was between a rock and a hard place.
Obama acquits himself well during the whole interview, but this part about Israel and Palestine stood out for me:
Israel has an interest not just in bunkering down. They've got to recognize that their long-term viability as a Jewish state is going to depend on their ability to create peace with their neighbors.
The Palestinian leadership has to acknowledge that the battles that they've been fighting, and the direction that they've been going in and the rhetoric they've been employing, has not delivered for their people. And it is very hard, given the history of that region and the sense of grievance on both sides, to step back and say, let's be practical and figure out what works.
But I think that's what the people of Israel and the people in the West Bank and Gaza are desperate for, is just some practical, commonsense approaches that would result in them feeling safe, secure and able to live their lives and educate their children.
I'm in complete agreement that this is what the parties in the region should do. It's become increasingly clear, however, that none of the salient actors in the region possess anything like the willingness to acknowledge these facts of life.
As Jonathan Chait, Todd Gitlin and Michael Cohen observe, Hamas really is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. And Israel has long been unwilling to moderate its behavior on housing settlements in the ocupied territories.
My point here is that while Obama's rough outline of a solution makes perfect sense to me, I have no idea how we get from point A (the current moment) to point B (a moment when the relevant actors in Israel and Palestine agree with Obama).
It was Ehud Barak, the defense minister, who directed the preparations, and politically it is Mr. Barak who stands to gain or lose most. As chairman of the Labor Party, he is running for prime minister in the February elections and polls show him to be a distant third to the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. But if Hamas is driven to a kind of cease-fire and towns in Israel’s south no longer live in fear of constant rocket fire, he will certainly be seen as the kind of leader this country needs. If, on the other hand, the operation takes a disastrous turn or leads to a regional conflagration, his political future seems bleak and he will have given Hamas the kind of prestige it has long sought.So, let me get this staight:
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.