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July 31, 2008

Thinking Through the Consequences of the Israeli PM’s Resignation Announcement

Israel’s PM Ehud Olmert announced last night that he would be standing down and not running for the leadership of the Kadima party.  In that speech, Olmert reiterated his commitment to the peace processes he has launched, on all tracks, explained why they are in the Israeli interest, and gave an all around dignified performance—which was even lauded by many in the punditocracy who have hounded him for the last two years.  The circumstances of his departure are unfortunate to say the least.  But Olmert the politician (the wheeler-dealer—not so much) is considered to be highly effective and is clearly well liked—great interpersonal skills and human management, effective coalition maintenance, the veritable unmensch mensch.  But what does his resignation announcement mean for what happens next?  I will look briefly at five areas:  the politics—both inside the party and in general, the Palestinian situation, the Syrian talks, and the Iran file. 

1. What Happens Next Politically?  Inside the Ruling Kadima Party

The technical details are as follows:  Kadima’s circa 70,000 members are eligible to vote in a leadership primary to be held on September 17th.  Four candidates have so far announced their intention to stand, all of whom are serving as ministers in the current government—Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter.  Any candidate receiving 40 %-plus one votes in the first round becomes party leader.  If no one achieves that, then the top two candidates go into a second round run-off on September 25th.  Polls over the last few months have consistently shown that Livni and Mofaz have a significant lead over Sheetrit and Dichter, both of whom are considered to be rank outsiders.  The race between Livni and Mofaz looks close (polls suggest a small advantage to Livni in the head-to-head run-off).  Mofaz has stayed closer to his years in the Likud and is staking out a more hawkish right-wing position, while Livni is a more obvious fit to lead a self-styled centrist, moderate party.

Mofaz is considered to have the advantage of a better ordered political machine amongst the Kadima members, including key vote contractors in unions associated with his ministry work.  He also looks better placed in being able to form a new governing coalition without going to new elections, and he’s likely to have the support of Olmert (useful in certain party branches and islands of loyalty, but not with the broader public).

Livni’s ace in the hole is her greater popularity with the broader public in Israel—Kadima led by Livni is competitive in a general election.  Led by Mofaz, the party sinks, at least according to all of the polls.  Livni is also better placed to adopt the mantle of the clean politician who offers a break with the past corruption and clientelism.  Mofaz just does not fit that role, and there is plenty of speculation that he has skeletons in his closet which at some point will come out.  And much of the party leadership is with Livni.  Livni will argue that even if she can’t form a coalition without elections, Kadima should still not fear elections under her leadership.

2. What Happens Next Politically?  The Bigger Picture for Israel

Whoever wins the Kadima primary will have twenty-eight days to put together a governing coalition, with the possibility to extend that by another fourteen days.  If that is successful, and a new government is sworn in, then elections need not take place until the scheduled date in 2010.  If, however, the new party leader is unable to stitch together a working coalition, then Israel will go to a general election after about one-hundred days (the party faction leaders in the Knesset can agree on a date, and that will likely be February or March).  Most of the commentary suggests that for the duration of the interim period—when coalition talks are being conducted and if they fail then right up to elections—Olmert will remain as a caretaker Prime Minister.  There does however seem to be a mechanism whereby Olmert could recuse himself while enabling the new Kadima leader to be the acting Prime Minister in the run-up to elections if a new government has not been created. 

There are a number of options that a new Kadima leader would have in forming a governing collation without elections.  The most likely for either Mofaz or Livni would be to maintain the current coalition with Labor, Shas, and the Pensioners.  Shas may demand a high price (literally with them it tends to be all about money for their party institutions), something which may be less palatable and damaging to public image for Livni than for Mofaz.  Likewise, Labor could feel uncomfortable in a Mofaz-led government, as Minister Ami Ayalon implied in an interview this morning with Israel Radio:

I think that the Labor Party should not join any government that does not continue to try to exhaust the peace process. I will not go along automatically with just anyone. Declarations that tomorrow we will attack Iran or that we will never leave the Golan Heights, will make it very, very hard for the Labor Party to join. 

But then again, Ehud Barak is in charge of Labor, and he is a more flexible breed of politician than Ami Ayalon. 

Mofaz could also try to create a Kadima right-wing coalition, with smaller religious and rightist parties, including that of Avigdor Lieberman.  Both sides on that equation seem to be flirting with the idea, but it is still early.  A Likud-Labor-Kadima government is unlikely, and Livni’s expression of preference for this option seems more to do with campaign positioning than with realistic plans.  It is of course possible that the election within Kadima is deemed to be illegitimate and that the party fails to coalesce around a leader thus elected and it splits—but that scenario is unlikely. 

If Israel does go to general elections, then the Likud under Netanyahu leads in the polls, but sometimes by a very narrow margin when faced with a Kadima party led by Livni.  Labor under Ehud Barak is struggling to pass the twenty mandate mark in those polls.  Most money is on Netanyahu winning an election and forming a right-right or a right-center government, possibly including Labor.  A personal comment here—it would be dreadful for Labor and Israel if Labor serves again as a fig leaf for a right-wing government.  If Bibi wins, let him govern, let him navigate.  He is not so scary, and the reality can often look very different when you’re in the Prime Minister’s seat. 

3. What Happens Next to the Palestinian Situation?

Since his speech last night, Ehud Olmert has repeated that he will continue the negotiations with Abbas with a view to still reaching an agreement.  And senior Bush Administration officials have made similar comments.  Reaching a deal under these circumstances will almost certainly not, and it is fair to say should not, happen.  One of Yediot Ahronot’s leading commentators, Simon Schiffer, dismissed the idea in today’s newspaper, dryly noting that “happy is he who believes”.  The Bush administration should not repeat what its predecessor did and try to impose a U.S. timetable on the parties.  That also applies to Olmert’s political timetable.  There is apparently a price to pay for almost seven years of the Bush Administration’s disengaging, losing credibility, and letting this fester.  Someone could make the argument that after last night’s speech, Olmert is free of the suspicion that any peace deal he achieved would be in order to serve his personal-political survival.  In other words, he can finally do the deal.  You could even say he would be doing the dirty work for a future leader who would “begrudgingly” accept what they know to be necessary. 

I don’t see it that way.  I don’t think Olmert is yet there on content.  I don’t think an agreement carrying his name has legitimacy or credibility or is a good idea (even if that’s a sad thing).  I don’t think it would be accepted by his successor or even his current cabinet.  And I don’t think the Palestinians see many benefits to signing with Olmert—their principal concern seems to be not getting blamed for any failure in the process.

What the US should be thinking about right now is a plan B.  That would mainly consist of two things: (1) is there a way to preserve some of the progress made in negotiations?; (2) how to prevent a further deterioration of the situation on the ground—settlements, closures, security.  But getting to the crucial issue of reconstituting a unified Palestinian national platform and movement is clearly not on this Administration’s agenda (and one fears it’s unlikely to feature on that of its successor, either—rendering any future peace process debilitatingly fragile). 

For Olmert and those around him, two issues should be paramount: one is maintaining the cease-fire in Gaza, which holds but is fragile; the other is securing a deal for the release of Gilad Shalit. 

4. What Happens Next?  The Syria Talks

The Israelis and Syrians this week conducted their 4th round of proximity talks with Turkish mediation in Ankara.  Olmert has also talked about the Syrian track in terms of being closer than ever to a conclusion.  But that happening under Olmert looks like even more of stretch and even less likely than a Palestinian deal, as the Syrian track has the added complication of the U.S. not being on board—an ingredient that is most certainly a prerequisite for closure. 

It’s far from clear whether the Israeli side is ready to bite the bullet on the withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and the kind of quid pro quos from Syria regarding its regional relations will also be far from easy.  It seems that both sides currently see advantages in maintaining the Turkish-mediated dialogue.  Within the Israeli Defense establishment, there is almost a consensus that these talks add a helpful element of enhancing the predictability of stability and security on Israel’s northern border.  That consensus does not hold within Israel’s political leadership, so whoever Olmert’s successor is, there is no guarantee that the Syria talks will continue (and for now at least, the Americans will not be pushing in this direction, and possibly the opposite). 

On the Syrian side, the fact of the conducting of talks with Israel has helped send a message of a more constructive and engageable Syria to Americans (looking past this Administration) and to the Europeans (see the breakthrough for instance in French-Syrian relations).  But a breakthrough on Israel-Syria will almost certainly have to wait for the next leaders in both Israel and America.

5. What Happens Next?  The Iran File

With all the chatter over a possible Israeli strike against Iran, it is worth setting down certain realities.  If Israel does act, and I think it is unlikely, it will not be because of political caprice dictated by an outgoing politician as part of some legacy.  Israel’s security establishment does not work like that.  Some people may suggest the following scenario:  if Israel is going to elections, the new Kadima leader fails to form a coalition and Olmert is seeing out his final days between November and January, then that is the most dangerous time.  I don’t see it.  And it’s worth remembering that the Pentagon still has its say during that November to January window. 

If anything, it might be worth considering that the louder the Israeli rhetoric, the more this is about leverage rather than imminent action.  Israel’s leaders in the defense establishment are cognizant at how complex and potentially risky a strike would be (see this brilliant piece by preeminent military historian and strategist Martin van Creveld, a Professor at Hebrew University).  That’s not an argument for complacency.  It is though an argument for taking a deep breath.

And if Israel does have a new Prime Minister in October, then expect caution to be even more the watchword—even if that person is Mofaz (and his bellicose rhetoric).  But here’s one prediction I will confidently make: if it is Mofaz, expect oil prices to go up. 

On Joe Klein and the Jewish Neoconservatives

 This piece also appears at Huffington Post

You may have missed it, but renowned Time columnist Joe Klein and the Jewish neoconservative blogosphere are at war with one another.  The reason this is more important than an argument on who sits where in shul is that Klein has refused to cower, and as a respected member of the mainstream media is pushing back against one of the uglier and more debate-restricting phenomena of recent years.  Here is what Joe had to say on  ‘Swampland’, his blog on the Time website:

There is a small group of Jewish neoconservatives who unsuccessfully tried to get Benjamin Netanyahu to attack Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, and then successfully helped provide the intellectual rationale for George Bush to do it in 2003… Happily, these people represent a very small sliver of the Jewish population in this country…I remain proud of my Jewish heritage, a strong supporter of Israel…But I am not willing to grant these ideologues the anonymity they seek…I believe there are a small group of Jewish neoconservatives who are pushing for war with Iran because they believe it is in America's long-term interests and because they believe Israel's existence is at stake. They are wrong and recent history tells us they are dangerous. They are also bullies and I'm not going to be intimidated by them.

It came in response to the latest outburst from Podhoretz Jr. at the Commentary blog:  “As for his [Klein] use of classic anti-Semitic canards, I am happy to report that the Jewish people will long survive Joe Klein”.  Mazal Tov, Joe, you have became a thing that the Jewish people will survive, no less.

All of this came on the heels of an earlier and none-too-friendly exchange of letters between Klein and the Anti-Defamation League, when the latter saw fit to attack Klein over his characterization of the role of the Jewish neoconservatives in the run-up to the Iraq War.  Joe stood his ground then, too, effectively dismissing the claim of anti-Semitism and explaining that “most Jews disagree with their [the Jewish neocons] politics and many Jews are disgusted with their behavior.”  Klein expanded upon these themes in an interview on Jeffrey Goldberg's blog that is well worth reading.

I would suggest that this is not just Klein’s private kerfuffle:  it matters to Jewish America, to America and Israel too, and to being able to have a more serious conversation about anti-Semitism in the future.
The Klein thesis shared by a great many commentators and analysts (this writer included) goes something like this:  Bush administration policies in the Middle East have had disastrous consequences for the US; Israel too is in a less secure and worse place as a result of these policies; ultimate responsibility for all this lies with the President himself and his hawkish and close group of senior aides—principal among them Veep Cheney; the neoconservatives played an important role in providing an ideological framing for these policies; within that neoconservative world there operates a prominent and tight-knit group of Jewish neocons who are ideologically driven in part by an old school Likudist view of Israeli interests.  

Were the Jewish neocons in control and did they make the fatal decisions?  No.  Are all Jews neoconservatives or are all neoconservatives Jews?  Please!  Are the Jews or Israel to blame for the Bush Middle East debacle?  Get outta here.

Something did happen though—there was a failure within the mainstream, Jewish and non-Jewish, to identify the existence of a particular Jewish neoconservative narrative and then to challenge that narrative as being fundamentally flawed in its reading of both American and Israeli interests.  One of the causes of that vacuum was the abuse and cheapening of the term anti-Semitism as it was hurled at many who went after Podhoretz, Perle, Feith, and co.  They tried, and sadly rather successfully, built a wall of untouchability.  Klein is taking his shofar, or trumpet, to that wall, as many have done before, but Joe is particularly MSM, and therefore important.  

Too many Jewish communal leaders and institutions made the mistake of not standing up and speaking out more against the right-wing excesses of a small minority of their co-religionists.  Some even embraced and feted the neocons—a mistake AIPAC particularly excelled in and something I get the impression that AIPAC is at least partially trying to walk itself back from.  Israeli leaders, interestingly enough, appear to be less enthusiastic—there is evidence that Prime Minister Sharon thought the Iraq War not to be a good idea and outgoing Prime Minister Olmert has begun proximity talks with the Syrians.  

Similar mistakes are being made with the far-right Christian Evangelical Zionists, and John Hagee’s group CUFI.  Can there be a more vile poster-boy for Israel than Hagee?!

Polls consistently show that American Jewish opinion is in a very different place.  Over a decade ago, J.J. Goldberg described how what he called the “new Jews”, who were out of sync with the majority, assumed the mantle of leadership in the American Jewish community.  In his book Jewish Power:  Inside the American Jewish Establishment, Goldberg claimed that a set of facts had emerged by the mid-1970s that transformed organized Jewry, based around the 1967 Israeli military victory, the role of the Soviet Jewry campaign in Soviet-US relations, and the belated rise of popular Holocaust awareness with its attendant “never again” maxim.  This created the counter-revolution of the “new Jews”—a passionate minority of defensive nationalists, driven by a terrible vision, living amidst an overwhelming majority of still optimistic Jewish liberals.  To quote J.J. Goldberg, “their defiance was so strident, and their anger so intense, that the rest of the Jewish community respectfully stood back and let the new Jews take the lead.”  

The “new Jews” of Goldberg’s 1997 book are today’s Jewish neoconservatives, and the reason this is so important right now is the issue raised by Joe Klein—their aggressive advocacy of a military strike against Iran, a position that again places them out of step with the majority of American Jews.  There have been a series of articles advocating such military action.  It is true that such voices are also heard in Israel (and some even appear in the NY Times op-ed page, most notably this truly horrific and pathetically argued piece by Benny Morris).  

I would argue that Israel has made a strategic mistake in making the gevalt approach so central in its response to suspected Iranian nuclear ambitions.  Israel is stronger than that and it also has the capacity to deter Iran.  It also has U.S. support.  It is worth remembering that Israel, evidently, has not attacked Iran, so in practice, at least so far, the military is not the preferred option.  In their declarations, Israeli leaders express a preference for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question.  And prominent ex- and even current officials have endorsed American engagement with Iran as the best option, including ex-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy and ex-Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.  In private, Israeli leaders are apparently more circumspect.  This report appeared some time ago in Haaretz about Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni:

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a few months ago in a series of closed discussions that in her opinion that Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel…Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears.

I will not go too deeply into the Iran policy debate, but a more compelling case than that of Podhoretz and co. is that military action would be a disaster for Israel, for America, and for the American Jewish community, too.  

The problem for the American Jewish community would not seem to be with exposing the objectionable positions of Jewish neoconservatives and then having a debate.  The danger is in the opposite approach—in creating the impression that the Jewish neoconservative voice is the Jewish voice, or that of the “pro-Israel” lobby, and in drowning out, or more accurately, suppressing the voice of the majority.  That would be a way to not only increase the risk of an extremely dangerous policy being pursued and to make support for Israel the partisan domain of the far-right bomb-bomb-bomb Iran crowd, but it would also cede the ground to those who are emptying the charge of anti-Semitism of all meaning.  And those are good enough reasons for Joe Klein’s cause to be our cause too.  

July 24, 2008

Missing the Symbolism of Obama’s Visit to Sderot, Israel

 This also appears at Huffington Post

Senator Barack Obama was a big hit in Israel.  The local TV last night and press this morning was in gushing form.  According to Israel’s most viewed news show on Channel 2 TV, Israel’s leaders (all of whom the Illinoisan senator met, from both government and opposition) entered something of a beauty contest over who could look most photogenic alongside the visiting Presidential hopeful/rock star. 

Obama spent an intense thirty-six hours ticking off the boxes of all the necessary sights and sounds—from Yad Vashem to the Western Wall, from Labor leader Ehud Barak to Likud front man Benjamin Netanyahu, and everyone in between (including of course the Prime Minister and President).  But the most symbolic stop on this whirlwind tour was in Sderot, and not for the reasons you might assume—a topic to which we will return shortly. 

For a day Israelis enjoyed being the center of world attention for a refreshingly non-angst ridden reason.  To the extent to which Barack Obama had trailed John McCain in popularity ratings among Israelis, it was largely due to a lack of familiarity with the young Senator.  That is something that this visit lay to rest, and that will likely be reflected in future, equally meaningless polls.  All this should of course play very well back home, in particular with parts of the American Jewish community, which after all was the reason for Israel being on his trip itinerary in the first place.  The Israeli media respectfully acknowledged this fact.  By the way, and as was noted at Huffington Post, the entire exercise may have been somewhat unnecessary when one considers that a new J Street poll found that Obama is even more popular amongst American Jews than Joe Lieberman, with a thermometer positive rating of 57.8 % compared to Joe “Hagee is Moses” Lieberman who scored 41.7%. 

If anyone was looking for balance (and few were), the Illinois Senator spent forty-five minutes with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his Ramallah headquarters.  Forty-five minutes out of thirty-six hours is not much, but its forty-five minutes longer than what John McCain spared during his recent visit.  He made do with a phone call—and yes the Palestinian leadership has made an art form out of looking happy and expressing gratitude when it is being insulted and demeaned. 

As for how serious the Israelis were taking the visit, here’s the unusual yardstick that I would suggest we judge things by—unlike the standard operating procedure accorded to visits by leading dignitaries of the current administration, no announcements on settlement expansion were made while the potential forty-fourth President was in town—although the Israeli Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee could apparently not restrain itself any longer and voted after Obama’s departure to approve new housing units in Maskiot in the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank.    

All cynicism aside, the signs are that this was a serious, well-managed, and successful visit to Israel.  Obama’s message in the region was consistent with his message back home, Israel heard the reassurances that Obama had spoken previously but they sounded better on terra sancta.  In addition to the pledges regarding the US-Israel relationship and Israel’s security, Obama expressed support for the current Israeli proximity peace talks with Syria (something the Bush Administration is reluctant to do) and promised to engage on Israeli-Palestinian peace-making from day one were he to be elected (again, unlike the Bushies, who launched Annapolis after almost seven years of disengagement). 

On Iran, only time will tell how responsive Israel’s leaders will be to Obama’s message of combining unconditional diplomatic engagement with pressure and sanctions (“big carrots and big sticks”).  In public at least, Obama chose to present a rather watered-down version of his case.  This is a shame.  The case for diplomacy with Iran is a strong one, especially when compared to the dramatic failure of the current policy to register any change in Iranian behavior or progress on the nuclear file.  Nevertheless, with the Bush administration sending its 3rd top diplomat to Geneva, albeit underutilizing the extremely accomplished and able Undersecretary of State William Burns, the debate is shifting on this issue.  And the less said about Jerusalem the better.

But it was the Sderot visit that was replete with an ironic symbolism that has been almost totally overlooked.  Sderot is the Southern Israeli town that is closest to Gaza, has borne the brunt of rocket attacks from there and consequently has become the site of pilgrimage for visiting dignitaries around the world.  Obama was accompanied to Sderot by no less than three Israeli cabinet Ministers and was feted by local leaders.  Sderot certainly has suffered in the last years and the empathy and understanding on display from the presumptive Democratic nominee was genuinely appreciated.  Israeli papers even recounted the story of Obama’s visit to the Amar family home, which had been damaged by rocket fire and his encounter with that family’s young daughter, who upon seeing the young Senator yelped, at which point he apparently yelped back to her obvious delight.  Reporters noted that of all the many visitors to the Amar home, Obama would be remembered as one of their nicest guests.

Obama chose the Sderot location for his only Israel press conference.  Yes, Sderot is a symbol of the unacceptable hardships that Israelis face (in a surprise to no one, Obama chose not to acknowledge any sites of Palestinian hardship).  But today Sderot is also becoming a symbol of something else.  For a Presidential candidate, or anyone for that matter, to have held an outdoor press conference in Sderot without everyone being on edge, listening out for the next rocket siren alert, would have been unimaginable just one month ago. 

Then, on June 19th, Israel made a move that could be viewed as being straight out of the Obama playbook:  it tried a diplomatic rather than a military solution to the problem of violence emanating from Gaza.  Via Egyptian mediation a cease-fire was reached with the Hamas leadership that controls Gaza—with the support of the other armed Palestinian factions.  Despite minor infractions on both sides, that cease-fire has largely held.  And Sderot is an incomprably more secure place today as a consequence—so secure in fact that Obama and the press corps could enjoy a relaxing Q and A together.  Let’s be clear, that cease-fire is fragile, it could break at any moment for a host of reasons (see my piece here).  Much could be done to strengthen the cease-fire that is not being done.  But even if it does break down, it will ultimately be returned to, as Israelis have realized that this is their only realistic option (Israelis are not enthusiastic about a military incursion—been there, done that).  Rather than embracing this symbol of what the hard-headed, tough diplomacy alternative looks like and how it can be effectively deployed, in a moment of great irony, Obama ignored it.  What we got instead were the normal platitudes:

I will work from the moment that I return to America, to tell the story of Sderot and to make sure that the good people who live here are enjoying a future of peace and security and hope…If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.

Obama went on to implicitly negate the very efforts—negotiations, albeit indirect, with Hamas—that are proving more effective than all those undertaken by the military for so many months.  Amongst others, one reason he gave was this: “It is very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation state.”  This is the kind of flawed logic that the Democratic candidate deserves to be called on—every Palestinian representative or group falls into that category; there is no Palestinian nation-state, so by the same token one cannot negotiate with any Palestinian.  

But wait, in that previous quote, Obama did he say we would do “everything” to stop the rockets—and isn’t one of Obama’s messages that everything should include diplomacy?  Right now that interpretation sounds like a stretch, but if Obama’s message of hope and change is to have any relevance for Israelis and Palestinians, then the logic that he applies elsewhere will have to be applied there as well. 


July 16, 2008

A Few Comments on the Israel-Hizbollah Prisoner Exchange Deal

 This piece also appears in the Guardian

It’s one of those days when a lot of people are probably looking at the Middle East and scratching their heads.  The Israelis have released Samir Kuntar, who committed a terrible atrocity, along with 4 others who are defined as terrorists to Hizbollah—which Israel defines as a terrorist organization.  And all of this in exchange for two dead bodies.  What’s going on?

I suggest there are three things worth looking at here.

The first is that this brings some kind of closure to the Lebanon war fought over a period of 33 days exactly two years ago.  According to the Hizbollah narrative, the raid across the Israeli border on July 12, 2006, and the taking of the two soldiers—Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev—was initiated in the first place in order to gain new leverage for the release of Kuntar.  Israel had been due to free Kuntar as part of a previous prisoner exchange, the Tenenbaum deal, in 2003, although according to the Israelis Hizbollah had reneged on its commitment to provide new information on the fate of missing airman Ron Arad (whose plane crashed over Lebanon in 1986).  This has led some security officials in Israel to argue that Samir Kuntar is more of a headache than an asset and that his release would reduce Hizbollah’s incentive to conduct similar hostage takings in the future—a case of keeping him captive being more bother than it was worth

That 2006 war was mishandled on all sides.  Hizbollah’s leader Nasrallah has publicly stated that had he anticipated the severity of the Israeli response, Hizbollah would not have conducted the cross border raid.  Israel’s governing coalition has remained shaky ever since this war, which damaged its reputation (having failed to secure its stated goals) and which led to a committee of inquiry and to the resignation of the then Defense Minister and IDF Chief of Staff.  Only today did Israel realize what it declared it set out to achieve by launching the war:  namely, the return of the two soldiers.  The international response during the war had also been shamefully lackluster, with the U.S. in particular avoiding the kind of diplomatic intervention that could have ended the fighting much earlier.  The parties themselves would have benefited had the diplomatic effort and the passing of UN Security Resolution 1701 not been so delayed.  So there are lessons to be learned on all sides, but at least there is now a greater degree of closure and perhaps a somewhat reduced prospect of future flare-ups. 

Secondly, the deal provides a window into an aspect Israeli society not always on view and that has to be understood in order to make any sense of today’s events.  The prisoner exchange deal was not about the crisis which has enveloped the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the recent investigations surrounding him.  It will come as a surprise to many that the deal also met with only muted criticism from the right-wing opposition.  It was not precedent setting.  Israel has engaged in such exchanges in the past, including the 2003 Tenenbaum deal (also with Hizbollah) which was agreed by the then Sharon Likud government that included today’s Likud leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu.  More than anything this is about the Israel that is still a small community, in which the stories of one or two families can touch virtually every citizen.  Israel is a country of only seven million.  It has a conscript army that prides itself on being the people’s army, and there exists a strong sense that the state is responsible, for returning home in whatever condition, any citizen that it has sent to the battlefield. 

One episode in particular haunts Israeli society—that of the missing airman Ron Arad, whose fate after 22 years is still unknown (though he is presumed dead).  The Arad family is a permanent fixture of the Israeli collective psyche and no one wants to go through what they have gone through, including the uncertainty that his wife Tammy lives with.  To be clear, Israelis are not celebrating today.  Most Israelis probably find the deal both sickening and necessary—something that had to be done for the families, Goldwasser and Regev.  Many may see this as excessive sentimentalism and a weakness of Israeli society, the opposite argument though carries much and perhaps more weight—that this kind of social and communal solidarity, of which the willingness to make such a deal is an expression, is actually a core strength of Israeli society, especially as it continues to demand service and sacrifice of its citizenry (and that’s even to those of us who consider much of the sacrifice to be an unnecessary by-product of the occupation).

And there is also something of a dreadful bargain here:  the two families, and in particular the newly declared widow Karnit Goldwasser, have spent much of the last two years meeting foreign dignitaries who have visited Israel and visiting foreign capitals to explain their plight, part of a campaign orchestrated by the state.  But the tables can be turned.  Once a deal was available, Karnit and the families stepped forward and told the state “Now it’s your turn. For two years we told the world the other side was the obstacle.  If you pull out now, then we will turn all the moral stature we can summon against you.”  The message was understood, the cabinet voted 22-3 in favor of the deal.  It also has to be said the family conducted itself with exemplary dignity throughout the two years.  Negotiations will now shift to those with Hamas for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, alive and held in Gaza.  Several Israeli ministers emphasized the urgency to now secure a deal for his release.

Thirdly and finally, today also gives us a window into Lebanon.  The celebrations and festivities surrounding the release of someone who committed such an ugly crime, and of no moral or previous political standing, make for unpleasant viewing well beyond Israel’s borders.  Yet a response that says a plague on all of the Lebanese for celebrating would be very out of place.  So too would an analysis that exaggerates the extent to which this strengthens Hizbollah.  Some Lebanese no doubt felt coerced into celebrating today.  For others it was simply an opportunity to vent their anger and frustration at previous Israeli incursions into Lebanon, at the 18-year occupation of the South, and at the destruction and havoc wrought by the military campaign in 2006.  And no, none of that justifies Kuntar’s crimes or him being hailed as a hero. 

The visuals today no doubt favor Hizbollah.  Indeed, today Hizbollah embellished its sense of having been the victor of the 2006 war and enhanced its standing in Lebanon and beyond with the entire Lebanese leadership standing in salute.  But don’t get carried away.  Many Lebanese are no doubt looking at the pictures of Kuntar and asking themselves whether everything they suffered in 2006 was worth it for this guy.  The basic divisions in Lebanon remain intact: those who support Hizbollah probably feel vindicated today, and those who oppose Hizbollah probably still feel cheated. 

There is another less obvious way in which while the prisoner exchange may be a short-term boon for Hizbollah, it can present challenges in the medium term.  For Hizbollah to credibly maintain its arms and resistance posture it needs a justification that resonates with the Lebanese agenda.  The prisoners were part of that explanation.  What remains now is the disputed and tiny territory of the Shebaa Farms under Israeli control.  As the pretexts are removed, Hizbollah is faced with an increasingly naked challenge:  Why does it not fully integrate into Lebanese politics, and can it legitimately claim to serve a Lebanese-wide interest? It would be wise to resolve the Shebaa issue, thus prodding Hizbollah into a more definitive choice between bullets and the ballot-box. 

Where does all this leave us?  For certain families there are mourning rituals, for others festive celebrations.  Beyond that three developments from the last weeks have all helped move this corner of the Middle East towards a more stable if still fragile equilibrium: the Lebanese, with Qatari assistance, have brokered an internal political power-sharing arrangement, and the new national unity government was just sworn in; Israel and Syria have been conducting proximity talks—peace negotiations with Turkish mediation; and in Paris last weekend, Syria and Lebanon agreed to exchange ambassadors. 

There is still along way to go to achieve tranquility in the triangular border region between Syria, Israel, and Lebanon.  But those steps and even today’s somber exchange might help move things in the right direction.    

July 13, 2008

Finding a Silver Lining in the Iraq Cloud

This piece appears as an op-ed in today's Boston Globe.  It is co-authored by Michael Hanna, a program officer at The Century Foundation

If there is ever a TV series about the American adventure in Iraq it might be called "Unintended Consequences Gone Wild." The war strategically weakened the United States, strengthened Iran, undermined democracy promotion, and gave Al Qaeda and the Taliban time to regroup - and that would just be season one. But the latest episode, the unintended Iraqi consensus opposing America's secretive quest to complete a Status of Forces Agreement and a Strategic Framework Agreement by the end of July, may turn out to be good news for both the United States and Iraq.

Even as short-term improvements have been registered in the security situation, the internal politics of Iraqi stabilization have continued to languish. Without functioning politics and governance, Iraq's long-term prospects remain bleak, and any tactical military success will be ephemeral.

So, the furious reaction to the proposed agreements and the opening it has created for an emerging Iraqi nationalist sentiment in opposition to US long-term plans for Iraq are developments that could serve US strategic goals by realigning the Iraqi political order and establishing a more sustainable framework upon which to advance national accommodation and reconciliation. It could also save the United States from its own worst impulses, by making it impossible for it to pursue an illogical policy of open-ended military engagement.

Rejection of the initial terms proposed by the Bush administration, which allegedly included plans for an unfettered and indefinite American military presence, expansive basing arrangements, legal immunity for US soldiers and civilian contractors, and the undiminished right to detain Iraqis, could provide a basis for an Iraqi political rethink. Opposition to these terms has spurred the formation of a cross-sectarian parliamentary bloc with a significant collection of mainstream Sunni and Shi'ite factions.

An emerging political realignment, hostile to an indefinite US military presence and defending the prerogatives of Iraqi sovereignty, could provide the organizing principles for a nascent program of national accommodation and reconciliation. Such an alternative framework is clearly fragile after the sectarian civil war that scarred the country.

However, the current realignment is broader than previous efforts and touts a greater degree of consensus on many of the fundamental issues that could help ease the United States out of Iraq. If it can address unresolved questions on the future nature of the Iraqi state, then this partial consensus could begin to overcome political fragmentation and help Iraqis pursue national accommodation and reconciliation.

The bloc opposing the Status of Forces Agreement and the Strategic Framework Agreement (and the Maliki government negotiating it) includes Shi'ites from the Fadhila party, Sadrists, and elements of the Dawa party alongside the Sunni National Dialogue Front and the secular Iraqi list led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition recognizes that to agree to the proposed provisions would be both substantively problematic and politically suicidal, especially with provincial elections scheduled for fall 2008.

Accordingly, the Maliki government has scaled back its public pronouncements on long-term security arrangements and has now begun to speak of possible withdrawal timetables and a short-term pact. With the current UN Security Council resolution under which US forces operate expiring at the end of December, the solution to the stand-off may be to extend this mandate or conclude a less drastic interim agreement. Better yet, the United States might also encourage a broader political conversation, using the agreements, or opposition to them, as a point of departure for a much-needed dialogue about long-term power-sharing in Iraq.

The establishment of a broad political coalition built upon nationalist sentiment could serve to protect the long-term interests of the United States in Iraq, which hinge on establishing a sustainable political culture, preserving the country's territorial integrity, and curbing excessive Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs - all of which would facilitate a US withdrawal.

While an anti-American coalition in an Arab state would appear to be an unlikely protector of vital US interests, the status quo of ethno-sectarian political division and an attendant weak central government guarantees continued US frustration. At a minimum, a nascent coalition fueled by opposition to long-term US plans might stem the pursuit of a foolhardy and costly American policy. If this comes to pass, then the strategic myopia and high-handedness of the Bush administration in the current negotiations will, paradoxically, have proven to be a boon for both the United States and Iraq.

July 11, 2008

The McCain Campaign Tries Cross-Dressing on Iran

 This piece appears on the Huffington Post

The latest round of brinksmanship with Iran following that country’s much publicized missile test not surprisingly became a talking point between the presidential campaigns and their surrogates.  The lines of attacks were mainly predictable although many took encouragement from the enthusiasm that the Obama campaign displayed going head-to- head with McCain on a national security issue rather than following the well-worn Democratic tactic of trying to change the subject.

There was though another part of this latest exchange which has been little commented on but which merits a place amongst the most unlikely role reversals yet tried in this election.  Speaking for the McCain campaign on PBS NewsHour on Wednesday night, chief foreign policy adviser and confidante Randy Scheunemann described Obama’s position for engagement with Iran as “unilateral cowboy summitry” (it’s true—see it here—quite unbelievable.)  This theme has now become a McCain campaign talking point.  So here was the McCain campaign accusing Obama of being insufficiently multilateral and pro-diplomacy in its foreign policy.  It’s almost like the McCain folk taking a page out of Rudy Giuliani’s book and engaging in a little cross-dressing.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with how bizarre that claim is, especially given its source, and then let’s look a little at the policy substance. 

First of all, summitry, especially with another country (and not just with other neoconservatives), tends by definition not to be unilateral.  So if an Obama administration were to engage diplomatically with Tehran, then at the very least the outcome would be a bilateral event.  The McCain folk really don’t know the first thing about diplomacy if they consider representatives of these two countries meeting to be a celebration of unilateralism.  

The very idea within the McCain campaign to be trying to smear the other side with unilateralism almost beggars belief.  The McCain team draws extensively on the same neoconservative group of individuals who have been the most aggressive opponents of working with multilateral institutions and the most earnest advocates of the U.S. going it alone.  Mr. Scheunemann himself was involved with the Project for the New American Century and headed one of its offshoots—the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.  He is joined in the McCain campaign by advisers including Peter W. Rodman, Robert Kagan, R. James Woolsey, and William Kristol (the Council on Foreign Relations has a very useful backgrounder on McCain’s foreign policy advisers here).  

McCain himself has supported the idea of a League of Democracies, obviously not a unilateral effort, but also a much undisguised signal of his opposition to the United Nations and to the idea of working in broad, multilateral settings.  In a speech in Los Angeles, critiqued very effectively by Fareed Zakaria, McCain talked about removing Russia from the G8 and expanding that institution in ways that would exclude China.  So there is plenty for the world to worry about on all fronts regarding McCain's problems with multilateral diplomacy. 

OK—so it’s a bizarre claim in general, but what of the specifics on Iran.  Does Obama's willingness to unconditionally engage in hard-bargaining diplomacy represent a finger in the eye to America’s allies and an undermining of the current P5+1 efforts with Iran?  It is in this realm, the substantive policy platform, that the McCain position is most flawed. The current structure of the negotiations with Iran, in which America is not represented,  is the fallback option and one that has proved so incapable of delivering results.  The European and other P5+1 allies did not ask for America to be absent in the talks with Iran, rather this was a fait accompli dictated by the Bush Administration and according to all evidence something that would be continued under a McCain presidency.

As one former European Foreign Minister who was in the talks confided to me (I apologize that I cannot divulge the person’s identity), the Europeans consistently felt that their efforts were severely hamstrung because of the empty American chair.  The former minister told me that their talks with the Iranians were reminiscent of a Washington cocktail party, inasmuch as the representatives from Tehran seemed to be constantly looking over the shoulders of their interlocutors, hoping someone more interesting who carried more weight would enter the room. 

Let’s be straight and blunt:  the Bush policies have failed on Iran and McCain is offering nothing more than to continue those polices, perhaps with some additional threats and bellicosity.  It is hardly a leap of faith to assume that an Obama-led direct diplomacy with Iran would be coordinated with European and other P5+1 allies, and not conducted behind their backs or as a deliberate snub to them.   

As Congressmen Robert Wexler (D-FL) argued at the Huffington Post in his critique of House Resolution 362 with Iran,

It should have been an American representative last week along with European Union High Representative Javier Solana sitting down with Iranian leaders…Diplomacy…will only be successful if the U.S. takes a lead role along with our European allies in directly engaging Iran.

And that is presumably what Obama is advocating, “unilateral cowboy summitry” – not so much.

McCain it is out of touch with both public sentiment and expert opinion by rigidly adhering to the Bush refusal to engage in direct, unconditional, and broad-ranging talks with the Iranians, as part of an overall policy to advance a non-military solution to the nuclear and other outstanding bilateral and multilateral issues (including Iran’s support of groups that deploy violence against Israeli citizens). McCain by the way consistently mentions Israel in the context of Iran, placing it front and center in his narrative of belligerency, which is interesting given that this approach is something that the Israelis themselves seek to discourage.

But I digress, Defense Secretary Gates, Chair of the Join Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen, and General Petraeus have all recently discussed the relevance of direct, constructive diplomacy with Iran when the appropriate circumstances are created.  Just last week, and following a visit to Israel, Admiral Mullen said the following in response in referring to a military strike on Iran as being a “destabilizing act”.  He noted:

Destabilizing events are of great concern to me…But I’m convinced a solution still lies in using other elements of national power to change Iranian behavior, including diplomatic, financial, and international pressure.  There is a need for better clarity, even dialogue at some level…when I talk about dialogue—actually, I would say very broadly, across the entirety of our government and their government…I’m really focused on the diplomatic aspect.

Perhaps the most succinct and compelling assessment of the Iranian challenge, and the role of diplomacy in addressing it, is this op-ed by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Dobbins—this from someone who led the negotiations with Iran in Afghanistan (for some more useful sources on this, see this edition of the Middle East Bulletin put out by the Center for American Progress).

The question though for the Bush-McCain position is what is the endgame?  If the Iranian challenge cannot be negotiated, then the remaining option seems to be eliminate it or get them to capitulate.  Elimination was the option chosen in Iraq and is what has everyone so anxious about Bush-McCain policy toward Iran.  The capitulation option tends to never work out so neatly. 

Gaining leverage only makes sense if one recognizes the moment at which success depends on segueing to a negotiated resolution.  Larry Korb has just written an excellent piece on how the Bush Administration missed the ideal segue moment with the North Koreans, and many, including my colleague at the New America Foundation Flynt Leverett (who was directly involved) consider a moment of deal-making with Iran to have been missed in 2003 when the Swiss communicated an Iranian negotiation proposal.  On both North Korea and Iran, the situation only deteriorated and the terms for negotiations now appear to be worse.  Still, the Bush Administration did go into deal-making with North Korea, but McCain seems adamant that this will not be repeated with Iran. 

And that’s why this is an issue and an argument that Obama can win.  Because McCain, even when he is trying to disguise his position as his team did this week—has no answers.


July 10, 2008

A Typical Day in the Wild West Bank

The deteriorating situation in the West Bank is somewhat of a forgotten story at the moment, but deteriorating it is.  A random look at stories that appeared in yesterday’s press show how dreadful the situation has become.  It is on the West Bank that the two-state solution will ultimately be realized—or collapse.  The Gaza ceasefire is crucial, but it’s the realities in the West Bank that are eroding the achievability of a peace agreement everyday. 

Here’s a sampling of stories:

-The Government of Israel’s refusal to comply with High Court rulings which have required restriction of the scope of the security barrier being constructed in the West Bank (as documented in a new B’Tselem report)

-The EU and Middle East envoy of the Quartet Tony Blair’s insistence that Israeli checkpoints and blockade of Gaza are negatively impacting Palestinian aid efforts and prospects for economic improvements

-The revelation that the settlers of the Amona outpost have illegally built a road through land determined as Palestinian under the Oslo Accords. Of course the “unauthorized” Amona outpost is still standing despite constant official Israeli commitments to the U.S. to remove all outposts.

-Data presented by human rights group Yesh Din arguing that only 10% of Palestinian claims of Israeli settler violence end up as indictments filed against the suspects

-That Palestinians in the West Bank are facing the prospect of chronic water shortages resulting from Israeli restrictions

So, that’s the daily round up folks. What is perhaps most depressing is that little of this can even be explained as the intentional policy decisions of the current Israeli Government – the Olmert Government seems genuinely interested in a two-state deal and easing rather than entrenching the occupation – even if it still cannot bring itself to do what is necessary either in practice or even declaratively by openly expressing a willingness to withdraw to the 1967 lines but for minor, agreed and mutual modifications.  The shocking reality of the occupation in its 42nd year is that Israel knows little else (Israel has occupied the West Bank for over two-thirds of its existence) and policies today, like those mentioned above, largely operate on auto-pilot. Inertia as much as ill-will keep the settlement enterprise rolling along, the checkpoints, the “Jewish-only” use road-systems …etc – and that inertia is strangling the future for both Palestinians and Israelis. It is truly tragic and limp-wristed American policies have played a dramatic role in facilitating the tragedy.

One of the problems is just how ill-informed the debate in the U.S. often is on these issues. One daily source of information for many who follow Israel and the Middle East is something called the Daily Alert, produced by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA).  You can read their coverage of the litany of West Bank troubles here– it won’t take you long, in fact it won’t take you any time at all, to notice that the Daily Alert makes no mention whatsoever of any of these stories.

Yet the Daily Alert is a major source of information for the American Jewish community (prepared as it is on behalf of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations). Fair enough – the publication is unlikely to be a ‘this is what Israel does wrong-fest’, but it does a disservice by covering the news from such a skewed angle – it’s the Fox News American Jewish e-publication. 

And it is highly political - the JCPA is run by Dore Gold, former PM to Benjamin Netanyahu, and has a very pronounced and unsurprising right-wing bent. JCPA’s key contributors read like a who’s who of the Israeli academic right, including many of the Israeli echo chamber for America’s neocons. Its selective culling of news and analysis has an aggressively hawkish orientation – and begs two questions – why do mainstream Jewish organizations that are part of the Conference of Presidents allow this to be put out in their names and is it any wonder that the policy debate in America is so tragically misguided…