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August 7, 2013

Is the U.S. "Coming Around" to an Israeli Strike on Iran?

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Former Israeli intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said that he thinks Washington is slowly coming around to the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

“In 2012 the [Americans'] red light was as red as it can get, the brightest red,” Yadlin was quoted by the Times of Israel as telling Israel's Army Radio. “But the music I’m hearing lately from Washington says, ‘If this is truly an overriding Israeli security interest, and you think you want to strike,’ then the light hasn’t changed to green, I think, but it’s definitely yellow.”

It's hard to see what exactly has changed, from a U.S. perspective, with regard to the dangers of an Israeli strike on Iran. Moreover, with Iran's new president indicating a willingness to talk (if not to capitulate) I'd have guessed that Washington would be even more unwilling to green light an Israeli attack. Is the U.S. suddenly better equipped to deal with the fallout of such a strike, or is Washington simply resigning itself to the inevitable?

(AP Photo)

July 25, 2013

John Kerry's Priorities

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According to Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, Secretary Kerry has spent "years" trying to nudge the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table:

Long before he was sworn in as America’s top diplomat in January, Kerry in 2009 began conducting his own quiet peace process from the Senate through meetings, late-night talks, personal visits, and phone calls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and other key leaders in the Middle East. Kerry conducted his shadow diplomacy even as President Obama’s Middle East peace initiative floundered.

Think about it: of all the issues facing the U.S. abroad, was this really the one that required hundreds of hours of diligent, pain-staking effort? Forget about whether or not Secretary Kerry will actually succeed in making peace (my money is on "no"), what would that peace even deliver for U.S. interests?

Meanwhile, there are potentially huge global trade deals to be had in Asia and Europe which could have a significant impact on the well being of Americans. Yet inexplicably, who lives where in the West Bank is of paramount importance.

(AP Photo)

May 8, 2013

An Inconvenient Truth About the Stephen Hawking Boycott of Israel

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Famed physicist Stephen Hawking announced that he would join an academic boycott of Israel. Israelis greeted the news with outrage but Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of the Shurat Hadin Israel Law Center went one further, insisting that if Hawking really wanted to send a message to Israel, he should avoid using their technology:

"Hawking's decision to join the boycott of Israel is quite hypocritical for an individual who prides himself on his own intellectual accomplishment. His whole computer based communication system runs on a chip designed by Israel's Intel team. I suggest that if he truly wants to pull out of Israel he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet," she said.

"He calls [the boycott] an independent decision based on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts here. I propose he first seek the advice of Intel engineers working here. He seems to have no understanding of this world."

But he does know a lot about black holes.

UPDATE: Hawking's spokesperson said that his decision not to attend a conference in Israel had nothing to do with political views -- they were strictly health related. So that's the end of that micro-controversy. [Hat tip: Dave]

UPDATE II: Now there's an indication that Hawkings did indeed want to boycott Israel on political grounds. This story has fallen into its own black hole of confusion.

(AP Photo)

April 22, 2013

Chuck Hagel's 'Animus' Towards Israel Now on Full Display

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We were frequently warned during his confirmation hearing that Chuck Hagel harbored an animus toward Israel. Now that he is in a position of some power, Hagel has wasted no time making good on his ill will:

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced new U.S. arms sales to Israel on Monday, amid fears of war over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.

"The Obama administration has made not just maintaining, but enhancing and improving Israel's qualitative military edge a top priority," Hagel said in Tel Aviv, after meeting Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.

The weapons include missiles and radar systems for fighter jets and re-fueling planes, which could be used in any Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Left unsaid but almost certainly true, was the fact that Hagel made the speech through gritted teeth, while rolling his eyes.

The re-fueling planes are a particularly egregious example of Secretary Hagel's appeasement of Iran since those planes impede Israel's ability to fly deeper into Iranian territory. Or something.

(AP Photo)

March 22, 2013

How the Israelis and Palestinians View the Peace Process

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As President Obama stumps for a resumption of the peace process, Gallup has published some polling on the sentiment in the region and finds "broad support" for such talks.

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Very few Israelis or Palestinians are hopeful that such a deal can be obtained, however. Israelis (both Jewish and non-Jewish) are more optimistic than Palestinians, with Gaza Palestinians being the least hopeful of the bunch (not surprising, given that they are also most opposed to the process).

Gallup also found that seven-in-10 West Bank Palestinians "broadly supported" the idea of a two-state solution, while 85 percent of non-Jewish Israelis favored that outcome. Jewish Israelis were less disposed to the idea, with 52 percent saying they favored it and 40 percent saying they opposed it. In Gaza, 51 percent opposed the idea, while 48 percent favored it. Gazans were also the most likely to endorse the use of military force to achieve their aims.

(AP Photo)

March 20, 2013

President Obama Claims U.S. Alliance to Israel Is "Eternal"

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President Obama, speaking in Israel today:

“So as I begin this visit, let me say as clearly as I can –the United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel. It makes us both stronger. It makes us both more prosperous. And it makes the world a better place. That’s why the United States was the very first nation to recognize the State of Israel 65 years ago. That’s why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today. And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach.”

While President Obama credits "strong national security interests" with the initial U.S. recognition of Israel, the reality was more complicated. In fact, President Truman's State Department and Defense Department, his key national security advisers, objected to the move. (Allis and Ronald Radosh have a nice background on Truman's recognition of Israel here.)

What's important about the president's remarks today, though, is less the strategic history than his assertion that the U.S. and Israel have an "eternal alliance."

I suspect we're going to see a lot of debate centered around that phrase in the coming days.

Andrew Sullivan, for instance, contrasts Obama's rhetoric with George Washington's famed warning to avoid entangling alliances:

The concept of an “eternal”, and “unbreakable” alliance with any other single country is a statement George Washington would have regarded as deeply corrosive of foreign policy and domestic governance. To declare it in the language of the foreign country has even deeper resonance. It is now the governing principle of both political parties – and the primary reason we may once again be headed to war with unforeseeable consequences in the Middle East.

Rick Moran, meanwhile, doubts Obama's sincerity:

If Iran gives him half a chance, he will sell out Netanyahu and the Jewish state.

Uri Friedman sees more subtle language at work:

See what he did there? Change "your" to "our" and a host of furious no-stronger-allies would be knocking on Washington's door. But, as Obama's speechwriters are well aware, it's probably fair to say that Israel received a visit from its closest partner today.

(AP Photo)

March 7, 2013

Americans Don't Think Obama Is Supportive Enough of Israel

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Billions in aid, vows to attack Iran, covert cooperation against Iran's nuclear program -- none of these policies are evidently enough to convince Americans that President Obama is "supportive enough" of Israel, according to a poll for the Hill:

The proportion of voters who now say the president does not give strong enough backing to Israel is higher than it was in each of three similar surveys conducted for The Hill since May 2011.

Correspondingly, fewer voters now find the White House’s policy excessively supportive of Israel.

According to the latest Hill Poll, just 13 percent of respondents say the president’s policy toward Israel is too supportive. A full 39 percent said Obama is not supportive enough, the highest percentage The Hill Poll has seen.

Moreover, 30 percent think the president is anti-Israel while 28 percent think he is pro-Israel.

Also interesting to note that while Americans evidently want the administration to do more to support Israel, a majority of voters also insist that President Obama should be "very or somewhat" active in forging a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.

(AP Photo)

March 6, 2013

Israel Has Been Hit By a Swarm of Locusts

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It sounds almost Biblical in scope, but Israel is currently being swarmed by over a million locusts that have threatened crops throughout the country.

The timing is richly ironic, occurring just weeks before Passover. Locusts, for those who remember their Biblical history, were the eighth plague inflicted on Egypt when the pharaoh refused to release the Israelites from captivity.

Today, they're just a pest (although one that is also blanketing Egypt).

(AP Photo)

February 25, 2013

How Israel Survives in a Tough Neighborhood

A new film documenting the careers of six directors of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security force, is making waves (although it didn't win an Oscar). Dubbed the Gatekeepers, it was created by the Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh and features extensive interviews with six ex-directors of Israel's famed security service. It details some of the service's most sensitive episodes, such as the assassination of a Hamas leader with an exploding cell phone. It also chronicles the men's frustration with Israeli politicians and their sense that the occupation has left Israel strategically adrift.

One thing that's immediately clear from early reviews of the film is that none of the leaders of Shin Bet could ever be a U.S. defense secretary. Here, for instance, is Avraham Shalom, a Shin Bet director who, among other things, captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, discussing Israel:

"We've become cruel. To ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population." Our army has become "a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War II. Similar, not identical."

Shalom was referring to Nazi persecution of non-Jewish minorities but it's still a shocking quote, considering the source. Indeed, Asawin Suebsaeng collects several more examples that would immediately land a U.S. politician in hot water.

Beyond the controversial rhetoric, Moreh is being widely praised for bringing an extremely secretive side of Israel's fight for survival to light. At least in the U.S. In Israel, the film has received a more muted reaction.

February 22, 2013

U.S. Defense Cuts Will Hit Israel, Too

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As the U.S. Congress wrangles over spending, many in Israel's defense establishment are beginning to tally up the potential costs if the sequester goes through:

The pending US budget sequester on March 1, 2013, is liable to reduce military aid to Israel by over $700 million in the 2013 fiscal year, pro-Israeli sources in Washington told "Globes". The cut includes a $250 million reduction in current aid, which is due to total $3.15 billion, and the possible loss of all financial aid for joint US-Israeli missile defense programs, amounting to $479 million, for a total of $729 million in reduced aid. In the best case, if the aid for anti-missile programs is only reduced, rather than eliminated, Israel will lose $300 million in aid.

(AP Photo)

February 19, 2013

Why Hagel Is Generating Such Sound and Fury

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Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan make the case that one reason Hagel's nomination has become such a hot potato is because he symbolizes the Obama administration's pivot away from the Middle East. Here's how Marshall puts it:

Let’s start with what we might incompletely call the Bush/neoconservative approach. It is a belligerent unilateralism, a vision based on an abundantly powerful and yet deeply endangered America, and — very significantly — one that sees almost all the big issues and future security of the country emanating out of the zone of conflict stretching from North Africa into Pakistan. In other words, it’s about oil, Islam, the Middle East and Israel.

The people around Obama have a different take on goals, threats and tactics. It’s not just that we can’t continue — either in security or fiscal terms — with open-ended occupations of Middle Eastern countries or hapless efforts to ‘transform the region’. It’s that the Middle East is fundamentally more yesterday’s news than tomorrow’s and that we need to be in the business of making it more yesterday rather than less.

There are multiple lines of attack against Hagel, so I don't know if there's really one meta answer for why his nomination has generated such controversy. Still, Marshall makes an interesting point.

(AP Photo)

February 2, 2013

Are Settlements a Threat to Israel's Existence?

Intelligence Squared recently hosted a debate in London on the question of Israel's settlements. As you'd expect, it gets rather heated.

January 29, 2013

America's Egypt Problem

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Ever since the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the Obama administration has been groping for a strategy to cope with Egypt. A pliable dictator gone, the administration has been cultivating the Muslim Brotherhood, most recently agreeing to sell Egypt F-16s and Abrams tanks despite mounting evidence (as if any were needed) of the Brotherhood's illiberalism.

Eric Trager writes that the Obama administration ultimately cannot trust the Brotherhood:

It would be naive, therefore, to believe that Morsi won't turn on Washington when he feels the time is right. After all, the Brotherhood is already signaling that it intends to reassess the peace treaty with Israel, which comprises a core American interest: The Brotherhood's political party has recently drafted legislation to unilaterally amend the treaty, and a top Brotherhood foreign policy official recently told a closed salon that Morsi "is cancelling normalization with the Zionist entity gradually." Yet the Brotherhood is unlikely to pursue its anti-Western ambitions until after it finishes consolidating its power at home. As deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shater explained during the April 2011 unveiling of the "Renaissance Project," the Brotherhood must first build an "Islamic government" before establishing "the global Islamic state."

For this reason, the Obama administration should work to prevent the Brotherhood from consolidating its control of Egypt through a pro-democratic policy. Specifically, Washington should withhold its support for the $4.8 billion loan that Egypt is seeking until the Brotherhood takes demonstrable steps towards more inclusive rule, which should include ending the prosecution of the Brotherhood's political opponents and media critics.

The real question is whether U.S. policy toward Egypt should be centered on efforts to micromanage their domestic politics to engineer a government that will reaffirm the peace treaty with Israel. That seems deeply misguided to me. First, it's probably not going to work. If Trager is to be believed, a more pluralistic Egypt is likely to be more sympathetic to Israel. But where's the evidence for that? Even if the U.S. were able to push the Brotherhood, grudgingly, toward a truly democratic system, there's no guarantee that Egypt writ-large will be any more amenable toward Israel.

The other alternative, backing a military coup, is equally absurd. It's likely to ignite another revolt, deepen anti-Americanism and generate more recruits for al-Qaeda. There are times when the U.S. must work with dictators, but actively consigning millions of people to live under a dictatorship to further a peripheral U.S. interest is simply counter-productive.

I don't think Trager's wrong to suggest that Egypt is veering off on a potentially dangerous trajectory and that the U.S. could take some steps to at least not make things worse. A good place to start would be to not sell Egypt weapons that could be used against Israel or provide economic relief as the Brotherhood runs the Egyptian economy off the rails. A policy of disengagement may not make Egypt embrace Israel, but it will at least not strengthen the Brotherhood. It will also signal to the Egyptian people that their destiny is in their own hands.

The Egyptian army is probably smart enough to understand that they will lose a war with Israel and have shown no interest to date in having another go at it. The ultimate guarantor of Egypt-Israeli peace is not the government in Cairo but the large imbalance in military power between the two countries, something the U.S. has contributed to in no small measure.

(AP Photo)

January 28, 2013

Obama's Promise: A "Surgical Strike" Against Iran

In an interview with the Daily Beast, Israel's outgoing defense minister Ehud Barak said the Obama administration presented Israel with "quite sophisticated" plans for a "surgical" operation against Iran's nuclear program.

One question that arises is whether the Obama administration went through this exercise as a means of mollifying Netanyahu to delay a strike, without any real intention of following through, or whether the administration made more concrete assurances to buy more time for sanctions and negotiations. Either way, as Barak states at the end of the interview, the U.S. has put its credibility on the line with the Iranian nuclear program.

Still, the idea that any strike against Iran would be "surgical" is a misnomer, one designed to soften the public's expectations for what a military campaign against Iran would entail. Such a mission may be conceived of as a limited and targeted strike, but if Iran were to retaliate, all bets would be off and things could get messy very quickly.

January 24, 2013

Did Israel's Air Force Pilots Vote Against a War with Iran?

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Aluf Benn thinks it's possible:

It is hard to know what the combat pilots think about the prime minister and attacking Iran, but the outcome of the election reveals an interesting clue. In the five family residential quarters on air force bases where polling stations were opened, Yesh Atid won big over Likud-Beiteinu. This was the case at Tel Nof, Hatzerim, Nevatim, Ovda and Ramon. Only at the Hatzor base were more ballots with the Likud letters “mem-het-lamed” cast than with the Yesh Atid letters “peh-heh.” The voter turnout rate in the air force was identical to the national average 67.7 percent and of the 681 eligible voters, 32.2 percent supported Yair Lapid and 20 percent supported Benjamin Netanyahu.

The conclusion is obvious. In the pilots’ neighborhoods, people preferred Lapid and were not impressed by Netanyahu’s gestures, attention or generous budgets.

I'm in no position to say if Benn's read on this is correct, but it wouldn't be surprising. In the U.S., anti-interventionists like Ron Paul often enjoy strong support from military service members.

(AP Photo)

January 17, 2013

How to Talk About Israeli Settlers

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Alan Johnson says the world should distinguish between the fundamentalist settlers and those who would be in Israel proper after any conceivable peace agreement:

Eighty percent of the settlers (excluding East Jerusalem) live in settlement blocs, represent 95 percent of the total population, and both sides understand they will be incorporated in Israel proper—Palestine being compensated by 1:1 land swaps—when the deal is done. Twenty percent of the settlers live outside the settlement blocs, mostly belonging to the national religious sector of Israeli society, part of the “Gush Emunim” (Block of the Faithful) ideological movement and are scattered over hilltops, often dotted along the central mountain ridge, Gav HaHar, on Route 60—the main road running north to south. When Israel makes the deal it is inconceivable that these hilltop settlers will be part of it....

A good start would be to talk of “bloc settlers” and “hilltop settlers” to show they understand that the 80 percent who live along the green line can be included in a deal and the 20 percent dotted about the Palestinian hilltops cannot.

(AP Photo)

January 14, 2013

Israeli Voters: Economy Trumps Iran

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A poll by the Times of Israel shows some surprising results: only 12 percent of likely voters cited Iran's nuclear program as an "urgent" issue vs. 43% who said economic problems were more pressing. Security issues in general were given short shrift next to economic and social problems.

Meir Javedanfar takes a stab at explaining why that is:

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to play on the population's fears by portraying Israel as a country facing imminent demise from Iran (unless he saves it), the fact that today Israel is a regional superpower is not lost on many Israelis. This is why, unlike the first few decades after Israel’s independence, Israelis can afford to focus on domestic issues more than on Iran.

Unlike Israel's current settlement policies, when it comes to the Iranian regime’s threats, not just the US but the entire Western world stands with Israel. Even the Chinese and the Russians today are negotiating against Iran as part of the P5+1 group. Furthermore, the sanctions against Iran, together with US President Barack Obama's promise that he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, seem to have convinced many in Israel that when it comes to the Iranian regime, Israel is not alone.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan calling an attack against Iran "the stupidest thing he has ever heard" is another important reason. When Israel's former master spy, who Ariel Sharon described as specializing in "detaching Arabs from their heads," says something like this, Israelis may be forgiven for thinking that that their country is not in danger of imminent destruction by Iran.


December 10, 2012

The Obama Administration's 'Benign Neglect' of Israel

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Peter Beinert outlines his view of the Obama administration's second term approach to Israel:

So instead of confronting Netanyahu directly, Team Obama has hit upon a different strategy: stand back and let the rest of the world do the confronting. Once America stops trying to save Israel from the consequences of its actions, the logic goes, and once Israel feels the full brunt of its mounting international isolation, its leaders will be scared into changing course. “The tide of global opinion is moving [against Israel],” notes one senior administration official. And in that environment, America’s “standing back” is actually “doing something.”

Administration officials are quick to note that this new approach does not mean America won’t help protect Israel militarily through anti-missile defense systems like the much-heralded Iron Dome. And they add that the U.S. will strongly resist any Palestinian effort to use its newfound U.N. status to bring lawsuits against Israel at the International Criminal Court. America will also try to prevent further spasms of violence: by maintaining the funding that keeps Mahmoud Abbas afloat in the West Bank and by working with Egypt to restrain Hamas.

What America won’t do, however, unless events on the ground dramatically change, is appoint a big-name envoy (some have suggested Bill Clinton) to relaunch direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The reason: such negotiations would let Netanyahu off the hook. Senior administration officials believe the Israeli leader has no interest in the wrenching compromises necessary to birth a viable Palestinian state. Instead, they believe, he wants the façade of a peace process because it insulates him from international pressure. By refusing to make that charade possible, Obama officials believe, they are forcing Netanyahu to own his rejectionism, and letting an angry world take it from there.

I wouldn't interpret it this way at all.

Consider what the Obama administration is doing: it is still offering Israel the full panoply of material and military aid and support, it is still going to orient its regional diplomacy around making the Mideast safer for Israel and it is going to impede any Palestinian attempts to leverage international bodies to Israel's disadvantage. In exchange for this, the administration is not going to push Netanyahu to do anything. Instead, it's simply going to refrain from defending Israel rhetorically from European criticisms.

If you were Netanyahu, wouldn't you take that deal?

Moreover, the "facade of the peace process" was never for the benefit of Netanyahu -- or Israel, for that matter. It was a means for the United States to offset the negative regional response to U.S. aid to Israel. Dropping this facade isn't going to materially harm Israel, and I doubt it will do any damage to the U.S., either. It has long been understood in the region that U.S. aid to Israel is unconditional, so the new administration policy isn't a sharp break with the past. Indeed, it seems like the Obama administration is resetting U.S. policy to what it was under the first term of the Bush administration: there will be a stated desire for a negotiated settlement ending in "two states for two peoples" but little U.S. effort to push the process along.

(AP Photo)

December 5, 2012

A Nuclear-Free Mideast in Israel's Interest?

Sam Roggeveen runs down the scenarios:

My logic is simple. With regard to Iran's nuclear program, Israel faces one of three possible futures:

1. Israel has nuclear weapons but Iran does not.
2. Both Israel and Iran have nuclear weapons.
3. Neither Israel or Iran has nuclear weapons.

Which scenario is better for Israel's security?

Roggeveen concludes that option one is probably unsustainable and option two undesirable, which leaves option three as the best course. Moreover, it would put Israel in a better position because of its superior conventional military.

My guess: we're heading toward option two. No country with an arsenal as well developed as Israel's has ever completely abandoned nuclear weapons, the regional environment isn't exactly reassuring for Israel to do so in the first place and Iran would be foolish (from their own perspective) to live with such a huge conventional imbalance if the nuclear option was within reach.

December 4, 2012

Why Israel (and the U.S.) Are in Worse Trouble Than They Think in the Mideast

The Washington Institute's Robert Satloff argues that Israel now faces a starkly deteriorating strategic landscape:

With Hamas’s strong political backing from regional states, future historians might very well view the Gaza conflict as the first episode of a new era of renewed inter-state competition and, potentially, inter-state conflict in the Arab-Israeli arena. This is not to suggest that full-scale Arab-Israeli war is in the offing. Israel’s potential adversaries, such as Islamist-led Egypt and an Islamist-led post-Assad Syria, may quite likely be consumed with other priorities, such as sorting out internal socio-economic problems or resolving domestic ethnic disputes, for years or even decades to come. This focus on problems at home may, for a long time, mask the strategic shift now underway—a shift in which countries that used to share strategic interests in preventing direct state-to-state conflict may find tactical ways to postpone conflict to another day. But that doesn’t make the shift any less real or menacing, either for Israeli or American interests.

Israel insulated itself from state-to-state wars by both beating its adversaries handily and relying on U.S. aid and pressure to keep regional dictators at bay. Yet that structure is collapsing before our eyes. Newly democratic governments in the region are likely to continue to use Israel as a scapegoat for their own domestic failings, but unlike the autocrats of old, they may feel more pressure to actually deliver on anti-Israeli rhetoric. Autocrats face no such referendum.

Satloff continues:

What makes this development particularly worrisome for friends of Israel is that it puts the Jewish state at the heart of two mega-trends that are defining what can be termed the “new new Middle East.” The “old new Middle East” was a region of peace, trade, and regional cooperation about which visionaries, like Shimon Peres, waxed poetic. This Middle East reached its heyday in the mid-’90s, when Israelis were welcome everywhere from Rabat to Muscat. The “new new Middle East” is the region defined by the twin threats of Iranian hegemonic ambitions and the spread of radical Sunni extremism, a vast area where Israelis are not only unwelcome but where they are building fences along their borders to separate themselves from the Gog-versus-Magog fight around them.

In some parts of the region, such as Syria and Bahrain, these two trends are fighting each other, whether directly or via proxies. But in the Arab-Israel arena, these two trends have found a way to join forces, as seen in the division of labor between Iran’s provision of rockets and weapons to Hamas and the growing Sunni (Egyptian-Qatari-Tunisian-Turkish) provision of political support to Hamas. That these two trends, which battle each other ferociously elsewhere in the Middle East, can find common ground in their battle against Israel does not augur well for Israel’s strategic situation in the future.

No it does not and it might be worse than that. The problem is that as the U.S. seeks to blunt "Iranian hegemony" (such as it is) it winds up empowering the Sunni radical threat (i.e. the same forces that brought us 9/11) and vice-versa. There's no simple method to balance these forces in a way that doesn't invite future catastrophe. Satloff's suggestion is to bribe Egypt back into the fold and prop up Jordan's monarchy -- solutions that may provide a temporary reprieve, but no more.

November 28, 2012

Enforcing the Consensus

According to Scott McConnell, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding a hearing titled “Israel’s Right to Defend Itself: Implications for Regional Security and U.S. Interests.” Sounds like an interesting subject, sure to elicit a range of possible viewpoints. Except there doesn't appear to be much interest in any viewpoint but one:

The invited witnesses are Elliott Abrams, Danielle Pletka, and Robert Satloff — all neoconservatives, all staunch backers of Netanyahu, the Iraq war, etc. The committee doesn’t even pretend that there might be other worthwhile perspectives, surprising since U.S. interests are meant to be the subject matter.

November 21, 2012

Hamas' Rise and America's Failures

Watch Israel-Gaza Talks Face 'Complicating' Regional Realities on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

In a debate over the Israel-Gaza truce talks, Brookings' Khaled Elgindy makes an important point about Hamas:

Even since the attacks began, even since the assassination of their top military commander, their popularity, their stock, if you will, in the region has skyrocketed, while their rivals' in the West Bank has plummeted.

So, and even we're at a situation now where the exact opposite of the intended outcome is what we have. The policy has been for the last five years to support and build up the leadership in the West Bank...And to minimize and weaken through sanctions and diplomatic and other means to the government of the Hamas authority in the West Bank.

Today, we have the Qataris and Egyptians and other Egyptian leaders visiting Hamas, emboldening them and legitimizing them. And it's the American-backed Palestinian Authority that is on the verge of financial collapse.

So, essentially, you cannot have -- the definition of a failed policy is when it achieves the exact opposite of its intended outcome.

November 20, 2012

Would Americans Support the Destruction of Gaza?

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Walter Russell Mead (via Sullivan) argues that Americans don't understand or support the concept of proportionality in war and would not blink if Israel decided to raze Gaza:

For many people around the world, this seems patently obvious: Israel has a right to respond to attacks from Hamas but it doesn’t have an unlimited right to respond to limited attacks with unlimited force. Israeli blindness to this obvious moral principle strikes many observers as evidence of hardheartedness and national moral decline, and colors their perceptions of many other Israeli policies.

The whole jus in bello argument sails right over the heads of most Americans....From this perspective, the kind of tit-for-tat limited warfare that the advocates of just and proportionate warfare would require is a recipe for unending war: for decades of random air strikes, bombs and other raids. An endless war of limited intensity is worse, many Americans instinctively feel, than a time-limited war of unlimited ferocity. A crushing blow that brings an end to the war—like General Sherman’s march of destruction through the Confederacy in 1864-65—is ultimately kinder even to the vanquished than an endless state of desultory war.

This may be true, but it also explains why very few American wars end in victory: Korea ended in a stalemate, Vietnam in a loss and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with far-from-satisfactory outcomes. The view that a war represents an opportunity to forge a "clean break" with the dynamics that initiated the conflict is obviously alluring, but not always true. Many wars, in fact, end with murky, less-than-definitive outcomes. Even "victories" can prove ephemeral, as the victors of World War I soon discovered. There are wars that do end decisively: the American Revolution booted out the British, the Civil War vanquished the South and World War II ended in the collapse of the Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes. But none of these are really analogous to the kind of conflict that Israel is in with Hamas in Gaza.

Israel understands this, which is why they are fighting in the manner that Mead finds so mystifying. They cannot land a knock-out blow because there is no such thing. If such an option were available to them, wouldn't they have seized it by now?

Moreover, I wonder whether Mead is right that Americans would be indifferent to -- or even encouraged by -- a "time-limited war of unlimited ferocity" against Gaza. Since Mead evokes World War II as the template, let's consider what that would entail: at a minimum it would mean the destruction of most of Gaza's civilian infrastructure and the deaths of tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of civilians. It would take a year's worth of awful images from Syria's civil war and compress them (and magnify them) over the space of several weeks. In a fairly short period of time, Hamas would lose its ability to fight back at all and the "war" would become even more one-sided than it already is. At a certain point, unrestrained military action against a civilian population that has no capacity to fight back ceases to be a "war" and becomes something much worse.

Covering this war of "unlimited ferocity" would certainly be difficult -- it would be too dangerous for most reporters since the bombardment would be so widespread -- but the news would leak out and Americans would ultimately understand what was occurring. Moreover, there would be explosive and widespread condemnation not just internationally but also from Washington. The Obama administration would almost certainly not publicly support an Israel campaign to raze Gaza to the ground and kills tens of thousands of Gazans.

Moreover, the most recent public opinion poll shows 57 percent of Americans supporting Israel's current response. It is impossible for me to believe that this number would not decrease if Israel began flattening hospitals and homes in the widespread and coordinated fashion described above.

None of this, I should stress, is going to happen -- this conflict will likely grind down like the last time Israel and Hamas came to blows. This may, as Mead says, strike most Americans as "unsatisfactory," but it's difficult to see a viable alternative.

(AP Photo)

November 19, 2012

President Obama: No Country Should Tolerate Missiles Raining Down on Them (Except the Ones We're Bombing)

"There's no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders." - President Obama

As Mike Riggs wrly observes, "That is a very interesting thing to say at a time when the U.S. is regularly raining missiles down on Pakistan and Yemen."

Interesting indeed. President Obama is right, of course. Which is why the U.S. shouldn't be surprised when its own missile campaigns generate anti-Americanism and terrorism targeting U.S. interests.

November 17, 2012

Debating the Israel-Gaza War

Watch How Did Latest Escalation Between Israel and Hamas Begin? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.


The NewsHour hosted a good debate between Dan Schueftan and Hisham Melhem over the fighting in Gaza.

October 17, 2012

Changing Demographics in Israel

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Haaretz journalist Akiva Eldar writes (paywalled) that, according to the Israeli government's own figures, non-Jews outnumber Jews in the land under Israeli control:

Amid a dry economic report published yesterday in TheMarker lies an official announcement/acknowledgment of unparalleled importance: The government of Israel confirms that between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River there is no longer a Jewish majority. In other words, in the territory under Israel's jurisdiction a situation of apartheid exists. A Jewish minority rules over an Arab majority...

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (which is subordinate to the Prime Minister's Office ), of the 12 million residents living under Israeli rule, the number of Jews is just under 5.9 million (as of April 25 ). Twelve million minus 5.9 million Jews equals 6.1 million non-Jews. In other words, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, there is a pretty Jewish state as far as its laws and customs, but the reality is not so democratic. Foreign sources report that Jews had already become a minority in the area of the greater Land of Israel several years ago. From now on, it is an official statistic.

There is a significant caveat however: Gaza's 1.5 million citizens are counted as falling under Israeli jurisdiction. I'm not sure it's accurate to describe the Gaza Strip as falling within Israel's jurisdiction - although it is blockaded by Israel. Nevertheless, it sharpens the demographic warning that many peace process devotees have been making that, to quote Paul Pillar, "Israel will be unable to be democratic, controlled by Jews, and embracing all of Palestine. It can be any two of those things, but not all three."

Still, Eldar's use of the term "apartheid" is bound to rile more than illuminate. Peter Beinart, who has been critical of Israeli settlements, rejects the term:

But unlike their brethren in the West Bank, Palestinian Arabs within the green line also enjoy citizenship and the right to vote. They sit in the Knesset and on Israel’s Supreme Court. They maintain their own religious courts and their own, state-funded, Arabic-language schools and media, something religious and ethnic minorities in many other countries do not enjoy. Arabic is one of Israel’s official languages. Palestinian Arab citizens have also made dramatic educational and economic gains under Israeli rule. The political scientists Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman note that in 1948, the illiteracy rate among Israel’s Palestinian Arabs was 80 percent. By 1988, it was 15 percent.

UPDATE: Yishia Goldflam argues that Eldar's report elided critical facts:

To summarize, Akiva Eldar took an unsubstantiated figure which appeared in The Marker (12 million residents from the Jordan River to the sea) and attributed this figure to the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bureau of Statistics, two governmental bodies, despite the fact that neither of them mentioned the figure. And, based on these journalistic acrobatics, we have the false headline "The government's acknowledgement that Jews are a minority in this land. . . "

And what about this figure of 12 million? According to the CIA's World Factbook, some 1.7 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, and another 2.3 million live in the West Bank. Another 1.6 million Arabs live in Israel proper (according to the April 25 CBS press release that Eldar cites.) If we count only those Arabs living under Israeli rule (meaning in Israel and the West Bank), we reach 3.8 million. (And this figure does not take into account that the vast majority of the West Bank Palestinian population lives in Area A, or entirely under Palestinian Authority rule.) Moreover, even if we do add in the 1.7 Gaza Palestinians, who clearly do not "liv[e] under Israeli rule," we reach only 5.5 million Arabs -- still less than the 5.9 million Israeli Jews living in Israel, plus Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank.

(AP Photo)

October 8, 2012

Americans Cool to an Israeli Strike on Iran

The Brookings Institution has released some new poll findings (pdf) on U.S. views on the Mideast (summarized neatly in the infographic below). Among the questions asked was American views on a possible Israeli strike on Iran. The response:

A slight majority favors taking a neutral stance toward the possibility of Israel carrying out such a strike, though more favor discouraging than encouraging Israel from this course. Respondents evaluated three arguments for encouraging Israel, staying neutral, or discouraging Israel from attacking Iran.

Interestingly, once again Americans told pollsters that they favored enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria - but not bombing Syria (as Brian Haggerty exhaustively documented, you cannot have a no-fly zone without extensive bombing inside Syria). Hit the jump for details on how Americans feel about aid to Egypt and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.

Continue reading "Americans Cool to an Israeli Strike on Iran " »

September 18, 2012

Iran Debate Hits the Fever Swamps

Jonathan Tobin is unhappy with how the debate over Iran's nuclear program is playing out:

But this argument isn’t so much about what will happen in November, as it is a not-so-subtle effort to silence a reasonable critique of American foreign policy by both Israelis and their American supporters. In doing so, some on the left are seeking not so much to bolster President Obama as they are to delegitimize the notion that the United States ought to be listening to Israel’s warnings about Iran in a manner highly reminiscent of the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theories. [Emphasis mine]

I don't believe this is quite right. No one is saying that the U.S. government shouldn't "listen" to the Israelis - that seems like a rather absurd position. Of course the U.S. should listen to the Israelis. Israel has vital intelligence on these matters and has an important perspective - no serious person would deny that they have a right to be heard on the issue. The objection is that the U.S. shouldn't have to align its policies and rhetoric to accord with the current Israeli government on the Iran issue - and that a failure to reach alignment isn't a sign of moral failure.

Right now, the positions of the U.S. and Israeli governments are different. It's perfectly fair for people to complain that the U.S. has it wrong and the Israelis have it right, but it's perfectly fair to argue the reverse. I think Tobin is right to suggest that the idea that Romney has "outsourced" his foreign policy to Netanyahu is crude and demagogic. If Romney is wrong (or right) about how to handle Iran, his arguments need to be dealt with on their merits - not on whether or not they correspond with another government's views on the matter.

But it's just as demagogic to insist that disagreeing with the Israeli position on Iran is somehow un-American, as Tobin does in the very same piece:

By pointing out Obama’s mistakes, such as the years wasted on engagement with Tehran, the delay in enforcing sanctions as well as the president’s seeming to have a greater interest in restraining Israel than in pressuring Iran, Romney isn’t undermining U.S. sovereignty. Nor is his willingness to allow Israel the right to defend itself a case of the tail wagging the dog.

In doing so, Romney is merely reasserting a traditional American position. [Emphasis mine]

In addition to implying that the reverse is an un-American position, it's a curious reading of the "traditional American position." Looking at the broad history of U.S. foreign policy, I'd say there has been an equally robust tradition that has been wary of entangling alliances.

The injection of politics into the discussion was bound to drive the question of how to handle the Iranian nuclear program into the fever swamps. It appears we've arrived.

September 4, 2012

Has the Obama Administration Given Israel a Red Line on Iran?

Back in June, I wrote that:

The only conceivable way an Iran strike would boomerang on Israel in the court of U.S. public opinion would be if the U.S. made some kind of very public ultimatum to Israel which the latter flagrantly ignored, followed by Iranian actions that broadly damaged American interests (terrorist attacks and/or spiking the price of oil).

That may have just happened:

In a move that dismayed Israeli ministers, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, told reporters in Britain last week that the United States did not want to be "complicit" in an Israeli attack on Iran.

He also warned that go-it-alone military action risked unraveling an international coalition that has applied progressively stiff sanctions on Iran, which insists that its ambitious nuclear project is purely peaceful.

Dempsey's stark comments made clear to the world that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was isolated and that if he opted for war, he would jeopardize all-important ties with the Jewish state's closest ally.

"Israeli leaders cannot do anything in the face of a very explicit 'no' from the U.S. president. So they are exploring what space they have left to operate," said Giora Eiland, who served as national security adviser from 2003 to 2006.

"Dempsey's announcement changed something. Before, Netanyahu said the United States might not like (an attack), but they will accept it the day after. However, such a public, bold statement meant the situation had to be reassessed."

This may not be enough to stay Israel's hand, but it does appear that the Obama administration has now made the point publicly that a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran over the next few weeks is contrary to U.S. interests. Will it stick?

August 21, 2012

Israel, Iran and the U.S.: A Study in Negotiation Styles

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One interesting dynamic about the rising fear in Washington that Israel may launch a preemptive attack against Iran is how people propose to dissuade Israel. Most of the arguments hinge on offering Israel a series of carrots: military aid, pledges to strike for them if negotiations fail, even tighter sanctions - essentially doing all they can assuage Israel's concerns.

When it comes to Iran, many of the same analysts do a complete about-face: it's all sticks, threats and the promise of pain if Iran doesn't behave.

Obviously most the difference can be chalked up to the fact that Israel is a very close U.S. ally and Iran is not.

But it's still telling what people think is an effective approach when it comes to dealing with a country that is doing something (or poised to do something) deemed detrimental to U.S. interests. No one thinks that threatening Israel or withdrawing aid (or even sanctioning them) is going to dissuade Netanyahu from attacking Iran if he and his cabinet feels it's in their interest to do so. When it comes to Israel's defense issues, people seem to understand that there's a limit to how far outside powers can influence them and that only positive inducements have a chance of steering their behavior in the desired direction.

Yet somehow this understanding evaporates when it comes to Iran. It's not that positive inducements at this stage in the Iranian nuclear standoff have a chance of succeeding - it's too late for that. But if it's proving challenging to dissuade a close ally with nothing but positive inducements, how much faith can we have that negative inducements will actually convince an adversary?

(AP Photo)

August 20, 2012

Why a War with Iran Is Inevitable

Over the past several weeks, talk of an Israeli strike against Iran has surged forward. Amidst the leaks and counter-leaks, one narrative is emerging among analysts, as explained by former Israeli intel chief Amos Yadlin:

Despite seeing eye to eye on this strategic goal, the United States and Israel disagree on the timeline for possible military action against Iran. Superior U.S. operational capabilities mean that it will be another year or two before Iran’s nuclear sites become “immune” to a U.S.attack. Unlike Israel, therefore, the United States can afford to delay beyond this fall, which is precisely what the Obama administration wants. Leave your planes in their hangars, the president has signaled to Israel.

A long-standing principle of Israeli defense doctrine is that it will never ask the United States to fight for it. That is why Israel’s political leaders have emphasized that when it comes to national security, Israel will ultimately decide and act on its own.

This principle may hold true for certain security threats, but Yadlin makes very clear in his op-ed that the Israeli strategy vis-a-vis Iran is very much to have the United States take on this fight. Indeed, Yadlin's entire op-ed is dedicated to urging President Obama to threaten war with Iran in no uncertain terms to restrain an Israeli strike. Dennis Ross makes a similar point here.

Given that the official line from both Republican and Democratic foreign policy camps is that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable" there really is no constituency to push back against Israeli pressure for a strike.

There is an Israeli concern that they will be seen as having goaded the U.S. into an action it would have otherwise not taken, but that ultimately isn't the case. Any U.S. attack cannot be said to be taken on behalf of Israel because U.S. officials have consistently spoken about an Iranian nuclear capability in the most dire terms (when not making glib jokes about attacking them).

Had the Obama administration (or a Republican challenger) argued that U.S. interests do not warrant a war with Iran absent some dramatic casus belli, the dynamic would be different. But there's no real constituency for containment. As Yadlin notes, the crux of the disagreement between the U.S. and Israel isn't over whether military force should be used to stop Iran, it's simply a matter of the timing and which military lands the first blow. Absent a diplomatic breakthrough, a war with Iran appears inevitable.

August 10, 2012

Hezbollah's Falling Stock

David Schenker charts it:

Prior to the so-called "Arab Spring," Nasrallah was among the most beloved and feared men in the Arab world. But a year and a half into the popular Syrian uprising, with Hezbollah's allies in Damascus in trouble and the militia's clerical patrons in Tehran facing a possible American or Israeli attack, Nasrallah seems to have lost his mojo.

Question: is it better over the long-run for Nasrallah to be marginalized by events in the region or martyred by an Israeli missile?

July 30, 2012

U.S., Israel and American Exceptionalism

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Walter Russell Mead highlights how Israel has become a dog-whistle for American exceptionalism:

Presidential candidates stressing their pro-Israel positions by supporting hard line Israeli leaders are more likely to be chasing non-Jewish than Jewish votes. In American politics, taking a strong pro-Israel stand is a way of communicating your commitment to American exceptionalism and to American global leadership. While there are plenty of individual exceptions, as a general rule of thumb voters who are skeptical about the value of the US Israel alliance or who have serious concerns about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians are voters who have qualms about the idea that America is an exceptional country with a mandate to change the world. Voters who identify strongly with Israel and want the US to support it tend to favor a strong US national defense and a forward leaning foreign policy.

I think this is clearly what many of the more hawkish pro-Israel voices in American politics want people to believe. And it's obvious why. Filter Mead's bloodless language through the demagoguery of electoral politics and the above paragraph starts to sound more like this:

"Those who are skeptical about the value of the U.S.-Israel alliance hate America."

The question here isn't whether the U.S. should provide financial, military or intelligence support to Israel - that's a settled issue. The question is whether it's healthy for the very idea of America's mission in the world to be so inextricably bound up with another state. And not just any state, but - as Mead notes - that state's "hard-liners." Israel happens to be the most salient nation here because it's become something of a 2012 campaign football, but the question applies to close allies like NATO member states or Japan and Taiwan. It's not an issue of alliances or America's cosmic "mandate" to remake the world, but of sovereign flexibility. If Israel's hard-liners adopted polices that American policymakers deemed detrimental to U.S. interests, it shouldn't be construed as a betrayal of national character to disapprove of them.

(AP Photo)

July 19, 2012

Will Netanyahu Retaliate for Bulgaria Bombings?

Jeffrey Goldberg wonders:

I doubt Netanyahu will retaliate for the Bulgaria bombing by launching an immediate attack on Iran's nuclear sites. But there is a good chance he will launch attacks on Hezbollah targets and individuals, and possibly certain Iranian targets as well, and this sort of back-and-forth can only escalate tensions further, which could only bring us closer to an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran.

Which, of course, is an enormous challenge for President Obama, who can't seem to convince the Israeli leadership that he will deal with the Iranian nuclear program militarily, if need be. Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense, is traveling to Israel later this month, to meet with Netanyahu and the defense minister, Ehud Barak. He certainly won't be the last American official to visit before November.


July 13, 2012

Is the Two-State Solution Dead?

Michael Freund argues that it is:

But whatever the motive, the repopulation of Judea and Samaria with Jews represents a remarkable triumph of the human spirit, and a validation of the pioneering ethos upon which this country was founded.

There are to be sure many challenges that still lie ahead, as pressure will continue to mount on Israel to draw boundaries and accede to some form of partial territorial retreat. The Palestinians and their allies will surely continue to insist on statehood and the expulsion of Jews.

But the Jewish people have withstood far greater threats in the past.

We have overcome diplomatic disapproval, international hostility, and unjustified opprobrium to reclaim the land that is ours by history and by right.

When Jeremiah (31:4) foretold that “you will yet plant vineyards in Samaria,” and that the sounds of rejoicing would again be heard in the cities of Judea (33:10-11), he knew of what he spoke.

With G-d’s help, recent years have shown that Jews are returning to Judea, Samaria and the Old City of Jerusalem in increasing numbers. So to our critics and foes I have one small piece of friendly advice: you had better get used to it, because the Jewish people are here to stay.

The mainstream position on this is (or maybe "was") that any feasible peace deal would see Israel retain large settlement blocks beyond the "Green Line" while compensating land-swaps elsewhere for the Palestinians. What Freund seems to be suggesting, though, is that the Palestinians will never get any state anywhere and instead ... well, it's not clear. But this seems to be the big question. If the two-state solution is dead ... what comes next?

July 9, 2012

Israel's History Project

Yaacov Lozowick, Israel’s Chief Archivist, has embarked on an ambitious project: digitizing everything in Israel's archives and posting it online (like the 1935 soccer match in Tel Aviv you see above). In an interview with Yair Rosenberg, he describes the project:

“The mission of the archives is to transfer the documentation of the government to the possession of the governed,” he explains. “Since much of the content is both fascinating and relevant to most aspects of society’s life, enabling the citizens to have free and easy access to their documentation—within the obvious constraints—will enrich the public discourse and strengthen Israeli democracy.”

There's an English-language blog available for the project as well. History buffs rejoice.

July 6, 2012

Israeli Researchers Take Buzz Out of Pot

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Israel is well known as a hub for high-tech research and development. Some of their researchers also appear to be major buzzkills:

Israeli researchers have developed a strain of medicinal marijuana that can ease symptoms of diseases such as arthritis without making patients “high”....

Medical marijuana grower Tikun Olam has been developing a strain of cannabis that is high in CBD but very low in THC. It has managed to create one that has 15.8 percent CBD and less than one percent THC. This new strain is called Avidekel and seems to have the highest CBD to THC ratio of any other variant developed.

Tikun Olam’s head of development Zack Klein told Reuters: “Sometimes the high is not always what they need. Sometimes it is an unwanted side effect. For some of the people it’s not even pleasant.”

(AP Photo)

June 27, 2012

Should the U.S. and Israel Disagree in Public?

Jonathan Tobin says I've got it all wrong when I argued that President Obama shouldn't be chided for disagreeing with Israel in public:

But Scoblete finds Romney’s promise not to conduct disagreements with Israel in public even more absurd. To his way of thinking, Romney’s pledge to do the opposite of Obama in that respect is not so much silly campaign rhetoric but represents a view of the American people as children. He believes disputes between the two allies should be carried on in the open much the same way the president’s argument with Canada about the Keystone pipeline has been handled. But in making this point, it is Scoblete who is making a mistake, not Romney. The pivotal audience for the administration’s spats with Israel is not the American people, though many if not most of them are distressed by the president’s propensity for demonstrating his animus toward Jerusalem. It is the Palestinians who have drawn the wrong conclusions from Obama’s determination, as was often expressed at the beginning of his administration, to change everything George W. Bush did, especially his closeness with Israel. And it is the Arabs’ misinterpretation of the perception of a shift in U.S. policy that has effectively killed the peace process on Obama’s watch.
To reitirate what I said in the original post, I don't think this is a principle reserved for disagreements with Israel alone, but any U.S. ally. And I've said before that I think the administration has made a hash of the peace process, but I would disagree with Tobin's assertion that the pivotal audience here is the Palestinians. It's actually the American people. The idea that the American people should be kept in the dark about disagreements, particularly serious ones, on foreign policy matters with allies absent the most stringent of national emergencies strikes me as wrong-headed. The Palestinians are free to draw their own conclusions, but ultimately the American people need to make informed decisions about public policy. They can't do so without information.

Did President Obama mishandle the peace process negotiations? Yes. Does that mean the administration was wrong to let differences of opinion surface publicly? I don't believe so. In fact, it's very difficult to see how those differences would not ultimately come to light. Both Israel and the U.S. are democracies with a free media. Any deep difference of opinion between the two governments on critical issues such as settlements was bound to leak out to the press. This is a good thing.

Think of it this way: Tobin has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration's approach to Israel. How did he arrive at this judgement? The ether? Inference? Obviously not: he read about it in the media. If Obama had adhered to the "Romney Doctrine" and managed to button up any and all disagreements with Israel, how would Tobin know Obama's policies were so misguided? Obama would have stealthily harbored his "animus" toward Israel and none of the country's defenders would have been the wiser. But thanks to these public spats, he's been exposed.

In fact, what Tobin (and Romney) is really suggesting is not that the U.S. and Israel can't disagree - it's that they can't have any significant disagreement. Because in practice, only the most inconsequential disagreements between two democratic allies can be kept under wraps for very long. Serious disputes, such as the one that erupted over the settlement freeze, are bound to filter into the public's view. I would argue that we are better off knowing that such disputes exist so we can judge the positions accordingly.

I brought up the Keystone XL pipeline as an area where two allies can disagree in public but there's a better analogy I neglected. During World War II the U.S. and Britain fought bitterly - in public and private - over India's colonial status (and colonialism in general). The U.S. was opposed to British imperialism and pressed the UK to grant India its freedom, something the UK had been loathe to do. This dispute enraged Winston Churchill and caused tension between the two allies, but ultimately didn't irreparably damage the war effort, the long term relationship between the UK and U.S., or their respective publics.

Again, this isn't a perfectly analogous situation, but it demonstrates that even during the most existential of conflicts, close allies can deeply, publicly, disagree.

June 19, 2012

Are Israel's Nukes Destabilizing?

Kenneth Waltz makes the case that an Iranian nuclear weapon would actually be a good thing in the Middle East. While I'd agree with some of Waltz's arguments, this struck me as wrong-headed:

Israel's regional nuclear monopoly, which has proved remarkably durable for more than four decades, has long fueled instability in the Middle East. In no other region of the world does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist. It is Israel's nuclear arsenal, not Iran's desire for one, that has contributed most to the crisis. Power, after all, begs to be balanced.

First, this isn't true. The Western hemisphere has only one nuclear power. Second, it's not clear to me that Israel's nuclear arsenal has contributed to any crisis in the Middle East and certainly not the present one with Iran. If anything, Waltz would have a much better argument by pointing out that the Middle East has lived with a nuclear state for four decades without a rash of proliferation. If states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia didn't go nuclear after Israel, why would they do so after Iran?

June 5, 2012

Israel Wouldn't Lose U.S. Support After an Iran Strike

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The Obama administration and its allies have spent a fair amount of time attempting to persuade Israel not to attack Iran. Barbara Opall-Rome highlights one argument in particular:

Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. deputy national security adviser and coordinator for U.S. policy planning on Iran, also warned Israel of the consequences of a premature strike without support from Washington and key international allies. If, as a result of a precipitous Israeli attack, Iran retaliated with terror attacks on American citizens, Israel would be viewed as dragging the U.S. into a war with Iran.

“If there were attacks on the American homeland, how many Americans might think that Israel dragged us into a war and now shopping malls were being blown up?” Blackwill said in his May 30 INSS address.

I don't think Blackwill's analysis is all that persuasive here. Most Americans aren't paying attention to Iran's nuclear program or the possible consequences of an Israeli military attack. It's likely that in the wake of an Iranian retaliatory strike on U.S. soil, the first and most politically potent reaction would be to take the fight back to Iran - not unpack the events leading up to the attack in an effort to understand why it happened.

Americans have a dim view of Iran and a very high view of Israel. An Iranian attack against America - even if it could be tied directly to an act of war initiated by Israel over American objections - would probably reinforce these views, not change them. There would, of course, be elite frustration at Israel in some quarters, including among U.S. national security officials who had been urging restraint - but that wouldn't really have any material impact on Israel. Indeed, quite the opposite: U.S. aid and intelligence cooperation in the wake of any Israeli strike on Iran would probably be heightened so as to manage the fallout.

The only conceivable way an Iran strike would boomerang on Israel in the court of U.S. public opinion would be if the U.S. made some kind of very public ultimatum to Israel which the latter flagrantly ignored, followed by Iranian actions that broadly damaged American interests (terrorist attacks and/or spiking the price of oil). Again, it's hard to see that happening. All U.S. officials who speak publicly on the matter affirm Israel's inherent, sovereign right to act in their own interest. Israel may have other reasons to hold off on striking Iranian nuclear facilities, but concerns about the U.S. reaction probably isn't one of them.

(AP Photo)

April 20, 2012

U.S. and Israeli Interests

Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin was asked whether she saw any divergence of interests between the U.S. and Israel. Her answer did identify two areas in particular where she saw a divergence, but she starts her answer by wondering why a similar question isn't asked of other allies "like Great Britain or Australia." I don't know if she's genuinely confused on the point or just insinuating that the question itself is somehow suspect, but the answer is obvious: those countries aren't currently edging toward a military conflict that implicates the United States.

If Australia were threatening to attack China and there were a strong likelihood that the U.S. would become ensnared in the ensuing conflict, I'm pretty sure people would be asking similar questions of the U.S.-Australia alliance.

March 27, 2012

The New Conventional Wisdom on Osirak?

One of the interesting facets of the debate over military strikes on Iran is a new understanding about the impact of Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor. The popular take on Osirak is that the Israeli air force sparred the world (and particularly the U.S. in the first Gulf War) from a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. The strike proved, moreover, the efficacy of military action as a counter-proliferation tool.

Fast forward to today, however, and a new picture is emerging. Rather than a success that spared the world from a nuclear Iraq, the Osirak strike may have actually spurred Saddam Hussein toward a nuclear weapon:

For a start, Saddam wasn't building a bomb at Osirak. Richard Wilson, a nuclear physicist at Harvard University who inspected the wreckage of the reactor on a visit to Iraq in 1982, noted how it had been "explicitly designed" by French engineers "to be unsuitable for making bombs" and had been subject to regular inspections by both on-site French technicians and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"The Iraqis couldn't have been developing a nuclear weapon at Osirak," Wilson tells me, three decades on. "I challenge any scientist in the world to show me how they could have done so."

For Wilson, the Israeli raid marked not the end of Saddam's nuclear weapons programme but the beginning of it. Three months later, in September 1981, Saddam – smarting from the Osirak incident and reminded of Iraq's vulnerability to foreign attack – established a fast-paced, well-funded and clandestine nuclear weapons programme outside of the IAEA's purview. Nine years after Osirak, Iraq was on the verge of producing a nuclear bomb.

Wilson's analysis is shared today by leading non-proliferation experts, including Columbia University's Richard Betts ("there is no evidence that Israel's destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq's nuclear weapons programme. The attack may actually have accelerated it"); Emory University's Dan Reiter ("the attack may have actually increased Saddam's commitment to acquiring weapons"); and Harvard University's Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer ("it triggered a covert nuclear weapons programme that did not previously exist").

Colin Kohl also cited some additional evidence that the conventional wisdom about Osirak is incorrect:

By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organize the program. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault. As Reiter notes, “the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion.”

Iraq’s nuclear efforts also went underground. Hussein allowed the IAEA to verify Osirak’s destruction, but then he shifted from a plutonium strategy to a more dispersed and ambitious uranium-enrichment strategy.

You can read a wonkier version of this argument in a paper (PDF) Dan Reiter authored in 2005.

February 29, 2012

Comparing Iran & Israel's Military Strength

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Via Juan Cole.

Israel enjoys a significant lead in almost every category except manpower (not pictured). And, as Cole notes, sheer numbers aren't the whole story, as Israel's equipment is qualitatively far superior to anything Iran would field.

February 23, 2012

Bibi & Obama: Beyond Personality

David Makovsky explains how President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu can improve their relationship:

How can Obama and Netanyahu win each other's trust? The two sides should come to a more precise understanding of U.S. thresholds for the Iranian nuclear program and American responses should they be breached, as well as an agreement on a timetable for giving up on sanctions so their Iran clocks are synchronized. In other words, the two sides need to agree on red lines that might trigger action. Israel will probably seek some guarantees from the United States before agreeing to forgo a pre-emptive strike that might not succeed.

It may turn out that such guarantees are impossible, given the mistrust between the two parties and the ever-changing regional circumstances. Whatever the mechanism, there is no doubt that the U.S.-Israel relationship could benefit greatly from a common approach toward the Iran nuclear program at this tumultuous time.

I don't think such guarentees would break down over issues of trust but over issues of threat perception. Ultimately, it's impossible to form a "common approach" when the strategic interests are divergent - as they are in this case. Up to a point, both the U.S. and Israel want Iran to abandon their pursuit of nuclear weapons capability but it's clear that the Israelis feel this way because they believe Iran would pose an existential threat to their security, while the U.S. feels this way because it wants to prevent a regional arms race and blunt any Iranian bid for hegemony. If what senior military and intelligence officials in the U.S. say about Iran is true, then it's clear there's a limit to how far we're willing to go with Iran. Israel, I suspect, has no real limit because it feels the stakes are higher.

Ultimately, the U.S. and Israel can't synchronize their positions because they're different positions - not because Netanyahu and Obama can't get along.

February 22, 2012

Iran & Iraq, Cont

In listing the reasons why the Iran debate is playing out a bit differently than the Iraq war debate, it's also important to highlight the role Israel plays. Via the New York Times:

Another critical difference from the prewar discussion in 2003 is the central role of Israel, which views the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon as a threat to its very existence and has warned that Iran’s nuclear facilities may soon be buried too deep for foreign bombers to reach.

Israel’s stance has played out politically in the United States. With the notable exception of Representative Ron Paul of Texas, Republican presidential candidates have kept up a competition in threatening Iran and portraying themselves as protectors of Israel. A bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday released a letter to President Obama saying that new talks could prove a “dangerous distraction,” allowing Iran to buy time to move closer to developing a weapon.

During the run-up to the Iraq war, the U.S. was in the driver's seat regarding policy. If President Bush had had a change of heart, there would have been no invasion. That's not the case with Iran. Israel is (I think) likely to trigger its own war against Iran if the U.S. declines to start one. That war may go well as far as the U.S. is concerned - with little anti-American fallout or retaliatory strikes. Or it may go disastrously - with the U.S. being targeted or called in to re-open the Strait of Hormuz.

But either way, the U.S. simply doesn't have the initiative with respect to Iran as it did with Iraq. This is another reason why advocates of attacking Iran - despite being wrong about the costs and consequences of the Iraq war - are still dominating the public debate. If a war, in some fashion, is inevitable, it makes more sense (in their view) that the U.S. wage it and lead it than get dragged into it after the fact.

February 15, 2012

An Inevitable War

Thomas P.M. Barnett sees a war against Iran as inevitable:

While the debate over whether Israel will strike Iran ebbs and flows on an almost weekly basis now, a larger collision-course trajectory is undeniably emerging. To put it most succinctly, Iran won't back down, while Israel won't back off, and America will back up its two regional allies -- Israel and Saudi Arabia -- when the shooting finally starts. There are no other credible paths in sight: There will be no diplomatic miracles, and Iran will not be permitted to achieve a genuine nuclear deterrence. But let us also be clear about what this coming war will ultimately target: regime change in Tehran, because that is the only plausible solution.
While I don't know if Israel and the U.S. will reach as far as an attempted regime change, I think Israeli air strikes are almost certainly coming.

February 14, 2012

Is Terrorism OK if Israel Does It?

Ever since it was reported that Israel was sponsoring terrorist attacks against Iranians, we've seen a rather curious turn of affairs: supporters of Israel have come to the defense of terrorism.

Daniel Larison picks up the thread, arguing that the moral approbrium due terrorism should hold no matter what:

Tobin makes the charge that the other critics and I are indulging in such moral relativism for the purpose of “delegitimizing” Israel, but it is Tobin who wants one standard for judging Israeli behavior and a very different one for judging Iranian behavior. What all of us are saying is that there is a moral and legal equivalence between different acts of terrorism, and that the victims of terrorist attacks are equally human. The lives of Iranian civilians have just as much value as the lives of Israeli civilians. The former don’t become more expendable because their government is authoritarian, abusive, and supports Hamas. If it is wrong and illegal for one group or state to commit acts of terrorism, it must be wrong and illegal in all cases. The reasons for the acts shouldn’t matter, and neither should the justifications. Either we reject the amoral logic that the ends justify the means, or we endorse it.

Jonathin Tobin followed up saying:

Above all, what Greenwald, Wright and Larison have a problem with is the entire idea of drawing a moral distinction between Iran and Israel. That is why their entire approach to the question of the legality of Israel’s attacks is morally bankrupt. Underneath their preening about the use of terrorists, what Greenwald, Wright and Larison are aiming at is the delegitimization of the right of Israel — or any democratic state threatened by Islamist terrorists and their state sponsors — to defend itself.

Michael Rubin also weighed in:

Jonathan Tobin is absolutely right to dismiss those who argue that Israel forfeited its moral standing by allegedly assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. Rather, the fact that some argue Israel “started it” shows moral blindness and ignorance of context.

The "context" in question appears to be the fact of who is committing the terrorism. When Iran does it, according to Rubin, it's bad. When Israel does it, it's necessary.

Ultimately, the question seems to boil down to whether a state is justified in committing terrorism if it believes the stakes are high enough. By sanctioning Israel's use of terrorism, Israel's supporters are decrying a "moral equivalency" between Israel and her enemies while simultaneously endorsing moral relativism: they imply that any moral judgments about terrorism must begin with an assessment of the state or group employing it.

Personally, I tend to agree with Larison that this is indeed "amoral logic" but I don't necessarily think that Tobin and Rubin are wrong, at least as far as the general principle goes. I don't agree with the Tobin/Rubin argument that the stakes in this specific case are "existential," but I do believe that if the stakes were existential then it's difficult to rule out any tactic, however awful. Indeed, the very bedrock of a "realist" foreign policy seems to hinge on the notion that states must prioritize the lives of their own citizens above the lives of others. That's ugly, no doubt, and I think there's an argument to be made that the U.S. should often behave as if this were not the case (and build a normative atmosphere that rejects, when possible, amoralism). But at the end of the day, there's a limit to how far that project can go.

Update: Rubin takes issue with my characterization of his post:

But that was not the point of the post Sclobete [sic] selectively cites, nor is it even a fair reading of it. Rather, I list a litany of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish terrorism sponsored by Iran during the past two decades and exclaim that pundits who are jumping on the terrorism bandwagon now show their selectivity by having ignored for so long Iranian sponsorship of terrorism against Israel, Israelis, and Jews.

As for assassination, a tactic used to prevent a wider conflict or an existential challenge, I see nothing wrong with it nor, for that matter, does the Obama administration. Assassination does not violate international law; it is not terrorism.

The broader problem, however, is that there is simply no universally accepted definition of terrorism. As I noted in this paper on asymmetric threat concept, as of 1988 there were more than 100 definitions of terrorism in use in Western countries, and that number has only proliferated in the past quarter century.

I can state unequivocally that Rubin is wrong about one thing: the spelling of my last name. Beyond that, I don't know if this is as exculpatory as Rubin thinks - saying another side "started it" or that it's all too rhetorically vague to pass judgment on doesn't suddenly absolve the behavior in question.

I'm not a legal expert on these matters, but I believe the position of the U.S. government since President Ford is that assassination is illegal. When then-U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was asked his position on Israel's policy of assassinations, he said:

“The United States government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations. They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.”

Times change and obviously the U.S. government's attitude toward assassinating people has undergone considerable liberalization following 9/11. As I said, I think Rubin and I are actually in agreement that, if push comes to shove, a state must do what it must to defend itself. I do not believe that Iran is building a nuclear weapon to use against anyone, therefore I'm all that receptive to claims that Iranian scientists are willfully crafting a weapon of genocide to use against Israel (or the U.S.) . However, if you earnestly believe that they are, then such tactics have a stronger justification.

February 6, 2012

Poll: If Israel Attacks Iran, 48% of Americans Want U.S. to Help

That's the headline from the latest Rasmussen poll:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely U.S. Voters shows that 83% believe it is at least somewhat likely Iran will develop a nuclear weapon in the near future, including 50% who say that is Very Likely to happen. Only 11% say it’s Not Very or Not At All Likely Iran will develop a nuclear weapon soon.

Israel & Iran

Daniel Larison thinks I'm wrong to guess that Israel will launch an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. I think his response conflates a question of efficacy (is it a good idea?) and probability (would they do it?). I tend to agree that a strike is probably on balance a bad idea for many of the reasons highlighted in Larison's post.

But I also think that when push comes to shove Israel is willing to tolerate the risks associated with a strike much more than they are willing to tolerate the risks (as they see them) of not attacking.

Update: Noah Millman offers his take:

I think it’s safe to say that there is, essentially, a near-universal consensus in Israel that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, that such a development would be profoundly threatening, and that Iran is unlikely to change course in response to diplomatic pressure. That doesn’t mean the Israeli consensus is right, but that is the overwhelming consensus. That being the case, the political risks to trying and failing are smaller than they might otherwise appear.

February 3, 2012

Three Reasons Why Israel Will Attack Iran

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According to a number of published sources, Israel is nearing a moment of truth with respect to military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. No one knows, of course, what action Israel will take (neither, I suspect, do most of Israel's leadership, which appears to be openly debating the proposition as well).

The wisdom of such a move aside, I may as well proffer up my own wild guess as to whether Israel will take military action against Iran's nuclear program. As the title of the post suggests, I'm guessing they will. My reasoning:

1. They've done it before: Both Syria and Iraq have seen how jealously Israel guards its regional nuclear monopoly.

2. They don't believe President Obama will do it: Despite copious threats from U.S. officials, a number of reports indicate that Israel's prime minister does not believe that the U.S. will take military action against Iran.

3. The Arab Spring has made the regional environment worse: Israel's security used to rest on the acquiescence of regional dictators like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. As the "Arab Spring" produces governments more representative of their public's attitudes, the regional environment is going to get more hostile to Israel. And while Israel can't do much about those developments, they can take a stab at addressing Iran's nuclear program via a military attack - at least in the short term.

As I said, just a guess really, but I'd be more surprised if 2012 (or 2013) passes without an Israeli attack than if one were to occur. What do you think?

(AP Photo)

January 23, 2012

Is Iran an Existential Threat?

Bruce Reidel claims that Iran is not an existential threat to Israel or America:

Iran, in contrast, has no major power providing it with financial help. Its arms relationships with Russia and China have been severed by Security Council Resolution 1929. Its only military ally is Syria, not exactly a powerhouse. And Syria is now in the midst of a civil war, its army dissolving. If President Bashar Assad falls, Iran is the biggest loser in the “Arab Spring.” Hezbollah will be the second largest loser. The deputy secretary general of Hezbollah and one of its founders, Sheikh Naim Qassem, wrote in 2007 that Syria is “the cornerstone” of Hezbollah’s survival in the region. While Syria and Hezbollah have their differences, the relationship is a “necessity” for Hezbollah.

January 13, 2012

What Would the British Do?

To be honest, I don't know how huge a deal the revelations are in this Foreign Policy piece (and needless to say, these are allegations, not established facts). The short version - agents from Israel's intelligence service are alleged to have disguised themselves as American CIA agents to hire terrorists to kill people inside Iran.

I think a good way to frame this is to ask: would Britain's intelligence service do something like this? If the answer is yes, then Israel's actions are in keeping with how international spy craft and subversion work among allies. If the answer is no, then the argument that Israel is key strategic asset for the United States becomes a lot less credible.

Update: Larison suggests this isn't the right way to frame the news:

I suppose that agents of any government that wanted to employ foreign terrorists to blow up civilians in another country might be inclined to pretend to be working for a different government, since they wouldn’t want to implicate their government in such crimes, but that doesn’t tell us very much. It’s not just the false flag nature of the operation that is bothersome. If the report is true, this operation involved a terrorist group that blows up civilians in mosques, and the perception that the U.S. was behind the group that did these things invited attacks on Americans. In addition to encouraging atrocities against civilians, the operation made it seem as if the U.S. were complicit in those atrocities.
My point was simply that it's difficult to tell how far over the line Israel's alleged actions were if similar stunts had been pulled by other allied intelligence services in the past. In their own right, these allegations are obviously troubling.

Update II: Evelyn Gordon says there's reason to be skeptical of the charges:

Israel termed the report “absolute nonsense,” explaining that had it been true, then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan would have been declared persona non grata in Washington rather than being a welcome visitor. Nor is that idle speculation: Those same two presidents forced the ouster of three other senior Israeli defense officials over other issues; why would they have given Dagan a pass?

Just last year, Uzi Arad was forced to resign as chairman of Israel’s National Security Council due to Washington’s anger over leaked information from U.S.-Israeli talks on nuclear issues. And in 2005, two senior Defense Ministry officials – director general Amos Yaron and chief of security Yehiel Horev – were forced out due to Washington’s anger over Israel’s agreement to upgrade Harpy drones for China, following a year in which the Pentagon boycotted Yaron entirely. Thus, had Dagan committed an offense as egregious as Perry claimed, it’s inconceivable that he would have continued for years to be not only a welcome guest, but even one of Washington’s preferred Israeli interlocutors.

December 28, 2011

An Israeli Strike on Sudan?

Perhaps:

Officials in Israel are refusing to confirm claims by the Sudanese press that Israeli planes recently attacked weapons convoys crossing the desert in Sudan. The attacks reportedly took place between Dec. 15 and 20. Media in Sudan say Israeli jets pulverized at least two convoys headed toward Egypt. The convoys were reportedly transporting arms destined for the Gaza strip.

Not everyone in Israel is so tight-lipped. A former Israeli Air Force head told the army radio station Galeï Tsahal on Monday that “whoever carried out [the attack] should be congratulated.” He added: “Our information was accurate as were our strikes.”

Sudanese press claims the attacks killed at least five contraband traffickers. The first convoy involved six trucks packed with weapons. The second attack, which occurred Dec. 18 and involved just a single vehicle, may have been a mistake. The first raid took place while Salva Kiir, the president of the newly created Southern Sudan, was on an “historic” 24-hour visit to Jerusalem.


December 14, 2011

Anti-Semitism and the Iran War Debate

I have read many an article making a reasoned case for why the U.S. should, as a last resort, take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. In all those pieces I admit I have never encountered the argument that David Mamet makes here. To wit: that a failure to take military action against Iran is akin to practicing "human sacrifice" with the state of Israel (and, by the way, is anti-Semitic):

In abandonment of the state of Israel, the West reverts to pagan sacrifice, once again, making a burnt offering not of that which one possesses, but of that which is another's. As Realpolitik, the Liberal West's anti-Semitism can be understood as like Chamberlain's offering of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, a sop thrown to terrorism. On the level of conscience, it is a renewal of the debate on human sacrifice.

This is not the first time the idea has been raised that it is anti-Semitic to warn against the dangers of a war against Iran. Mitchell Bard asserted that there were "disturbing anti-Semitic undertones" in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's observations that an attack on Iran would have negative consequences.

November 14, 2011

If Israel Bombed Iran...

Jackson Diehl makes the case that an Iranian nuclear weapon poses a different kind of threat to Israel than it does to the United States, then suggests that an Israeli strike is being constrained by concern about America's reaction:

The most interesting calculations of all concern U.S-Israeli relations. The rupture of the U.S.-Israeli alliance arguably would be as large a blow to Israel’s security as Iran completing a bomb — and a unilateral attack might just risk that. The Pentagon might suspend what is now close cooperation; in Congress and in public opinion, Israel might be blamed for any U.S. casualties in Iranian counterattacks. I’ve always supposed that there will be no Israeli attack without a green light from Washington.

Israel, however, has a history of ignoring U.S. opinion at moments like this.

I doubt very much that any of the above would play out like this. Imagine a scenario wherein Israel bombs a number of Iranian nuclear sites and Iran retaliates by blowing up an American civilian airliner. Would the response in the United States be to blame Israel or blame Iran?

I suspect that, to the extent an Israeli attack on Iran does anger Washington, such anger would be localized in the executive branch and wouldn't have any real ripple effects beyond that, even if Iran did respond to such an attack with strikes of its own against American targets.

November 8, 2011

The Sarko-Obama Flap

Oops:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy branded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "a liar" in a private conversation with President Barack Obama that was accidentally broadcast to journalists during last week's G20 summit in Cannes.

"I cannot bear Netanyahu, he's a liar," Sarkozy told Obama, unaware that the microphones in their meeting room had been switched on, enabling reporters in a separate location to listen in to a simultaneous translation.

"You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you," Obama replied, according to the French interpreter.

The technical gaffe is likely to cause great embarrassment to all three leaders as they look to work together to intensify international pressure on Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

Suffice it to say this is likely going to be seized on by the administration's critics as proof of Obama's insufficient fidelity to the state of Israel, but it shouldn't be: Netanyahu is not the state of Israel. He's a politician. No one is under any obligation to like him. I suspect Netanyahu would have a less-than-flattering appraisal of President Obama were the mic on the other lapel.

November 3, 2011

What Would Bombing Iran Accomplish?

The Daily Telegraph's reporting on the IAEA's Iranian nuclear report is worth a read. In it, we learn that the Stuxnet Virus which earlier had wreaked havoc on Iran's nuclear facilities, only succeeded in slowing down their nuclear quest:

Hopes that the Stuxnet computer virus attack by Western powers on Iran’s nuclear technology would prove crippling have faded. The virus succeeded in crippling a number of Iranian centrifuges but analysts now think the effects have worn off and production of highly enriched uranium has accelerated again.

The IAEA will provide indications that enriched uranium production is moving from the long-established Natanz facility to Fordow, an underground plant that is regarded by Iran as bomb-proof near the holy city of Qom. Iran has produced more than 70kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium and would easily increase its output if production shifts to the mountain plant. Scientists say that 20 per cent enriched uranium can be refined to the 90 per cent weapons grade level without design changes in the production lines.

I think this underscores the basic problem with any military option against Iranian facilities short of a ground invasion - it will only delay Tehran, not derail them.

October 20, 2011

Should the U.S. Trim Aid to Israel?

Via Andrew Sullivan, Walter Pincus makes the case:

Nine days ago, the Israeli cabinet reacted to months of demonstrations against the high cost of living there and agreed to raise taxes on corporations and people with high incomes ($130,000 a year). It also approved cutting more than $850 million, or about 5 percent, from its roughly $16 billion defense budget in each of the next two years.

If Israel can reduce its defense spending because of its domestic economic problems, shouldn’t the United States — which must cut military costs because of its major budget deficit — consider reducing its aid to Israel?...

I think this is the wrong way to look at this question. The overall costs of U.S. aid to Israel is, in dollar terms, tiny relative to the very large budget holes that eventually need to be filled if the U.S. is to balance its books. And some of that money circulates back into the U.S. economy (specifically to the most needy of recipients, U.S. arms manufacturers), so it's not really having a material impact on the American balance sheet in the same way that entitlements, tax policy or big-ticket nation building missions do.

You can make the case that Israel no longer deserves to be the largest recipient of U.S. aid due to strategic reasons - either Israel's declining strategic value to the U.S. or the elevation of another country's value relative to Israel - but that's not a case Pincus makes.

October 18, 2011

Did Israel Pay Too High a Price?

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The release of Gilad Shalit has been greeted with mixed emotions in Israel and for good reason. To secure his release, Israel has agreed to free close to 1,000 members of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, although many of them will be sent into exile. A 1,000:1 ratio would seem to encourage further hostage taking, which has led some Israeli analysts to speculate that Netanyahu agreed to the deal so that he would have a free hand to strike at Iran, since Hamas could not retaliate by murdering Shalit.

(AP Photo)

October 4, 2011

Which Countries Invest the Most in R&D?

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According to new figures from the OECD, Israel leads the way in investing in research and development, while Switzerland earns the most patents-per-percentage of GDP spent on research efforts.

September 21, 2011

The Strategic Case for Israel

Rick Perry did indeed give a more strategic argument on behalf of Israel during his speech yesterday, saying "Israel’s security is critical to America’s security."

Daniel Larison says it ain't so:

If we went through all of the allies deemed “critical” to our security, we would find that a large number of them could be fairly described as “a very small country that simply isn’t very important.” Indeed, many of our allies have become our allies because they hope to enhance their security at U.S. expense, and oddly enough many Americans have convinced themselves that it is imperative that we cooperate. These alliances and patron-client relationships often make sense for the other party, but very few of them make sense for the U.S. any longer.
I think the key phrase here is "any longer." It made sense to stack up a series of dependencies in the Cold War, when there was a reasonable chance of an all-out war with the Soviet Union. In today's world, the odds of a major great power war have diminished and where there is a heightened chance, it's in Asia, not the Middle East. Of course, the Middle East would be important in such an instance, since its natural resources would fuel the belligerents, but that doesn't mean a Cold War-era template should do the heavy lifting of protecting America's interests.

See also Andrew Exum.

September 20, 2011

This Just In: The U.S. Was Never an Honest Broker

I don't mean to make light of the gravity of the Palestinian UN-gambit, but some of the coverage and analysis strikes me as just a bit too breathless. Take this:

Fran Townsend, a CNN contributor on national security issues, said the potential U.N. vote "puts the United States in a very awkward position."

"It is a veto that will most certainly undermine U.S. credibility as an honest broker in the peace process," at least in the eyes of the Arab world, Townsend said.

Really? The Arab world thinks the United States is an honest broker? Since when?

The frenzy of diplomatic activity around the Palestinian statehood bid is also a reminder of what an immensely unproductive endeavor it is for the United States to insert itself into the middle of an intractable standoff.

September 19, 2011

Turkish Hackers Hit Wrong Target

Oops:


Turkish hackers attacked dozens of Israeli websites over the weekend, only to find out that the sites belonged to Palestinians.

The confusion was caused due to the fact that the Palestinian sites, which have a .ps web suffix, use Israeli web servers.

September 16, 2011

Powell Doctrine and the Gaza Flotilla

Michael Rubin thinks the Israeli response to the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, where nine civilians were killed attempting to break the blockade of Gaza, is reminiscent of the Powell Doctrine:

Now let’s consider the Powell Doctrine through the same lens. Part of the Powell Doctrine declares, “When a nation is engaging in war, every resource and tool should be used to achieve decisive force against the enemy, minimizing U.S. casualties and ending the conflict quickly by forcing the weaker force to capitulate.”

Certainly, the Powell Doctrine formed the basis of the decisive and overwhelming victory against Saddam Hussein in 1991. The idea that when engaging militarily, once should calibrate military power to the weakest combatant is one of the most curious—and stupid—conclusions of armchair international law advocates and human rights experts. It’s time to put the proportionality arguments where they belong—in the dustbin of bad ideas.

I'm not sure how this is analogous. First, this is a very narrow reading of the Powell Doctrine, whose tenets Powell sketched out in Foreign Affairs as a series of questions:

Is a vital national security interest threatened? Do we have a clear, attainable objective? Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analysed? Have all other non-violent policy means been exhausted? Is there a plausible exit strategy? Have the consequences been fully considered? Is the action supported by the American people? Does the US have broad international support?

The Powell Doctrine was also concerned with the use of military force against a rival military in a war - not against civilian protesters engaged in a reckless protest/provocation. If Rubin thinks calibrating military power to the weakest combatant is a stupid argument, he's entitled to that contention (and in the case of an outright war I would not disagree). But by invoking the Powell Doctrine here he's asserting that the participants in the blockade running were combatants engaged in a war. That is, I think, an untenable assertion. By that logic, Israel would have been justified in sinking the entire ship outright and then bombing the Turkish port from which it sailed, or even striking at the offices of the flotilla organizers in Turkey.

The Powell Doctrine is a serviceable idea when the U.S. engages another military, but I can't imagine its authors would endorse the concept for use against civilian protesters - no matter how belligerent said protesters were. (And, for the record, I think the Israeli commandos that stormed the ship were justified in defending themselves against club-wielding protesters.)

September 8, 2011

Should the U.S. Dump Turkey Over Israel?

Bloomberg argues that the U.S. should reassess its alliance with Turkey. Here's the logic:

For Turkey the impact of a rupture with Israel may be less direct. Both the Obama and Bush administrations have made constructive relations with Turkey a priority. The U.S. strongly supported Turkey’s accession to the European Union and lobbied EU members on its behalf. Turkey’s positive image in the U.S., including in Congress, is largely based on its reputation as a democratic, tolerant nation that is a force for moderation in the Middle East. This image has shielded Turkey from criticism for its 37-year occupation of northern Cyprus and its denial of the Armenian genocide. But Turkey’s diplomatic flap with Israel could lead Americans and others to take a second look at where Erdogan is headed. Such a policy review is overdue.

I can understand why Israel would want to take a hard look at relations with Turkey - after all, the diplomatic flap involves them, not the United States. But the question is - how much should Turkey's behavior toward Israel count in the U.S.-Turkey relationship?

September 7, 2011

Learning from the Netanyahu Dust-Up

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Reading Jeffrey Goldberg's piece on the Obama administration's frustrations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I'm reminded of the opening of Leslie Gelb's book Power Rules. Gelb starts the book by detailing how, even at the height of its Cold War power and influence, the U.S. couldn't push around tiny Cuba.

And I think that's the lesson to take from this. It's not that the Netanyahu government is particularly intransigent but that there is a limit to U.S. power. As Drezner observes, the U.S. carries a lot of water for Israel and yet can't get its cooperation. Conversely, the U.S. sanctions and seeks to isolate Iran, and still can't get its cooperation. The U.S. often has a very hard time getting anyone to toe the line.

(AP Photo)

August 22, 2011

The Middle East, Democracy and Israel

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James Traub defends his enthusiasm for the Arab Spring against the pessimists:

There are, I suppose, two reasons to dump cold water on the Arab Spring. The first is that you think the enthusiasm is overblown, and you enjoying taunting the romantic spirit that sees reflections of America and its democratic values in every popular uprising across the globe. Go ahead and jeer; I would only note that even the grumpy and skeptical John Quincy Adams, who famously abjured crusades to destroy foreign "monsters," added that the American people are "well-wishers" to those everywhere who seek freedom.

The second reason is that you believe that while it may be good for them, it's bad for us. But in the long term, that cannot be so. Illegitimate government in the Arab world has been a disaster for the neighborhood, and for the world. Legitimate government provides the only narrative powerful enough to prevail over the appeal of extremism. We have every reason to be well-wishers.

The trouble with this formula is that, from Washington's perspective, the "us" is not simply the United States but Israel as well. After all, a key American interest in the Middle East has been creating a benign security environment for the state of Israel. Reconciling that interest with an interest in the flourishing of Middle East democracy is going to be difficult indeed. Take the recent news from the Egypt-Israeli border:

"Egyptian blood is not cheap and the government will not accept that Egyptian blood gets shed for nothing," state news agency MENA quoted a cabinet statement as saying.

Egypt's Information Minister Osama Heikal told state TV: "The assurance that Egypt is committed to the peace treaty with Israel ... should be reciprocated by an equivalent commitment and an adjustment of Israeli statements and behavior regarding various issues between both countries."

As crowds of Egyptians protested angrily at the Israeli embassy in Cairo through Saturday night, burning Israeli flags in scenes that would never be allowed during the Mubarak era, both countries were trying to defuse the diplomatic crisis.

But restraint was in short supply among the contenders to become Egypt's future leader in elections due by year-end.

"Israel must realize that the day when Egypt's sons are killed without an appropriate and strong reaction are over," wrote presidential hopeful Amr Moussa -- former secretary-general of the Arab League -- on his website.

Another contender for the leadership, Hamdeen Sabahy, hailed a protester who scrambled atop the Israel embassy in Cairo in the early hours of Saturday to remove and burn the Israeli flag as a "public hero."

The Obama administration is obviously going to work hard to paper over this immediate dispute and wield whatever leverage it has left in Egypt to kept the country at peace with Israel. It's also clear that, at least initially, the goal will be for the U.S. to have its cake (a secure Israel) and eat it too (a democratizing Middle East). But what if those two goals become, at least for a time, mutually exclusive?

(AP Photo)

May 26, 2011

Bibi Boosted

According to a new poll, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seen a surge of support following his trip to the United States:

The poll, conducted by the Dialog organization, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of the Tel Aviv University Statistics Department, showed that 47 percent of the Israeli public believes the U.S. trip was a success, while only 10 percent viewed it as a failure.

Nearly half of the public felt "pride" at seeing Netanyahu address the joint session of Congress on Tuesday, while only 5 percent deemed it a "missed opportunity." The rest expressed no opinion, while 20 percent of those questioned said they hadn't watched the speech.

Israelis also don't believe that U.S.-Israel relations have been harmed by the visit despite its attendant problems, tensions and disputes.

Some 27 percent of those polled said they believe relations between the two countries will actually improve as a result of the visit, while only 13 percent thought relations would deteriorate. Nearly half of those questioned don't think there will be any change.

From the poll, it emerged that Netanyahu's trip not only put a brake on the drop in his popularity ratings, but actually reversed the trend.

May 24, 2011

What Are Defensible Borders?

israel%20borders.jpg

Paul Pillar parses the dust-up between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu:

The United States has an interest in assuring the security of Israel. In his AIPAC speech, President Obama properly referred to this aspect of U.S.-Israeli relations as “ironclad.” But the United States has no positive interest in either party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict acquiring title to land not because it is needed for security but instead for historical or religious reasons, or simply to acquire living space. The only U.S. interest is the negative one of being associated in the minds of much of the rest of the world with the Israeli occupation. So Netanyahu couched his denunciation of the 1967 boundary in security terms, saying (again ignoring what President Obama said about land swaps) that the boundary was “indefensible.”

Pillar goes on to insist that these borders are indeed defensible:

Let's see—even if we ignore, as Netanyahu has, what would be needed for the Palestinians' security—how has that boundary figured into Israeli security in the past? In the one war that was fought across the boundary—the one in 1967—the Israeli Defense Forces conquered the entire West Bank in less than a week (while they also were taking the Golan Heights away from Syria and the Sinai away from Egypt). Since that war, the differential between Israel's military capability and that of its Arab neighbors has become if anything even greater (even just at the conventional level, without considering Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons beginning in the 1970s). Who would threaten Israel across that 1967 border? A demilitarized Palestinian “state”? Some rusty post-Cold War army from some other Arab country that somehow made it into the West Bank? For many years the biggest threat to Israelis' security has come not across a border beyond which Israel lacked control but instead from angry Palestinians in land that Israel does control. The idea of the 1967 border as indefensible is—given military realities in the Middle East—itself indefensible.

I think the concern today is not Arab armies but rocket fire from groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The closer these groups can get to Israel, the easier it will be to accurately guide rockets at civilian targets. Unfortunately, the ranges these rockets can travel will improve over time, no matter where a final borderline is drawn, so what constitutes a "defensible" border is something of a moving target.

(AP Photo)

May 23, 2011

Who Has the Time?

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To understand why this latest batch of peace process enthusiasm is likely to end in disappointment, it's important to examine two competing and contradictory tensions at the heart of the effort. Both involve time.

The first is a concern, raised by White House adviser Dennis Ross, that rushing into an agreement when neither party is ready could make things worse. The argument is that peace requires trust-building and efforts to prepare the respective publics for a deal. Suffice it to say the Palestinians haven't quite pushed a narrative of compromise (witness the reaction to the leak of the Palestinian Papers and the rush of PA officials to disavow their contents). That goes double now that Hamas is a part of the Palestinian government.

The counter argument is that absent a deal the Palestinians will be further disadvantaged in future negotiations. In making the case for the "1967 lines" as a starting point for negotiations, President Obama conceded during his AIPAC speech that those lines would of course be adjusted to accommodate "facts on the ground." And what are those facts? Continued Israeli settlements. Indeed, successive Israeli administrations have pursued a settlement policy precisely to create "facts on the ground" that would ensure more and more land would fall under Israel's ostensible control.

The longer negotiations and a lack of an accord continues, the more "facts on the ground" may change, and in Israel's favor.

This circle is really impossible to square, which explains why all U.S. efforts to resolve this crisis have consistently ended in failure. This time will likely be no different.

(AP Photo)

May 20, 2011

There's a Test?

Evidently Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels failed the "Israel test." Here are his offending remarks:

What is going on in the Arab world these days has little or nothing to do with Israel or Palestine, it has to do with tyrannical regimes which have really stifled prospects for their people who are now restless for a better life. . . . I don’t think right now it pays very much of a dividend to try to cut the Gordian Knot of Israel and Palestine.

How Did Israel/Palestine Become Central?

If we learned one thing from the "Arab Spring" thus far it's that outrage over a lack of domestic political freedoms and economic opportunity - not Israel or the West Bank - has the power to bring large numbers into the "Arab street" and even topple regimes. And yet, in the aftermath of President Obama's speech on the Arab Spring, all anyone is talking about is Israel and the Palestinians.

This frame of reference is ultimately counter-productive. Whatever else one says about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's only a strategic liability for the U.S. insofar as Washington insists on subsidizing the combatants and trying - in a ham-handed and incompetent fashion - to solve it.

May 18, 2011

Non-Violent Resistance

So now we have an opportunity to see how Americans will react. We've asked the Palestinians to lay down their arms. We've told them their lack of a state is their own fault; if only they would embrace non-violence, a reasonable and unprejudiced world would see the merit of their claims. Over the weekend, tens of thousands of them did just that, and it seems likely to continue. If crowds of tens of thousands of non-violent Palestinian protestors continue to march, and if Israel continues to shoot at them, what will we do? Will we make good on our rhetoric, and press Israel to give them their state? - Matt Steinglass

One of the problems with inserting ourselves into this issue is that somehow the onus is on America - not the parties to the conflict - to resolve this issue. What if, following Steinglass' advice, the U.S. "presses" Israel to give the Palestinians a state - and Israel refuses? Or the Palestinians make demands that Israel can't accept?

April 28, 2011

Which Country Does America Want to Defend the Most?

According to a new poll from Rasmussen, Canada tops the list of countries that Americans say they would defend militarily, followed by Great Britain, Australia, Israel and ... the Bahamas.

At the bottom of the list: Bulgaria, Albania, North Korea and Iran. Interesting to note: Albania is in NATO and ranks below Russia as a country Americans want to defend.

April 27, 2011

The Last 30 Years

Last July, in a debate with another realist making the case for Israel-as-a-liability (Chas W. Freeman), I argued that "what we really need in the Middle East are more 'Israels' -- not more Jewish states, of course, but more strong, reliable, democratic, pro-American allies.... The absence of those sorts of allies is precisely what has gotten us into such deep trouble over the past 30 years." - Robert Satloff

It's not clear whether the "30 years" here refers to the beginning of the Carter Doctrine or the Nixon/Kissinger tilt toward Israel during the Yom Kippur War. I'm assuming it can't be the latter, as that would undermine Satloff's argument. As for the Carter Doctrine, I think a more straightforward explanation for America's "deep trouble" in the Middle East over the past 30 years is that it has tried to micromanage countries and cultures that it doesn't understand and that ultimately resent outside interference.

Sure, it would be nice to have pro-American, free market democracies in the region but we can satisfy ourselves with the next best thing: less meddling.

April 25, 2011

Do Realists Threaten Israel?

Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren takes after realists in a piece in Foreign Policy. His basic position is that realists don't appreciate that Israel is in fact the ultimate American ally and a net-plus for America's security and economy.

The one odd element to the piece is that it's devoted to debunking arguments that are essentially irrelevant. Sure, there are realist analysts and academics who do not believe Israel is as strategically valuable to the U.S. today as it was during the Cold War - but so what? One could understand the impetus to Oren's piece if the realist argument were actually gaining traction and threatening ties between the two countries in some material way - but as far as I can tell, it is not.

Indeed, the actual debate over Israel in the United States has nothing to do with first order questions (whether we should be allies) or second order questions (whether Israel is a net-plus for the U.S. strategic ledger) but third order questions about whether we should pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians to further peace negotiations - and that debate was settled a year ago.

March 27, 2011

A Ground Level View from the IDF

At Coffee and Markets this week, Brad Jackson had a fascinating interview with Captain Neta Gerri of the Israeli Defense Force, who talked about the possibility of a new Gaza war, the conflict with the Palestinians and more.

Gerri is a doctor stationed within a combat unit, focused on treating Palestinians, and she has several interesting things to say. The interview starts around the 13 minute mark and is worth a listen.

February 21, 2011

Will Israel Strike Iran?

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Not likely, according to David Gordon and Cliff Kupchan:

References to Iran as an existential threat or to the country's nuclear program as raising the specter of another Holocaust have been typical among Israeli officials. But on a recent research trip to Israel, we heard surprisingly little anxiety. No official spoke about a threshold beyond which Iran's program would be unstoppable -- a deadline that in the past was always one year off. And elites across the political spectrum for now favor sanctions and covert action, rather than military force, to deter Iran. As a result, the chance of Israeli strikes in the next eighteen months is very low.

This makes sense - given all the regional unrest, why would Israel want to change the story? And while Iran's regime may not fall in the short term, it's definitely on shaky ground.

(AP Photo)

February 3, 2011

Foreign Policy Credentials

RCP's Scott Conroy reports on where GOP presidential hopefuls are burnishing their foreign policy credentials:

For the prospective field of Republican presidential candidates, a trip to Israel is quickly becoming a near prerequisite as top-tier contenders with little direct foreign policy experience look to brandish their credentials on the international stage before the demands of a grueling campaign keep them tied up domestically.

It seems to me that if you were a candidate hoping to get up to speed on the country's foreign policy challenges, countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and China would top the list.

January 31, 2011

Will Egypt Split the U.S. & Israel?

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Walter Russell Mead argues that the current tumult in Egypt may bring the U.S. and Israel closer together:

If a radical regime emerges in Egypt that repudiates the peace treaty, supports violence by Hamas or in other ways threatens Israel’s security, the United States is unlikely to leave Israel twisting in the wind.

At the same time, a vocal American minority — ranging from the “truther” far left through parts of the respectable foreign policy establishment and extending out into the Buchananite far right — asserts that strong U.S. support for Israel endangers our vital interests throughout the Middle East....

The Egyptian upheaval could be an important turning point in world history. The consolidation of a reasonably moderate and democratic government in the cultural capital of the Arab world could put the region, and the world, on the road to a more durable peace. A radical victory could drive a wedge not only between Israel and the Arab world, but deepen the divide between the West and the whole Islamic world.

The problem with this analysis is that something other than a "radical" regime could nonetheless embrace policies that Israel would characterize as harming its security. Egypt plays a critical role in enforcing the blockade in Gaza. It's not unreasonable to think that a new, 'moderate' government would want to loosen that cordon or take a more vocal stance against some Israeli policies on the international stage (much like Turkey). That's a long way away from waging open war on Israel, but moves to strengthen Hamas in Gaza would rightfully be viewed fearfully by Israel.

That would complicate things for the United States, as it would put its interests in Israeli security in direct conflict with its desire for Egyptian (and Middle East) democracy. Mead seems to argue that if these two interests were to collide, America's support for Israel would trump democratic reforms in the Middle East - and he's right. But the problem is that the U.S. may not be able to stop those reforms, or revolutions, even if it wanted to. Then what?

(AP Photo)

January 17, 2011

Stuxnet & Cyber War

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It will be years before the full implications of the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran's nuclear facilities are known and appreciated, but the LA Times reports that cyber security experts are already worried that others will be able to duplicate the worm's code:

Now that Stuxnet is in the public domain, experts are deeply concerned that hackers, criminals or terrorist groups could use some of the vulnerabilities it reveals to attack systems that control power grids, chemical plants and air traffic control.

"The attackers created a weapon that they used in a very specific way, but you can copy the attack technology and use it in a very generic way," said Sebastian Linko, spokesman for Finland's Vacon, whose power control units, which are used in Iran's nuclear program, are sought out by the worm. "This is the most scary part about Stuxnet."

From the long New York Times piece on Stuxnet, it seems very, very unlikely that a terrorist organization the likes of al-Qaeda could deploy Stuxnet. The reason the virus was apparently so effective was because its authors had detailed knowledge of the specifics of Iran's facilities and centrifuge technology - even creating a mock cascade to test the virus on. If al-Qaeda could build a uranium enrichment facility, they wouldn't be testing computer viruses on it.

(AP Photo)

January 16, 2011

Obama's Israel Hatred

The New York Times reports on another egregious example of the Obama administration coddling America's enemies while throwing a close ally under the bus:

By the accounts of a number of computer scientists, nuclear enrichment experts and former officials, the covert race to create Stuxnet was a joint project between the Americans and the Israelis, with some help, knowing or unknowing, from the Germans and the British.

The project’s political origins can be found in the last months of the Bush administration. In January 2009, The New York Times reported that Mr. Bush authorized a covert program to undermine the electrical and computer systems around Natanz, Iran’s major enrichment center. President Obama, first briefed on the program even before taking office, sped it up, according to officials familiar with the administration’s Iran strategy. So did the Israelis, other officials said.

December 28, 2010

The Jonathan Pollard Boomlet

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Another presidency, another push for the release of spy Jonathan Pollard. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have ignored the entreaties over the years, and I have a hard time seeing why this situation is any different. The current boomlet for Pollard is being advanced by a collection of respectable people - Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post, former George W. Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey and of course Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - but it seems to have little basis in any actual changed information on Pollard's espionage activities in the service of Israel, South Africa and Pakistan.

Martin Peretz, who exists as a figure of permanent controversy (and loving every minute of it!), has come out solidly against the idea of release, writing that President Obama would be "encouraging the kind of ideological blackmail" that we have seen in Middle Eastern politics for decades. Peretz maintains that supporters of Pollard are unintentionally giving Obama an opportunity to offer a small victory to Israel's right wing in exchange for "squeez[ing] Israel on its real security interests which are to guarantee a peace with the Palestinians who do not really want peace."

This may or may not be true. But what is true is that Pollard handed over to Israel secrets which were traded to, or otherwise obtained by, the Soviet Union. As former FBI and Navy lawyer M.E. Bowman writes at the U.S. Intelligence Studies journal Intelligencer, in a piece anyone advocating for Pollard's release really ought to read, Pollard leaked "the daily report from the Navy’s Sixth Fleet Ocean Surveillance Information Facility (FOSIF) in Rota, Spain, a top-secret document filed every morning reporting all that had occurred in the Middle East during the previous twenty-four hours, as recorded by the NSA’s most sophisticated monitoring devices." He also handed over "the TOP SECRET NSA RAISIN manual which lists the physical parameters of every known signal, notes how we collect signals around the world, and lists all the known communications links then used by the Soviet Union."

Typically, this sort of verified espionage ends the conversation about clemency of any kind. So why does Pollard keep popping up as a candidate for such consideration? Bowman leads off his piece by addressing the question of why Pollard's defenders have received so little in terms of public push back:

There have been few rebuttals of this escalation of calls for Pollard’s release. Mainly because so few were cognizant of the scope of Pollard’s disclosures, or the misuses of those disclosures, and the damage they did to our own operations and sources; and even fewer, of the policy implications of these unauthorized releases to a foreign power. Finally, when a plea agreement was reached, it was no longer necessary to litigate issues that could have exposed the scope of Pollard’s treachery – and the exposure of classified systems.

This explanation makes sense. Of course, it will do little to stop the push by Pollard's supporters. Let's see if Obama will ignore them, as Bowman advises, or if he'll use the opportunity to his advantage, as Peretz fears.

(AP Photo)

December 27, 2010

The Mideast's Other Border Dispute

With the discovery of massive gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea, Batsheva Sobelman reports on the maneuvering of Israel, Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon for maritime claims:

The deposits extend into areas controlled by Lebanon, and it has accused Israel of moving in on its natural resources. Not so, says Israel, which maintains that the fields lie between its territory and Cyprus. Israel's minister of national infrastructures, Uzi Landau, even said Israel would "not hesitate to use force" to protect the fields and uphold international maritime law.

Then there's the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. Israeli officials have expressed concern that gas rigs off its northern coast would make an attractive target for rockets and terrorist attacks.

Maritime borders are a fluid affair. There are several methods for calculating these in lieu of a direct bilateral agreement, which is not an option for Israel and Lebanon.

Israel had neglected to sort this out with Cyprus, which "owns" the other end of the Mediterranean. Now the two countries have divvied up the roughly 200 nautical miles between them and the maritime border was demarcated in a recent agreement signed in Nicosia by Cypriot Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou and Landau. Israeli diplomats say the agreement should secure Israel's economic interests in the Mediterranean. Cyprus says this doesn't conflict with a similar agreement signed with Lebanon, still awaiting ratification in parliament.

Now Egypt is watching, to ensure the agreement doesn't infringe on Egyptian maritime territories and its interests. It too has signed a deal with Cyprus.

Agreement in the region is a short blanket; cover one side, and someone else's feet stick out. Now Turkey is angry.

The gas find is significant: Israel estimates it could boost the country's GDP by 4 or 5 percent in 2013.

December 20, 2010

American Views of U.S.-Israeli Ties

Via Rasmussen:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 13% of Likely U.S. Voters think America's relationship with Israel will be better in a year's time, the lowest level measure since July. Twenty-nine percent (29%) expect that relationship to get worse over the next year, while 49% say it will remain about the same.

In November, 27% expected U.S.-Israeli relations to get worse in the next year, while in August, 34% felt that way, a level of pessimism comparable to voters' views about America's relationship with the Muslim world.

Now, 37% say the U.S. relationship with the Muslim world will be worse in a year's time.


December 15, 2010

Should the UN Recognize a Palestinian State?

Robert Wright thinks the UN Security Council should create a Palestinian state:

The United Nations created a Jewish state six decades ago, and it can create a Palestinian state now. It can define the borders, set the timetable and lay down the rules for Palestinian elections (specifying, for example, that the winners must swear allegiance to a constitution that acknowledges Israel’s right to exist).

Establishing such a state would involve more tricky issues than can be addressed in this space. (I take a stab at some of them at www.progressiverealist.org/UN2states.) But, however messy this solution may seem, it looks pretty good when you realize how hopeless the current process is.

It's worth remembering that while the UN may have recognized the division of British mandate territory, some of which was to become the state of Israel, it was Israeli arms that truly secured the country's existence and independence. A UN declaration of a Palestinian state today would be utterly toothless absent some ability to enforce the terms on both Israel and rejectionist elements among the Palestinians (and just Tuesday the leader of Hamas said in no uncertain terms that the group would "never recognize Israel"). Needless to say, that's simply not conceivable.

December 13, 2010

Can America Walk Away from the Middle East?

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Thomas Friedman says America should wash her hands of the peace process and cut aid to both the Israelis and Palestinians until they're ready to be serious about peace. Blake Hounshell says the U.S. can't just walk away:

But unfortunately, it's not so easy to just walk away. Not only has the United States given billions in military and economic aid to Israel over the last three decades -- and provided Israel diplomatic cover at the United Nations and other fora -- it has also propped up the Palestinian Authority while Arab leaders have broken promise after promise to help. U.S. bases dot the region, and U.S. troops are currently occupying two Muslim countries. American money goes to build settlements in the West Bank.

Seems like all the more reason to begin searching for another strategy. Hounshell argues that rather than pull back, the U.S. should double down and "propose" its own solution (and then what?) or do something really clever and unseat Netanyahu to put in the supposedly more pliable Livni. At which point, the Obama administration, Arab world, Palestinian Authority and Israel will make peace.

Sound plausible?

Of course it isn't. In fact, sustaining the peace process and America's broad and increasingly untenable definition of its interests in the Middle East is just as unrealistic as the notion that we can simply pull up stumps and leave tomorrow. I think even the most earnest proponent of "off-shore balancing" or non-interventionism understands that changes to American policy couldn't happen instantly. But there is a vital question of trajectory. For thirty years - since the Carter Doctrine - the U.S. has taken a path of deepening involvement in Middle Easttern affairs. It was a slow but steady accumulation of interests, military bases, commitments and a sense among Washington elites that concepts like "American prestige" had become inseparable from whether or not it could keep its arms wrapped around this unwieldy bundle.

In an era where the great power competition that compelled the Carter Doctrine is over and one in which America is menaced by a transnational radicalism, sustaining or even deepening our ownership of various Middle Eastern conflicts seems lethally counter-productive. That American commitments can't be unwound overnight is no argument against the proposition that we should at least get started.

(AP Photo)

December 9, 2010

A Realist Case for Israel, Ctd.

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In the past I've noted with some skepticism whether there was a 'realist' case for the U.S.-Israeli alliance in its current form. But Stephen Walt, unintentionally, I think, actually makes one:

It is increasingly likely that a genuine two-state solution isn't going to be reached, and as I've noted before, the United States will be in a very awkward position once mainstream writers and politicians begin to recognize that fact. Once it becomes clear that "two states for two people" just ain't gonna happen, the United States will have to choose between backing a one-state, binational democracy, embracing ethnic cleansing, or supporting permanent apartheid. Those are the only alternatives to a two-state solution, and no future president will relish having to choose between them. But once the two-state solution is off the table, that is precisely the choice a future President would face.

Leave aside whether this characterization is accurate and focus instead on why a realist - of all people - should care. The United States supports states with far more egregious human rights records than anything sketched above. A realist is supposed to give less weight to a state's internal flaws and focus instead on its geopolitical orientation, right?

Update: Larison demurs:

...I would say that a realist wouldn’t worry as much about Israel’s “internal flaws” if they were simply internal. We have other allies that still occupy territory seized during wartime decades ago, but the rest of them are not client states to the same degree that Israel is and the rest of them do not receive such generous aid. It is because of the extent of the relationship and the complications it creates for the U.S. with most other countries in the region that the realist cares about the implications for U.S. interests if the two-state solution is indeed beyond saving.

It is also the realist’s concern that much of the rest of the world claims to see the resolution of this conflict as a high priority, and it is the realist’s concern that much of the rest of the world focuses, fairly or not, on Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories more than it does on the worse internal repressions of numerous dictatorships. My preference would be to acknowledge that both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S.-Israel relationship are vastly less strategically important than most people claim that they are, but a realist has to work with the world as it is rather than how one would like it to be.

(AP Photo)

November 24, 2010

Did an Israeli Referendum Kill the Peace Process?

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In a recent column, Jackson Diehl mocked the Obama administration's supposedly retrograde fixation on stopping Israeli settlement building on behalf of the peace process:

The same might be said about Obama's preoccupation with stopping Israel's settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem - a campaign that even Palestinian and Arab leaders have watched with bafflement. True, almost everyone outside Israel regards the construction as counterproductive, and only a minority supports it inside Israel.

But that is just the point: The dream of a "greater Israel" died more than 15 years ago. Even the Israeli right now accepts that a Palestinian state will be created in the West Bank.

Perhaps, but the Israelis don't appear particularly eager to negotiate over annexed territory:

The Knesset passed the National Referendum Law during a late-night session Monday, approving legislation that will fundamentally alter Israeli negotiators’ ability to offer concrete peace deals involving the Golan Heights or east Jerusalem.

The law, which was approved by a vote of 65-33, will require either a Knesset super-majority or a national referendum in order to hand over any annexed territories as part of a future peace deal.

This law does not implicate the West Bank, so technically it's not aimed at protecting "Greater Israel" from whatever form of sovereignty the Palestinians are eventually granted over the remaining territory. But no country - including the United States - recognizes the annexation of either the Golan or East Jerusalem and the referendum is explicitly designed to forestall a settlement of those issues. Several commentators have argued that this vote has essentially killed the two state solution. I'm not sure, I think it effectively died when Hamas took over Gaza. But in any event, it would be wise for the Obama administration to dramatically rethink it's approach, as neither party to the conflict appears ready, willing or able to make peace.

(AP Photo)

November 23, 2010

Israel's Preemptive Strike?

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I think the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg may need to revise his prediction that there's a 50 percent chance that Israel will bomb Iran in the next twelve months:

Iran's nuclear program has suffered a recent setback, with major technical problems forcing the temporary shutdown of thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium, diplomats told The Associated Press on Monday.

The diplomats said they had no specifics on the nature of the problem that in recent months led Iranian experts to briefly power down the machines they use for enrichment — a nuclear technology that has both civilian and military uses.

But suspicions focused on the Stuxnet worm, the computer virus thought to be aimed at Iran's nuclear program, which experts last week identified as being calibrated to destroy centrifuges by sending them spinning out of control.

North Korea might want to remove the USB ports from any computers inside their uranium enrichment facility.

(AP Photo)

November 11, 2010

Is Bibi Screwing Up?

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Jeffrey Goldberg thinks he might be:

On a related subject, the building of new apartments in the settlement city of Ariel only underscores another central fact of the conflict, that settlements are in many ways a diversion from a more basic issue, which is the issue of borders. Instead of talking about settlements, the parties should be talking about the future borders of Palestine. The borders will define which settlements remain, and which ones have to go. This is why it was a mistake of the Obama Administration to fetishize settlements, and make a freeze a pre-condition of negotiations. Of course, this was merely a tactical mistake. Netanyahu, I fear, is making a strategic mistake, by refusing to frame, out loud, and in a way that, yes, might threaten the stability of his governing coalition, his vision for an eventual peace. This is a mistake for any number of reasons -- his refusal to act with vision means that Israel continues to be on defensive in the court of international public opinion; it continues to create friction with the Obama Administration; it inadvertently brings the Palestinians closer to a unilateral declaration of independence; and it denies the Israeli people their right to hear their leaders speak honestly about the precariousness of their situation in the world.

I don't think any of these count as some kind of serious setback for Netanyahu. Israel has been defensive in the court of international public opinion (such as it is) for years now. Presumably it could take a few more months or years of bad press.

Creating friction with the Obama administration has been a political winner for Netanyahu. It hasn't hurt his standing at home and hasn't harmed Israel's relationship with the U.S. The aid, and diplomatic support, will continue to flow no matter how peeved some officials inside the Obama administration get. There have been a number of Israeli commentators urging Netanyahu to become even more intransigent with Obama now that the GOP has control of the House. This does not bespeak a strategy that is failing.


(AP Photo)

November 4, 2010

The U.S. and Israel

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Andrew Sullivan has an extensive post on how the U.S. should push Israel to make a settlement with the Palestinians to head-off the threat from Iran and to safe-guard U.S. interests, which Sullivan argues are endangered by the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I'm skeptical about this "linkage" argument and think that even if there was a kind of comprehensive peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, al-Qaeda-style terrorism would remain a potent threat and the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq would continue to bedevil the United States.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that you accept, as Sullivan does, that linkage exists. Here's his proposed solution:

My own view is that, under these circumstances, if Israel continues to refuse to budge on the West Bank, US interests are affected enough to lay out its own preferred final status boundaries and conditions for a Palestinian state, and press forward on those lines at the UN, regardless of the position of the Israeli government. At some point, the U.S. has to stand up for itself and its own interests if an ally refuses to be reasonable in lending a hand.

Isn't this a bit circuitous? The basic problem here isn't that the U.S. has a huge stake in who lives where in the West Bank. It doesn't. The problem seems to be that American interests are endangered by Israeli behavior. But America is only implicated in Israel's behavior because of its generous financial, military and diplomatic support for the country. If you insist that this behavior is endangering American interests, and previous efforts to stop that behavior have failed, why not cease subsidizing it?

It's easier (in theory, at least) for the United States to change its own policies than to have the United States try to change another country's policy.

Again, I'm not saying I endorse cutting off aid, but just that this seems to be the logical denouement of Sullivan's argument.

(AP Photo)

October 28, 2010

Foreign Aid, No Strings Attached

Douglas Bloomfield considers Eric Cantor's proposal to shift U.S. aid to Israel into the defense budget:

One possibility I doubt Cantor considered, and the most troubling for Israel, is that his proposal risks sparking a debate over whether Israel actually needs that $3 billion every year, especially when its economy is performing better than ours.

Israel was just graduated from “developing” to “developed” nation by its unanimous acceptance into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Will deficit hawks and Tea Party followers in Cantor’s own party insist that Israel be graduated” from the US foreign aid program as well? The OECD praised Israel’s economic reforms and its scientific/technological leadership. Wikipedia called Israel “one of the most advanced countries in Southwest Asia in economic and industrial development.”

The independent Swiss Institute for Management Development ranks its economy as first in the world for resilience to economic cycles, and first for its R&D spending as a percentage of GDP.

Thirty billion dollars and growing – the amount the Obama administration has pledged over the next decade – buys a lot of hardware for the IDF, but it also comes with obligations that limit freedom of action.

Israelis have long debated whether US aid hampers their government’s ability to take actions Washington dislikes. Leverage is the flip side of any aid package.

I'm not sure how many obligations U.S. aid actually comes with, outside of requirements that it be spent on U.S. suppliers. The Obama administration asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop building settlements. He refused, then agreed to merely pause building, then said he'd consider pausing for another two months after Obama made a generous set of security guarantees. The administration hasn't cut off aid and hasn't, I believed, even raised the possibility that it would (in fact, just the opposite).

And this is in no way unique to Israel. Egypt gets boatloads of taxpayer cash without many demands on their government. American and NATO soldiers are dying to protect Hamid "Plastic Bag" Karzai despite his flagrant disregard for American wishes. Only if you're a country of little strategic or political significance will the U.S. maybe make you jump through some hoops before doling out the taxpayer cash.

October 21, 2010

Palestinian Views on State Recognition, Intifada

A new poll was released today measuring Palestinian views on the peace process:

Most Palestinians support asking the United Nations Security Council to recognize an independent state if peace talks fail, while two out of five favor an armed uprising against Israel, a poll showed.

Asked to respond “yes” or “no” to a range of options, 69 percent endorsed seeking Security Council recognition, while 54 percent favored the unilateral declaration of a state. The Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank city of Ramallah interviewed 1,270 Palestinians for the poll, published today.

October 11, 2010

EU Distracted, Powerless

Struck by how rarely European Union foreign ministers focus on strategy during their monthly meetings, the Finnish foreign minister Alex Stubb asked officials to check how often he and his counterparts had discussed the role of China as a foreign policy power.

The answer was just once in the past four years....

On Thursday, Ms. Ashton, who recently returned from a visit to China, is expected to urge the Union to integrate its contacts with big powers — which range from the environment to trade — to gain more leverage.

This could help shift the focus from short-term problems. Mr. Stubb’s research shows how foreign ministers tend to devote their discussions to crises, and to issues where Europe has limited influence.

For example, in 2009 and 2010, European foreign ministers discussed the Middle East peace process 12 times. - Stephen Castle, New York Times

That's via Evelyn Gordon, who contends that this "obsession" with Israel has led the EU to rapidly lose its global power. I'm not sure that's completely correct not least because it's clear from the Castle piece that the EU never had all that much global power to begin with.

U.S. Views on Israel, Iran

McLaughlin and Associates conducted a poll (pdf) for the Emergency Committee for Israel to measure U.S. sentiment toward Israel. Some findings:

* 51 percent of respondents believe that President Obama has been "less friendly" to Israel than previous presidents;

* 50.8 percent approve of the president's handling of defense and foreign policy matters;

* 44 percent disapproved of the president's handling of U.S.-Israeli relations;

* 50.9 percent believe that Israel's enemies are America's enemies;

* 50.6 percent of respondents agree with the statement: “The Israeli-Arab conflict is the key to improving America's standing and interests in the region."

* 81 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: "Enemies of America use the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as an excuse to create anti-American sentiment. Even if the dispute is settled, they would find another way to justify their hostility toward America."

* 52 percent disagree with this statement: “I am strongly opposed to the use of military force by Israel or the United States to attack Iran.”

* 75 percent said the U.S. cannot be safe with a nuclear Iran

* 85 percent said Iran would provide a nuclear weapon to a terrorist organization;

* 59 percent of respondents would approve of military action against Iran's nuclear facilities if sanctions did not work.

September 29, 2010

Wanting it More

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Matthew Yglesias argues that the reason Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu hasn't embraced an extended freeze on settlement building is because he is committed to settlement building. A bit simplistic, yes, but I wonder if we haven't gotten so far off into the peace process trees that we're overlooking (or ignoring) the forest.

The U.S. tends to behave as if the desire for peace is so self-evident and that perpetuating the status quo is so obviously intolerable to both parties that they'll eventually concede to the wisdom of a negotiated settlement, however painful some concessions may be.

But at a certain point we may have to accept that the fact that the parties want something else (settlements, right of return, control of Jerusalem, etc.) more than whatever compromise peace Washington can conceive of.

September 27, 2010

Zakaria: Israel Can't Afford a Rival Turkey

Zakaria, in his final column for Newsweek, elaborates on Turkey's new foreign policy.

September 23, 2010

Palestinian Views on Peace

A new poll from the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre offers a glimpse into Palestinian attitudes toward the peace process:

A public opinion poll released Thursday suggests that just over half of Palestinians support negotiations with Israel.

But a larger majority, 59 percent, say Palestinians were coerced into entering the talks, the first since 2008. Only one-third of respondents believe the negotiations will succeed, according to the poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

Similarly slim majorities (52.9 percent) believe negotiations are the most effective strategy to achieve their national goals, compared with 25.7 percent who say violent resistance is a better route and 15.7 percent preferring non-violent resistance.

A willingness to negotiate rather than resist is a positive, but it would have been just as useful to get numbers on what Palestinians see as the "national goals" that they wish to negotiate toward.

UPDATE: Scratch that last part, the poll did put the question of national goals on the table. Slim majorities in the West Bank (54.7 percent) and Gaza (51.3 percent) favor a two state solution vs. 30 percent in both territories that favor a bi-national state and a further 4 percent in the West Bank and 9.6 percent in Gaza who would prefer single Palestinian state encompassing all the territory. Thanks to commenter HDarrow for pointing this out in comments.

September 21, 2010

Views on Mideast Peace Talks

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Angus Reid surveyed British, American and Canadian views of the peace process:

A large proportion of respondents in the three countries do not express sympathy for either of the two sides in the Middle East dispute. Americans favour Israel over the Palestinians (27% to 5%), while Britons pick the Palestinians ahead of Israel (19% to 10%). Canadians are evenly divided in their assessment (13% for Israel; 13% for the Palestinians).

Respondents in the three countries were also asked about the sympathies of their respective heads of government. Canadians clearly think of Stephen Harper as pro-Israel (36%) and Britons feel the same way about David Cameron (21%). In the United States, 18 per cent of respondents think Barack Obama sympathizes more with the Palestinians, while 15 per cent believe he is more considerate to the Israelis.

A large majority in all three countries feel the talks won't be successful and at least a third in all three nations feel a solution will never be reached. Optimistic bunch. Full results here. (pdf)

(AP Photo)

Should Israel Be in NATO?

Bruce Riedel argues that unless Israel is reassured by the U.S. that its nuclear deterrent remains unmatched in the region, it will attack Iran. Such an attack, he writes, would be a "disaster in the making" and so he recommends extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Israel and admitting them into NATO.

The purpose of the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" was to 1. protect weaker countries from a nuclear threat; 2. prevent proliferation. Neither of these applies to Israel which is stronger than Iran and already has its own, vastly superior, nuclear arsenal. If Iran is not going to be deterred by Israel's arsenal, which could, according to Anthony Cordesman, likely kill between 16 and 28 million Iranians and end Iran as a functional political entity, then they're not going to be deterred by the U.S. either. Still, you could make the case that the U.S. should nonetheless extend the nuclear umbrella to Israel as an expression of support and a further warning to Iran not to push it.

NATO admission, though, is much more problematic, not least because it's hard to envision a single Western European member country (or, um, Turkey) being enthusiastic about the prospect. NATO was formed for a specific purpose, to defend Western Europe from a Soviet attack. The borders in this instance were clear, as were the combatants. NATO offered protection to nations that were, individually, weak before a much stronger conventional enemy. None of this applies to Israel. It is the stronger party - both vis-a-vis Iran and its non-state adversaries (Hamas, Hezbollah) - its borders are unsettled, and the combatants are not fixed armies but armed guerilla groups that blend into the populace of Israel's neighbors.

Admitting Israel to NATO would open up a host of questions. How, for instance, would NATO interpret Article V of its charter which stipulates that an armed attack on one will be deemed an attack on all? The language was invoked only once in the organization's history: on 9/11. Yet Israel suffers serious terrorist attacks on a more routine basis. Would NATO be bound to attack Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon? Given how NATO has performed in Afghanistan, it's difficult to see them rushing into the Levant.

September 20, 2010

Linkage, Containment and the 'Shia Crescent'

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Linkage - the idea that there is a direct correlation between the Mideast peace process and the successful isolation of the Islamic Republic - has been the source of much debate in recent months in pundit and policy making circles, especially as Iran has eclipsed Israel's other security concerns in the Middle East.

Arab sheikdoms and autocrats, or so the argument goes, would naturally fall in line behind any U.S.-Israeli security regime in the region, as most of these actors - once pressed on the matter behind closed doors - would readily list Iran as their top regional concern, much as the Israelis already do. There's plenty of reason to believe that such a model for isolating Iran might emerge, evidenced more recently by the goody bags of weapons systems being doled out throughout the region.

But one of the pitfalls in creating such a regional dynamic, whereby the United States essentially guarantees the security and stability of the surrounding autocrats and monarchs, is what we're witnessing this week in Bahrain and Kuwait. When America's top diplomat calls Iran an emerging Junta, and the West repeatedly calls Tehran a regional threat, it gives the region's other not-democracies - you know, the friendly ones - carte blanche to suppress and discriminate against their Shia minorities and, in the case of Bahrain, majorities.

This certainly isn't breaking news, and Iran is by no means innocent of fanning the flames of sectarian division; and Secretary Clinton is, by the way, probably correct in her assessment of the Iranian leadership. But I question whether or not pandering to what are very old ethnic and religious differences is the best way to foster a 'cold' containment in the Middle East, or if it will only backfire and solidify Iran's place as champion of the global anti-American.

(AP Photo)

Tracking Settlements on Your iPhone

Haaretz reports on a new iPhone app that will track building in the West Bank:

Settlements are symbolized by little blue houses on the map. Clicking once on the icon gives its land area. A second click brings up a window with more details: the year it was established, population, ideology (or lack of), character (secular or religious), amount of 'private Palestinian land' it occupies, and a graph that tracks its population growth.

iPhone users can also zoom in on outposts marked in red. The map includes the route of the Green Line, Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, and the various zones under different security arrangements, Area A and Area B.

September 8, 2010

Israel's Military Deal with Russia

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Earlier in the year, France was poised to sell its Mistral amphibious assault ship to Russia (negotiations are still ongoing). The U.S. was not pleased. Secretary Gates voiced his concern about the deal. In the media, the reaction was more robust. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Reuben Johnson went so far as to declare the NATO alliance itself was a threat to peace:

If Europe is now only for Europeans -- and NATO is a threat rather than guarantor of peace -- then the U.S. needs to rethink how it handles its own military sales arrangements with those European nations who express these sentiments either by words or deeds. If these deal goes through, perhaps it might be time to reset the U.S. military relationship with France.

So maybe Johnson cares to comment about this:

Israel and Russia made history on Monday, signing for the first time a military agreement that will increase cooperation on combating terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but also could lead to the sale of Israeli weaponry to the Russian military...

Russia is particularly interested in acquiring Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In 2009, Russia bought 12 drones from Israel Aerospace Industries, following its war with Georgia, during which Georgian military forces used Israeli Elbit Systems Hermes 450 UAVs.

(AP Photo)

September 7, 2010

U.S. Views on Middle East Peace Treaty

Via Rasmussen:

With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the front-burner again, voters continue to believe strongly that any agreement must include recognition by Palestinian leaders of Israel’s right to exist. But most voters think that recognition is unlikely.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 77% of U.S. voters think Palestinian leaders must acknowledge Israel’s right to exist....

However, only 25% of voters think it is even somewhat likely that the Palestinian leadership will recognize Israel’s right to exist, while 64% say it is unlikely. This includes six percent (6%) who say recognition is Very Likely and 19% who say it’s Not At All Likely. These findings are unchanged from June 2009.

Voters remain less enthusiastic about requiring Israel to accept the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace agreement between the two sides. Fifty-one percent (51%) say Israel should be required to do so, down six points from the previous survey. Twenty-seven percent (27%) disagree, and 22% more are not sure.

September 4, 2010

Peace Processing

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Steve Clemons (via David Schorr) waxes ambitious about the peace process currently underway:

The United States and its core allies have decided to try and remake parts of the world and as might be expected, much of the Arab Middle East and the global Muslim community have institutionalized grievances about their place in the modern world and wonder if the West values their lives and societies. The Palestinian mess is for many of these people the packaged microcosm of their anger about exploitation and humiliation by the West and by their own governments.

Solving the Israel-Palestine conflict will not solve all the political and identity tensions which will continue to boil in Arab and Muslim-dominant states -- but the echo effect of resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will knock down many walls in these societies that have been resisting change.

This strikes me as eerily similar to neoconservative promises of "regional transformation" following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Just as those proved to be bunk, I think it's safe to assume that any "echo effect" caused by resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will be similarly insignificant. We should have learned by now that individual societies have their own grievances and their own dynamics and that basing U.S. policy on sweeping predictions about how they'll react to changes in other countries is a recipe for trouble.

Rather than pin our hopes on radical historical pivot points, I'd argue that it would be better to dial back - just a little! - the idea that we need to "remake parts of the world" to be secure. We also need to be thinking quite seriously about what happens when these talks fail - as they almost certainly will.

UPDATE: Daniel Larison has some additional thoughts about linkage and Iran.
(AP Photo)

August 19, 2010

Americans Would Aid Israel in Iran Attack

According to Rasmussen:

Fifty-one percent (51%) of U.S. voters believe the United States should help Israel if it attacks Iran.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 35% say the United States should do nothing in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran, and two percent (2%) think America should help the Iranians.

Support for helping Israel is up nine points from two years ago when just 42% believed the United States should help the Jewish state if it launched an attack on Iran.

It's unclear, when looking at the question Rasmussen posed, what people take "help" to mean - is it intelligence cooperation, diplomatic cover or an actual joint military operation to strike Iran's nuclear facilities? I would assume it's the last one. A joint Israeli-U.S. military operation against Iran would certainly send many hearts aflutter in Washington, and enrage many in the Middle East. I'd have to think, absent an act of direct Iranian aggression against Israel (of the conventional military kind), such an outcome is all but impossible. It's more likely that the if the U.S. or Israel were to strike Iran, they will do so alone.

July 21, 2010

The Strategic Case for Israel

The Nixon Center recently hosted a debate between the Washington Institute's Robert Satloff and Chas Freeman on the question of whether Israel is a strategic asset or liability to the United States.

Only Satloff's opening remarks are available at this point (here, pdf). Satloff speaks in favor of the relationship and argues it has been a boon, strategically, to the U.S. I think Satloff skips rather lightly over the costs, and anchors his analysis in a view of American interests in the Middle East that isn't nearly as tenable (or desirable) as it was during the Cold War. Nevertheless, it's a good defense of the case on strictly realist grounds and is worth a read.

UPDATE: Freeman's remarks are here. Also worth a look.

I think the debate is a bit too "either/or" - either Israel is a strategic asset or they aren't. I think the better context would be: is Israel a strategic ally commensurate with the level of aid they receive. (Freeman and Satloff may address this in a subsequent exchange, the full transcript is not available yet.)

UPDATE II: I think this exchange, excerpted by Josh Rogin, sets the stage nicely:

RS: Do a cost-benefit analysis; I invite you to do this. Over the last 30 years, 30-plus years of the U.S. relationship with Israel and the U.S. relationship with our Arab friends in the Gulf -- what do you find? To secure our interests in the Arab-Israeli arena, the U.S. has spent $100 billion in economic assistance to Israel, plus another $30 billion to Egypt and small change to a couple of other places. Our losses in human terms: 255 Americans in the Beirut Embassy barracks bombings and a handful of others in terrorism in that part of the region. On a state-to-state basis, I would argue that investment has paid off very handsomely. Now compare that with the Gulf. Look at the massive costs we have endured to ensure our interests there.

CF: Identifiable U.S. government subsidies to Israel total in $140 billion since 1949 ... in either case, Israel is by far the largest recipient of American giveaways since WWII and the total would be much higher if aid to Egypt and Jordan, Lebanon, and support for displaced Palestinians in refugee camps and the occupied territories were included. These programs have complex purposes but are justified in large measure in terms of their contribution to the security of the Jewish state. Per capita income in Israel is now around $37,000, on par with the UK. Israel is nonetheless the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, accounting for well over one-fifth of it. Annual U.S. government transfers run at well over $500 per Israeli, not counting cost of tax breaks for private donations and loans that are not available in any other country.

July 16, 2010

Obama & Israel

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Earlier in the month, a new lobbying group dubbed the Emergency Committee for Israel was organized to promote a strong U.S.-Israel partnership and attack politicians who do not show sufficient fidelity to that vision. The premise of the group is that the Obama administration is the most "anti-Israel" administration in the history of the United States.

Let's stipulate for the sake of argument that this is indeed the case. What to make of this:

This week, Israel successfully conducted a test of a new mobile missile-defense system designed to shield Israeli towns from small rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. When the "Iron Dome" system is fully deployed in the next year, about half the cost -- $205 million -- will be borne by U.S. taxpayers under a plan advanced by the Obama administration and broadly supported in Congress.

While public attention has focused on the fierce diplomatic disputes between Israel and the United States over settlement expansion in Palestinian territories, security and military ties between the two nations have grown ever closer during the Obama administration



There are several explanations for this. The first is that despite the charge against him, President Obama is not anti-Israel. He may disagree with the current leadership over how (or whether) to pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and he may deny the occasional photo op in a fit of pique, but he is not changing the fundamental basis of the partnership.

The second explanation is that the president is indeed anti-Israel but dares not move against the country lest he court an electoral rebuke in November. We are told to believe on faith that deep down the president dislikes "Israel" writ-large (and not its current leadership), despite allowing his defense secretary to bolster military-to-military cooperation (with said leadership). As Congress controls the flow of funds, the president knows he'd lose a showdown over cutting military aid, and so he's decided to increase it. Diabolical!

Personally, I think the first explanation makes the most sense.

(AP Photo)

July 9, 2010

Will Israel Catch Obama By Surprise?

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President Obama doesn't think so:


U.S. President Barack Obama told Channel 2 News on Wednesday that he believed Israel would not try to surprise the U.S. with a unilateral attack on Iran.

In an interview aired Thursday evening, Obama was asked whether he was concerned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would try to attack Iran without clearing the move with the U.S., to which the president replied "I think the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is sufficiently strong that neither of us try to surprise each other, but we try to coordinate on issues of mutual concern."


A lot of the advice that was offered up during Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to the U.S. was that President Obama should affirm America's unshakable commitment to Israel's security. Only a secure Israel, they argued, would take the steps necessary to make peace with the Palestinians.

But Iran's nuclear program has thrown this commitment into sharper relief. What if Israel feels that its security needs can only be met by attacking Iran, whereas the U.S. believes that such an attack would put other American interests at intolerable risk? One party would be forced to live with greater insecurity as a result.

(AP Photo)

July 8, 2010

Bibi in America: A View from Israel

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During his recent trip to the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave no guarantees that the settlement freeze would be extended in September.

According to Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, "the prime minister won't announce publicly on the resumption of construction." This seems to be the only agreement. So building is OK, so long as we (Israel) keep quiet about it.

Obama seems to have decided to go easy on Netanyahu because of upcoming November mid-term elections in the U.S. This will allow him to fend off Republicans who have accused him of being too tough on Jerusalem. With the oil spill disaster, this is one less accusation and he could do with it.

And by getting along with Obama, Netanyahu can avoid a big, messy fight with his coalition partners over extending the settlement freeze.

But this will only be temporary.

The Palestinians are unlikely to agree to talks while building continues in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Knowing Israeli politics, sooner or later, some hot shot politician is going to open his big mouth by announcing that construction has indeed restarted.

Netanyahu has to hope for a poor Obama performance in November, because a secure Obama won't be so nice after the elections.

It was, overall, a successful trip for Netanyahu. He got a good deal from Obama over the Palestinian question.

The two sides were relatively quiet however about Iran, as Obama's new sanctions against Tehran are very much in line with most of Israel's demands.

(AP Photo)

July 7, 2010

Polling the Palestinians

Via the Jerusalem Post, a new survey of Palestinians based in both the West Bank and Gaza from the Ramallah-based Arab World for Research and Development:

Two-thirds of those surveyed believe Hamas should renew its ceasefire with Israel after it expires in September, and it should not resume use of missiles against targets in Israel. However, nearly half oppose direct talks with Israel.

Half of those polled would vote for Salam Fayyad as Palestinian prime minister, with only 22 percent favoring Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh. Similarly, 56% prefer Fatah in the Palestinian parliament, as opposed to 33.5% for Hamas.

The vast majority of Palestinians think creating jobs and fighting poverty is the most important issue facing Palestinians, with 75% saying the Palestinian economy is deteriorating.

The poll also showed that 67% of Palestinians think their society is headed in the wrong direction.

Taking the Long View on Iran

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With the Obama-Netanyahu makeup tour underway, some pundits are urging the administration to make Netanyahu's priority - Iran - its own. This would be a mistake - not simply because Iran does not pose the same threat to the U.S. as it does to Israel, but because the result of such a policy would push the U.S. toward an even sharper confrontation with Iran and ultimately some form of military action.

The Obama administration has leveled sanctions against Iran and sought, with modest success, to isolate the country diplomatically. It has reassured Gulf states - verbally and through U.S. military deployments - that it intends to contain Iran on their behalf. It has worked with Israel to upgrade their own defensive capabilities and is cooperating in efforts to covertly destabilize Iran's nuclear program. There are a few more aggressive steps - like a blockade to cut off gasoline imports - that could be tried, but those would edge the U.S. much closer to a military confrontation with the country. In short, the administration has done what it can. There are other foreign policy issues on its plate besides Iran that it must attend to.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker talked about "strategic patience" with respect to diplomatic engineering in Iraq, but if there ever was a case for employing strategic patience, Iran would seem to be it. A young population that bristles against the absurd restrictions of the regime, a country with abundant natural resources and huge potential, and, lest we forget, a former ally.

The U.S. would potentially deal a massive blow to its long term position in a future liberalizing Iran with a military strike. Of course, we can't know when, or even if, Iran will shake off the Mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard. We should never discount the possibility of catastrophe or a miscalculation. But the U.S. - with its large economy, huge military, and strategic location - is well positioned to wait out Iran.

July 1, 2010

Suicidal Iran

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If you believe, such as I do, that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon, then you essentially have two optional schools of thought for assessing the regime's motives. One theory is that the regime is seeking the bomb in order to guarantee its own security; while, perhaps, advancing its own hegemonic desires in the Middle East.

The second, arguably less prevalent school of thought takes it a step further. This theory assumes that Iran has a demonstrated history of suicidal, nihilistic behavior, and that a nuclear-armed Iran may actually use such a weapon (possibly against Israel) in a global display of Death By Cop. Proponents of the "Suicidal Iran" theory will often cite anti-Israel comments made by President Ahmadinejad, or even older Ayatollah Khomeini lines rejecting the nation-state; others will note that martyrdom and sacrifice play a prominent role in Shiism - especially in Iran.

Which camp you fall in likely affects whether or not you believe Iran can be a nuclear 'good citizen' should it attain a nuclear weapon. Bret Stephens, entrenched, I'm assuming, in the second camp, makes the predictable argument against containment:

A credible case can be made that Communism is no less a faith than Islam and that Iran’s current leadership, like Soviet leaders of yore, knows how to temper true belief with pragmatic considerations. But Communism was also a materialist and (by its own lights) rationalist creed, with a belief in the inevitability of history but not in the afterlife. Marxist-Leninist regimes may be unmatched in their record of murderousness, but they were never great believers in the virtues of martyrdom.

That is not the case with Shiism, which has been decisively shaped by a cult of suffering and martyrdom dating to the murder of Imam Husayn—the Sayyed al-Shuhada, or Prince of Martyrs—in Karbala in the seventh century. The emphasis on martyrdom became all the more pronounced in Iran during its war with Iraq, when Tehran sent waves of child soldiers, some as young as 10, to clear out Iraqi minefields. As Hooman Majd writes in his book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, the boys were often led by a soldier mounted on a white horse in imitation of Husayn: “the hero who would lead them into their fateful battle before they met their God.” Tens of thousands of children died this way.

All this suggests that a better comparison for Iran than the Soviet Union might be Japan of the 1930s and World War II—another martyrdom-obsessed, non-Western culture with global ambitions. It should call into question the view that for all its extremist rhetoric, Iran operates according to an essentially pragmatic estimate of its own interests.

Japan is indeed a more appropriate comparison than the Soviet Union, but I think Stephens misses the more optimistic lesson in the U.S.-Japanese relationship. The Mutual Cooperation and Security treaty signed by both nations in 1960 came just fifteen years after the peak of Kamikaze attacks on American naval vessels. Japan went on to become a close U.S. ally, and today a military base in Okinawa constitutes as a "row" between the two governments.

Iranian wave attacks, while obviously senseless, wicked and inhumane, were carried out by a regime drunk with revolution, and they were carried out in reaction to Iraqi invasion. Stephens should keep in mind that it was Iraq that suffered at the hands of Iran's suicidal tendencies during that war - not Israel or the United States.

Yet today, Iran's inability to supply Basra with a sufficient amount of electricity constitutes as a "row." The two countries enjoy warmer relations, and Iranian goods flood Iraqi markets.

My point: even history's most suicidal of states can - and have - changed. Iran is already one of them. So if Iraqis can trust a once suicidal Iran, why can't Americans and Israelis?

UPDATE: My comparison has received some push back in the comments section; also worth a read.

(AP Photo)

June 30, 2010

Polling a Two State Solution


Via the Jerusalem Post the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have a new poll on the Mideast conflict:

Two-thirds of the Israeli and Palestinian participants said the chances for an independent Palestinian state within the next five years were low, if not nonexistent....

Meanwhile, Palestinians demonstrated a surge of support for Turkey, which has strongly criticized Israel’s involvement in the death of nine Turkish men on the flotilla. Among Palestinians, 43 percent said Turkey was the regional country most supportive of the Palestinian cause.

Perhaps surprisingly for many Israelis, fewer than 6% of the Palestinians expressed similar confidence in Iran or Syria, despite those nations’ aggressive stances toward Israel.


Obama Throwing Israel Under the Bus?

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Not so much, according to a new report on the Arab-Israeli military balance from the Center for Strategic and International Studies:


As the report shows, Israel has also benefited from continuing US aid and arms transfers – benefits that are substantially greater than the dollar figures show because Israel is able to draw on the most advanced US military technology, often on preferential terms, and integrate into its own advanced military industrial base. Israeli political claims that the Obama Administration has somehow distanced itself from a concern with Israel’s security have not been reflected in arms transfers and security cooperation.

One interesting area of the report is what it notes about biological weapons:

The wild card in this quiet race in weapons of mass destruction is biological warfare. All of the major states in the Middle East that affect the Arab-Israel balance are acquiring the technology and industrial base to produce advanced genetically engineered biological weapons. Such capabilities may also be within the grasp of non-state actors in the mid-term. There are no meaningful control or inspection options to prevent this, and no prospect that any weapons of mass destruction free zone agreement could deal even with this aspect of the arms race in the region.

Nuclear bombs capture the imagination, but they're hard to make and essentially impossible to use in aggression against another nuclear state given mutually assured destruction. Biological weapons, however, seem to be a perfect "terror weapon." One that probably requires a lot more attention than previously given.

(AP Photo)

June 21, 2010

Israel's New Diplomacy

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs has launched a new policy initiative dubbed the Israeli Security Council which will propose "center-right" diplomatic solutions to Israeli security concerns:

The problem, according to Gold, is that Israel “has no clear message in regard to its goals. If someone asks Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad what he wants, he’ll say ‘a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.’ If someone asks an Israeli politician they say, ‘It’s complicated’ or ‘We want peace,’ or ‘a secure peace.’ The Palestinians have clear targets and we have only indistinct goals.”

Another of the council’s founders, former Israel National Security Council chief and deputy IDF chief of staff Gen. (Res.) Uzi Dayan, said that Israel’s image had recently become “a factor affecting our national security.”

He added that “it’s not enough for us to be strong. Whenever we formulate a strategic endeavor, we need to ask ourselves: How will we explain this?” Dayan also said that a future peace agreement must be based on the preservation of “the defensible borders of Israel.” Retention of Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan valley must be part of any future peace agreement, as the Green Line is no longer relevant as a future border for the state of Israel.

“When we talk about what will be the border to ensure our security, it won’t be on the Green Line and it won’t be the security fence. The only relevant border is the Jordan Valley."

So we have the West Bank leadership saying "Green Line" and the Israeli right saying "Jordan Valley." We also have this:

Sunday’s conference was also held to promote a pamphlet written by former Israel national security advisor Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, called “Regional Alternatives to the Two-State Solution,” which states that the two-state solution as it’s currently envisioned “is difficult to implement and would not ensure stability.”

The pamphlet argues that there is little reason to believe that concepts that failed in 2000 at Camp David should work again in 2010, and presents other alternatives, including a “Jordanian-Palestinian” federation that includes “three-states: the West Bank, the East Bank, and Gaza,” which would be “states in the American sense, like Pennsylvania or New Jersey.” Another option is one based on exchanges of territory between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan.

[Via: Evelyn Gordon]

June 14, 2010

Poll: Israeli Views of Gaza Flotilla

Via David Pollock, Pechter Middle East Polls did a survey of Israelis to gage their views on the Gaza Flotilla and the U.S. response:

Eighty five percent (85%) of the respondents indicated that Israel either did not use enough force (39%) or used the right amount of force (46%) regarding the recent ship boarding incident. Only eight percent (8%) felt the Israelis used too much force. Sixty one percent (61%) felt that Israel should not adjust its tactics to elicit a more favorable international reaction.

Seventy three percent (73%) of those polled indicated that Israel should not open up Gaza to international humanitarian shipments. A majority of those polled, fifty six percent (56%) indicated that Israel should not agree to an international inquiry committee to investigate the incident.

Responding to rumors that Turkish PM Erdogan is planning to come in person on a ship accompanied by Turkish Navy in order to break through the blockade, seventy five percent (75%) of those polled indicated that Israel should stop him whatever it takes. Regarding news reports that Iran is planning to send Red Crescent ships to Gaza, eighty four percent (84%) of those polled said stop them whatever it takes.

Political leaders fared differently in the poll. Fifty three percent (53%) were satisfied with Prime Minister Netanyahu's job performance while only forty one percent (41%) were satisfied with Defense Minister Ehud Barak's job performance. Seventy one percent (71%) disliked U.S. President Barack Obama with forty seven percent (47%) expressing a strong dislike. In all, sixty three percent (63%) of those polled were dissatisfied with the American government's reaction to the incident.

Full results here.

June 10, 2010

Poll: Israeli Views of Turkey

Via AFP:

Some 78 percent of Jewish Israelis now view Turkey, once Israel's only Muslim ally in the Middle East, as an enemy nation, according to a poll published on Thursday.

The sharp switch in public attitude towards Turkey comes in the wake of a May 31 raid by Israeli commandos on an aid flotilla bound for Gaza, which left nine Turkish activists dead.

The poll, published in the pro-government Yisrael Hayom daily, asked participants: "Do you believe that in light of recent events Turkey has become an enemy state?"

It said 78 percent of those surveyed answered yes, while 22 percent said no....

The poll also indicated that 91 percent of Jewish Israelis believed Israel should stop future flotillas trying to breach its Gaza blockade. Five percent were opposed and four percent had no answer, the poll said.

June 8, 2010

Historical Amnesia

Matthew Continetti has an interesting view of geopolitical trends:

But the most important factor behind Israel's diplomatic isolation, it seems to me, is the current American administration. Imagine that Dubya or John McCain were president. Would the flotilla incident have occurred? I doubt it. When Bush was president, Israel's enemies knew with certainty that the White House would support Israel's right to defend herself against provocation. American strength not only guaranteed Israeli freedom of action, it deterred a lot of devious behavior.

But that guarantee no longer exists. The animosity between the administration and Netanyahu's government is no secret. This provides anti-Israel forces an opportunity.

To recap, when President Bush was in office there was a massive Intifada that left hundreds of Israelis dead. It got so bad Israel was forced to build a wall to defend itself from terrorists operating out of the West Bank. Whatever "deterrent" value President Bush possessed was apparently not sufficient to stop Iran from shipping arms into the Palestinian territories. Israel evidently felt so secure under American power that it fought two wars against terror groups operating on her borders on the grounds that the threat to Israel from Hezbollah and Hamas had grown intolerable. Then, as now, the U.S. was largely alone in defending Israeli actions.

But seriously, good times!

Should America Break the Gaza Blockade?

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That's Stephen Walt's suggestion:

In short, using American power to end the blockade of Gaza could be a win-win-win for everyone. The United States (and Obama himself) would demonstrate that we really did seek a "new beginning" in the Middle East, and correct the impression that the Cairo speech was just a lot of elegant hooey. Israel's security concerns would be addressed, it would look flexible and reasonable, and we would be providing Netanyahu with an easy way to extricate himself from a position that is increasingly untenable. (It's one thing for him to lift the blockade himself, but quite another to do it at Washington's behest). And of course the long-suffering population of Gaza would be much better off, which should make us all feel better.

I don't know about this. Feeling better is nice and all, but does the U.S. really want to shift the onus for the well-being of the people of Gaza from Israel to us? Don't we have enough obligations around the world?

(AP Photo)

June 7, 2010

Is the Gaza Blockade Legal?

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Last week, I posed a couple of questions to the Israeli Foreign Ministry - in addition to our readers - regarding the legality of Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. The MFA was kind enough to respond, via Twitter, directing me toward this BBC interview with University College London Lecturer Dr. Douglas Guilfoyle. The interview is definitely worth a listen, as Dr. Guilfoyle is rather knowledgeable on shipping interdiction and law of the sea.

This, however, only left me with more questions, so I decided to e-mail Dr. Guilfoyle myself in order to better understand the legalese of blockades, armed conflict and law of the sea. He was kind enough to respond with his own thoughts on the matter:

RealClearWorld: In your expertise, is the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip legal?

Dr. Guilfoyle: Problem 1. The San Remo Manual deals only with blockade as a tool of international armed conflict. There is a separate law applicable to non-international armed conflicts (NIAC). Most navy lawyers will tell you there is no authoritative statement of the law of naval warfare in NIACs.

Problem 2. An international armed conflict can only exist between States. Whatever status it may have, Palestinian territory is not part of any recognized State. If there is an armed conflict between Israel and Gaza it is thus a NIAC, and the right to invoke blockade is uncertain.

That said, the definition of an IAC under Additional Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions includes struggles by 'peoples fighting ... against alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination.' Thus, it is open to Palestinian groups to argue that they are engaged in such a struggle and that the conflict is correctly to be classified as an IAC.

Problem 3. If Israel invokes blockade as a tool of war against Hamas, it implicitly recognises Hamas as a party to an armed conflict (old fashioned term 'belligerent'). Hamas may thus attack Israeli soldiers legally and its members must be given prisoner of war status if captured. If Hamas is a belligerent in a NIAC its legal categorization would be as an 'organised armed group.'

RCW: What's the difference between 'international armed conflict' and 'non-international armed conflict'?

Dr. Guilfoyle: The generally accepted test was stated in Prosecutor v. Tadić (PDF):

'[A]n armed conflict exists whenever there is a resort to armed force between States or protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organized armed groups or between such groups within a State.'

On this basis, an international armed conflict occurs whenever there is recourse to violence between states; a non-international armed conflict requires ‘protracted armed violence’ (which may be a question of intensity more so than duration) involving armed groups organised along military lines.

Each classification thus turns on a criterion of identity regarding the parties involved and, in the case of non-international armed conflicts, a further threshold level of violence is required. If these criteria are not met there is no armed conflict and the laws of armed conflict have no application.

To be an 'armed group' further requirements must be met.

In ‘situations ... such as riots, [and] isolated and sporadic acts of violence’ the laws of armed conflict have no application.

RCW: The Israeli Foreign Ministry has repeatedly referred to Hamas as a 'regime.' Is this defined anywhere in international law?

Dr. Guilfoyle: 'Regime' is a term without legal significance. I presume it is used to avoid conceding that Hamas is the government of a State and to suggest that the people of Gaza themselves are not the target of operations (deliberately attacking or starving civilians during an armed conflict is a war crime; that said, the laws of war do not prevent 'incidental' damage to civilians where this is proportionate to legitimate military objectives).

RCW: What kind of liberty does international law grant a State to filter aid and supplies to a blockaded enemy?

Dr. Guilfoyle: There is no definitive list of material a blockading State must let through. A blockading State may not starve the civilian population or deprive it of its means of survival. It must allow humanitarian supplies through, but it's entitled to exercise a high degree of control over how that happens.

In addition, as I've said repeatedly, a blockade should not be continued if the 'damage to civilian population is going to be excessive in relation to the military advantage.'

RCW: Does history provide any examples that are comparable to the Gaza blockade?

Dr. Guilfoyle: The Allies claimed during World War II to be enforcing a long-range blockade against the Axis powers in the Atlantic and extensively interdicted and diverted neutral vessels; although there was dispute over the legality of the practice at the time, as historically blockades had to be close to the coast (see my piece in the Times Online).

If the Gaza Strip blockade is considered a NIAC, precedents are fewer. The U.S. Civil War has been cited widely in current debates, and there may be some nineteenth century Latin American examples. I am unaware of any relevant practice arising from the recent Sri Lankan NIAC between government forces and the Tamil Tigers, though that conflict did have notable maritime elements.
--------------------

MY TAKE: There remains a whole lot of legal ambiguity and uncertainty about Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government, as far as I know, has never designated its war with Hamas as anything more than an 'armed conflict.' Deliberate or not, this is a vague definition which permits the government to operate in the grey area of international law.

And language, as Dr. Guilfoyle points out, is key in this case. The lexicon matters, as not all blockades - despite the oversimplifications of a select few - are created equal.

Bottom line, the Israeli government could clear a lot of this up if it publicly stated which type of armed conflict it was engaged in against Hamas. There's obviously a humanitarian argument to be made against the blockade's prolonged application, but the foreign ministry could make its case more clearly on last week's flotilla incident with some better adjectives and definitions.

For those who make an emotional appeal, arguing that the blockade is essential for Israeli security, I'd have to ask how counting the caloric intake of Gazans is strategically consistent with that end (and this, yet again, is an arguable exploitation of legal ambiguity). Keep in mind that it was the Israeli government, not the polemics of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, that took this conversation in a legalistic direction - and for that I applaud them. The foreign ministry deserves some credit for engaging its critics and the curious as it has.

But questions still remain, and they've thus far failed to answer them all. If the blockade truly passes legal muster then these answers should be easy enough to provide.

(AP Photo)

Blame for the Flotilla Fiasco

Via Rasmussen:

Forty-nine percent (49%) of U.S. voters believe pro-Palestinian activists on the Gaza-bound aid ships raided by Israeli forces are to blame for the deaths that resulted in the high-profile incident.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 19% of voters think the Israelis are to blame. Thirty-two percent (32%) more are not sure.

But 51% say Israel should allow an international investigation of the incident. Twenty-five percent (25%) agree with the Israeli government and reject the idea of an international probe. Another 24% are undecided.

June 4, 2010

Israel's Grand Strategy

Two views, first from Walter Russell Mead:

The real problem is the failure of Israel and its friends to counter the grand strategy of the Palestinian resistance groups that, over and over, manage to put Israel in situations where it has no good choices and where its successes don’t make things better — but the inevitable failures and missteps cost dear. Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians is a strange mix of enduring success and strategic failure. On the one hand, Israel keeps winning wars, defending its borders and, slowly, getting treaties signed with its neighbors. On the other hand, in 62 years of independence the Israelis have never managed to develop a vision for the Palestinian future that can bring an end to the conflict between the two peoples on workable terms. Constantly on the defensive, Israel must simultaneously defend itself against terrorist attacks while fending off global pressure to do something, anything, that will satisfy the Palestinians.

Jim Henley:

The long view is that prior to 1947, Israel’s founding generation squabbled over whether to claim all of the territory that today comprises Israel, the West Bank including all of Jerusalem and Transjordan; claimed everything west of the Jordan River; settled for as much as it could get and since then . . .

Israel is the only state in the region that has gotten larger. Considered as an institution, Israel has spent sixty-plus years adding and consolidating its control over the territory it wanted in the first place.... This happened formally in the case of East Jerusalem (annexed in 1967) and the Golan Heights (annexed in 1981), and informally every single day in the West Bank. Israel signed the Oslo accords in September 1993. That year there were 111,500 settlers in the West Bank and 152,800 in East Jerusalem. By the time of Camp David, those numbers were 193 thousand and 172 thousand respectively. There is no year since Israel began the settlement program in 1972 where the settler population in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights shows a decline. The settler population of Gaza increased every year too, topping out at 7,826 before theunilateral withdrawal in 2005.

Viewed institutionally and leaving moral questions aside, it counts as a triumph of grand strategy. Israel bought off Egypt with Egypt’s own territory. It convinced Jordan to bow out, and plain beat Syria like a rodeo clown. Lebanon could be broken any time and was, and the Lebanese were always falling all over themselves to help. At this point, Israel has also destroyed the ability of the Palestinians to mount any consequential resistance of their own. Just as Hezbollah couldn’t occupy a single Israeli exurb in a trial of a thousand years, no Palestinian organization can stop Israel from planting its flag on any particular spot of the West Bank for so much as a week.

The other dynamic at work, which both Mead and Henley address, is the Palestinians refusal to adopt a loss-minimization strategy. They've consistently refused deals as intolerable compromises, instead of taking half (or less) of a loaf, consolidating their position, and building from there. Mead seems to think the Palestinian strategy is working because Israel can't seem to placate them, while Henley thinks the Israelis are winning. If facts on the ground matter, than I'd have to side with Henley. With each passing year, the Palestinians will get less and less of what they want, and the Israelis, more. Israel's enemies can terrorize but they are not in a position to reverse its gains.

U.S.-Israeli Relations

It is time Israel realized that it has obligations to the United States, as well as the United States to Israel, and that it become far more careful about the extent to which it test the limits of U.S. patience and exploits the support of American Jews. This does not mean taking a single action that undercuts Israeli security, but it does mean realizing that Israel should show enough discretion to reflect the fact that it is a tertiary U.S. strategic interest in a complex and demanding world. - Anthony Cordesman

I think this illuminates the often conflicted way we discuss Israel in the U.S. There is a frequent presumption among realists and liberals that the U.S. has a keener grasp of what's in Israel's strategic interest than the Israelis do and that it is incumbent upon the U.S. to "save Israel from itself." It's a rather patronizing attitude and hypocritical, given that in other contexts realists would typically refrain from lecturing other countries on how they order their affairs.

At the same time, conservatives insist the U.S. adopt an Israeli-centric view of the Middle East and claim Israel's enemies and threats as our own. The uproar over Turkey is illuminating in this respect. Already we're hearing that, because they've said some nasty and demagogic things about Israel, Turkey should be booted out of NATO. How that would serve American interests I don't know.

June 3, 2010

How the British Feel About Gaza Blockade

The UK polling firm YouGov asked the British how they feel about the Gaza blockade, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more generally:

Asked about the principle of the Israeli blockade of Gaza 22% thought it was the right thing to do, 53% were opposed.

Turning to the specific incident, 55% of respondents thought that Israeli troops over-reacted to people on the ship who were on the whole non-violent, with only 18% saying they were probably acting in self-defence. Only 23% of respondents thought the intention of the convoy was a confrontation with Israel, with 44% believing its genuine intention was to take humanitarian supplies to Gaza.

YouGov also asked a general question about whether people were more sympathetic towards Israel or the Palestinians. 13% were more sympathetic to Israel, 25% more sympathetic to the Palestinians, 41% were not particularly sympathetic to either.

Full results here. (pdf)

June 2, 2010

What Is Hamas?

The Israeli Foreign Ministry points RCW toward a Q&A conducted with MFA legal expert Sarah Weiss Maudi on the legality of the Gaza Strip blockade:

I'm glad to see the Israeli government engaging the media in this fashion, as I believe the debate over the blockade's legitimacy will only grow larger and louder as a result of this week's incident.

Something I find rather interesting about Ms. Weiss Maudi's defense of the blockade is her reliance on the international Law of Armed Conflict, coupled with her repeated reference to "the Hamas regime." Her defense, as international and maritime law expert Douglas Guilfoyle notes, is correct so long as the blockade doesn't "cause excessive damage to the civilian population in relation to the military advantage gained."

In other words, so long as Israel can demonstrate that the blockade is consistent with relative military gains against, as Ms. Weiss Maudi puts it, an enemy "Hamas regime" - and not just a punitive form of collective punishment against Gazans as a whole - then the blockade and boarding of vessels in international waters are both legitimate measures consistent with international law.

Indeed, Israel continues to insist that materials carried aboard the flotilla were likely intended for military purposes, which - perhaps? - makes the blockade and raid legit.

One (possible) problem: Hamas isn't the Palestinian government, but merely one party claiming leadership of that "regime." Another snag: Gaza isn't a state, nor does it represent the geographic entirety of the theoretical state of Palestine.

Kevin Jon Heller goes further:

Israel’s defense of the blockade thus appears to create a serious dilemma for it. Insofar as Israel insists that it is not currently occupying Gaza, it cannot plausibly claim that it is involved in an IAC with Hamas. And if it is not currently involved in an IAC with Hamas, it is difficult to see how it can legally justify the blockade of Gaza. Its blockade of Gaza, therefore, seems to depend on its willingness to concede that it is occupying Gaza and is thus in an IAC with Hamas. But Israel does not want to do that, because it would then be bound by the very restrictive rules of belligerent occupation in the Fourth Geneva Convention.
If the “cost” of the blockade is formally recognizing Hamas as a belligerent, maintaining the blockade would mean recognizing Hamas fighters as privileged combatants. (Just as the armed forces of any state are privileged combatants.) That would be fundamentally unacceptable to Israel, because Hamas fighters would then be entitled to attack Israeli combatants and would have to be treated as POWs upon capture.

My sense, or fear, is that Jerusalem is selectively cherry picking the international edicts it chooses to abide by. But perhaps I'm wrong, which is why I open the floor up to the legal beagles hiding amongst our readership.

My question(s): What is Hamas, and does Israel's answer to that question affect the legality of the Gaza blockade? You can email me with your take, or simply leave a comment here on the blog. I'll promote the more illuminating answers.

Gaza Flotilla: How Powerful Is the Media?

George Packer (via Sullivan) thinks the media narrative is all that matters about the incident:

Sunday night’s incident showed again that the most powerful force in international relations today is neither standing armies nor diplomatic councils, but public opinion as shaped by media.

Really? How powerful?

Did the harsh, overwhelmingly negative feedback that Israel experienced during both the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and the more recent war against Hamas in Gaza change Israeli policy significantly? I don't think so. Before that, worldwide opinion cut strongly against the Iraq war - and that opinion did nothing to stop the U.S. invasion.

Power, as defined by the ability to make one party do what it does not want to do, is not much in evidence when it comes to "public opinion shaped by the media" and a country determined to act in what it thinks is its best national security interests. In this specific case, it's not even strong enough to make the supposedly anti-Israel Obama administration offer anything save a reaffirmation of U.S.-Israeli ties.

We Love Democracy! Oh Wait...

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Talk about cognitive dissonance. I was always under the impression that neoconservatives were enthusiastic supporters of the "freedom agenda" - especially in the Middle East. My mistake. Here's Matthew Continetti in the Weekly Standard on Turkey's support for the Gaza aid flotilla:

The main factor behind these developments is the rise of Recip Tayipp Erdogan's AKP. Some years ago, Christopher Caldwell pointed out in our pages that as Turkey democratized, it would also become more Islamic. And that means certain elements, influential elements, of its government and society would become more Islamist. The trend that few have noticed is that these elements are pulling Turkey out of the Western alliance structure and toward the Middle East. The break began in 2003 when the Turks denied the U.S. Fourth Infantry the ability to invade Iraq from the north.

Since 2005, Americans have been worrying about Iran's ambitions for regional hegemony. Maybe it's time we started worrying about Turkey's regional ambitions as well. The Turks ruled the region from 1453 to 1922, after all. A renascence of Turkish power, in an Islamist guise, would cause all sorts of troubles no one can anticipate.

I guess we should all be thankful that President Bush's "freedom agenda" failed, right? This is Turkey - a NATO ally and prospective (although increasingly less likely) candidate for EU membership. Now imagine democracy taking root in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iran and elsewhere - would it surprise anyone if the regional atmosphere got a lot less friendly toward the U.S. and Israel?

As I said earlier, it's very difficult to be an honest proponent of Middle East democracy and an advocate for perpetual American hegemony in the region. The emergence of true democracies is likely to reorient the geopolitics of the region in a manner that the staunchest hegemonists would sharply disapprove of. I wonder which aspiration they'll jettison first.

Update: Daniel Larison has more thoughts on Turkey here and here:

The trouble that a lot of Americans seem to have with all this is that whenever Turkey deviates from Washington’s script they view Turkey’s relations with its eastern and northern neighbors as evidence of a “drift” out of the orbit of the West. Of course, we are the ones drawing the lines and defining Turkish behavior such that they cannot pursue their interests without being perceived as a competitor or worse. In many parts of the world the U.S. encourages and welcomes economic cooperation and improved relations between neighbors, but in other regions the very same behaviors that we laud in Europe are viewed with suspicion and alarm. After a while, any nation, even one with a long-standing good relationship with the U.S., would grow weary of this treatment.

(AP Photo)

June 1, 2010

Turkey's Flotilla Gambit

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Thomas Barnett has an interesting theory as to why Turkey has been pushing Israel's buttons of late:

Turkey's deputy prime minister called the raid "a dark stain on the history of humanity." So now Ankara has its bloody shirt, which will be used — once Tehran inevitably announces the weaponization of its nukes — to justify Turkey's rapid reach for the same. Just like Tehran cannot openly rationalize its bid for regional supremacy vis-à-vis archrival Saudi Arabia, Turkey requires an appropriate villain for its nuclear morality play. Anybody watching the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations over the past year knew that some cause célèbre was in the works. Suddenly, if perhaps on purpose, Turkey can claim that — despite its efforts to broker a non-nuclear peace in the region (including a recent enrichment deal engineered with Brazil) — it needs its own deterrent against Israel's nuclear arsenal, too.

I don't think it's unreasonable to interpret Turkey's out front role in this escapade as being a bid for regional leadership. And very soon such leadership may indeed entail being a nuclear power.

(AP Photo)

More Barbarity Needed?

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Reflecting on the flotilla incident, Michel Rubin thinks it's time to junk the idea of proportionality:

Likewise, when terrorists seek to strike at the United States, why should we find ourselves constrained by an artificial notion of proportionality when responding to those terrorists or their state sponsors?

Ultimately, it may be time to recognize that, in the face of growing threats to Western liberalism, strength and disproportionality matter more to security and the protection of democracy than the approval of the chattering class of Europe or the U.N. secretary general, a man whose conciliatory policies as foreign minister of South Korea proved to be a strategic disaster.

I think the idea of "proportionality" is far too vague a standard to establish in war time. That said, I'm not so sure how Rubin's advice works in practice, when the principle enemies faced by the West are non-state actors. Take Afghanistan. The U.S. is applying force in a judicious manner not because it wants to earn the approval of the "chattering class of Europe" (whoever they are) but because of the belief that killing large numbers of Afghans indiscriminately is going to result in a much larger problem and deal Western security a much larger set-back. Why is that mistaken?

To take Israel's case specifically, it has, in almost every confrontation with terrorists group, enjoyed a disproportionate outcome - racking up higher body counts and more infrastructure damage than it has suffered. Has this "disproportionality" improved their fortunes vis-a-vis Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon? It seems to me that these are groups that welcome a disproportionate response precisely for its radicalizing effects.

Waging a "disproportionate" campaign against non-state actors means deliberately widening the targets to include killing non-combatants and destroying civilian infrastructure, or taking no steps to minimize such "collateral damage." The West has embraced this ethos before, but during a world war. In the context of the lower intensity conflict against terrorist groups, such a strategy can only really succeed if you make a desert and call it peace.

(AP Photo)

Flotilla Assault

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So far, analysis of the Gaza flotilla incident has focused on how the raid complicates U.S.-Israeli ties or Israel's global diplomatic position, but it seems to me the incident served the aims of both parties (the activists and the Israelis). The Israelis established the seriousness of their blockade, while the flotilla organizers have damaged Israel's public image.

Aside from that, this seems to be a pretty good reminder of the huge difficulties the Obama administration is courting trying to resurrect the peace process. Consider the trouble the administration is having in the West Bank. Now imagine trying to "solve" Gaza.

(AP Photo)

May 24, 2010

Israel's Nuclear Disclosure, Ctd.

President Peres has issued a statement in response to the Guardian article on the reported Israeli nuclear dalliance with South Africa:

"There exists no basis in reality for the claims published this morning by The Guardian that in 1975 Israel negotiated with South Africa the exchange of nuclear weapons," the president said in an English-language statement. "Unfortunately, The Guardian elected to write its piece based on the selective interpretation of South African documents and not on concrete facts."

Israel's Nuclear Disclosure

Here's an interesting story from The Guardian:

Secret South African documents reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime, providing the first official documentary evidence of the state's possession of nuclear weapons.

The "top secret" minutes of meetings between senior officials from the two countries in 1975 show that South Africa's defence minister, PW Botha, asked for the warheads and Shimon Peres, then Israel's defence minister and now its president, responded by offering them "in three sizes". The two men also signed a broad-ranging agreement governing military ties between the two countries that included a clause declaring that "the very existence of this agreement" was to remain secret.

Israel's nuclear arsenal isn't exactly the world's best kept secret, so these revelations aren't going to have much of an impact in that regard. It will, however, complicate efforts to discredit Judge Goldstone (of the infamous "Goldstone Report" on the Gaza war).

May 19, 2010

The Ugly End of Exceptionalism?

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Richard Cohen writes:

American conservatives look at the defeats and disappointments, and they fulminate about Obama. They call him weak and inept -- and surely in some areas he has been both. But they are wrong in thinking that another person would make much of a difference. Times have changed. America's power is diminished -- relatively, for sure, but absolutely as well.

I think this is the important takeaway from this week's tripartite nuclear deal between Brazil, Turkey and Iran. While the nuclear alarmists are predictably ringing the bells of Armageddon, they do so, unbeknownst to themselves, from a position of increasing weakness. The Wall Street Journal leads the charge, insisting that President Obama do something, because, well, that's what the American president does. Absent, however, from their editorial panic attack is a feasible policy proposal for making Iran halt its enrichment, disclose all its nuclear wrongdoing and ultimately hug it out with the West.

They believe, as they so wrongly did back in 2002, that American military might alone is enough to compel global behavior and police the world's evildoers - and perhaps it was, during the Cold War. But the United States has yet to articulate a rationale for its role as global superpower in a world with multiple levers and venues for global governance, and the world's emerging powers simply aren't buying it any longer.

And this clearly flummoxes Iran hawks, who can only view American power through the lens of the presidency; they, like some of our allies in Israel, insist that the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is the most pressing crisis facing the world, and should the American president but will it, he (or she) can give a compelling speech, pound his (or her) fist on a table or two, and the world - as it so often has in the past - will bend.

One problem: faith in American power is no longer unanimous. By pegging Iranian engagement to the nonproliferation regime, and in turn Israeli security, the Obama administration opened up a Pandora's box of nuclear populism. The plan, I'll admit, seemed a viable one at first: engage Tehran on the most commonly agreed upon and demonstrated dilemma - namely, its rogue nuclear program - and reach some kind of a deal on LEU in order to give the West breathing room for negotiation; alleviate Israeli concerns of an imminent nuclear arms race in the region; address the nuclear weapons program, and then move on to other longstanding issues in need of redress between Washington and the Islamic Republic.

But Iran has always insisted that the nonproliferation tactic was always a pretext - a multilateral cover - for compelling Iranian behavior and, perhaps, even changing the Iranian regime entirely. And normally, this complaint would fall on (mostly) deaf ears around the globe. But Iran, to its diplomatic credit, cleverly morphed a dispute between a handful of countries into a global debate between the nuclear haves and have-nots. What started as a reasonable discussion about Iranian intransigence became a debate over the legitimacy of the NPT.

The haves versus the have-nots; the emerging world versus the entrenched - this has played out exactly as Iran had hoped.

So what now? I think the best option remaining for the Obama administration is to table the nuclear question and go down the admittedly murky and unpleasant path of grand bargain engagement. Nonproliferation and the future of global nuclear enrichment is far too important to be left in the hands of the Iranians, and the only way the revolutionary regime will play serious ball on the nuclear question is if Washington is willing to address - and redress - Iran's laundry list of grievances and gripes.

Even Israel - which would no doubt protest such a sea change - has more pressing security concerns regarding the Iranians, as the potential threat of a Tehran-fueled arms buildup in the Levant makes confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah appear more and more likely. Setting the nuclear matter aside for the time being would behoove them as well.

But this is all rather unlikely. Iran, for its own part, has a long record of diplomatic gamesmanship and deception, and Obama simply doesn't have the political cover at home to make such a gesture (and the atmosphere may only worsen come November). Obama - after months of nuclear bell-ringing - will be held solely accountable at home for failing to slay the Iranian monster, and Washington will likely creep back into its comfort zone of exceptionalism and saber-rattling toward Tehran. Iran will embed itself even deeper into its own comfort zone of anti-Westernism and global defiance, as the U.S.-Iran status quo keeps trucking along.

How this ends, I'm not sure. Perhaps multilateral sanctions will hasten a breakthrough before the midterm elections, but that's doubtful. I don't believe we're witnessing the buildup to war, but I do believe Obama's window for engagement has likely closed.

(AP Photo)

May 14, 2010

Obama's Israel Hatred

It manifests itself in very subtle ways:

Barack Obama is to ask the US Congress for an extra $200m in military aid to help Israel get a short-range rocket defence system in place.

The system is designed to shoot down mortars and rockets from Gaza or Southern Lebanon with guided missiles.

The system, called Iron Dome, has gone through testing and installation will start later this year.

According to US State Department figures, direct military aid to Israel was $2.55bn in 2009.

This is set to increase to $3.15bn in 2018.

May 4, 2010

Nonproliferation as Team Sport

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No one worries about British or French or American nukes. Nor should anyone worry about Israeli nukes — as long as Israel doesn’t face annihilation, they will never be used.

That’s because countries like the U.S. and Israel have democratic systems with checks and safeguards against capricious use of the ultimate weapons. The problem with Iran is that it has no such safeguards. If it were to acquire nukes, its weapons would be in the hands of millenarian religious fanatics who jail or kill anyone who criticizes them. - Max Boot

If the administration wants to prevent proliferation and/or an arms race in the region, there is only one place on which it needs to focus its attention: Iran.

But since the administration refuses to turn up the heat on the regime, it has gotten nowhere in confronting the actual nuclear threat in the Middle East. So, instead, it is inventing a new threat and dealing with that one. In this case, we’re back to the laughable idea that the United States can extract good behavior from bad regimes by setting an inspiring example of self-abnegation, especially one in which we refuse to show any “favoritism” to our allies. - Noah Pollak

Once upon time, Washington's Iranian ally was an "island of stability," fully deserving of American nuclear know-how and material. The reason the Shah even signed the NPT in the first place was so that he could develop and expand his country's nuclear energy program. Fast forward 40 years, and that one little signature is essentially the spine of the international community's charge of nuclear malfeasance against Iran and its current regime. Without it, Tehran's behavior would legally be no different than India and Japan's, and in fact less "rogue" than Israel's. Without that little signature, we wouldn't even be having a debate over "targeted" multilateral sanctions vs. "crippling" sanctions. There'd be no hand-wringing over Chinese waivers and watered-down measures, because the case for punishing Iran's nuclear behavior would have zero international basis.

All of this is important, because it demonstrates how unbiased and fair global policy can serve a more static, long-term purpose. Alliances change and turn, which is why the case for democratic nuclear entitlement put forth here by Boot and Pollak makes little sense to me. I agree with Pollak that it's not entirely fair to target Israel and Israel alone for its nuclear program, but let's be fair - if Obama were to advocate a more consistent policy of "self-abnegation" and include, for example, India, then the choruses of Indo-American decline would only become louder and more profound.

And Boot seems to confuse democratic transparency for nuclear security. India is indeed a developing and promising democracy, but it's also a divisive and sectarian one; fraught with internal, regional conflicts. Can Boot really call India an island of stability just because it's a democracy in 2009? Is India immune from regime upheaval? Is any nation - much less one accounting for roughly one-sixth of the world's population - immune from such change?

Can he say unequivocally that Israel's undeclared and unmonitored nuclear weapons program will never produce the next A.Q. Khan?

Times Square Bomb Attempt & Linkage

This is a guess, but I don't think that Faisal Shahzad, if he is indeed a terrorist, was radicalized solely by the construction in East Jerusalem of apartment buildings for Jews. This suggests the limited relevance of the "linkage" argument. - Jeffrey Goldberg.

Agreed. But if it Shahzad was not a member of Hamas or Hezbollah, it also suggests that the U.S. and Israel don't face the same terrorist enemy.

Poll: Public Approval of Obama's Foreign Policy

A few nuggets in this new Times/CBS news poll (pdf): 48 percent of respondents approve (+1 since Feb.) vs. 38 percent disapprove (+4 since Feb.)

Respondents were also asked about their views on Israel:

15 percent - very favorable

40 percent - mostly favorable

16 percent - most unfavorable

7 percent - very unfavorable.

More Republicans (24 percent ) than Democrats (7 percent) had "very favorable" views.

May 3, 2010

Questions for Daniel Ayalon

I took Foreign Affairs up on the opportunity to present a question to Daniel Ayalon, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister.

Here it is:

ROSE: Talking about being good friends and allies, here’s a question from Greg from Real Clear Politics: “Many supporters of Israel in the United States argue,” he writes, “that the partnership not only enhances Israeli security but American security as well. Do you believe this to be the case? And if so, can you highlight some examples?”

AYALON: Well, absolutely. Well, first of all, on the most obvious, I would say, the most obvious facts now are the fact that we cooperate so well on the war on terrorism in terms of methods of operations, in terms of intelligence, in terms of equipment. I think it’s very important strategically. We are looking for the same results all over the globe, not just in the Middle East.

The fact that Israel is the -- you know, I’m taking just a total different field now -- economically, you know, Israel is the largest trading partner of the United States in the Middle East. We buy; Israel buys more American products and services than any country around us.

So the ties that bind us together are myriad and many. I also believe -- and I think this is very important -- the fact that we have been attacked for so long is more because what we represent than anything else, and we represent in the area American ideals. We represent American civilization or the Western civilizations. And we are together; in many ways, we are in the trenches, really fighting and defending the values, the way of life that we all cherish.

You can read the entire exchange here.

April 29, 2010

Why Not the Status Quo?

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Stephen Walt reads Aaron David Miller's essay on junking the peace process and asks a question similar to the one that I posed earlier in the week: if there's no peace process, how is Israel ultimately going to deal with the Palestinians? Walt, and indeed most peace process devotees, operate under the assumption that as there are increasingly more Palestinians under Israeli control it will be correspondingly more difficult for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic and, crucially, that it will be correspondingly more difficult for the U.S. to support Israel under those conditions.

As Walt sees it, there are three possible scenarios:

So here's the question I'd really like Miller to address: if it becomes clear that "two states for two peoples" is no longer an option, what does he think U.S. policy should be? Should we then favor the ethnic cleansing of several million Palestinian Arabs from their ancestral homes, so that Israel can remain a democratic and Jewish state? (By the way, that would be a crime against humanity by any standard.) Or should we then press Israel to grant the Palestinians full political rights, consistent with America's own "melting-pot" traditions? (That is the end of the Zionist vision, and may be unworkable for other reasons). Or should we back (and subsidize) their confinement in a few disconnected enclaves (in Gaza, around Ramallah, and one or two other areas in the West Bank), with Israel controlling the borders, airspace, and water resources? (This is the apartheid solution, and it's where we are headed now.) I fear that some future president will have to choose between these three options, and it would be interesting to know what an experienced Middle East negotiator like Miller would advise him or her to do then.

I don't think that these are the only options available (and the framing of them puts all of the onus on Israel when there are other actors in this drama) but for the sake of argument let's assume Walt's got the bases covered. Why does he assume that any of these outcomes would provoke some kind of crisis in Israeli-U.S. relations or even present a problem for a future U.S. president and his/her foreign policy?

In any of the above scenarios, Israel will justify its behavior as being consistent with its core security interests. Israel's defenders will - quite rightly - argue that the U.S. supports regimes with far, far worse records when it comes to populations under their protection. If our support of Israel is paying real strategic dividends with respect to U.S. security, as some claim, then is it really a big deal how they treat the Palestinians?

In all of Walt's various scenarios, the people and NGOs who are concerned with the living conditions of the Palestinians will continue to call attention to their plight. And the people who currently don't care, or who believe that the Palestinians have brought it on themselves, or believe our support for Israel is mandated by God, or by our own security interests, will likely continue to put those considerations ahead of statehood for the Palestinians.

(AP Photo)

April 27, 2010

Ask Foreign Affairs: Danny Ayalon

Israeli Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Daniel Ayalon will be answering questions about U.S.-Israeli relations and the future of the peace process in a Foreign Affairs web-event. RealClearWorld readers can submit a question for consideration by emailing it to us with "FA Question" in the subject line. We'll select the best and send them to Foreign Affairs.

Poll: Israeli Views of Obama

A poll in the Israeli paper Yisrael Hayom provides further evidence of the ill will between the Obama administration and Israeli public. The key findings:

What do you think of the American demand to freeze construction in Jerusalem? Support 21.8% Oppose 71.6% Don’t know/refuse reply 6.6%

Who is responsible for the tension between the USA and Israel – Obama or Netanyahu?
Obama 58.6% Netanyahu 16.2% Both 17.6% Don’t know/refuse reply 7.6%

Is Obama interested in improving relations with the Arab states at the expense of Israel?
Yes 60.9% No 26.5% Don’t know/refuse reply 12.6%

According to Laura Rozen, the administration is knee deep into a charm offensive directed at Israeli leaders. [Hat tip: Commentary]

April 22, 2010

Is Obama Out of Step With Public on Israel, Ctd.

Earlier in the week I wondered if Obama was truly out-of-step with public sentiment in his approach to Israel. I was skeptical, but now CNN reports on a poll that directly addresses the question:

Only a third of Americans approve of the way President Obama's handling the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, according to a new national poll.

A Quinnipiac University survey released Thursday morning indicates that 35 percent of the public gives the president a thumbs up on how he's dealing with the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, with 44 percent saying they disapprove, and just over one in five unsure.

This stands in contrast with how Americans feel about Obama's overall handling of foreign policy, with 48 percent approving and 42 percent saying they disapprove.

Letting Them Play David

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Ezzedine Choukri Fishere argues for full nuclear disclosure in the Middle East:

First, it would lay to rest the complaints about double standards in the nonproliferation community and relieve the US - and Israel - from the untenable claim that Israel's nuclear arsenal should somehow be treated as exceptional (a claim that nobody outside Washington and Tel Aviv gives serious consideration). The double-standard argument has been the most successful weapon against nonproliferation, especially in mobilizing public support for nuclear projects like those of Saddam's Iraq, Ghaddafi's Libya or Iran (and you will hear a lot about it in the coming weeks leading up to the NPT review). Second, such a dialogue would significantly decrease the pressure on Arab governments to start their own nuclear programs and abort what could be the beginning of a nuclear race in the region. Third, this dialogue would pave the way for the establishment of a Middle East security regime, which could be the vehicle for addressing a wide range of security hazards in this troubled and troubling region. Finally, such a dialogue might offer a framework for addressing Iran's problematic nuclear activities, especially if accompanied by a package of stabilizing confidence-building measures.

The problem here isn't the substance, but the messenger. As Colum Lynch recently pointed out, Washington's sudden insistence that the world disarm and turn back the nuclear doomsday clock rings rather hollow to weaker nations mulling the nuclear weapons route. Once again - much like with the global emissions debate - the United States, having already developed, proliferated and polluted, is telling the rest of the world what's best. There are obviously finer points and nuances to this perception but, generally speaking, it comes across as more unilateral lecturing from the West.

This of course complicates Obama's rapprochement strategy with Iran. Nonproliferation is important, perhaps too important to rest entirely on the unpredictable - and often erratic - actions of the Iranian regime. And thus far, the case against Iran has been an internationalist and legalistic one; filled with violated protocols, perfunctory deadlines and deliberative hectoring. The president intended to engage - instead he audits.

And I get the idea: Halt Iran's nuclear intransigence, buy time on the so-called doomsday clock and create the necessary breathing room to discuss the litany of other issues in need of resolving. But Obama has instead given the Iranians an opening to make this a global 'north' vs. 'south' argument, which hurts your case when you need countries like Brazil, China and Russia to support an engage/sanction Iran strategy. Rather than providing breathing room, the nuclear debate has instead sucked all the oxygen out of the room.

It's a strategy, to be fair, that I supported - and continue to, albeit tentatively. And perhaps there's still a chance for a fuel swap deal, but I remain skeptical.

(AP Photo)

April 21, 2010

A "Post Peace Process" Middle East

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Aaron David Miller's must-read essay on why he's abandoned one of Washington's most cherished orthodoxies - the peace process - has set off a debate about the future of America's most favorite past time.

The fact that the U.S. has labored so long at something without succeeding is either a testament to its valiant persistence or foolish obduracy (or both). Either way, the current attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks seems hopeless, which leads to an obvious question: what does a "post peace process" American diplomacy looks like? For Israel, at least in the short term, it looks quite good. They continue to receive American support without enduring American demands. For the Palestinians, the short term looks bad. Whatever hopes they had of prying further concessions from Israel will vanish.

Over the medium-to-long term the prospects for both parties will shift. Israel will face the demographic challenge of a blossoming Palestinian population living under its control. Demands for a "one state solution" will grow and the democratic and Jewish character of the state of Israel will be under strain. So too will the prospects for a negotiated settlement.

Consider the views of the Palestinians in 2010:

Residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with some land exchange as part of a final solution to the current impasse with Israel, according to a poll by An-Najah National University. 66.7 per cent of respondents reject this notion.

In addition, 77.4 per cent of respondents reject making Jerusalem the capital for both an eventual Palestinian state and Israel.

It strains credulity to believe that this outlook is going to be reversed as the demographic balance between Israelis and Palestinians shifts.

(AP Photo)

April 20, 2010

Is Obama Out of Step with America on Israel?

In some sense Obama's new policy, rather than the wishes of the Democratic Congress, reflects the new Democratic majority, even as it is at odds with the country at large (63 percent of the American people express support for Israel). More to the point, no alliance can long withstand such a marked divide, in which Republicans are overwhelmingly pro-Israel and Democrats quite clearly are not -- that divide leads to something like the radical change of heart from Bush in 2008 to Obama in 2009. - Victor Davis Hanson

Hanson is right to suggest that we're seeing some fairly sharp partisan divergence over Israel. But I think he's wrong to suggest that President Obama is somehow broadly out of step with the American people when it comes to his policy toward Israel.

As proof of his claim, Hanson relies on the Gallup poll sited above, but nowhere does that poll imply that somehow President Obama is anti-Israel. And there have been others polls which suggest that public opinion on the Israel-Palestinian issue is less clear cut: an Economist/YouGov poll in March showed a more nuanced picture of American sympathies in the Mideast conflict. A Zogby poll showed a majority thought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was harmful to U.S. interests and 50 percent of respondents said the U.S. should steer a "middle course" between the two parties. Earlier in March, Rasmussen found that 49 percent of Americans thought Israel should be required to stop settlement building as part of a peace deal.

Now put this in the context of what President Obama has actually done: publicly and repeatedly affirmed America's "unbreakable" commitment to Israel's security, exerted considerable efforts trying to derail Iran's nuclear program, relaunched the peace process, ratcheted up public criticism of settlement building and denied Prime Minister Netanyahu a White House photo-op. A fair-minded observer could disagree with some of these decisions and argue that the Obama administration has behaved boorishly and counter-productively toward an ally by criticizing it in public. But I don't think we can conclude - as Hanson does - that these policies reflect an administration in the grip of "campus multiculturalists" or that they're otherwise way out of step with the American public.

Is Obama Out of Step with America on Israel?

In some sense Obama's new policy, rather than the wishes of the Democratic Congress, reflects the new Democratic majority, even as it is at odds with the country at large (63 percent of the American people express support for Israel). More to the point, no alliance can long withstand such a marked divide, in which Republicans are overwhelmingly pro-Israel and Democrats quite clearly are not -- that divide leads to something like the radical change of heart from Bush in 2008 to Obama in 2009. - Victor Davis Hanson

Hanson is right to suggest that we're seeing some fairly sharp partisan divergence over Israel. But I think he's wrong to suggest that President Obama is somehow broadly out of step with the American people when it comes to his policy toward Israel.

As proof of his claim, Hanson relies on the Gallup poll sited above, but nowhere does that poll imply that somehow President Obama is anti-Israel. And there have been others polls which suggest that public opinion on the Israel-Palestinian issue is less clear cut: an Economist/YouGov poll in March showed a more nuanced picture of American sympathies in the Mideast conflict. A Zogby poll showed a majority thought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was harmful to U.S. interests and 50 percent of respondents said the U.S. should steer a "middle course" between the two parties. Earlier in March, Rasmussen found that 49 percent of Americans thought Israel should be required to stop settlement building as part of a peace deal.

Now put this in the context of what President Obama has actually done: publicly and repeatedly affirmed America's "unbreakable" commitment to Israel's security, exerted considerable efforts trying to derail Iran's nuclear program, relaunched the peace process, ratcheted up public criticism of settlement building and denied Prime Minister Netanyahu a White House photo-op. A fair-minded observer could disagree with some of these decisions and argue that the Obama administration has behaved boorishly and counter-productively toward an ally by criticizing it in public. But I don't think we can conclude - as Hanson does - that these policies reflect an administration in the grip of "campus multiculturalists" or that they're otherwise way out of step with the American public.

April 18, 2010

Poll: Israeli Views on Settlements, Jerusalem

Via Angus Reid:

A large proportion of adults in Israel would reject a prospective demand by U.S. president Barack Obama, according to a poll by Maagar Mochot. 70 per cent of respondents think Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu should not freeze construction in Jerusalem for an unlimited period of time.

In addition, 83 per cent of respondents reject the imposition of a plan which would divide Jerusalem and leave Israel without control of the Jordan Valley.

Meanwhile, World Public Opinion has a slightly different look at the question of settlements:

A survey of the Israeli general public and Israeli settlers taken in early March shows three-fifths of the Israeli public (60%) support "dismantling most of the settlements in the territories as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians." This is eleven points higher than the previous reading (49%) taken in December, 2009, and is the highest level recorded since 2005, during the debate over evacuating the Gaza Strip. Just one-third of the Israeli public (33%) opposes dismantling most settlements, including 13 percent very strongly opposed. This is the lowest level of strong opposition to dismantling settlements recorded by the Truman Institute for the 26 surveys in which this question has been asked since 2001.

Not surprisingly, Israeli settlers are less enthusiastic about the idea, but the survey also found an important disconnect:

However, the current near two-to-one Israeli public support for dismantling most settlements is misperceived by Israeli settlers, and even by the Israeli public to a lesser extent: Most settlers (57%) believe that a majority of the Israeli public oppose dismantling most settlements -- the reverse from what is actually the case. About one-third of the Israeli public (31%) believe a majority of Israelis supports dismantling most settlements, which is half the number who actually do so (60%).

April 15, 2010

Overthinking Assad

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What motivates Damascus? It may just be plain stupidity, argues Blake Hounshell:

The insane thing about all this is that Syria would be much better off by joining the pro-Western camp. It could get the Golan Heights back, get the sanctions lifted, and attract foreign assistance and investment -- while fending off pressure to open its deeply authoritarian system, just as Egypt has. It could reap billions in tourism revenue, thanks to its incredible archaeological and cultural riches. And it could finally bury the hatchet with other Arab states, which have long been frustrated by Syria's close ties to Iran, its support for militant groups, its meddling in Lebanon, and its intransigence on all things Israel.

But dictatorships are strange animals; they often make poor decisions for reasons that are inscrutable to all but the most informed observers.

(AP Photo)

March 31, 2010

Palin on Iran

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The governor weighs in. Spencer Ackerman questions her political timing:

Typical misleading invective on the U.S.-Israel relationship is one thing, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confronted at AIPAC last week. But “throwing in the towel” on Iran sanctions? Hours after Obama gave a schedule for Iran sanctions in a joint statement with Nicholas Sarzoky of France?
Palin might want to check how many billable hours her foreign policy aide Randy Scheunemann is charging her for this stuff.

I happen to agree with Governor Palin on certain sanctions concessions, specifically the removal of penalties on insurers doing business with Iran. If the West is going to pursue sanctions then those sanctions should be strong enough to actually compel behavior. Otherwise, war proponents will simply reject them entirely and instead offer the choice of containment or war (and guess which option they think will be more palatable for the American public).

I can appreciate Obama's incrementalism in dealing with China, but he's handing his political rivals their 2010 (and perhaps even 2012) message on Iran.

UPDATE: And on that note, I give you John Bolton.

(AP Photo)

March 29, 2010

Poll: U.S. Views on Mideast Peace

The Economist and YouGov have a new poll out on American attitudes toward Middle East Peace:

IsraelPal.jpg

Looking at the full top-lines, there's some uncertainty about whether the U.S. should support creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. 50% of respondents were unsure, whereas 33% were in favor and 18% were opposed to the idea.

Meanwhile, Zogby International also released some new poll data on U.S. views of the Middle East:

More than four-in-five Americans (81%) agree the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a negative impact on U.S. interests, including a majority of both Democrats (88%) and Republicans (77%), a new Zogby Interactive survey finds.

While Americans agree the conflict has a negative impact, they are split about how to deal with the situation. Fifty percent of Americans agree the Obama Administration should steer a middle course in pursing peace in the Middle East. There is a strong divide on this question with 73% of Democrats agreeing that the President should steer a middle course while only 24% of Republicans hold the same opinion. These numbers are largely unchanged from a similar survey conducted in April of 2009.

Zogby walked through the findings at a New America Foundation panel discussion.

March 28, 2010

Syria and Mideast Status Quo

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Joshua Landis is perplexed by America's Mideast priorities:

For some largely inexplicable reason, Washington has decided that Iran is its greatest foreign policy challenge and a risk to world peace that must be stopped. While the fear of Iran is being ginned up, the Arab-Israeli conflict, a problem that the US can actually do something about, will be set aside and ignored.

With this speech, Assad is recognizing this state of affairs. It means that his country will likely be pushed into greater conflict with Israel and the US. In a showdown, he will stand with Iran. The Arab League will be discussing the withdrawal of the Arab Peace Initiative during its meeting in Libya this weekend. What else can the Arabs do? The vast majority of Arabs are glad that Syria is keeping the pilot light of Arab resistance lit.

So is it the sixties all over again?

[h/t FP Watch]

(AP Photo)

March 27, 2010

All Politics Is Loco

Glenn Reynolds writes:

Possibly Obama just hates Israel and hates Jews. That’s plausible — certainly nothing in his actions suggests otherwise, really.

This debate is veering into waters we'd rather not traverse here on The Compass, but I believe this ties into my earlier post on the future of U.S.-Israeli relations. That relationship will remain substantively unchanged, and I get the sense that those lamenting a "drift" between the two countries - mostly critics on the right - are simply reaching for calamity and chaos out of political dislike for Barack Obama rather than anything truly substantive.

I don't care about that; I get it. The party on the 'outs' has to find a way to de-legitimize the party on the 'in' and justify its own message and rationale for public office. I get that. But I also think Reynolds is a smart and thoughtful guy, and this is a debate in need of smarter and more thoughtful commentary than baseless charges of antisemitism.

Other presidents have pushed harder on Israel over the same sensitive matters. Making this all about Obama for political expedience does, in my opinion, a disservice to the discussion.

[h/t the Dish]

The Transactional Special Relationship

I've said my piece on the Israel-East Jerusalem-Biden-Bibi-Obama kerfuffle, but I wanted to highlight this projection made by Peter Wehner on U.S.-Israeli relations down the road:

Because of what is unfolding, there will be significant injury to our relationship with Israel. But it is also doing considerable damage to America’s moral standing. At its best, America stands for the right things and stands beside the right friends. In distancing us from Israel, Obama is distancing America from a nation that has sacrificed more for peace, and suffered more for their sacrifices, than any other. It is a deeply discouraging thing to see. And it is dangerous, too. Hatred for Israel is a deep and burning fire throughout the world. We should not be adding kindling wood to that fire.

I'm not entirely indifferent to this argument, and a similar point was made in one of our comment threads. Perhaps it is true that critics of America's relationship with Israel have glossed over the benefits - both tangible and not so tangible - in the relationship, while at the same time placing too much emphasis on the military aid provided. Let's, for the sake of argument, grant that.

The problem however with this argument is that the United States has had diplomatic brouhahas with allies that predate the Israeli relationship; allies with which we also share democratic ideals, not to mention the sharing of intelligence and other more tangible items. We had one of these blowups with Britain just recently. But the U.S.-U.K. relationship will endure - despite any harsh words and tough rhetoric exchanged - because the inherent value and history in the relationship is stronger than any contemporary flare-ups.

What then does it say of the U.S.-Israel relationship that one side cannot endure even the slightest of criticism from its most precious and "special" ally? Why do analysts like Peter Whener consider a passing kerfuffle to be a crisis if our ideals are so in sync?

Critics talk as though Obama is the first president to tie aid and support to policy, which he most certainly isn't. And were Washington's relationship with Israel a normal, healthy one, this wouldn't be such a problem. The idea that friends and allies can critique each other isn't, as Larison notes, a new one. And it makes sense that countries will apply conditions to foreign aid that are consistent with that country's interests and ideals. America does this with its other allies, as does China. But our special relationship with Israel is different and is, as a result, far more "special" - and peculiar.

So allow me to make my own prediction: the United States will continue to provide a large and unique sum of military aid to Israel, the two countries will continue to operate in conjunction on specific threats, such as Iran, and - sadly, by my view - the status quo will remain the status quo for the indefinite future. Israel will be no more "isolated" than it already is, and Jerusalem will continue to be indifferent to this isolation so long as the United States continues to hand it unqualified military support on an annual basis.

March 25, 2010

A "Shift in Perception"

Victor Davis Hanson writes on the East Jerusalem row:

The subsequent result is not so much a cut-off of U.S. aid as a subtle shift in perception abroad: Israel’s multiple enemies now are almost giddy in sensing that America is not all that into protecting the Jewish state, intellectually or morally. And given the nature of the UN, given the power of oil, given endemic anti-Semitism, given the collapse of classical liberal thought in Europe (e.g., Britain was far more deferential to Libya in repatriating a supposedly “terminally ill” mass murderer to Tripoli than it is currently with Israel), and given the realpolitik amorality of Russian and Chinese foreign policy, the world as a whole can now far more easily step up its own natural pressure on Israel, at just the moment when it increasingly has no margin of error with a soon-to-be nuclear Iran.

I'm really not sure if there's any serious discussion left to be had with those who make such claims. I've already addressed this argument here, here and here, so in short, I'll simply note that President Obama has done nothing to change America's strategic relationship with Israel, and no one - no one - will be allowed to militarily challenge the long-term security and health of the Jewish state. Period.

But for some reason - and you saw it even in our blog exchange with AEI's Danielle Pletka - the president's foreign policy critics continue to confuse puffery and rhetoric for substantive policy. Lacking any real evidence with which to indict him, these critics instead talk about tone, feelings and "perception," while glossing over the fact that Washington provides Israel with nearly a quarter of its annual defense budget.

So while Israel is just as militarily and strategically secure as it has ever been - if not more so - critics like Hanson worry about Israel's perceptual and "intellectual" insecurity . . . whatever that means.

It's becoming increasingly difficult to take these people seriously. Larison has more.

March 23, 2010

Linkage

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After General Petraeus testified before Congress that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was impacting American security, Abe Foxman at the Anti-Defamation League responded with a letter claiming that the General was wrong:

The assumptions Gen. Petraeus presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee wrongly attribute "insufficient progress" in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and "a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel" as significantly impeding the U.S. military mission in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and in dealing with the Iranian influences in the region. It is that much more of a concern to hear this coming from such a great American patriot and hero.

The General's assertions lead to the illusory conclusion that if only there was a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. could successfully complete its mission in the region.

Gen. Petraeus has simply erred in linking the challenges faced by the U.S. and coalition forces in the region to a solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and blaming extremist activities on the absence of peace and the perceived U.S. favoritism for Israel. This linkage is dangerous and counterproductive.

I also took issue with what the General said and I do think there is an unfortunate and distracting tendency to look at the peace process as the key to solving all of our problems in the Middle East. That said, there's also a bit of a two step going on with respect to the question of whether Israel is still of overwhelming strategic value to the U.S. On the one hand, we're told that Israeli behavior we don't approve of - specifically settlement activity beyond the 1967 Green Line - has absolutely no strategic impact beyond its borders and thus it's erroneous to fault Israel for harming the U.S. position in the region. On the other hand, we're told that Israel's military superiority subdues the entire Levant and reinforces a beneficial (for the U.S.) "Pax Americana" in the region.

In other words, the perception and reality of Israel's military superiority has a broad psychological and strategic impact on the rulers of Arab states and on the power balance in the region that works in our favor. But Israel's settlement activity has no psychological and strategic ramifications beyond the West Bank and certainly does nothing to hamper U.S. interests. The benefits of the partnership are cast far and wide while the downsides are confined to a handful of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Maybe I'm missing something, but that doesn't quite add up.

(AP Photo)

March 19, 2010

(Not So) Fair and Friendly

Shmuel Rosner throws some cold water on that Haaretz poll currently making the web rounds regarding Obama's approval in Israel.

March 17, 2010

U.S. Views on Settlement Building

Rasmussen Reports has a new poll out:

Forty-nine percent (49%) of U.S. voters think Israel should be required to stop those settlements as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 22% of voters disagree and believe Israel should not be required to stop building those settlements. Another 29% are not sure

.

Enemies and Allies

On Monday I asked critics of Obama's policy toward Israel to show me where any substantive changes had been made since the president's election. In response, a regular reader writes:

The problem with your theory that nothing has changed is the behavior of the Obama administration. There is a limited amount of diplomatic oxygen which makes the public vituperation over a position that (a) is an Israeli position held for decades and (b) enjoys wall to wall support in Israel both substantive and regarded as an indicator of true future intentions. So exactly what did Obama, Biden and Clinton think they were going to gain from broadcasting a demand that Israel could and would never accede to? If nothing is at stake, why are these highest of officials wasting time on this?

The U.S. demanding that an ally do something which it could never do and making that the center stage issue is a substantive change because it is an exercise of that limited resource of public leadership. It is a public exercise of a sort that was not used with respect to Iran or Russia.

But Washington doesn't have the kind of influence over Russia and Iran that it should theoretically have over Israel. In the case of Russia, the United States has to deal with a nuclear-armed energy power with a permanent perch on arguably the world's most authoritative deliberative body. In the case of Iran, years of diplomatic and economic disengagement have left the U.S. with few carrots to hang over Tehran's head (this is the crux of the unilateral versus multilateral sanctions debate). Both regimes have a strategic interest in not only resisting American overtures, but even, at times, rebuffing them entirely. This in turn makes diplomacy a more difficult and, yes, finite commodity to be used with care.

It's supposed to work differently with allies however, as shared values and strategic interests should, in theory, make diplomatic cajoling, hand-wringing and arm-twisting unnecessary. If strategic interests line up, then the diplomacy should sort itself out, right? So why is it so different in the case of Israel?

The problem as I see it is that the American relationship with Israel has become something more like a security pact than a strategic alliance, with the United States serving as the guarantor of Israeli security in the region. The tangible and strategic benefits for the United States may be less than apparent, but that's okay. The U.S. supports the security and longevity of the Jewish state not for some cynical or material end, but because it's the right thing to do.

But such a strategic imbalance has to have a line, and I do believe this Israeli government may have crossed it. That the Israelis are somehow entrenched or unwavering on Jerusalem is neither true (indeed, Ehud Barak managed to move public opinion on Jerusalem to what were, at the time, unimaginable points during the Camp David process), nor is it entirely the point. The Obama administration doesn't have the luxury of caring only about public opinion in Israel, as it must also care about public opinion in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and throughout the entire region. The opinions of a select few despots and monarchs, sadly, must also be taken into consideration by Washington.

Public opinion doesn't lead countries; leaders do. Netanyahu's government can play domestic politics with regional indifference because the region has done likewise to Israel. But the United States can only referee this squabble so long as its own interests aren't being harmed. At this point, it's unclear whether or not this current incarnation of Israeli leadership even knows what's in its own best interest.

It is, at times, a bizarre patron-client relationship, but the actual policy has not changed one bit; the United States, for better or for worse, will guarantee Israel's security through large, unique military aid packages and a regional security umbrella. And if the dialogue between patron and client suddenly seems out of whack, perhaps that's because the relationship has been a lopsided one all along.

March 16, 2010

What's the Point?

Jeffrey Goldberg unearth's Obama's strategy with respect to Israel:

So what is the goal? The goal is force a rupture in the governing coalition that will make it necessary for Netanyahu to take into his government Livni's centrist Kadima Party (he has already tried to do this, but too much on his terms) and form a broad, 68-seat majority in Knesset that does not have to rely on gangsters, messianists and medievalists for votes. It's up to Livni, of course, to recognize that it is in Israel's best interests to join a government with Netanyahu and Barak, and I, for one, hope she puts the interests of Israel ahead of her own ambitions.

Who Needs Peace?

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David Rothkopf hits on an interesting analysis of why the Obama administration is delivering a tongue-lashing toward Israel:

Second, there is no real "or else" backing up U.S. demands for a reversal, an inquiry and the offering of a meaningful olive branch to the Palestinians. Obama, with few foreign policy accomplishments to point to thus far in his young presidency, needs the peace process at least as much if not more than Netanyahu does. Time and leverage are, for the near term at least, on Netanyahu's side ... which is one reason why the U.S. government is opportunistically trying to use this crisis as a pretext to gain concessions out of the Israelis in advance of talks with the Palestinians.

That may be the administration's thinking and it may reflect the political reality, but in the real world, it's precisely the opposite. Netanyahu and/or his coalition might not be concerned about the Palestinians and their looming demographic majority in territory under Israel's control, but ultimately it will matter a great deal to Israel. It may be politically embarrassing for a U.S. President to fail to make peace after promising to do so, but it's going to be a much larger problem for Israel if they don't come to terms with the Palestinians (and vice-versa).

Those advocating pressure on Israel tend to take a fairly condescending attitude toward the country and their ability to understand their interests and make choices on the basis of those interests without U.S. intervention or pressure. It is, alas, a view all too common among realists. Thomas Friedman's column over the weekend analogized it to not letting a friend drive drunk. But I think there's a better one: if you see a friend that insists on driving drunk after you've begged them not to, you get out of the car.

(AP Photo)

March 15, 2010

Where's the Beef's Beef?

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Addressing the U.S.-Israel row, the Wall Street Journal writes:

Then again, this episode does fit Mr. Obama’s foreign policy pattern to date: Our enemies get courted; our friends get the squeeze. It has happened to Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras and Colombia. Now it’s Israel’s turn.

Seriously, if I hear this argument one more time I'm going to lose my damn mind.

I challenge the increasingly marginal number of pundits, pols and bloggers who are blaming this incident on the Obama administration to explain to me exactly where and how Obama has changed U.S. policy on Israel in any material or substantive fashion. Joe Biden went over to Israel to make nice and say in no uncertain terms that "there is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's security" against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The point of the trip was to provide conciliatory rhetoric to the already ample and obvious aid and support that the United States has allocated to Israel for FY2010.

But instead, Biden got sandbagged. Bibi either knew what was coming and anticipated the diplomatic kerfuffle for domestic political gain, or he didn't and demonstrated for all the world to see that he leads an unsteady government incapable of managing even its most precious and important alliance. Either way, the blame falls solely on Netanyahu. And as Tom Friedman, Walter Russell Mead and the Jerusalem Post editorial board all noted, this move made the Israeli government look completely incoherent and incompetent. That this is something coalition saboteurs have engineered in the past should be irrelevant. As Martin Indyk pointed out, never before has it been done to such a high ranking American official, and never, I would assume, to an American public official with a legislative record so staunchly pro-Israel as Biden's.

This was in fact a direct shot at Israel's staunchest ally, during a visit from one of its most ardent supporters. Yet, for some reason which clearly escapes me, there is a faction - albeit a tiny one - pinning blame for the fallout on the Obama administration. Worse yet, this same faction for the most part believes that this event is somehow consistent with a record of disinterest or hostility toward a nation that hasn't had any aid guarantees seriously challenged since 2005, while President Bush was still in office.

Simply mind boggling.

UPDATE: Eric Cantor demands to know why "the Palestinian Authority get a pass," even though Vice President Biden cosponsored the bill labeling the PA a terrorist organization.

Once again, I must ask: where is the substance?

(AP Photo)

Israel and America: Who Blinks First?

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace, it's difficult to see what the Obama administration hopes to achieve with its harsh rhetoric toward Israel, other than set itself up for another climb down. There doesn't appear to be any indication that Netanyahu will disavow building in East Jerusalem (something no Israeli prime minister would ever do). Earlier rhetoric aimed at coaxing the Netanyahu government to toe the U.S. line have failed. So what happens next? If the Israelis don't back down and offer some kind of face-saving concession, that means the U.S. backs down. That's not a fruitful dynamic to have on the eve of indirect peace talks. The Israelis will lose more trust in their U.S. interlocutor and the Palestinians will believe that the U.S. won't be able to "deliver" Israel if negotiations advance toward settlement.

And just as a general aside, how many countries respond to public hectoring?

Video of the Day

In today's video, we get to play "Spot the War Crime":

It goes without saying that Al Jazeera is often very critical of Israel, so they highlight one that implicates Israelis, but there is another war crime that the report describes and it goes completely unnoticed; or at least uncommented on.

For more videos on topics around the world check out the Real Clear World videos page.

March 14, 2010

How Imperative Is Mideast Peace?

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One of the more eye-catching incidents in the Biden-Israel fracas last week was the revelation that the Vice President told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel's settlement activity was endangering the lives of U.S. troops. Now, Mark Perry reports that this same sentiment was communicated in no uncertain terms to the administration by none other than Gen. David Petraeus earlier in the year, following an extensive CENTCOM survey of the region.

This is a provocative accusation, but it's also a self-serving one. It's true that the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict constitutes a security threat to the United States, in that it is a grievance that resonates with many in the Arab and Muslim world. The more the Arab and Muslim world has reason to dislike the U.S., the easier it is for radical movements to gain recruits. But the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a problem among many, not the problem.

Perry writes:

While commentators and pundits might reflect that Joe Biden's trip to Israel has forever shifted America's relationship with its erstwhile ally in the region, the real break came in January, when David Petraeus sent a briefing team to the Pentagon with a stark warning: America's relationship with Israel is important, but not as important as the lives of America's soldiers. Maybe Israel gets the message now.

Naturally you wouldn't expect the commander of CENTCOM to acknowledge the rather large elephant in the room here but the fact is that the larger problem is the presence of so many U.S. troops in the Middle East in the first place.

The decision to deploy military forces in the Middle East and to back-stop regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the principle political grievances of the Islamist terrorists that threaten America, a fact well documented by the University of Chicago's Robert Pape. Sorting out who lives where on the West Bank strikes me as a second-order concern.

(AP Photo)

March 12, 2010

The Realist Case for Israel

I was ready to put Mideast blogging to bed for a bit, but in my inbox this morning was a good piece by Martin Kramer (from 2006) that seeks to make the "realist" or purely strategic case for America's unconditional (his words) support for Israel. I had read it at the time, but it's worth bringing the arguments back to view now in light of the discussion of U.S. policy toward Israel after the Biden fracas. (Of course, 2010-era Martin Kramer has been in a bit of hot water lately over his suggestion that squeezing Gaza is helpfully reducing its supply of "superfluous young men.")

First off, it's important to recognize, as Kramer writes (and as Walter Russel Mead is explicating in a number of illuminating posts) that American support for Israel is rooted in the interplay of three major factors - religious affinity, a sense of moral and historical obligation, and strategic interests. All three pillars of support are legitimate and while I'm not particularly persuaded by arguments grounded in religious authority, I agree with the moral and historical claims* and think all three have every right, in our democratic society, to express themselves in our foreign policy. I think every "realist" recognizes (even if only to their chagrin) that U.S. policy is derived from a combination of factors and that strategic arguments alone do not always win the day in the public debate.

That said, this is a blog, and I'm not a politician . So back to Kramer's realist case for America's unconditional support for Israel.

Continue reading "The Realist Case for Israel" »

March 11, 2010

Where Is the Love?

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Jackson Diehl is disappointed with Vice President Biden's response to Israel's settlement announcement:

Over the years U.S. envoys from Baker to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have learned that the trick is to sidestep such broadsides, expressing disapproval without allowing the toxic settlement issue to take center stage and derail peace negotiations. After all, most Israeli settlement announcements, including this one, are pure symbolism: No ground will be broken anytime soon, and even if the homes are eventually constructed they won’t stand in the way of a Palestinian state.

By that measure, Biden flunked. Interrupted in the middle of what was supposed to be a day of love-bombing Israelis with speeches and other demonstrations of U.S. support, he kept Netanyahu and his wife waiting for 90 minutes into a scheduled dinner before issuing a statement that harshly criticized the interior ministry’s announcement. Biden chose to use a word -- “condemn” -- that is very rarely employed in U.S. statements about Israel, even though he and his staff knew that Netanyahu himself had been blindsided by the settlement announcement. So much for love bombs.

I'm sympathetic to Diehl's argument here, although I think the question then becomes why is it such the norm for Israeli officials to so blatantly sabotage diplomatic relations with Israel's most crucial ally? What does that say about the lopsided nature of America's rather transactional relationship with Israel?

Consider this: Biden flew over there, as Diehl claims, to assuage the Israelis. But of what? Has substantive, material aid to Israel changed since Obama's election? Israel is perceived as an occupier in the region, and America is often perceived as an enabler of that behavior, which makes us the target of anti-Americanism, Jihadism and terrorism. Whether those perceptions are valid or not isn't the point - they exist, and Obama will be the one left to deal with the regional fallout from the East Jerusalem announcement.

But hey, Bibi had to wait for 90 minutes.

There's another problem in the timing of the settlement expansion, as Shmuel Rosner explains:

Either one believes Netanyahu and his friends in government (saying it is all misunderstanding and bad timing). In such case, one should be concerned by Israel's chaotic decision-making process on delicate matters. Or - one might choose not to believe. One might think Netanyahu isn't telling the truth, or that Yishai is bluffing. If it's the former, one will conclude that Netanyahu has no intention of seriously exploring the just-announced peace negotiations. If it's the latter one will realize that Shas and Yishai are strong enough to toy with Netanyahu as much as they want - as much as embarrassing the American VP! - without paying a price. Not an encouraging thought.

And either way, Washington is left as arbiter of a peace plan with no willing participants. So tell me, who really needs some diplomatic love?

(AP Photo)

Worst.Year.Ever.

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Danielle Pletka laments the end of American civilization as we know it:

Consider that the president’s own staff can’t gin up a single special relationship with a foreign leader and that the once “special relationship” with the United Kingdom is in tatters (note the latest contretemps over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s bizarre intervention on the Falkland Islands); that neither China nor Russia will back the United States’s push for sanctions against Iran; that Iran, it seems, doesn’t want to “sit down” with the Obama administration and chat; that the “peace process” the president was determined to revive is limping pathetically, in no small amount due to missteps by the United States; that one of the key new relationships of the 21st century (advanced by the hated George W. Bush)—with India—is a total mess; that the hope kindled in the Arab world after Obama’s famous Cairo speech has dimmed; that hostility to America’s AfPak special envoy Richard Holbrooke is the only point of agreement between Delhi, Islamabad, and Kabul; that there isn’t a foreign ministry in Europe with a good word to say about working with the Obama White House; that there is a narrative afoot that began with the Obama apologia tour last year and will not go away: America is in decline.

Too many of these problems can be sourced back to the arrogance of the president and his top advisers. Many of Obama’s foreign policy soldiers are serious, keen, and experienced, but even they are afraid to speak to foreigners, to meet with Congress, or to trespass on the policy making politburo in the White House’s West Wing. Our allies are afraid of American retreat and our enemies are encouraged by that fear. George Bush was excoriated for suggesting that the nations of the world are either with us or against us. But there is something worse than that Manichean simplicity. Barack Obama doesn’t care whether they’re with us or against us.

And that's in just one year! Imagine how much he'll have ruined by 2012!

Needless to say, I find all of this to be a bit exaggerated, and even a bit disingenuous. Keep in mind that many once thought it cute or tough to alienate and insult allies; designating them as 'old' and 'new' Europe, for instance. When the Bush administration ruffled feathers it was decisive leadership; when Obama does it it's the collapse of Western society as we know it. Pick your hyperbole, I suppose.

After eight years in office, did President Bush actually leave us with a clear policy on ever-emerging China? How about the so-called road map for peace? How'd that work out? Did President Bush manage to halt Iranian nuclear enrichment, or did he simply leave Iran in a stronger geopolitical position vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan?

Pletka attributes many of these perceived failings to "arrogance." But it has been well documented that the previous administration was also stubborn, resistant to consultation and set in its ways. How then, if Ms. Pletka is indeed correct, has this changed with administrations?

Pletka scoffs at the president's insistence that policy is "really hard," but he's right - as was George W. Bush when he said it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the problem isn't what our presidents have failed to do, but what we expect them to do in an increasingly multipolar, or even nonpolar world?

(AP Photo)

March 10, 2010

Just Like Syria?

A reader writes:

The Gulf States despite their endless rhetoric hold much more animus toward Iran than Israel by orders of magnitude.
2 years ago Israel took out another nuclear program in the region. Ask yourself what was the reaction? There was none. No Arab street, no Arab protestation, no Gulf outrage. All the American whipped up fears & punditry all out with a whimper. A few platitudes were issued here & there, to keep the fiddle sounding for outsiders ears.

A couple of points here. One, comparing a potential strike on Iran to the 2007 Syria strike is comparing apples and oranges. Damascus, for obvious reasons, had just as much reason to downplay the 2007 attack as Israel did, if not more so. As a result, the news trickled rather than gushing out. This allowed minimal impact on the region's economy. The same can't be said of Iran, which would likely be a protracted regional crisis played out in linear and asymmetric fashion. Under these conditions, Iran wouldn't need to 'win' in a conventional sense; not so long as it could turn off its energy spigots and hold the markets hostage during negotiations.

Secondly, I think the assumption that Arab leadership is secretly cheering for an attack on Iran is a terribly exaggerated, and often simplistic crutch relied on too heavily by Iran hawks. Would some Mideast regimes like to see the revolutionary regime in Tehran go away? Certainly, but at what cost? The Saudis might applaud, but they will not applaud an indefinite unilateral war, waged by Israel, on another Muslim country in the region. My guess is that they'd prefer the Iranian 'problem' be addressed by Washington, and not the regionally contentious and controversial government in Jerusalem. Washington can guarantee the Saudis against Iranian reprisal; Israel cannot. (Israel's ability to even attack Iran remains logistically unclear.)

Delving a bit deeper, I think there's something troubling about the idea that Israel can act with unchecked impunity throughout the region with minimal consequence. Turkey was a victim of that impunity in 2007, and its relationship with Israel has indeed taken a hit ever since. Israel needs friends in the region, and the fact that some consider this to be inconsequential should worry even its most ardent supporters.

As I've already argued, Washington in fact does a major disservice to Israel by offering so little oversight of aid and investment in the country. It's a problem if Jerusalem is as flippant about its behavior as this reader is, and that's ultimately a failure of American leadership in the Middle East.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Walter Russell Mead has another long post up about Israel and anti-Semitism which touches on some of the questions I raised here. It's well worth reading in full and again, he makes a number of points I agree with. To wit:

I’m not trying to grade the incommensurable suffering of people around the world, but if we compare the attention and care that the international community has extended to the Palestinians with our attention and support for other victims in other places, a disturbing pattern emerges. Whatever the wrongs of Israel’s occupation policy — and I agree that there are some — the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank but even in Gaza, live much better than many people in the world whose suffering attracts far less world attention — and whose oppressors get far less criticism. I would much rather be a Palestinian, even in Gaza, than a member of a minority tribe in the hills of Myanmar, or almost anyone in the Eastern Congo or Darfur. Millions of children in Pakistan and Indonesia have less food security, less educational opportunity and less access to health services than Palestinians who benefit from UN services (to which the United States is historically the largest single contributor) that poor people in other countries can only dream of.

This is obviously true. It's especially in the Arab world, where the treatment of the Palestinians is subjected to no end of scrutiny while the grotesque human rights abuses of Arab regimes, Sudan, etc., are studiously ignored or minimized. Sri Lanka recently experienced a massive humanitarian catastrophe following a campaign against Tamil insurgents, and few people worked up much outrage about it (something that miffed Kevin quite a bit).

But I think there's a very important distinction here that Mead skips right over: by virtue of its aid and diplomatic support, the U.S. is implicated in Israel's behavior in a way that it simply is not with other countries. So one can agree with Mead, as I do, that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians does not rise to the world-historical level and nonetheless still argue that American policy toward Israel needs to be considered on the basis of that treatment (or more accurately, the ramification that that treatment has for American security).

This of course leads to the question of whether Israel's actions with respect to the Palestinians are having any negative impact on American security. This isn't physics, where cause and effect are as clear as billiard balls bouncing off one another, but there is a sufficient body of thought that does posit a direct link that it's worth taking seriously. Supporters of Israel - such as Dennis Ross and David Makovksy - acknowledged in their book that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major grievance in the Arab world and contributes to the terrorist threat we face, which is why attempting to solve the conflict is such an urgent priority. The 9/11 Commission referenced the radicalizing effect of the conflict. Other analysts, such as Peter Bergen, who have studied terrorism have cited the existence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a contributing factor to the rise of anti-American terrorism. And clearly, the conflict is a staple of al Qaeda propaganda. To take one recent example, Humam al-Balawi the Jordian bomber who killed 7 CIA officers in Khost, Afghansitan cited the war in Gaza as a catalyst of his radicalism.

At a minimum it suggests to me that violence in the Congo - which, we all agree, is objectively worse than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of the humanitarian toll - is nonetheless not as relevant to American security as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is. And I think that fact goes much further than anti-Semitism to explain the disproportionate emphasis given to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least in the United States.

Mead has promised some further posts on the subject but he notes that:

The core points I want to make aren’t about whether American foreign policy toward Israel is a good thing or not, but this debate is so politicized that if you criticize the thesis that American policy toward Israel represents the power of American Jews people assume that you are part of the lobby.

But why exempt a critical issue here? Isn't it just as important to debate the actual merits of our policy and not only whether people hold anti-Semitic views about its origins? I agree that it's important to root out and expose anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head. But as Mead acknowledged in his post, one can be critical of aspects of U.S. policy towards Israel and not be an anti-Semite. So why not address the arguments of those critics too? If all you're going to do is flag the anti-Semitic critics and arguments and pass lightly over the ones that aren't, you set up a debate that defacto paints all critics of American policy toward Israel as anti-Semites.

March 9, 2010

Will Israel Strike Iran?

Steve Simon at the Council on Foreign Relations assesses the likelihood and possible consequences here. His conclusion:


Israel is not eager for war with Iran, or to disrupt its special relationship with the United States. But the fact remains that it considers the Iranian threat an existential one and its bilateral relationship with the United States a durable one, and will act if it perceives momentous jeopardy to the Israeli people or state. Thus, while Israel may be amenable to American arguments for restraint, those arguments must be backed predominantly by concrete measures to contain the threat and reaffirmations of the special relationship, and only secondarily by warnings of the deterioration of the relationship,to be persuasive.

It's interesting to note that just as Vice President Biden arrived in Israel pledging American support for Israel in no uncertain terms, he got this:

Hours after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. vowed unyielding American support for Israel’s security here on Tuesday, Israel’s interior ministry announced 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, prompting Mr. Biden to condemn the move as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clearly embarrassed at the move by his interior minister, Eli Yishai, head of the right-wing Shas party who has made Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem one of his central causes.

A statement issued in the name of the Interior Ministry but distributed by the prime minister’s office said the housing plan was three years in the making and that its announcement was procedural and unrelated to Mr. Biden’s visit. It added that Mr. Netanyahu had just been informed of it himself.

Mr. Netanyahu supports Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem yet wants to get new talks with the Palestinians going and to maintain strong relations with Washington. But when he formed his coalition a year ago he joined forces with several right-wing parties, and has since found it hard to keep them in line.

Leave aside the issue of settlements, what does this tell us about Washington's ability to persuade Israel to tow our line? If we can't convince them not to build a few hundred houses in a politically sensitive location, can we really convince them to live with a nuclear-armed state that they consider an existential threat?

UPDATE:
Daniel Larison offers an answer:

That’s a fair question, but I think putting the question this way overlooks the enabling effect that the stated “no space” guarantee to Israel has on the behavior of the Israeli government. This relates to the application of the idea of moral hazard to foreign policy that Leon Hadar proposed and I have mentioned before. Many Americans might reasonably assume that by making unconditional, explicit security guarantees to Israel Washington could expect greater flexibility and accommodation from the Israeli government on points of contention, but this is not how it works. The moral hazard of unconditional backing is not only that the ally being supported will engage in reckless behavior, but that it does so knowing that it will pay no real price for this behavior as far as the relationship with the U.S. is concerned. The temptation is to focus criticism on the ally that is taking advantage of this, but the one deserving the most blame is our own government.

The Space Between

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I've always operated under the impression that if push came to shove, the Obama administration would not launch military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. I still believe that, but Vice President Biden's rhetoric in Israel does raise some important questions:


The cornerstone of the US-Israel relationship, Biden said, was America's unwavering commitment to Israel's security. "Bibi you heard me say before, progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the US and Israel. There is no space between the US and Israel when it comes to Israel's security."

I think it's proper for the U.S. to offer to protect Israel in the event her security were endangered, but what if the Israelis feel that a nuclear Iran is an intolerable threat to their security requiring military action to redress and the Obama administration disagrees? What happens, in other words, if there is a divergence in our respective threat perceptions? Does the administration do as the Bush administration reportedly did, and lean on Israel not to attack? Or do we decide that our security commitments obligate us to undertake military action?

(AP Photo)

The Costs of Dubai

Bob Baer, who knows a thing or two about covert operations, weighs in on the Dubai assassination and what it may have cost Israel:

If Netanyahu authorized the hit, though, the real question is whether he really considered the strategic implications. Look at the map. If Israel goes ahead and bombs Iran's nuclear facilities, it will need over-flight clearances from the Gulf Arabs. Antagonizing the U.A.E. in this way, leaving almost no doubt that Israel was behind Mabhouh's assassination, does not seem the best way to facilitate such clearances. Nor does it help build an Arab Sunni coalition against Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah.
The Islamic Republic imports about a third of its [gas] needs. And unfortunately, 75% of Iran's gasoline imports pass through the U.A.E. I would bet that, right now, Netanyahu is wishing that Mossad had been just a little better at covering its tracks.

As is Washington, no doubt. Again I ask, is this how allies allegedly fighting the same war behave?

March 8, 2010

Understatement of the Year

Laura Rozen on Vice President Biden's decision to bring MSNBC host Chris Matthews along with him on his trip to Israel:

...one wonders a bit whether Biden and Matthews, prone to sometimes say a bit too much (Biden), a bit undiplomatically (Matthews), may not be the media combination just anyone would have chosen for operation reassure and reaffirm.

Gee, ya think?

March 3, 2010

Hamas Claims Jordan, Egypt Behind Dubai Hit

The Dubai hit saga has taken another interesting turn:

Hamas suspects the security forces of an Arab state were behind the assassination of a senior group operative in Dubai earlier this year, the Al-Quds Al-Araby daily reported on Tuesday.

Mahmoud Nasser, a member of Hamas' political bureau, told the newspaper that slain commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was likely being tracked by agents from Jordan and Egypt prior to the January 19 killing.

If true, than a lot of allied governments (Britain, Australia, etc.) should be apologizing to Israel. Stay tuned....

February 26, 2010

Nothing Dumb About It

Walter Russell Mead picks up on the Gallup poll we highlighted yesterday on America's rising sympathy for Israel. Given that I highlighted Mead's piece in Foreign Affairs to further buttress my view that American support for Israel is broad and bi-partisan, I'm generally sympathetic to the case he makes. But in the spirit of bloggy garrulousness, let me take issue with this:


This brings us to a problem: why do so many people, especially self-described ‘realists’ when it comes to Middle East policy, find it mysterious that American foreign policy supports Israel? Surely in a democratic republic, when policy over a long period of time tracks with public sentiment, there is very little to explain. American politicians vote for pro-Israel policies because that is what voters want them to do. Case closed, I would think. Late breaking news flash: water runs downhill.

Here's another newsflash: the public does not write legislation. Lawmakers do. I'm fairly confident that Mead does not mean to suggest that the current policy status quo on Israel or any issue under the sun is simply the undiluted transmission of the public's collective will through the legislative body.

But I think Mead is badly mischaracterizing the realist position with respect to Israel. Indeed, I think Mead does realists a disservice by suggesting that they're confused by America's support for Israel when most realists themselves support an alliance with Israel. They just do not support the way the relationship is currently configured. Surely Mead is not suggesting that America's current policy status quo is the only possible "pro-Israel" policy the U.S. could formulate?

February 25, 2010

Gallup: U.S. Support for Israel Nears Record High

At a time when the Israeli political leadership has locked horns with America's, the American people are expressing near record high support for Israel, according to Gallup.

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This is ultimately why talk about lobbies ultimately misses a deeper truth about American politics (one Walter Russell Mead addressed at length in Foreign Affairs). There is broad, bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.

None of that necessarily implies that the current arrangement is optimal, for either party, but it does suggest that the status quo can be sustained for the foreseeable future.

February 24, 2010

Livni to Australia: Drop Dead

Clearly another bunch of cynics subjecting Israel to an unreasonable double standard.

Targets and Tactics, Ctd.

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni on the Dubai hit:

“Every terrorist must know that no one will support him when a soldier, and it doesn’t matter what soldier, tries to kill him, whether it is in the Gaza Strip, Afghanistan or Dubai,” Livni said. “I don’t expect the world to welcome the killing of terrorists, but I do expect the world to not criticize it.”

Livni said she did not know who was responsible for the killing of Mabhouh. She mocked the criticism Israel has taken from the international community for the assassination.

“What was disproportionate this time?” she asked. “Was there a disproportionate use of passports?"

And were every terrorist of equal value or consequence, Ms. Livni might have a valid point here. But as Larison explained a few days ago, Hamas is in fact a political reality that Israel must accept. If this assassination actually brought Israel closer to a political resolution in Palestine, then I'd say the consequences of stealing passports and carrying out a hit with total disregard for its allies were well worth it for Israel.

But what has this assassination actually accomplished? Will it deter Iranian weapons sales to Hamas? Not likely. Does it deter Hamas? Not likely. Has it created yet another martyr for Hamas to parade around the Gaza Strip? You bet.

George Friedman of STRATFOR explains:

We are not writing this as pacifists; we do not believe the killing of enemies is to be avoided. And we certainly do not believe that the morally incoherent strictures of what is called international law should guide any country in protecting itself. What we are addressing here is the effectiveness of assassination in waging covert warfare. Too frequently, it does not, in our mind, represent a successful solution to the military and political threat posed by covert organizations. It might bring an enemy to justice, and it might well disrupt an organization for a while or even render a specific organization untenable. But in the covert wars of the 20th century, the occasions when covert operations - including assassinations - achieved the political ends being pursued were rare. That does not mean they never did. It does mean that the utility of assassination as a main part of covert warfare needs to be considered carefully. Assassination is not without cost, and in war, all actions must be evaluated rigorously in terms of cost versus benefit.

In short, actions have consequences, and thus the benefits of those actions had better outweigh the consequences. I see no evidence that this murder, while no doubt gratifying, has actually gained Israel much of anything.

But then again, Washington is as much to blame for this, as we provide no serious oversight or regulation to go along with the tremendous sums of money and military aid we provide to Israel. The cost/benefit of leaving one terrorist dead in Dubai likely never factored into the calculation, because why should it? Who cares what the United Arab Emirates thinks? The UK? Whatever, they'll fall in line.

Of course, a truly global war against asymmetric enemies indifferent to borders and conventional conflict cannot be prosecuted in this fashion. If this is, as Ms. Livni argues, all one big war of good against evil, then the good guys need to talk to each other. They need to trust each other. They need to grow their own ranks. None of that was accomplished in Dubai.

A true War on Terror requires allies and principles. The United States learned this lesson the hard way in Iraq, but it's one Israel refuses to ever learn.

February 22, 2010

The S-300 Shuffle

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By Ed Stein

Just as the IAEA released yet another report declaring the potential presence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, one story seems to be sneaking under the radar. This past week brought yet more signs of a growing rift in Russian-Iranian relations surrounding Iran’s illicit nuclear program. As Russia seems to be opening to the possibility of additional sanctions, it sent another resounding shot across the bow to Iran when it delayed, again, its delivery of S-300 air defense missiles. This decision followed a meeting between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which the Russian president reportedly acquiesced to Israel’s request to do just this.

According to Alexander Fomin, first deputy director of the Russian Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, “There is a delay due to technical problems,” and “the delivery will be completed when they are solved.” In a response that could only further point out the obvious, Vladamir Kasparyants, head of the Russian arms company which manufactures the S-300s, responded, “there are no technical questions. It’s a political issue.” Thanks, Vlad. The S-300 issue has been at the top of the bilateral agenda between Israel and Russia for quite some time now, in addition to the believed subject of secret meetings between the two countries. And it’s no wonder: the presence of such a system would make much more difficult any military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites.

We should not be too quick, however, to conclude that Russia has fully come around on the Iranian nuclear issue, as this may be the result of some backroom horse-trading. According to the Russian press, Israel recently stepped-up its arms sales to Georgia, expanding beyond UAVs to include a variety of conventional arms, and already there has been speculation that the S-300s have been linked to Israeli-Georgian arms deals. Indeed, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has assured the world that the delivery will eventually be made: "There is a contract to supply these systems to Iran, and we will fulfill it.”

It has been hypothesized that an actual Iranian acquisition of S-300s could be an Israeli red line leading them to strike Iranian nuclear targets. One Russian analyst even went so far as to “give it a 100 percent possibility that Israel would strike Iran at the news of the S-300 delivery.” As enrichment continues, confrontation grows and the Iranian domestic crackdown intensifies, one has to wonder whether the moment of truth will come in the form of an IAEA report, or a ship carrying S-300s.

(AP Photo)

Targets and Tactics

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Max Boot writes:

Funny how no one seriously objects when U.S. Predators carry out similar hits on al-Qaeda operatives but the whole world is in uproar when the Israelis target members of Hamas — an organization that is morally indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. The Dubai uproar only highlights once again the double standard to which Israel is constantly subjected. But Israel cannot and should not use that double standard as an excuse to avoid taking vital action in its self-defense. The leaders of terrorist organizations are legitimate military targets, and Israel should spare itself the agonizing and hand-wringing over this targeted killing.

Daniel Larison pounces:

As atrocious and appalling as their past and present conduct is, Hamas still retains in much of the non-American West some minimal legitimacy as a major faction in Palestinian politics. Hamas and Al Qaeda may be morally indistinguishable, but politically they have very different standings in the eyes of many other states. Israel’s major regional ally Turkey has a ruling party that is somewhat sympathetic to Hamas, while it is resolutely hostile to Al Qaeda and its affiliates. These are rather obvious political distinctions that Boot ought to understand, and the Israeli government must also understand these things. It is pointless to pretend that these distinctions don’t exist and to complain that the different reactions to drone strikes and the Dubai assassination prove a double standard. Whether or not there should be a double standard, Israel’s government has to take for granted that there is one. If Israel’s patron and the global superpower can get away with something, however misguided it may be, it does not always follow that it can act with the same impunity.

Well put, but let me take it a step further and dismiss the notion that any double standard exists at all in this case. It's a convenient rhetorical crutch I suppose to scream hypocrisy every time a critique is made of Israeli behavior, but this time around it just doesn't pass muster.

Since he doesn't say, I'm left to assume Mr. Boot means predator strikes in Pakistan, and not Afghanistan. These strikes are the product of U.S.-Pakistani coordination spanning two administrations and two regimes in both Washington and Islamabad, respectively. The predators are likely based inside Pakistan, and the strikes are carried out with approval - albeit quiet and reluctant - from Islamabad.

Larison disapproves of the drone strikes, and I certainly won't deny him that right. Personally, I consider them the least bad alternative to a bad policy of prolonged regional occupation. If we're going to maintain a military presence in the region, then we should be targeting specific al-Qaeda-Taliban operatives and taking them out with limited civilian casualties. The drones accomplish this, which is why Pakistani concerns have been less about the civilian casualties involved and more about who gets to pull the trigger.

And there certainly has been debate in the West over these attacks, both public and private ones within the administration itself. Moreover, I cannot think of one pro-drone argument in the last two years that didn't involve a kind of resigned acceptance of the program's relative effectiveness. Who are these predator pom-pom wavers Boot alludes to? Name names, please.

One could go on at length about the differences between drones and Dubai, but let me try to sum it up in one word: sovereignty. What actually makes the drones controversial is the political backlash they create for our allies in Pakistan. Our presence in the country is a shadowy one, and the cost/benefit balance is rather sensitive. Washington views Pakistan as an important ally in an important war, and thus can't do too much to create domestic tensions for said ally. But these are considerations made in conjunction with that government, just as the strikes are ultimately approved and enabled by that government. Just imagine how much harder it would be if Western operatives went into Pakistan, unapproved, and carried out such strikes. The backlash would be both tremendous and justified. Now imagine how the UAE must feel.

The targets in each case may be "morally indistinguishable," but the tactics are not, and that's why Israel - if responsible - is in the wrong here.

(AP Photo)

February 19, 2010

The Dubai Hit, Ctd

Writing in the National Post, Tom Gross asserts that Israel could very well be the victim of a set-up over the assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai:

The governments of Jordan and Egypt (where Mabhouh previously spent a year in prison in 2003) have sought Mabhouh for some time. Some Arab media have reported that the operation against Mabhouh may have been carried out by a rival Palestinian group and the photographed individuals have nothing to do with it.

What is true is that someone is making increasing moves against operatives connected to the Iranian regime. In recent years, senior Iranian officials linked to the intelligence services or nuclear program have disappeared quietly, the latest one while on pilgrimage to Mecca. Perhaps the Saudis were responsible.

Perhaps multiple Mideast intelligence services are cooperating against Iran. Still, the idea that this is some kind of set up to make Israel look bad strikes me as unpersuasive.

February 17, 2010

Video of the Day

This is a topic that we have covered elsewhere on this blog, and yet a possible Mossad assassination is just too good to leave alone.

While there have always been conspiracy theories, the Internet has given them a home they never had. To be sure, there was a conspiracy here: to kill a Hamas commander. It succeeded, and maybe someday we will know who and why. In the mean time there will be a ton of speculation. Just for fun, kick in your conspiracy theory in the comments. I found it interesting that the conspirators apparently used the identities only of Europeans who speak Arabic.

For more videos on issues around the world, check out the Real Clear World Videos page.

Israel's Hamas Hit: The Controversy Continues

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Con Coughlin:

I fully accept that al-Mabhouh was a bad man with Jewish blood on his hands who was no doubt up to no good procuring weapons from Iran for use by Hamas against Israeli citizens. But that does not excuse Israel – if indeed this turns out to be the case – using British passports as cover for their assassination operation.

Britain is a close ally and supporter of Israel in the war on terror, and in return deserves some respect from the Israeli government. An operation like this would have been personally authorised by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and if did so then he has committed a grave insult to his British allies. At the very least the assassins could have used false British passports, rather than those of genuine citizens. As a result the personal security of British citizens living and travelling in the Middle East has been seriously compromised.

I think Coughlin has it right. The issue is not whether al-Mabhouh deserved to be strangled to death, but whether it's right to use the identities of innocent people to carry out such an attack. Again, though, these are all provisional judgments. We don't yet know the full story.

(AP Photo)

February 16, 2010

Dubai Releases "Hit Squad" Video

Two weeks ago a Hamas commander was killed in his hotel room in Dubai. Now the authorities have released CCTV video showing the assassins tracing the man's movements:

The assassins had passports from a variety of European countries and now that their faces have been plastered all over Dubai, the awkward diplomacy begins. Here's the Daily Telegraph:

The Foreign Office was investigating how the identities of six innocent Britons — at least three of whom lived in Israel — came to be used by the alleged hit team...

As police in Dubai released CCTV footage of the suspects yesterday, some of the Britons whose identities were stolen voiced their anger after waking up to discover that they had been named in the plot.

"I have not left Israel for two years and I certainly have not been to Dubai recently," said Kent-born Paul Keeley, 42, a builder who has lived on a Kibbutz in northern Israel for the past 15 years.

"When I first heard about this I immediately looked to make sure my passport was still there and it was. It has not been stolen, so I don’t know what on earth has happened.


I'm obviously in no position to tell what's going on, but it does strike me as extremely problematic to steal an innocent person's identity to carry out an assassination. Of course, there's almost certainly a lot more to this story.

February 8, 2010

DADT and the GWAT

Danny Kaplan, writing on Israeli policy in the pages of Foreign Policy, is puzzled by the American debate over gays in the military:

In Israel, military authorities have kept gay enlistment a minor concern by sticking to a minimal strategy: officially acknowledge the full participation of gays and at the same time ignore them as a group that may require special needs. Gay soldiers do not receive, and do not expect to receive, any special treatment in combat settings. It is simply a non-issue. If the U.S. government will adopt a similar course, it could enjoy not only a more liberal military, but also, perhaps, a more combat-effective one where the focus is on defeating the enemy rather than questioning fellow soldiers.

At a time when Americans are attempting to lead a campaign against terror and foreign dictatorships in the name of democracy, they should be more apprehensive of what is happening in their own military backyard.

I'd rather leave the domestic components of this debate to the Politics side of things, but I can't help but feel that DADT proponents are missing a great opportunity to accentuate the values Americans are fighting for in the so-called Global War Against Terrorism. If such a war does exist on a global scale, and it's indeed a societal conflict, what then does a stated policy of hiding gay servicemen and women say to our enemies about the sincerity of Western values? If radical Islamists advocate the torture of homosexuals in public squares, what then is the Western response?

February 7, 2010

Palin on Iran

Governor Palin certainly isn't the first to suggest a strike on Iran, so that's not really news. But there's a puzzling flippancy in the governor's foreign policy rhetoric that I think deserves some more nuanced attention.

I think - and hope - the governor will expand upon her foreign policy vision in the coming weeks and months, especially if she's truly considering a presidential bid in 2012.

(h/t Think Progress)

February 4, 2010

U.S. Views on What Causes Terrorism

Pollster James Zogby takes to the pages of Forbes to highlight some recent data:

Our questions about the motivations of terrorists to attack the U.S. found the right and left with very different perceptions on all of the choices we offered except one, our support for Israel. Fifty-eight percent said it was a significant factor in terrorist motivation, and that percentage varied little across all demographic groups, including political ideology. It was cited somewhat more by First Globals (69%).

Support for Israel ranked third among the seven possible motivations. Here are the results for how many overall thought each was a significant factor:

69% - Resentment of Western power and influence;

58% - Making Islam the world's dominant religion;

58% - Support for Israel;

34% - Death and damage caused by the U.S. military;

32% - Western freedoms;

27% - Poverty;

19% - Psychological disorders.

12% - Others

Zogby goes onto note how widely divergent the views are between Democrats and Republicans:


For example, making Islam dominant was called significant by 84% of Republicans, but only 35% of Democrats. On the impact of casualties caused by our military, 52% of Democrats said it was significant, compared with 11% of Republicans.

It's pretty shocking how widely divergent and politicized these views are. Personally, I don't understand why people insist on creating an "either/or" dynamic with respect to what's driving Islamic terrorism. It's a complicated problem. Why can't it be driven by both a desire to spread a fundamentalist religious belief and as a reaction to military actions that kill Muslims? The interplay of both issues, I think, is at the root of the problem.

February 1, 2010

Hezbollah Rearms

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Noah Pollack Pollak sounds the alarm over Hezbollah's recent move to rearm itself with more powerful rockets and to disperse those rockets throughout Lebanon to ensure that any Israeli retaliation would drag of all Lebanon into conflict. Pollack writes:

A new war would explode the myth that Obama’s outreach to the Arabs and pressure on Israel have set the Middle East on a new path. Israeli-Arab wars, this narrative holds, were the kind of things that happened during the Bush years, when the president ignored the peace process and alienated Muslims, and neocons imperiled world peace before breakfast. To have a war unfold in the enlightened, post-Cairo speech era, after dozens of visits by George Mitchell to the region — that would be quite an embarrassment.

Indeed it would. Of course, ending all wars in the Middle East is a bridge too far for any administration, no matter how diplomatically adroit. But still, Pollak is right that such an explosion would fatally undermine the administration's case for its diplomacy. However, it's important to accurately characterize what's going on in the region. Pollak writes:

Obama hoped that tilting the United States away from Israel and toward the Arabs would transform America into an “honest broker” and, therefore, a trusted mediator. He has been fastidiously promoting a narrative of equal culpability. But as we have seen over the past year, this rhetoric, aside from its departure from reality, alienates Israelis while gaining nothing from the Arabs but a hardening in their belief that their intransigence will win out in the end.

I think the only departure from reality here is the idea that Obama "tilted" the U.S. away from Israel. In point of fact, there has been no change in America's material or diplomatic support for Israel. The administration is not threatening to reduce U.S. aid or loan guarantees, nor is it reducing intelligence cooperation. They have not abandoned Israel in multilateral forums either, as the recent lobbying against the Goldstone Report in the United Nations demonstrates.

Indeed, about the only shift the Obama administration has made toward Israel is greater rhetorical opposition to Israel's West Bank settlement activity. But surely this can't be confused with substantive policy changes in the key material planks of the U.S.-Israeli alliance.

Pollak continues:

To the extent that Obama’s evenhandedness is interpreted by Hezbollah as a sign that the risks associated with another attack on Israel have been lessened, there will be a heightened likelihood of conflict. America, as the ultimate guarantor of the regional order, has over the past few decades internalized a hard truth about the Middle East: be a strong ally of Israel and prevent conflict, or be an indecisive friend and invite conflict.

I'm not sure how this adds up. If I assume that Pollack considers George W. Bush a strong ally of Israel, than during his tenure Israel experienced: an Intifada (which began at the tail-end of the Clinton administration), a war in Lebanon against Hezbollah and a war in Gaza against Hamas. That doesn't strike me as a conflict free period by any stretch. Nor does this assertion make sense logically. The U.S. has for years been a strong ally Israel but the sub-state groups dedicated to waging war against Israel don't expect American reprisals and so America's support (as we have just seen) has no deterrent value. Consider that the Bush administration gave a good deal of diplomatic cover to Israel during its war with Hezbollah in 2006, with Secretary Rice saying it was necessary that Israel not be restrained so as not to return to the "status quo ante." And where are we now? As Pollak noted above, Hezbollah is back, armed with more powerful weapons and with a better idea of where to put them so as to cause even more destruction the next go round.

It may well be that the best Israel can hope for is to wage intermittent war with the terror groups on its borders to buy itself time before the next round. But these conflicts will ultimately be settled politically. The Obama administration clearly erred in thinking that diplomacy could unlock these political solutions in the absence of any other leverage or incentives. But that's where we are.

I'd also take a different lesson from "the past few decades" of America being the "guarantor of the regional order" in the Middle East. And that is that such a role entails huge costs to America - in the form of wars and military interventions (Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Iran), the economic costs of stationing forward military power in the region, and a huge increase in terrorism directed against the United States. And without a super power poised to wrest the region's oil off of world markets, we should be far less willing to casually immerse ourselves in the region's sundry squabbles. There are issues of far greater importance on our plate.

UPDATE: Pollak responds:

A couple of clarifications: I didn't claim that a strong U.S.-Israel alliance prevents all conflict. Rather, I said that when Israel's enemies see the U.S. wavering, they are more likely to attack. And there most certainly has been a different U.S. posture toward Israel -- so thoroughly documented by people from across the political spectrum that I don't think it needs to be recounted here.

The larger point of course is that before there was a U.S.-Israel alliance (1948-1970's), there was constant, large-scale war. 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973. These were wars that involved several nations, not just terror groups. The reason for the U.S. alliance was to put a stop to that; Israel traded its ability to engage in transformative military action, and the U.S. acquired a far more stable Levant.

Fair point, but my point is that we should look at the U.S. experience in the Middle East after 1973. A large number of Americans have been killed in military action in the region and vastly more American civilians have been killed by Arab terrorists after 1973 than before. All of this is a direct consequence of assuming the stabilizer role. You could make a strong case that these costs were worth bearing during the Cold War, but I find it much harder to justify them now.

As for the earlier point about the posture toward Israel, have there been any material changes in the U.S.-Israeli alliance? A reduction in aid, loan guarantees or military/intelligence cooperation? I don't believe there have been. But I'll gladly stand corrected if there's evidence to the contrary.


(AP Photo)

January 26, 2010

Bin Laden & the Palestinians

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Osama Bin Laden's recent invocation of the Palestinian's plight has led a number of people (Bruce Riedel, Marc Lynch, Daniel Larison, among others) to argue that this underscores the need to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a conclusion and deny al Qaeda a potent propaganda tool. Here's Matt Duss:


Failure to move the parties toward a just resolution hurts U.S. credibility in the region, and constantly refills a propaganda well from which our enemies continue to draw.

And Andrew Sullivan:


It would not remove or emasculate the more irredentist factions, the Qaeda core, the Saudi nutjobs, and the Mumbai maniacs. But it would help shift the paradigm in which they can use the daily humiliations of Arabs in the West Bank or the horror of the Gaza attack as ways to move the Muslim middle.

There are numerous problems with this approach, starting with the pretty obvious point that none of the relevant parties are interested in making peace. The U.S. has demonstrated, for decades, that it is unable (or unwilling) to bring the two parties to a settlement and the Obama administration has just provided us with a case study in the futility of trying. No matter where you place blame for this state of affairs, the fact of the matter is that the U.S. has not been able to bridge the gap between the Israelis and Palestinians and nothing about the current peace process overseen by George Mitchell should give us any confidence that this is about to change.

But I think the focus on trying to end the conflict is looking at the problem the wrong way. For the United States, the basic issue is not the lack of peace - there are lots of places around the world that are not at peace but are nonetheless not a source of anti-American propaganda and jihadist recruitment. Rather, it is our involvement in the conflict that is ultimately the issue.

At the end of the day the U.S. has a limited ability to control what the Israelis and Palestinians do. But we can control what we do. If we are seriously concerned that sustained hostilities pose a direct threat to our security (and many people obviously don't believe this), then it seems to me the more sensible thing to do is to disentangle ourselves from the mess and not try in vain to clean it up.

(AP Photo)

The Greatest Threat to Israel

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According to their Defense Minister Ehud Barak, it's undefined borders, not Iran:

Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday said that Israel's failure to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians was a greater threat to the country than a nuclear Iran, Army Radio reported.

"The lack of a solution to the problem of border demarcation within the historic Land of Israel - and not an Iranian bomb - is the most serious threat to Israel's future," Barak told a Tel Aviv conference.

It doesn't seem like his boss agrees.

(AP Photo)

January 12, 2010

How Does This End?

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The Cable's Josh Rogin passes along a report from the State Department that warns that Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria could be the next terrorist safe haven:

As the United States widens its understanding of the terrorism threat to include countries like Yemen and Somalia, its neighbor across the Gulf of Aden, the State Department inspector general's office is warning about another potential breeding ground for insurgents: Nigeria.

Of course, the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hailed from there, but his case is seen as an aberration because he grew up in the most advantageous of circumstances. But according to a new report made public Monday, Nigeria is at risk of becoming the same type of breeding ground for violent extremism that America is now battling in so many other places around the globe.

As many people have said repeatedly, you could break the back of al Qaeda in Af-Pak and still have a global terrorism problem on your hands.

Perhaps more importantly, as Matthew Yglesias intimates, we've now defined our national security interests in such a way that we cannot feel secure in the world so long as their are pockets of insecurity anywhere. That is not a rational view of defense but paranoia. Unfortunately, it's a view promoted as assiduously by progressives - including the Obama administration - as neoconservatives.

It's also worth asking just how much more expensive it would be to eschew global nation building and instead invest the money in developing an energy economy that does not rely overwhelmingly on petroleum.Having influence over the Middle East is great and all, but in a world where the U.S. economy wouldn't grind to a halt without oil, I don't see a lot of downsides to letting China enjoy the fun of wielding influence in the region.

(AP Photos)

December 4, 2009

The Future of Israel's Labor Party (Pt. 2)

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By Thomas G. Mitchell

Click here for part one.

Labor is now on the verge of a split. Former faction leader Daniel Ben-Simon has given his party two-three months to reform or he will join four rebel MKs to form a new faction. This faction can either join with Meretz, with Kadima, or remain independent. If Labor does split, expect to see meetings between Kadima, Meretz, and the new faction and perhaps the remainder of Labor as well over a reorganization of the Center-Left in Israel. Whatever new Center-Left combination emerges will first have to destroy Labor and consolidate its hold over the Ashkenazi moderates before it can compete with the Likud. We could see a Big Bang II or a rumble between the rebels, Kadima, and Labor for control of the peace camp. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Labor received 19 seats in both the 2003 and 2006 elections. In late 2008—early 2009 Labor was polling only eight seats before the Gaza War helped to boost it to thirteen seats in the February 2009 election. It suffered from Israel’s poor performance in the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 against Hezbollah. Amir Peretz was replaced as Labor leader in 2007 by former prime minister and chief of staff Ehud Barak. Barak wanted to serve as defense minister until Labor was sufficiently recovered that he could be elected prime minister. So when given the choice of serving in opposition second to Kadima or joining the Likud coalition under Benyamin Netanyahu in 2009 as defense minister, Barak quickly opted for the latter.

Continue reading "The Future of Israel's Labor Party (Pt. 2)" »

December 3, 2009

Why the Peace Process is Going Nowhere

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The Washington Institute's David Makovsky diagnoses:

There were profound implications for the United States in setting the bar high on the settlement issue by calling for a construction freeze rather than merely no outward expansion of settlements. One lesson is that even if the Israeli opposition cannot say "yes" to Barack Obama, the United States has lost mainstream Israelis.

A second lesson is that caution is required in raising expectations. Abbas cannot be less Palestinian than the United States. So if the U.S. demands a freeze, Abbas is boxed in and not likely to agree to less. This pattern will likely repeat itself. With the United States calling for a freeze on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, Abbas is not likely to accept less -- such as no outward expansion of East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods.


There are two schools of thought when it comes how to effectively bring the parties to a settlement. The first, favored by Makovsky, is a slow, incremental process of confidence building on both sides until more substantive agreements can be forged. The other school, favored by Stephen Walt and others, want a 'big bang' settlement, where the U.S. shoe-horns both parties into agreement.

I think the "big bang" school believes that incrementalism is a danger to both parties. In the short run, it's the Palestinians who have the most to lose, since they're the weaker party and can thus be taken advantage of. Over the long run they believe incrementalism begins to endanger Israel, which will face the demographic crisis of having more Arabs under its rule than Jews.

Yet, as Makovsky argues, it doesn't appear that a 'big bang' approach can work, at least not the way the administration has approached it. That leaves incrementalism or - perish the thought - finding a more constructive use for our diplomacy.

(AP Photos)

The Future of Israel's Labor Party

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By Thomas G. Mitchell

For forty years the Israel Labor Party (ILP) has been America’s partner in the peace process. From the Roger’s Plan negotiations during the War of Attrition in 1969-70, through the Kissinger shuttle diplomacy of 1973-75, to the Oslo peace process of the 1990s it has been Labor that has negotiated with its neighbors. Even when the Likud Party was in power and negotiating with Egypt from 1977-79 it was carried out by a former Labor defense minister and a future defector to the Labor Party.

From 1977 onwards the ILP was in "The Shadow of the Likud" - to quote the title of a book on the party from 1977-96. The only two elected Labor coalitions after 1977 were both headed by former generals. In fact, since Golda Meir resigned in 1974, Shimon Peres was the only “civilian” Labor prime minister and he had to share his term with Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud because Labor’s margin of victory was so narrow. This means that Labor should be compared to the only Western democratic parties that were also dependent on former generals (military politicians): the Whigs in antebellum America, the Republicans in post-Civil War America, and the South Africa Party/United Party in the Union of South Africa. The Whigs collapsed over a four year period after suffering a leadership vacuum and adverse public reaction to a failed compromise on the slavery issue. The United Party staggered on for three decades after running out of generals but collapsed rather quickly over a three-year period.

Continue reading "The Future of Israel's Labor Party" »

November 30, 2009

Israel–EU Relations: Coming to a Head

According to a recent article in Israel's Haaretz newspaper

“European Union foreign ministers are expected to officially call next week for the division of Jerusalem, to serve as the capitals of both Israel and Palestine.”

The article goes on to say:

“Jerusalem is waging a diplomatic campaign to keep the EU from issuing such an endorsement, but diplomats close to the EU deliberations believe it is virtually inevitable.”

The deterioration of relations between Jerusalem and Brussels is likely to strengthen the voice of the left in Israel. Until today, the right wing of Israeli politics, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, has continued with its controversial policy of expanding settlements without any real opposition from abroad.

However, this new development with the EU is different. Brussels is now openly showing the current Israeli government that it is no longer accepting its policies of expansion of settlements in Jerusalem. Such a move could lead to further isolation of Israel in the EU. The Israeli left in this case could point to the deterioration in relations as a clear sign that Netanyahu's policies are counter productive for Israel's standing abroad. The fact that the EU is one of Israel's biggest trading partners is likely to add weight to the sense of concern between decision makers in Jerusalem.

The current Israeli government sees Iran as its biggest enemy. Consequently, it wants the international community to isolate Iran and to impose tough sanctions against its rulers and their nuclear program. For now, the Iranian leadership seems to be helping Israel by turning down the recent nuclear proposal from the West, as well declaring that it intends to build 10 new enrichment facilities.

What Netanyahu seems to overlook is that his recent actions have helped Ahmadinejad and the Iranian government. The EU, instead of just condemning Iran, is now condemning Israel too.

The deterioration of relations with the EU could be taken as a sign of things to come for the U.S., too. The Obama administration is under increased pressure to show results in its foreign policy. The Netanyahu administration could find that instead of focusing entirely on Iran, the White House may also start placing pressure on Israel as means of improving its credibility in the Middle East. Ignoring the EU will be difficult. If history is to be our teacher, it shows that ignoring Washington can also be very costly. Don't forget that it was U.S pressure which contributed to the fall of the Shamir government in 1992, and the victory of Yitzhak Rabin's Labour led, pro peace coalition.

No Choice?

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The New York Times expresses its frustration at the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and then says:

The president has no choice but to keep trying. At some point extremists will try to provoke another war and the absence of a dialogue will only make things worse. Advancing his own final-status plan for a two-state solution is one high-risk way forward that we think is worth the gamble. Stalemate is unsustainable.

The idea that the president has "no choice" is self-evidently wrong. The president always has a choice. Nothing compels the United States to try to broker a peace deal. We've survived lo these many years without one and I suspect we'll endure a great deal longer.

(AP Photos)

November 18, 2009

Sarah Palin's Israel Policy, Ctd.

Just to follow up on Greg's Palin post, the line that stuck out for me--and others-- was the one about Jewish people "flocking" to Israel in the "days, and weeks and months ahead":

Maybe this was just a throwaway line, I don't know. But I thought it to be pretty common knowledge that Israel was undergoing a demographic crisis, and that its modest growth bump in the past couple years was mostly internal. Immigration has declined slightly in the past couple years, and it's half what it was in the 90's.

Who, unless I'm mistaken, is "flocking"?

Sarah Palin's Israel Policy

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Appearing on ABC News, Sarah Palin weighed in on Arab-Israeli peace:

"I disagree with the Obama administration on that," Palin told Walters. "I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don't think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand."
Blake Hounshell isn't impressed, calling Palin's policy "morally and strategically obtuse" and then adding
This is why, from their inception, successive American presidents of both parties have denounced this colonization of the West Bank, although rarely, such as when George H.W. Bush put real pressure on the Israelis by temporarily holding up loan guarantees, have they done more about it talk. Even George W. Bush, the bulk of whose Israel policy can be fairly summed up as "Let Ariel Sharon do what he wants," at least expressed his displeasure over the settlements every now and again.

So Palin is way out there on the lunatic fringe, supporting an Israeli policy that all serious people understand to be deeply corrosive to the prospects for peace and to Israel itself.

This seems a bit like a Casablanca moment - we're shocked, shocked! - by what Palin said about American policy toward Israel. But that's absurd.

I would note that, as Hounshell himself admits, not a single U.S. president has actually done more than mouth empty threats or apply mild, temporary, pressure on Israel over its settlements. All serious people may believe settlements are corrosive to peace, but those people do not include the current Prime Minister of Israel and the current U.S. administration (again, judge what they do, not what they say).

What Sarah Palin is saying has been U.S. policy in deed, if not in word, for decades. I see no reason to beat up on Palin over stating the obvious, not least because she will (thankfully) never be president.

(AP Photos)

November 17, 2009

Goldfarb on Obama on Jerusalem

Biting but true:

From the moment during the campaign that Obama declared "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided," to the subsequent walkback, to the demand that all settlement construction in East Jerusalem come to an end, to the subsequent walkback on that. Nobody knows what this administration's position is on Jerusalem, least of all the parties involved in the peace process.

The only "achievement" this administration can claim is having driven the Israeli public into Bibi's arms, helping him solidify his support across party lines, and destroying President Obama's credibility with the Israeli public -- smart power.

Choosing Palestines

David Hazony makes a fair point on the thought of the PA unilaterally declaring statehood:

Many of the world’s most successful countries achieved internationally recognized independence without the benefit of a negotiated agreement between conflicted parties, the United States and Israel being two obvious cases. If Palestinian national aspirations were so legitimate and a two-state solution the only answer, why wouldn’t the great powers recognize this much? And in such a scenario, what unilateral retaliation could Israel reasonably get away with?

Rather, the real problem with Palestinian independence — the elephant in the room, if you will — is that there is no viable Palestinian regime that can claim to run a sovereign country. Right now, the Palestinian territories are divided, ruled by two different Palestinian regimes. The one in Gaza is led by an internationally recognized terror organization supported by Iran and dedicated to war against Israel and violent conflict with the West. The other, in the West Bank, is led by a revolutionary-style regime that is deeply corrupt and still fosters and harbors terrorist groups like the Fatah-Tanzim, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Efforts to negotiate a unification between the two sides have consistently failed, and one gets the sense that the only thing preventing an all-out civil war between Hamas and Fatah is the sliver of land that divides them (Israel, that is).

So the problem, it seems, is not between Israel and the Palestinians so much as among the Palestinians themselves.

True, however the legal establishment of a Palestinian state--hinging, of course, on UN approval-- would force world governments to be more selective in how they dole out their aid to the Palestinians. While much of the humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza would likely continue, the aid and support provided to Gaza--and by default Hamas--in the name of Palestinian statehood and support would become more complicated.

Furthermore, the asymmetric support provided to Hamas by Iran would lose a great deal of its validity. After all, to continue funneling weapons and resources toward Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian state would likely undercut Tehran's influence in the region.

In short, it could force Hamas' supporters to better justify and enumerate their investment in the territories. Even if dysfunction were to persist as Hazony suggests, at least the lines of culpability in that dysfunction would be made a little clearer.

November 10, 2009

From Two States to One State

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Stephen Walt suggests that talk of disengaging from the peace process is meaningless unless America is also willing to cut its aid to Israel, which it will never do. He then argues:

Israel is going to get what it has long sought: permanent control of the West Bank (along with de facto control over Gaza). The Palestinian Authority is increasingly irrelevant and may soon collapse, General Keith Dayton's mission to train reliable and professional Palestinian security forces will end, and Israel will once again have full responsibility for some 5.2 million Palestinian Arabs under its control. And the issue will gradually shift from the creation of a viable Palestinian state -- which was the central idea behind the Oslo process and the subsequent "Road Map" -- to a struggle for civil and political rights within an Israel that controls all of mandate Palestine.
I think Walt overlooks the possibility that the Israelis will try to unilaterally solve this problem by creating a de-facto border (as they have in essence done with the security wall) while consolidating its West Bank settlements into defensible pieces - pieces it was likely to keep in any land-swap with the Palestinians. There will be some tension when it comes time to evacuate those settlements that wouldn't fall within the defensible zone, but Israel has already proven a willingness to dislodge settlers in Gaza. Admittedly the West Bank would be a more contentious affair, but what alternative would they have?

The rump of what's left to the Palestinians will, like Gaza, be policed by Israel and ministered to by the United Nations and NGOs. That's clearly not an ideal outcome for either party, but I cannot for the life of me imagine that Israel is going to allow itself to be convulsed with the kind of "civil rights" struggle Walt eludes to.

This is, at root, a power struggle. And Israel has more power. When faced with the kind of scenario Walt describes above, they will either capitulate to American demands for concessions to advance a two state solution, or they will impose a solution that's in their perceived interest if one can't be worked out to their liking at the negotiating table. It's not pretty. But it was never going to be. And America has proven time and again that it cannot bring this situation to a peaceful conclusion.

(AP Photos)

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November 8, 2009

Tom Friedman Goes There

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This strikes me as a pretty important column from Thomas Friedman:

If we are still begging Israel to stop building settlements, which is so manifestly idiotic, and the Palestinians to come to negotiations, which is so manifestly in their interest, and the Saudis to just give Israel a wink, which is so manifestly pathetic, we are in the wrong place. It’s time to call a halt to this dysfunctional “peace process,” which is only damaging the Obama team’s credibility.

If the status quo is this tolerable for the parties, then I say, let them enjoy it. I just don’t want to subsidize it or anesthetize it anymore. We need to fix America. If and when they get serious, they’ll find us. And when they do, we should put a detailed U.S. plan for a two-state solution, with borders, on the table. Let’s fight about something big.

I agree. It's important to underscore that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a very big deal to Arabs and Israelis. We insist on getting involved by cutting huge aid checks to Israel and inserting ourselves in between the combatants to broker a deal, but ultimately, who lives where in the West Bank has absolutely no strategic bearing on the security of the United States. In theory at least, this understanding would liberate us from this counter-productive morass.

(AP Photos)

November 3, 2009

Clinton on Settlements

The State Department released the following statement from Secretary Clinton during her swing through the Middle East:

For 40 years, successive American administrations of both parties have opposed Israel’s settlement policy. That is absolutely a fact.

And the Obama Administration’s position on settlements is clear, unequivocal. It has not changed. And as the President has said on many occasions, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. Now, the Israelis have responded to the call from the United States, the Palestinians and the Arab world to stop settlement activity by expressing a willingness to restrain settlement activity. They will build no new settlements, expropriate no land, allow no new construction or approvals.

And let me just say this offer falls far short of what we would characterize as our position, or what our preference would be. But if it is acted upon, it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth.

Let me take a step back because I want to put this into the broader context. I will offer positive reinforcement to the parties when I believe they are taking steps that support the objective of reaching a two-state solution.

I will also push them as I have in public and in private to do even more. And in my report to the President last month, I talked about Israeli willingness to restrain settlement activity as a positive step.

In the same report, I praised President Abbas’ leadership of the Palestinian Authority for their courage and the security measures on the West Bank. The steps being taken under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayed are also unprecedented and we have never seen such effective security. I have on many occasions going back – as you know in Sharm El Sheikh - praised the accomplishments that the Palestinian Authority has demonstrated in building, training, and reforming their security forces.

I told Prime Minister Netanyahu that these positive steps on the part of the Palestinians should be met by positive steps from Israel - movement and access, operations by the IDF and on Israeli security arrangements on the West Bank. Israel has done a few things in that regard but they need to do much more. And President Abbas has shown leadership and determination on this issue and Israel should reciprocate.

I just want to clarify that what we are trying to achieve is a two-state solution with a state that represents the aspirations of the Palestinian people – the sovereignty and to have control over their own future, and provide the security guarantees to Israel for their own future. That is my goal. And when either party takes any steps that looks like it moves us in the right direction – even if it is not what I would like or what I would prefer - I’m going to positively reinforce that.

This is an opportunity for both sides to try to move forward together, to get into negotiations, and to realize the goal that many of us around this table have supported and worked for for many years.

November 1, 2009

Don't Give Peace A Chance

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Why does the United States want to settle the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians? After Secretary Clinton's rather embarrassing trip through the Middle East (where she got nothing from the Palestinians and pretended that the nothing she got from Israel was somehow significant) it might be time to reassess first principles.

As far as I can see, the U.S. is engaged in this effort because it's concerned that the continuing inability to find peace is a source of regional anger toward the United States. The Arab world is outraged that America supports Israel. America wants to support Israel but is sensitive to this outrage and so it tries to square a circle by bringing the standoff between the Israelis and Palestinians to a close.

But for at least a decade it's been obvious that such a straddle is untenable. Neither party is prepared to take the steps necessary to forge a final status agreement. So where does that leave the U.S.?

As Karen DeYoung reports, the administration believes it's sufficient that they make it look as if we're trying really hard: "Clinton's objective on this trip seemed less to achieve any real breakthrough than to give the impression of continued effort."

I'm not sure who is supposed to be impressed with the "impression of continued effort." Certainly not the Palestinians who, as DeYoung notes, have only dug in their heels deeper. The Arab world is not going to give the Obama administration an "A for effort" if they're unable to actually accomplish anything.

Wouldn't it be better to drop the pretense that a peace settlement is actually important? America has made clear that its support for Israel is unconditional - peace or no peace. It's also made clear that it is unable to force the parties by dint of persuasion to set aside their differences. Why not be honest with ourselves and the world and declare that we will not seek peace (but would, of course, welcome any steps the parties choose to make in that direction)? Whatever anger that may arouse in the Arab world is almost certainly compounded by the impression that America not only doesn't care about a settlement but is also feckless. Let George Mitchell enjoy his retirement and let our foreign policy establishment focus on problems - like Afghanistan and Pakistan - that actually impact American security.

(AP Photos)

October 23, 2009

Dear J Street, Ctd.

Following up on my earlier post on this matter, I believe Andrew makes a good point here:

What's interesting here is that J-Street's head insists that the only serious lever the US has over Israel should be taken off the table before any deal is even negotiated. This is the lefty, peacenik, goddamned hippie position! Military aid, mind you, is already formally illegal because of Israel's secret nuclear bomb program (which no American president can, you know, mention), but is retained because, well, because it would never be repealed by the Congress. And so Netanyahu knows he can do anything he wants without any real blowback from the US. And he has about as much interest in a two-state solution as I have in marrying a woman.

This leaves the US with no leverage over a central party in critical discussions which indeed affect the national security of Americans. In what other case does that apply?

No matter where you fall on the Israel-Palestine issue, I think this is a rather convincing take-down of J Street's rationale for existence. As I mentioned yesterday, there is a finite amount of oxygen to be sucked on this matter inside the beltway, and the line of scrimmage is off the football field, out the backdoor and in the parking lot with the tailgaters.

Strategically speaking, I just don't get J Street's message. If one's hope is to drive a wedge into Washington's Israel thinking, one would think, you'd need to offer a more convincing alternative than "we're the good Israel Lobby—trust us." It seems to me that a more convincing message alternative to the alleged threat that AIPAC et al. presents would be one based on redefining Mideast relationships as a whole in order to make Israel a safer place.

This, if you believe in the J Street mission, may require advising U.S. policymakers to offer hard truths to our allies and friends in Jerusalem. But the U.S.-Israeli relationship hinges on Washington's enabling and maintenance of Israel's military supremacy in the region. If this topic remains off the table, well then, I'd get used to AIPAC directing the policy traffic for the foreseeable future.

October 22, 2009

Dear J Street

Let me just preface my point here by first stating that I don't really have a dog in the fight over the J Street conference going on next week in Washington. Do I think Michael Oren should attended? Sure. Do I think it hurts his standing in either Jerusalem or Washington or Peoria to not attend? Not in the slightest.

I think this conference is one of those events that people living and working in Washington think is really, really important, but in the long run doesn't mean a heck of a lot. It seems to me that because J Street has to compete inside the beltway with already established heavy-hitters such as AIPAC, its supporters are going to take small victories—like, for instance, a really formal and distant letter from Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni—and inflate it into something of undeserved value.

I think Michael Goldfarb makes a fair point:

Livni refused to come in person, refused to do a live satellite appearance, refused to do a taped message. Instead she wrote a letter -- and even then she's careful to say that she and J Street do "not agree on everything."

Right, which makes the gushing over said letter even more bizarre. What would the reaction be if a significant Israeli official actually decided to attend? Would there be fainting at the Grand Hyatt?

I think this hysteria stems from the left's general paranoia and exaggeration of AIPAC's influence on Israeli policy. Such influence is clearly there, but it cannot possibly compete with the imaginations of the AIPAC skeptics. And because of that hyper-inflated fear, these critics seem to think that the best way to compete for influence over Israeli policy is to start another partisan group, and to throw even BIGGER cocktail soirees in Washington hotel b