Nine Thoughts On The Latest Gaza Flare-Up

Now that the latest flare-up of fighting between Israel and Gaza has subsided, at least for the moment, here are nine thoughts on the clash, the outcomes, and the implications.

  1. Although the timing is suspicious, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably did not launch an operation in Gaza to forestall a developing accommodation with Hamas. The Israeli incursion that sparked the latest conflagration in Gaza was of a kind that Israel carries out on a routine basis. It was, from all appearances, a routine intelligence operation gone awry. Gaza has been a steady source of political losses for Netanyahu, this time as well. His willingness to consent to Qatari cash coming into the Strip was unpopular in Israel, as was his quick agreement to a ceasefire. There was no good reason for Netanyahu to have intentionally gone down this path. Read more at LobeLog

A new defense minister for Israel? Cause for concern

Earlier today, it was reported that Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Israel’s right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, has agreed to join the government of Benjamin Netanyahu in the post of Defense Yvet
Minister. This is a concerning development for a number of reasons.

The agreement between Lieberman and Netanyahu comes in the wake of Netanyahu’s negotiations to bring the Zionist Union into the government, during which Netanyahu made a point of refusing to offer the Defense portfolio to ZU Chairman Isaac Herzog. While it might seem that Netanyahu turned to Lieberman only because he was unable to come to satisfactory terms with Herzog, Labor Party MK Stav Shaffir is likely correct in observing that “It is now clear that Bibi used (Herzog) in order to bring Lieberman into the government.” That is, Herzog was used as bait.

But the real context for the decision to move Lieberman into the Defense Ministry is the need to replace Likud Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Ya’alon and Netanyahu have been at loggerheads in recent weeks. The disagreements have centered on two specific events.

The first was the widely publicized video of an Israeli soldier shooting and killing a Palestinian who was already laying on the ground, subdued and semi-conscious. Ya’alon had made it clear that this was a serious violation of Israel Defense Forces rules of engagement. At first, Netanyahu agreed, but after being slammed by right-wing critics, and public support for the soldier swelled, he changed his position.

More recently, Netanyahu strongly criticized the Deputy Chief of Staff, Yair Golan, for a speech he made on Holocaust Memorial Day expressing concern about the growing “intolerance and violence” within Israeli society. Ya’alon explicitly pushed back on Netanyahu’s criticism of Golan, insisting that such statements, even if unpopular, are within the purview of IDF leaders.

Netanyahu has long had an uneasy relationship with the Israeli military and intelligence. He views the military as a tool of the government, and its duty is to enact and support the policies the government decides upon. The military, on the other hand, sees itself as having a key role in deciding Israel’s security needs, and has, throughout Israeli’s history, held an esteemed position in Israeli society not only as protectors but, whether one thinks it justified or not, as a symbol of Israeli ethics and morality.

As Aluf Benn, editor of Ha’aretz put it, “The IDF is still the most popular body in Israel, and over the past few weeks its leaders have made clear that they do not intend to be the military arm of the Beitar soccer club’s extremist fans, La Familia, or of the right wing singer the Shadow.”

But that is exactly what Avigdor Lieberman is going to want to turn them into. Indeed, Labor MK Erel Margalit stated it clearly: “Netanyahu decapitated the defense minister on live TV, and the gangs have triumphed over democracy. This is a day of celebration for extremists, La Familia and the hilltop youth, and at this rate Elor Azaria (the soldier who shot the subdued Palestinian terrorist referenced above) will be appointed deputy defense minister by Bibi.”

It is precisely this difference that led Netanyahu to replace Ya’alon with Lieberman. Where Ya’alon fought for what he saw as the independence and integrity of the military, Lieberman’s views line up perfectly with the Israeli political right’s.

During recent conflicts with Hamas, Lieberman was at the forefront of stirring up internal tensions. He called for boycotts of businesses owned by Palestinian citizens of Israel, and has accused Israeli human rights groups of supporting Hezbollah and other militant groups. As a 2014 editorial in Ha’aretz put it, “This incitement, which rolls from the top echelons of the Israeli government down into society, eventually evolves into the physical violence that has become commonplace at demonstrations, when right-wing activists attack those protesting government policy while shouting ‘Death to Arabs,’ and ‘Death to leftists.’”

Moshe Ya’alon is a committed member of the Likud and the Israeli right. One should not forget that only recently, he stirred controversy and engaged in incitement himself when he called the human rights/IDF veterans’ group Breaking the Silence “traitors” for publishing testimonies of IDF soldiers about their experiences in combat and in the occupation (a charge he later withdrew).

But Lieberman is a different breed. This is a man who advocates a loyalty oath for non-Jewish citizens of Israel, wishes to excise towns populated by Palestinian citizens of Israel, and whose statements have often been seen as encouraging attacks on Arabs and leftists in Israel. He is someone who has a warm relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and a difficult one with much of the United States government.

If anyone envisioned Isaac Herzog joining the government and making it easier for the European Union and the United States to work with Israel, Lieberman’s appointment brings the opposite result. Israel is now led by a trio of right-wingers in Netanyahu, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, each more radical than the last. The opposition, such as it is, is now weakened even further by Herzog’s failed attempt to join the government, a move opposed by most of his own party.

Many observers have voiced concern about the decline of Israel’s democracy under Netanyahu. We have now seen another significant setback with Lieberman’s appointment as Defense Minister. Perhaps the one hope, if any is to be found, is that the opposition may now find new leadership which might start to regain the ground liberal Israelis have lost.

Netanyahu-Lieberman Union Won’t Change Iran Timetable

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled an “October surprise” out of his hat when he announced his Likud party would form a joint list in the upcoming election with Avigdor Lieberman’s fascist Yisrael Beiteinu party. This is more of a partnership than a merger, but it has profound implications.

In partnering with Lieberman, Netanyahu is likely chasing moderate voices out of his cabinet, his coalition and his own party. The outcome will surely mean an even harder line stance against the international community, especially the European Union.

Netanyahu obviously believes that increasing Israel’s already significant isolation is worth what he thinks will be increased impunity in dealing with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states. He hopes that the merger will better equip him in defending against any potential comeuppance from Barack Obama if he wins re-election. If Romney wins, Bibi believes he will have a government ready and willing to take full advantage of a neoconservatives return to foreign policy power in the US. He is certain that his lobby in the US will keep Israel kosher enough, even though this move is going to alienate large numbers of US Jews and will likely increase growing tensions between the US Jewish and Protestant communities.

The effects will be even more profound within Israel. The expanding racism and xenophobia will kick into overdrive and, unless Labor or some new centrist party can truly capture an anti-racist spirit — which seems unlikely — the Israeli public will shift even farther right, and more liberals will be leaving.

But one thing this move will not affect is Iran, at least in the short run. Ha’aretz editor Aluf Benn believes that Netanyahu just created a war cabinet, one which will hasten an Israeli attack, and possibly even frighten the United States into attacking Iran itself before Israel does. I doubt it.

To start with, Benn does make some important points. He writes:

…Netanyahu has finally renounced his attempt to portray himself as a centrist, as a statesmanlike and moderate leader. The mask that he put on before the previous election has finally been tossed into the trash. With Lieberman as second in command and heir to the throne, and his supporters in prominent spots on the joint ticket, Likud will become a radical right-wing party, aggressive and xenophobic, that revels in Israel’s isolation and sees the Arab community as a domestic enemy and a danger to the state.

Quite true, and he later points out that the level of western-style democracy that was defended even by hawks like Benny Begin and others in Likud like Dan Meridor was just put in the crosshairs. What is left of that idealism in centrist Israel won’t survive.

But if, as Benn frames it (correctly, I think), Lieberman essentially replaces Ehud Barak as Bibi’s right hand man, this hardly shifts hard toward war. The final makeup of the next cabinet is still unclear. This joint list idea is going to narrow support for Netanyahu, not broaden it. The influential Shas party is no longer a realistic partner for Bibi, as they are strongly opposed to Yisrael Beiteinu. That’s a big loss. The joint list is almost certain to secure fewer seats than the parties would have separately, but this was a price Netanyahu was willing to pay to lead the biggest party in the Knesset next time (Kadima has the most seats in the current Knesset). But Bibi will have to offer someone, perhaps Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, some serious carrots to form a majority coalition without Shas. So the makeup of the cabinet and whether it will really be myopic enough to ignore what could become a growing movement against a unilateral strike in the public sphere remains to be seen.

But Benn’s calculation misses important points. First, Barak was a pro-attack force, and a powerful one, until the last few weeks, when he seemed to break with Netanyahu and strike a more moderate tone. Many analysts, as well as several people I’ve spoken to with some inside knowledge, believe this was pure theater to make Barak more electable. If that was the idea, it failed, and few expect Barak’s Atzmaut party to get enough votes in January to gain any seats at all in the Knesset. In any case, Barak is not the voice of moderation Benn makes him out to be.

More importantly, while cabinet opposition to a unilateral Israeli strike was certainly important, the major impediment remains: the military and intelligence establishment. Much like in the United States, where an AIPAC-influenced Congress has been beating the drums for war, the actual soldiers and commanders recognize the ramifications and difficulties of an attack on Iran. That’s not to say in either case that these military leaders would refuse an explicit order from their respective commanders-in-chief. But in both countries, the opposition has been much more important in preventing an attack to date than political forces.

Benn is correct in one sense: having Lieberman as deputy to Bibi’s sheriff is a war time configuration. It’s meant to strengthen the central government, to enable a greater degree of martial law in the event of war and to continue more of it when the war ends. It’s meant to diminish the influence of the military and intelligence leaders who have had the temerity to raise concerns about a war Netanyahu desperately wants.

But at this moment, it does not bring a war with Iran any closer than it was before. We can be thankful for that, at least. And, in a number of other ways, this move may backfire on Bibi in both the short and long terms. That would be more hopeful if there were a viable alternative in Israel or a president in the United States who was willing to take advantage of Israel’s radicalized image to exert real pressure (like that suggested by Protestant leaders earlier this month) for a regional peace agreement. Maybe that’s a second-term Obama, but I’m not holding my breath for that one. In an era of grim outlooks, I’ll content myself with knowing that this move by Netanyahu will not bring war with Iran any closer.

US Working Overtime To Mend Israel-Turkey Relations

This piece originally published at LobeLog

The Obama Administration is scrambling to keep itselfout of a difficult position between two of its most important Middle East allies, Turkey and Israel.

Obama, Netanyahu, and Erdogan

The two countries have seen their relations deteriorate for years now, highlighted by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s dressing down of Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in 2009 and the confrontation over Israel’s killing of nine Turks on the Mavi Marmara, a ship trying to run the blockade of Gaza last year.

Analysts have a variety of opinions on the importance of each country to US interests in the region, but US diplomats certainly want to keep a strong relationship with both. Congress, pushed by domestic pressures, especially pro-Israel lobbying groups, has a different approach.

The potential for problems for US diplomacy was previewed in March, 2010. The House Foreign Affairs Committee, which had always been reserved on the matter of the Armenian Genocide (perpetrated by the Turks during and after World War I) issued a statement calling for American recognition of that crime. Turkey recalled its ambassador in response.

The matter went no further, but it illustrated the tensions between politics and diplomacy.

The pro-Israel lobby promoted the Armenian Genocide resolution. Now, however, they are supporting Netanyahu and potential rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. But that resolution was a signal that this could change, if Turkey’s relations with Israel degenerate further.

Israel and Turkey are at odds, but still technically allied. The Obama Administration wants to mend those fences, not tear them further asunder.

The immediate issue is Turkey’s demand for an apology for the Mavi Marmara killings. The UN will soon release a UN report, delayed now until August 20, which will state that Israel’s blockade in Gaza is legal, but that it used excessive force on the Mavi Marmara. If Israel apologizes before that report is released, it will blunt the effect of the latter conclusion. Continue reading

America as Obstacle

In my latest piece at Souciant, where we continue to preview the upcoming Babylon Times site, I interview Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation on the possible September UN vote on Palestinian statehood, America’s role in the region, Israel’s drift to the right and more. Please share.