Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Does Netanyahu Want Peace?: Or, Getting to 61

Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision not to extend the moratorium on West Bank settlement has been met with disappointment on the western side of the Atlantic. The Obama Administration is "disappointed" and several American Jewish commentators have wondered as to whether Netanyahu seriously desires a comprehensive accord with the Palestinians, at least one that results in an independent Palestinian state.

Jeffrey Goldberg, of The Atlantic, offered this suggestion to Netanyahu: “Why not risk your governing coalition and impose a total freeze on settlement growth outside of the greater Jerusalem area? This way, you'll show the world, and the Palestinians -- who are governed, on the West Bank, at least, by a group of true moderates, who have done a great deal for your security over the past year -- that you are serious about grappling with the challenges before you. And you'll show President Obama that you mean it when you say that it is the Iranian nutters, and not the Palestinians, who pose an existential threat to Israel. Yes, risking your coalition means you would have to induce Tsipi Livni's opposition Kadima party into the government, but now seems as good a moment as any. At the very least, you'll gain a foreign minister who isn't an international embarrassment.”

Most prominent American Jewish commentators have not been as generous, instead seeing Netanyahu’s decision to preserve his right-wing governing coalition as proof positive that he never intended to sign a comprehensive agreement.

Peter Beinart, in the Daily Beast, reasoned that “a prime minister genuinely interested in a final status deal would have said good riddance, and brought in Livni’s Kadima instead, thus creating a government composed of people who actually support a Palestinian state. Netanyahu, however, has not done that, just as he refused to create a centrist government during his first stint as prime minister. The reason is that he likes governing alongside racist, pro-settler parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Ovadiah Yosef’s Shas. They give him political cover to do what he has wanted to do all along: Make a viable Palestinian state impossible.”

Two weeks ago, William Galston, writing in The New Republic, observed that “[t]he decision that the current coalition must be preserved at all costs would represent the clearest possible evidence that this round of negotiations isn’t serious.”

All this has led Matthew Yglesias over at ThinkProgress to demand that “[a]t some point don’t we need to give this game up?... [I]t’s actually not puzzling at all why Netanyahu doesn’t form a different coalition and agree to a settlement freeze—Netanyahu favors settlement building. This is the whole trajectory of his political career, from leading the charge against the Oslo Agreement to rump Likud in a rebellion against Ariel Sharon to forming a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman. The guy’s not a fool. He knows what he’s doing.

My reading of this is less clear. There are a range of possible intentions that Netanyahu may have. He may not want talks at all. He may want talks, but only so that he can manipulate the Palestinians into walking out, thus giving Israel the appearance of once again trying for peace, only to be turned down by the insatiable Palestinians. He may want the talks to succeed, but his definition of success for Israel is something no Palestinian can agree to. He may have a realistic grasp of what peace will take, and be wiling to do it, but also believe that for any substantive agreement to be accepted by the Israeli populace, it has to be negotiated by the Israeli right. All would explain his devotion to his coalition.

Or it could be that there is no grand strategy at work here. My thinking is that Netanyahu is taking orders from his primal political instincts. He wants to say in power. All politicians do; it is the sine qua non of politics.

The commentators above all want Netanyahu to bring down his coalition, kick out such embarrassments as Yisrael Beitenu, Shas and National Union, and create a new National Unity Government consisting of Likud, Labor and Kadima, a coalition of 68 MKs. But how would such a coalition function, and why would Netanyahu get to remain Prime Minister? In such a coalition, he would not be the leader of the largest party (that would be Tzipi Livni, of Kadima), nor of a party that’s representative of the coalition. The Likud party would be the outlier. Why would Ehud Barak and Livni want the most right-wing member of their coalition to be its leader? Livni and Barak had that option after the 2009 elections and Livni refused, largely because she felt Netanyahu was unwilling to make peace.

Perhaps Netanyahu believes that doing the “right thing” – blowing up the coalition – would result in his ouster from political power. Expecting a politician to do the right thing when faced with such consequences is an exercise in disappointment. Most politicians, I suspect, would rather opt to be a guaranteed James Buchanan then a 20% chance of being Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, it’s possible that a Netanyahu-led Kadima-Likud-Labor government could emerge. My understanding is that something similar happened in the Eleventh Knesset, when the Shimon Peres-led Alignment, consisting of 44 MKs, was unable to form a government with the smaller parties, and entered into a power-sharing agreement with Yitzchak Shamir’s Likud (41 MKs) that resulted in Shamir becoming Prime Minister for the last two years of the government.

But the present scenario seems different – in that Netanyahu would be asking the leader of the largest party to take the hit, and serve as a subordinate (at least, at first), and the first part is the important part.

It seems just as likely that such a coalition could never emerge, which would lead to elections. And, honestly, are two-staters really sure that the winners of that election would be them? It seems more likely that an even more right wing coalition would come to power, one to which even Netanyahu would be anathema. Then nobody gets what they want.

Still, I think it’s obvious, that at some point, if Netanyahu really plans to sign a comprehensive agreement that results in a massive pullout from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, he’s going to have to change the coalition. I think it’s clear to everyone that Netanyahu does not control Jewish Home or National Union – and those parties will never go in for an agreement. Opposing such an agreement is their raison d’etre. There would literally be no point to them, if Judea and Samaria ceased to exist. Although Shas can be bribed, I think it’s obvious that they’ve taken a right-ward progression over the last decade, and would be vehemently opposed to ceding any of East Jerusalem. Clearly, this government cannot sign an agreement.

My assumption is that Netanyahu will try and get an agreement, which will rupture his coalition, at which point he will invite Kadima to join the government, if only to help ratify the damn thing without an election or a referendum, which seems likely to be unacceptable to the electorate at large. Yeah, I’m not optimistic.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How Israel's Kooky Koalitions Cause Problems

(One example of many.)

Here is Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman: "[Regarding the possibility of peace -] not next year and not for the next generation." ... “However, there is no reason to be worried," Lieberman added. "I repeat: Abu Mazen will not fight us... The only practical solution is a long term interim agreement, on which we can debate. Our proposal is: No to unilateral concessions, no to continuing the settlement freeze, yes to serious negotiations and mutual gestures of good faith."

In his remarks, FM Lieberman is notably at odds with those of his Prime Minister, who, professedly at least, sees great potential for a final status peace agreement with the Palestinians. In the United States, and in many countries around the world, a nation’s foreign policy is understood to be formulated and executed by the state’s head of government, whether that be the Prime Minister or the President. To be sure, Secretaries of State and Foreign Ministers play a vital role in the shaping and execution of foreign policy, but it’s understood that when push comes to shove, a country’s foreign policy is that of its head of government. If the foreign minister disagrees, he either keeps that to himself, or he gets out of government. It is virtually unheard of for a country’s chief diplomat to criticize foreign policy from the sidelines.

In Israel, however, things work much more stupidly. Because of electoral pressures, PM Netanyahu has a foreign minister he can’t let anywhere near foreign policy. Whenever Lieberman gets involved in diplomatic affairs, a scandal erupts. He says impolitic things, yells at ambassadors, and presents positions contrary to those of his government. Thus, in all manners of consequence, Netanyahu is Israel’s foreign minister, while Lieberman retains the title and a good deal of the bureaucracy. This is unsustainable, however.

Ill-informed observers will naturally assume that FM Lieberman speaks for his government on foreign affairs. It’s his title, his job. When Netanyahu says one thing, and Lieberman says another, people will assume that the government of Israel is unsure, or ambivalent about its policies. Some may assume that there is some sort of subterfuge at work. Perhaps Netanyahu is telling the West what is wants to hear, and Lieberman is telling the truth?

The Israeli government often speaks of the importance of hasbarah, of making its case persuasively to the world. This focus is echoed by many pro-Israel groups. But how can people be expected to take Israel seriously when its own government can’t get its mouthpieces in line? You think the world is biased and distrusts Israel? Your own foreign minister, the head of your Foreign Affairs Ministry, is busy making anti-Israel propaganda for your enemies!

Think for a moment how damaging Lieberman’s remarks are. While Obama is running around the world, moving heaven and earth to get negotiations started, and Netanyahu is doing his best to at least sound eager and willing to negotiate, Israel’s foreign minister is rhetorically dooming the talks to failure before they have even begun in earnest. Not just these talks. But any talks that happen in this generation. In other words, no peace now, and no peace for the foreseeable future. Hey, Intifada III, are you listening? Lieberman is essentially telling every pissed-off Palestinian (of which we can assume there are many) that Israel is not giving Palestine any independence for the next 25 years or so, at least. So, hey, start up again with the murder and mayhem, because you’ve got nothing to lose.

And then, he has the audacity to mock PA President Mahmoud Abbas, saying that “Abu Mazen will not fight us” and there is no reason to worry about not negotiating for the next generation or so. Can you think of any statement more calculated to ensure a third Intifada? The entire underlying rationale of the modern PA’s nonviolent approach to independence is based on the premise that negotiations will yield fruit quicker and better than violence. The competing counterpoint, popular amongst the militants and fundamentalists, is that Israel is only pressured to make concessions when it is paying in blood. Here, Lieberman is taking sides with the fundamentalists! He’s basically saying, hey no violence, no need to make a deal.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it appears that Lieberman is actively trying to sabotage the talks. Which is awful, obviously, but everyone’s got the right of free speech. No, the real problem is that he’s doing this as Israel’s Foreign Minister. Some hot-headed Palestinian youths reading his remarks in the paper are going to think he speaks for the State, and people may die. This is serious. Lieberman has got to go.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What Are You Willing to Give Up for Peace?

It's that time of decade again. Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and a whole host of other nationalities are sittin' around the old peace-makin' table and trying to work out a final-status agreement. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an odd issue, because most people seem to agree on the broad outlines of how to solve the damn thing, but for one reason or another, it's been kicking around the last 40 years. The conflict's longevity has led many to conclude that peace cannot/will not ever happen, although of course just because something has gone on for a long time does not mean it will go on forever. Just think of all those long peaces that occasionally break out into wars. Or periods of prosperity that turn into recessions.

I'm not going to get into what makes these talks different (in a positive way), because honestly I don't think they are. My sole reason for optimism is that everyone knows how to solve the conflict (at least, in a general sense) and that it's got to be solved sometime, and it might as well be now. Then again, or not.

What I'm more curious about is what the community, by which I mean Orthodox Jews or any denizens of Jewish blogosphere, is willing to give up in a final status agreement. Think of it as a negotiation exercise, the famous "getting to yes" of bargaining. One common reason for failure in any negotiation is that one or both of the parties does not have a clear idea of what they would be willing to take in a deal (i.e. the bare minimum to count it as a net win) and when they would be willing to walk away. I think it's useful to think these out, even if few of us will actually be involved in the negotiations. I'll start us off.

I'm willing to give:
a) 95-97% of the West Bank. When you get right down to it, I'd probably be willing to retreat to the 1967 lines for peace, but I don't think the Palestinians or the Americans think that's particularly possible or even desirable. I assume that what will be asked for is most of the West Bank and some land swaps in the Negev or something, which I'm also fine with.
b) East Jerusalem. It's mostly Arab anyway. (Ditto Hebron.) I'm assuming here that the final status agreement would let Israelis visit East Jerusalem (and indeed, anywhere really in Palestine), but even if it didn't, I don't think the need to control these Arab neighborhoods is enough to threaten peace.
c) Some sort of joint sovereignty over the Temple Mount. There's very little I agree with in the writings of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, but one of them is that I don't see any real pressing need for the Jews to control the Temple Mount. We're not using it, anyway. If it makes them happy, let them have it. When/if Moshiach comes, he can take it back. I'm sure the Palestinians will understand. Up until then, who really cares? Of course, I understand that I'm a huge outlier here. Most Jews will care very much, thank you. To many, it is a culmination, a vindication of the whole Zionist enterprise, religious or not. To give away the Temple Mount would be like acknowledging that the whole exercise was a mistake. For that reason, I think joint sovereignty is the absolute minimum that any Israeli negotiator can accept. And fair enough, though I think it's a bit irrational.
d) Complete independence for Palestine. None of this wishy-washy quasi-state business that Netanyahu is talking about. It seems pretty clear that the whole world is expecting a real, independent Palestinian state. A state which was not allowed its own military or control of its ports, entries and airspace would hardly be sovereign. Now, I get that people are understandably worried about what this new Palestinian state would be importing or exporting through said ports and airspace. It's a concern. But the Palestinians would never agree to a treaty where they just get some sort of autonomy without actual sovereignty, and I don't blame them. A real country has control of its own entrances and military.
e) Some sort of tunnel or bridge connecting the West Bank and Gaza. Pretty self-explanatory.
f) The removal of all settlers from the land destined to become part of the Palestinian state. While in principal there's no reason the future state of Palestine could not have a sizeable Jewish majority, I think in practice it's a bad idea. The point here is to separate the two populations. I think it's inevitable that either (a) the settlers would come under some sort of abuse from the Palestinian government or populace, or that (b) the settlers would do something stupidly provocative or (c) more likely, both. This would put Israel in a very awkward position, in deciding whether to intercede or not. The whole point here is to minimize entanglements between Israel and Palestine. We don't ever want Israel needing to decide whether to interfere in domestic Palestinian affairs.

What I need from the Palestinians:
a) A cessation of claims. This is it. They sign this deal, and they're square.
b) No right of return. My inclination is that a Palestinian right of return to Israel would not be as catastrophic as commonly assumed. In fact, many RWers in Israel have lately taken to the idea of annexing the West Bank and making all of its residents Israeli citizens, which would almost surely be worse that any conclusion to the Right of Return. However, it really is not going to happen.

What I don't need from the Palestinians:
a) Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. I'm not even entirely comfortable with Israel's recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. But that's a different matter. From a nationalist standpoint, though, it's pretty clear why you would want this. It reinforces the whole cessation of claims thing. If the Palestinians recognize Israel's Jewish character, the thinking goes, it vindicates Zionism and serves as an indication that the Palestinians are serious about peace. On the other hand, it's ludicrous to actually expect the Palestinians to do this. First of all, there's no reason to ever assume that the Palestinians will ever make peace with Zionism. They perceive 1948, and the events leading up to it, as a catastrophe. They still see all of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as the Palestinian homeland, much as Jews see it as a Jewish homeland. We can demand that they make peace with the political reality of Israel, but not that Israel was right all along. Just like no one should expect Netanyahu to recognize East Jerusalem and the West Bank as rightly belonging to an Arab homeland (just to a Palestinian state), no one should expect Abbas to recognize Israel as a Jewish homeland, just as an Israeli state.

Secondly, the Palestinians have concerns that if they recognize Israel's Jewish character, it would endanger somewhat the rights of Israeli Arabs in Israel. I don't think their concern is absurd, but I do think it's overstated. It's definitely true that Israel's Jewish character deprives its Arab citizens of some important rights. The best thing, however, for Israeli Arabs in the long run (at least, vis a vis equality) is a separate Palestinian state. The average Israeli Jew will be much more willing to incorporate Arabs in to the State if there is no real fear of the polity being overrun by Arabs.

I should probably finish by describing what I see as peace. I would be happy with even a cold peace, such as exists between Egypt and Israel. Even such a peace would largely solve Israel's security concerns regarding the Palestinians, and would be enough to normalize relations with most states in the Middle East. (The remaining holdouts, probably Lebanon, Syria and Iran, are different matters entirely. Although the prospects for normal relations with them would only be improved by a Palestinian peace.)

What about you?