Analysis from Israel


With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

This worldview is what led him to actively support the flotilla, sponsored by a terror-affiliated Islamist organization, despite knowing violence might ensue; downgrade ties with Israel in a fit of pique after a UN investigation of the incident upheld the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza; and refuse to restore them even after President Obama personally brokered a reconciliation deal, since the deal didn’t include ending the blockade. Supporting his fellow Islamists in Hamas trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

This is also what led him to actively support the Sunni rebels–and particularly the most radical Islamists among them–against Syria’s Alawite regime, and why he’s never stopped denouncing the Egyptian coup, even as the rest of the world has long since accepted that it’s not only a fait accompli, but enjoys broad popular support. In these cases, too, loyalty to his fellow Islamists trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

Such a principled foreign policy might be admirable if it weren’t for one problem: The principle Erdogan is supporting–Islamism–happens to be a destabilizing one. Inter alia, the Islamist governments and movements he’s supported have produced nonstop rocket fire on Israel from Gaza, a brutal civil war in Syria, and governmental abuses and incompetence in Egypt on a scale that generated massive support for the coup. Hence Erdogan’s commitment to his Islamist foreign policy has only further destabilized an unstable region.

Iran, of course, is also committed to Islamism, albeit the Shi’ite rather than the Sunni variety. Indeed, its foreign policy has been even more aggressive and destabilizing than Turkey’s: Witness its support for the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria and for Hezbollah’s virtual takeover of Lebanon. And since Islamism is the Iranian regime’s raison d’etre, no deal with Washington is going to end its commitment to an Islamist foreign policy.   

The lesson for America ought to be that Islamists–even “moderate” ones, to quote the Washington elite’s favorite adjective for both Erdogan and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani–don’t make good foreign-policy partners. Unless, that is, one thinks even more instability in a volatile region is a good idea.

For opponents of the six powers’ nuclear deal with Iran, the past week has supplied a nonstop stream of news confirming their worst fears. Not only has Tehran issued numerous pronouncements gutting what was already a weak deal, but Washington, far from protesting this behavior, has tamely acquiesced in every one of the Iranian revisions. Moreover, the sanctions regime is already starting to crumble.

And, adding insult to injury, Washington is so gung-ho for a grand reconciliation with Iran that it’s reportedly even holding indirect talks with Iran’s fully-owned terrorist subsidiary, Hezbollah. Following are some of the past week’s more appalling developments:

  • Iran publicly declared that the White House was lying about the terms of the deal and released its own, contradictory interpretation.
  • Iran said it intends to continue construction of its Arak heavy-water reactor, though halting progress at Arak had been trumpeted as one of the deal’s key achievements. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki meekly responded that continued construction is fine, as long as Tehran doesn’t engage in activities like nuclear fuel production or reactor work. Since these activities are impossible in any case until construction is completed, that means the ballyhooed “freeze” of Arak is actually nonexistent.
  • For good measure, Psaki added that the deal hasn’t actually taken effect yet, so Iran won’t be in violation no matter what it does. In fact, it turns out the “deal” wasn’t actually a deal at all: It was merely a broad outline, and now negotiations must begin on the details. So when will it take effect? Maybe in January. Or maybe not. In other words, the expiration date of this “six-month” deal has now been postponed by at least two months, and maybe more, confirming opponents’ fears that the temporary agreement won’t be so temporary after all.
  • Iran said it would increase production of low-enriched uranium, though the deal ostensibly caps enrichment capacity at current levels.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency announced that it has neither the money nor the staff to carry out the beefed-up monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities called for in the agreement, thereby gutting another of the deal’s key achievements. How soon can it acquire the necessary capabilities? Agency director Yukiya Amano declined to speculate, merely saying it would take “some time.” Left unsaid was that this depends, inter alia, on when and whether member states cough up the requisite extra cash.
  • Companies and countries are lining up to secure new deals with Iran now that sanctions are being eased. Haaretz published a list of some of the deals under consideration, some of which were presumably discussed during the Economic Cooperation Organization’s well-attended meeting in Tehran last week. And Turkey, one of Iran’s major trading partners, publicly announced its goal of boosting trade back up to pre-sanctions levels.

In short, the deal isn’t a deal; its six-month duration is already being extended; its key provisions are already being gutted; Washington is turning a blind eye to Iranian violations; and the sanctions regime is collapsing–all just in the first week.

But the Obama administration is getting its reconciliation with Iran, and Israel is being prevented from bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. And those achievements are evidently far more important to the administration than the pesky little matter of keeping Tehran from getting nukes.

Anti-Zionism, as Jonathan noted, is acquiring “an undeserved veneer of respectability in Barack Obama’s Washington”: The latest anti-Zionist screed to hit the bookstores will receive a prominent platform at an event organized by the New America Foundation, a prestigious Washington think tank headed by a former senior Obama administration official. But frankly, I don’t see why anyone should be surprised. After all, anti-Zionism is merely an offshoot of a much older evil, anti-Semitism. And since the original has become perfectly respectable in Barack Obama’s Washington over the last month, why be surprised that the offshoot is as well?

Exhibit A occurred at the Geneva talks with Iran earlier this month, when an unnamed senior U.S. official refused to condemn the latest rant by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Though many commentators found this silence disturbing mainly because Khamenei termed Israel a “rabid dog,” I was even more disturbed by the American representative’s tolerance of the part of the diatribe aimed at France, in which Khamenei used one of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes in the book.

Since France had singlehandedly thwarted what it termed a “sucker’s deal” in the previous round of talks with Iran, forcing its negotiating partners to make some significant (though still insufficient) improvements, it was understandably in Khamenei’s bad graces. But rather than admit that France could possibly have had its own concerns about Tehran, he accused it of simply “kneeling before the Israeli regime.” Paris was furious and condemned the remarks, but neither the senior U.S. official nor a spokesman for EU foreign-policy czar Catherine Ashton would do the same. The best America’s official representative could do was mutter that yes, such rhetoric is “uncomfortable,” but Americans also “say difficult things about Iran and Iranians” (is it any wonder he or she was too embarrassed to be named?).

The claim that Jews control the world–or in this case, France’s foreign policy–is classic anti-Semitism; this alone makes it worthy of condemnation. But the official’s silence was particularly outrageous because the target of this slur was America’s negotiating partner in the talks: France’s representative was on the same side of the table as the U.S. official and Ashton, with Khamenei’s representatives on the opposite side. If American officials aren’t willing to condemn anti-Semitic slurs hurled at their own negotiating partner by their mutual opponent while the talks are taking place, when would they be willing to do so?

Answer: Never, as proven by Exhibit B–the administration’s silence in the face of an anti-Semitic slur against some even closer allies that same week. I’m referring, of course, to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s outrageous assertion that lawmakers are siding with Israel against Obama on Iran not “from any careful consideration of the facts,” but “from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.”

Not only is this another classic example of the anti-Semitic “Jews control the world” trope, but many of the lawmakers whom Friedman accused of blindly obeying Jewish dictates rather than thinking for themselves are President Obama’s fellow Democrats, who have loyally shepherded his domestic agenda through Congress. Yet even so, the administration couldn’t be bothered to utter a word in their defense.

When an administration doesn’t see fit to condemn anti-Semitic slurs even against its closest allies–its negotiating partner abroad and congressional Democrats at home–you know anti-Semitism has attained the height of respectability. My only question is when all the American Jews who voted for this administration are going to wake up and start objecting.

Much has already been written about the problematic nature of the interim agreement signed this weekend by Iran and the P5+1. But the damage goes beyond the fact that it weakens the sanctions regime without halting Iran’s multiple nuclear programs (as the Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens aptly said, it will “merely reduce their pace from run to jog”). No less severe is the blow to U.S. credibility.

First, there’s what might be called the Hamid Karzai problem. As the New York Times reported last week, the Afghan president has for years “perplexed and dismayed his allies” by accusing Washington of plotting behind his back with Pakistan and/or the Taliban in an effort to force Kabul into a peace deal “in which Afghanistan’s interests will not even be secondary, but tertiary and worse.” Hitherto, such ravings could be dismissed as paranoia. But we now know Washington did exactly that to Israel and Saudi Arabia, by spending months secretly negotiating the current deal with Iran without even informing them of the talks’ existence. In other words, America went behind the backs of its two closest Mideast allies to negotiate a deal with their worst enemy that both consider detrimental to their interests. So how can any U.S. ally not legitimately fear that it will do the same to them?

Indeed, as Seth noted yesterday, Ukraine’s eleventh-hour decision to scrap a deal with Europe that it spent months negotiating and sign one with Russia instead shows that other countries are already absorbing the lesson: The West is unreliable; trust it at your peril. Granted, neither Ukraine nor Afghanistan is vital to Western interests. But what happens when, say, Japan and South Korea conclude that Washington might just as easily sell them out to China?

Then there’s the John Kerry problem. Prior to last week’s talks with Iran, the secretary of state pledged that the interim deal wouldn’t acknowledge an Iranian right to continue enriching uranium. “That certainly will not be resolved in any first step, I can assure you,” he said. After the deal was signed, he again asserted that “This first step does not say that Iran has the right of enrichment, no matter what interpretative comments are made.”  

Yet the deal states explicitly that the “comprehensive solution” the parties will now seek to negotiate “would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme.” So the word “right” doesn’t appear, but the practical implications are the same as if it had: Despite repeated binding UN resolutions demanding that Iran halt enrichment, the P5+1 has already agreed to let it continue enriching in perpetuity. This would be like Israel signing a deal to resettle five million Palestinian “refugees” in its territory and then claiming it didn’t agree to a “right of return” because those three words don’t appear in the text. And if America’s top diplomat can flat-out lie about the deal’s content even after the text has been published for all to see, why would anyone ever trust America’s word again?

Earlier this month, Walter Russell Mead noted that “Past administrations have generally concluded that the price Iran wants for a different relationship with the United States is unsustainably high,” because “to get a deal with Iran we would have to sell out all of our other regional allies,” and “Throwing over old allies like that would reduce the confidence that America’s allies all over the world have in our support.”

That’s the brave new world America has just entered. And it’s likely to be paying the price for a long time to come.

Focus on places where public opinion is up for grabs instead of those where it’s solidly anti-Israel.
Israelis witnessed an unusual public disagreement last week between their foreign minister and his deputy. Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel should reduce its dependence on the United States, declaring, “Israel’s foreign policy for many years went in one direction toward Washington, but my policy has more directions.” Deputy Minister Zeev Elkin countered that “Even when there are disagreements … there is no one who can take the place of the Americans.”

In truth, both are right. Elkin is correct that no other country can replace America as Israel’s chief ally, and Lieberman is correct that depending solely on America leaves Israel vulnerable, without friends to fall back on during times, as now, when it disagrees with Washington on crucial issues. Yet without understanding why Elkin is right, any quest to broaden Israel’s pool of allies will fail. And both the answers commonly given – America’s superpower status and our shared democratic values – are wrong.

Though a superpower ally is obviously a plus, a superpower’s greater capabilities don’t automatically produce greater impact on world affairs. That happens only if the superpower actually uses its capabilities – and America sometimes chooses not to. Bouts of isolationism have been a recurrent theme in American history, and right now, America is clearly withdrawing from the Middle East.

Consequently, despite vastly inferior capabilities, both France and Russia have arguably exercised greater influence in the Mideast recently than America has – Russia by staunchly supporting the Syrian regime, and France by leading interventions in Libya and Mali, and to some extent by its hardline stance on Iran. That’s precisely why Cairo and Riyadh have been courting Moscow lately, while Israel has coordinated more closely with Paris than with Washington over Iran. Because a country’s willingness to use its power often matters more than how much power it objectively has, an active medium-weight ally may be no less useful than a reluctant superpower.

As for shared democratic values, these simply don’t suffice to forge an alliance. As evidence, see Europe. Excluding America, Europe is where Israel’s foreign policy establishment has invested most of its effort, naively believing that fellow democracies should be natural allies. Yet most European countries routinely vote against Israel in the UN, take the Palestinian side of every Israeli-Palestinian dispute and vocally denounce any and all Israeli defensive measures, even as they lavish financial and diplomatic support on undemocratic entities like the Palestinian Authority, whose president is now in the ninth year of a four-year term.

America’s irreplaceability stems from something else entirely: It’s one of the few countries whose people are overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Shared democratic values obviously contribute to this, but so do many other factors. For instance, Americans generally admire Israel’s willingness and ability to defend itself, whereas in Europe, this same trait elicits revulsion. Additionally, American Christianity is largely philo-Semitic, whereas European Christianity generally espoused replacement theology, an inherently anti-Israel credo.   

Since democratic governments are constrained by public opinion, America’s pro-Israel public ensures that even the most hostile administration will be more pro-Israel than the friendliest European one. Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, for instance, is unquestionably pro-Israel; after losing office, he even founded the Friends of Israel Initiative to promote Israel’s case in Europe. Yet his policies as premier differed little from those of his anti-Israel successor; constrained by anti-Israel public opinion, he routinely voted against Israel in the UN, took the Palestinians’ side in disputes, and so forth.

In contrast, the current US administration is one of the most hostile in decades. Yet it still gives Israel $3 billion a year in military aid, even as other expenditures are being slashed, and has wielded its UN veto on Israel’s behalf even when its reluctance was palpable. In 2011, for instance, then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice gave a speech proclaiming the administration’s enthusiastic agreement with a resolution denouncing Israeli settlements – and then vetoed it anyway. Why? Because the president was running for reelection, and in America, abandoning Israel to the UN wolves would be unpopular.

All this explains why Lieberman’s previous efforts to broaden Israel’s alliances achieved so little: In many of the countries he targeted last term, Israel is widely loathed, creating a disincentive for their governments to support it. That’s true even in nondemocratic countries, since obliging public opinion on minor issues (like relations with Israel) helps dictators mitigate popular discontent.

Thus to cultivate allies, Israel must invest in altering public opinion. But instead of wasting time on countries where this effort is hopeless, it should focus on those that offer reasonable prospects of success.

The BBC’s global popularity survey offers some useful clues. Aside from America, only in two of the 22 countries surveyed did pluralities view Israel positively: Kenya and Ghana. Neither currently has the capabilities to be even a medium-weight ally. But there were other countries where public opinion is still up for grabs – and they would be better investments than, say, Europe, where public opinion is overwhelmingly negative.

In France, Germany and Britain, the ratios of negative to positive views about Israel were 63-21, 67-8 and 72-14, respectively. By contrast, Israel’s negative-to-positive ratios in China, India and Russia were 33-32, 26-16 and 32-23, respectively. In short, these countries had large pools of undecided people who, if swayed to Israel’s side, could flip them into the pro-Israel column. And each has things in common with Israel that could be useful in fostering pro-Israel sentiment – China’s traditional emphasis on education and family values, for instance, or Russia’s concern over Islamic extremism.

Granted, only democratic India is a feasible near-term ally; nondemocratic China and Russia are too anti-American. But both seem ripe for democratization in the coming decades, which could well alter their foreign policies. And since changing public opinion is obviously a long-term process, it makes sense to start now, to be ready to take advantage of democratization once it happens.

After all, Washington wasn’t always an ally, either: It took decades of Israeli effort to convert the America of the 1948 arms embargo into today’s best friend. Similar decades of effort will be needed to cultivate other alliances. It’s long past time to get started.

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.

For the second time in two weeks, France has proven itself the most serious foreign-policy player the West currently has. First, it thwarted an abysmal nuclear deal with Iran. Now, it’s come up with the most creative idea for advancing Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy that I’ve heard in years.

Speaking in Ramallah yesterday, French President Francois Hollande essentially told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the following: You think Israeli settlement construction is destroying prospects for a two-state solution, and therefore want it halted. I agree. But the Israelis think these prospects are being destroyed by your demand to relocate millions of Palestinians to Israel (aka the “right of return”). So why not trade concessions on the right of return for a settlement freeze?

The first innovation in this proposal is that someone in Paris actually seems to have read the Oslo Accords–a rarity among Western diplomats–and discovered that they explicitly designate settlements as a final-status issue, just like refugees; Israel has no interim obligation to stop building them. Once this is understood, it’s obvious that an unrequited settlement freeze is a nonstarter: No sane negotiator would make major, upfront, unrequited concessions on a significant final-status issue. Hollande therefore proposed a substantive trade in which both sides would make concessions on a major final-status issue.

Granted, the issues aren’t equivalent. Flooding Israel with over five million Palestinians really would render a two-state solution impossible, by turning the Jewish state into a second Palestinian one. Settlements, by contrast, don’t preclude a Palestinian state; even chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat admits that they occupy only 1.1 percent of the West Bank. But since Palestinians have repeatedly declared a settlement freeze a top priority, such a trade would give both sides something they claim to want.

And that is the even greater innovation in Hollande’s proposal: For the first time in 20 years of Israeli-Palestinian talks, a Western leader is suggesting mutual concessions instead of demanding that Israel make unilateral ones.

Contrast this with some of the Obama administration’s “peacemaking” proposals:

  • Israel should agree in advance to a border based on the 1967 lines. In other words, Israel should concede all the Palestinians’ territorial demands upfront without getting anything in exchange.
  • Israel and the PA should negotiate a deal on borders and security only, without resolving issues like Jerusalem and the refugees or ending the conflict. In other words, instead of trading territory for peace, Israel should trade territory for no peace. Moreover, it should forfeit its only bargaining chip–territory–in the first stage of negotiations, thereby leaving itself with nothing to trade for Palestinian concessions on vital issues like the refugees.
  • Israel should free 104 Palestinian murderers just so the Palestinians will deign to negotiate–a move Israeli negotiating expert Moty Cristal aptly termed paying “with hard currency for nothing.” Palestinians also temporarily halted their campaign against Israel in international agencies, but that will resume in nine months. The prisoners won’t be rearrested.

To be fair, Hollande’s proposal won’t actually bring peace any more than Obama’s ideas have, because the Palestinians aren’t willing to make any concessions: Abbas told Hollande he has no authority to deviate from the Arab League’s stance on the refugees, begging the obvious question of what the point of the current talks are if he has no power to actually negotiate.

Nevertheless, the French proposal at least acknowledges the obvious fact that peace requires concessions by both sides, not just one. And that is a necessary first step. For as long as the world keeps pandering to Palestinian rejectionism by not demanding any concessions, as the Obama administration has, the Palestinians will never have an incentive to make any.

This error may have cost Syrian rebels the war – and it’s endangering Israel’s future.
Israeli politicians and opinion leaders are understandably preoccupied right now with the Iranian nuclear program. Nevertheless, they ought to spare five minutes to read last week’s column by Michael Young, opinion editor of the Lebanese Daily Star. Young analyzes how the Syrian regime, whose downfall once seemed inevitable, managed to turn the situation around so completely that its survival now seems certain. But his analysis is disturbingly relevant to Israel’s own international situation.

Young credits Syrian President Bashar Assad with a shrewd grasp of the Western mindset. The Syrian dictator understood that averting Western intervention required turning Western opinion against the rebels, and he crafted an effective strategy for doing so: equating them with al-Qaida. But the rebels’ own incompetence greatly facilitated this strategy, Young wrote: “They never appreciated how much the narrative matters. Rather than concentrating on unifying their fragmented ranks and speaking with one message and voice to the outside world, they have been caught up in internecine disputes, with each political and armed group pursuing a parochial agenda.” As a result, the West is now prepared to let Assad keep slaughtering them with impunity.

Change a few names and terms, and Young’s analysis is equally valid for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like Assad, the Palestinians “understood that one front in [their] war had to be fought over Western public opinion,” so they hammered home their message with the same monotonous relentlessness Assad used in painting the rebels as al-Qaida: Israelis are brutal occupiers who stole the Palestinians’ land; Palestinians merely seek to reclaim these “occupied Palestinian territories.” And, like Assad, their opponents “never appreciated how much the narrative matters” and proved incapable of “speaking with one message and voice to the outside world.” Consequently, the Palestinian strategy has worked every bit as well as Assad’s has.

Nowadays, few non-Israelis remember that the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, which was subsequently reaffirmed by the UN Charter, assigned the West Bank and Gaza to the Jewish “national home” and explicitly called for “close settlement by Jews” on this land, in recognition of the Jews’ “historical connection” to it. Few remember that the “pre-1967 border” was determined by the 1949 Armistice Agreement, which stipulated explicitly that it wasn’t a final border: It was “dictated exclusively by military considerations” and does not “in any way prejudice the rights, claims and positions of either Party hereto in the ultimate peaceful settlement.” Few remember that the West Bank and Gaza were illegally occupied in 1948 by Jordan and Egypt, respectively, and recaptured by Israel in a defensive war. Few remember that UN Resolution 242 was deliberately worded to let Israel keep some of these territories, without land swaps, and that it in no way mandates establishing a Palestinian state. Few remember that even in the Oslo Accords and its successor agreements, Israel never waived its claim to retain some of this land or promised to stop construction there. In short, non-Israelis no longer remember any of the facts essential to making Israel’s legal and moral case – because Israelis never remind them. And therefore, Israel is seen as the villain and the Palestinians as innocent victims.

Clearly, no democracy could ever match the unanimity of messaging achievable by undemocratic entities like the PLO or the Palestinian Authority. Israelis have legitimate disagreements over both what should become of the territories and how to achieve this desired outcome, and these issues can and should be debated. Moreover, jockeying for political advantage is an inseparable part of the democratic game, and this often requires people and parties to sharpen rather than blur their differences.

Yet these debates too often obscure the vast areas of Israeli consensus. Outside the far-left fringe, for instance, nobody in Israel thinks the West Bank is “occupied Palestinian territory”; even those who favor ceding most of it for peace believe Israel has a legitimate claim to it. Similarly, most Israelis agree that Israel must retain at least some of this territory, and that ceding any of it is impossible without expansive security arrangements (an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, supervision of Palestinian border crossings, overflight rights, etc.); as even Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn admitted three years ago, on these issues, there are no differences between the “right-wing” Binyamin Netanyahu and the left-wing Ehud Olmert. Most Israelis also agree that the Palestinians aren’t currently ready for peace in any borders. And so forth.

The problem is that few Israeli opinion leaders ever bother publicly explaining these points of consensus. Precisely because they are so widely accepted here, politicians and pundits see no need to expound on them, and would rather devote their energy to battling over areas where they disagree. Yet in so doing, they guarantee that people overseas will never share this Israeli consensus – because they will never even have heard the arguments in its favor.

Getting Israel’s message across is primarily the government’s responsibility. But precisely because Israel is a cacophonous democracy, the government can’t do it alone. When opposition politicians, for instance, relentlessly attack Netanyahu as “anti-peace,” non-Israelis don’t realize this means “we share 90% of his positions, but think we could manage the talks better”; they think the opposition is agreeing with the Palestinians that Netanyahu’s positions are uniformly unacceptable. And the world therefore concludes that since even mainstream Israelis agree with the Palestinians, the latter must be right.

Every Israeli (barring those outliers who really do buy the Palestinian narrative) has a supreme interest in persuading the world of the justice and rightness of Israel’s cause, both to avert potential sanctions and to win international support for Israel’s positions under any potential peace deal. Consequently, every Israeli opinion leader has a responsibility to stress these points of consensus alongside the points that divide us, rather than focusing solely on the latter. For if we don’t broadcast our own message clearly and consistently, nobody else will do it for us.

Like the Syrian opposition, we are leaving the field clear for our enemies define us – as “occupiers,” “oppressors” and “thieves.” And by so doing, we aren’t merely losing the battle for world opinion. We’re refusing even to fight it.

In the ongoing debate over whether the interim agreement now being discussed with Tehran will or won’t effectively slow Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. policymakers seem to have overlooked one major issue: Even if they’re convinced that Israeli and Saudi concerns about the deal are unfounded, America’s own interests would be undermined by a deal that leaves Jerusalem or Riyadh too unhappy–and especially the latter. Indeed, an agreement Saudi Arabia can’t live with ought to be every American’s worst nightmare. And nothing illustrates this better than last week’s BBC report that the Saudis have nukes “on order” from Pakistan, ready for delivery whenever they give the nod.

Even if this particular report is false, foreign-policy experts generally agree that if Iran does succeed in obtaining nukes, or even becoming an acknowledged threshold state, Saudi Arabia will swiftly follow suit. As long as the current regime retains power in Riyadh, this would merely be detrimental to American interests: More nuclear states in the Middle East would further destabilize an already unstable region. But as the Arab Spring showed, even in the Mideast, repressive regimes don’t last forever, and when they fall, the people most likely to initially take over are the Islamists, since they are the best organized. And Saudi Arabia’s Islamists happen to be the same people who provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

Preventing al-Qaeda from taking over a government with nukes is clearly a supreme American interest. But revolutions tend to happen swiftly, and altering their course is difficult and messy. Thus once a Saudi revolution starts, the chances of America being able to prevent an al-Qaeda takeover drop to near zero.

The easiest way to prevent this nightmare scenario is thus to prevent Riyadh from acquiring nukes in the first place. In principle, that’s not hard; the Saudis have hitherto shown little interest in getting the bomb. But they’ve made it very clear that their calculations will change if Iran’s nuclear program isn’t effectively halted–and on this issue, they aren’t prepared to take Washington’s word for it. Hence a deal with Tehran that leaves the Saudis fuming is liable to have far worse consequences for America than no deal at all.

The ramifications of a deal that leaves Israel unhappy are less severe, but still non-negligible if the Obama administration is serious about wanting to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. As I’ve written before, Israel’s history proves that if it feels pushed to the wall in the face of an existential threat, it will launch a preemptive strike even in defiance of its major patron. Jerusalem obviously considers Iranian nukes an existential threat, and a deal that it interprets as leaving Iran with a clear path to the bomb could easily make it feel its back is to the wall.

An Israeli strike on Iran obviously isn’t in the same league as al-Qaeda getting the bomb. But since the Obama administration has repeatedly declared that such an attack would be “incredibly destabilizing” (to quote former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen), it presumably has an interest in forestalling such a situation.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who often channels the administration’s thinking, declared last week that “We, America, are not just hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, which they alone get the final say on. We, America, have our own interests.” But one of those interests is making sure the deal leaves neither Jerusalem nor Riyadh so unhappy that they are driven to take steps America would rather avoid. And forgetting that could prove a serious blunder.

A major topic of this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is how to combat assimilation. At the conference, which is being held in Jerusalem this week, JFNA leaders have unveiled various ambitious ideas, including free universal Jewish preschool. I’d like to offer a much simpler proposal: Just stop dumbing down Judaism. American Jews overwhelmingly receive excellent secular educations; they are exposed to the most challenging, rigorous, thought-provoking material available in science, philosophy, history, and literature. Yet they rarely encounter Judaism at a level more intellectually challenging than a kindergarten class. And as long as that’s true, Judaism will never be able to compete with the secular world for their attention.

Ironically, the Orthodox were way ahead of the non-Orthodox in grasping this, and it’s one reason why Orthodox retention rates are currently much higher than non-Orthodox ones. As far back as 1917, one of Poland’s leading Orthodox rabbis, the Chofetz Chaim, approved the opening of Bais Yaakov, the first school to teach Torah to girls. His reasoning was simple: It had become normal for girls to attend secular schools, and if they didn’t obtain a comparable Jewish education, they wouldn’t stay Jewish. The same understanding fueled the opening of numerous high-level women’s yeshivas in recent decades: Today, girls routinely attend not just secondary school, but college and graduate school; hence their Jewish learning must also be on a higher level. 

But in the non-Orthodox community, Jewish education never comes close to the intellectual rigor of secular studies. Almost every American Jew who has attended a non-Orthodox Hebrew school can attest to this; just last week, the Forward ran a piece by an associate professor, Michah Gottlieb, deploring the lack of opportunities for serious Torah study at his childhood synagogue. My own experience is equally typical: During 12 years of Hebrew school, the numbing boredom was punctured by only two classes that offered comparable intellectual stimulation to my secular public schools–and both were taught by Orthodox rabbis. The difference was that they took classic Jewish texts seriously, insisting that we read, analyze, and debate them with the same rigor I encountered in secular history or literature classes.

The good news is that, given a chance, Judaism can easily compete with the best secular thought has to offer. There’s a reason why Jewish sources have inspired some of the greatest non-Jewish writers and thinkers throughout the ages–including many of the 17th-century political theorists who laid the foundations of modern democracy. As Herzl Institute President Yoram Hazony noted in a 2005 essay, “Hobbes was learned in Hebrew, and his magnum opus Leviathan devotes over three hundred pages to the political teachings of Scripture. Locke knew Hebrew as well, and the first of his Two Treatises on Government is devoted to biblical interpretation … [John Selden’s] 1635 treatise on the law of the sea, Mare Clausum–one of the founding texts of international law–argued for the concept of national sovereignty on both land and sea on the basis of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.”

In Israel, serious study of classic Jewish sources has exploded in recent years–not because secular Jews are becoming Orthodox, but because they’ve understood that these texts are their heritage, too. American Jews need to offer their children similar opportunities. For without being exposed to Judaism’s intellectual riches, they will never consider it worth a lifetime’s commitment.

It’s hard to rebut the Palestinian narrative without bringing up Jordan, yet doing so has real costs.
Writing in this paper on Friday, Martin Sherman correctly pointed out that “the origins of the assault on Israel’s legitimacy are rooted in the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative.” Once someone is convinced that a) the Palestinians have a right to a state, and b) the West Bank and Gaza are “occupied Palestinian territories” that rightly belong to a Palestinian state, he will necessarily see any Israeli effort to impose conditions on this state’s establishment, or to curtail its territory, as illegitimate. In a clash between “rights” and “security needs,” rights will always win.

There’s no conceivable excuse for Israel’s failure to combat the second half of this Palestinian claim. But there’s a substantive reason for its historical reluctance to challenge the first half, and it can be summed up in a single word: Jordan. For the simplest rebuttal to the claim that the Palestinians have a “right” to establish a state is to point out the obvious but perpetually overlooked fact that a Palestinian state already exists: It occupies fully 80 percent of the original British Mandate for Palestine, and its population is roughly two-thirds Palestinian. It just happens to be called the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan rather than Palestine.

If a Palestinian state already exists, then the argument for creating a second one is obviously much weaker. Even the most expansive interpretations of the right to national self-determination don’t hold that given ethnic groups have a right to statehood on any patch of land where they happen to comprise a majority (as the Palestinians do in the West Bank and Gaza); if so, multiethnic states would fragment unendingly into ever smaller statelets. Hence no Western country, for instance, supports allowing Kosovo’s northern provinces to break away and either form their own state or join neighboring Serbia, even though these provinces are majority Serb. The generally accepted principle is that once a given national group has a state where it can exercise self-determination, group members living outside this state don’t need another one; they can move to the original if they wish to exercise their right of national self-determination – just as Jews wishing to take part in the Jewish national project move to Israel, or ethnic Germans wishing to take part in the German national project move to Germany.

Nevertheless, there’s a serious obstacle to making this argument: For Jordan to function effectively as a Palestinian state, a revolution would have to occur there. And not only would the ouster of Jordan’s Hashemite rulers create real security headaches for Israel, but even advocating such a scenario would do so.

Currently, Jordan is an undemocratic state ruled by Saudi Arabian exiles (the Hashemites), which actively discriminates against its Palestinian citizens. Palestinians are largely excluded from government, and thousands have even been stripped of their citizenship over the last decade. Moreover, Jordan stringently restricts Palestinian immigration from the West Bank and Gaza, even though many West Bank Palestinians held Jordanian citizenship until Jordan rescinded it overnight in 1988.

None of this changes the reality that Jordan is a Palestinian state. But Palestinians won’t be able to exercise full national self-determination there until the system of government changes enough to bring the Palestinian majority to power.

As the Arab Spring has shown, a revolution is hardly unthinkable. But neither would it be cost-free for Israel.

The Jordanian border is not only Israel’s longest border, but also its quietest one. That has been true for roughly four decades, even though a formal peace treaty was signed only in 1994. And today, it’s Israel’s only quiet border. Thus if this border heated up as well, it would clearly be a major security headache for Israel. And there’s no reason to think a Palestinian-ruled Jordan would keep the peace the way the Hashemite kings have done.

Indeed, even openly discussing the “Jordan is Palestine” option could exact a security price: The Hashemites have long considered a quiet border in their own interest, but their calculations might understandably change if they thought Israel were actively seeking their overthrow.

Any such discussion would also exact a significant diplomatic price. It would certainly shred the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and might also endanger Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan’s ally, Egypt. Moreover, it could create substantial friction with Washington, since Jordan is an American ally.

For all these reasons, successive Israeli governments have consistently eschewed a Jordan-is-Palestine policy. In retrospect, I think this proved to be the wrong decision. A Palestinian state in the West Bank would be even more dangerous than one in Jordan, and the delegitimization campaign that resulted from Israel’s failure to counter the Palestinian narrative seems likely to exact higher costs than a Jordan-is-Palestine policy would. But even today, the arguments against such a policy are nontrivial; hence reasonable people can and do disagree about it.

No such justification can be advanced for Israel’s failure to rebut the claim that the West Bank and Gaza are “occupied Palestinian territory.” Combating that canard has no downside whatsoever, since even Israelis who favor creating a Palestinian state in these territories agree that any such deal must meet certain minimal Israeli requirements, and a state generously ceding its own territory for the sake of peace is much better placed to make demands of the other side than a state stubbornly refusing to return stolen land. Moreover, not only are all the facts are on Israel’s side, but they were universally accepted throughout the West until a few decades ago. That they have since been universally forgotten amounts to criminal diplomatic malfeasance by successive Israeli governments, which have spent the last 20 years pushing the Palestinian narrative instead of Israel’s own – a mind-boggling lapse that can’t be corrected too soon.

As for Jordan, Israel should at the very least be preparing to leverage a Jordanian revolution if and when it comes, since if the Arab Spring has proven anything, it’s that sooner or later, it probably will. But Jerusalem should also give serious thought to starting a Jordan-is-Palestine campaign now – because given the pace at which delegitimization is progressing, waiting for the revolution may be too late.

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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