BigMo’s Blog

Politics and Economics in Israel

The Settlement Issue

It didn’t have to come to this, did it?
Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot published a piece today on the newspaper’s web site entitled, “It’s not the settlements, stupid.”  The article was subtitled, “Obama wanted Netanyahu’s help with Arab world, but Bibi didn’t deliver.”  Of course, now it is about the settlements.
Prime Minister Netanyahu had the opportunity to set the tone and direction of diplomatic initiatives when he visited Washington in late-May.  A clear statement, like the one posted in this blog on April 11th, and again in more detail on May 5th, might have taken Israel off the settlement hot seat.  In fact, settlements might have been put into their proper perspective against a divided Palestinian Authority and the impending Iranian nuclear threat.
There were just two problems. The first comes from Israel’s traditional foreign policy, which has two themes: look what they did to us, and look what they want to do to us!  As has also been pointed out in past blogs, most of the world does not care what happened to the Jewish People sixty years ago; and most of the world is contending with what is happening to them.  Israel needs a little more nuance.
The second problem is that Mr. Netanyahu believes his coalition to be extremely fragile.  So much so, in fact, that it could not possibly contend with the “Third Rail” of Israeli politics: settlements.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of “Third Rails” in Israeli politics.  However, the Prime Minister knew this long before he took the oath of office for the second time.

Changing of the Guard
As Barnea pointed out, “President Obama made it clear from his first week in office that he is determined to turn a new leaf vis-à-vis the Muslim and Arab world.”  He needs breathing room to re-deploy American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He needs to start paying greater attention to Pakistan. Although the Pakistani army is in the process of re-taking the Swat Valley from Taliban forces, President Obama needs to start thinking about the next time the Taliban advances on the Pakistani capital, and the next time.  The Taliban isn’t easily uprooted.
Barnea again, “Obama is not adopting this initiative in order to serve an Israeli interest, yet it can have significant benefits for Israel too, particularly on the Iranian question.”  As close as American-Israeli relations have been, relationships change.  President Obama understands that the current status quo is untenable in the long-run.  What he does not seem to understand, or is unwilling to admit publicly, is that in the long-run a Palestinian state will not usher in an era of peace in the Middle East.
In its current forms, there are two Palestinian states.  There is the Islamic theocracy that has established itself in the Gaza Strip.  There is the pseudo-authoritarian kleptocracy that has a crumbling grip on power in the West Bank.  Neither of the two is democratic – although each is more than happy to use a fig leaf of democracy to hide its real intentions.  Neither is willing to take a secular approach to politics and Render unto Ceaser those things that are Ceasar’s.  As such, the pluralism that is a hallmark of Western Civilization is absent.  Neither the Gaza Strip nor the West Bank, separately or combined, are capable of establishing a modern economy.  If the Palestinians do establish a state, it will be a permanent ward of various UN agencies.

Now it is the settlements
Barnea points out, that President Obama expected, “to get something from Netanyahu on the Palestinian front that it can hold on to.  Not a withdrawal or renunciation of rights, but rather, a diplomatic model or a vision.  Yet Netanyahu arrived empty-handed and created a vacuum, into which the settlement issue slid in full force.”  Pundits attribute this to the fact that Netanyahu’s coalition is hopelessly complicated and bound to fall within a year.  Not necessarily so.
Labor, with 13 seats, was willing to consider a two-state solution when it was part of the previous government.  Agudat Israel (or whatever they’re calling themselves this week), with 6 seats, is more than happy to give way on settlements in return for continued exemptions from military service and higher government subsidies.  Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, with 16 seats, is willing to bargain on settlements; throw in a ham sandwich and a blanket pardon and they’ll say “What settlements?”  That’s 35 seats to add to Likud’s 26. that equals 61, a majority.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to have swallowed hook, line and sinker the propaganda campaign that was unleashed against him during the election campaign.  A strong statement in favor of a two-state solution, followed by a concerted effort to re-establish the Road Map would have derailed press, the Left, the Palestinians and given President Obama the maneuvering room he wants and needs.  When he speaks in Cairo on June 4th, Mr. Netanyahu will have another chance.

June 2, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , , | Leave a comment

Dead on Arrival?

Leak Machine in Full Gear

How does one put the proper spin on the last three or four days?  There have been a number of stories regarding the speech he will give in Cairo in early June, and the supposed details of his long-awaited peace initiative.  Was President Obama completely oblivious to the Washington Leak Machine, and its counterparts in all other world capitals?  Or was he using it to test the waters?  If he was oblivious to it or thought that his sheer “Obama-ness” could overcome it, he was foolhardy.  If he was testing the waters, he’s found out that:
a) he can’t walk on them, and
b) that ship has sailed.

Mixed Metaphors, Mixed Plans

Sorry for mixing metaphors like that; I do try to treat my public a little more generously than that!  Nonetheless, if the proposals that have been subject to many column inches in the worldwide press – and Lord knows how many blog sites – are true, then we have much to despair over.  Alright despair is overdoing it, but much to be concerned about, for sure.

The “plan” that has surfaced is a dreadful combination of the one the nascent UN tried propsed back in 1947, combined with the supposed alterations to the Saudi Plan of a few years ago. Back in 1947, the Jews in Palestine reluctantly accepted the UN’s proposal.  However,  it was rejected by Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syrian and the various Arab irregulars within the Mandate.  Those forces invaded Israel the  day after it declared independence.

Results: Israel 1, Arabs 0

Israel won its War of Independence through sheer grit and bloody sacrifice.  At one point, the fledling IDF was chasing retreating Egyptians across the Sinai.  A scene which, much to the chagrin of the Egyptians, would be repeated several more times over the next 30 years.

Israel, however, failed to hold East Jerusalem.  In the wake of the Armistice in 1949, Jordanian forces dynamited synagogues, tore up Jewish tombstones to pave roads and forbade Jews from worshipping at the Kotel, the “Wailing Wall.”  Those who were around then remember those days and their aftermath vividly.  The succeeding generations have been taught these facts in school.

Since 1948, Israel has accomplished so much in the arts & science, agriculture & technology, diplomacy (yes, even in diplomacy) and the military, that one would think that the Arab and Muslim states would have gotten the message.  A few have, but even they are reluctant to admit it.

That dog won’t hunt . . .

. . . as the saying goes in the American South.  The supposed details, particularly concerning Jerusalem, have already been rejected by both sides.  Palestinians have also rejected the demilitarization of their embyronic state and the settling of Palestinian “refugees” in their host countries.  If I had a dollar for everytime I’ve heard Palestinian spokesman/foreign minister Saeb Erekat say, “We reject this!”  I would be a wealthy man.  I might even be able to buy the White House, which is apparently behind on its mortgage.

Of course, there is a small chance – a vary small chance – that the press leaks and resultant verbal firestorm they generated are just a ploy.  That President Obama and his aides are deliberately stirring the pot, deliberately (davka, in Hebrew) getting everybody roiled up.  For what reason?  Possibly an even bolder move to resolve the conflict.

It’s possible, but from what we’ve seen so far from this White House, it is unlikely.

May 22, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rude Awakening, part deux

What does Israel need to say?

First, if you are reading this and didn’t read the first posting it is not going to make a lot of sense. So go back and read the first part.

Israel needs to acknowledge, to a certain extent, the slogans of the past inasmuch as these still have a tremendous grip on public opinion. Thus, a statement from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recognizing that eventually there will be a Palestinian state alongside Israel is necessary. Although talk is cheap, these few words would likely buy a lot of good will in Washington and European capitals. At least some Arab capitals would receive such a pronouncement favorably too.

It would give President Obama firmer ground to stand on vis-à-vis negotiations with Iran. It would give the Europeans enough reason to go move Israel one-step closer to membership in the EU. It would give Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia political cover to join Washington in confronting Iran, while cracking down on Islamic radical at home. Perhaps just as important, if Mr. Netanyahu made such a statement it would confound his critics on the Israeli Left and perhaps start driving a wedge between the two wings of the opposition Kadima party.

“Israel is in favor of a two-state solution” does not have to be the opening line or the closing line of the speech. However, it needs to be said. It is also an opportunity to set the parameters of a future Palestinian state.

How does Israel say it?

How would I say it if I were in the Prime Minister’s shoes? I think it would go something along these lines.

“Since its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel has sought peace with its neighbors through direct negotiations. However, despite our sincerest efforts, many of our attempts were met with outright rejection. Our major wars have cost the region – not just Israel, but all the countries involved, over a trillion dollars in lost development. Schools were not built and children were not educated. Hospitals were not built and the sick were not healed. Yet, we still yearn for peace and believe it is within our reach if we act responsibly.”

“The first breakthrough came in 1978 with Anwar Sadat’s courageous and groundbreaking visit to Israel. Egypt and Israel were rewarded by President Sadat’s vision, and in 1979 Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty that endures to this day. In 1994 Jordan under King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel, and that peace endures to this day. Both of the courageous leaders bravely made difficult choices, shouldered the responsibility for their actions, and will always be remembered in history as men of valor.”

“Unfortunately, their equals have not yet been found among the other states of our shared region. Some are held hostage by extreme political philosophies. Some are held hostage by anarchy and disarray. Yet others bind themselves to outmoded concepts and untenable ideas. History will also judge these men harshly for all the wasted time, all the blood they have spilt.”

“This I believe: ultimately, there will be peace. There will be a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state of Israel. We hope it is something that we will see in our lifetimes, something that we will have a part in helping build. If men of bravery, courage and vision can be found on the other side of the bargaining table, it is something that we will have.”

“Judea and Samaria are dear to Israel and the Jewish people. They are part of our historic homeland. They are where are our forefathers are buried. They are where are culture was born and flourished. They contain sites that have been holy to us for five thousand years, before there ever was a single Palestinian. Yet for the sake of peace we have ceded parts of Judea and Samaria, and are prepared to ceded more. However, this will only happen if the Palestinian leadership truly seeks peace. Judea and Samaria are not a stepping stone to Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

“Accountability, compromise and reconciliation must replace threats, violence and war. The Palestinian Authority must live up to its past commitments. It must contain and eliminate terrorism. It must reform itself so that it has credibility in the eyes of its own people. And it must take on the arduous task of building a state, much as the Jewish people have: one farm at a time, one factory at a time, one school at a time. If it is capable of living up to its past commitments, providing security, stability and growth, the vision of peace will be shared by all.”

What does the PM say to the President

Before he gives such a speech, Mr. Netanyahu would need to have a heart-to-heart with Mr. Obama. He should start off by clearly stating that an Iran with a complete nuclear fuel cycle is completely unacceptable. The Obama administration has already been floating the idea – more by omission from its statements – that Iran might be able to keep what it already has, as long as it doesn’t develop a nuclear bomb. Both of these, a complete nuclear fuel cycle and a nuclear weapon, will happen in the next 12 – 18 months. This changes all the rules.

Second, Israel needs the Obama administration to follow-up on the commitments made by the Bush administration. This means allowing Israel to purchase the military technology in the amounts it needs to maintain its technical superiority. The post-communist kleptocracy that reigns in Moscow is willing to sell just about any piece of military hardware it can to Iran and Syria. The US must make it clear that it will not allow its closest ally in the region to be put at a military disadvantage.

Third, Israel needs the Obama administration to put a little pressure on the Europeans to play ball. Upgrading Israel’s status vis-à-vis the EU would be a start. Dropping there flirtations with Hamas would strengthen the PA and the peace process. Taking all of these actions, Mr. Netanyahu should tell Mr. Obama, will make Israel strong enough to match the steps that the Palestinians make. If indeed the Palestinians are capable of making them.

May 5, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rude Awakening

Good Morning Israel-nam!
Israel is slowly awakening to a new reality in Washington. Since 1967, when Israel defeated five Arab armies in the short span of six days, the country has enjoyed a special relationship with America. For forty years, that relationship has grown deeper and stronger. Israel has been the beneficiary of diplomatic support, economic assistance, trade treaties and the ability to purchase major weapons systems that have made it the preeminent power in the Middle East.

It also means that for over forty years Israeli leaders have enjoyed relative freedom in their foreign policy decision-making. The election of Barack Obama as president may have ended this situation.

Now, to the dismay of many, the United States is staking out a foreign policy position that for the first time is in apparent opposition to Israeli interests. In the waning months of the Bush administration, the US rebuffed Israeli requests for modern re-fueling tankers and the installation of Israeli technology in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter.

President Obama has ignored the feelers that various European governments have put out towards Hamas. It has also been silent on European linking of enhanced Israeli participation in the EU and implementation of a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue. In fact, President Obama has linked the resumption of dialogue on a two-state solution to American support vis-à-vis the growing Iranian nuclear threat. Israelis are, for the first time, experiencing the “stick” of the “carrot and stick” approach of diplomacy.

A New Reality?

Is this a new reality? Tremendous pressure is being exerted on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to utter the words “two-state solution.” To his credit, he has said little, eschewing press conferences on the subject in order to spend time constructing a new policy. Regardless of the level of support that it ultimately receives, the effort might be stillborn.

There is no negotiating partner on the other side of the table. Despite several months of Egyptian-sponsored “unity” talks, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are just as far apart as they were in July 2006 when Hamas fighters seized control of the Gaza Strip in a violent coup d’etat.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has already given several speeches in which he has stated that past negotiations with the Palestinians have not yielded the promised peace. Instead, they have resulted in Israel ceding territory to Palestinian control and getting more terrorism in return. Israel is now faced with a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and a West Bank under partial PA control. Hamas will not recognize Israel in any form at all. The PA will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Mr. Liberman is taking every opportunity to give his counterparts in Europe, Russia and China an earful on this situation.

Indeed there is a new reality in the Middle East. There is an Israeli government that is not afraid to admit that past concessions have only been rewarded with more terrorism and increased anti-Semitism from the Arab and Muslim world. It is also an Israeli government that is might not be afraid to test the resolve of the new American president. While President Obama peddles “soft power,” there’s very little sign that anyone in the region is buying.

Perceiving the Other’s Reality

As Mr. Liberman has been arguing, too many diplomats and leaders speak in slogans that no longer have any basis in reality, if they ever did at all. Slogans like “two-state solution,” “settlements,” “occupation” and “right of return” have peppered the speeches of Arab, European and other world leaders for far too long. These phrases have created a reality all their own, regardless of the often pitiless truth of the situation. This creates a unique opportunity for Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu. However, each has to be able and willing to appreciate the other’s perception of reality.

US troops will be ending their combat role in Iraq on June 30. No one is so foolish as to believe that Iraq will magically become a secular democracy on July 1. There are too many interested parties (Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) to allow that to happen. The best that Mr. Obama can hope for is that bloodshed that results does not rise to a level that requires US troops to re-enter Iraqi cities. If Iraq were to descend into a full-fledged civil war or the regime were toppled, American policy and power would be severely damaged.

Likewise, an armed confrontation – either American/Iranian or Israeli/Iranian – would result in a temporary spike in world oil prices. Despite the barrels of ink spilled during the 2008 American election campaign, America still has a petroleum-based economy. Or rather, what is left of the economy is petroleum based. A spike in oil prices, even a temporary increase of two or three months, would result in more damage to the American (and world) economy.

There are other problems that are contending for Mr. Obama’s attention, too. Too many to list here.

In 2008 Americans were fed-up with the $4/gallon gas prices at the pump and the 4000 dead that the war in Iraq had cost them. Mid-term elections for Congress are a short sixteen months away. Mr. Obama benefited from the American public’s frustration and won the presidency. He knows very well that if that situation returns, someone else will benefit from it in 2012.

Binyamin Netanyahu needs to understand that Barack Obama is in the first year of his first term. He will have to deal with this new American president and the problems he inherited for at least another three years, or as long as his own coalition lasts.

To be continued . . .

May 5, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , , | Leave a comment

Magic Words

Politeness counts!
Remember when you were a child and wanted something? Inevitably, you pointed and yelled out your demand. If your demand was somewhat reasonable, for instance a small toy or a candy bar, you got it.

Your parents did a quick mental calculation regarding the cost to their wallet and their peace of mind. The fact that the toy would be forgotten in a week’s time or that you would not eat your vegetables that night at dinner were sacrificed in order to get you to shut-up.

However, the demand was always met with the gentle admonishment of, “What’s the magic word?”

The magic word was, of course, “please.” As children, we often forgot that basic manners, which include politeness, count a great deal in civil society. As you grew older, you realized that there were many “magic words.” Practically every situation, from the bedroom to the boardroom has its own set that get you want you want.

Presently, in our relation with Europe and the US, there are three magic words that they want to hear: “Two state solution.”

The Pareto Principle
In the late nineteenth century a political scientist by the name of Wilfredo Pareto wondered why power and wealth were distributed the way they were in Italy. He studied the players and came up with a startling conclusion. About 80% of the wealth and power were controlled by about 20% of the populous. Even more startling was the fact that power was rotated among these elites and fortunes handed down, generation to generation.

For 80% of the world, things like the miracle-in-the-desert that Israel has created, the vast achievements of the Jewish people (and their vast sufferings) mean nothing. They are interested in their own problems. They weigh the voices of 21 Arab states and 56 Muslim nations against a solitary Israeli-Jewish voice. Although these states often loathe implementing democracy, they are more than happen to acknowledge it in world affairs. They are only too happy to kow-tow to the mathematics of the situation and throw their vote towards the Arabs/Muslims in whatever forum it happens to be needed, whether it is the UN, UNESCO, WHO or whatever.

About 20% of the world does count, and that 20% is in Europe and the US. It is from that 20% that are support emanates where the bulk of our trade comes from, where the bulk of our cultural inheritance comes from and where we as a people are best understood. It is in America and Europe that our high-tech goods are sold, on whose stock exchanges our high-tech companies are listed and where our government bonds are bought and sold. So, maybe we should think twice and say those “magic words.”

Everything has a price
Barack Obama believes in the healing power of words, obviously inspired by his own experiences and the philosophy of men such as Mahatma Gandhi and Desmond Tutu. Arab and Muslim states have often relied on hyperbole (and the application of force, to be sure) to rule over their populations, when their scant achievements should have sent them packing long ago. Nasser was able to ride-out the defeat of the Six Day War with a single speech!

So talk is not cheap. Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to keep this in mind when he says the magic words “two-state solution.” First, these words need to be uttered either in Europe or the US in a public forum. In all likelihood, they will have to said in both places and multiple times.

After he says them, that’s when the piper needs to be paid. The Europeans need to have their feet put to the fire on granting Israel EU trade status and dropping their flirtations with Hamas. Tony Blair doesn’t get to visit Gaza, let alone Gerry Adams, and the rest of the Eurostinians don’t receive Israeli press credentials or visas until the EU delivers.

The Americans also will have to pay the piper. The highly coveted tanker aircraft that Israel wants would be a nice “thank you” – again, politeness counts Mr. Obama – for starters. I’m sure there are more than a few items on the Kirya’s shopping list that Mr. Netanyahu would love to acquire.

Never missing an opportunity
The Palestinians, it was once said, never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. I wish I knew who said it first because I would really like to give him credit. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas would be caught flat-footed by such an announcement. They have been struggling for weeks now to come up with an agreement that would allow them to form a national unity government, so far with no results. An Israeli pronouncement acknowledging the goal of a two-state solution would obviously put both the PA and Hamas at a disadvantage.

The “thank you” delivered by the Europeans and the US could also hardly be missed in Iran. A trade pact with the EU would bolster the Israeli economy at a time when the regime in Teheran is struggling with the results of two decades of mismanagement and allocation of national assets towards a policy of belligerence. The delivery of tanker aircraft – and who knows what else – would give Israel an enhanced ability to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities. Perhaps enough of a reason to get them to negotiate seriously on the matter, but probably not.

Finally, stating the obvious, that a two-state solution is Israel’s goal would pull the opposition’s teeth in the Knesset. Israel has already committed itself to several agreements who’s ultimate end would be a Palestinian state. Acknowledging what it has already signed would seem to be a no-brainer. It is an opportunity that Israel should not miss.

April 11, 2009 Posted by | Middle East | , , , | Leave a comment