Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It's a Trap!

David Bernstein warns us not to "believe Obama's faux-outrage at Netanyahu". "Faux-outrage?", you might ask -- "doesn't seem very 'faux' to me." And you'd be right, and Bernstein would agree: "I'm not claiming that Obama isn't sincerely outraged at Bibi; rather, the outrage, disgust, hostility, whatever you want to call it, has little to do with the events of the past week." Having retreated from the implausible, Bernstein then shifts to the banal: the frustration Obama is expressing with Netanyahu is not something that developed just this week, but rather stems from much longer-lasting animosity that has developed over a period of years.

This, presumably, is not a revelation: It has been beyond obvious to anyone with a pulse that Obama and Netanyahu do not like each other. Obama, I imagine, thinks that Bibi is craven, a sabre-rattler, at best indifferent to the creation of a Palestinian state, and committed to expanding Israel's settlements regardless of the impact they have on the Palestinian people. Bibi, for his part, seems to think that Obama is weak, unconcerned with Israel's security, too-focused on an (at best) tertiary issue of securing Palestinian statehood, and is in opposition to the settlement project that Bibi and his party fervently support. There is no reason to think that the two would be besties. And so it is not surprising that bibi would prefer a disempowered Obama in favor of an emboldened Republican Party, and that Obama would rather see Bibi kicked to the curb in favor of a more left-wing coalition. The idea that people prefer their ideological compatriots is not anything astounding.

So Bernstein begins with an argument that is unsupportable and ends with one that is unoriginal and uninformative. What on earth is in the middle? And here is where things go off the rails, for Bernstein has in his head an elaborate plot where President Obama is deliberately seeking to hurt Netanyahu in order to undermine the U.S./Israel relationship (Sayeth Bernstein: the current flap-up mostly derives from "the president’s discomfort with the (positive) trajectory of U.S.-Israel relations (i.e., 'no daylight') in the Clinton and Bush years"). This, presumably, is meant as a counter-hypothesis to the more-immediately intuitive one, which is that Obama is taking the actions that he is because he genuinely thinks that a two-state solution is important and he's genuinely skeptical that Netanyahu has any serious intention of pursuing one. What's the evidence?

Well first, Bernstein cites State Department funding of OneVoice, a prominent NGO working in Israel and Palestine to foster grassroots support in both communities for a two-state solution. Indeed, OneVoice may be the single most important NGO in Israel or Palestine devoted to that project; for that reason it is an eminently sensible recipient of State Department funds given that American policy has long been to promote acceptance of a two-state solution within both the Israeli and Palestinian communities? So what's the problem? The problem is that OneVoice came to the conclusion that Netanyahu posed a significant threat to the two-state agenda, and so (apparently after State Department funding ceased) organized and campaigned against him (and in favor of more left-ward candidates). But the fact that an organization (correctly) identified by the State Department as committed to enabling a two-state solution felt the need to campaign against Netanyahu isn't a strike against State, it's a strike against Netanyahu and all those who think that he'll do anything to make that dream a reality. This, in other words, is evidence that independent political actors in Israel committed to a two-state solution don't trust Netanyahu. It's hardly unreasonable or manifest of a plot for Obama to react the same way.

The second bit of evidence, though, takes us much deeper down the rabbit hole. Follow if you dare:
On March 6, less than two weeks before the election, a major Israeli newspaper published a document showing that Netanyahu’s envoy had agreed on his behalf to an American-proposed framework that offered substantial Israeli concessions that Netanyahu publicly opposed. Let’s put on our thinking caps. Where would this leak have come from? The most logical suspect is the American State Department.

So here’s the dynamic: Netanyahu, while talking tough publicly about terms for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, was much more accommodating privately during actual negotiations. Just before Israeli elections, the U.S. government likely leaks evidence of his flexibility to harm Netanyahu. As a result, Netanyahu starts to lose right-wing voters to smaller parties, and the left-leaning major opposition party takes a lead in the polls, putting Netanyahu’s leadership in question, just as the U.S. wanted.

Netanyahu responds by using increasingly right-wing rhetoric (including denying that he ever agreed to the framework in question), to win back the voters from smaller parties that the leak cost him. He wins, and almost immediately announces that his campaign rhetoric was misunderstood, and that he still supports a two-state solution when conditions allow. The Obama Administration then announces it nevertheless has to reassess relations with Israel, allegedly because Netanayahu is no longer committed to the two-state solution.

So you get it? The Obama Administration, or someone with similar motivations, leaks a document showing that in practice, Netanyahu was surprisingly flexible in negotiations sponsored by the U.S. Netanyahu then tries to compensate by sounding tough in the closing days of his campaign. The administration then pretends that this is much more meaningful than its actual experience with Netanyahu, as indicated by the document it likely leaked, because it was out to punish Israel for electing Netanyahu regardless.
Only Imperial Stormtroopers could be precise, said Obi-Wan in one of his less-perceptive moments, and this reeks of that. Under Bernstein's chain of logic, we know the State Department leaked the information in attempt to weaken Netanyahu because ... it had the exact opposite effect. The actual result of the leak, as Bernstein notes, was that it pushed Netanyahu further to the right and caused him to make a declarative statement that a Palestinian state wouldn't occur "on his watch." Even under Bernstein's theory there's no reason why the Obama Administration would have wanted that outcome. And while it is of course possible that State miscalculated and its plan backfired, even under Bernstein's logic it wouldn't make a lot of sense -- as he notes, if it had worked "as planned" the result wouldn't have been to weaken the Israeli right, it would have simply redistributed right-wing votes to parties even further to the right. Again, there's no reason why Obama would want that. As much as Obama dislikes Bibi Netanyahu, I think it's fair to say a Naftali Bennett premiership would be far more distasteful.

Rather than assuming that a counterproductive State Department plan backfired, it would be far simpler to just ask who really benefited from the leak, based on what actually happened. And that's pretty straightforward -- the leak caused Bibi to issue statements quite antagonistic towards the creation of a Palestinian state, which energized the Israeli right and unified them behind Likud. The folks who benefited were members of Bibi's ideological camp who were unhappy with perceived Netanyahu softness towards a Palestinian state and wanted to push him right-ward. Plenty of folks meeting that description; quite few of whom are currently residing in the Obama State Department. I'm not saying that a discontented member of Bibi's coalition was responsible for the leak; I have no idea who did it. I am saying that the chain of reasoning Bernstein presents to concoct an elaborate Obama administration plot is transparently ludicrous.

Really, the roots of the discontent between Obama and Netanyahu are just as straightforward as they appear. Obama thinks the creation of a Palestinian state is really important. Bibi doesn't care one way or the other about it. That's what Israeli NGOs on the ground who are committed to this issue think. And even if you believe Bibi's apologia for his pre-election comments, and take him at his word that he wants a Palestinian state just not under "current conditions", it is still obviously the case that he's not planning on taking affirmative steps towards changing those conditions. After all, he didn't say "I'll do what I can, but ultimately I don't think the Palestinian leadership will sign on the dotted line." When he said "not on my watch," he said that he wasn't going to take any steps, that he had no interest in creating such conditions, or even taking what initiative he could to move things in the proper direction. One does not have to think Israel is entirely or even primarily responsible for the "conditions" not being right for a two-state solution and still believe that there are things a committed Israeli could do to make those conditions more favorable. For those of us who agree with Obama and think that a Palestinian state is a priority now, Bibi's stated preference for a Palestinian state in some undetermined theoretical future is hardly sufficient to label him an ally to the cause.

Bernstein concludes by saying that the ultimate goal of the devious Obama plot is to enact "a divide-and-conquer strategy to split off liberal Jewish Democrats from the communal pro-Israel consensus." He doesn't say what "pro-Israel consensus" he's talking about. If it's just the idea that we are "pro-Israel", then there's no split necessary -- advocating aggressively for two-states fits comfortably within the confines of "pro-Israel". If it's the idea that Netanyahu is a true-blue supporter of a two-state solution, then there's no consensus -- indeed, it's difficult to imagine that anybody seriously believes that. Liberals have no need to believe it because they never liked Netanyahu that much, and conservatives have no need to believe it because they never liked a two-state solution that much. In any event, Obama hardly needs to take steps to peel off liberal Democrats from anything -- liberal Democrats were already solid Obama backers to begin with.

No, what's really going on is a much deeper game of which Obama is only a small part of. The "pro-Israel consensus" for the past several decades has been quite clear: a two-state solution is the only valid solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There have been dissenters from that consensus on both the far-left and the far-right, but a consensus it has been. But recently, there has been an emergent challenge to this consensus from the more mainstream right. Sometimes they've come out and stated their opposition outright, other times it has come cloaked under a muttered mantra of "in theory yes, but...." It is these persons who are trying to crack -- or perhaps more aptly, reshape -- the pro-Israel consensus so that it no longer views pursuit of a two-state solution as a necessary part of what it means to be pro-Israel. And in response, those of us who are committed to that vision are seeking to the hold the line, and reaffirm that ours is the true pro-Israel position, and if you're going to express indifference or hostility to two-states, then you can hang out with your buddies in the JVP.

It is divide and conquer, but the group that we're trying to peel off isn't liberals away from pro-Israel. It's proto-one-staters who want to stay under the mantle of "pro-Israel." That's not going to fly for much longer. Being pro-Israel isn't simply a matter of subjective sentiment or mouthing the right words at the right time. If you aren't willing to put in some elbow grease to preserve Israel's standing as a secure, democratic Jewish state -- which is to say, if you're not willing to actually fight for a two-state solution -- then you have no business calling yourself pro-Israel at all. And if that means the American pro-Israel community finds itself lining up against the third of Israeli MKs who don't seem to share that vision, then that's the way things crumble.


Mordy said...

imho the criteria for being "pro-Israel" is supporting the welfare of the Israeli polity de jure and supporting the welfare of the Jewish Israeli polity de facto. supporting a two-state solution is not obviously supporting said population. it may be, but to make that case you'd have to explain why it's worth risking the actual lives of the Jewish ppl in Israel for the sake of the ethical benefits of maintaining a democratic State. essentially i have come to see liberal-zionist support for israel as being too willing to sacrifice physical health for the sake of moral health. this strikes me as a bizarre supersessionist theology that replaces the actual Jewish theology w/ a kind of international progressivism theology.

Mark said...
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Mark said...

you said:

The "pro-Israel consensus" for the past several decades has been quite clear: a two-state solution is the only valid solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I'm curious. Why do you think that's true? Palestine, esp. Hamas, have put out publicly their goal is to destroy Israel. Why do you think a two state solution will make that become less, not more, likely?

David Schraub said...

To answer Mark's first question, I can say it's the "consensus" because virtually all the mainline Jewish groups have declared it to be such -- the ADL, the AJC, the JCPA, hell, even AIPAC (which is why Sheldon Adelson no longer supports AIPAC). That's what a consensus is -- widespread agreement amongst the significant institutional players.

The second question (which overlaps with Mordy's comment) is more interesting, but I think it deserves unpacking. Let's simplify the entire conflict into two dimensions: call them the security dimension and the democracy dimension. The two-state solution almost certainly results in a net improvement along the democracy dimension (in that a group which currently lacks voting rights and national self-determination capacity would attain them); as Mordy seems to recognize. But, as Mark observes, it does not necessarily improve the security dimension (e.g., Hamas might still want to destroy Israel).

The best case scenario for the two-state solution, of course, is that it does result in a better security situation -- happy to have their own state, Palestinians make peace with Israel and everyone lives happily ever after, the end. In that case, the two state solution is obviously good -- it offers a net improvement along both dimensions.

Of course, that might not happen. Maybe Palestinian attitudes towards Israel and their attempts at hurting Israel don't change at all under a two-state framework. Or maybe there are both security gains and losses but they wash out (e.g., Israel no longer has to defend isolated settlements but Palestinians can now access better weaponry, or Palestinian radicals are emboldened by perceived Israeli weakness but Palestinian moderates are more concerned with statecraft that waging war; or Israeli borders are narrower but a unified Palestinian government is more easily deterrable by normal modes of statecraft). In this hypothesis, the security dimension is unchanged from the status quo. But here, too, a two-state solution is the most just -- it's a wash on security but offers a net gain on democracy, so it's still a net positive over the status quo.

In other words, in order to oppose a two-state solution, you need to demonstrate not just that two-states won't necessarily improve the security dimension, but that it is likely to make that dimension worse, and not just worse but sufficiently worse to outweigh the democratic gains. And that seems exceptionally improbable. I am doubtful that a two-state solution will be an immediate panacea on the security front; I expect it to be more of a mixed-bag. But I do think it will be a net positive, and I'm exceptionally doubtful it will be so much of a net negative so as to outweigh the democratic gains. I can imagine a world in which two-states doesn't make things better for Israel, but its hard for me to imagine that a Palestinian state makes things worse -- either way, worst-case, it's got a hostile population near its own cities, and either way it's primary security feature is its capacity to blow the ever-living shit out of anyone dumb enough to cross them. Since that factor doesn't change state or no-state, I'm dubious that the needle on the security dimension will experience any significant negative movement.

(Note that this formula doesn't even include Palestinian security concerns, which are also morally relevant. But I think even if we just look to Israeli security needs, it is likely to be at least a modest net positive and is very unlikely to be sufficiently negative to outweigh the democratic gains).

David Bernstein said...

David, the intellectual gymnastics you go through to try to absolve the Obama Administration and blame Netanyahu are quite astounding.

I'll just provide the example of who leaked the memo we both discuss. You suggest it was more likely an Israeli to N's right than the State Department. But it was a secret document signed by Kerry and Netanyahu's personal representative. What is your theory as to how someone else in Israel's "nationalist" camp got hold of it? Or do you go around talking about "ludicrous" theories when you are really propounding one of your own?

Mordy said...

"But I do think it will be a net positive, and I'm exceptionally doubtful it will be so much of a net negative so as to outweigh the democratic gains. I can imagine a world in which two-states doesn't make things better for Israel, but its hard for me to imagine that a Palestinian state makes things worse -- either way, worst-case, it's got a hostile population near its own cities, and either way it's primary security feature is its capacity to blow the ever-living shit out of anyone dumb enough to cross them. Since that factor doesn't change state or no-state, I'm dubious that the needle on the security dimension will experience any significant negative movement."

I think I disagree with a few of the assertions here. One, I am positive that a two state solution will not just be a wash but will be significantly worse from a 'security' POV than the status quo. Unlike Gaza which only shares a border with Egypt and can therefore be somewhat contained, the WB will be completely receptive to getting weapons through Syria, Jordan, etc. We are therefore looking at a situation where rockets can be fired into the most sensitive areas of Israel w/ far more flexibility than from Gaza.

Secondly, I'm very concerned that the mechanic used to ensure that this doesn't become a problem is a "capacity to blow the ever-living shit out of anyone dumb enough to cross them." You're basically resting the security of Israel in the event of a 2SS on their ability to kill lots of Palestinians. Essentially we're looking at a case where a 2SS might (probably will) lead to significantly more deaths on both sides of the conflict, but it's ok with you bc it'll be better for Democracy.

I think the responsible metric for any political decision needs to be first minimizing harm - and particularly measurable life/sustenance/etc. If a 2SS will generate more harm, and you seem to agree that such a scenario is possible (imagine a Gaza war in the WB every few years as opposed to the current status quo), then we have to reject the 2SS.

Re: 'security,' the term is really euphemistic, don't you think? What we really mean to say is: Will more people suffer / less people suffer under these circumstances? Isn't that a much more honest way of framing it? And then we can discuss whether suffering by not having suffrage is better or worse than suffering by being bombed, starved, etc.

David Schraub said...

I said that I don't know who leaked the document. What I argued (and think I demonstrated quite clearly) is that arguing it was a deliberate leak by someone on Obama's team as a mechanism for effectuating Obama's I/P policy is extremely unlikely, based either on expected or actual outcomes. In terms of actual outcomes, of course, it had the opposite effect. And in terms of the narrative you told, it's "expected" effect would have been to redistribute right-wing votes further right-ward, which isn't good either.

David Schraub said...

Mordy: The West Bank also shares a single border (with Jordan), so it's not immediately clear that it's more receptive to weapons smuggling than is Gaza. That said, I will concede for sake of argument that would be easier for a Palestinian state to gain weaponry than in the status quo (and noted that possibility in my comment). It still isn't fair play to only focus on the potential negative security consequences without also considering the potential positive consequences.

W/r/t my "blow the shit out of them" firewall towards massive security faults, that's equally true in the status quo. Right now, the main thing keeping Israel safe is its massive military superiority (that is, it's ability to obliterate anyone who might threaten them). It's wrong to say this "might (probably will) lead to significantly more deaths on both sides" on two levels -- first because deterrence often stays at the level of deterrence, and second because it isn't a shift from the status quo. I'm not too worried about the security ramifications of two-states because the most important variable (Israel's massive military edge) stays constant.

Finally, I'm doing you a big favor defining security narrowly as only the threats resulting from military attack. If we expand it to include all forms of human suffering... well, after all, people suffer when they're blockaded, people suffer when they're degraded, people suffer when they're starved, people suffer when they're disenfranchised. Incorporating all of those into the "security" side would make the case for two states far stronger.

David Bernstein said...

If you're arguing that the State Department is always super-competent, come on...

As for redistributing votes on the right, if the Zionist Union had gotten the most seats of any party, Rivlin would likely have given it the opportunity to try to form a government, even if the right/center had more total seats than the left/center. Surely you know this.

Mordy said...

I'm not sure - "degraded," and "disenfranchised" are very ephemeral concepts that seem to heavily weigh down the scale towards a 2SS but on close examination are pretty difficult to define.WB residents can't vote for the occupying power of their country, but they can vote in local PA elections. I can vote for the POTUS, but in reality my vote is statistically meaningless and I really have no say in the overall trends + political makeups of my country. "Degraded" is too difficult for me to define at all. Your other two conditions to evaluate are a "blockade" and "starvation," both of which are significantly better in the area with the occupation (the WB) than the place where the occupation was ended (Gaza), which seems to argue that it's better to keep the occupation going.

David Schraub said...

Depends on what the ultimate distribution was -- as you know, Kadima won the most seats a few years back and didn't get a chance to form a coalition. I will concede that many observers have been really annoying looking at aggregate votes for the top-two parties rather than at the relative change in seats across various political blocs (presumably an Americanized-bias since we're not used to dealing with parliamentary coalition systems).

David Schraub said...

Come on Mordy. Or do you look at the Selma march too and say "wow, that's a lot of effort wasted on securing a statistically-insignificant measure of political influence if gauged individually." Putting aside whether a pure rational-choice theory of voting captures why people value voting rights, and putting aside whether it is reasonable for a Palestinian national movement to think it terms of collective national exercise of sovereignty, the bare fact is that people decide what their interests are, and they aren't obligated to decide in a manner amenable to economists. If people are interested in having a right to vote, then that's their interest.

I could also add that the odds that any individual Israeli will be hit by a rocket is also statistically insignificant, and we'd think that's bullshit too. People (Jews, Palestinians, and otherwise) behave in a way that suggests that security matters to them regardless of the statistics, and they behave in a way that suggests that voting rights matter to them regardless of the statistics. Faced with that evidence, chattering about "well, maybe voting doesn't matter because nobody's vote really counts" is rationalization, and poor rationalization at that.

Mordy said...

David, off the topic somewhat, can you sometime soon address the hysteria in the Jewish left about this major schism between American and Israeli jewry? It seems obviously designed to create a schism where one is unlikely to be. The people most likely to break with Israel bc Bibi was reelected are those who were pretty unhappy with Israel to begin with. The vast majority of people complaining will be like ppl threatening to move to Canada after GWB's election - full of hot air + will soon come to the terms w/ the fact that the sky is not falling. (And speaking of GWB, does anyone seriously believe that Bibi being reelected has worse consequences for the world than GWB being elected twice? Please.) The operative question needs to be: Do you really believe there will be fewer kids on Birthright trips next year?

Mordy said...

Re voting - I agree that there might be aggregate value (though I'm skeptical of how much, which is partially why I don't think it's a big deal to enfranchise every resident of the WB). And I agree that people take it very seriously. I just don't agree that either of these concerns should take any serious precedence over practical issues of life + quality of living, which have actual ramifications for every living human. And btw, re Selma, I think a lot of ppl would point to the conditions that most black ppl in America suffer under in 2015 and suggest that maybe the franchise didn't do much after all.

David Schraub said...

Everyone agrees that suffrage isn't a panacea. Nobody believes that therefore, it is justified or okay to disenfranchise people. And if the situation was reversed, and we were discussing a situation where Jews were disenfranchised, you wouldn't make the argument you're making.

Simply put, you're either articulating a position you don't truly believe, or if you do believe it, one whose actual popular currency is zero. Either way, it's a null factor. People believe that voting rights are important, therefore, they're important. Palestinians don't get to unilaterally decide whether their interests outweigh Israelis, but they do get to decide what their interests are. And insofar as they've made it quite clear that they care a lot about voting rights and national autonomy, that's their call to make.

Mordy said...

"And if the situation was reversed, and we were discussing a situation where Jews were disenfranchised, you wouldn't make the argument you're making."

This isn't entirely true. I mean look, in our context living in a first world democracy in 2015 we are obv biased towards thinking that suffrage is an incredibly important thing. I feel that inclination as well. But the truth is that throughout history, and throughout most of the world today, suffrage is a minor issue. Democratic representation is only one political system among many, and is not the only one that can deliver high quality of life standards and security. I think it's important to disambiguate a few things here - is it that we think it's important that Palestinians in the WB get to vote, or is it that we think it's important that Palestinians in the WB get what they want? Which is to say, if they didn't want to participate in a democracy but wanted to participate in a theocracy, would we be obligated to champion that wish? Do most oppressed people in the world yearn to vote, or yearn to eat? And is focusing on the former an indication of an ideological bias?

David Schraub said...

A lovely theoretical argument, save for the fact that Palestinians have very clearly expressed that they want political autonomy and self-governance. So the fact that we can imagine a group that doesn't care about that is concern-trolling.

I'm a small-d democrat, so I'm inclined to think democratic rights are inalienable -- we shouldn't respect a decision to give up one's democratic rights anymore than we should respect a decision to sell oneself into slavery. But that's not relevant here, because Palestinian revealed preferences are quite explicit on this score.

Mordy said...
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Mordy said...

Some Palestinian preferences. In reality the PLO hasn't held an election in years and in Gaza the polity elected Hamas. Maybe this is one of those stated v. real preferences. And it's not quite theoretical. In fact in the Middle East right now there's a major question about polities voting in non-democratic or democracy-hostile parties. Do we support the decision to vote in a democratically hostile government (eg the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan, some might say Bibi)? idk I feel like you're treating all these questions like they're very simple & that any pushback on them is concern trolling, when actually I think they've very complex + foundational inquiries.

Edited to add: I belatedly realized that you actually did express your preference above. You believe that we shouldn't respect a polity's decision to abrogate their own democratic rights. Of course this puts you on a collision course w/ democracy itself as you suddenly find yourself in a situation where you don't respect a democratic decision bc it undermines its own democracy.