Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Pick Your Stick

Negotiation is, oversimplified, a matter of carrots and sticks. Give to encourage and induce, take to discourage and punish. In international diplomacy, we have carrots: foreign aid, diplomatic friendliness, open trade, even "symbolic" statements of support or encouragement. And we have corresponding sticks: sanctions, blocked sales, bolstering rivals, or just ordinary harsh messages and dressing-downs.

America's Israel policy has primarily been one of carrots. To be clear, the carrots can and often were in service of good things. For example, investing in pro-peace NGOs and people-to-people peacemaking initiatives is an inducement, but an inducement towards something quite positive. I very much like giving that sort of carrot. Funding Iron Dome is a carrot, but a carrot that saves lives. I'm not anti-carrot. But carrots are carrots, and carrots can't do everything. Sticks -- supporting condemnatory UN resolutions, limiting military assistance, reducing aid, placing settlement organizations on terrorist watch lists, sanctions -- have largely been out of the picture.

One of the lessons many Democrats have internalized over the past few years of observing Israel's ever-rightward shift is that a policy of all carrot, no stick towards Israel is not working. That doesn't mean we should swing all the way in the other direction of all stick, no carrots. Nor does it suggest that each and every potential "stick" is a viable or valid policy choice. But it does suggest that certain sticks at least need to be on the table. We can't just preemptively declare "no matter what happens, we will never deploy any stick."

The question this raises, then, is which sticks should we self-consciously add to our repertoire? Imagine a hypothetical meeting between a representative of the new mainstream progressive consensus and the major pro-Israel Jewish groups in Washington. The former poses the following to the latter:
It has become clear that, at least some of the time, the United States needs to be able to credibly threaten to deploy "sticks", not just "carrots", in order to demonstrate the unacceptable of certain Israeli governmental conduct and to induce changes in Israeli behavior; just as we have both "sticks" and "carrots" to respond to behavior of Palestinian parties or any other government. That said, we understand and are sympathetic to your concerns that some potential "sticks" may be unacceptable, a bridge too far, outright dangerous, or fostering of antisemitism here or abroad. The last thing we want to do is use those sticks. It would be helpful, then, if you could tell us what sorts of sticks are permissible and "in bounds", so that we build our policy around them and not ones that will provoke an unnecessary crisis.

This, in many ways, is a variant of the question I asked of some Jewish Mid-East policy experts during a break in Yom Kippur services a few years back: if we're saying "no BDS', what might we say "yes" to? It's fine to say a particular "stick" is off-limits, but only if one can credibly say "but this other stick that would be okay." 

If, by contrast, the groups refuse to answer -- if they say "sorry, but there are no sticks we could ever approve of" -- the main consequence will probably be that the progressives will simply stop consulting with the pro-Israel Jewish groups on the subject of sticks. Why bother, if you've already decided a stick is necessary but you know that nothing will come out of the conversation other than "not that, and not that, and not that either"?

Hence, if they want to stay relevant to the conversation, the difficult, uncomfortable, but necessary task for pro-Israel Jewish groups is going to be deciding what sticks are okay -- and (this is crucial) credibly commit to defending them as okay. The old model of carrots or bust won't work, the old reliance on (in Jeremy Ben-Ami's words) offering nothing more than "thoughts and prayers" isn't going to cut it. These groups are going to have a very tough internal conversation, the conclusion of which has to be telling Democratic politicians "if you support X 'stick' as a response to bad Israeli behavior, we think and we will publicly affirm that it will be in-bounds." And then (perhaps this will be even tougher) sticking -- no pun intended -- to that commitment even in the face of the predictable caterwauling and fulminations that will unfold at the very idea of using a stick.

What sticks should be given this, if not endorsement, then at least kashering stamp? I can't answer that -- it's something the relevant Jewish pro-Israel organizations will have to decide for themselves -- but I can think of some candidates. I think conditioning foreign aid or limiting certain weapons sales is an obvious one. Certain forms of sanctions on settlement activities, in particular (especially American charities which fund such activities), might be another. No doubt there are other options. Persons with more clout and influence than I can figure it out. And the thing is, once one identifies some of these sticks and can be explicit in saying that "no, we're not saying no to everything -- in fact, we should rally behind these specific sticks in conjunction with these specific carrots", I think the groups will find significant receptivity among progressive politicians if they then say "but this particular stick" (say, an academic boycott of Israel as an obvious one) "is still an absolute no-go."

Again, this will be very hard. It is not the conversation most American Jewish pro-Israel groups want to have. They'd rather not think of pressuring Israel at all, or at the absolute most they will look for circuitous carrots that side-step Bibi and Likud to invest in more favorable peacemaking organizations. Those projects are well and good, and they deserve continued support. But they're not going to be sufficient anymore. We're going to need to start picking some sticks.


Matthew Saroff said...

I will argue that there are two things blocking movement on a 2 state solutions:

* The belief among all the outside parties that small moves will eventually lead to a full solution. This was the theory regarding ambiguity over slavery when the Constitution was ratified, and it had to be resolved through the Civil War. They need to negotiate over the whole ball of wax all at once.

* That both parties are primarily couching their negotiation positions toward outside actors, Israel toward the US and the Palestinians toward the EU and UN, and so are not really addressing each other.

There are other person specific issues, the corruption and venality of Netanyahu, the cowardice and incompetence of Abbas/Fatah, etc. but from a structure of negotiations perspective, these would be my complaints.

Also, given the reality of US politics, it is very difficult for any administration to apply sticks to Israel unless they are invisible to the American public.

For example, if the US were to start slow-walking visas for Israelis wishing to enter the US, particularly students, etc., it probably would not have repercussions in the US, but the Israelis would notice pretty quickly.

BTW, my Step-Mom, Irene Hecht, was Dean of Faculty at L&C many years ago.

stettiner said...

Great idea, Matthew. One question, though - should visas be denied all Israelis or Jews only?