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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Pierre Atlas

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Pierre Atlas

Last Build Date: Fri, 27 Mar 2009 00:15:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

Israel's New Government: What a Difference Three Years Makes

Fri, 27 Mar 2009 00:15:00 -0600

That was Olmert's plan, anyway. His ambitious goals came to a thundering crash with the Second Lebanon War (which erupted less than four months after the election), the Weinograd Commission reports on his poor wartime leadership, the increased Hamas militancy in Gaza, and Olmert's own bribery scandal, which ultimately brought down his government. If the March 2006 elections reshuffled the political deck in Israel, the February 2009 elections reshuffled it again. One of the biggest shockers three years ago this week was the collapse of Likud. Winning only 12 seats that year, Likud dropped to a dismal fourth place. No one could have imagined then that, three years later, Netanyahu would be forming the next Israeli government. But last month--in the shadow of Israel's devastating but inconclusive Gaza incursion--the majority of Israelis abandoned the center and voted for parties on the political right. Likud more than doubled its representation in parliament, from 12 to 27 seats. Although Netanyahu's party received one vote less than Kadima, the makeup of the incoming 18th Knesset shifted noticeably from the 17th. The majority of MKs supported Netanyahu, and he, not Kadima's Tzipi Livni, was chosen to form the next government. Technically he has until April 3 to present his government to President Shimon Peres, but it has already taken form: a coalition with Israel Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) led by the secular, ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, the Sephardic religious party Shas, and a deeply divided Labor Party, led by current Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Lieberman's party, which came in third after Kadima and Likud, increased its status from merely a Russian immigrant party to a major political player. But while Lieberman is known for his racist attitude toward Israel's Arab minority, advocates Jewish settlement expansion, and in the past has called for bombing Iran, his willingness to give Arab parts of Jerusalem to a Palestinian state angers traditional rightists, and his radical secularism antagonizes the Jewish religious parties. Shas' spiritual leader declared prior to the election that, "Whoever votes for Lieberman gives strength to Satan." Nevertheless, in a cynical move to maintain control over social expenditures, Shas has agreed to join with Lieberman in Netanyahu's coalition government. In another indicator of the shift to the right in 2009, this time Labor was trounced. The founding party of Israel, which had been led by such luminaries as David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, came in fourth with only 13 seats, its worst performance ever. Labor has been relegated to a second-tier party. And now that Barak has made the highly controversial decision to join Netanyahu's government, Labor might split in two and become even more politically insignificant. The best-case scenario--for Israel and for the prospects of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict--would have been a grand coalition of the Israeli mainstream: Likud, Kadima, and Labor. Such a "national unity" government would have held a whopping 68 seats, and with it the power to make major foreign policy decisions and much-needed electoral reforms that could reduce the destabilizing influence of the smaller parties. Netanyahu did try to recruit Kadima before he went to Lieberman, but Livni did not want to play second fiddle. Netanyahu has vowed to continue negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and he may be willing to cut a deal with Syria on the Golan Heights. But Lieberman has been promised the foreign ministry, and his inflammatory rhetoric will not serve him well as Israel's chief diplomat. Will Barak temper Lieberman's radicalism and keep Netanyahu from moving too far the right, or will the weakened Labor leader become a mere fig leaf for a hard-line government that reduces, and perhaps forever closes the possibility of a two-state solution? The future direction of the peace process, of the US-Israel relationship and Israel's long-term security may all depend on who wields the great[...]

US Lessons for Israel's Unconventional War

Mon, 12 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Israel, a United Nations member-state with overwhelming military superiority, is held to the standards of international humanitarian law and the Law of War. Fair or not, Hamas, like other non-state actors, is not held to the same standards or expectations. Hamas uses unconventional and asymmetrical tactics - including hiding behind and fighting amongst its own civilian population. In this way, it behaves like an insurgency group. States have never been able to defeat non-state guerrilla insurgencies by military force alone-- without committing mass murder against the civilian population. And no democracy, including Israel, is willing to go to such extremes. As the US has discovered in Iraq, ending guerrilla insurgencies requires negotiating with at least some of the insurgents. In Iraq, the Awakening Councils, now on the US payroll, include some extremely violent ex-insurgents. Some of them had previously killed US troops, but are now fighting alongside Americans against more recalcitrant and radical Iraqis and foreign jihadists. Negotiating with anti-American Sunni sheiks and their armed fighters was a key factor in the success of the "surge." Of course, Israel and Hamas will never end up on the same side, and the US will eventually leave the Iraqi theater of operations whereas Israel is fighting in its own backyard. But this general point of successful counterinsurgency holds true: negotiation with the more pragmatic elements of the guerrilla force is often a necessary condition for ending an insurgency. Most "insurgent" groups have their pragmatists and their ideological extremists. This was so in Iraq and Northern Ireland, and it is the case in Palestine and even within Hamas. With the surge in Iraq, US forces put counterinsurgency theory into practice. While negotiation with an existential enemy like Hamas might be more than Israel can stomach right now, the Israelis could take a few lessons from America's new playbook, co-authored by General David Petraeus before he took command in Iraq. The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (available in bookstores and on enumerates a list of "paradoxes of counterinsurgency," many of which are clearly applicable to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: • "Some of the best weapons of counterinsurgents do not shoot." Military force is but one tool in the successful counterinsurgent's toolbox. Winning the hearts and minds of the populace has become a well-worn cliché, but as Petraeus, et al, put it, "arguably, the decisive battle is for the people's minds." • "Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is." Sadly, the field manual's observations on this point ring more true each day in Gaza. "The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal." For those fighting guerrillas embedded in civilian areas, the key "is knowing when more force is needed--and when it might be counterproductive." • "Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction." The more powerful side shouldn't always take the bait. "Often insurgents carry out a terrorist act or guerrilla raid with the primary purpose of enticing counterinsurgents to overreact, or at least to react in a way that insurgents can exploit ... . If an assessment of the effects of a course of action determines that more negative than positive effects may result, an alternative should be considered--potentially including not acting." Fighting an unconventional force that uses its own civilians for cover has always posed moral dilemmas for the conventional armies of democracies. Despite the often negative media coverage and the tragic mistakes in targeting that US forces have made in Iraq and especially Afghanistan, over the past few years the United States has emerged as the world's leader in the theory and practice of fighting unconventional forces while keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. Israel, with a p[...]

The Middle East Waits for Obama

Tue, 02 Dec 2008 07:25:59 -0600

There were additional problems with Annapolis as well. The final status issues were deliberately left off the table, but, as I wrote for RealClearPolitics in October 2007, they needed to be front and center if the summit was to succeed. Finally, the Annapolis process may have been doomed from the start due to weak and ineffective leadership. Significant achievements in Middle East peace have always been accompanied by a synchronicity of strong leadership--when leaders on all sides, simultaneously, have both the political will and the capacity to reach an accord. This was true from the Kissinger-brokered disengagement agreements in the mid-1970s through the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s. On the other hand, whenever key leaders lacked political will or the capacity to make and enforce decisions, the peace process has faltered. This was one of the reasons Camp David II failed in 2000. When they arrived at Annapolis last November, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Bush all had limited credibility and influence with their own constituencies. President Bush was at his nadir of political weakness at home and abroad. The Democrats had retaken Congress, the US was bogged down in Iraq due in large part to Bush's ineffectual leadership as commander-in-chief, and for the previous five years the president had shown little interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Annapolis was dismissed by many at the time as a face-saving photo-op rather than a serious attempt at peace. Today all three leaders are even weaker, and at least two of them, Bush and Olmert, are on their way out the door. On November 9, 2008, five days after the US elections, Rice and other members of the Middle East Quartet met with Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for a follow-up summit in Sharm Al-Sheikh, Egypt. It appeared that some small-scale achievements had been made through the Annapolis process, and perhaps a portfolio of ideas and modalities might be ready to pass on to the next US president after January 20. Everyone seemed to agree, however, that a peace agreement will not be reached by the end of this year. The parties are in a holding pattern until Obama takes office. In the next few months there will be some important developments in both Israel and Palestine that will impact on the prospects for peace, and their outcomes are uncertain: •Mahmoud Abbas' term as Palestinian Authority President expires on January 8, 2009. Will the PA hold new presidential elections in January? If not, Hamas might name its own president. This would only increase tensions between Hamas and Fatah and Gaza and the West Bank could move even further toward dual Palestinian "sovereignties." Such moves would make Israeli-Palestinian negotiations all the more problematic. •Israeli elections are scheduled for February 10, 2009. How will Israeli voters respond to developments on the Palestinian side, including any renewed conflict between Hamas and Fatah? As always, the potential for terrorist attacks by Palestinian extremist groups will increase as the Knesset elections near. According to a recent study by political scientists Claude Berrebi and Esteban Klor, terrorist attacks during previous election campaigns had the effect of increasing Israeli support for rightist parties--especially the closer the attacks were to Election Day. Although elections are more than two months away, last week's terrorist attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai might also spur increased support for the right, especially Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud. •President-Elect Obama's Middle East policy will no doubt be influenced by the results of the Israeli elections. But the Obama presidency could also influence the outcome of those elections. Livni will likely argue that she and her Kadima party are best suited to take advantage of the opportunities for peace that will be created by Obama's ascendancy, since they will be most in sync with the new administration on the pe[...]

Debating the Debate With College Students

Wed, 01 Oct 2008 09:25:37 -0600

The group ranged from freshmen to seniors in various majors, and included several passionate Obama supporters and some die-hard McCain fans. Several students were continuously texting on their cell phones during the debate. But they demonstrated their ability to multi-task, for it became clear in the discussions that they had also paid close attention to what the candidates were saying. This was not a randomly selected focus group, so their opinions cannot be generalized to the Marian College student body. But the post-event discussion was lively and engaging, with the students offering sharp and thoughtful observations. One student said that Obama "has great ideas but he still seems like an empty suit." Another said that "McCain scored a point on Pakistan--you don't tell them you'll attack ahead of time." Someone else volunteered that she wasn't impressed by how many times McCain had been to Afghanistan and was annoyed that he kept pointing it out. A few students were quick to note that while Obama was wearing an American flag lapel pin, McCain wasn't. Someone asked, cynically, if this must mean that McCain isn't a patriot. Another responded that if you've been tortured in a POW camp, you don't need to wear a lapel pin to show your patriotism. I couldn't tell from his tone whether he was being serious or sarcastic. Given that more than a third of this "foreign policy" debate was devoted to the economy, I asked how many students were concerned about the current financial crisis. Every student in the room raised a hand. "We're going into the workforce in a few years," said one. "I want to know that I'll have a job." They were split evenly on the $700 billion Treasury proposal. "Is it our responsibility to bail out these companies?" asked one young man. "This isn't the way capitalism and the free market is supposed to work," said a female senior. Others countered that there really was no choice--the government needed to intervene in order to stave off an even larger crisis. It struck me that the discussion in the dorm's common room among those 18-22 year olds wasn't that much different from the debate occurring in Congress. One student asked what the difference was between McCain's and Obama's tax plans, and others jumped in to explain some of the details. A discussion ensued about the economic merits of tax cuts for the wealthy versus the middle class. As I took notes on the students' remarks, I was impressed by their general knowledge and by the insightfulness of their questions. They clearly cared about what is going on in the country and wanted to learn more. There is of course a "self-selection" bias here--these are students who chose to watch the debate--but it made me hopeful that the canard about "apathetic youth" might be disproved with the November elections. Were the students convinced by this debate that Obama has the experience to deal with foreign affairs? Many said yes. One young lady noted that Obama's experience only looks "slight" in comparison to McCain's. Were Obama running against someone else, she said, the difference wouldn't appear so lopsided. Another student observed, "I don't know if experience is always the best thing. Experience can give you a biased opinion." Has McCain drawn the right conclusions from his experience, she asked? She wasn't so sure. As the evening wound down, I asked the horserace question. Who were they going to vote for? About half said they planned to vote for Obama, a quarter said McCain, and a quarter was undecided. I was surprised by the number of "undecideds" and I asked why. One student said the choice was between "the lesser of two evils," and he hasn't yet concluded which candidate is the worst. Another said that while he is socially liberal, he is conservative when it comes to national security and the war on terror, so he was torn between Obama and McCain. A third said she had just begun to pay serious attention to the campaign, and felt that[...]

Obama and the Jewish Vote

Fri, 01 Aug 2008 07:30:35 -0600

It does a great disservice to both American foreign policy and to the Jewish community to portray American Jews as of one mind, marching in lockstep and demanding that all candidates read from a script when it comes to Israel. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Jews are not single-issue voters. George W. Bush, arguably the most "pro-Israel" president in American history, was able to garner only 24% of the Jewish vote in 2004. Fully 76% voted for John Kerry according to exit polls. Jews have traditionally voted overwhelmingly for Democrats since the 1930s. That didn't change after the Second Intifada, 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, Bush was able to increase his Jewish support by only 5 percentage points from the 2000 election. One reason for the widespread belief in a monolithic and inflexible Jewish position on Israel is the success and perceived power of AIPAC. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has played a key role in helping to establish and maintain bipartisan support for Israel in Congress and the executive branch. AIPAC, which has become increasingly pro-Likud in recent years, is a textbook example of a successful interest group, on par with the NRA, AARP, and the farm lobby. But American Jewish opinion, although not as diverse as that of Jewish Israelis, is more varied on Israel than AIPAC's pronouncements would suggest. According to the November 2007 American Jewish Committee's annual survey of Jewish opinion, 46% of American Jews supported the creation of a Palestinian state, with 43% opposing and 12% not sure--this, in a poll taken just months after Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza. Asked whether they were "willing to compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction" in a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians, while 58% said no, 36% said yes and 7% were not sure. Reflecting this diversity of Jewish opinion, American pro-Israel peace groups such as Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and J-Street, the new pro-Israel PAC, have emerged as more moderate alternatives to AIPAC. On July 16, J-Street released the results of a new survey that demonstrates "a remarkable gap between the attitudes of American Jews and the conventional wisdom about how Jews view America's role in the Middle East." According to the survey, 86% of Jews would support the US "playing an active role in helping the parties to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict [even] if it meant the United States publicly stating its disagreements with both the Israelis and the Arabs." Eighty-one percent would support the US exerting pressure on Israel as well as the Arabs "to make compromises necessary to achieve peace." American support for Israel is longstanding and bipartisan and the reasons go well beyond AIPAC's influence. The political, cultural, religious, scientific and economic ties between America and Israel are substantive and multi-faceted. Both Obama and McCain understand Israel's security needs and its existential anxieties. Regardless of which man becomes the next president of the United States, the special relationship between the US and Israel will continue. Many Israelis, however, are concerned that Obama might be hostile to the Jewish state. The false assertions that he is a Muslim and that he was raised in a radical madrassa in Indonesia, concerns about his association with Rev. Wright, and even his middle name have all played into the fears of some Israelis--just as they have with some Americans. When I was in Turkey last month, I spoke with an Israeli tourist in my Istanbul hotel who was convinced that Obama would be "bad for the Jews." When I asked him why, most of the "facts" he cited about Obama were patently false, based on the same email rumors and innuendo that have been sent to American Jews. Obama has sought to reassure Jewish voters and his trip to Jerusalem and Sderot was an important move. Yet he too may have bought into the simplified image[...]