Sunday, April 30, 2006

Mofaz - goodbye and goodriddance

Finally - a civilian is taking over the defence ministry in Israel, Amir Peretz. Many in the defence ministry have their doubts (as do many in the labour party.) I think it is a perfectly healthy development. Simply because a person has had a long service in the army does not make the person fit to be defence minister. A defence minister needs to thinks outside the army's conceptual square and see the broader political impacts of the army's recommendations. Peretz is well suited to this role. He does not see the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through the barrel of a gun but understands the conflict for what it is: a territorial political conflict. In short, finally we have a defence minister who is the government's man in defence not the IDF's man in the government.

One can certainly not say this for Peretz predecessor, Lietenant General Shaul Mofaz. As Akiva Elder points out in a lengthy artilce in Haaretz's Friday weekend section, Mofaz was an utter disaster both as Chief of Staff and as a defence minister. As Elder points out, Mofaz's own intellectual capacity was somewhat limited having failed the officer's test three times. Beyond that, it was Mofaz as defence minister, who more so then even Sharon pressed for the harshest military responses against the Palestinians. During Operation Defensive Shield, Mofaz decided to harm Jibroul Rajoub and his forces attacking their headquarters despite the fact that his security establishment did not fire at Israelies, and did not use the revolving door policy. A senior officer who was in on the plans described the attack as "operative intoxication - a chain of events without rational".

In the early days of the intifada when Israel was trying to take measures to calm things done, it was Mofaz as Chief of Staff who was doing the opposite. As Shlomo Ben-Ami has written, the IDF under Mofaz's command despite government agreements to the contrary worsened the economic grip in the territories raising the level of Palestinian fury to unprecedent levels. It was the IDF under Mofaz command that responded in a disproportionate manner to Palestinian violence in the inital weeks of the intifada adding much unnecessary fuel to the flames. It was Mofaz who suggested at the time the Clinton parameters were raised in December 2000 that they were dangerous ideas despite the fact that any sensible person knows that such parameters will form the basis for any final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. And he was making these commands as IDF Chief of Staff not as a politician. Around the disengagement period (until it was understood Sharon would not torelate it), Mofaz was against the move and instead proposed more assassinations, closures and checkpoints. When negotiations over the Karni crossing commenced during this period, Mofaz together with his crony Amos Gilad did everything in their power to prevent any agreement with the Palestinians.

In short, Mofaz in his tenure as chief of staff and defence minister proposed only one option: force and when that failed more force to finally etch into the minds of Palestinians that terrorism does not pay. Mofaz had no nuisance for negotations or dialogue. Mofaz now feels annoyed that someone with his "talent" is being pushed aside for the inexperienced Peretz. He expects a senior position in the government despite the fact he bolted from Likud to Kadimah only after he realised he was not going to win the Likud vote for leadership.

I don't believe Mofaz should be awarded with any post. I consider Mofaz's term as defence minister as the worst term since Sharon was defence minister during the Lebanon war. Israel now has a defence minister in Peretz who will hopefully approach the position in the responsible and judicious way the job should be exercised in. Labour for some reason felt that getting the treasury position was the key portfolio. With respect, defence is. The minister who controls defence ultimately bears significant responsibility for the way the IDF conducts itself in the territories, which in turn has a significant political impact as the last 5 years bear out.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Walt Mersheimer paper: Is AIPAC bad for Israel?

A lot has been written about the Walt Mersheimer paper that was first published in the London Review of Books and as a working paper for Harvard University. Both Walt and Mersheimer are senior professors belonging to the "realist" school in political thought.

Their basic argument is that US foreign policy in terms of the Middle East has not been in its own interests and that the "Israel lobby" has had a significant effect in shaping US policy. In particular they refer to AIPAC, the main Israel lobby group in the US; the myriad of right-wing think-tanks as well as the conservative media columnists and pundits amongst others.

The response amongst the US Jewish community has been fairly predictable. Alan Dershowitz, who somehow pretends to be an expert on the middle east has written an extensive rebuttal, which I don't find particularly convincing at all. Whilst at the Washington Post a columnist has suggested as one would predict that the piece was anti-semitic. More reasoned criticisms have been voiced. More so in the Israeli press then anything you would find within the US Jewish community (by the way - watch out in the LRB web-site next edition - Walt and Mersheimer are responding to their critics).

The question that I am interested in, however, is something different. Is the "Israel Lobby" good for Israel. On a finanical level, certainly - the 3 billion allocation is of enormous importance and no doubt AIPAC and others do a lot of lobbying on this (although one would have thought this was the role of the Israeli embassy and government). But what about on the political level? Is it good for the US to be so "pro-Israel"? And what does being "pro-Israel" mean? Supporting settlements? Supporting the route of the fence? Not saying anything if the IDF responds excessively?

I have long suspected that AIPAC and activists within the US Jewish community are more right-wing then the Israeli mainstream (and for that matter the US Jewish community mainstream). Even recently at the AIPAC conference the biggest cheers given were for Bibi Netanyahu not Peretz or Olmert despite the fact that as the elections showed Bibi is terribly unpopular in Israel. AIPAC was never comfortable with Oslo or with the peace process and have always seemed to be more comfortable when Israel was on the defensive as over the last 5 years. In short, AIPAC and others when compared to the Israeli political scene are fairly right-wing organisations.

So why should they be right wing? What makes AIPAC right wing? Luck? I would suggest a two-fold reason. Firstly - Israelis have to live the consequences of their decision. They do not have the luxury of beating their chests and call for more military actions at any time. For US Jewish activits - they are not living the consequences of their decisions. For them being an activist means identifying with Israel and is a source of pride and part of their Jewish identity. Secondly, Israel is a living and dynamic society with ideas which were once mainstream 30 years ago, now outdated and incorrect. They live kilometers from their Palestinian counterparts. False information therefore can easily be assessed as nonsense as Israelis are actually living there. Not so - in the US - far and distant from the conflict - outdated ideas can live on and still remain mainstream - hence the cheers for Bibi.

So why is AIPAC lobby potentially bad for Israel (assuming the US govt listens to it):

1. By adopting right-wing positions AIPAC are pressuring the US government to in fact follow policies which significant chunks of Israelis population reject. The settlement issue is a classic example. It is recognised (as former US official Aaron Miller pointed out) that the US did not sufficiently pressure Israel when it came to settlements. As he noted in an interesting panel discussion a year or so ago, the US never had an honest conversation with Israel about the settlements, despite the fact that they make the conflict so much more difficult to resolve.

2. The US is supposed to be an honest broker and to be an honest broker it needs to have the trust of both parties. Clinton had it as he understood both the Israeli and Palestinian perspective. Bush Snr had it - it was he who after all who was going to cancel the loan guarantees if Shamir did not stop his stupid settlement adventure. Bush Junior doesn't have it. Neither did Dennis Ross frankly. Aaron Miller to quote him again noted that even during the peace process in the Clinton days, the US were too often Israel's lawyers. The problem with being biased favoured in one direction is that the US ultimately lacks credibility amongst the other party, namely the Palestinian as being an honest broker and ultimately no progress towards conflict resolution can be made. Take Jimmy Carter for example. He had no hesitation shouting at Begin if he was being stubborn. His goal in reaching an accord with Israel and Egypt was on conflict resolution and not to listening to the views of silly lobby groups. But for Carter's approach an agreement between Israel and Egypt may never have been reached.

3. US passivity gives greater maneuvarability for the right wing elements within the Israeli government to take even more extreme actions. If the US does not condemn an excessive IDF retaliation, the right wing believe they can get away with more. I recall back in 2000 when Sharon was in power and the IDF first entered Palestinian jurisdiction (Area A). There was much hoo-huu about it in the international community but slowly it became acceptable. Now - when the IDF go into the territories, no one blinks an eye lid. The US for better of worse is the only credible international actor that can act as a mediator. The EU and UN are weak. The US when it exercises it muscle can have a positive effect on Israeli policy. Many commentators for instance believe that Sharon's disengagement plan was based on a belief that US support for Israel was dropping and that Sharon needed to do something dramatic to maintain it. US support is critical for Israel, which gives the US an ability to influence Israeli policy.

In other conflicts such as in Northern Ireland, diaspora communities are often more extreme than the people actually living and breathing the conflict. The same can be said for AIPAC and the 'Israel lobby' in the US. And that is frankly bad for Israel in my opinion.