I did a Q & A on the one-year anniversary of the Arab uprisings.
If you are in the CT, New England, or NY area, come join us for a one-day conference at UConn in Storrs, CT:
“The Arab Uprisings and the Changing Global Order” (flyer)
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Student Union 330 (Storrs, CT)
9:00 am — Opening remarks
Panel #1: Political Change in the Arab World
9:15 – 10:45 am
Issandr El Amrani, The Arabist
Eva Bellin, Brandeis University
Amaney Jamal, Princeton University
Panel #2: Regional Dynamics
11:00 am – 12:30 pm
Robert Blecher, International Crisis Group
Gregory Gause, University of Vermont
Jillian Schwedler, University of Massachusetts
Panel #3: The Uprisings and the United States
2:00 – 3:30 pm
Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress
Sarah Kreps, Cornell University
Malik Mufti, Tufts University
Panel #4: Concluding Roundtable
3:45 – 4:30 pm
Sponsored by the Alan R. Bennett Professor, CLAS, and POLS.
Co-sponsored by the Human Rights Institute and Middle Eastern Studies.
For questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some skeletal notes from a talk I gave last night:
1. US-Israel alliance
The common explanations for the alliance are shared values and shared government type (democracies); domestic interest groups in the US, including American Jews and Evangelical Christians; and strategic relations based on counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, developing and testing military equipment. I was noting, not endorsing, the explanations.
(I should add that I’ve talked about an additional motivation, alliance restraint, in chapter four of Warring Friends.)(Also, whatever led to the original alliance, the fact that it has endured means it has some institutional and organizational staying power.)
2. The Peace Process
There is a split in the United States about the causal logic. Some like Gen. David Petraeus, have argued that solving the peace process is the key to unlocking other regional issues. Others, like former VP Dick Cheney, have argued that addressing other regional issues is a precursor for success in the peace process. (The road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad.)
Obama and Netanyahu obviously don’t get along that well. But the structural US-Israeli relationship is still strong with military cooperation as deep as it ever has been. Netanyahu does not support a two-state solution that looks anything like what former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was talking about in 2008. (see my comparison here of what different people mean by two states)
3. The Arab Upheaval
The outcome of the Arab protests is an issue of great uncertainty. It could change the strategic equation for Israel if the Syrian regime falls and a new one came to power that is not close to Iran, thereby cutting off Iran’s land connection to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Egypt under Mubarak was tight with Israel but it may also be less so in the post-Mubarak era.
The Palestinians have not adopted the tactics of the Arab “Spring.” They have used similar tactics but not on a mass-scale without the mixing in of some violent tactics, e.g. during the first intifada (uprising), 1987-1993. (I’ll post a longer post on this soon.)
4. Palestine, September, and the UN
The Palestinian appeal to the UN is more bark than bite. The day after, the occupation will still be in force. The Palestinian Authority (PA) prefers negotiations (but talks don’t seem to be an option). Israel fears a UN resolution will lead to violence and is preparing for that prospect. The PA does not think Palestinian violence is likely.
Israel feels a high sense of threat especially from Iran. The majority of Israelis see no Arab partner with whom to make peace – Abbas is weak, Hamas rejectionist. Many Israelis, including the government, believe the world is lined up against Israel. Any pressure reinforces this view. Thus the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement is considered further proof that the world is against Israel, not that Israel needs to change its occupation policy. BDS speaks 1967 and Israelis hear 1948.
A vigorous discussion followed! Many thanks to Joyce for the invitation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to the Jewish Agency Board of Governors yesterday. What was his view of history? How did he use it?
1. He used a static view of causes when it worked for him. In short, since Arabs opposed Israel before the occupation began in 1967 as well as after the 1967 war, Netanyahu noted, the occupation itself could not be the cause of Palestinian (and Arab) displeasure with Israel. They must hate and reject Israel in any form. This stance has the added implication that the peace process is of questionable (or no) value because a two-state solution would still leave an Israel for Arabs to hate and attack.
But causes are dynamic. The 1967 War (through the early 1970s) was exactly the pivot point when the central question of the Arab-Israeli conflict changed. From 1948, it had been whether Israel should exist.** Israelis felt their position was tenuous and the Israeli public feared for Israel’s survival on the eve of the 1967 war (though both the Israeli and US governments privately expected Israel to win any war handily). But after Israel had repeatedly demonstrated its military prowess, several key Arab players started to shift: Sadat’s Egypt and then Arafat’s PLO accepted Israel. (Jordan also signed a treaty in 1994)
The question increasingly became what to do with the Palestinians and the focus was no longer on the territory of pre-1967 Israel but rather on the West Bank and Gaza, the occupied territories. The ground had literally shifted in 1967 and that affected the nature of the conflict. In other words, Israel was state but should the Palestinians exist in the form of a state?
This shift has not been a complete one and important elements of the prior argument are embedded in, say, the Hamas charter. But the much-talked about Israeli-Palestinian negotiated resolution would in any version – US, Abbas, Netanyahu, Peres – leave Israel with as much or more sovereign territory as it had pre-1967 war.
2. His presentation of the Palestinian refugees is misleading and incomplete. Netanyahu:
The second point derives from the first, and that is that the refugee problems are settled in these two respective states – the question of Palestinian refugees will be resolved in the Palestinian state and not in Israel. Just as the question of Jewish refugees caused by that same Arab assault on Israel in 1948, was resolved within the Jewish state. The Arab attack, the attack of five Arab armies, with the Palestinians, on the embryonic Jewish state caused two refugee problems. About 650,000 Palestinian refugees and a somewhat larger number of Jewish refugees expelled from Arab states. Tiny Israel absorbed all the Jewish refugees and the vast Arab world refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees, and neither justice nor common sense mandates that 63 years later, the Arab world or the Palestinians will come to us and say: Now, absorb the great-great-grandchildren of this part of the refugee problem that we created ourselves.
Note the missing verb: “About 650,000 Palestinian refugees.” The Jewish refugees were “expelled” but there is no verb for the Palestinian ones. The reality is that many of the Palestinians were expelled (e.g. see Yitzhak Rabin’s memoir for one example) and some fled a dangerous war zone. The timing is also wrong since several hundred thousand Palestinians became refugees before Israel declared statehood in May 1948 and thus before the battle between Israel and the Arab states.
Israel was designed to absorb Jews. That was and is its self-defined identity and mission, the ingathering of the exiles. Netanyahu takes pride in this immigration in the speech:
Remember we were 600,000 in 1948 and our population grew over tenfold in 63 years.
That was not the mission of the Arab countries. Maybe you could argue that was the mission of pan-Arabism of the 1950s and 1960s, but pan-Arabism was a failure. Its few attempts at unity, such as Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic, were short-lived.
Moreover, Jordan granted citizenship to Palestinian refugees and 41.6% of the refugees live and work in Jordan. Though often mentioned, the blanket claim that “the vast Arab world refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees” is false.
3. Netanyahu has moved the goalposts. For years Israel wanted recognition as the State of Israel. It got recognition. First came Egypt with the peace treaty. Then the PLO in 1988 and again in September 1993 when Arafat wrote:
The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.
Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994. Syria almost did in 1999-2000, but then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak got cold feet about a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. (I wrote about it here: “Mediation, Domestic Politics, and the Israeli-Syrian Negotiations, 1991-2000,” Security Studies 16:3, July-September, 2007, pp. 350-381.)
Now Netanyahu wants recognition as a Jewish state as if no one had ever recognized Israel period. There is no acknowledgement of how Israeli policy worked effectively in the past to get recognition of the State of Israel. Of course Bibi wants the Jewish state phrase as a precondition to negotiations because it helps get the PA to make its biggest concession – no refugee right of return to Israel – without getting anything in return such as genuine statehood or Palestinian sovereignty in Arab East Jerusalem.
4. Netanyahu wrongly conflates negotiated outcomes with unilateral ones. Ehud Barak’s government unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Ariel Sharon did the same in Gaza in 2005. In 2005, I thought this was a bad idea not to coordinate with the PA because it handed the victory to Hamas. Hamas could claim its military fight had caused Israel to flee and without a negotiated context, what could the PA retort?
So Netanyahu took problems from unilateralism (Netanyahu: “We don’t want a repeat of what happened when we withdrew from Gaza or from South Lebanon.”) and applied them to a hypothetical negotiated outcome. That is mixing apples and oranges.
In falling back on these historical manipulations, Netanyahu is not breaking new ground but simply reinforcing the claims that regularly inform the Likud worldview.
**I left aside the revisionist Israeli historians who have strongly challenged the claim that the Arab world was uniformly intent on ending Israel. e.g. Simha Flapan, Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe.
In considering the impact of the Arab Spring on Israel, much of the attention has been on two issues, the peace treaty with Egypt and the Israeli-Syrian border. But a fuller picture of the impact offers a more varied set of questions and issues for Israel and in some ways may even bolster Israel’s strategic position. If Asad falls and Iran is left out in the cold by a new Syrian regime, Israel would greatly benefit.
Mubarak’s fall has already changed Egyptian policy at the Rafah border crossing. As has been widely noted, if a working democracy develops in Egypt and public opinion has greater bearing on policy, one would expect greater Egyptian pressure on Israel. But given the close ties between the Mubarak regime and Israeli governments, that still leaves a lot of room for change in Cairo. In other words, Egypt could rigorously adhere to the peace treaty and still act very much unlike Mubarak by pressing Israel on the peace process or its nuclear program, working closely with and advocating for the Palestinians, and in particular, helping Hamas in Gaza.
Whatever has changed and will change in Egyptian governance, the underlying Egyptian-Israeli strategic balance is the same and that suggests limits to Egypt’s revisions of its Israel policy. At the end of the day, the Israel military still could best the Egyptian military. Israel, not Egypt, has nuclear weapons, and Israel is much closer to the United States. To break the treaty and risk open warfare is a recipe for Egyptian military disaster.
Israel’s challenge, however, is the continual need to secure allies in an unfriendly region. Like in 1979 after the fall of Israel’s ally, the Shah of Iran, Israel wants to replace the loss of close friend. Ironically, that the Egyptian-Israeli peace process was at an advanced stage when the Shah fell made that transition easier in 1979 than today. Out went Iran, in came Egypt.
The choice today is not obvious. Israeli-Turkish ties remain strong behind the scenes, but the public aspect is mixed. Israel has accepted Turkish mediation in the past with regard to Syria, but would it do so again in a post-flotilla relationship? Neither of the other aspirants for regional leadership – Iran, Saudi Arabia – are about to get closer to Israel either.
Maybe the answer is to rely even more heavily on the United States. Despite the Obama-Netanyahu differences over the peace process, the US-Israeli strategic relationship is closer than ever. (as Israeli Amb. Michael Oren recently argued in Foreign Policy) The Israeli line: friends must hug each other even tighter in the face of regional storms and upheavals.
The Arab Spring’s mass protest model surely scares the Israeli government, and the intensity of the Israeli reaction along the Syrian border is a testament to that fear. The Palestinians have used such tactics on a smaller scale before, such as in Bil’in on the West Bank. But if tens of thousands of Arabs ever marched on Jerusalem or the Israeli borders and repeated it day after day in the face of Israeli snipers, tear gas, and detention, Israel’s ability to hold the line would weaken. Mass protests create exactly the kind of images Israel would rather avoid seeing plastered across the media and the web. It would make the Netanyahu’s government’s resistance to the American-Palestinian versions of a two-state solution that much more difficult. And it might force average Israeli Jews to confront the occupation in a way they have not had to do over the last couple of years.
Meanwhile, the impact of so many Arab states consumed by internal matters cuts both ways. Israel could become a political football as old and new politicians compete for power. Who can hammer Israel the most has long been political currency in the Arab World and diversionary politics, if not violence, is a recurring trope.
At the same time, the depth of the Arab political mobilization and the many social and economic demands may mean little substantive attention is paid to Israel. Furthermore, if things really deteriorate as in Libya or Syria, one could argue the bloodletting leaves few resources and political energy for anti-Israel tirades and physical confrontations.
Of all the chaos, the future of Syria is central for Israel. If the Asad regime falls, Iran’s core link to the Levant will be broken, assuming a Sunni-led regime in Damascus is less interested in close ties with Tehran. Hamas and Hezbollah may lose not only an ally in Syria but also a link to their Iranian patron. That matters for Israel, and it matters a lot. It would be both a symbolic and political defeat for Iran.
If I were Israel, I’d be happy to trade an Iranian-allied Syria for a more critical Egyptian government.