August 12, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 138

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.

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Topics: Key news stories from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran (and how it all relates to or affects U.S. policy in the region). People: Bill, Kelley, Nate. Produced: August 10th, 2015.

Discussion Points:

– Syria: The U.S. bombs fictional terror groups and Turkey bombs the Kurds.
– Iraq: On air conditioners and nation-building.
– Yemen: Saudi Arabia’s war and a horrific humanitarian crisis.
– Iran: Will the Iran Deal survive Congress? Will it change US-Israeli relations?

Episode 138 (56 min):
AFD 138

Related Links

AFD: Syria Archives
AFD: Iraq’s air conditioner uprising
AFD: Yemen War Archives
AFD: Iran Archives

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iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

Fmr. Israeli mil. intelligence chief: Iran deal an “achievement”

We have a U.S. president who “immersed himself” in the details of nuclear enrichment technology to understand any proposed deal, we have a U.S. Secretary of State who has never done anything in his career to endanger Israel’s safety and has worked for many years to build a more secure and multilateral world, and we have a U.S. Secretary of Energy who is a nuclear physicist and assures the president and the public that the draft deal will ensure Iran would not be able build a nuclear weapon for more than a decade without being caught and stopped.

Nevertheless, according to Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf Since the Early 1990s’ Netanyahu, “The deal which is proposed presents a real threat to the region and to the world, and will endanger the existence of Israel.” As usual, his overblown and hysterical political assessments are not backed up by the security establishment in Israel.

Ben Caspit, an Israeli political analyst, interviewed General Amos Yadlin on the Iran/P5+1 nuclear talks framework, for Al Monitor’s Israel Pulse:

On the evening of April 2, when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini faced the press, Jerusalem was shocked into silence.

First, the very fact that a framework agreement had been reached ran counter to all Israeli assessments, according to which the deadline would be postponed once again to the end of June (the original deadline). Second, the principles of the agreement surprised Israeli officials and especially the political echelon.
[…]
On the morning of April 3, the day following the news of the agreement, Al-Monitor spoke with Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Yadlin, formerly the head of military intelligence. Yadlin was the Zionist Camp’s candidate for defense minister, but after the party’s loss he has gone back to his job as head of the Institute of National Security Studies. Yadlin has dealt during his career with three nuclear programs of states considered Israel’s bitter enemies. He was one of the pilots to bomb the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981; head of military intelligence at the time that Israel destroyed, according to foreign media reports, the secret Syrian nuclear reactor at Deir ez-Zor in 2007; and head of military intelligence in 2006-10, the peak years of the secret war between Israel and Iran over the Iranian nuclear program.
[…]
Al-Monitor asked Yadlin whether the agreement was good or bad. “It depends on how you look at it,” he said. “If we aspire to an ideal world and dream of having all of Israel’s justified demands fulfilled, then of course the agreement does not deliver. It grants Iran legitimacy as a nuclear threshold state and potential to eventually achieve nuclearization. It leaves Iran more or less one year away from a nuclear weapon, and Israel will clearly not like all of this.

“But there’s another way to look at it that examines the current situation and the alternatives. In this other view, considering that Iran now has 19,000 centrifuges, the agreement provides quite a good package. One has to think what might have happened if, as aspired to by Netanyahu and Steinitz, negotiations had collapsed. Had that happened, Iran could have decided on a breakout, ignored the international community, refused to respond to questions about its arsenal, continued to quickly enrich and put together a bomb before anyone could have had time to react. And therefore, with this in mind, it’s not a bad agreement.”
[…]
“Let’s not forget that Israel dubbed the interim deal reached in Geneva a ‘tragic agreement,’ and eventually it turned out to be a good interim deal. When there was talk of its abrogation, Israel was opposed. And another thing must be said: Contrary to Israeli assessments, the Iranians have adhered to all the conditions of the interim agreement, in letter and spirit, down to the last detail. That’s something one should also keep in mind. If they implement the principles of the agreement presented yesterday in the same way, then for the next 15 years they will be frozen at a point of being one year away from a nuclear bomb, and I think this is not a negligible achievement.”

 
Even so, as summarized in a current Haaretz headline, “Netanyahu tells U.S. TV networks he’s ‘trying to kill a bad Iran deal’“. Yep, he’s not even pretending to do anything but try to sink this deal.

Benjamin Netanyahu is a danger to international security and might just be a madman. At best, he’s a ruthless cynic who doesn’t care about how often he is proven wildly wrong about world affairs as long as he gets re-elected stirring up panic.

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March 25, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 121

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Topics: Who will shape the 2016 presidential election issues most? What are the consequences of the 2015 Israeli elections? People: Bill, Nate, Sasha. Produced: March 23rd, 2015.

Note for listeners: We’re testing a half-hour version of the show over the next few weeks. Let us know whether you prefer this format or the longer format.

Episode 121 (28 min):
AFD 121

Related Links:

AFD: O’Malley in Iowa echoes Bernie Sanders
The Globalist: Victor’s Bonus: What Israel Could Learn From Athens

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On talking with the “enemy”

In a new piece today, Dominic Tierney reflected in The Atlantic on strong American public opposition (in contrast with peer nations’ citizens) to negotiating with rival or enemy countries and non-state actors and the consequences that public resistance has had on Cold War policy, the post-9/11 wars, and the current Iran nuclear talks:

[…] according to a moralistic strain in American culture, compromising with ‘evil’ opponents sullies U.S. values. Americans tend to be deeply committed to the nation’s ideals of democracy and individual rights. Rates of religiosity are also far higher in the United States than in other rich democracies. As a result, Americans are more likely to say there are absolute standards for good and evil than Europeans, Canadians, and Japanese, who are more likely to say that ethics depend on circumstances.

American moral righteousness can make the act of bargaining seem inherently suspect. “Because we fight for values and we fight for principles,” said LBJ about Vietnam, “our patience and our determination are unending.”

Sometimes it’s appropriate not to engage enemies—particularly when they’re utterly extreme or intransigent, like the Nazis or al-Qaeda. But these are rare exceptions.

The danger is that American power and moralism triggers opposition to diplomacy that undermines U.S. interests. For all its vast resources, the United States can’t usually enforce its will against enemies—especially when a dispute is in the opponent’s backyard. And refusing to compromise American values by making concessions can mean paying a larger ethical price later on. Washington may miss opportunities for a valuable deal and end up negotiating as a last resort—when its hand is much weaker.

 
I would also extend the current examples beyond the Iran nuclear talks to two other big ones…

The first example is the extreme opposition to the mere concept of Israel and Hamas entering direct talks for a two-state solution (assuming you could get both of them to the table). Side note: For a number of historical and cultural reasons, the Israeli approach is heavily though not exclusively influenced by American attitudes to negotiating in abstract, and official American policy (and lobbies) has a strong effect on the situation there, so it’s as relevant as the Iran example even if the U.S. is not a primary negotiating party.

I tackled that debate last July in my big article “The Case for Including Hamas in Peace Talks.” My primary argument focused on the reality that you can’t really secure a deal unless the major actors most likely to sabotage it are on board with it, whether or not you find them distasteful or abhorrent.

But my other argument was that the concept of “preconditions” before talks have long been an obsession and constant stumbling block in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Without mentioning that situation specifically, Tierney notes the belief in preconditions as follows:

Whereas in other countries bargaining is often seen as the norm, Americans frequently view face-to-face talks as a prize that the opponent has to earn through good behavior.

 
And in my Israel/Hamas article I observed that this “good behavior”-then-talks approach is actually inconsistent with the most successful treaties Israel has actually signed because negotiations are where major concessions to the other side usually occur:

For example, Israel did not force Egypt to formally recognize its existence before signing the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, because one of the points of the treaty was to do exactly that. It was the first time an Arab country recognized Israel diplomatically. Similarly, Israel and the PLO did not recognize each other officially until they signed secret recognition agreements, via Norway’s government, during the Oslo negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords in 1993. The insistence now on making everything a precondition of a treaty instead of a condition of the treaty itself is a major stumbling block and a needless one. Why demand your negotiating partner make a unilateral concession before coming to the table where concessions are normally traded? Negotiations typically don’t work like that.

 
The second example is the extreme opposition to negotiating with Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war in Syria, particularly to any scenario where negotiations won’t automatically end (or even begin!) with his departure from power.
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Oped | Victors’ Bonus: What Israel Could Learn From Athens

The following essay and original research first appeared in The Globalist.

On Tuesday, more than a dozen Israeli political parties are expected to win seats in the country’s snap parliamentary elections that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called after his coalition broke up last year.

These parties will vie for a total of 120 proportionally elected seats in the Knesset. Israel’s threshold to win seats has this year been raised to 3.25% of the vote (translating to 3-4 seats).

As a result of this fractious system, no single Israeli party or joint list has ever won a majority (61 seats) in an election.

No clear winners in Israeli elections

In the past five elections, the party or list that ended up forming the coalition won an average of just 30.2 seats out of 120 – i.e., only a quarter of the seats – with 11-14 other lists also winning seats.

To form a government thus requires coalition building among quite a few parties, usually with very different (if not diametrically opposed) policy views. No wonder that, under those circumstances, coalitions do not last very long.

The public has previously shown a desire for a stronger executive mandate. Israel briefly adopted direct elections for Prime Minister in the 1990s. To exclude unserious candidates, only major parties could nominate someone. In each of the three times Prime Ministers were directly elected, only two candidates competed.

This modification unfortunately did not fix the problem because the Prime Minister could win an outright majority of the vote but still lack a majority of legislators to support his cabinet or agenda.

Since then, other than tinkering with the electoral threshold very slightly, Israel has not tried to deal with the leadership and policy instability problem inherent in its system.

Where Athens does provide inspiration

One possible place to seek electoral reform inspiration for Israel might be Greece – the birthplace of democracy and a country with a similar population size – despite its own serious current political challenges.

Similarly to Israel, 250 members of Greece’s parliament are elected through a system that ensures fair geographic representation along with the proportional will of the national electorate, using a 3% threshold.

However, there is one big innovation to clarify the executive mandate. As of the 2008 revisions to Greek election laws, the top-finishing party is given a victory bonus of 50 extra seats – bringing the total to 300 seats in parliament – to help the winner get closer to a governing majority.

This represents a bonus equal to 20% of the proportionally elected seats. (An earlier law gave the winner 40 seats.)

It’s not a perfect setup, of course. A party earning relatively low percentage of the vote share can gain an extra 20% of the seats even if it falls well short of capturing the confidence of a majority of voters and even if another party were to capture just 1% less of the electorate than the winner.

However, it substantially boosts the chances of quickly forming a government and allowing that government to push through its major agenda items, rather than floundering along with the status quo due to internal gridlock.

Meanwhile, it still allows for diverse, multi-party elections — but constructively counteracts the growth of fringe, single-issue, or personality-centric parties that take up seats or weaken serious parties without actually contributing to the government or the opposition in any substantive way.

Israel’s political system, even more so than Greece, would benefit from being cleared of such parties. Politicians would have more incentive to remain inside a major party, rather than splintering, as often happens.

Applying Athens in Jerusalem

If a comparable bonus were applied in Israel, it could mean 120 seats would be elected proportionally with 24 additional seats awarded to the winning list. (The Knesset would expand to 144 members in this scenario, and 73 seats would be a majority.)
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Before Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress on Iraq

The following was originally published in The Globalist.

On March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress to speak on what he believes to be the threat of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. It is a theme he has hit often in his career, going back at least as far as the early 1990s.

His concern about Iran – and accompanying determination that Israel and the United States should strike preemptively – was only put on hold briefly around 2002 and early 2003, when he turned his attention instead to Iraq.

Missing the mark

In September 2002, ahead of the U.S. Congress’s October 2002 authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, the then-former Prime Minister offered testimony to members of the U.S. House and Senate at a hearing on Iraq’s purported nuclear weapons program capabilities.

Benjamin Netanyahu testifying to Congress on Iraq in September 2002.

Benjamin Netanyahu testifying to Congress on Iraq in September 2002.

In addition to providing an extremely incorrect account of the program itself, as it turns out, Mr. Netanyahu’s forecasts of the implications of the war he was calling upon the United States to wage were also badly misguided.

In his own words, transcribed from C-SPAN clips, here is why Mr. Netanyahu believed the United States should invade Iraq back in 2002 and what would happen as a result:

And today the United States must destroy the same regime, because a nuclear-armed Saddam will put the security of our entire world at risk. And make no mistake about it: if and when Saddam has nuclear weapons, the terror network will have nuclear weapons.

 

Two decades ago, it was possible to thwart Saddam’s nuclear ambitions by bombing a single installation. Today, nothing less than dismantling his regime will do…

 

The first victory in Afghanistan makes the second victory in Iraq that much easier. The second victory in Iraq will make the third victory that much easier too, but it may change the nature of achieving that victory. It may be possible to have implosions taking place – I don’t guarantee it, Mr. Tierney, but I think it makes it more likely and therefore I think the choice of Iraq is a good choice. It’s the right choice.”

 
As it turned out, the conflict in Iraq – a war of choice as he himself characterized it – was not easy. And the only regional effect it had was to increase transnational religious terrorism and provide opportunities to boost the stature, influence, and military strength of Iran and its proxies. It also likely hardened Iranian interest in nuclear deterrence.

The 2003 Iraq War was bad for Israel’s long-term security. A war with Iran would be far worse. The Israeli Prime Minister has been very loud on military affairs in the Middle East, but he has also been very wrong more often than not.

The United States government would be wise to disregard his counsel on Iran now, for the sake of all countries involved – including Israel.

The Israeli left is still pretty much dead

Well, just as I suspected, the Israeli left is still irreparably broken and hopeless. The uncomfortable Labor-Hatnuah center-left electoral alliance known as “Zionist Camp” is flailing badly with a month to go in the Israeli campaign:

The Zionist Camp’s campaign is one of the most flawed and struggling ever seen in Israel. Not only did the joint campaign fail to win widespread support, it actually helped Netanyahu recover in the polls while causing enormous harm to [Isaac] Herzog’s chances of becoming Israel’s next prime minister. Furthermore, it has become clear that the rotation agreement, reached at the start of the campaign as a precondition for [Tzipi] Livni joining forces with Herzog, has caused Herzog tremendous damage.

 
(The rotation agreement is basically that Herzog of Labor would be prime minister for 2 years and then Livni of Hatnuah would be prime minister for 2 years after that.)

Livni, a former member of the conservative Likud Party before switching to various iterations of a centrist party, is still convinced (according to this article) that her natural appeal and constituency lies in appealing to the Israeli moderate right — whatever that is — instead of the fragmented left-leaning voters in the country, which is where the bulk of Labor’s support comes from.

As usual, this strategy of abandoning the left completely and trying to appeal to the center-right doesn’t really produce much success and tends to consolidate the conservative party or parties much father toward the right.

As that article above also notes, the centrist parties and the center-left “Zionist Camp” partnership have essentially just redistributed the votes on the left without actually gaining any “market share” so to speak from the right. This has serious consequences because any hypothetical leftist government was already going to need the support of a bunch of leftist parties to form a coalition, as I explored in my recent op-ed for The Globalist.

One scenario that might actually change things on both economic issues and the question of the Palestinian territories would be a nine-party coalition led by Herzog. The parties would be Labor (center-left), Hatnuah (centrist), Yesh Atid (center-left), Meretz (social democratic), a joint Arab/Communist list of four diverse parties, and Kulanu (centrist).

 
Weakening some of them could push one or two of those similarly-minded parties below the vote percentage threshold to receive any seats after the election, which makes it more likely that those seats will instead be awarded toward the small ultra-right-wing parties that would be the next-lowest vote-getters. Collectively, the Israeli right is already much more unified and condensed, as I also pointed out.

Another plausible outcome would be a six- to seven-party coalition headed by Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud and made up entirely of parties that oppose halting settlement construction and/or the entire peace process. This would likely be more stable, as there is somewhat less disagreement on fundamentals and details alike.

 
Indeed, in sharp contrast with the near lockstep between the right-wing parties on big issues, all the public bickering inside “Zionist Camp” has undermined any confidence that the two tent-pole parties of any left-leaning coalition could actually work together with each other, let alone with a half dozen or more coalition partners from other left-leaning parties.

We’re now heading, as I expected, either toward

  • a highly unstable and internally jumbled coalition of Labor/Hatnuah and a bunch of small but very right-wing parties that oppose everything Herzog claims to stand for, or
  • a new Netanyahu government that is more decisively right-wing, religious, and ethnocentric than ever before in Israeli history

To be clear: in the latter scenario, Israel’s coalition government would be led by an ever more conservative Likud party and filled with a number of parties so extreme that if they were running for office in Europe and winning seats we would all be wringing our hands like we do with UKIP, Front National, Swedish Democrats, et al.

Israel’s election is likely to be a bitter disappointment for Washington, but not an unpredictable one for anyone who has taken the time to understand the Israeli election system and pays attention to the fractious developments in its domestic politics since 2005. This should not in any way surprise American officials and pundits.

The latter of the two increasingly likely outcomes, I argued last week…

…would demonstrate the paralysis of the Israeli left (and isolation of the Israeli Arab population) against the rise of politicized Orthodox Judaism and immigrant-turned-settler politics.

 
And those trends are nothing new. This would merely confirm all of that.