I feel pretty strongly about gun control. And I take a purely statistical position meaning that the more guns that are available the more they will be accessible and therefore used. Consequently, the primary solution to the problem of gun violence is to have fewer guns available and this can only be accomplished through control and a legal system that makes it difficult to acquire a weapon. One counter response to this argument is to ask, “what about Israel? Guns seem to be a natural part of everyday life in Israel but they don’t have the problems we have.” School shootings, which are so prevalent in the United States, are almost unheard of in Israel.
The comparison to Israel is a good one and I get asked about it often. Guns are simply naturalized in Israel: Citizen-soldiers are ever present carrying their M-16. Guards with side arms are performing security functions at movie theaters, train stations, malls, and government buildings. The killing of 22 school children in 1974 at an elementary school in Ma’alot is not comparable because it was done within the context of a political conflict and the result of a series of mistakes and panic reactions. These are quite different from the “lone wolf psycho killer” who fires randomly.
So, you might say that the differences are cultural and you would be mostly correct except other issues are pertinent. Gun deaths in Israel in 2009 were 1.8 per 100,000 people. In the US it is six times that figure. So it’s easy enough to see how gun rights advocates could encourage others to look at Israel and point out how there is very little or no correlation between the presence of guns and the likelihood of their use. If it is a cultural difference that separates the US and Israel what are those differences and what can we learn from them?
The first is the distinction between a right and privilege. Gun rights advocates in the United States maintain that it is constitutionally and even religiously guaranteed that you have a right to protect yourself and bear arms. The Second Amendment has been enshrined as protecting and guaranteeing the right to have individual firearms. Israel does not recognize such a right so even though military weapons are common citizen ownership of weapons is controlled and relatively uncommon. Many people do not understand that Israel controls weapon ownership strictly and makes it more difficult to acquire a firearm. The Israeli culture is, in fact, more consistent with those who oppose gun rights in the United States and want additional regulation.
In order for a citizen to own a gun in Israel they must be 27 years old if they did not serve in the military. They need to pass a check that involves health, clean criminal record, and regular training. Gun owners are limited to how many bullets they can acquire, and they need to provide proof that they actually need a weapon. The “fun” of firing and target practice is not a sufficient explanation. According to Yakov Amit, head of the Firearms Licensing Department, as reported in the Jerusalem Post Magazine (March 23, 2018) 80% of those who apply for gun licenses are turned down.
In the United States weapons are a commodity associated with macho performance stances and personal identity. Guns in the United States have lost their sole pragmatic function and are no longer a “tool” for self-defense but a “toy” to play with.
Israel does not fit the image of the right wing gun advocate. The US should learn something from them anyway. Of course, gun violence will never be completely eliminated and some differences between cultures are impossible to close up. Still, Israel has much stricter regulations that all seem to be directed toward managing the possibilities for violence and are more rationally directed toward sensible control. Israel does not have a problem with guns in comparison to the United States because Israel does not fetishize a historical principle (the Second Amendment) in such a manner as to protect an abstraction rather than the actuality of a community.
Well, it might not be the biggest issue because there are so many in Israel but it is certainly a leading contender and currently capturing regular headlines. And that is the matter of yeshiva students or Torah scholars serving in the military. Israel, of course, has a high need for security and the burden of maintaining that security should be a community value. But the study of Torah is also central to Judaism and thought by many to be part of the process of bringing about the coming of the Messiah. Religious leaders argue that these Torah scholars should be exempt from military service.
During the beginning of the state David Ben-Gurion came to an agreement with religious leaders that a specified number of yeshiva students would be exempt from military service, but since then that number has been growing. These exemptions arouse tremendous resentment especially in secular society. The strongest and most emotionally compelling charge is that secular and non-Orthodox young men and women go off and fight and die protecting the lives and rights of yeshiva students who don’t serve.
There are strong and defensible positions on both sides: cases can be made on the basis of authoritative texts for both compelling military service and being exempt from it. A good review of the issues appears here.
The Best Case for Military Service and the Ultra-Orthodox
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox students avoiding the military – sometimes on the basis of pretty thin claims for Torah scholarship – is simply unfair and can be justified on religious grounds. There are four main arguments for why yeshiva students should serve in the military.
- There is a commandment to study Torah called Bilul Torah and the argument is military service will detract from such study. But there are other commandments and performing one does not take automatic precedence over the other. Protecting the land of Israel is also a commandment and military service would be supportive of such a commandment. There remains the question of how much Torah study constitutes a sufficient amount. It is probably possible to both serve in the military, just like working at any job, and still study Torah even though this is not the definition of “full-time” Torah study.
- A second argument is that Torah students are special in that they are separate from the empirical world and are set aside to serve God. For yeshiva students their full-time occupation is the service of God and the study of Torah. Once again, a commitment to studying Torah does not remove all secular obligations. Concluding that yeshiva students live separately in a special relationship with God confers saintliness on them, which is quite contrary to Torah scholar identity.
- Another claim is that yeshiva students are in constant training to protect the spiritual world and not protection of the physical world. But Torah scholars are still obligated to take part in protection of the community. This means service in the military because they do not have the right to demand that others protect them.
- A final argument is much more practical in that the Orthodox community points to the incompatibilities between their life and the military. Problems with keeping kosher, separation of men and women, religious obligations, and interpersonal relations all pose almost insurmountable difficulties. But the military already has experience in meeting the individual needs of certain groups. Although there will be certain challenges the more orthodox Torah students enter the military the more the military will adjust and adapt to their needs.
The answer to this problem is not clear-cut. As of now it looks like the conscription bill will pass and more religious students will enter the military. The secular-religious divide is one of the widest in Israel and it is clearly exacerbated by military exemptions for Torah students. I think it’s important that these religious students do not stand on the sidelines while Israel struggles with issues of defense and security. It is already the case that their alienation from political society produces difficult conflicts. Military service is the most potent route to the type of integration necessary to close up this divide.
I smell war in Israel. I’ve had the feeling for some time that Hezbollah will flex its muscles and even try to provoke Israel and Iran, although they will not succeed. I arrived in Israel a few days ago and after reading more of the local news I had my suspicions confirmed.
The Jewish News Service reports that the Israeli Defense Forces are drawing up plans for an offensive attack on Hezbollah. But equally as interesting, the IDF is also working on defensive strategies. The population is being as prepared as possible realizing it’s always impossible to prepare perfectly. This is especially true because Hezbollah is not the same organization it was in 2006 during the second Lebanon war. At that time Hezbollah fired about 6, 000 rockets into Israel and none of them struck anything of significance and could not even travel the distance of the country.
Those days are over! Hezbollah can now fire with greater accuracy and reach any space in Israel. This means that sensitive and important targets along with more people will be struck. The death toll will be higher and the damage to the infrastructure greater. This will escalate the consequences. As more Israelis are hurt and more damage is done to the country Israel will, as is expected, retaliate even stronger thus exacerbating the whole problem.
Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy group and they have gained experience by fighting with the Syrians. They are better prepared for different military situations including training in infiltration. Israel has ratcheted up its preparation by training volunteers, first responders, and those responsible for providing information. New technology including smart phones, alerts, and computers are all being integrated into Israel’s defensive positions. Local authorities such as police and administrators will have more authority and be responsible for directing community responses.
If Hezbollah is not enough trouble, the relationship between Iran and Israel has deteriorated and already seen some share of violence. The relationships among Iran, Syria, the Kurds, the Turks, Hezbollah, ISIS, the United States, and Israel are a complex matrix of influence and aggression. The Syrians and Israel have already exchanged fire which is a highly provocative and dangerous circumstance. And the one thing all of these groups have in common (except for the Kurds and the United States) is a contentious relationship with Israel. Russia cannot be ignored because they support the Syrians but dislike Islamic motivated religious groups like Hezbollah. So what is going to happen? Here’s what I think is going to happen:
- All out war between Israel and Iran is unlikely. It’s too dangerous. This is one advantage of a form of mutual assured destruction; it causes both sides to become more conservative and cautionary.
- Also, Iran has difficult internal strife with intensified protests and more challenges to the Iranian leadership. The Iranian population seriously objects to money spent on outside political adventurism and the failure of the leadership to turn their attention to internal problems of employment and quality of life
- Iran sees itself as a leader among the Shia and spends billions of dollars, which it can little afford, supporting Hezbollah, Lebanese Shiite militia, and Shiite regimes in Iraq and Syria. A war with Israel would just be too costly especially under the pressure of sanctions.
- A war between Iran and Israel would very quickly include the United States. The United States of course would support Israel thereby increasing pressures on Iran.
- Russia maintains relationships with both Iran and Israel and stands to lose important economic relationships. Russia has increasingly friendly relationship with Israel and would not easily take the side of Iran–a religious extremist country. No one wants to see Iran consolidate power.
The complexity of these political arrangements is actually an advantage because there are so many different types of relationships and path dependencies that some route can always be blocked. Let’s hope it’s the most violent route that cannot find its way to its endpoint.
Some problems can’t be solved. The fundamental assumptions and philosophy of two competing sides ensnared in the problem cannot be reconciled. Let me elaborate with an example:
There is a concept used by myself and conflict resolution specialists, a concept in particular associated with work by Cass Sunstein, called incomplete theorization. Sunstein, as a lawyer, is concerned with constitutionalism and how you write such constitutions that are effective when people disagree about so many things. Here is how Sunstein poses the issue. Again, he is talking about constitutions but tell me whether or not incomplete theorization sounds like the primary conundrum for the Israelis and Palestinians.
Incompletely theorized agreements help illuminate an enduring constitutional puzzle: how members of diverse societies can work together in terms of mutual respect amidst intense disagreements about both the right and the good.
People often agree on practices but not on theories. Therefore many problems have to be solved as incompletely theorized agreements. Sunstein continues:
The agreement on particulars is incompletely theorized in the sense that the relevant participants are clear on the practice or the result without agreeing on the most general theory that accounts for it. Often people can agree that a rule—protecting political dissenters, allowing workers to practice their religion—makes sense without entirely agreeing on the foundations of their belief.
Incomplete theorization has the advantage of turning attention away from difficult philosophical issues which are typically a combustible mix of foundational beliefs that cannot be reconciled. Moreover, attention to concrete practices has a better chance of success and acceptance which can likely lead to other areas of agreement as participants practice the habits of agreement.
So, let’s incompletely theorize an issue for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The division of Jerusalem into municipalities will not be solved by weighty discussions of Jerusalem’s history and who has rights conferred by kings or gods. But East Jerusalem neighborhoods are home to 300,000 Palestinians–and no Jews. The parties can’t wait for philosophical issues to be solved about historic Jerusalem. Separating the neighborhood would reduce the number of West Bank Palestinians subject to direct Israeli rule and remove a serious point of contention. Also, it would lighten Israel’s economic burden. Moving the security fence away from a hostile population, rather than moving people, would certainly be easier and less traumatic. Both Israelis and Palestinians would benefit without agreeing to any kind of philosophical supporting rationale.
Here’s another incompletely theorized condition.
Israel has serious security issues and must remain in control of the “West Bank.” However, Palestinians should have full autonomy as an “unincorporated territory.” Until the Palestinians agree to peace with Israel, they could be welcomed as partners in the Israeli economic system and should be able to fully participate in Israel’s commercial and creative life. Even without statehood, in less than a generation the Palestinians could become more prosperous and prepare one day for peace.
If one thought this through I would expect there are many practicalities that could be achieved without the burden of deeper philosophical rationales.
Hezbollah (“the Party of God”) continues to cast its extremist rhetoric in Israel’s direction but we are at a confluence of events that make war possible. Typically, Hezbollah devotes much of its time to overheated rhetoric directed toward Israel and the Zionist enterprise. It is possible to ignore or at least pay little attention to Hezbollah’s bloated rhetoric. But some differences are morphing into a political environment that just might ignite violence from Hezbollah or perhaps Israel.
First, Hezbollah has been a powerful and overwhelming presence in Lebanon such that Israel is convinced that there is little difference between Lebanon and Hezbollah. The political and government structures of Lebanon have been thoroughly penetrated by Hezbollah. Consequently, Israel is threatening violence against Lebanon on the assumption that there is no difference between the two and attacking Lebanon is by definition attacking Hezbollah.
Furthermore, Hezbollah poses a number of genuine threats to Israel some of which Israel has not taken seriously enough yet. Hezbollah, for example, has built up a weapons cache that can inflict considerable pain and damage on Israel. Hezbollah keeps claiming that damage to Israel in the next war will be greater than ever and they are potentially right.
Hezbollah’s agenda has been reinforced by its victories or gains in Syria and Lebanon and they just might be “feeling their oats.” Still, Israel does not respond to Hezbollah with overwhelming force with the goal of defeating it thoroughly. Critics in Israel keep turning their attention to the military and saying, ”what are you waiting for?” The time to deal a final blow to Hezbollah is now and Israel should not wait until Hezbollah damages cities and destroys infrastructure. It appears that Israel has already conceded the first strike option – at least that’s what Netanyahu wants you to think.
There are, however, good reasons for avoiding war with Hezbollah and that has to do with the fact that this would essentially mean a war with Iran also. For starters, Hezbollah does not need a war with Israel while it is making progress in places like Syria and Iraq. Moreover, Hezbollah is spread out over large geographic areas and in no coherent position to deploy militarily against Israel. And Israel might know it has to engage Hezbollah one day but also knows that such engagement has a high cost attached to it. Hezbollah has an increasingly large arsenal of rockets and they will do plenty of damage. Additionally, Hezbollah has been working with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to form Shiite militias which can be called upon to join forces with the core Hezbollah military units.
The average Hezbollah or Quds recruit grew up on “divine victory” and the “glorious battles” in the name of Allah. Given the interpenetration of religion and the state in Iran fighting battles and dying is a religious experience. But even the most compliant Hezbollah recruit knows that he sees more blood, loss of livelihood, and dim future than any “divine victories.” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy reports that many members of Hezbollah are disillusioned and there is discontent.
In the end, both Hezbollah and Israel have serious issues to consider. Neither wants to initiate a first strike but neither side wants to be the recipient of a first strike. Both sides will inflict considerable damage on the other but also suffer it. And both sides, with the use of violence, will initiate a sequence of events that have implications for other countries and unknown consequences. This is all to say, I suppose, that nothing has changed.
1. Don’t equate Zionism with racism. Zionism is a national aspiration to cultivate and encourage Jewish life, literature, culture, and politics. It is designed to encourage group interests in the same way that any political, religious, or cultural group cares about its preservation. It is an ideology of inclusion, not exclusion. The racism charge is a hammer used to harm people. True enough, that the politics of Israel are complex and Israel national identity can disadvantage other groups (see #2 below). But this is not racism in any accepted sense of the term; it’s not an intentional ideologically based system of discrimination. Israel protects and perpetuates its own self-interest like any other nation state – and I repeat that this sometimes disadvantages other groups – but it’s nothing different than the United States does when it asserts itself in the affairs of other countries. The UN resolution #3379 to this effect in 1975 was an example of how easy it is to organize enough of Israel’s critics to pass UN resolutions. The resolution was revoked in 1991 and is typically recognized as an embarrassing moment in the history of the United Nations.
2. All criticism of Israel requires some nuance, complexity, and context. This may sound obvious but there is the sting of anti-Semitism when some issue is presented without context. For example, Israel is unfairly criticized for responding to violence against the state such that Israel appears to be perpetrating violence against a weaker population when in fact it is “protecting” itself and responding to violence. Recognizing some complexity and nuance is always important in any political conflict but anti-Semitism rears its head when Israel is criticized without seeming understanding of the issues. Israel does not engage in profligate violence and terrorism simply to achieve a political goal. Again, the charge of “terrorism” is a rhetorical tactic that does not characterize policy. Israel regularly complains about visual images of Israeli tanks or soldiers that make them appear aggressive when in fact they are responding to antecedent aggression. It does not mean that Israel’s policies are always correct and not subject to criticism, but such a discussion must take place in the context of facts and political reality.
3. Don’t refer to “the Zionists” as a collective noun. The public relations arm of Israel’s enemies have been successful at distorting the word Zionist to imply plots, conspiracies, racism, and insidious designs to oppress the Palestinians and engage in secret manipulations of segments of society. Referring to “Zionists” when you really mean Israel is an inappropriate lumping together of issues that justify anti-Semitism and suggests secretive and manipulative Jews pulling the puppet strings. Zionism does not mean that Jews and Israelis believe they have rights to “take what they want” in the interest of historical justice. On the contrary, original Zionist aspirations would be to cultivate Jewish life within a proper social and political context. That is, Zionists sought “a place among the nations” for Israel.
4. Don’t equate Israel with Nazi Germany or South Africa. The purpose of the Nazi Germany comparison is simple: it is a vicious and stinging comparison designed for nothing more than inflicting pain. It is a rhetorical strategy that capitalizes on the ironic charge that one group has become what its enemy was before. As with the comparison to apartheid in South Africa, the close and clear application of political theory and history (see #2 above) demonstrates how unjustified such a comparison is. All comparisons to Jewish historic enemies (Christians, Nazis,) and nefarious practices (blood rituals, money manipulation, Christ killers) will mark you as ignorant, anti-Semitic, and someone not to be taken seriously.
5. Learn important terminological distinctions and historical trends. Don’t blend the word “Jewish” with “Israeli”, at least not completely. It is true that the two complement one another, and the Zionism incorporates the symbols of Judaism, but realize that one can be Israeli without being Jewish (yet an issue still debatable by some) and, of course, Jewish without being Israeli. Judaism refers to a religious cosmology and Israel is a nation-state political entity. Make sure you know the difference between “Palestinians” and “Israeli Arabs” or if you prefer “Palestinian Arabs” and be able to describe the distinctions and political markings of each. Know something about the ethnic and historical identities groups in Israel; that is, the distinction between the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi traditions as well as other cultural groups. Be able to describe Israel’s democracy which is a viable democracy but not a liberal democracy quite like the United States.
There is clearly more to these issues than described above but it remains the case that anti-Semitism and ignorance walk hand-in-hand. The individual who cannot make the distinctions above, or who purposely draws on them in order to injure a rhetorical opponent, will be categorized immediately as repellent and easily rejected. None of this will further the interests of problem solving.
Published January 22, 2013
A couple of weeks ago the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) issued a report equating Israel with apartheid. The ESCWA is charged with promoting economic and social development in Western Asia but spends much of its time bashing Israel. This is easy enough since the committee is composed of 18 Arab states each of which is eager to delegitimize Israel. But the “apartheid” analogy continues to rear its ugly head and has become an effective weapon against Israel and its legal and moral standing. You can learn more about ESCWA here.
Since Israelis and West Bank Arabs live separately and there is an asymmetrical relationship between Israel and the Palestinian territories it becomes quite easy, albeit sloppy thinking, to turn the word apartheid into a convenient hammer in order to bruise the Jewish state. Labeling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as apartheid stretches the meaning of the term beyond recognition and out of its historical context. It is like calling any human violence a “holocaust” or “genocide.” There are differences.
And my guess is that the apartheid analogy is often motivated by anti-Semitism but we will set that aside for the moment and consider some more compelling historical and political theory reasons for why Israel is not an apartheid state. If someone wants to just “name call” and lash out at the despised other, then the word apartheid is a good place to start because of its inherent implication of racism. And if you repeat it often enough people will believe it.
But the apartheid accusation is more than just name-calling. Language has power and consequences and cannot be divorced from specific behaviors. Thus, the apartheid accusation is used to justify violence against Israel and deny Israelis basic human rights of self-defense. It is a way of dehumanizing Israelis which makes it easier to justify violence. The apartheid accusation also distorts information and data and makes it more difficult to understand the truth or new information because attitudes and perceptions of the other become entrenched and impossible to unfreeze.
Some differences between Israel and apartheid
- Apartheid is a system of inequality based on racial ideology. The Israel-Palestine example is a failure to negotiate agreed-upon solutions. Racism is not what motivates Israel. Israeli Arabs can vote and serve in the Knesset in Israel. This was not true in apartheid South Africa.
- The Palestinians regularly reject compromises and good faith efforts. Partition has been considered the most fair-minded approach but is rejected by the Palestinians.
- Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not governed by Israel. They are governed by the Palestinian Authority.
- Skin color, voting rights, restrictions on movement, and geographical separation are not based on racist attitudes but on security concerns the goal of which is to one day eliminate, not perpetuated as a permanent definition of the political relationship.
- Zionism is certainly concerned with the development and defense of the Jewish people but is not rooted in racist ideology as much as – like any other political entity – national defense.
- Israel does not want to oversee and control Palestinians. On the contrary, Israel would like to help the Palestinians launch their own independent state and free themselves from the Israelis.
- Actually, apartheid is just what Israel is trying to avoid rather than perpetuate. The demographic threat along with pressures for bi- national and uni-national states threatens Israel’s existence as a democratic and Jewish state.
- Equating Zionism with colonialism is one reason the apartheid accusation seems plausible. But the Zionist movement was never part of the designs of an outside state on Palestine, and Zionist immigration was more interested in investing in Palestine rather than exploiting it.
- Apartheid in South Africa was based on the absolute domination of a racially defined minority (Whites) over an indigenous majority (Blacks). The Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in the clash of nationalisms.
- Finally, the Palestinians have been offered numerous opportunities to negotiate a compromise from the 1930s to the present. They have regularly rejected these opportunities and consequently have a clear role in the responsibility for maintaining the present situation.
Israel is certainly not blameless with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but equating Israel with apartheid is little more than denying Israel its fundamental right to self-defense and a national identity.
Next week on February 7th I arrive in Israel for a five month stay as a Lady Davis Fellow associated with Hebrew University. The inaugural definition of this blog was devoted to the Middle East and Israel and even though it remains that way I do admit to adjusting course after Donald Trump floated to the top of the pool of presidential candidates. His candidacy and his victory as President is so unnerving and shocking that I could not help but devote more time to try and understand what happened. Trump has to be the crudest and least prepared president in history and I’ve been warning that this is going to be a wild ride. The first 10 days of his presidency certainly has lived up to my expectation.
But over the next few months I’ll post more about Israel – even though there are probably more readers interested in Trump – and I will try to provide some sort of real-time value-added insight as a result of my presence on the ground. Still, I’m sure there will be times when I simply will not be able to shake Trump from the tangle of international relations, identity politics, his oppressive populism, or my tolerances for outrage.
Israel is not quite the same country or culture it once was. The Israeli founding narrative (an invincible democratic and moral Jewish state–holding a righteous sword– and mightily reasserting itself in the face of historic anti-Semitism to reclaim its ancient homeland) has broken up and does not echo the emotional and historical resonances it once did. The long and corrosive battle with the Arabs has depressed the nation and unleashed an unhealthy tribalism and nationalism. Much of the talk between Arabs and Jews is we-they talk that treats the other as a member of a binary opposite group along with attributions that explain deficiencies and problems in the culture by referring them to the particular “nature” of the culture. Still, Israel is a complex multicultural society full of the old and the new.
Listen to Bret Stephens explain the political and social conditions of the Arab world. I might not hold such analysis against lesser journalists but Stephens is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Stephens is familiar with Israel, bright and knowledgeable about the issues but he remains committed to various prejudices and distortions when it comes to Israel. In the video Stephens explains how it is anti-Semitism that prevents Arab economic and political progress. He has teamed up with one of the most agenda-driven conservatives (Dennis Prager) to produce this short video, which has some defensible claims, but is so overstated and exaggerated as to render it unusable. The video capitalizes on the racist assumption that Jews are intellectually superior because when they were driven from Spain, or Germany, or Czarist Russia there was a decline in these cultures. A simplistic analysis if there ever was one. It is of course beyond the confines of this posting to offer more comprehensive historical and economic analysis but the notion that the loss of Jews in these populations is responsible for their decline sounds like just the sort of thinking he claims characterize Arab countries. I certainly don’t deny that a preoccupation with anti-Semitism is real enough and an unproductive distraction but is only one affect among an entire nexus of effects that explain problems in the Arab world.
Moreover, most Arabs critical of Israel would tell you that is Zionism and not Judaism that they object to. This may be a modern form of anti-Semitism – and I believe that argument can be made – but it still challenges the centrality of anti-Semitism as Stephens explains it. Israel is changing because it lives in an environment of constant threat that it has been unable to untangle itself from. 70 years of violence and aggression hasn’t worked very well for either side. Maybe it’s time both sides extend their hands palm down. I will explore the various possibilities in the next few months.
The problem with trying to understand Trump’s relationship to Israel and the Middle East in general is that he knows nothing about either, and has no foreign policy record. His positions are confused and contradictory especially with respect to Iran and Saudi Arabia. He seems to care very little about most places except Iran in which he has threatened to pull out of the US-Iran nuclear agreement. And this is particularly dangerous if Trump surrounds himself with a Secretary of State such as Bolton or Giuliani both of whom are bellicose and more capable of inflaming differences then cooling them. Trump is sufficiently confused such that he is publicly critical of Iran but supportive of Bashar al Assad in Syria. Soon it should occur to him or his advisors that supporting the Syrian governing regime bolsters Iran, not to mention being on the wrong side of the ideological spectrum.
Israel primarily wants two things from the United States – its regular military aid, and the support and recognition that comes with our cultural and democratic affinities. Both of these can be in potential danger depending on which planks of Trump’s tangled platform end up emerging as the strongest. Trump has, on the one hand, signaled a lack of interest in the Middle East and an almost isolationist sensibility. In his businessman’s language, he does not see it as a “good investment.” On the other hand, Trump is committed to defeating ISIS and does not seem to fully realize the central role Israel must play with respect to intelligence and support. Moreover, continuing his confusion, he has taken highly inflammatory and unrealistic positions by expressing support for the settlements and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. At other times he just wants to remain distant from the issues. The Forward has suggested that Trump will probably reduce America’s involvement in the Middle East. This is generally not good news.
His conservatism is not yet fully honed because Trump sometimes appears to be the isolationist who does not want to be the world’s policeman, and at other times he seems to resonate with neoconservatives who want to assert American political and military power. Trump has a lot to learn and it is the type of learning that requires some development and maturation. He cannot see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as just one negotiation trick away from resolution. He is more comfortable with business deals and negotiations which are subject to more rational marketplace considerations. “The art of the deal” is governed by a logic that requires one to maximize benefits and minimize losses and the deal is done when both sides can accept their gains and losses. This is not the governing logic of asymmetrical ethnopolitical conflicts that are intractable; in other words, the issues of sanctity, identity, fractured history, violence, and deep emotions are not part of the rational model of the “art of the deal.”
I suspect Trump’s limited experience in international affairs blinds him to the type of communication necessary to solve problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which does not profit much by seeing it only through a prism of rational exchange. I fear that when he becomes fiercely entangled with the knotty issues that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict he will see it through a narrow American prism rather than a broader global and cultural one. And the tools that enabled him to succeed in business will not serve him so well in the arena of international conflict.
The Republican Party is generally more blindly supportive of Israel but for now all we know about Trump is the blind part.
Even at the risk of overstating the point, Russia has an increasingly more accommodating stance toward Israel than most people realize. One reason for this is Russia’s claim to support political systems that defend their citizens. Edward Luttwak, writing in Tablet, sang Putin’s praises for his “defense of his friends” and criticized the Obama administration for abandoning their partners every time the police shoot at a protester. Putin supports Syria surely because he wants to keep his base at Tartus, but he also wants to establish Russia as a friend who can be counted on.
Putin expresses the same sensibilities about Israel – he respects their right to defend themselves. The more general and encompassing relationship between Russia and Israel is accommodating even though there is a history of contentious disagreement. The Soviet Union did align themselves with Arab nationalist governments and Israel and the Soviet Union were estranged for many years. But they exchanged ambassadors again in 1991 and continue to have a certain amount of trade. Israel occasionally sends fighter-bombers over Syria to hit Hezbollah targets and Netanyahu and Putin have agreed to inform each other about flight plans. Think about this a moment. Russia has accepted Israel’s right to bomb in Syria when Russia has troops and equipment on the ground. That requires a fair amount of trust and cooperation.
According to Michael Katz in the Middle East Quarterly Putin has worked to upgrade Russia’s relations with Israel. There are numerous flights each day from Tel Aviv to Moscow and a large Russian population in Israel. Still, we can’t be too sanguine about this because serious differences remain. Moscow supports Iran’s nuclear development and provides many of the construction contractors. This support for Iran is certainly puzzling because Russia may be a practical political system, but it clearly opposes and objects to ISIS and all the efforts to establish an Islamic state be it Sunni or Shia. Stopping the Islamic state, a goal he shares with Israel, is one of its stated justifications for its Syrian support.
Russia has had its own problems with the Chechnyans and can sympathize with Israel’s struggle with Palestinians and Jihadist Islam. In fact, the declaration of “no negotiations with terrorists” is probably the most characteristic statement that binds Israel and Russia. Putin has pointed out the similarities between the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians and Russia’s with the Chechnyans and this has translated into mutual sympathy. But is sharing terrorism experiences sufficient to move the Russians more toward Israel? I think not. Katz in the article referenced above believes a more recent Russian pro-Israel attitude is the result of Putin’s personal preference. Putin has a deep dislike for the Chechnyans and believes they have no justification for complaints against Russia. He refuses to recognize their complaints or negotiate with them. Couple this with Israel’s general agreement and sympathy for Russia’s stance toward the Chechnyans, and you have the makings of a common enemy resulting in Israel-Russian alignment.
In the end, the relationship between Russia and Israel will remain as complex and multifaceted as the situation in Syria. Israel is certainly gratified that Russia is bombing ISIS targets and considers them a threat. But, on the other hand, Israel has no sympathy for maintaining the Assad regime and will never align with Russia on this matter. Then again, to make matters even more confusing, Russia is attacking militias some of which are supported by the United States – a great friend of Israel.
Before you know it the United States will be siding with its enemy Iran (Shia Muslims) against ISIS (Sunni Muslims) and asking the Russians to stop supporting Alawite Muslims (the Assad regime) and join with the United States and Iran to fight ISIS, while Israel sits safely on the sidelines. Wait a minute! That’s what’s happening now.