Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Likud’s Victory In Context

Bibi Wins

The most interesting change in this election around Netanyahu’s fourth term is the changes in the parties around Netanyahu and Likud. Labor as the Zionist Union continues its rebuilding, once again headed for opposition, the Arab Joint List has emerged as a powerful faction but the party could break apart as the range of political views are disparate and it will likely be a pariah so long as anti-Israeli Haneen Zoabi and her Qatari funded Balad party are members. Now that the Arab parties are united can the Arab Joint List become both patriotic and effectual at representing the needs of Israeli Arabs? A few election cycles may be required to see how the List and Arab politics generally develops but the new party could be the start of a more comprehensive engagement of Israeli Arabs into society. A genuinely effective and patriotic Arab party might be able to bridge the gap between Israelis and West Bank Arabs to make peace possible between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Kulanu has emerged as a centrist party and Netanyahu rival Moshe Kahlon is being called a king maker by pundits. Meanwhile, Likud itself continues to be somewhat creaky and strained by the stress of the election with the hurt feelings over internal competition. Most parties agree on the issues, what seems to have resonated with voters was not so much the issues but Netanyahu’s prioritizing of them.

The Joint Arab List
The public, despite feeling economic pain seems to agree that security is the first priority and the economy is the second priority yet the economy is too urgent a problem to be treated as merely secondary. Likud’s coalition will have to take action and get the budget out quickly.  While voters see security must come first, the cold weather pattern that turns the political tornado which made these snap elections necessary is nonetheless the economy. At the macroeconomic level, Israel is in for some real turbulence, the rising US dollar will make borrowing more expensive, Israeli assets easier to purchase by foreigners, delays in natural gas development alongside the fall in prices means the energy sector will start off well-tempered and healthy but have little impact on the economy for the next few years. Israeli technology exports should offset some economic challenges.

King Maker?
The biggest drag on the economy is security, Israel needs to be ready to fight ISIS, Hamas, Syria, Iran, possibly the West Bank and be prepared for the far less likely military conflicts with a collapsed Jordan or an emboldened Turkey.  The present economy was primarily built on Netanyahu’s work as Finance Minister where he savaged the military budget for a peace dividend after the Lebanon and Gaza pullouts. Inadvertently, this made The Second Lebanon War possible and more difficult to win due to an underfunded military yet it created a robust business and tech sector and though the Israeli military has since recovered, it will need large investment to meet the new challenges. The challenge to the Israeli public is to accept some economic pain for security. The world economy will see international investment capital heading back to the US on a rising dollar as US stimulus programs come to an end just when Israel must spend more on security but feels political pressure to increase spending on the domestic economy; the conundrum of economics, “Guns versus butter” has never been truer than in Israel.
 Headed to opposition
Netanyahu correctly pointed out that Israel needs a political leader that will hang tough, this comes easily to Bibi despite having been Ambassador to the UN and Foreign Affairs Minister, has always been a poor diplomat and poor diplomats need to be unyielding. Only Bibi could take a two state solution off the table during an election and thus take the coming blame and ire of the US and Europe when it is painfully obvious that the PA has no intentions of negotiating anything when it believes a unilateral appeal to the UN will nullify Israel’s rights in Judea and Samaria. A good diplomat could find some way to be conciliatory with the US and Europe on the PA, especially when factoring in the PA intransigence towards negotiations, a long standing PM could find the political capital to describe the situation rather than make a scapegoat of himself. This stance did help Netanyahu win the election, Erekat snapped up the rhetoric to make an ironic complaint the Palestinians have no partner for peace. There are no hopes of peace talks while Abbas and Erekat lead the PA so taking a Palestinian State off the table doesn’t affect the PA. Israel will need European and US support and/or forgiveness as it moves to a strike Iranian nuclear facilities when either a deal is reached and broken or when negotiations with Iran fail thus the need to be conciliatory when possible.  Israel must anticipate a conflict with Syria and Lebanon as proxy war remains Iran’s only weapon against Israel until it produces nukes.  Currently, Israeli polling suggests President Rivlin’s suggestion of a unity government will not be well received due to fears of deadlock and both Likud and Zionist Union have abandoned the idea.   The country is more centrist than it was but remains right of center making Likud the most appropriate party to form the next government and deal with long term issues.
While Israel remains right of center, at least so long as war with a number of parties seems likely, the country is overall growing more centrist. What the next government is unlikely to accomplish in one term is fixing the economy, making peace, making Natural Gas sales a profitable contribution to the economy, ending the threat from Iran and Isis but the government will be poised to make some progress on most of these issues and this may be an election we look back on for the changes that are inaugurated. 

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post Middle East By Midwest blog.

The Nuclear Beauty Contest


Although the US administration does not say so, the president appears to see Iran becoming a second North Korea as something acceptable, both rogue nations being led by absolute dictators who are afforded some amount of holiness in both nations, nations that are both human rights disasters, nations that even share with each other the required missile technology to deliver their radioactive babes to the world. Isaac Herzog, potentially the next Israeli PM told the Brookings Institute’s Saban forum, “I trust Obama to get a good deal.” Since North Korea is the original rogue that cut a deal not to develop nuclear weapons, Iran and North Korea deserve some comparison. Rhetorically when we dealt with the North Koreans it was a kick the can down the road sort of deal to prevent North Korea from getting nuclear arms but we may have seen a nuclear armed North Korea as a minimal threat since they have a giant and conventionally well armed military near the South Korean border.
Iran and North Korea have a lot in common, both have military and police forces that destroy civilian freedom and cultures at home, both export weapons, both think their long term short cut to regional importance is the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon on an intercontinental missile, both nations are considered rogue and both nations have a patron that was once a full blown communist state. Iran has an alliance with Russia, who helps them develop their nuclear weapons, covers for them in the international community and sells them sophisticated conventional weapons. North Korea is an expense of the Chinese economy with some help from an illegal but emerging North Korean underground economy. Both nations have “supreme leaders” who can order severe human rights abuses at home are unquestioned and have the kind of political power and personality cults that make genocide possible. Both nations are to some extent brittle. The latest Kim to lead North Korea seems like a washed out photocopy of a photocopy and while there are plenty rumors of palace intrigue, executions and office shuffling, it is difficult to tell if this is merely what one should expect in a strong man system with a new leader as it is in Saudi Arabia or if it means Kim Jong Eun is facing real danger from an emerging oligarchy. Whatever his situation, the North Koreans cannot be kept on the edge of cannibalism forever, they will have to change or collapse.  Iran is also brittle, there is little legitimacy left in for the Iranian government which everyone now understands to be a religious kleptocracy. People are afraid to protest but the day will come when they will not be afraid. Economic sanctions are not enough to make short work of Iran but with the Saudi oil price drop, the expense of exporting terror, armed revolution and fiscal and human cost of putting troops into Syria the lifespan of the Iranian government is shortened. A deal with the US, which both reduces sanctions and conveys a legitimacy abroad that the Iranian government does not enjoy at home, threatens to undo that which slows Iran.                                                                                    
The other question is, does either nation require nuclear weapons to survive and the short answer is not really. Iran has no enemy that can invade and occupy Iran, including the United States or the United States in a coalition. Iran is too large, too populated, produces small arms and rockets and no invading army is going to be greeted as liberators  In fact, even under sanctions Iran is expanding is and always has been expanding its reach in a neo-Leninist fashion by exporting terror and revolution. The only threat to Iran would be the Kurds breaking away from Iran but this would only increase domestic tranquility and offer a buffer between Iran and the Sunni Arab League states.  Iran faces no threat that would require nuclear weapons, Iraq when it had a considerable army could not defeat the under trained, under armed and mismanaged Iranian military which shortly after the revolution and purges was not ready for protracted war with Iraq, so if Iran could survive that it has no need to nuclear weapons for defensive purposes as it faces no nuclear threat. The only purpose of nuclear weapons is to support aggression.
North Korea is in a slightly different situation; it exists as a Chinese buffer zone between China, Japan and the west, North Korea’s usefulness as a buffer zone is not merely literal. North Korea’s exporting arms such as missile and rocket technology has paid huge dividends to China in being able to distract the US military from focusing on Asia and has arguably hampered President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia.” The source of Iranian rocketry is North Korea. China could use North Korea as a proxy to launch either a conventional or nuclear attack while keeping China proper out of the conflict, conversely North Korea nukes may be the only long term way to keep North Korea separate from South Korea and ultimately differentiate itself from China. So, there is some need for nuclear weapons by North Korea but more importantly as an artificial state that cannot support itself and has no reason beyond rhetoric to unify itself with South Korea, the North Koreans like the defunct East Germany can afford no ambition other than their long term survival. There are no regional ambitions and copying North Vietnam’s model and taking over South Korea is only a formula to perpetuate North Korean stagnation into South Korea. North Korea in contrast to Iran has few territorial ambitions and none that it would ever benefit from. North Korea is ultimately a vassal state of China and its rogue nuclear program and it arms exporting programs ultimately are born of Chinese needs. It is possible a North Korean leader will start a nuclear war on his own but unlikely since North Korea cannot stand on its own before of after such a war. However, no should presume North Korea’s rationality since their rationality boils down to one man. 
Iran, which has no reason to fear invasion from anyone now that Iraq has a Shiite government simply has no need for nuclear weapons, nor does Russia beyond selling nuclear technology has any usefulness in Iran having nukes, in fact Russia can’t absolutely exclude itself has a potential Iranian nuclear target as they are both rivals in central Asia. Iran is expanding its influence; ran Gaza until Hamas turned toward the Muslim Brotherhood but keeps influence over Hamas and control over Islamic Jihad; turned Hezbollah into a military strike and occupational force in Syria; extending regular Iranian troops into Syria; the Houthi over throw of the government in Yemen; destabilizing other governments such as Bahrain while continuing terrorist actions against civilians across the globe. What nuclear weapons will do for a rational government in Iran is not defend Iranian territory, which can only be lost to internal rivals, but help Tehran acquire new lands. Nuclear weapons will not protect Iran from a nuclear strike because having only a first strike capability pressures nations with a second strike (or a first strike capacity) to strike early and wipe out the Iranian armaments. Nuclear weapons will only help Iran secure new lands by making the cost of recovery from Iran too high. We can remember as far back the 90s that if Iraq got the bomb we would never have recovered Kuwait. The US government and many US allies think Iran is run by rational people, therefore we should at least expect an expanding Iranian nuclear umbrella with Iran expanding itself in both the Middle East and Central Asia.
Both Iran and North Korea are led by men who are objects of worship, supported by government that have little love or sympathy for the needs of their own populations, in the case of Iran it also has a military doctrine through its terror arms of attacking civilians and endangering civilians on both sides of any conflict. The Syrians adhere to this doctrine and are busy bombing their own civilians, Leaders who can order an assassination or massacres are the prototypes of leaders that can commit genocide.  The foreign minister the US meets with today may be dead or in jail tomorrow, the seemingly rational leader with a cult of personality we see today may be a David Koresh or Jim Jones tomorrow. Those people who believe North Korea will not and could not launch a suicidal nuclear strike are mistaken because any supreme leader could, those people who think Iran will not choose an end of day scenario with a nuclear strike on Israel (or other nations) have not understood the arbitrary nature of such sun kings. The West should only make short agreements with such leaders and not make deals that lead to nuclear weapons or the restarting of nuclear programs, there is simply no basis for short term or long term trust and Iran will be and increasingly regional problem and more so with nukes and with no equivalent of China to constrain it.  There is no good deal with Iran; the West should continue to work towards its implosion. 

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post Middle East By Midwest blog.

Obama looks petty

Benjamin Netanyahu gave his speech and all the predictions that he is not Winston Churchill have so far proven to be true but it was a sober speech, a speech influenced by Israeli electoral politics, a speech that did well not to just represent the Israeli position but to represent the position of the majority of Gulf States, Egypt and the Levant. 
Benjamin Netanyahu, Bibi to his friends and Bibi to his enemies came over in seeming controversy, he was invited by the speaker of the house, which is entirely the Speaker’s right to do, but it was a break of protocol and tradition.  The presidential narrative is the Israeli Prime Minister is a destructive right wing elephant in a diplomatic china shop culpable for worsening the “strained relations between the President and the Prime Minister” by coming. Yet the President has said nothing of Boehner, the man who supposedly committed to sin of breaking protocol.  One of our closest allies is supposed to turn down an invitation by one of the three branches of government to talk about an issue of critical importance and the speaker of the house, the man who invited him seems to have invited almost no presidential ire and Obama – Boehner relations are more strained than Obama – Bibi relations. The only difference between the two beyond Boehner actually breaking protocol is that Benjamin Netanyahu is an easier target and by attacking him rather than Boehner he creates the opportunity to minimize the impact Netanyahu’s speech has had, our President also has a chance  to look like a bully which is probably a rare opportunity for such a thin man. 
The White House narrative is that Obama is personally insulted by the break of protocol, when it comes the Israeli Prime Minister feelings count for a lot and our President sadly feels very vulnerable when criticized by Netanyahu. However, this isn’t new, recently the President of Turkey allowed a teenage boy to be arrested for insulting the President. Presidents are apparently vain people with paper-thin skin that need protection. While it may be impossible to measure how much sleep either leader of a powerful nation has lost, the risk to our security by having an overtired and cranky commander in chief is scary and obvious. 
At the beginning of this “invite-gate” scandal, the president has let it be known he feels affronted by Netanyahu, some democrats have decided not to attend the speech and of course the White House rightly decided to not meet Netanyahu but wave of revulsion, the criticism laid at Netanyahu’s door rather than Boehner’s door makes the Obama and the administration look petty. So far the administrations narrative has remained unquestioned but it does not hold up to scrutiny.  Netanyahu could not responsibly turn down speaking to Congress about Iran, the deal does look like it seeks to create a second North Korea but the world would be lucky if it only got a second North Korea because Iran is expanding its influence with terrorism and proxy wars meanwhile while our President’s feeling are “hurt” but all that “pain” is meant to minimize Israeli and Middle Eastern concerns and that should concern everyone. What could Bibi possibly say that is so dangerous we must not listen to it?  This Invitation-drama is only an invitation to distraction and while the administration has now proclaimed that Bibi has said “nothing new” as though that were a credible reply.  My wife complains I leave my clothes on the floor, I would love to reply to her, “You’ve said nothing new and fling my trousers over my left shoulder for good luck” as a legitimate reply but sleeping on the couch hurts my back. 

Like our last president, this president has become single minded in pursuit of a policy regarding a rogue Persian Gulf Nation and he will say anything to get his policy passed over the concerns of allies and rivals, we Americans should not be stupid twice.  We need to tell our leaders, not so fast with agreement on Iran, at least not until the President appears before either a joint session of congress or the Knesset to defend his policies. I bet Tzipni Livni would be happy to offer such an invitation. If we didn't think a single minded president who ignored his allies was good during the George W. Bush administration then people need to pressure that administration to accept real advice from our allies.

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post Middle East By Midwest blog.

Iran successfully launches satellites into Golan, Yemen and Space!

In the last two weeks, Iran has engineered a coup on Yemen with their Houthis washing over the capital causing Yemen president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to resign, placing Hezbollah in Israel’s backdoor on the Golan and launched a “communications” satellite great at taking pictures and equipped with GPS often known in some circles as a spy satellite but lucky for President Obama none of these events need have any effect on the US administrations Middle East Policies. Nothing will affect negotiations with the Iranians over nuclear issues, the soviets were wonderful at building rockets which helped them build ICBMS with nuclear warheads, they were excellent at starting local revolutions and then moving into nations to start more revolutions and yet at no point was the US in serious danger from a Soviet Threat as the tide of history was against them, we just waited for Soviets to collapse. Which is why President Obama only relies on very tough economic sanctions and the impatience of the Saudis who sank oil prices as all the opposition the US needs regarding Iran. President Barack Obama is on a very determined path to confront Iran about its nuclear ambitions and force them off the hook in a US brokered treaty. As an immigrant from a very different culture where spam in your mail means canned meat that has been shipped to you, people like to ride waves and our President looks at the Middle East with its Persian Gulf, he’s going to surf! What ultimately doesn’t matter to the administration is the continuous betrayal of our allies in the Middle East for dubious reasons or lack of consideration that Iran has been simultaneously been developing both a missile program and nuclear weapons which the administration seems unaware those might actually go together. 

I remember the joy of the Obama administration as it saw in Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood as the big wave in the Middle East, he cozied up to the Prime Minister Erdogan, cheered on the end of democratic demonstrations in Egypt by seeing the movement hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, it seemed Syria was about to fall, people even began to wonder if it would be rude to gift King Abdullah of Jordan a casket appropriate to his height or provide something taller. 

When Obama told the world he told Mubarak to resign he also said, “Through thousands of years, Egypt has known many moments of transformation. “The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments; this is one of those times.”1 If you like to surf, that’s a compelling wave! 

Here’s what our ready for the beach Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper had to say about the Muslim Brotherhood, ““The term ‘Muslim Brotherhood,’” Clapper said, “is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam…”2 It’s probably not worth mentioning the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri is a Muslim Brotherhood alumni but the Muslim Brotherhood did renounce violence under pressure from Mubarak and al-Zawahiri did leave because of this these differences between the two organization yet the Muslim Brotherhood’s position seemed more from circumstance than ideological. The “Perversion of Islam” really had more to do with Al Qaeda actions in Iraq against Muslims, a group that eventually becomes ISIS. Anyone who describes an organization that calls itself “Muslim” and worries about “perversions of Islam” “largely secular” is obviously not too concerned with details such as the goals of triumphant political parties and their effect on America. 
Obama had every reason to believe Islamism would be a big wave, sure democratic protests had been snuffed out earlier in Iran but Iran is already a theocracy and protests succeeded in Tunisia, they were succeeding in Egypt and any sage person just knew that democracy wouldn’t be given a chance since the Islamists were too well organized, Turkey a nation always the tip of the wave was already drowning out democracy and beating protesters as a giddy Islamic success story, so I felt disappointed for Obama when the Islamist wave proved to be a closeout, cresting over Egypt and dissipating. 

Egypt may have halted the wave of Islamism but Barack Obama is a determined surfer, he knows how to spot and ride a wave. Other politicians and leaders might see US Foreign Policy and statecraft as a series of planks with hammers and nails with which you build bridges or fences but our president knows a surfboard when he sees it and if the Sunni Islamist wave seemed big, this Iranian one is even bigger! The US will ride the Persian tide right over Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel and when it is all over President Obama will stand regally before the cameras in the White House and declare, “We understood that Iranian expansion was a wave, we have been on top of that wave and now Iran has nuclear missiles capable of striking US cities and we knew that would happen and we are ready for intense negotiations!” For those critics that wish the Obama administration would take the Middle East more seriously, who see the value in at least attempting to get Iran’s nuclear program shut down, who believe the slight afforded by Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking at the invitation of a branch of the US government is small and his concerns at least valid, who see an agreement with Iran only as important as to what it agrees upon, who see both Iran’s missile and nuclear programs and its expansionist policies as something worth curbing -- stop beating sand, realize there’s nothing to be done except for grabbing your surfboards!

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post Middle East By Midwest blog. 

From the curator’s desk at Middle East News for the Perplexed!

Middle East News for the Perplexed has reached a milestone by having over a 100,000 viewers! For those who might not be familiar with MENFTP, this is a news junkie magazine for people who want to take a deeper look at Middle Eastern issues. Whether you have an ax grind or an ongoing interest for the middle and what people across the political spectrum are saying, I hope you’ll feel at home here at MENFTP. Welcome!

Seeing as how we’ve had over 2.5 million flips, and from getting a sense of the people doing the flipping, I see some fantastic trends!  Most people based on their name, the occasional “like” and occasional comment are flipping articles that are more interesting and thoughtful than merely affirmative of their own point of view. It’s exciting to see that our readers are looking to read something challenging and informative. Our average reader on Flipboard is an active reader rather than passively ingesting what is provided. Flipboard readers engage information, analyze information, evaluate information and share information. My reading time is much more productive thanks to curation, and I am very heartened to curate content for a thoughtful, engaged crowd.  
Middle East News for the Perplexed’s curation endeavors to provide a very thorough and balanced variety of topics and sources. And along the way we’ve expanded what it means to be a curated magazine. By bringing together very disparate sources from think tank journals to blogs to editorial pieces the world over, we have helped eliminate tiers in content as well as the economic class barrier between types of content. At one time, a person would need a really good newsstand and a really good library to partially achieve on a weekly basis what is achieved here by MENFTP every day.  Although active for less than a year, other magazines have pursued a similar path on Middle East topics, some more narrowly focused and others as expansive -- I cheer them all on!

MENFTP started with me simply putting my expanding reading list into a magazine, which I found more convenient than going through RSS feeds. Then I figured why not make that magazine public? If technology has done anything for us over the last 20 years, it is has improved personal productivity such as our reading time. But it is still daunting to find articles on a series of issues that surround the Middle East including Israel, the Houthi takeover of Yemen, the rise of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Shia – Sunni conflict, the slow rise of Kurdistan, revolution and counterrevolution in Egypt, and then still have time to read them.  The promise of curation services and Flipboard is that wide and exhaustive selection of materials can be assembled, readers can find their preferred sources from that and still benefit from the convenience of a magazine like MENFTP to get a genuine 360 degrees of thought on a challenging yet critically important set of topics. I’ve looked at services similar to Flipboard, including services purchased by Flipboard, and I am deeply appreciative of Flipboard giving us “magmakers” the opportunity to create the specialized magazine we readers like to read! I also want to thank Flipboard for citing “Middle East News For The Perplexed” in #MagesWeLove: Staff Picks Edition! It’s lovely to be in the company of Bionic City and Superflat as well the other great magazines cited, wow!

The limitations of a Middle Eastern news magazines published in English are varied and numerous. Many countries publish news in English to satisfy the needs of a local expat population, to provide a forum for elites where skeptical opinion can be slightly more blunt, to have an easily quoted venue on the world stage for a particular point of view, or even to disseminate propaganda and misinformation. I believe it is important for people and peoples to know what each other is saying, what governments are saying, and that more informed people are more nuanced and thoughtful in their points of view on anything, even on the Middle East. A person can give thoughtful consideration to a point of view that one finds distasteful, even odious and be improved by being more sensitive and a more informed advocate. This magazine does not exist to change minds but to expand knowledge and perspective. However, what a news sources says in English will never be what it says in Arabic, Hebrew or Kurdish yet it will represent what is willing to be said to the English-speaking world and that does have some meaning, sometimes very limited meaning and other times very important meaning.  MENFTP also curates leading opinion from a variety of columnists, think tanks and blogs which can add perspective. And seeing those three elements side by side with all their contradictions and regional priorities really makes even a few minutes of reading deeply informative in a way the finest newspapers and journals cannot accomplish on their own.

I want to acknowledge and thank the many content producers from The Arab News, The Daily Star, The Jerusalem Post, Al-Monitor, Asharq Al-Awsat, Israel Hayom, Israellycool, Rantings of a SandMonkey, Elder Of Ziyon, Council on Foreign Relations, Gloria Center, Saban Center, Rand, Begin-Sadat Center and many, many others far too numerous to list for their content, the many flipboard magmakers that have embraced this magazine and reflipped our content, and Flipboard for giving us a great product that makes this possible.

Over the next year Middle East News for the Perplexed will continue to break new ground in procuring content and finding new ways to reach more readers. But far more importantly MENFTP will keep Middle East issues outflanked with our regional and opinion pieces from all sides.  
If you find yourself without a smart phone or a tablet and need your Middle East News fix, stop by!


Marc Dubey