Bibi Trapped

Why Israel's prime minister can't call the shots on Iran or the peace process.

Benjamin Netanyahu is one smart Israeli politician. This year, he will become the longest continuously serving prime minister in Israel's history. He is the only Israeli leader to win back-to-back elections. And despite his detractors' efforts to portray him as an illegitimate expression of Israeli popular desires, his staying power -- at least on security and foreign policy -- is an authentic expression of where much of the country stands in 2014.

Yet on the eve of his White House meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday, March 3, when the two leaders will discuss Iran, peace talks, and other issues, Bibi faces the prospect of being ensnared in traps that will limit his room to maneuver and undermine Israel's interests, as he defines them.

To be sure, Netanyahu's base is reasonably secure, and even if Secretary of State John Kerry succeeds in producing an agreement on a framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace that doesn't fully pass muster with parties to the right of Netanyahu, the prime minister and his government will likely endure. So far, Kerry has been operating in Bibi's comfort zone and has likely conceded enough to protect him against his critics. Moreover, Obama has learned there is little profit in arguing publicly with Bibi or in creating the impression that Israel and the United States are at odds over issues (see: a settlements freeze) that he cannot win -- and so has Netanyahu.

Still, there's a mix of pressures afoot that should and do worry Netanyahu. They come from different angles, each creating a box that could limit Netanyahu's options to influence or guide developments in the Middle East.

TRAP No. 1: Iran. The first box has been created by Iran -- the mother of all worries for Netanyahu and the mother of all fears and opportunities for Obama. (As for the Iranians, let's just say they are sitting in the catbird seat. The mullahs have already won a great deal, and Netanyahu knows it.) In short, Netanyahu cannot stop or control the action currently occurring on the nuclear front -- a painfully difficult position for the prime minister to be in.

Tehran's nuclear scientists now have the technical skill and knowledge to make a bomb and, as a practical matter, the West's agreement that they can enrich. And they will negotiate with the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany) to see how much of their nuclear infrastructure they can preserve.

In short, Iran has won already. The country is a nuclear weapons threshold state. What's left to negotiate is what Iran can keep, not whether Iran can keep it -- and, of course, how much time the West can put back on Iran's nuclear clock to limit its breakout capacity.

Netanyahu believes that Obama has acquiesced in this game. He fears the president has three objectives on Iran: block an Israeli attack, make a U.S. strike unnecessary, and use diplomacy to reach an agreement that prevents Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold on his watch.

All Netanyahu can do, then, is wait and watch and hope he can somehow, through Congress or on his own, shape the terms of a comprehensive nuclear agreement, should there be one. In a recent talk, however, Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, put the odds of a Netanyahu dream agreement (meaning no enrichment) at 0 percent and that of an acceptable agreement at just 5 percent. (He didn't even give the odds of the possibility of a comprehensive accord, presumably because one is unlikely, certainly within the first six-month period.)

This was not the way it was supposed to be. The prime minister's goal -- linked to the essence of his very identity -- has long been to be the leader who frees Israel from the shadow of the Iranian bomb. But now, he watches from the sidelines. Military action is unthinkable, and Bibi faces the painful reality that Iran very well may cross the red line on nukes while he's in office.

TRAP No. 2: Peace Process. For Bibi, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has always been a back-burner affair: never an opportunity and at best a headache and trap to be avoided. Kerry's relentlessness on the issue has surprised him, as has the secretary of state's willingness to accommodate some of Israel's requirements.

But if the United States succeeds in putting out a framework that isn't completely gutted by asterisks and reservations, at some point, phase two will begin. And that will require moving beyond principles to details in a comprehensive accord and then on to the unimaginably challenging world of practical implementation. That, in turn, will require hard decisions by Bibi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, real mediation on Kerry's part, and Obama's involvement.

The further this peace process goes, the greater the danger it will set up excruciatingly painful choices for Bibi. Having accepted a framework, should he go down the road of an actual, in-the-flesh two-state solution, Netanyahu will be leaving behind not just his coalition but his own convictions and aspirations as well. He has never envisioned himself as the Israeli father of a Palestinian state based on anything like the terms Abbas might be able to accept, on tough issues like Jerusalem and borders.

But as with Iran, the next move is not really up to Netanyahu. It's up to Kerry and Obama. To be sure, Bibi always has the option of saying no. But the deeper he gets, the more difficult that will become -- particularly if the Palestinians prove uncharacteristically flexible, or the Americans uncharacteristically bold.

TRAP No. 3: Sanctions and Boycotts. Inextricably tied to the peace process is the threat of foreign pressure on Israel and boycotts of the country's products. Some countries -- in Europe, for instance -- have suggested these consequences are possible if peace talks fail. On Feb. 1, during remarks in Munich, Kerry said, "For Israel, there's an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that?" The Israelis reacted negatively to these comments, largely because they interpreted them as indirect pressure. Kerry is no supporter of boycotts, but the threats from Europe nonetheless work to his and Obama's advantage -- pushing a point without leaving fingerprints.

Israeli leaders are taking this all seriously; there is a real fear of being isolated and a strong desire not to get to that point. Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said in late January that even a low-scale boycott could create a loss in exports of $5.7 billion a year. "We must recognize that if the talks fail -- and the world will believe they failed because of us -- there will be a price, and it's best we know what that price is," Lapid said in a speech.

Netanyahu can't whistle past the graveyard on boycotts. If they are imposed, a critical line will have been crossed. Israel will lose big time -- and Bibi will too.

There is a sense that, even though the peace process seems to have gone on forever, this is a last chance. (It's a trope Kerry has repeatedly hyped.) And there's a fear among both the Israelis and the Palestinians that they will be blamed for the collapse, what former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker used to call having a dead cat left on the doorstep. Bibi, certainly, cannot leave the Kerry process without good reason. If he were to do so or if the process were to collapse and Israel were to be blamed, the Palestinians' Plan B would be to go to the United Nations and resume their campaign for recognition in the international arena (which the United States would oppose). Israel, meanwhile, has no plan B. Settlement activity wouldn't stop -- and further moves by foreign states to pressure Israel would be inevitable.

Inaction and impotence are tough for Israel to handle. Right now, however, Bibi can't really act, yet alone call the shots, without consequences.

Certainly, Netanyahu is a force to be reckoned with. He has cornered the leadership market in Israel in no small part due to his formidable political skills, as well as the absence of good alternatives. And there's certainly reason to believe spaces might open up that would allow Bibi to escape these traps -- thanks to Iran's mullahs overreaching, the Palestinians rejecting Kerry's process, or the U.S. Congress coming to his aid.

But right now, Netanyahu -- bravado and self-confidence notwithstanding -- sees a pretty dark picture: Iran as a potential nuclear state, tough choices on the peace process he doesn't want to make, an unforgiving world that really doesn't understand Israel's concerns, and a U.S. president who seems risk-averse. No good opportunities sit in front of him at the moment.

Sometimes it really is tough to be the king.

Photo: ABIR SULTAN/AFP/Getty Images


Unrealistic Expectations

When powerful democracies intervene in a troubled society, what is it that they want: democracy or liberalism?

Promoting democracy has been an enduring aim of U.S. foreign policy for decades, and establishing democratic institutions is the default solution whenever the United States finds itself in a position to shape a country's political system. President Barack Obama may be less enthusiastic about this mission than some of his predecessors, but even he has repeatedly endorsed the need for open, transparent, and accountable governments and has actively backed efforts to create democratic governments in Burma, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, and several other countries. As he told the U.N. General Assembly in 2010, "There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny."

But U.S. efforts to foster more open political systems have been repeatedly undermined by a failure to appreciate the difference between a democratic government and a liberal society.

As we now see in Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, and most recently Ukraine, the formal institutions of democracy do not guarantee a free and open society, or even one that works especially well. Why? Because democratic procedures do not guarantee that human rights will be protected, that individual differences will be tolerated and respected, or that public institutions -- to include the press and intelligentsia -- will not be corrupted or compromised.

At its essence, democracy is the principle that the people should govern themselves, that all members of a society should have an equal voice in determining who shall rule and what policies they will follow. In its modern form, this means that all levels of government will be chosen in free and fair elections, based on "one person, one vote."

By contrast, a liberal society is one that privileges individual freedom, irrespective of who happens to be in power, and places strict limits on the government's ability to infringe upon that freedom. Liberals believe that all people enjoy basic human rights -- to life and freedom of speech and assembly, among many other types of free expression and movement -- and that these rights are sacrosanct in almost all circumstances.

Most importantly, a liberal society emphasizes toleration: Individuals are free to be -- provided that when they exercise their rights, they do not infringe on the rights of others. For liberals, most matters of personal choice are supposed to lie outside politics, and, for the most part, it is not the government's job to tell people how to live.

All truly liberal societies are also democratic, but the reverse is not the case. In the absence of constitutional protections and deeply rooted liberal values, democratic institutions can allow the majority to impose its will on a minority or permit a demagogue to undermine basic freedoms with the voters' approval. There is nothing about democracy per se that guarantees liberal rights, and "illiberal democracies" are quite common, in fact.

Take contemporary Iraq, for example. In certain respects, it is a successful democracy: There are regular (and mostly fair) elections, and political rivals have (mostly) respected the results thus far. But toleration and the defense of individual rights are sorely lacking, as the predominantly Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to marginalize Iraq's Sunni minority (a decision that has helped rekindle the anti-government insurgency there).

This is also the case in Russia. Although the country holds regular elections that are at least partly responsive to public sentiment, it is hard to argue that Russia is a liberal society, given the various restrictions on personal freedom that Vladimir Putin's regime has promoted. And the same is true for Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government is undermining press freedom and judicial independence and becoming increasingly intolerant of dissent. In both cases, the threat is to liberal values, not democracy per se.

The February 2014 decision by Penguin India to cancel publication of Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus: An Alternative History and to destroy all existing copies of the book illustrates this distinction in another guise. The Indian edition of her book was dropped because critics found it offensive to Hindus, and India's penal code threatens punishment for anyone who "with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens in India, by words, either spoken or written insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class." There is no question that India is a democracy, but, needless to say, this reaction is inconsistent with basic liberal notions of freedom of speech and expression.

The distinction between democracy and liberalism should be kept firmly in mind whenever powerful liberal democracies think about intervening in troubled societies such as Syria or Ukraine. Once the fighting is over, it is much simpler and quicker for outsiders to set up democratic institutions than to instill liberal values. That is to say, it is comparatively easy to dispatch election monitors and other forms of democracy assistance to help a new political system get off the ground. But it is much harder to convince a population to prize individual rights over collective identities and local traditions -- and to impart in these same citizens a sense of toleration for those who are different and for ideas that might seem dangerous or distasteful. But in the absence of these values, democracy alone will not prevent further abuses and may even facilitate them.

It took centuries for liberal ideas to develop and take root in Western Europe and North America -- remember the American Civil War, anyone? -- and it is the height of hubris to think that these values will quickly blossom into societies where other values predominate. That is one of the many reasons that ambitious schemes to transform whole regions into a carbon copy of America are doomed to fail; outsiders simply cannot engineer a rapid-fire transformation of social values on a short timetable.

Perhaps the United States should lead by example instead and let the success of its own liberal experiment serve as an inspiration to others. There's much to be said for this view, but the strength of the U.S. example may be fading somewhat at present.

Liberalism privileges individual human freedom and regards excessive government power as the greatest threat to liberty. Yet since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government has tortured suspected terrorists, intensified its surveillance of ordinary citizens, increased government secrecy, applied unprecedented pressure on journalists and whistleblowers, and even killed several U.S. citizens without due process because it believed these people were colluding in terrorist plots.

Similarly, though Americans are justifiably proud of the country's tradition of free speech, those convictions sometimes wobble when dealing with views some find objectionable.

In February 2014, the Museum of Jewish Heritage withdrew an invitation to author John B. Judis to speak about his new book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, because it feared the event would be too "controversial" (after the cancellation got publicized, the invitation was reissued). At about the same time, a Jewish day school in New York City barred a scheduled appearance by Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi because, according to the school's president, "Professor Khalidi, who is an international personality of great political stature, was not the right partner for 'dialogue' with high school students." Last year at Brown University, a scheduled lecture by Raymond Kelly, then New York's police commissioner, had to be canceled when hecklers refused to let him speak.

These -- and many other -- incidents show that even here in the Land of the Free, people are often uncomfortable hearing views with which they might disagree. And that squeamishness sometimes extends to U.S. public institutions, including Congress. Check out a congressional hearing on the Middle East sometime, and you'll often find a list of witnesses with more-or-less identical views, invited to reinforce what U.S. representatives already believe and to justify what they already intend to do. Open debate, it seems, is not always welcome on Capitol Hill.

Don't get me wrong: I'm grateful to live in a (mostly) liberal society that prizes individual freedom and guarantees my right to say what I think. I also think it makes for a healthier and more interesting society, and being exposed to competing views has led me to alter my own views on a number of big issues in the past.

But when grappling with the turbulent politics in places like Syria, Venezuela, Thailand, or Ukraine, the United States needs to be more humble about its own virtues and more realistic about its ability to transplant them elsewhere. The country's own progress as a liberal society has taken two centuries, and Americans' own commitment to liberal values is sometimes shaky. If the United States keeps those facts firmly in mind, it will be less likely to succumb to unrealistic expectations when it does choose to intervene -- and it will be less likely to see democracy as the cure-all for the deep divisions that afflict many of today's troubled societies.