Politics and Policy in the Middle East Debate

The visit by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington this past week and the firestorm that surrounded it pointed, among other things, to a fundamental if largely underpublicized distinction mostly of interest to political scientists but occasionally to wider audiences. That distinction was the difference between politics and public policy, including their interaction and the junction between them. Usually, debate about this distinction does not make much difference to citizen observers of the political process; last week it did.

The distinction is reasonably straightforward; political scientists disagree about some of it in detail, but political scientists disagree about just about everything. Politics is generally concerned with the political process: who is part of it, how people gain access to and control of it, and how they use their access to affect the actual policies of the government on various issues. Policy, on the other hand, deal with so-called outcomes of the process–the decisions that are made by political authority concerning how political issues will be determined, e.g. what will be the American position on global warming, or immigration, or Israel, or whatever.

The two concerns are obviously related to one another. Politics affects, even determines, policy, and vice versa. The heart of the realm of politics is who has political power, and in democratic systems, that means who wins elections. The heart of American politics is who gains control of the electoral process and gets elected and thus who can seek to implement different policy choices. At the same time, the policy positions that elected officials and aspirants espouse are basic data on which aspirants and office holders campaign for sontinuing support.

Both aspects have become intensely controversial. Particularly in the realm of foreign policy, there used to be an unwritten rule that political disagreements should be muted in public so that the country maintained a single, united face toward foreign governments. The basic statement of this philosophy was that “politics ends at the water’s edge.” At the same time, the historical ideal has been one wherein politics was conducted with a certain level of decorum, civility, and restraint, particularly in terms of partisan invective. These conventions have not, of course, always been honored in American history, and they certainly are not today: there is no apparent effort to assume a common face toward the world, and common restraint and good manners are almost archaic concepts.

Policy disagreements have become an inflamed part of the hyper-partisan environment in which politics is played out. This is most clearly evident in the childish, superheated debate about medical care, and it extends to foreign policy as well. Historically, once again, foreign policies (the policies of the U.S. government toward different places and over different issues) were normally debated quietly within policy elites and among decision-makers, who might disagree, sometimes vehemently and fundamentally, about these matters, but generally confined their disagreements to debates among themselves. That is also clearly not the case today.

The Netanyahu visit flap exemplifies the system tun amok. It began with a policy address by President Obama at the State Department in which he enunciated as U.S. policy one of the two basic policy positions that policy advocates who study the region put forward. Substantively, it was a position with which one could disagree, but it was certainly nothing radical or unusual. The fact that Obama made the address on live television just before the arrival of Netanyahu in the country politicized it, however, especially since Netanyahu is the champion of the alternative policy within those same debates. The hinge of that disagreement is whether the pre-1967 West Bank boundary should be the basis for negotiations between Israel and Palestine; Netanyahu voiced his side (also for TV) in his address to Congress. The two men pouted their way through a final press conference and publicly maintained that there was no fundamental difference between them and that they remained respectful friends. Hardly anyone believed that.

This whole circus mashed politics and policy together. Beyond simple policy preference, it is unclear why the president made such a public show of highlighting what had been U.S. policy for three administrations (at least), but the effect was a political more than a policy firestorm. Republicans leaped at the opportunity to attack a president whom they want desperately to defeat in next year’s election (a process that is not going well, to put it mildly). Former Governor Mitt Romney declared the president had thrown Israel “under the bus”, an open pander to sympathetic Jews and their social conservative supporters in the United States, and the Netanyahu speech before Congress–complete with standing ovations–was orchestrated as much to embarass Obama as it was to support the Netanyahu hard line (which he tried, unconvincingly, to argue is actually conciliatory) on peace negotiations. The political debate was not so much about policy as it was about 2012 election-year politics, pure and simple.

Policy, and particularly calm debate about it, of course, was the (intended?) victim of all the politics. Obama insisted the Israelis must offer conciliatory concessions to get talks started again, with the 1967 borders as a starting point. The Israelis (the Netanyahu government, that is) is absolutely opposed to that position, and fied back that it is willing to make many concessions, but it is the Palestinians who refuse to negotiate. Lost in Netanyahu’s profession was an arguable unwillingness to make concessions to which the Palestinians might agree. In all his visit, it seemed to me that the most telling statement he made (in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer) was that a sine qua non for any final agreement establishing a Palestinian state must include provision for a permanent Israeli military presence along the west bank of the Jordan River. Regardless of whether that it is good Israeli security policy, it is an absolute deal breaker in terms of peace negotiations.

The politics and the policy intertwined. The politics replaced a dialogue on policy with an attempt to gain political advantage from the policy disagreement. In the end, both sides slinked away from the political interchange with the sides of the debate intact and no progress made on resolving the policy issue. Politics, as is so often the case, trumped policy–probably to the detriment of both.

Advertisements

One Response to “Politics and Policy in the Middle East Debate”

  1. william bilek, m.d. Says:

    Once again, a blinkered view. But that, I guess, is what personal blogs are all about.

    “At the same time, the policy positions that elected officials and aspirants espouse are basic data on which aspirants and office holders campaign for sontinuing support.” Problems and conflict are certain to develop. however, when the platform and promises that an aspiring politician runs on are jettisoned and abandoned immediately after the election. There we have policy being bastardized by politics. That behaviour, while widespread, is inimical to the democratic process, and should be condemned.

    “the historical ideal has been one wherein politics was conducted with a certain level of decorum, civility, and restraint, particularly in terms of partisan invective….they certainly are not today: there is no apparent effort to assume a common face toward the world, and common restraint and good manners are almost archaic concepts”; as is exemplified repeatedly by the tone of this blog.

    “Historically, once again, foreign policies (the policies of the U.S. government toward different places and over different issues) were normally debated quietly”. One needs to remember that “the U.S. government” is a construct and combination of 3 branches, the Executive being one of them.

    “It began with a policy address by President Obama at the State Department” – an address which was intentionally timed, and rushed, to pre-empt whatever P.M. Netanyahu was going to say during his U.S. visit.
    ” in which he enunciated as U.S. policy “; As it has subsequently become crystal clear, what “he enunciated” was the Obama policy, NOT the U.S. policy. Pres. Obama clearly failed to have “debated quietly within policy elites and among decision-makers, who might disagree, sometimes vehemently and fundamentally, about these matters, but generally confined their disagreements to debates among themselves. ”

    “it is unclear why the president made such a public show of highlighting what had been U.S. policy for three administrations “; While it may seem “unclear” to some, it is very clear to many others.

    “the effect was a political more than a policy firestorm. ” That is incorrect. Obama’s utterances have totally altered established U.S. policy, and have therefore severely constrained potential concessions in Israeli policy. This last week has, in fact, been as large a game-changer in the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict as has the “Arab Spring” been to the general Middle East situation.

    “Republicans leaped at the opportunity to attack a president “. Ah yes. Those stalwart Republicans like Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer , Steve Israel, and Haim Saban.

    “the Netanyahu hard line ” – negotiations without pre-conditions; two states for two people; suggestions of compromise on Jerusalem and Jordan Valley security plans; “painful concessions” of land in Judea and Samaria. Doesn’t seem so “hard” to me? What concessions have the Palestinians given, or been called upon to give?

    “Policy, and particularly calm debate about it, of course, was the (intended?) victim of all the politics. ” Policy should have been calmly and quietly debated BEFORE last week, and a concensus arrived at BEFORE Obama’s intemperate “fait accompli”.

    “Israelis must offer conciliatory concessions to get talks started again,” WHY? Why must Israel provide concessions BEFORE negotiations start? Why should there be pre-conditions? (Note: Accepting the right to exist of an enemy with which one plans to make peace is NOT a concession.)

    “The Israelis (the Netanyahu government, that is)”. No! You had it right the first time. In a parliamentary democracy such as Israel, the Prime Minister represents the entire electorate. In Netanyahu’s case, polls continue to show that he is the popular leader in Israel, and that his popularity jumped significantly after his stand in the U.S. Congress.

    “The Israelis (the Netanyahu government, that is) is absolutely opposed to that position,” Certainly as stated publicly, and as a precondition to re-opening negotiations.

    “but it is the Palestinians who refuse to negotiate. “. Absolutely true!!

    “Lost in Netanyahu’s profession was an arguable unwillingness to make concessions to which the Palestinians might agree. ” Which genius has ever suggested that concessions should be tabled BEFORE negotiations begin?

    “a sine qua non for any final agreement establishing a Palestinian state must include provision for a permanent Israeli military presence along the west bank of the Jordan River. Regardless of whether that it is good Israeli security policy, it is an absolute deal breaker in terms of peace negotiations.” I am certain that this blog misspeaks. Surely it intended to say that it (might be) an absolute deal breaker in terms of a peace AGREEMENT, (as would be the insistence on the right of return,) but neither should be an impediment to NEGOTIATIONS on that, or any other subject (except the right of survival and existence.)

    It seems that Obama’s desperate attempt to politicize what the Israelis see as an existential question of their survival has resulted in an open wound between Israel, together with Israel’s American supporters, and the Obama Administration. Policy, it seems, will consequently be determined by unwanted, unnecessary actions on the ground rather than by sage diplomacy. This is a direct, unique, outcome of Obama’s quest for his “place in history”. He may well find it. But Israel will not play Czechoslovakia to Obama’s Chamberlain for him to do so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: